This site became a part of PathAPaz.
Math of The Lottery
O. Guy Morley
November 20, 2017
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
If you are thinking about probability as the basis of a lottery, this story has nothing to do with that. Yet, the whole thing took place in a middle-school math class. Ms. Modell is not a usual math teacher. She hates the way the state and the district dictate what to teach and how to teach math. These days, she is even told to “tailor” her lessons to the CCRAP test. But since she is sort of defiant in nature, she does not easily yield. She isn’t even afraid of losing her job. She has a strong sense of what is right and what needs to be done.
Most of the students have a strong sense of likes and dislikes. They don’t like doing boring things that can be done with a calculator. They don’t like manipulating symbols that don’t appeal to them or don’t even make sense at all. They don’t like following the specific procedures that would appear on the CCRAP test but will never be in use in real life. But what they hate most is homework. The good news is that there is none of these in Ms. Modell’s class.
As for the parents, the reactions are clearly divided. A smaller number of parents welcome Ms. Modell’s approach wholeheartedly. They understand what their children are saying, thinking, and feeling. This is because they themselves were like that before. The remaining parents, a larger group, resist Ms. Modell strongly. They think that Ms. Modell does not “educate” the children properly in preparation for the high-stake exams, prestigious colleges, and high-paying jobs. Many of these parents are not really paying attention to what their children are thinking or feeling. And their children have learned not to express their real thoughts and emotions to their own parents. Of course, these children are well aware that their parents’ childhood was no different from theirs. The children know that their parents are actually “faking.” The children know that their parents are preoccupied with their own “secure” retirement served by their rich children. They believe that in order to achieve that (secret) goal, their children must achieve good grades and go to a prestigious college. Following what the state, the district, and the teachers say is a prerequisite. I don’t know if you are a parent and/or understand any of these. But I guess intelligent and honest people should be able to see the underlying structure.
Anyway, let’s observe what Ms. Modell is doing these days. One day, she started the lesson involving a short story. She knew that all the students in her class had read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson in their language arts classes. So, the class didn’t actually need to re-read the story. She just reminded her students that they were going to discuss the continuation stories which the students wrote in the language arts classes.
Naturally, the students were puzzled. Isn’t this a math class and not a language arts class? But by this time, the students were getting used to the way Ms. Modell teaches. Actually, she didn’t “teach” much as in a usual sense. She always started her class by listening to her students. Every day, the class begins with a talking circle. Every student has a turn to share whatever she or he wants to share. There is no set time limit. But if a student begins to dominate, Ms. Modell intervenes and ask the student to have a lunch with her and continue the story then. After the round, students tend to be calm. If Ms. Modell identifies a source of concern, she address it in various ways. Sometimes, she refers students to the student counselor. Many times, she just invites students to have lunch with her.
This talking circle was the essential tool for Ms. Modell. She gets to know what her students are up to. She knows that if her students are preoccupied with some immediate issues, there won’t be room for classroom discussions. Another crucial aspect of the talking circle is that Ms. Modell is able to find topics that would interest her students. Many times, Ms. Modell picks up math concepts in the students’ stories and starts the day’s lesson based on that topic. For example, after the summer break, a few students talked about their trips. Ms. Modell tactically introduced the connection between time and distance. Talking about driving, stopping, accelerating, etc., she even touched upon the very basics of calculus (without using any of the conventional terminology). Of course, none of her students would notice “calculus” per se. They just realized that there is math involved in such a topic.
Sorry about the digression. Back to The Lottery. So, working on the continuation of The Lottery seemed odd but the students became curious about what she was really trying to do. You know that children are much more adaptive to new environments … than, say, you are (assuming that you are not a child). Ms. Modell asked her students, “What were you told to do when you were to write your own continuation of The Lottery?” The students responded with a variety of points: Consistency with the original story, appropriate use of the old and new characters, reasonable transition across time since the original story, etc.
Then, here is the point Ms. Modell emphasized. The students’ continuation stories must satisfy certain conditions. For example, at the beginning of their stories, all the conditions must be the same as the end point of the original story. Of course, the students were free to divert from the original story, as long as their ideas are clearly stated. In response to Ms. Modell’s question about the conditions at the end of the original story, the students worked in small groups of two or three students. After the discussion, Ms. Modell collected the students’ ideas and put them on the board. Here is the list:
In this town, the lottery continues since the first settlers.
The population of the town increased over time.
The lottery is practiced in other towns as well. However, some towns have quit the tradition (This situation was referred to as “trouble” by an old-timer).
The event was practiced in a matter-of-fact way. Except for Tessie, nobody else resisted.
The interaction among town people were not unnatural. Mr. Summers behaved formally.
The friends of Nancy didn’t want Nancy to win the lottery because they didn’t want to lose their play mate.
Only the smoothest and roundest stones were piled up at the corner of the town center.
Tessie repeatedly said, “unfair.” She was defiant and eventually hit by a stone on the side of her head.
Other town people insisted “good sport.” They were “upon her” at the end of the story.
Then, Ms. Modell asked for some volunteers to use their stories to discuss whether their continuation stories satisfy the listed conditions. Whenever Ms. Modell asks students to share their work, she emphasizes that there is no competition. She asks her students to value the difference but not to compare their work as better or worse. She also emphasizes that there be no punishments or rewards, regardless of what her students do or don’t. If there are problems, she certainly addresses them. She does it in a fair manner or sometimes privately.
A few hands shot up. Whenever there are multiple volunteers, the students decide who goes first. This time, Kevin got the first spot. Since the students had already discussed their continuation stories, Ms. Modell asked them to give just the gist of their stories.
Kevin’s story started immediately after the original story ended. As soon as a few stones hit Tessie, a super hero called “Ratman” showed up and saved Tessie. Then, both of them disappeared. The town people were stunned. Since there was no precedence, the town people needed to figure out what to do. Some argued for the need of another person to take Tessie’s place. Some argued that since Tessie disappeared, there was nothing else to do. After a heated discussion, the town people decided to repeat the process from the beginning. This time, Mr. Summers won the lottery. Mr. Summers’ behavior was just like that of Tessie. He said, “it’s not fair.” Kevin’s story ended when the first stone hit Mr. Summers.
Ms. Modell asked the students whether Kevin’s story satisfies the listed conditions. The students found nothing that contradicted the conditions. In particular, the students argued that the introduction of Ratman did not contradict the conditions simply because there was no condition that would prevent it. Analogously, there was no conditions about what would happen in such an unexpected situation. So, Kevin was free to develop his story. The behavior of the town people appears consistent. Mr. Summers’ behavior mirrors that of Tessie. However, since Mr. Summers is not Tessie, the conditions do not constrain the behavior of Mr. Summers in any way. Kevin simply chose that Mr. Summers would behave like Tessie.
Through the discussion, the students realized that it was quite easy to satisfy the conditions and be creative at the same time. Many of them even thought that it would be harder to violate the conditions. The class moved on.
The second volunteer was Amanda. Amanda’s continuation story began one month after the original story ended. Her story assumed that Tessie had been executed. One of Tessie’s children, Nancy, is still grieving the loss of her mother. When Nancy had to throw stones to Tessie, Nancy intentionally missed Tessie. It was unbearable for Nancy to watch her mother being executed in front of her eyes. She had seen executions earlier. But this time had a completely different meaning to her. For the last one month, Nancy was often wandering in the forest, crying. Then, one day, she found a strange box with many dials and a large red button. Out of curiosity, she just changed some of the dials and hit the red button. All of sudden, Nancy was in the town center and Tessie was sitting in the middle of the square. It was exactly the same as that terrible morning. The only difference was that she had that strange box. She was so glad to see her mother alive again. Maybe she could save her. But people started to throw stones again and Tessie was executed … again. She experienced the same shock. But this time, she quickly changed her attention to the strange box. She thought that it was a time machine. She again changed some dials and pressed the button. All of sudden, she was in her house, in the morning. She checked the newspaper and immediately realized that it was the day of Tessie’s execution. Nancy grabbed Tessie’s hand and shouted, “Mama, let’s escape this town. I can’t explain this now. But I don’t want to lose you.” Tessie was completely puzzled. Not knowing what else to do, Nancy started to run. She literally ran away. Tessie had to stop her. So, Tessie ran after Nancy. Nancy ran and ran and ran. Tessie followed Nancy all the way to the end of the world.
When Amanda shared her story in a language arts class, other students liked it so much. But for Ms. Modell’s class, the students were specifically asked about the conditions. The students agree that the binning of Amanda’s story was absolutely consistent with the original story. However, when it came to the part Nancy time-traveled back to the morning of Tessie’s execution day, the student’s opinions were divided. To most students, Nancy and Tessie’s escape from the village was clearly inconsistent with the original story. They argued that there cannot be two different scenarios for exactly the same time and place. Another said it in a different way. If time travel to the past is possible, even the present situation can be changed in a way inconsistent to the situation before the time travel. But yet another student raised the possibility of multiple universes. That is, there can be many universes at the same time. For him, time travel even to the past could be just stepping into a different universe. Since the conditions do not exclude the existence of multiple universes, this is not necessarily contradictory.
Ms. Modell didn’t try to conclude the discussions. She didn’t give any authoritative statement either. She just ended the discussion right there. She said, “Well, there are many things that cannot be resolved in a straightforward manner. In fact, all the important questions do not admit simplistic, unique answers. That’s why standard tests always fail.”
Then, Ms. Modell talked a little bit more about conditions and stories. “This sort of connection between conditions and stories are everywhere. For example, when we read a mystery, you find various “clues.” The detective will come up with possible “crime scenes.” Of course, the detective’s job is to recreate crime scenes that would satisfy the clues, or conditions. There can be many, many possible scenes. So, understanding the connection between conditions and scenarios is extremely important.
“And if you didn’t notice, this is math. The real math. Everyone makes a big deal out of numbers and arithmetic. But those are just a tip of the mathematical iceberg. For example, the idea of whole number, that is, non-negative integers, can be precisely described in a certain set of conditions. But real mathematicians know that that kind of construction is not as simple as one might think. There are a lot of loop holes. Next, if I write this, ‘1 + 1 = 10’, you might think this is wrong. But it can be a perfectly “correct” statement. For example, one set of conditions that make this true is the conditions for binary numbers. You know, computers deal with binary numbers made out of 0’s and 1’s, corresponding the OFF and ON of electronic switches. So, I don’t want you to be stuck with the kind of math you normally learn in school. Always be creative. You are the people who have to solve all the challenging real-world problems left by adults.
“I think I talked too much already. When you have a chance, think about the connection between conditions and possibilities. That’s all for today.”
Ms. Modell didn’t have time to discuss any more continuation stories. But I thought you might find the following two short stories intriguing.
The Lottery Continuation Story by Jeff M.
Hundreds of years passed since Tessie was killed. The tradition continued. However, as the industrial revolution took place, the tradition gradually evolved into a new form. Stones were replaced by guns and grenades. The paper slips were replaced by letters from the government. As more and more communities consolidate their effort to streamline the tradition, the federal government took over the business of conducting the lottery. One form of the lottery came as military draft. The preliminary winners join the military forces. The real winners were chosen most commonly in a remote field.
Dozens more years passed since then. There are no more major wars. There was no need for draft. So, the tradition evolved into yet another form. Inefficient fire arms have been replaced by semi-automatic rifles. The lottery is now being conducted by a small number of sociopaths. Due to certain irregularities associated with these people, the timing of the lottery became rather unpredictable. Due to the lack of overseeing body, the formality and fairness became things of the past. Due to the efficiency of the new tools, multiple winners can be chosen at once. This has been the case more and more often.
Regardless of the differences involved in these different forms of lottery, the essence remains the same. The majority of people don’t pay enough attention to the absurdity of the lottery and try to eliminate it.
