My ebooks make

My ebooks make for speedy reading

As a gangly teen of 14 in the Alberni Valley, I had a high school teacher by the name of Dick Lawson who insisted I seek out the local regional library during the upcoming summer months and check out some books. Come fall I was to report back on what I’d read. The event was a game changer in my life. Reading became a passion. 

These days I read almost all my books on an Apple iPad. Not having to lug around a ton of hard cover books, I find a real perk. The other is the iPad remembers exactly where I stop reading. 

This summer I’ve read a score of books 
both light and heavy, including Conrad Black’s Flight of the Eagle, …and Furthermore by the iconic British actress Judy Dench, Robert Edsels’ two volumns Monuments Men and Saving Italy weaving a fascinating tale of how the allies recovered billions of dollars worth of art stolen by the Nazis in World War II and My Way by Vegas crooner Paul Anka. 

Political reads were The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, The Art of the Impossible – Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975, William Manchester and Paul Reid’s tome The Last Lion - Winston Churchill’s war years and beyond and Ken Campbell’s Selling the Dream – How Hockey Parents and their kids are paying the price for our national obsession. 
Added to the list were a number of books about my passion for railways – Around India on 80 Trains, Train Travels via Pullman, The Great Railroad Revolution, yet another about Russia’s The Trans-Siberian and Waiting on a Train. 

Currently I’m reading Stuart Isacoff’s A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians - from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between. I thought I knew a great deal about the piano. However this read is proving otherwise. For instance I was not aware the Steinway Piano Company of New York had hundreds of small pianos built in their factory that could be parachuted into the front lines during WWII to entertain the troops. Other nuggets of information include a story about Franz Liszt purposely fainting into the arms of a page-turner in order to spark an entire concert hall into hysterics. A Natural History of the Piano is loaded with similar oddities and insights. The chapter on the rise of the digital piano sparked a number of personal memories. 

Early in my music career I played many weddings, service club events and suchlike on weekends. The downside as a keyboard player was I had to play on whatever instrument the hotel management or hall committee considered to be an acceptable piano. An old musician’s joke I remember went something like this. Hotel manager to a pianist complaining about the establishment’s horrible piano – “What do you mean the piano is no good, I had it painted last week.” Pedals that didn’t work, ivories missing from keys exposing slivery wood, broken strings - I’m certain I played on some of the worst pianos anywhere. One I played had actually been swamped by the tidal wave that rolled up the Alberni Inlet in the spring of 1964. The piano had been dried out and considered playable by the hotel’s convention room manager. The fact that scads of keys constantly stuck down didn’t seem to trouble them at all, only the piano player who was trying to make music on the beast.

Finally, in the late 60’s I’d had enough. I acquired my first electric piano. Although cumbersome, Bill Cave our band’s trumpet playing leader of The Cavemen, built a bulky fold-out plywood box with casters so I could lug it around to gigs. I don’t recall the piano’s brand name but the instrument turned out to be somewhat of a lemon. The technology had hammers hitting small steel reeds. The sound produced was picked up by a small microphone that in turn was plugged into an amplifier speaker. Unfortunately, the thin steel reeds went out of tune quite quickly and one had to adjust them by shaving off bits of metal to sharpen the pitch or add a tiny blob of solder to flatten it, a finicky time consuming process. 

My next digital piano was an Italian brand introduced in 1970 called the Farfisa Professional Piano. Compared to my first electric piano, the Farfisa was a Cadillac. I loved the instrument and used it for a number of years (photo below)

My next digital piano was an Italian brand introduced in 1970 called the Farfisa Professional Piano. Compared to my first electric piano, the Farfisa was a Cadillac. I loved the instrument and used it for a number of years (photo below). 

Next came the world of Yamaha and the weighted touch sensitive models that had the feel of an acoustic piano plus an array of onboard instrumental sounds. Although rudimentary at first, one could plug the Yamaha pianos into a personal computer and produce printed music. 

By 2004, the traditional piano world universally felt a collective shudder. For the first time, digital pianos had outsold the acoustic version. By 2008, in the United States, 70 percent of all new piano purchases were electric keyboards. Why has the upstart digital piano encroached on the 300-year reign of the traditional acoustic piano to such a degree? As I alluded to above, the digital piano has a number of advantages over its elder sibling. Digital pianos are maintenance-free and don’t need to be tuned. If you want to practice at night, which I do whenever I have a show coming up, one just plugs in a set of earphones and goes at it. And the biggest advantage of all, you don’t need a couple of gorillas with a transport truck to move them.

