Let’s Make Music!

At the request of several readers, I’ve decided to bring you along on the adventure of building the Lego Grand Piano my wife gave me for Christmas. I’m hoping this music-making journey amounts to a pleasing “concert” instead of an arduous one.  More akin to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy than Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. No matter how difficult this “piece” ends up “playing”, I can assure you of one thing.  It’s gonna take me a while; likely beyond when the snow stops flying in Colorado. 3,662 Lego pieces won’t snap together by my next blog post, nor the next one.  I’ll give brief updates at the bottom of my other topics as I progress. Movements if you will, instead of the entire piano concerto all at once.

And with a tap-tap-tap of the conductor’s baton, the performance begins!

To start, we have an elegant 23″ x 15″ x 6″ cardboard box containing our unassembled piano.  The box advertises the piano in three languages: English (Grand Piano), French (Le Piano a Queue), and Spanish (Piano de Cola).  The box cautions I should be over the age of 18 and batteries aren’t included. Batteries? In a grand piano?  But I digress…

The photos on the sides of the box tease the finished product.  First and foremost, the piano really plays once I assemble the several thousand pieces.  I don’t mean “play” as in a hidden music box with a digital soundtrack but “play” as in pressing the piano keys.  And speaking of piano keys, Lego provides only 25.  A real piano has 88.  In other words, the beautiful music my grand piano plays will be more Chopsticks than Chopin.  Makes sense because my Lego Grand Piano is only 12″ wide and 14″ deep.  Suddenly my fingers feel fat.

When I remove that elegant box top, here’s what I see inside:

As expected, the Lego pieces are divided into small plastic bags. (On the left, that is. The right is a smaller box-within-the-box looking like a square piano. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

If I organize the bags so you can see them better, I come up with this:

   

The audience gasps, in awe of the complexity of the performance unfolding before them.

Okay, NOW I have concerns.  First, the bag numbers start with “10”.  Hey Lego, what happened to 1-9?  Second, Bag 5 showed up among the double-digits like an orphan looking for a family.  Pretty sure Bag 5 belongs securely in that black box to the right.  Maybe Bag 5 was trying to escape.

At this point in the show, the phrase “missing pieces” tickles the pianist’s brain (but not the ivories).

I also find the set of bags in the photo to the right.  I assume they pair with their partner-numbered bags when I get to that part of the concerto.  But maybe they don’t.  Maybe each of them is a little project unto itself.

Little beads of sweat populate the pianist’s forehead.

Yes, I’m nervous. I hastily put the bags back into the box (which suggests I’m already going backward with this project).  But I do want to see what’s inside that black piano-wannabe box to the right.  Have a look:

    

Well hello Bags 1-9! I also found a few more of those partner-numbered bags.  But check out the disarray in the photo on the right.  Here we have three more orphan bags and, shockingly, a few pieces that escaped their bags.  What’s going on here?

The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats as the pianist hesitates.

Finally, way at the bottom of the box, we have the pièce de résistance (Spanish: plato fuerte; English: main dish). Well hello, Mr. Instruction Manual.  Weighing in at a hefty 2.2 pounds and boasting 532 pages of mind-numbing steps, Mr. Instruction Manual is easily the heaviest item in the box.  He’s the equivalent of the phone book of a mid-sized city.  Furthermore, the plastic bag he came in included a little slip of paper shouting, “WARNING: To avoid danger of suffocation keep this bag away from babies and children.” Listen Lego, I’m not worried about babies and children; I’m worried about me.  I might be tempted to use that plastic bag to suffocate myself if I can’t complete my Grand Piano.

The pianist makes it this far into the performance without any faux pas’s (English: significant mistakes), but then I choose to open Mr. Instruction Manual to a random page. Terrible decision! Have a look:

Is this not an intimidating drawing? (Why yes, Dave, it is.) Does it look anything like a grand piano? (Why no, Dave, it does not.) Furthermore, you’re looking at Page 221, so we’re not even halfway through the build here.  I’m edging towards terrified, Lego.  Those pieces look small.  Those pieces look many.  And who’s to say the numbered bags make the one piece I’m looking for (amongst 3,361 of its plastic pals) any easier to find?

The pianist still hesitates, his hands shaking noticeably held just above the keyboard.

I wanted to finish this post with a photo of the first couple of pieces snapped together… I really did.  I wanted you to believe my music-making was officially underway.  But let’s be honest, my peek into the box where all those bags, orphans, and escaping pieces live, and the sheer size of Mr. Instruction Manual have me backing away from the keyboard (figuratively, followed by literally).  Sorry folks, tonight’s performance isn’t quite ready for prime time.  This pianist needs to change out of his sweat-drenched tuxedo into more comfortable clothing for now.  Let’s take an intermission, shall we?