(End of Jeff’s story)
The Lottery Continuation Story by Tara S.
The tradition of the lottery continues to this date. In our area, it is called Mega Billions. You might think that Shirley Jackson’s Lottery and the current-day Mega Billions are completely different or even opposite. You are wrong.
Of course, there are certain similarities. Both forms of lotteries are conducted by the “officials.” The drawing is monitored and supposedly fair. They are done at regular intervals and the events are publicly announced.
Now, here is the tricky part. That is, the point you must have missed. As for Jackson’s Lottery, people were definitely not excited to win. They handled it in a matter-of-fact way. But the town people certainly had dark feelings about it. Nowadays, people are really excited to win Mega Billions. They really think that winning Mega Billions is a ticket to the land of eternal happiness. Of course, this is wrong. The data clearly show that every one of the winners ends up with a miserable life. They are no longer hit by stones or killed by them. However, their lives will be destroyed completely and forever.
One more point. Unlike Jackson’s Lottery, the fate of winning Mega Billions can easily be avoided. You just don’t buy that ticket to failure.
(End of Tara’s story)
Deer Park Music Practice Studio
O. Guy Morley
November 18, 2017 (slightly revised: December 3, 2017)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The studio is filled with a lot of musical instruments: grand piano, upright piano, digital piano, organ, accordion, flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, drum set, xylophone, and probably some more. There also are a computer and a printer, so that you can listen to or watch music performances and download music sheets. The best part is that you can use any of these instruments and resources for free, as long as the studio is open and available. Of course, you need to make a reservation. You can just call or send email to the owner of the studio, known as Mr. Sid. He converted his two-car detached garage into this music practice studio. There is no sound-proofing. But since it is a separate building, there is no sound problem.
If this sounds too good. It might be. There is a catch … for some people … it turns out, for many people. The studio is exclusively for those intrinsically-motivated and self-directed. That is, Mr. Sid does not let you take any lesson or instructions in the studio. You are on your own. This reflects Mr. Sid’s attitude toward learning music or, for that matter, learning anything. Of course, Mr. Sid doesn’t have a say about what you do outside the studio. So, if you have taken, are taking, or will be taking music lessons, that should not bother Mr. Sid.
Of course, most people think that lessons are essential for learning music. Then, would there be anyone who can take advantage of the studio? Well, it seems there are. Let’s listen to the three frequent users of the studio.
I like music, especially classical music. The sound of various musical instruments are so pleasing to me. So, I occasionally go to concerts held at a local performing arts center. One evening, I was sitting in a front row, very close to the pianist. The pianist was a music student pursuing a master’s degree in piano performance at a local university. She may not be the best pianist in the world. But when she played the last piece, I was so moved. Dramatic, nostalgic, and sweet. Roaring bass and singing treble. I felt that an unusual amount of energy was flowing from the pianist through the piano. And to my surprise, I really wanted to play that piece of music myself. It was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
After the concert, I had a chance to talk to the pianist. I meekly mentioned that I wanted to learn how to play the last piece, although I had never played the piano. Then, she said, “Great! You can do it! When I started, I didn’t have a teacher. Our family couldn’t afford one. So, I just practiced on my own. That was back in Hungary, where I’m from.” Really?! I thought.
So, with that unexpected encouragement, I started to think about it. Of course, I knew that this whole thing would be a formidable challenge. I had never really played a musical instrument. I never thought that I was talented either. So, I was just wondering for a while and never told this to anyone. I was also doubtful about learning it on my own. I couldn’t eliminate my thought that I needed to take lessons. Anyway, I started to pay attention to what I can do.
One day, one of my friends told me about her daughter’s piano lessons. The daughter started to take lessons when she was a first grader. The teacher forced her to learn and read the music first. This was a disaster. Eventually, there was a point when the girl was in full tears when she sat in front of the piano. Feeling sorry, my friend changed the teacher. The new teacher just played the music and let the daughter do the same. At least the fear of piano and music sheets must have subsided. The girl continued to take lessons. But it is always the teacher who chooses what to play.
I recalled all the memory of taking lessons. Not music lessons but dance and sport lessons. I never liked them. It was always teachers who told me what to do and I had to follow them blindly. The lessons never began with what I wanted to do. Reflecting on these, I became more and more willing to start on my own.
I also thought about buying a piano and start practicing. But I couldn’t go ahead with this idea either. Pianos are expensive. Even if I buy a digital piano, which is much cheaper, I wasn’t sure how long I would be using it. And first of all, I was attracted to the sound of acoustic pianos. If possible, I would rather use an acoustic piano.
At around that time, I noticed the web site of Deer Park Music Practice Studio. The studio happens to be only five-minute-drive away from where I live. The biggest surprise was that it is free. There are all sorts of instruments to use. Of course, I was interested in the grand piano.
I called the studio right away and made the first reservation. The studio is a converted detached garage of a house facing a fairly large park. I suspected that that the studio is named after this park. I didn’t see any deer at that time, though. Despite the closeness, I have never known this neighborhood.
The owner of the studio introduced himself as Sid. But I always call him Mr. Sid. He is sort of a mysterious figure. I don’t know if he plays any of his instruments. I have never seen him using any of them. I don’t even know if he likes music. He has never talked about music with me. I always wonder why he runs this studio.
Anyway, Mr. Sid opened the studio and I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly large Kawai grand piano, maybe about six feet long. It looked beautiful. I was asked to tell Mr. Sid when I leave. That way, he can check the studio and close the door. Then, he left.
It was just me and the grand piano … and a bunch of other musical instruments. Unbelievable. Right away, I downloaded the score of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 using the computer there. I had a very basic knowledge of reading music from school days. But I was still baffled by a lot of sharps and flats as well as unfamiliar symbols. So, I just printed the first page. Using on-line resources, I started to “decode” the notes one by one. During my first reservation, I rarely touched the piano. But when I produced some notes, they sounded beautiful. So, I looked forward to the next time. I tentatively made multiple reservations for the days I could come. That’s how I started to practice the piano. I have to say that I was lucky. There must be a lot of people who are sufficiently motivated but don’t have access to a desired instrument.
I know that my approach to learning the piano is inappropriate and inefficient. But that doesn’t matter. I can use the studio as much as I want. There is no deadline. There is nobody I want to or need to please. I just wanted to practice this one piece of music, regardless of the challenge involved in it. So, I just started. I tackled literally one note at a time. Still, I used the both hands. If I practiced left and right hands separately, I thought, I can get even more confused. I don’t know how many times I repeated the first few measures. At least hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. Then, I memorized that part. Well, even a monkey might be able to do that after so many repetitions. Once I memorized that part, I was able to play faster and faster. So, eventually, this part sounded somewhat like music. And that was when I felt really good. I was playing the beginning of my favorite piano music.
After several months, I was able to memorize and play the first thirty-eight measures … more or less. It takes about one and half minutes to play this part. Frankly, I was quite satisfied. This was my first piece of piano music. Although I could have quit at that point, I moved on.
Of course, I couldn’t play like my favorite pianist. But the computer in the studio has very useful tools. For example, I can play a segment of the pianist’s performance at a slower speed, without changing the pitch. This way, I can “hear” fast passages much better. Then, I can practice along with it over and over and over.
As I kept coming to the studio almost regularly, my father noticed that something was going on. I live with an aging father. He is sort of abusive … verbally. Whenever I come home from the studio, my father says, “Where have you been, Bits? You are no good. Stay here and do your job.” He always calls me Bits. Of course, that’s not at all any part of my name. He just use the first part of a pejorative slang.
My father is an old-fashioned, authoritarian figure. I always wish my mother was still alive. She died two years and three months ago. I think I am a caring person. So, I take care of my father very well. But regardless of what I do, he complains. I am sick of that. I wish I could leave the house. But I’m stuck. I don’t work and don’t have much money. I can’t even take a few days off and go on a short trip. Until last year, I had a boy friend. But he was also abusive. I had been so miserable. So, the studio became my oasis. This is the best thing that happened to me after the death of my mother.
Actually, my father is not the oldest person in my family. My maternal grandmother is still alive. She lives in a nursing home. She is almost bedridden and heavily demented. Nowadays, I am one of only a handful people she still recognizes. So, I visit her when I can. The last time, Grandma looked grumpy. I thought I would give her a wheelchair ride till the lunch time. I hoped that this would cheer her up a little. In the shared area, I looked at the old upright piano there. I have never heard anyone play it. But especially after I started to practice the piano, I became curious. Of course, I had never played the piano in front of anybody. But that day, I just felt like playing that piano. So, I asked Grandma if she wanted to hear me play the piano. She nodded. I open the fallboard. The keyboard looked all right. I played a few notes. The piano didn’t sound at all like Mr. Sid’s grand piano. Nevertheless, I played what I could. And it was only the first one third of the whole piece, called Lassan. I was still struggling at places; I was slow; I made mistakes. After finishing what I could, I meekly looked at Grandma. She was in tears and said, “Thank, Nora.” Then, she mentioned one more word. I wasn’t totally sure what she said but it sounded like “Cheer up.”
After coming home, I told this to my father. He said, “Bits, you were fooling around again. Making Grandma cry? And I didn’t know you can play the piano. Maybe Grandma was nostalgic. Well, her mother was a pianist from Romania … or Bulgaria … or Hungaria. One of those countries in the middle. I can’t remember. I heard she never really played the piano after coming to this country. And that ‘cheer up’ thing you heard. That might be her name. I think it was something like Chiller.”
With the help of the Internet, now, I got it. It was Csilla, one of the most common female names in Hungary. Grandma must have been trying to tell this to me. I also understood why I wanted to play that particular piece of music so badly. I am glad that I followed my instinct. And I am eternally grateful to Mr. Sid for letting me use his studio.
One day, I was riding my bike with a few friends. I passed a city park. A band was playing on the platform. It was an outdoor concert. The music wasn’t my type, I thought. But the next one, I was drawn. I started to hum. Just out of curiosity, I asked one of the audience about the song. He said, “Oh, that’s Desafinado by Tom Jobim.” I didn’t know any of these words. I also asked him about the instrument, “Is that a saxophone?” He answered, “Oh, yes. But it’s a tenor sax.”
For some reason, the music stuck with me. I even wanted to play the song myself. For several days, I continued to hum the song. Then, one day, I stopped by the local library. I went to the librarians’ desk. I asked where I can learn how to play the saxophone. I had to add … for free. The librarian looked a little surprised. But she took me to a computer and helped me to do some computer search. She typed: “where can i learn how to play the saxophone in or near Camden, New Jersey?” A bunch of results showed up. Music lessons, music teachers, and music studios. Nothing free. We went down several more pages. Then, she stayed on one page for a long time. It was the web page of Deer Park Music Practice Studio.
The librarian printed the page and handed it to me. She said, “You are a lucky guy. You got just what you wanted in just a few minutes. You should be able to learn how to play saxophone there for free. Call this number here.” I actually felt lucky. So, easy. I called the number and talked Mr. Sid. I guess the owner. I made the first reservation a few days later.
The studio was in a nearby town. It took about 20 minutes by bike. It didn’t look like any kind of studio. It was a house right next to a pretty big park. I knocked on the door and Mr. Sid came out. He took me to his detached garage. That was the studio. There were a lot of instruments. I asked for a tenor sax. Mr. Sid said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have a tenor sax. We do have an alto sax. Here.” I didn’t know the difference. But I was a little disappointed. Actually, I was a little discouraged to see the instrument up close. There were so many keys. It looked awfully complicated. I asked Mr. Sid, “It looks complicated and difficult. But you will tell me how to play it, right?” He gave me a weird look. Then, he said, “Oh, no. I will not teach you anything. This is a practice studio. You practice on your own.”
