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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

M-Audio ProKeys 88sx Lightweight Stage Piano

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Q: How do I get to Caregie Hall?
A: Practice, practice, practice!

Michael David Crawford, Consulting Software Engineer
mdcrawford@gmail.com

January 10, 2007

Copyright © 2006 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

Before my first trip home I bought an M-Audio ProKeys 88sx Lightweight Stage Piano at Tom Lee Music on Granville Street in Downtown Vancouver. While I have long owned a Fatar MIDI controller, whose hammer-action keys are exquisite to play, it turns out not to work so well for playing live performances: it is very heavy, so much so that I often feared dropping it when I carried it to or from my car. There was no way I could use it here in Vancouver, where I would be getting to Open Mics via the SkyTrain, buses and walking.

Also, to buy a road case for the Fatar and then to ship it to me here in Vancouver would likely cost as much as my ProKeys 88sx did.

I'm very happy with my purchase - I studied all of the competing lightweight keyboards before settling on the M-Audio offering. It had the best combination of features and light weight.

For example, it has a full eighty-eight keys yet was lighter than most competitors that didn't offer the complete range of a standard piano. M-Audio describes it as having "semi-weighted" keys; the salesman at MusicStop in Halifax warned me that it wouldn't feel weighted, but that it has what he called "a synth feel". When I first tried the 88sx in Halifax, I wasn't sure I could learn to play it well, but in only took a couple hours of practice with it to feel comfortable with its action.

However, with the amount of money going to repay our many debts, and with Christmas approaching, I admit it wasn't wise to buy it quite as soon as I did. But it had been months since I either played at an Open Mic or even practiced much. I could see my dreams of going to music school slipping through my grasp. My life has been very full here in Vancouver, with my new job, working on Ogg Frog in my spare time, and making new friends.

It would be all-too easy to just stop playing, forever. Like geometry, there is no royal road to music; one must be dedicated, determined and hard working. Even so, at first I didn't play my new keyboard much. I never seemed to find the time.

I'm going to start playing Open Mics here in Vancouver as soon as I feel practiced enough to play in front of a crowd. I figure two weeks of practicing every day should do it. I've been practicing every day since returning from Christmas in Newfoundland.

A Google search for Vancouver Open Mic turned up dozens of them. When I tried the search just now, my own live performance schedule showed up in the top ten hits! Yowza!

My chief problem will be transportation; Vancouver is a huge city, and I still don't know my way around many parts of it. Some of the venues are likely to be a long walk from public transportation. After some study with the help of Google Maps I decided I'd start with The Media Club on Cambie Street, just a few blocks from where I work in Gastown. I'll bring my keyboard with me to work and walk over to the club after I get off.

I wanted to check the place out first though. So invited my new friend Daniel to join me, and we went one night. It's a small, dark club with a full bar. Daniel said "I've been here before. Back when Vancouver first outlawed smoking in bars, this place could still allow it because it's a private club. Word got around, so every night there'd be a smokeout."

(Happily, for me anyway, smoking is no longer allowed there.)

We both had a good time. What was even better was that a very old and dear friend from Santa Cruz, Annie Brolly, had just contacted me because she was coming to Vancouver! She had volunteered to be a driver for a couple guys who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail all the way from the Mexican border in Southern California. She would pick them up where the trail came out to a road so they could get supplies.

Their hike ended in the mountains east of Vancouver, and they were driving in that night. When they got into town and called my cell, I got Daniel to give them directions to the club.

I hadn't seen Ann in years. The last time we spoke was in Santa Cruz in the Spring of 2000, just before Bonita and I moved to Newfoundland for our wedding.

"Vancouver is the last place I expected to see you again," I said to her.

In Search of the Wild Bigulator

Because it's meant for live stage performance, my new keyboard doesn't have built-in speakers. Instead there are quarter-inch sockets for plugging in audio cables that are to be connected to an amp or a mixer.

There are also not one, but two headphone jacks. When I first bought the keyboard, I had to use headphones because I didn't have an amp. I used my computer speakers on my Fatar back home, plugged into an E-mu Proformance 1+ MIDI sound module, but I hadn't brought my speakers out West.

To my dismay, when I got my keyboard home from the music store I discovered that both the headphone jacks were quarter-inch. My headphones have a three millimeter mini-plug.

The Wild Bigulator

The Wild Bigulator

I needed a bigulator. That's what Bonita called the quarter-inch to mini adapter when her instructor in a sound class at her art school showed one to the class. "No, it's a quarter-inch adaptor!" replied her dismayed instructor.

"I need a bigulator!" I wailed to Bonita on the phone. "I got my keyboard all the way home on the SkyTrain from downtown, only to find its headphone jacks are quarter-inch. I thought it was a mini-plug."

I actually owned two bigulators. One came with my Sony headphones, and the other came with my Grado 60s that I used until a wire broke and I got my Sonys. But both bigulators were back in Nova Scotia.

(My headphones are Sony MDR-XD100s - highly recommended: they are inexpensive and sound great.)

"Surely there must be somewhere you can get one." But the only place I knew was back at Tom Lee Music downtown. Happily, I still had time left on my SkyTrain ticket; they're good for any number of rides for an hour and a half after purchase.

Tom Lee Music is a huge music store, the biggest I have ever seen. But they were fresh out of bigulators. They had every manner of audio cable and adapter in stock, but not the kind I sought.

I walked morosely back towards the Granville SkyTrain station. On the way I passed the FutureShop on the corner of Robson and Granville. Worth a try, I thought, despite having been in there before and noticed that it didn't carry much in the way of exotic cabling. It took some careful searching, but I found one! I had caught the wild bigulator!