The audience heads to the lobby.

Fantastic Plastic

On Christmas Day, any parent of small children will stifle a yawn, having built bicycles, dollhouses, and train sets the night before. After all, Santa doesn’t deliver unassembled toys. But hang in there a few years, Mom & Dad, because the building shifts from the giver to the receiver. Older kids want to create. In my generation it was Hot Wheels, Erector Sets, and Lincoln Logs. And one other toy surpassed all others for its ease of use and versatility. Lego.

This piano even plays!

My Christmas gift from my wife this year was a grand piano. Can you top that? Okay, so it wasn’t the kind worth five figures or special movers to get it across the threshold.  My piano measures a mere 12″ x 14″ and comes from the Lego “Ideas” collection.  When it’s finished it will have been built from 3,662 individual pieces.  I can’t wait to get started.

A grand piano made of Legos means the simple interlocking blocks I had as a kid have come a long, long way.  Lego Ideas sets are “products inspired by and voted for by Lego fans”.  The collection includes a typewriter, a ship in a bottle, the house from the Home Alone movies, and the apartment from the Seinfeld sitcom.  Every Ideas product involves thousands of Lego pieces to assemble.  Every Ideas product was also completely sold out for Christmas on the Lego website.

Fifty years ago, Lego was blessedly innocent.  All you had were small bricks in primary colors and if you were lucky, a paper set of instructions to create a simple house or a vehicle.  Otherwise, you just built whatever your imagination could come up with.  When my own kids were kids, Lego moved to product-specific sets like a T. Rex from Jurassic World or an X-wing Starfighter from Star Wars.  Sure, they looked cool when they were built, but I was always skeptical because the sets removed creativity from the experience.  You’d just follow the step-by-steps in the little booklet and voila – a T. Rex.  But call me a hypocrite because this sixty-year-old can’t wait to build his step-by-thousand-steps Lego Grand Piano.

Lego has an interesting history – too many chapters to cover here.  The numbers tell the story in a nutshell.  The Denmark-based company is considered the largest toy company in the world.  Their bricks have inspired movies, video games, building competitions, and eight amusement parks.  Their factories have been churning out little plastic pieces for almost 75 years.  And at last count, that pile of pieces surpassed 600 billion (or 75 Legos for every man, woman, and child on earth).

I didn’t expect to be a Lego fan as an adult but then came the Architecture series in 2008, cool buildings like the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, and Empire State Building.  I just had to have one, so last Christmas my wife gifted me the 1,032-piece United States Capitol Building.  I didn’t clock how long it took to complete but I must’ve looked awfully confident in the assembly because now I’m staring down the more daunting Grand Piano.  Maybe my wife wants me locked down in my home office for the next several months?

To underscore the popularity of Lego these days, the Architecture series alone includes 50 buildings and cityscapes, with more coming out each year (the Taj Mahal was released just last summer).  These sets run anywhere from $50 to $250, with the discontinued ones setting you back three times as much.  Sure, I’d love a Lego version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” house, but I’m not going to pay $800 to a collector just to have one.

Lego “Church of Christ”

No discussion of Lego would be complete without a nod to custom creations.  Our local Scheels department store has a larger-than-life Denver Broncos football player made of Legos, posing front and center in the toy department.  The Church of Christ creation in the photo here didn’t forget seating for an 80-member choir (below the big yellow crosses).  And the biggest custom creation of them all?  A full-scale Lego replica of the previously-mentioned X-wing Starfighter, first displayed outdoors in New York’s Times Square.  Try to picture 5.3 million Lego pieces and 23 tons of “toy” in the shape of a fighter jet.  Or just check out the photos here.

Now that I’m done writing it’s time to break open the first bag of pieces to begin my Lego Grand Piano (and time for you to watch the ingenious stop-motion video below).  I’ll use the stopwatch on my iPhone to capture the hours I consume to complete it.  Er, days? Weeks?  I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Neither is a grand piano.  You might want to check in with me next summer to make sure I haven’t gone bats.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia” and the Lego.com website.

(Not) Paying the Piper

One player, many pipes

Our church is weighing creative approaches to conducting in-person services next month. Pastor Bob sent out a survey recently asking we-the-congregation to consider options like outdoor church, weekday church, and evening church – all in the name of social distancing.  We’ll also be shaking up the service “touchpoints”, like sharing the peace, passing the (offering) plate, and partaking in communion. The Big Guy doesn’t care about the where’s, when’s, and how’s, of course – just that we have church.  On the other hand, He (She?) might have something to say about the music. After all, how does a church organ sound after a three-month absence from tuning?