I almost left the place right away. But Mr. Sid continued. “You said you wanted to play a song. How much do you want to do it?” I said, “Very badly. But I don’t even know where to start.” Mr. Sid was calm. “OK, then. You are on.” I thought, he was a crazy man. “OK, Vance. I will help you get started. But that doesn’t mean that I teach you how to play a sax.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sid. But what about this complicated sax? How to deal with all those keys?” Mr. Sid was still calm. “Well, actually, I just noticed that a few keys are not in good shape. I have to bring it to a repair shop. Would you like to try a trumpet instead? There are only three buttons.”
I didn’t know much about the difference between the sax and the trumpet. But three buttons sounded more assuring. So, I said I would try that. Then, Mr. Sid warned me. “Of course, it’s not a tenor sax. But I think you can express what you want pretty well with the trumpet too. Anyway, learning any music instrument is a challenge. It will take time. So, keep your desire to play that song and see what you can do.”
Mr. Sid told me how to use the computer and the printer. He showed me a few video clips of trumpet players. They were all playing Desafinado. Awesome! I wanted to do that. I actually liked the sound of trumpet even more. He also showed me some more video clips. These were about how to make sounds with the trumpet. I said, “You don’t teach. But these are helpful.” “That’s right. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use available tools. You are welcome to use the computer and find out any help you get. But you are still in charge. That’s the important point. Nobody is going to tell you what to do. If you don’t want to continue, that is no problem. If that happens, I guess it’s not yet the time for you to practice. It may be later. Or, never. That’s all right too. Do what you want.”
Mr. Sid was totally different from my school teachers. All of the teachers tell me what to do. In very details. I was pretty much fed up with that. So, Mr. Sid sounded fresh and even encouraging. I thought I would like to try at least for a while. Then, Mr. Sid helped me to find and download the music sheet of Desafinado. Frankly, I wasn’t at all prepared to read it. Mr. Sid said, “OK. This may appear challenging. And it may well be. But you learned how to find information on the Internet. There must be a lot of web pages that could tell you how to read music. So, why don’t you give it a try. Or, you may not even need to read the music. If you learn how to make all the notes, you could listen to those video clips and imitate them. Whatever works for you, that’s the way. Good luck.” With that, he left.
Telling the truth, I was at a loss. I tried various things. I tried to read the music. It didn’t go so well. I tried to make some sounds. It didn’t go so well either. Soon, my first hour in the studio was up. I went to Mr. Sid and hesitantly made the next reservation.
I could have given up already. But for some reason, I kept coming to the studio. I really wanted to play that music. But maybe, I also wanted that personal space. Escape from reality. So, I was in the studio after school, usually three times a week.
Playing the trumpet was extremely difficult for me. I kept watching some video clips and making noise. Yup, noise. After several weeks, I was able to produce several different notes. So, I was able to produce all the notes in the first two bars. Immediately after making one note, I had to stop for a breath. It was just not natural for me to do this stuff. So, often times, I was there in the studio but did nothing. I just enjoyed the space. I never had my own room.
Not just once, but quite often, I stopped coming to the studio. But missing the studio, or the space, I returned. To my surprise, sometimes, I was able to play better after a break. And I felt good when that happened. Little by little, it got better. About three or four months later, I was able to play the first four bars. By this time, it actually sounded like sort of music. That’s when I got some confidence. I became more motivated and practiced more.
In a sense, I was lucky. I was free to come to the studio. Nobody in my family paid any attention. I don’t know my father. My mother is supposedly “working” all the time. My sister is almost always out with some “friends” of dubious kinds. Normally, we have something to eat. So, I never died of hunger. But I was always hungry for some real food. I was always hungry for many things a poor urban boy would want.
But I grew up to be skeptical of money. The only thing my mother seems to enjoy is buying lottery tickets. She wins once in a while. Small amounts. But that makes her believe that she would win big … some time. I don’t know how much she spends on that. I wish she spent more on our foods. For me, this was a lesson. Money will not solve my family’s problem. I will never buy a lottery ticket.
The studio was my oasis. But when I started the seventh bar of the music. I was stuck. I couldn’t make one high note in that bar. I was so discouraged to realize that making a high pitch was so hard. I tried different ways to make sounds. I noticed that it was easier to use one side of the lips. But I then had trouble making lower sounds. With the help of the computer search, I found out that it was not the right way. So, I brought a hand mirror from home and corrected the mouthpiece position. At first, I felt I got worse. It was so hard. But after trying for several more weeks, I started to get it. I learned how to position the mouthpiece properly against my lips. And now, I am glad.
I think it was about one year after I started. I made through the end of the music. Of course, it wasn’t that great. I was really slow. But I did it any way. Then, I repeated many, many times. It became smoother and smoother. Eventually, I was able to play at a normal speed. Then, I had some room to change loudness. It started to sound like music. I felt sooooo good.
When I was looking for some more hints about playing Brazilian music, I came across some interesting web sites. I was never serious about social studies before. So, I knew basically nothing about that country or any country or even my country. For the first time, I learned a lot of Brazilians are poor. I learned that they suffer just like I do. Well, I felt that many of them are suffering way more. I also learned about the injustice in Brazil. Then, I also realized that the U.S. is no different. In many ways, I felt as if I was living in a third country.
This was a turning point. Eventually, I dropped out of high school and joined a local non-profit. This organization repairs rundown houses in our neighborhood. I wasn’t paid. But I got free lunch. Better than the food at home. But the work was very rough. I was like a carpenter. But the folks were really nice. None of them looked down on me. In fact, they really valued my contribution. They didn’t act like my high school teachers or my family members. They even respected me as a person. This was different. This was actually shocking. I felt as if I was a different person.
This organization happened to have a sister organization in Brazil. They do similar things there. Then, one day, I saw a poster on the bulletin board of the organization. This Brazilian sister organization was inviting a few young volunteers to visit them. I applied. To my surprise, I was accepted. It was an eye-opening trip. What we do here and there. Why do we need to do the work we do? At the end of the trip, they hosted a small party for the visitors at one of the volunteers’ home. There were a lot of foods and a lot of music. Of course, Brazilian music. When they started to play Desafinado, I had a strong urge to play it myself. So, I asked for someone’s trumpet and played. Of course, that’s the only piece I could play. But they cheered and cheered. I made a lot of friends there. I promised to come back, although I had no idea how to do it. I also asked them to visit me and stay with my family, although I knew very well that there is little space in my house. But the best thing is that I now have something I look forward to. And I am eternally grateful to Mr. Sid for letting me use his studio.
My life was a mess. My father left permanently from my life. My mother suffered from depression and addiction. Then, she was declared by the court incapable of taking care of me. Since nobody else, including a small number of my relatives, stepped forward to take care of me, I was placed in a group home. It was a nice house in a nice suburbs, compared to the places I lived prior to that. But living with other kids in a group home was not really the kind of experience you want to have. Often, I went to a nearby park and smoked cigarettes or consumed alcohol. Usually, I was alone. Sometimes, I was with other kids from the group home. None of us was very hopeful of our future.
In the summer a few years ago, when I was walking to the park, I occasionally heard the faint sound of a piano. Other times, I heard the faint sound of a trumpet. I realized that the sounds came from a detached garage next to one of the houses along the park. Even to my ears, it was obvious that the “musicians” were struggling. The sounds they were making were nowhere close to music. However, as time goes, I noticed that they were making a progress. I started to hear the melody. What they were trying to play were no Mary Had a Little Lamb. They sounded a little more serious and a lot more complex. Then, as the summer ended, there were no more sound. I guessed that they didn’t open the windows.
I still saw the people come and go from that detached garage. The “pianist” was a young lady. The trumpet player looked like a high school boy. They always greet the person in the house before and after their practice. As my curiosity grew more and more, I knocked on the door of the house and asked the person what his visitors were doing. He introduced himself as “Sid.” I started to call him Mr. Sid out of respect. He explained what he was doing and very simply what his visitors were doing.
Mr. Sid asked me why I came by. “Well, I like music. There is this CD I play all the time. It was from my dysfunctional mother. By the way, I live in a group home nearby. My mother played this music when I was growing up. She played it all the time. So, it is my lullaby. I cannot get rid of it from my head. I even thought that I might learn how to play the violin and play that tune myself.” Mr. Sid listened to me intently and then asked if I wanted to use his violin.
I wasn’t prepared for this question. Of course, I didn’t know that he had a violin. I was silent for a while. For a while, he didn’t say anything either. Then, he asked if I wanted to bring the CD and listen to the music together in the garage. He said that it is a music practice studio. So, I said I would come back the following day with the CD. And I did.
Mr. Sid let me in the studio. I was quite surprised. There were so many instruments. I imagined the lady playing the piano, probably the grand piano and the boy playing the trumpet. Mr. Sid inserted my CD in the computer and played it. When it played my favorite tune, I nodded to him. He said, “All of these are beautiful music. And I can also imagine how much you associate these music with the fond memory of your mother. But this piece, Meditation from the Opera Thaïs. This is so beautiful. Do you want to play that? Here is a violin.”
I have never touched a violin. The only musical instrument I had was a harmonica. But in the group home, I hesitate to play even the harmonica. I don’t want to be involved in a fight. There always are fights for no apparent reasons. So, I told him that I would love to but I don’t know how. He said, “Well, you should be able to find it out. Here are all the resources you need to learn. It’s entirely up to you. If you want, just come here and give it a try. Luckily, you already know how to read music.”
That’s how it all started. He never told me what to do. It was totally up to me. I made regular reservations and came to the studio often. It’s only a few minutes away from the group home. Often times, I used the space just for being myself. I didn’t practice much. But gradually, I started to spend more and more time with the violin.
At first, it was challenging even to tune the violin. I had to use some on-line video clips to learn this. And when I tried to produce notes, I cursed the violin. Why don’t they have frets or something to help me produce the right pitch? Unable to do this, I placed some pieces of removable tape at appropriate positions to help me. Without this, it was impossible. I secretly thought that the pianist and the trumpet player must be having a much easier time.
Unlike the usual way of learning a musical instrument, I only practiced Meditation. This was partly influenced by the other studio users, as I heard them play. They only play the music they want to play. No boring, repetitive exercises.
I realized that I could use different strings to produce the same note. I didn’t know what to do with that. But after finding a score that indicates the use of particular string for certain notes, I tried to use that information. Just like other studio users, I proceeded little by little. After almost a year of persistence, I made through the music. It was an extremely rough work. But I felt a sense of accomplishment never experienced before. I was pretty good academically and got many awards. For some reason, those things were not that hard. But the violin was different. There was some mysterious meaning associated with this practice.
Feeling good, I tried to improve my play. I learned how to do vibrato. This was a lot more challenging than I initially thought. But after several months of practice, I started to get it. Feeling good, I recorded my practice for the first time and listened to it over and over. Of course, it was nowhere close to the performance on the CD. However, with more practice, I became quite content. I “hear” the music all right. It is actually pleasant to hear it.
After I was separated from my father and mother, I have never met either of them. But a strange idea came up. I wanted to share my practice with my mother. I was easily able to find out where she was. Still, I didn’t really have the courage to visit her. So, instead, I mailed a copy of the CD that contains my own practice.
Several weeks later, I received a letter from a stranger. She turned out to be the social worker in charge of my mother. She wrote that my mother received the CD and listened to it so many times and was in tears. My mother must have understood what it means. Then, the social worker concluded the letter with a shuttering information. My mother suddenly passed away a few days ago. The social worker regretted that she didn’t contact me sooner. My mother was dead in her bed when one of the caregivers checked her in a morning. Nobody was expected her death.
