31 October 2021

From acoustic to digital

The piano makes me happy, which means it makes me sad if I can't engage with it daily in some way — playing, practising, messing around — and at a level that allows me to utilise my brain and limbs to full capacity.

Joke goes that you know you're in a Filipino household when there's an unused, out-of-tune upright piano. My childhood home fit the stereotype. Except that we played it.

Filipinos my age would remember a time when basic music theory was taught in primary school. We learned so-fa syllables, the parts of the grand staff, and had to perform a simple tune by the end of the term. Mary Had A Little Lamb was the first entry in my humble repertoire.

That's about it with my formal music education from childhood to adolescence. I clung on to the little knowledge I had to teach my self further. I bought sheet music of popular songs at National Bookstore and painstakingly figured out the rhythm, identified the notes and typed them on the keyboard. When I graduated and started working, I saved — no, I allotted money for piano lessons. Commitment was effortless, that I've studied with the same teacher for two years straight.

I was the only one in the family who was serious about the instrument. So when I moved to my apartment, I brought the piano — a black, warm-toned Yamaha U1 — with me.

Prior to moving, I also changed jobs. It was more demanding, but also something I had always wanted: writing for a big publication. Still, the piano held its place in my life as an equally demanding but autotelic enterprise.

I continued to learn new pieces and improve my sight-reading; though I couldn't do a full-on practice, especially where technique and dynamics were concerned. The tenants in our townhouse wouldn't have it with the torturous scales, the endless repetition of an out-of-context bar slowed down to 30 beats per minute, worse, a wrong note in an otherwise elegant phrase.

Despite the playing, I felt silenced. The whole situation made me google hybrids, and that was pretty much it. I couldn't take another step to solving my problem as these hi-tech pianos are way too expensive, as if you're buying a brand new grand.

Locked at home, my sadness and itch to strike keys made me think about caving in to digital pianos. Music students use them, so who I am to be so picky?

The image that immediately came to mind was one of those slab portables used for gigging, and yes, those that fit snuggly into dorm rooms. I was happy to settle with that, also because I didn't have to burn a hole in my pocket.

Until a bit of digging — two or three more clicks down the DP rabbit hole — introduced me to the world of digital piano consoles. Me being me, I was drawn by appearance. They were beautiful. Function-wise, they had built-in covers and the pedals were secured at the bottom. Price-wise, I had to be creative in finding ways to pay for one. And me being me, I just knew that I had to get myself this piece of furniture that plays music. And get it I did.

It didn't take long for me to decide which digital piano to buy. Thankfully analysis paralysis wasn't part of the shopping experince as the choices available here were limited, and so was my budget.

With a short-list of models based on weeks of research and phone calls, I was thrilled to take a trip to the showrooms. This thrill tempered as soon as I pressed a single key. Customer reviews and even music professionals rave about how these brands and products "sound and feel like an acoustic piano". Totally untrue.

There was no give, no sensation of catching back what you've let go, no vibration.

But I was dead set on playing again and playing freely. So I didn't leave without purchasing a digital piano which had the best action, tone and, well, design.

Since the unit was delievered in August, I was playing and practising non-stop. And it didn't feel like I was making up for lost time. I was genuinely enjoying myself. Very quickly I learned that comparing a digital piano to a "real" aka acoustic piano is unproductive. The former is its own instrument — and is the instrument I need right now.

My interests are endless and fleeting, however, the piano has been a constant fixture in spaces I've decided to call home. I consider myself a forever-beginner. A serious hobbyist. Perhaps an advantage I should embrace. Seeing younger and better pianists than me is awe-inspiring. If this were my career, I'd be jealous and resentful (character flaw revealed), and hold back from enjoying their performance. On the opposite end, when I see a struggling self-taught beginner, I root for them.

Playing the piano is a pleasurable problem-solving activity for me. One where I easily slip into the zone, and once there, I have only my body to tell me when to stop. The practice provides a tangible feeling of success and improvement. And it gives me a sense of control.

In the real world, I do not exactly know whether I have done or been good or bad; and very few of its workings are within my control. It's insane the amount of money I've spent (and continue to spend) on lessons, accessories, books on top of the piano itself, a machine that keeps me sane.

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