It’s bad enough our congregation is gloriously inharmonious when we bellow out the hymns (no choir of angels are we), but add in a fully discordant church organ and you have a complete mess. Organs need tuning like the human back needs a chiropractor: maintenance is key. When dust accumulates and seasons change, organ pipes sound noticeably different than they’re supposed to (hence the term “off-key”).  Imagine the pitch-perfect tones of a bass saxophone, but instead you get more of a sour wail.  That’s an organ pipe sans “tune-up”.

Every one needs tuning

Tuning organ pipes is serious business and can run thousands of dollars per visit.  Consider, the biggest organs have as many as 25,000 pipes.  The booming bass pipes can be thirty feet long and two feet in diameter, while the little pixie sopranos look more like metal soda straws. Each pipe must be individually tested and tuned no matter how big or small.  Tuner A presses a key on the (up to four) keyboards down below, while Tuner B adjusts the pitch of the pipe up above (sometimes on a ladder, sometimes on a suspended platform).  It’s hours and hours of monotonous – and in the case of cathedrals, death-defying work, one demanding pipe at a time.  Better love what you do.

Here’s another reason organ tuners deserve hazard pay.  Imagine you’re suspended hundreds of feet above the sanctuary floor on a swaying rope-suspended platform (I’m already saying “no”), virtually floating like the angels, and as you reach over to adjust the pitch of a mid-sized pipe, bats fly out.  Yep, that’s the kind of critters tuners encounter when an organ wants for too long (or a single pipe sounds suspiciously out-of-tune).  Squirrels even make their homes in the pipes – though don’t ask me how they don’t go plummeting to their death the moment a note is blasted from the keyboard.  Maybe they’re flying squirrels?

The view from above

In the land of COVID-19 there are no organ tuners (or very few).  Those Peter Pipers are being denied access to their church-bound “patients” because a) COVID may reside on a surface like, say, a keyboard, and b) no congregation means no offering plate means precious few payments to the Piper.  So what do stay-at-home tuners do instead?  Why, they tune their pianos of course!  Then they play those pianos hours on end.  We may come out of COVID with a whole new genre of classical music called “tuner tunes”.

Talk about a sprint from feast to famine.  An organ tuner’s busiest weeks are those leading up to Easter, often requiring extra staff and longer hours.  COVID downpoured on that parade.  Demand for pre-Easter tuning disappeared faster than Mr. Bunny himself.  In the case of one tuner – profiled in the Wall Street Journal – 100 contracts withered to less than a dozen inside of two weeks.  He furloughed his entire workforce, worried instead over simply paying the rent on his shop.

One day soon, we faithful will walk away from our laptops and wander back into church sanctuaries instead.  We’ll spread out over more services.  We’ll wave hands instead of shake hands.  We’ll drop the offering into the plate from a “safe height”.  We’ll bypass communion servers and help ourselves to the bread and wine instead.  The organist will play and the congregation will sing; both noticeably off-key.  And when that happens give a nod to the organ tuners, who will someday get the pipes pitch-perfect again. 

Just hope they don’t need an exterminator as well.

Some content sourced from the 3/25/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “As Coronavirus Shutters Churches, an Organ Whisperer Changes Key”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Trilling on the Trail

An old friend stopped by to visit the other day. He appeared at my front door without warning, taking me back almost fifty years to the moment we first met. He is still quite the singer. His stride is supremely confident. Most annoyingly, he finds unqualified joy in every blasted thing he sees and hears. My friend is, after all, The Happy Wanderer.

If you’ve encountered The Happy Wanderer at some time in your life, you know exactly who I’m talking about.  He is Mr. “Val-deri, Val-dera”.  Those words alone should revive the sing-song tune fried into most brains since childhood.  “The Happy Wanderer” could’ve been quarantined within Germany were it not for its award-winning performance by the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir (and subsequent radio broadcast by the BBC), in 1953.  Then, Mr. Wanderer went worldwide-viral and there was no turning back ever.

Oberkirchen coat of arms

According to his lyrics, The Happy Wanderer (we’ll just call him “Hap”) takes hikes into the mountains and alongside streams, his hat on his head; his knapsack on his back.  Hap points out blackbirds and skylarks along the way, and his journey brings him unbridled giddy happiness and laughter (as in, “Val-deri, Val-der-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…”).  Our boy smiles the entire time and boldly invites YOU to join in the singing.  In his final verse, Hap wants to wander (and sing) until the day he dies.  That’s a little extreme for a children’s song, don’t you think?

Speaking of childhood, Hap and I first met way back then.  He entered the “UK Singles Chart” on January 22, 1954, eight-years-to-the-day before I was born.  Eight years after I was born, I henpecked Hap’s tune as I learned to play the piano.  “Chopsticks”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and “The Happy Wanderer” were almost assuredly the first three pieces I ever memorized.