I cried. Practically speaking, my mother was gone for years by that time. Still, the fact that she is physically gone was unbearable to me. Without any other satisfying means, I continued to visit the studio to play the violin. It seems that Mr. Sid knew what had happened. But he still never told me what to do. He simply gave me the opportunity for me to grow stronger. I am eternally grateful to Mr. Sid for letting me use his studio.
One day, when Rina knocked on the door of Mr. Sid, there was no answer. She felt suspicious because this was the first time Mr. Sid didn’t come out. She waited there for about an hour, almost to the end of her reservation time. Then, a police car drove up. She became extremely uneasy. Noticing Rina, the police officer asked her if she knew the man in the photograph on a driver’s license. Rina immediately identified Mr. Sid and asked what happened to him. The police officer hesitantly told her that just a few hours ago he was killed in a car accident, instantly. Rina couldn’t believe it. “Oh, no!” She was not at all prepared for this and sank to the ground.
The police office waited quietly and then consoled her. He asked if she could answer a few questions. It seemed that the officer knew almost nothing about Mr. Sid. He said there was no information about Mr. Sid’s relatives or acquaintances. So, Rina told him about his music practice studio. In fact, that’s all she knew about Mr. Sid. The police officer took note and also recorded Rina’s contact information in case needed. Rina went home and cried in her room.
After that, the police officer went inside Mr. Sid’s house, using the key retrieved from his car. As he looked through Mr. Sid’s house, he noticed his will on his desk. What? It was dated the day before. The officer couldn’t believe it. According to the police report, Mr. Sid was killed in a head-on collision with another vehicle. It was ruled that the other driver attempted and completed a suicide. The police report was unmistakable. The other car veered into the lane Mr. Sid was driving normally. The other driver had been suffering from depression and also left a suicide note at his house. What made Mr. Sid prepare the will the day before?
The content of the will was even more mysterious. Mr. Sid left all of his possessions, including the house, the studio, and a bank account with about half a million dollars, to the trustee of three people: Nora Lawrence, Vance Washington, and Rina Ohara. Rina? The police office wondered why that Rina, just a user of his music practice studio be receiving Mr. Sid’s inheritance?
So, the officer called Rina and told her that he needs to contact Nora and Vance as well. Rina told him that she had seen them in passing but had never talked with them. Then, Rina recalled that these two people come to the studio at relatively regular times. So, she told the police officer about the times. Both of them were supposed to come there that day. So, the police officer waited there and met them. Both Nora and Vance were shocked and cried uncontrollably. The police officer wondered what Mr. Sid meant to all these people. There was nothing to suggest that any of them were expecting this incident, much less inheritance.
Since all of the three people were very distressed, the officer refrained from telling them about the inheritance. He just collected the contact information and told them that he will get back to them later. After a few days, the police office called all of them and told them about the inheritance. He invited all of them to his police station and had a meeting.
All three were still in shock. They wanted to see Mr. Sid and didn’t seem interested in the inheritance at all. Sensing their states of mind, the officer put off the discussion and asked them to hold a meeting when they are ready. About a month later, the officer called Nora, who was the only adult and asked her to arrange a meeting. The officer also let Nora have access to Mr. Sid’s house and studio.
A few days later, the three got together at the studio. Everything looked the same. The grand piano, the trumpet, the violin, and everything else. All of them were still unable to process what had happened and were happening. Realizing that they didn’t know one another, they started to share their stories. Eventually, they started to discuss what to do with the inheritance. There was one point on which they all agreed. They wanted to keep the studio open, although they didn’t have a clear idea about how to handle it. Vance said he wanted the trumpet. But he didn’t want anything else, especially money. He said that money will only introduce more suffering to his poverty-stricken family. The other two felt sorry for Vance. Then, Vance started to mumble. He asked if he could invite a friend from Brazil. He said he promised to do that. This possibility brightened all three. Since Nora was the only adult, she offered to arrange the money for Vance.
Then, Rina asked if she could get financial support for her college expenses. Even applying for colleges cost substantial money. So, Rina applied to just one. Her application essay was based on her experience at the studio. She was accepted but even with the offered financial package, that was still way more than she could afford. So, she had never really been thinking about going to Princeton. So, Nora offered to become her legal guardian and handle the money. In addition, Nora offered to run the studio during its usual hours until a further decision is made by the three. The meeting ended there. Surely, there will be a lot more to be discussed. The three agreed to meet as needed.
The next day, the police officer received a call from Nora. She briefly explained what had happened and told him that everything will be OK. He had never experienced something like this before. Who was really Mr. Sid? He looked at his driver’s license more carefully. Mr. Sid’s full name was spelled: Siddhattha Gotama.
Math Phobia … eh, Math Phobia
O. Guy Morley
October 27, 2017
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This is the transcript of an interview of Prof. Matt Fovia of the University of New York by Erica Wallen of the radio station, WFICT. The topic was math phobia.
Erica Wallen (EW): Hi, Prof. Fovia. Thank you for joining us. Today, we are going to ask Prof. Matt Fovia of the University of New York about math phobia.
Matt Fovia (MF): Hi, Erica. Thank you for having me.
EW: So, I have encountered so many people with math phobia. Actually, I have to admit that I’m one of them. I’m really curious about what you can say to me.
MF: All right. So, you are one of them, huh. But don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with people with math phobia. It’s just like acrophobia or ophidiophbia or whatever phobia. You name it. Some people are afraid of height. Human beings have an innate fear of snakes. A lot of people just hate math. But I think there is something special about math phobia. I think it’s a man-made phobia.
EW: Man-made? I don’t really get it. Will you explain that?
MF: Sure. Your math phobia had been created by a group of people. That includes your teachers, your parents, school district, state government, testing companies, etc. If you are forced to do things that doesn’t interest you, you will grow to hate it. It’s that simple. Of course, teachers and other adults pretend to believe that math is important for everyone. Why did I use the word “pretend?” That’s because they don’t really believe in it. Most of them don’t use math in their adult lives and are not suffering from that. It’s really a sad story.
EW: Well, I don’t know if I follow you. Then, are you saying that math is used as a torture tool or something like that?
MF: Exactly. That’s why a lot of people hate it. Who likes torture tools? Just a small number of crazy and sadistic people in the math department … like myself, right? We are very special. Museum quality.
EW: That’s interesting. You completely shifted my viewpoint. Now, I’m curious. Then, you crazy professor, how did you end up with a math professor?
MF: Well, that’s not a very interesting story. I will begin with my secret. During most of my school years, I didn’t like “math” at all. Luckily, I was able to pass all of my math courses without problems. I had minimal proficiency. But I never enjoyed doing the school math and I never got good grades either. Actually, I hated science classes more. It’s not that I hated science itself. I think I liked it and still like it. I just couldn’t stand the way the subject was taught. All the teachers were just following the district’s instructions. For some reason, those science teachers were like robots.
EW: Uh, I got that you hated your science classes. Now, what about math? There must be some turning point when you became to like math, right?
MF: Oh, sorry about the digression. Well, yes. There was a turning point. It wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t what you would imagine. But, yes, there was a turning point. By the way, for my undergraduate degree, I majored jewelry making. You may not know that there is such a major. At least I didn’t. When I first learned about it, I was excited. I thought I was able to do something crafty. That’s what I was enjoying around that time. I thought I would like it. And I liked it indeed. I thought I would become a just plain jewelry maker. Of course, I didn’t need math … except for when I needed it to design my products. Jewelry making is a creative endeavor. You need to set the conditions exactly right for a successful production. So, I started write down various conditions and the associated outcomes. I was and am a kind of obsessive person. I did this condition-and-outcome collection extensively. In some cases, I had some desirable outcome in my mind. Then, I tried to formulate the exact conditions for that particular outcome. Since I was collecting and studying the conditions and outcomes so meticulously, I was thinking that I could always create a set of conditions that would specify a desirable outcome. But the connection between the conditions and outcomes were incredibly elusive. For example, I realized that certain sets of conditions are satisfied by infinitely many unexpected outcomes in a specific way. There was another unexpected situation. Even for a certain simple outcome, it was impossible to formulate a set of conditions. I said “impossible” because I was able to prove that it was impossible.
EW: Ah, this is getting complicated. I don’t know if I am following you very well. It certainly seems like a turning point of some sort. But does this have anything to do with math?
MF: Everything. I wrote my senior project on this topic of the connection between conditions and outcomes. My art professors were unimpressed. Maybe, they didn’t understand the meaning or just wasn’t interested in. Nevertheless, I was required to present my project near the end of my college years. Some external professors were also required to attend. One of them happened to be a math professor. He immediately noticed the significance of my project. He recommended me to pursue a graduate study in mathematics. He even said that I was already a mathematician. According to him, my only deficiency was that I didn’t speak the conventional mathematical language. Even without being asked, he wrote a recommendation letter and sent it to the most suitable university. He also distributed my project to his colleagues and secured more recommendation letters. Of course, my original career plan was to become a jewelry maker. I was actually imagining myself as a traveling jewelry maker and was saving some money for a used van. But this senior project started to occupy my head more than anything else by this time. Soon afterward, I was accepted to the PhD program in Mathematics at the University of Los Angeles with full support and stipend. It was months past the application deadline. I never applied myself.
EW: Isn’t that something? But I still don’t understand the connection between your jewelry-making project and mathematics.
MF: Telling the truth, I didn’t know the connection either. It turned out that what I was doing on my own corresponds to the area of mathematics known as Model Theory. It is a subfield of Mathematical Logic. And if you didn’t know, Mathematical Logic is the foundation of all of mathematics and science. It’s a big deal.
EW: Wow! That’s certainly something. You re-invented a part of that Modal Theory through you jewelry-making study.
MF: Model Theory. Of course, I had no idea about the field. So, I didn’t use the right terminology. But I came up with several important theorems on my own using my own words. The math professor at my college was able to translate them.
EW: If I remember correctly, you said that you didn’t like math and didn’t take any undergraduate math courses. How did you manage the PhD program in math?
MF: Well, I think I actually took one undergraduate math/computer science course. It was a required elective course called Introduction to Computational Modeling. That one was fine. It was actually interesting. I learned some ideas that was used in my senior project. But that was not difficult. Actually, the professor who taught the course did a great job designing the course. Students worked in groups and created various simulation programs such as bird flocking simulator and drug trafficking simulator. The topics were always something you can see: nature or social phenomena.
EW: I see. But I guess that was not sufficient to handle the rigor of graduate level mathematics, right?
MF: You are right. I didn’t know the language of mathematics. So, I had to learn it. But I did it minimally to pass courses and preliminary exams. I realized that we can do a lot of things when really needed. I cleared all the requirements and focused on my Model Theory work all the time with Professor Modell. It was one of the most productive times in my life. My PhD thesis was well received by my professors and colleagues. All these paved the way for my current position at the University of New York. So, all went well, thanks to jewelry making. I’m sorry that it took a while to go over my not-so-interesting life story.
EW: That was quite impressive and surprising. So, now back to math phobia. Maybe you can explain a little bit more about the man-made nature of math phobia.
MF: Sure. It’s pretty bad. I think there is no single bad guy. Everyone is collaborating, mostly unconsciously. And this is not just math. Math is just a prime example. It’s about the whole of school education. In a sense, the current school education is creating school/education phobia. If you like school education other than recess or free time, there must be something wrong with you. Adults with a disadvantaged childhood think that college education is the key to success. So, they push their children toward that goal, without realizing that some of the intermediate points are meaningless or even harmful for their children. Adults with a privileged background want to transfer their wealth and status. So, they push their children toward that goal, without realizing that some of the intermediate points are meaningless or even harmful for their children. So, regardless of the socioeconomic status of their parents, most children are just being pushed around. The teachers push those children too. Because of the pressure, a lot of young people ended up drug addicts. Along the line, most of the teachers are simply following the district’s mandate. The districts are simply following the state governments and testing companies. If this humongous chain is broken somewhere, the situation may change. But again, everyone is just following. And to make the matter worse, the current system is making followers.
