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   H. Bruce Downey, Harvard '56---Learning the Piano

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 One of the things I've always wanted to do, but never seemed to find the time to do it, has been to learn how to play the piano.  So I put off the fulfillment of my desire until my retirement years.  Of course I didn't even have a piano, so I had to be on the look-out for one.  Then one day several years ago, about a week before Christmas, I came across this want-ad in the Roanoke Times, New River Valley Current section--- "A hundred year-old piano for $100."  So I called the number and talked to this lady who answered the phone.  She lived in nearby Pulaski, VA and told me that the piano had been her Great Grandmother's--- that she had bought this piano in New York City about 100 years ago and had it shipped to her house in Pulaski.  Then she related how she herself had learned to play this piano as a little girl, but now, after all these years, she had to put it up for sale because she had been laid off and needed whatever money it could bring.  Nancy and I went over to her house that day, the lady answered the door and led us into her living room, and there it was---a big old, stately upright--- a Jacob Dahl & Sons original.  It had been terribly neglected over the years, and its ivory keys, what were left of them, showed it.  I opened the top cover and there was its cast iron sounding board, still in tact.  And on its sounding board was the piano's number plate that I later traced back to the year it had been built--- 1905, the 1,112th piano ever built by Jacob Dahl, who was a German immigrant who came to this country shortly after the Civil War to make his pianos in New York City.  Jacob Dahl died around 1915, whereupon his family sold the Jacob Dahl & Sons piano business to Wurlitzer, which was in need of a line of pianos to compliment their organs.  Wurlitzer continued to make the pianos until the Depression years of the 1930's when they sold their piano business to Steinway.

But getting back to my story, the lady with the 1905 Jacob Dahl & Sons piano played a few pieces for us. Despite its outward appearance, the old piano still had the same beautiful tone that Jacob Dahl had originally put into it back in 1905.  And so I paid the lady her asking price of $100, and had the piano moved to its present location--- inside our walk-out basement family room where it sits to this day on a sturdy, ceramic tiled floor on top of a smooth concrete slab.  Then I called "the piano man," there being only one in all of Blacksburg, VA.  He came out to see our 100-year old piano, then told me what was needed to restore it to the magnificent musical instrument that it once was.  Our oldest son, Scott, completely rebuilt the original piano bench that came with it, and I refinished the wood and wood veneered exterior of the piano.  And the piano man began his restoration, taking off whatever ivory was still left on the keys, and replacing the entire keyboard with a brand new set of plastic keys.  As for the 100-year old piano's "action", the strings were re-strung with new, the felt hammers and the like were replaced, and the foot pedals were re-worked.  Then, when all was ready, the piano was tuned.

And with the completion of the piano's restoration, I was finally ready to begin my lifelong ambition of learning how to play it.  The only thing was, I still hadn't retired yet, so it was Nancy, and not I, who would go downstairs and play the piano.  For the child she once was, Nancy had dutifully taken piano lessons for many, many years.  She took lessons from Miss Severence who would come to her home in Arlington, MA every week.  Eventually, Nancy got so good that she played next to last at all the recitals.  The honor of playing last always belonged to Joan Harvey Burns, who like Nancy, would eventually be admitted to Radcliffe, Class of 1956.  Down through the years, Nancy had the presence of mind to keep some of her old music books with us through move after move.

Then finally, after a couple of years into retirement, I decided it was time to pursue my ambition.  And so one day about three years ago I went into a local music store and inquired about piano music books for beginners like me.  They showed me the time-honored Thompson series that Nancy had grown up on, and so I bought the Thompson First and Second Grade books.  But what really caught my eye were the Alfred Adult Basic Piano Books, especially put together for self-achievers like me.  And so with piano music books under my arm, my ambitions were about to materialize, for it was then that I began teaching myself to play the piano.  And I enjoyed it a lot, just as I knew I would.  I practiced every day, and went through the first two years of the Alfred books in about one year's time.  But as I progressed through the Alfred books, I was careful to record myself playing at least a few of these short, little pieces of music.  I then moved these recordings onto my personal computer as wav files, and once there, I compressed them down into something of manageable size.  I used the MPEG layer-3 compression scheme, and accordingly, I was able to take a multi-megabyte (MB) recording down to only a few hundred kilobytes (KB) without any appreciable loss of sound quality---aah, the wonders of the electronic age we now live in.