Hap wandered into my life again in the Boy Scouts.  I recall a lot of singing on weekend hikes (not sure why – who’d be happy backpacking forty pounds towards some distant campsite?)  Besides “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and “The Ants Go Marching…”, we Scouts unabashedly sang “The Happy Wanderer” through mountains and alongside streams.  Hap’s tune even made the official list of “Scout songs” (see here.)

I thought I was done with Hap years ago (it took me decades to forget his slaphappy song), but recently he resurfaced.  First, on a cruise down Germany’s Rhine River, at an outdoor dinner in the little town of Rüdesheim.  I was volunteered by my fellow travelers to play with the band.  I manned a big oom-pah-pah drum while another poor soul clanged the cymbals.  A band member played the clarinet.  And our one and only performance – naturally – was “The Happy Wanderer”.  To add shame to the silliness, we marched between the tables as we played.  I did my best to look “happy”.

Hap’s other revelation may be a little more prolonged.  On the same Rhine River cruise, in Bavaria, my wife and I bought a handmade cuckoo clock.  The clock was shipped and arrived in the States two weeks ago.  Imagine my delight when I wound the clock and the cuckoo bird busted through his little door, the dancers twirled, and the tiny music box played “Edelweiss”.  The “sound of music” every hour on the hour!  Er, every other hour on the hour.  Turns out our cuckoo clock has two songs.  Hello, Happy Wanderer.  If I choose to, I hear his gleeful melody twelve times a day.  Or, If I choose to, I can flip a switch and I don’t hear anything at all.  I expect I’ll be flipping the switch any day now.

If you’d like to add to my hap-aberration, go to 1-800-FLOWERS and have a hardenbergia violacea delivered to my door.  HV is a species of flowering plant from the pea family.  Some call it a lilac vine.  Others give it nicknames like “false sarsasparilla” or “purple coral”.  It’s also lovingly referred to as “The Happy Wanderer”.

Heaven help me.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Practice-Makes-Perfect Memories

Classical music has been one of my constant companions since childhood. Piano lessons initially mandated by my parents (but ultimately demanded by me) cemented a love for the timeless sonatas and symphonies of the master composers.  I built up a stock of memorized pieces – my very own repertoire.  I was “hooked on classics” at an early age.

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In 1947, a children’s audio story was created for Capitol Records called “Sparky’s Magic Piano”.  Sparky was a little boy who hated to practice the piano but benefited from an active imagination.  One day Sparky’s piano starts talking to him, and declares if he simply runs his hands across the keyboard he will make beautiful music.  Instantly Sparky is playing with the accomplished skills of a concert pianist, effortlessly churning out Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, and Mendelssohn’s “The Spinning Song”.  Sparky’s piano teacher and parents want to show the world this wonder, so they book a series of concerts across the country.  But in one of those performances, Sparky suddenly loses his abilities and can’t play a single note.  He demands the music from his magic piano but nothing comes.  He looks out to his waiting audience in horror… and wakes up from a dream.

Virtually the entire story of “Sparky’s Magic Piano” is in his imagination, but the moral-of-the-story ending has Sparky practicing with renewed focus and hopes of some day becoming a great pianist.  Also, the story aged well, as I first heard it twenty-five years after it was created and still loved it.

“Sparky’s Magic Piano” resonates for several reasons.  It inspired me with wonderful piano compositions at an age when I wanted to play outside instead of practice.  My piano teacher helped me learn “The Spinning Song” and the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” (alas, the “Bumblebee” is reserved for only the most accomplished of pianists.  Watch this performance as proof: http://www.wimp.com/fastgirl/ )

Also, whenever I hear the classical music from Sparky’s story I’m instantly transported back in time to my grandparents’ house.  Besides the children’s stories and toys (enjoyed decades earlier by my own father), my grandparents owned a few audio stories.  Their copy of “Sparky’s Magic Piano” was on “45’s”: those 7-inch records that contained a single song on each side.  Sparky’s story required six or seven 45’s (both sides), which meant you had to flip or change the discs every 3-4 minutes to hear the entire story.

Thanks to Sparky I will always remember childhood time with my grandparents.  I can picture myself sitting cross-legged on their floor in front of the living-room “hi-fi” (the size of a small refrigerator back then), listening to Sparky’s story with a focus broken only by the need to flip the discs.  Fittingly, that living room also contained an old, out-of-tune, upright piano, which I was allowed to play every now and then.

Remarkably, “Sparky’s Magic Piano” is still available today.  You can buy a copy for a couple dollars on Amazon Music or iTunes.  Have a listen to a story that was created almost seventy years ago.  Thanks to your iPod you won’t even have to get up to change the discs.  And if you can endure the corny dialogue, you may find yourself captivated by the repertoire of wonderful piano music – truly “classical”.