EW: Probably, many of us notice bits of what you said. But many of us probably don’t have the courage to clearly see and articulate what you just said. What can we do now?
MF: Many things. If you limit the case to math phobia, it’s simple. Don’t teach math until or unless needed. Many people won’t need it … at all. But if you eliminate math, you will bring in some else. That might be even worse. So, we need to deal with the source of the problem. The main idea is to think. Think hard. There will be ways to cut the chain I mentioned. Don’t just follow. In most cases, it’s better not to follow. Think before following.
EW: Prof. Fovia. I’m curious. You are a professor. Are you also contributing to the chain you just mentioned? Are you too following something?
MF: Good point. I have to say, yes. I am. I am as guilty as everyone else. Although I try to make my courses more student-centered, I still have to follow the University’s requirements. For example, I still have to assign a grade to each student. Grades mean nothing. This is ridiculous. I hate this. Some students are obsessed with test scores, grades, degrees. A lot of college education is becoming meaningless. I’m sad. I need to do something.
EW: I’m sorry to hear that. What are you going to do?
MF: Now, I would like to make an announcement. Right at this moment, I decided to leave my position as a mathematics professor. If math is really useful, it must be ridiculously easy for me to find a good job in the real world, not just in the academia. Maybe back to jewelry-making?
The interview ended right then and there.
O. Guy Morley
October 26, 2017
When I was watching the TV, the street scene of a small Asian country caught my eyes. I have been there. On the screen, protesters are being attacked by the riot police. It was not at all like that when I was there. It was many years ago.
I was on a business trip. After the business meetings were over, I ventured into the bustling market area. At one corner, there were several street vendors. One of them was selling a bunch of standing sage figurines. The figurines were all over the small table and some of them were almost falling off the edge. Instinctively, I reached one of them and slid it so that it would stay safely on the table.
Accidentally, I knocked down another figurine. It fell and broke into two pieces. It was not a lucky day. I looked at the street vendor. He was a short old man with millions of wrinkles on his face, just like other street vendors there. He stared at me for a while and said, “You broke, you buy.” He didn’t look upset or angry. The tone of his voice was just matter of fact. He must have seen many foreign visitors and must have encountered a situation like this hundreds of times.
“Well, I’m sorry that I dropped that one. But actually, I was just trying to save the other one right here.” I tried to explain what I was doing. I don’t know if that made any sense. He didn’t change his calm expression. Just then, a short woman, probably his wife, showed up. She mumbled, “Huh, another foreigner broke another figurine.” I tried to explain the situation to his wife as well. She just shrugged.
Then, still in his matter-of-fact tone, the street vendor said, “I bring police.” I was astonished. This was nothing that serious. I had no clue what he was going to do with the police. To my surprise, his wife mumbled, “Bad idea.”
Since I didn’t want to leave the “crime” scene, I stayed right there. Another street vendor brought a policeman. I didn’t immediately recognize him as a policeman, though. His “uniform” was more like that of a factory worker. His hat was more like the one for a train conductor. He had no radio or gun. The only thing that would make him a policeman was a wooden club tacked under his belt. He was short and had millions of wrinkles like the street vendor. He was also as calm as the street vendor.
The policeman listened to the street vendor, who spoke in the local language. He then listened to my explanation without changing his expression. After that, he seemed to be thinking, as if he was trying to solve the most difficult question on the final exam of the police academy. I was puzzled.
Eventually, the policeman said, “You buy it.” Of course, my response was, “What?!” He again paused for a while. He then said, “This is good souvenir. You remember this place.” With that, he left.
The street vendor picked up the broken figurine. Then, he carefully wrapped it with newspaper, as if it had been intact. He handed it to me as if nothing had happened. I noticed that his wife rolled her eyes. Still unable to understand all these, I paid for the broken, standing sage figurine.
And of course, I do remember that place.
O. Guy Morley
October 17, 2017
Roberto loves to play the piano. But he is not really a good pianist. In fact, he was able to play only a few pieces, including one well-known classical and one not-so-well-known Argentinian Tango pieces. However, his passion is not limited to playing. He also enjoys working on the piano. Maybe, this is from his engineering background. And this is a story of Roberto as an amateur piano technician. Since this is partially based on a true story, a lot of information here corresponds to real names and real procedures. There even will be some photographs. However, none of Roberto, I (the narrator), nor the author is responsible for any potentially negative consequences from using the information presented in this story.
By the way, my name is Lester. I was born in 1946 and am four feet and ten inches long. I have known Roberto only for about a year. However, due to unusually strong connection between us, I learned his story pretty well. That is, about his experience with pianos in various ways. How did I learn it? That is a topic of another story. Anyway, it all began in the summer of 2014.
At the age of fifty-four, Roberto started to practice the piano on an old Yamaha electronic keyboard. It has only 61 keys and the keyboard action is based on cheap springs. So, it was not at all a good instrument for practicing. However, he already had that keyboard and didn’t want to spend any additional penny to get started. He also made a sustain pedal out of cardboard paper, aluminum foil, and a few pieces of electrical wire. It worked just fine.
About half a year later (the spring of 2015), Roberto was making a progress. In fact, he was hooked. In the summer of 2015, his family visited their relatives in Japan, where there is an old Kawai upright piano built in 1972. It had not been tuned for over thirty years. So, it was obviously out of tune even to the ears of Roberto. However, when he played it, it didn’t matter too much to him. He was simply glad that he was able to use a full-size keyboard with 88 keys for the first time and was very impressed by the sound of an acoustic piano. At that point, he had no idea about what he was going through in the coming three years.
2. Digital Pianos
After coming home, Roberto couldn’t forget the experience with a full-size keyboard. Considering his own skills and all the daunting issues associated with acoustic pianos, he decided to get a digital piano. He found an inexpensive used Yamaha portable digital piano P95 on the Guitar Center’s web site. He ordered it and waited impatiently for the delivery. When he tried the piano, he quickly found a problem with one key. Regardless of the touch, that one key produced a loud sound at the maximum level. So, he returned the piano to the nearest Guitar Center on the same day. Since his patience was running out, he bought a new digital piano then and there. It was a Yamaha portable digital piano P45, the least expensive Yamaha digital piano with 88 keys. Roberto loved the piano and practiced every day.
Then, a year later, in the summer of 2016, Roberto’s family visited the same relatives in Japan. Again, he was able to play the old Kawai upright. Even though he had been practicing on his digital piano for almost one year, it was at first difficult to get used to the touch of an acoustic piano. This time, the sound of an acoustic piano was even more appealing.
Back home, Roberto realized two issues with the Yamaha P45. First, the heaviness of key touch was quite different on the front and the back of each key. It was much heavier on the back. This was especially true for black keys. Since one of the music piece Roberto was practicing involved a lot of black keys, this was affecting his practice. In addition, the keys didn’t respond well when Roberto tried to play softly. Second, the sound of the higher two octaves are rather weak and short. It is true that all the pianos have this characteristic. However, Roberto felt that he could not produce certain sounds as with the Kawai upright. He also wanted to use soft pedal but it was not supported by the P45.
This triggered Roberto to search for an alternative. Still, he was only thinking about digital pianos. Roberto spent a lot of time searching on-line and trying demo units at several music stores. Initially, he was interested in more expensive Yamaha models, both portable and console types. Most of the more expensive models have better key actions. They didn’t have the same key touch problem as the P45. They also have better sound engines. The higher two octaves sustain longer. However, they were all a lot more expensive than the P45. Then, Roberto noticed the Kawai portable digital piano ES100. It was more expensive than the P45 but substantially less so than the Yamaha models he was interested in. On-line reviews of the ES100 were invariably good, especially regarding the key touch and the sound, the two area he was focusing on. One problem with Kawai digital pianos was that demo units were not available in the local stores.
Eventually, through Kawai’s web site, Roberto found one dealer about one-hour-drive away. He visited the store and tried the ES100, also in comparison to various other digital and acoustic pianos displayed there. He liked the ES100 but also had a concern. He thought that the sound around D3 (marked in pink in the image below) was sort of “dull.” But he was unable to pinpoint what exactly it was.
Roberto thought that it shouldn’t be a big issue and brought one home. At home, he learned how to change the piano sound and realized that the sound of Concert Grand 2 (CG2) does not have the “dullness” around D3 of the default piano sound (Concert Grand 1) as experienced in the store. So, he simply chose to use CG2 as his primary piano sound.
For a while, Roberto had a P45 and an ES100 side by side, a perfect opportunity to compare them in detail. The most striking difference was the key touch. On the ES100, the heaviness on the front and back of each key was much more even. On the ES100, it was also much easier to play softly. Also, the sound of the higher register was stronger and longer on the ES100. So, the two main issues with the P45, the key touch and the sound, were resolved.
Another characteristic of the ES100 was that the sound quality naturally changes across the dynamic range. Soft sound was mellower and loud sound was brighter. The P45 didn’t sound like that. After a few months, Roberto sold the P45.
The ES100 came with a very good half-pedaling damper pedal. In addition, the ES100 is capable of adding the triple pedal assembly. But this also requires an accompanying stand. Roberto had a cost-saving idea. He searched for a connector for the triple pedal. It was almost hidden under the cabinet. Then, he checked the electrical properties of the connector and realized that it can be used to attach a generic foot pedal as a soft pedal. Two pins needed to be closed (see the image below).
But the connector is somewhat special. So, Roberto improvised a makeshift connector for an inexpensive piano-style foot pedal, using a few paper clips and alligator clip leads (again, see the image below). The addition of a soft pedal was an improvement.
Using External Speakers
When he was reading ES100 reviews, he noticed that a lot of people recommended to use external speakers. Actually, Roberto too knew that there were inherent limitations with the internal speakers. They will never be able to produce the fundamental frequencies of, say, the lowest octave. Since the piano bass sounds are full of harmonics, we still “hear” and recognize all the notes. So, he decided to use his existing audio system as external speakers. It consisted of a cheap amplifier with a separate subwoofer output (Lepy 2.1), Klipsch R-14M Bookshelf Speakers, and a passive subwoofer (which came with an old Pioneer mini audio system LifePlus NS-7). To share the audio system for both the ES100 and the music from a computer, Roberto purchased a powered stereo mixer (Rolls MX51S Mini Mix II). This arrangement let him hear up to four sound sources at the same time at desired levels.
The first impression of the sound from the external audio system was good. It was clearer and rich, especially in the bass. Feeling good, Roberto also tried the ES100 default sound of Concert Grand (CG1). When Roberto played loud with the damper pedal depressed, he noticed a sort of “ballooning” effect around F3 through G3 (marked in pink in the image below). This happened only with CG1.
Even with CG1, this problem did not show up with the internal speakers or with headphones. So, Roberto suspected that his audio system had a problem. Using the sound samples available on http://audiocheck.net, he carefully checked the frequency response of the audio system. He was able to confirm that his audio system exaggerated the mid range including the F3-G3 area.
There were two factors contributing to this effect. First, the amplifier itself was bass-heavy (or lacking treble). Second, the subwoofer crossover setting of the amplifier was not working as advertised. That is, changing the crossover frequency did not cut the higher frequencies as expected. As a result, the already heavy mid range is fed to both the Klipsch speakers (which extends down to 64Hz) and the subwoofer (whose output can go beyond the F3-G3 area).
Eventually, Roberto got a used Yamaha powered subwoofer YST-SW215. With proper crossover setting on this subwoofer and reducing the bass level of the Lepy amplifier, he was able to eliminate the ballooning effect around the F3-G3 area. Finally, he was able to say that his external audio system does sound much better without any problem.