One of the pieces in the Alfred books caught my attention as I began working on another ambition of mine--- that of writing an historical novel based on the lives of my Great, Great Grandparents, John and Emily Ellen Clarke Whitehead. They lived during the Civil War era.  The little piece of music in the Alfred book that I liked so well is called "Raisins and Almonds."  It's an old German folk song of Jewish origin, "Razhinkes mit Mendelen."  Here now are the lyrics (in English) of "Raisins and Almonds" ---

"When I was a tiny sleepy head,
            Mama gently would tuck me into bed
                        And sing of raisins and almonds,
                                 And the sweet years to be,
                                          Sweet as raisins and almonds,
                                                       Oh, that dear memory,
                                                               Oh, that dear memory."

Anyway, I was looking for a title for my book, when suddenly, right at my piano, there it was--- "Raisins and Almonds."  The only thing was, I had to expand on that title so as to keep my book off the shelves of say the "Cook Book" section of bookstores and libraries everywhere.  And so I decided that the complete title of my book would be, "Raisins and Almonds---A Civil War Story".  And of course to complete the circle, my book does introduce the folk tune, "Raisins and Almonds" into the storyline, as my Great, Great Grandmother, Emily, sings it to her child, William "Willie" Whitehead, my Great Grandfather.

What follows below are a few of the recordings of my piano playing--- recorded some two years ago now, for "Raisins and Almonds," the novel, occupies so much of my time that I have temporarily had to put on hold "Raisins and Almonds," the folk tune, and all the rest of my piano playing.  But I look forward to the day when "Raisins and Almonds---A Civil War Story" is finally completed, and I can once again get back to where I left off in teaching myself how to play the piano--- for writing is work, whereas playing is fun.   


Click any of the following links to launch a new window and listen to my recordings of:

--- Note: Please let the Bach Minuet finish playing one-time through before you select another ---

and once you've selected one from the list below, always close that window before selecting another. And then finally, just this: Each media player presented here below has its own volume control, but you may have to increase the Master Volume Control on your computer's sound card to hear these selections.

The first set of three presented here are of small file size, hence suitable for anyone, including those with dial-up Internet connections---

Aloha Oe --- 378 Kb --- 64 seconds

Thompson's 2nd grade Etude --- 320 Kb --- 40 seconds

Tumbalalaika --- 355 Kb --- 60 seconds

Raisins and Almonds (Razhinkes mit Mandelen) --- 285 Kb --- 48 seconds


Because of their larger file size, the next set of four may require a higher-speed Internet connection (such as DSL, cable, satellite, T1, etc)

Du Du Leigst Mir Im Herzen --- 622 Kb --- 106 seconds

Greensleeves --- 561 Kb --- 95 seconds

Morning Has Broken --- 698 Kb --- 119 seconds

The Entertainer --- 549 Kb --- 93 seconds


And, as in every piano receital, "the best shall be last..."


Arkansas Traveler --- 165 Kb --- 27 seconds  <<< Sight read here by Nancy Richardson Downey, Radliffe '56


*** Please turn your speakers on... from H. Bruce Downey... 'A Bach Minuet' performed by Bruce, one-time only upon loading this page. To hear it again, or if you hear an echo the first time through, simply refresh this screen. ***


***All music herein can be found in the Alfred Beginner Piano Books, Levels One and Two --- presented here from scratch in html coding written by Bruce***


Reactions or comments ? --- write an email to me  at crow@vt.edu