However, having said all that, my affection for the acoustic piano (especially if it’s a well seasoned grand) has never waned. The same holds true for my wife Pat who teaches classical piano to some very talented students. No matter what anyone says, a digital piano will never be as good as a well-cared for acoustic piano.

Today I own two digital pianos, a Yamaha and a Roland and enjoy playing both. Each are midi linked to an Apple computer on which I do all my scoring, printing out the individual transposed instrumental parts whenever needed. 

A Natural History of the Piano is a must read for anyone interested in pianos. Although I’m only part way through the tome, every finger tap on the iPad turns the page to another entertaining episode about an instrument that ever since I was 6 years old, has been a constant companion.

Unloved gulls bomb capital city

Recently Pat and I were staying at a downtown hotel in Victoria. The room had a view of sorts, mainly of the surrounding rooftops of a dozen or so two-story buildings. Peering downward from our window revealed a disgusting sight. The sidewalks, store awnings and nearby rooftops were plastered with the slimy white streaks of seagull droppings. A day later while walking at street level, a cruise ship tourist in front of me received a direct hit on her forehead, unloaded by one of the winged critters. Yuk!
I recall as a youngster in the 1940’s seeing colourful posters aboard the CPR Steamships that plied the ferry routes between Vancouver Island and the mainland, encouraging tourists to “Follow the Birds to Victoria.” Not so these days. The Victoria Chamber of Commerce is keen to find a way to discourage the hordes of scavenging gulls from using the capital city’s downtown core as a rookery to hatch their young. 

                                                      Photo: Mother Seagull teaching two of her four chicks how to fly

According to the Victoria Colonist newspaper, a recovery in the bald eagle population is responsible. Gulls have traditionally nested on small islands along the Oak Bay waterfront. But as eagle numbers expand, these sites have become prime hunting grounds. So most of the gulls are now living a refugee existence, perched atop inner city hotels and apartment buildings. 
Seagulls, at least in Victoria, have joined the growing list of intrusive species (including the likes of deer and rabbits) that owing to their cuteness prevent community leaders from even suggesting a gull cull. However, Pat says I must confess to spending several hours watching the baby seagulls (called chicks) being taught how to fly by their anxious parents. It seemed the teaching technique consisted mainly of demonstrations which implied "Do what I do. It's easy." After many flops, the baby gulls eventually caught on and used their wings for something other than stepping on and tripping over. Cuteness aside, presently in Victoria it’s the rising seagull population that rates as public enemy #1. 

At our home in Nanaimo, we have a couple of rabbits that are tearing our lawn to pieces. I’ve decided my only hope to save the lawn is to try trapping them and transfer the fuzzy critters to another area about two miles away that contains I would guess, well over 200 of the exiled varmints. Although we sometimes have a suburban deer approach our front door, they don’t seem to partially like the greenery we have planted in our borders so their nuisance level remains tolerable. However, some of them seem to have a taste for Bach and Beethoven and occasionally place their noses against Pat’s studio window when she’s teaching.

Summer has left the building

The cool rains of the past week have convinced me summer is swiftly fleeing our west coast climes. Backing that up was the appearance of Halloween trappings in a number of stores. Actually I’ve been contemplating the arrival of autumn ever since the June solstice. Playing a summer musical in Qualicum, the band always took an intermission break at exactly the same time every evening. Day by day the sun had dropped ever lower on the horizon whenever we stepped outside from backstage into the parking lot. 

A small part of me seems to die every fall when the leaves begin to fall from the maple and alders and their branches suddenly lay naked against the wind and increasing cold. I think my annual Labour Day doldrums stem from 35 autumns of school openings. Don’t get me wrong. I loved teaching. It was having to abruptly accelerate from O to 145 mph during the first week back-to-school that took a toll on my psyche not to mention the annual teacher-bashing rhetoric from provincial politicians geared to win the hearts and minds of those who believed teachers only worked a 5 to 6 hour day. 

Still, I wouldn’t have traded my profession as a school music teacher for anything else. By the end of October the students were starting to sound great and my favorite time of the year was when the Christmas concert season loomed on the horizon. Beyond that were the festival competitions and the nonstop fundraising for upcoming band trips. From selling truckloads of citrus fruit to chocolate bars, from taking orders for Christmas Poinsettias to scourging the town on bottle drives, we did it all. As always summer returned. My inner cruise control was once again set to O, knowing full well in 8 weeks the annual back-to-school ritual would begin all over again.