Although the F3-G3 ballooning was due to the poor frequency response of the external audio system, Roberto also realized that the default Concert Grand 1 (CG1) sound has the characteristic of rather strong sustenance around the F3-G3 area (that is, only with the damper pedal depressed). Now, according to the Kawai web site, the CG1 sound is “a well-rounded EX Concert Grand recorded in the standard fashion for classical and jazz music.” In contrast, the Concert Grand 2 (CG2) sound is “the original Harmonic Imaging Concert Grand sound.” Obviously, CG1 is Kawai’s flagship digitized sound. So, Roberto started to pay more attention to CG1. After comparing CG1 and CG2, he gradually became more attracted to CG1 than CG2. He thought that CG1 sounded richer.
Using Internal Speakers
After starting to use CG1 as his main sound, Roberto revisited the “dullness” around the D3, which he noticed in the store. What he realized was that this phenomenon occurs only when using the internal speakers. One way to reproduce this phenomenon consistently was to pound the D3 key repeatedly with the damper pedal depressed. This resulted in a “ballooning” effect similar to the one around the F3-G3 area. The same phenomenon occurs by pounding the D2 key as well (marked in pink in the image below).
Although the F3-G3 and D2/D3 “ballooning” sounded similar, these are separate issues. The F3-G3 “ballooning” happened only with the poor external audio system, not with the internal speakers or headphones. The D2/D3 “ballooning” happened only with the internal speakers, not with the external audio system or headphones. But both of these are specific to CG1. So, it must be associated with the strong sustenance of CG1. And this condition could be exaggerated in different ways.
As for D2/D3, Roberto’s hunch was as follows. These notes correspond to the frequencies of about 70Hz and 140Hz, respectively. Since this phenomenon is associated only with the internal speakers, Roberto suspected that the cabinet was functioning as a resonator at 140Hz. This frequency’s half wavelength (in the air) is about 50 inches, basically the same as the cabinet width. Roberto consulted Kawai America about this possibility. However, nobody from the Kawai company across the world, including engineers in the R&D section in Japan, was able to reproduce the phenomenon. So, they suspected that there is something wrong only with his unit. He was asked to bring his unit to the store for check up.
However, since he was no longer using the internal speakers, this was not really a big issue. Even with internal speakers, he could also use other piano sounds including CG2. Also around this time, something new was happening and this topic was fading out of his mind.
3. Acoustic Pianos
Gradually, but steadily, Roberto was being attracted by acoustic pianos. One of the factors was his experience with the old Kawai upright at his relatives’ house. Also during the trip to Japan in the summer of 2016, he visited a friend, who has a Yamaha C1 grand piano. He also had an opportunity to visit the main Yamaha piano factory in Hamamatsu, Japan. There, he was able to play various concert grand pianos. These opportunities opened his interest in the key touch and the sound of grand pianos.
Since Roberto was still thinking that owning an acoustic piano would be a burden in many ways, he started to search for opportunities to “use” or “rent” an acoustic piano. There was a small music studio near his house. They rent rooms with pianos. Two pianos there were spinet and console-type verticals. Their sounds were terrible. The third one was Kawai upright. This one was quite old and not well-maintained. Pedals didn’t work well and sounded a little funny on some keys.
Another possibility Roberto considered was to rent the local performing arts center, where there is a good quality Kawai grand piano. He goes there often and is familiar with the piano sound. Since he was a regular at the performing arts center, the manager of the center suggested that he could let Roberto use the space fairly freely (when available) with (presumably substantial) donation. Roberto was initially attracted by this idea but didn’t proceed from there, being uncertain how exactly this could be worked out.
Then, while he was looking for a used saxophone for his son, he noticed a post on the Craigslist about a free grand piano. It seemed to be in a decent condition. He was intrigued by this post because almost all other “free” grand pianos advertised on the Craigslist appeared dysfunctional.
Roberto had all the reasons for digital piano when he bought the P45 and switched to the ES100. There are many advantages of digital pianos. As for acoustic pianos, Roberto still had reservations. He was well aware that even if the piano itself is free, it would cost to move it. He was also aware that it would cost to tune and maintain an acoustic piano regularly. In addition, a grand piano will take up a lot of space. He was thinking about all these.
But maybe, it wouldn’t hurt if Roberto gets a free grand piano in addition to his digital piano. Although he didn’t have any specific ideas, he started to hope that other factors, including the space, can be handled somehow. Roberto thought that this was a good opportunity to experiment. With just the moving cost, he can get a grand piano.
According to the piano’s owner, there were eleven or so responses to the post. When Roberto was finally given the piano, he felt lucky. So, he got the Lester piano, serial number 161249, ca. 1946, walnut color. Yes, that’s me. Of course, reflecting my age, I have a lot of stories to tell. But I will leave them for other occasions. This is a story about Roberto’s passion. When I first met Roberto at the previous owner’s house. I noticed a hint of disappointment in his face. He was not completely happy. As I learned later, he was a little disappointed about the sound and the key touch. Still, it was a free grand piano for him. So, he took me home. It was October 2016.
At that point, I wasn’t sure what Roberto was going to do to me. I knew that I was dusty and out of tune, sounded harsh, and didn’t respond very well to his key touch. But considering my age and probably the way I was treated earlier, such deficiencies shouldn’t be surprising. On the other hand, how Roberto treated me was a little surprising. At the beginning, he had very little idea about acoustic pianos. Over the period of about one year, he learned so much. I can say that he truly devoted to me.
The first thing he did was cleaning. He first cleaned the cabinet, plate, pin blocks, soundboard, and all the areas that can be accessed from outside. He used a vacuum cleaner, micro-fiber cloth, paper towel, etc. He also purchased a roll of silicone tube and used it in conjunction with the vacuum cleaner to access hard-to-reach areas. He used bamboo sticks to move around cloth under the strings on the soundboard. I couldn’t remember when I was cleaned so thoroughly the last time. It was like going to an onsen and soak myself in a bath tub. Of course, there are blemishes that cannot be removed. But what can I say? I finally looked as good as my age.
Then, Roberto removed the fallboard and removed the entire action. He needed to consult books and some web sites to find out how to do it. But once he got the idea, it was fairly straightforward. He thoroughly cleaned the inside as well. I had completely forgotten that I kept so many objects inside me, including dead stink bugs and a baby teething gel. After that, he vacuum the action.
Next, he read online that almost 90% of the complaints about piano sound can be fixed by proper tuning. While visiting the web sites of several local piano technicians, he found a web page which describes how to tune the piano. This was a turning point for him. Although he wasn’t really sure if he was able to do it, he wanted to try anyway. He ordered a reasonably good tuning lever and a mute kit. It costed about the same amount as one-time professional tuning. Frankly, I doubted that tuning just once even by a professional would stay for a long time. I have a natural tendency to adapt to the environment, mostly the humidity.
First, Roberto learned a simple tuning technique available on the Internet. This method uses an electronic tuner to tune the middle strings of the middle octave (C4-B4) and then, all the remaining strings by ear. He thought that this procedure was doable.
When he first tried to tune, it took several hours. Some tuning pins were loose and some others were tight. Even turning an extremely small amount with the lever could miss the desired pitch. The result was not so good. As soon as he thought he was done with some notes, he noticed that they were not at all in tune. But considering my condition, I would say that Roberto did a good job as a beginner. The truth is that as soon as a few strings were tuned, the additional tension introduced by this action immediately affected other strings. Roberto kept tuning. It was a good practice for him and he got better and better. Probably after several months, he was able to gain reasonable tuning stability.
However, Roberto gradually noticed that some harmonies are not as beautiful as they could be. In addition, gradually, he started to doubt the accuracy of tuning looking at the electronic tuner. By this time, he felt that eliminating beats by ear is easier and more accurate than looking at the display.
When Roberto was exploring new approaches to tuning, he got an extremely helpful book about piano maintenance called Pianos Inside Out by Mario Igrec. One simple tuning method in the book was as follows. First, tune the A4 to a tuning fork or an electronic tuner. Then, tune the middle strings of the range A3-A4 by ear, noticing subtle off-beat of the perfect fifth (distance for five whole notes) and perfect fourth (distance for four whole notes). He tried this and it seemed to work better. But it was a little tricky to tune the perfect fifth and the perfect fourth except when they are paired within an octave. So, he modified this procedure and came up with a revised one, which is described below.
The first part of his new procedure tunes most of the middle two octaves (G3-F5). All the side strings need to be muted. The majority of this section was muted with a felt mute strip. There are a few notes that cannot be covered this way, for example, across a part of the plate. They were individually muted with rubber mutes; in this case, the middle and the right strings of each note were muted with a single mute.
Now, here are the first several steps (for a summary, see the image below). The notes which are being tuned in a particular step are in bold face.
Tune C4 to the fork or the tuner
Tune C5 against C4 so that there are no beats; Tune G4 against C4 so that there are almost no beats; Fine-tune G4 so that the C4-G4 beats are slower than the G4-C5 beats
Tune G3 against G4 so there are no beats; Tune D4 so that there are almost no beats; Fine-tune D4 so that the G3-D4 beats is slower than the D4-G5 beats
Tune D5 against D4 so there are no beats; Tune A4 so that there are almost no beats; Fine-tune A4 so that the D4-A4 beats is slower than the A4-D5 beats
As far as Roberto is concerned, this procedure was easier because each new note is tuned either as an octave or by balancing within an octave (involving the perfect fifth and the perfect fourth on both side).
The second part of this procedure tunes the side strings in the middle two octaves (G3-F5). This can be done with rubber mutes, after removing the mute strip. He muted the right string to tune the left and the middle strings. He muted the left string to tune the middle and the right strings.
The third part of this procedure tunes all the remaining strings. He now starts with the left string first by muting the middle and the right strings of each note with a single mute. So, for example, he tunes the left string of G5 against the left string of G4. Then, he tunes the middle string of G5 against the left string of G5, muting the right string. Finally, he tunes the right string of G5 against both the left and the middle strings of G5 after removing the mute.
The outcome was more satisfactory. Various cords sound better with this method.
One benefit of learning how to tune was that he was now able to tune the old Kawai upright in their relative’s house. Since this piano had not been tuned for over thirty years, he needed to proceed in multiple steps. The first thing he did was comparable to “pitch raising.” He tuned each string roughly. The increased tension of all the strings affected the pitch of each string substantially. He did the same multiple times until some tuning stability emerged. Finally, he fine-tuned all the strings. After the tuning, this old Kawai still sounded great.
There was one more problem with this old piano. Several felts had come off from the hammers of the highest two octaves. Since nobody wanted to spend too much money or effort on this piano any more, Roberto bought and placed some household felt (with double-sided tape on one side) on those hammer. These notes sounded a little strange, but it was still better than no felt.
Roberto complained a lot about my voice. Since my body was aging, there was little I could do by myself. But Roberto wanted to make the best out of me and started to try what he could do. Again, he relied on Mario Igrec’s book, where he found a way to reduce harshness. The first thing he did was to sand the hammer felts to smooth out the grooves developed over many years. Initially, he used whatever sand paper available in his house and sanded a few hammer felts. The notes from the sanded hammers sounded with less harshness, yet some more clarity.
So, he bought three different grades of sanding sponges, coarse (80), medium (220), and extra fine. He used the coarse sanding sponge to reshape the hammer felt so that only a slight string marks were left. Then, used the medium and extra fine sponges to smooth out the surface. These sanding sponges were a lot easier to use than just sanding paper. The improvement was immediately noticeable.