I was very happy when I got back to my apartment, and played for the first time in months. Happy indeed.

Overweight!

While I plan to get a proper musician's amp, a small one that I can use for playing on the street, I figured it was just as well to use computer speakers for playing at home. But money was tight now that I'd blown a lot of money on my new keyboard.

I faced a dilemma: spend a lot of money on quality speakers, when I couldn't afford it, or just a little on poor speakers, or save my money and wait for my trip home when I could bring my old speakers back with me. They are AppleDesign Powered Speakers, over ten years old now, but they still sound good.

I opted to wait until I could bring my Apple speakers, and practiced with headphones on.

But I had a lot to bring back from my first trip home: my music books, and my keyboard stand that I would need for live performances. Most keyboard players use X-shaped keyboard stands, but I returned the one I tried after I found that my heavy Fatar made it rock violently when I played. Instead I use one with four collapsible legs; it's quite rigid, and even with the Fatar it doesn't wobble. I packed it too.

Imagine my dismay when the lady at the Air Canada desk told me I couldn't check my suitcase because it was overweight: they won't take baggage over seventy pounds. "I'll leave some stuff behind," I said, and opened my bag. Bonita suggested I leave my speakers. Reluctantly I agreed. My bag was now just barely within the limit.

(I was allowed seventy pounds for free because I'd been able to get an upgrade on my Air Canada flight pass. The limit would otherwise be fifty pounds.)

The Long, Slow Way To Move

My company offered to pay for five trips home when I told them I was reluctant to leave my wife behind in Nova Scotia until she graduated. But their offer was in lieu of paying to move my stuff. We can't afford to pay for shipping ourselves, so I devised an alternate plan: when I go home, I take one piece of luggage. When I return, I take two.

I made sure my Apple speakers could make my trip back to Vancouver after Christmas: I weighed my luggage on a bathroom scale. I was also bringing back my Blue and White G3 Macintosh; I need it for testing Ogg Frog. I still had its original shipping box.

My suitcase was overweight at first, so I moved some of my stuff to the G3 box. I was just under the limit with both items.

Practice

I start each of my practice sessions by playing scales. I know the major scales of all the natural notes and the harmonic, melodic and natural minor scales of a few of them. Most days I play them all ten times. I keep count by putting ten pennies on my keyboard, then moving a penny from the left to the right after I play all the scales I know.

Some of my Kuro5hin friends have advised me that I shouldn't play so many scales. My piano teacher in Truro felt the same way. I've spent quite some time considering the question, and have decided I disagree, so I persist with the scales.

One reason is that the medicine I take for my schizoaffective disorder makes my hands shake. It's so bad at times that I cannot type on a computer keyboard. Playing scales as much as I do helps me to get control of my fingers again.

Another reason is that it is helping me to learn to play evenly. I still have a lot of trouble controlling my dynamics - playing at the right volume, and playing evenly. Playing scales is a good way to train oneself to play evenly.

In the Craig's List ad I posted from Nova Scotia just before I flew out West, I said:

I play piano but I can practice silently using headphones as I have an electric keyboard.

When I interviewed for the apartment I'm renting now, I said the same to my new landlady, and she urged me not to use headphones. She said she would actually like the sound of my practicing.

I decided to still use the headphones for my scales though, otherwise I'd be sure to drive her bananas. I switched to the speakers when I played my songs.

I went so long without practicing that I forgot how to play some of my songs. Even when I brought my sheet music out, I didn't have a music stand and couldn't afford to buy the kind of stand I wanted - a real heavy-duty, solid one. They're fifty bucks at Tom Lee! I was delighted to find I could fit my old stand in my suitcase with the speakers, and still make it under the weight restriction.

Today I relearned a song I had forgotten, a Bouree by J.S. Bach that's in the Conservatory Canada Grade One book. It didn't take long to learn it again - I guess I still remembered it in a way that just had to be brought back to the surface of my mind. By the time I start playing Open Mics here in Vancouver I should have all my songs memorized again.

Hockey

The last thing I need before I can play the Open Mics is a case for my keyboard. It rains a lot here in Vancouver.

Tom Lee Music carries a very nice keyboard gig bag made by Gig Skinz. The one that fits 88-key keyboards comes with wheels on one end so it would be easier to carry. But it costs a hundred and fifty bucks. We wouldn't be able to fit that in the budget for another month. (Now, my new company is paying me really well. It's just that most of that is going to pay off debts.)

Tonight I called Bonita and described the Tom Lee gig bag, and told her how expensive it was, and asked "Would it be completely uncool to just pack my keyboard in a couple Hefty bags? I don't really need such a fancy case. I just want to keep the rain off."

"Yes," was her response, "Don't do that."

We discussed it for a little while. "Maybe I could get a hockey bag?"

She thought that was a good idea. "There is a chain all across Canada called Play It Again Sports. Get one there."

They sell used sporting goods. "Yes," I said, "We got a bag for your tent at the one in Truro."

Study

I will close now with one final note: in February I'm going to start taking piano lessons again. I have the name and number of a teacher who offers preparation for the Royal Conservatory of Music examinations.

When I took my last lesson in Truro, I was just ready for the Grade One exam at Mount Alison University. I can actually play quite a bit beyond Grade One, but that's the limit of my ability to read music; I first learned to play piano by ear, and by improvising.

When I can read and play well enough to pass the Grade Nine exam, I will be able to pass the audition for music school.

I have a long hard road ahead of me, but I look forward to it.

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