The next step was to “needle” the hammer felts to soften them. Since Robert was still unsure how effective this procedure would be, he first used a household sewing needle to try a few hammer felts. This indeed made the treated notes mellower. But it was impractical to use the household needle for the rest of the hammer felts. So, he ordered special piano voicing needles. This has an ergonomic handle and can accommodate up to four needles. He needled the shoulders of each hammer felt and then the under crown. After doing this for all the 88 keys, I sounded much mellower. After several months, Roberto did another session of needling. I sounded even mellower but probably slightly nasal. So, he stopped there.
Since then, Roberto referred to my sound as sweet and never again complained about it.
So, Roberto’s only remaining major complaint was the key touch. He could not easily produce soft sounds. Again, it was not what I wanted to do but a natural consequence of my aging.
One day, Roberto noticed that the blow distance (the initial distance between the hammer and the string) is about half an inch greater than the standard amount described in Igrec’s book. Due to various factors, the blow distance may increase as pianos age. So, he tried to adjust the blow distance. He needed to turn the screws accessible once the fallboard is removed. However, the space is very limited. He first used small household pliers to turn a few screws and see how that would affect the touch. Once the blow distance is adjusted to the standard amount, he was able to produce soft sounds more easily.
However, the access to the screws is so hard that it took a lot of time to adjust just one screw. So, again, Roberto ordered a specialized capstan regulation tool for this purpose. This made the task a lot easier. He also made another type of adjustment, the letoff, the position where the hammer leaves the control of the key press. There were some inconsistency. While the action was removed, he lubricate the knuckles and balance pins. The combination of all these improved the key touch. He had more control.
There were several more points to mention. Roberto occasionally heard a few different types of buzzes. One time, it was from a tin can placed on a side table behind the piano. The tin can was removed. Another time, it was from the lid props. I have long and short props and these were making the buzz. So, he wrapped a piece of non-slip rubber mat around the main lid prop.
The pedals needed some adjustment. The una corda pedal was not moving sufficiently. This was adjusted by turning the rod under the piano. The damper pedal was not moving sufficiently either. However, when Roberto tried to turn the rod, it reached the maximum amount and didn’t go any further. So, he inserted a few sheets of thick paper to that effect. This worked.
In addition, the dampers themselves were deteriorating. The wedged ones were losing their proper shapes. However, Roberto has done nothing. It was too much for him. He often said to me, “There is the limit to what I can do to you.”
Although I didn’t really like it, I knew that Roberto was entertaining the idea of replacing me with a larger grand piano. He knew that a larger piano sounds better, in general. He was checking the Craigslist every day. On one day in September 2017, he noticed a 5’10” Baldwin grand piano at a really low price. It looked all right to him. Although the photo appeared to be smaller than the advertised size, he thought that a grand piano can look much smaller or bigger depending on which direction the photo is taken from. So, he wasn’t overly concerned. He made an appointment and visited the owner, about one-hour-drive away.
The piano was terrible. It was more like 4’8”, even smaller than me. It was so outrageously out of tune that he didn’t even try to play. There was no way such a piano could replace me.
Then, Roberto recalled that there was a piano store in that direction. This piano store is a dealer of one of the most expensive piano brands. As such, they specialize expensive pianos. But he once heard that this store has a large warehouse with a selection of used pianos. He always wanted to go there but didn’t have a chance. So, on the way home, he stopped by there.
At first, the salesperson showed him some used pianos in the showroom. They looked like new and priced accordingly. Roberto asked to see less expensive used pianos. So, the salesperson took him to the huge back room, where there were several more used grand pianos. Those were trade-ins. In order to sell their expensive pianos, they take practically any piano for a nominal price. If the store judges that the piano has a good resale value with minimal work, they will clean, recondition, tune, and display in their show rooms. Others would stay in their back room practically abandoned. According to the salesperson, most of them would be sold to piano repair shops or consignment stores.
Among the pianos in the back room, there were two Kawai’s. Roberto was particularly interested in used Kawai’s. He became familiar with the Kawai brand from his Kawai digital piano and his relatives’ Kawai upright. He is also familiar with the sound of the Kawai grand piano at a local performing arts center. Many postings on piano forums also affected his preference.
One of the two Kawai’s there was about seven feet long, too big. The other was about six feet long, just the size Roberto was interested in. It was not completely but noticeably out of tune. So, he wasn’t able to tell how it would sound when it is tuned. The action seemed very good. It was dusty. The model number was GS-30.
When Roberto was checking on various pianos there, an elderly couple came and bought an expensive new piano right away … without playing it by themselves. When Roberto was playing part of the classical piece he was able to play, the lady came to him and asked to play the whole thing. Roberto was hesitant. He never really played the piano in front of others (except for his families). But when he wants to try pianos at a store, he cannot really escape. Quickly, he recalled that the salesperson was playing some modern piano pieces beautifully and told the lady that the salesperson could play the same piece. The salesperson was hesitant for a moment but then took them to the demo unit and played the piece. He sounded a very little hesitant at first but then continued beautifully. After the couple left, Roberto thanked the salesperson for playing the piece and saving Roberto from doing so. The salesperson acknowledged and said that he had not played the piece for many years. Roberto was impressed. Then, the salesperson let Roberto play the demo unit and encouraged him to come back. It was clear to the salesperson that Roberto really likes to play the piano and was looking for an affordable piano.
After coming home, Roberto checked the information about Kawai GS-30 on the Internet. It looked good. For several days, Roberto was thinking about that piano. Even this trade-in item would be a significant expense for Roberto. He wasn’t sure if this is what he wanted. But eventually he decided to return to the store to make a decision to buy the piano. He was indeed mentally prepared to buy it, unless there is something wrong with the piano. At the store, he checked the piano again, thoroughly. But there was a limit to what he could do in a dark back room. Even with a flashlight, he may have missed various deficiencies. And of course, it was a risky business to buy a used piano not knowing how exactly it would sound after tuning. However, Roberto had somewhat confident that he could make it sound good. This was from his limited experience with me.
According to the serial number, 1344417, the Kawai GS-30 was made in 1982. That’s about half my age. Finally, Roberto decided to buy it and sat down with the salesperson to negotiate the price. Then, the salesperson said that the piano has some cracks in the soundboard. Roberto was really shocked. He couldn’t find them by himself. He couldn’t hear anything wrong either. So, they went back to the piano. The salesperson showed two cracks in the soundboard. When Roberto played some notes, he still couldn’t hear any buzzes or rattles from the cracks. The salesperson said that the piano has no resale value due to those cracks. So, the piano was destined to a consignment store. He asked Roberto if he still wanted the piano.
It was a challenge for Roberto. He thought that he became good at examining used pianos. Still, he had to realize the lack of expertise in him. What about if the piano is useless? After an agonizing internal debate, Roberto decided to buy the piano any way. He asked for the best the salesperson could do regarding the price. The salesperson called his supervisor and offered Roberto a favorable deal. He agreed to sell the piano basically at the trade-in price. That is, they were not making a profit out of this sale. The sale condition was: as is, no warranty, no service, not even delivery arrangement. Roberto asked for a bench and got one within the deal. The salesperson told Roberto that this was a very special case for an individual customer. The sale term was as if Roberto were a repair shop.
After the deal, they talked a little about their personal circumstances. The salesperson was forced to take piano lesson from the age five to fifteen. He hated it and quit. After one year of not playing, he was watching a high school talent show. There were some contestants who played the piano. But he thought none of them were as good as him. So, he jumped in and won the first prize. This changed his course. He became a pianist. However, it is an extremely competitive field. So, he was no longer performing as a pianist. He teaches the piano in the evening and works as a piano salesperson during the day.
At home, Roberto arranged a piano mover for the delivery about a week later. While waiting for the piano, his thought wandered a lot. It was a mixture of excitement, hope, uncertainty, and regret. He was not so sure if he could handle the cracks. I was watching him nervously.
When I saw the new piano, I was quite impressed. It was much larger, heavier, and younger than me. It was ebony polish and weighed whopping 700 lbs. And the mover was very helpful. While the piano was still standing sideways, they showed Roberto a location of cracks from under the piano. The soundboard and the rib were separated. Between the space, there was a piece of paper. The mover told him that this was a simple trick to eliminate the rattle from that space. Roberto was searching for how to repair soundboard cracks but didn’t come across a trick like this.
The movers also pointed out the lyre was becoming detached from the lyre post. They suggested to place a phone book beneath the lyre but said that it could easily be glued.
They also told Roberto about how to clean the exterior using automotive cleaning agent … something #9.
As the piano was practically abandoned, it required a lot of work to clean it. On the treble side, there were watermarks on the lid and the cabinet. Roberto wondered what had happened. But since it was on one side, he thought that it couldn’t be from being left in rain. It was quite dusty inside the cabinet. The plate was not shining.
Roberto started to clean, just as he did to me. Since this was the second time, he was more effective, efficient, and methodical. As for the piano movers’ suggestion about automotive cleaning agent, he didn’t follow. He checked the Igrec’s book and read that minor soap water can be used to clean the exterior. So, he just moistened a piece of cloth, wiped a small area at a time, and then dry wiped there. This was basically how he cleans his car exterior when there are dirty spots. This was probably not as efficient as using a specialized agent. But it worked and the exterior became as good as new.
Roberto used a paint brush, a tooth brush, a piece of cloth with a chopstick, etc., and cleaned everywhere he had an easy access. Later, he removed the action and cleaned the inside and the action. He said the inside was much cleaner than me when I came here.
Comparing with me, Roberto referred to the GS-30, “almost like new.”
After cleaning the soundboard, Roberto realized the extent of cracks. There were not just two but several cracks. Some of them were invisible because of dust. One of them were crossing the treble bridge.
As he started to test the piano more carefully, he did notice rattles/buzzes. There were at least four different areas of the keyboard that seemed to generate rattles (marked in pink in the image below).
The first rattle was from around the keys B3 and B4. He recalled what the piano mover said and focused on the crack reaching the left end of the soundboard. He went under the piano and took a closer look. The piece of paper which the mover pointed out was still there. He removed the paper and inserted a few sheets of paper in the space between the soundboard and the rib. He used multiple small, thin pieces of paper so that the space is filled just right but not too tight. It was a little difficult to deal with thin paper because it would bend easily. So, he started to use transparency film. He had a lot of them for over-head projector presentations. Of course, nobody uses it any more. Except that it is transparent and difficult to see, it worked out well. He was able to insert just the right number of films to fill the space. When he checked the sound, the rattle was gone.
The second time he heard the rattle, it was from around the key A5. This time, he suspected the cracks in the middle part of the soundboard. So, he went under the piano and filled the space between the soundboard and the ribs at several locations. This eliminated the rattle.
The third time was from around the key D4. This time, the buzz seemed to come from the action area. He patted various parts of cabinet around the action area. The rattle stopped.
The fourth one was from around the keys C2/C3. This time, the buzz came from the hinges of the lid. After tightening loose screws, it stopped.
So far, these are the only cases that Robert was able to tell. There may be more. But as long as he doesn’t notice, it was all right. So, he was relieved at least for the moment. The cracks didn’t immediately shutter his dream of playing this piano.
But he had no idea how these cracks might expand. He knew that they would never get better. They could only get worse. Although Roberto pays attention to the room humidity, he was still unsure about what could happen. So, he had started to think about contingency planning. If rattles return and become uncontrollable with inserting transparency films, he will need to find a way to deal with them.
The basic idea to fix cracked soundboard is to re-attach the soundboard and the rib. One critical element in this work is that the soundboard of a grand piano is clearly visible when the lid is open. So, aesthetically speaking, the surface of the soundboard must be intact. One approach he read in the book and on the Internet was to glue the soundboard and the rib with the help of a temporary fastener. This can be devised by drilling a hole from under the soundboard through the rib, screw into the soundboard (but not piercing through), and tighten it.
However, for Roberto, the aesthetics was secondary. As long as the rattles can be controlled, he would settle with any realistically simple method. He might even screw the soundboard and the ribs from above.
As soon as Roberto finished the first phase of cleaning, he quickly tuned the piano. This way, he was able to play it. Then, he spent some more time cleaning without tuning. After detailed cleaning, he did the first thorough tuning. He also lubricated parts of the strings at certain contact points. He thought it was a lot easier to tune the GS-30 than tuning me. Most pins had the right amount of grip, not too loose or not too tight. There were several pins that were a little tighter than others but still much better than mine. So, he thought that he did a good job tuning.
Then, the next day, Roberto noticed that the piano didn’t hold tuning very well. He became concerned. He lubricated the strings again. Then, he thoroughly tuned the piano again. The following day, the piano was again out of tune. At this point, he recalled his experience with me. It was like that. Probably worse. It took some time before I was able to hold tuning. This was probably because I had not been tuned for several years, I was moved, and Roberto just started to learn tuning.
This time, he is better. But the piano could have been through an out-of-tune experience even longer than I experienced. So, Roberto patiently monitored the condition. After a week or so, the piano started to hold tuning. Roberto was able to tell that several notes were slightly off. But it was not really offensive. At this point, Roberto’s concern about tuning stability disappeared.
Even after fairly good tuning, Roberto’s honest impression was that the GS-30 didn’t sound as good as it should. He is somewhat familiar with the “Kawai sound” from hearing other instruments. His vague idea was that the piano’s sound is at about 75% level of the optimum. One problem was harshness. Well, according to Roberto, not as bad as I sounded. And this is a reasonably good instrument … well, except for the cracks. And he had the experience of eliminating harshness from me. So, he was still optimistic.
Now, Roberto basically repeated the procedure which he did to me. First, he sanded the hammer felts. There were grooves but not as bad as mine when I came here. So, he was able to sand them relatively easily. This improved the sound dramatically. Most of the harshness was gone and yet the sound became clearer with beautiful timbre. Roberto’s estimate was 90% of the optimum. He was able to enjoy the sound.
Then, Roberto needled the shoulders and under crowns of the hammer felts. This improved the sound even further. He thought that the sound became mellower. His estimate was 95% of the optimum level. Although he didn’t think that he was able to achieve the 100% level, he was quite happy about the outcome. When he was needling, he felt that some hammer felts could benefit more needling and that he might be able to improve even more some time later.
While doing this, Roberto used two reference sounds. Of course, one was me. Before getting the Kawai GS-30, he considered my sound as “sweet.” He thought that the GS-30 was still brighter than me, especially when producing loud sound. Comparing to the improved GS-30, he now considered my sound a little “nasal.” He even thought he might have over-needled me.
One characteristic of the GS-30 was that it has much greater dynamic range than me. And this dynamic range is associated with varying sound quality. That is, soft sound was mellower and loud sound was brighter. I can’t do that as well. And this property is better represented by the CG1 sound of the Kawai digital piano ES100.
So, the ES100 with CG1 was another reference point. Yes, Roberto still has the ES100 and uses it when he needs to use headphones. The CG1 sound was sampled from the Kawai concert grand EX, much larger than the GS-30. As such, it is beautiful. So, while voicing the GS-30, he occasionally compared its sound against the ES100 (CG1). He was pleased that the GS-30 sound approached that of CG1. But he also felt that the CG1 through his audio system was slightly muffled. In addition, as an entry-level digital piano, the ES100 does not have advanced technology such as string resonance. He was now definitely hooked on the beautiful acoustic sound of the Kawai GS-30. Finally, he was glad that he got this piano and was able to make it sound beautiful by himself. He was relieved.
Roberto no longer needed me and made an arrangement to give me away through the Craigslist. When I had to leave, I was sad. I had no idea what kind of treatment I would receive at the new location. When I was turned sideways and all my legs were removed, I must have lost my consciousness. I don’t remember anything after that.
When I regained my consciousness, I was neither in a moving truck nor at a new house. Everything was still very familiar. I was still at Roberto’s house. I saw his Kawai ES100 right next to me. Then, I was even more surprised to realize that I was now much larger, heavier, and younger. I was the Kawai GS-30.
Not The End.
Spirit of Avidyapolis
O. Guy Morley
September 3, 2017 (slightly edited on November 11, 2017)
If you didn’t know, Avidyapolis is one of the largest cities in the world. And, I am the spirit of the city. Did you get it? I am the spirit, yes, the creator of that city! People here don’t really know me “in person.” Only a small number of smart folks faintly suspect my existence. But of course, I exist. You need a proof? Sure, no problem. I think and also act; therefore, I am. You are used to that kind of proof, aren’t you?
If you don’t like my proof, try this. You are collection of cells. None of your cells “think” that you exist. But of course, you know that you exist. Did you also know that “you” are made of both your own cells and equally numerous microorganisms? “You” are not as simple as you think. Now, you are one of my “cells.” It is no wonder if you can’t easily discern my existence.
Like anybody else, I have my own goals. They are just two: To stay alive and to get big. If you didn’t know, I’m one of the most successful among my colleagues. Some of them are barely surviving and unfortunately, many of them had died. I don’t want to become another dead city like Persepolis or Heliopolis. I don’t want to stay small like Gallipolis or Metropolis. Are these in Ohio? I can’t even remember. I bet you understand my feeling.
For a long time, my ancestors had trouble increasing the size of primate colonies. Then, some of them had a brilliant idea. They picked humans and created a special condition so that humans could learn language. It took a while, maybe tens of thousands of years. But it surely paid off. Nowadays, humans are one of our favorite creatures on land, along with termites.
Building a colony is a challenging task. Its growth depends on a lot of complex factors. Since I’m a pragmatist, I use whatever tools and methods that might work. Unlike some of my colleagues in the past, I don’t overly depend on authoritarian figures. People don’t like to be bossed around by someone else. You like freedom, right? Your wish is granted, as long as you stick to my game. Our favorite mode of operation today is capitalism. It’s easy to set up. People simply chase money directly or indirectly. Adiós to authoritarian figures. Well, there always are some exceptions, though. You will see.
Now, people just try to make more and more money. They try to get a high-paying job, get into a prestigious college, etc. Their ideals. Or, you might just hook up with a high-paying spouse. That’s all right too. Of course, people start this process early: maybe from kindergarten, maybe prenatal. So, it’s always a good idea to choose the right parents. Anyway, the best part is this. People really believe that they are working based on their own free will. Just pursuing their dreams. Isn’t this fabulous? As they work hard, the growth of my colony comes naturally as a desirable side effect.
Well, I said I’m pretty good at doing my business. But there are some others who are as good as I am. So, there are natural competitions. Watch out for London, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, and some more. Do you remember that I said I want to stay alive and get big? Well, frankly, that’s lame. I want to stay alive l-o-n-g-e-r and get bigger than my colleagues. So, I need to play games wisely. At the same time, I cannot grow all by myself. I need to deal with my colleagues all the time. So, it’s the balance between competition and cooperation.
Of course, you, people, too do that all the time: competition and cooperation. You like winning and you also like helping, at least sometimes. Telling the truth, I’m not really concerned with your state or mind. I just want all of you to work for me. Still, occasionally, I need to intervene.
Unfortunately, not everyone is up to my expectation. Many folks have a certain inferiority complex. For example, imagine math phobia. With such a complex, they may have difficulty achieving their goals. In that case, I play some tricks. I know that everyone has some pride. I elevate their pride a little bit higher. Then, do you know what would happen? They blame someone or something else for their complex. If they cannot come up with a good one, I will help. How about … “my teacher was terrible.” Now, these folks need to raise their children. Of course, to win the competition, their children must be math whizzes. Why not? So, I push these parents a little further. The parents push their children more. Voilà! They are on track now. Of course, human lives are complex. So, things may not go so well all the time. But I will worry about that later.
Well, not everyone has complex. Some folks are excessively proud of themselves. Normally, they are well off. So, these people tend to be good at contributing to my growth. But once in a while, even these folks can slack off. In that case, I again play some tricks. How about pairing them with disadvantaged people? Then, these proud folks will immediately feel sympathy for the poor folks. The proud folks will help the disadvantaged. Charity! I know that this always happens. The proud folks need to boost their pride by helping the disadvantaged. These proud folks have plenty of sympathy. On the other hand, most of them don’t have much empathy. Many of them are incapable of feeling the pain and suffering of the disadvantaged and actually rather indifferent. But that’s none of my business. As long as they work for me, that’s fine.
So far, so good. And I don’t really want you, people, to be too creative. Obviously, there is a perfect place to enforce this. You know, schools. When I was focusing on factories and wars, I didn’t pay much attention to school. Some older folks may remember those days. They had more freedom in schools. But now, I realized that I need to manage schools more tightly. Why? Children can be excessively creative! That can be disruptive. So, I need to put some limit. Like I said, I no longer heavily depend on authoritarian figures. Instead, I use a more subtle set of control: local Department of Education, Board of Education, education companies, and what not. Once these are set, parents will be on board automatically. The strategy is simple. Create a bunch of policies and regulations, and add some standardized tests. I do this as if these are for the children to pursue their dreams. Good life and good college. A lot of money in the end. Eliminate hazards, such as recess; children can get distracted. And of course, there are children who are distracted regardless. Bring in the recent advancement in Psychology. Label properly and medicalize those children. They will be on track. Negative side effects? I don’t have room to worry about that yet.
Occasionally, the so-called “progressive” education proponents try to destroy my setup. They call for more freedom for children. You know what? They are not so successful. My mainstream folks are pretty good at ignoring and resisting them. This is basically the same for all sorts of progressive or liberal movements.
Recently, there was an unexpected turn. Some people attacked capitalism. Holy cow! What are they thinking? Do they really want, eh, socialism? I didn’t like that at all. I thought about many different ways to tackle this. But I chose a method that I never thought I would use. I picked an authoritarian mayor candidate. I “suggested” to a group of conservative people that this mayor would save their faces (if not their lives). Of course, this worked. Those poor conservatives had been ridiculed by highly-educated progressives. The poor folks hailed the authoritarian figure and made him the mayor. He will attack the progressives. So, I came to realize that the old trick still worked … once in a while. In the end, I will definitely dump this inept mayor. But for now, everything is working for me just fine.
Do you know my biggest concern now? As I said, some smart folks “sense” my existence. Some of them reason but most of them have just intuition. It’s extraordinarily difficult to sense my existence analytically. There is no valid proof. Well, recall the trick I used earlier. The only practical way might employ some advanced mathematics. But I won’t get into that to confuse you. On the other hand, it won’t be too difficult to get a glimpse of my existence through your intuition. Recall the you-and-cell analogy I mentioned. Once you get it, you should be able to explain a lot of things more easily referring to my existence.
Well, well, these smart folks tend to resist me. They don’t want to be controlled implicitly by my setup. They are afraid of me. Sometimes, they use the movie Matrix to warn other people. What can I say? That’s a pretty good one. They might even discuss the dangerous rate of my growth. But of course, there is a limit. I will be able to grow only so much. I also respect the balance with my colleagues. Anyway, I shouldn’t be too afraid of them. This population is extremely small. And the majority of people are still comfortably under my influence. There is no legal offense such as LUI, right? That’s Living Under Influence. I like that.
One related note. This time, let me demonstrate how smart I am. I can “sense” the existence of this super-spirit who is overseeing and managing all of us, the spirits. Impressed? But I’m only as smart as this much. Frankly, I have no idea what this super-spirit is thinking about and doing to us. I’d rather stick to my own business.
So, you are most likely busy just chasing money. It’s rather amusing for me to see people work for me without a slightest idea of what they are actually doing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. Very fine. I don’t give you explicit orders. Compare this with a dictator. My approach is so much more tasteful. My suggestions are exquisitely subtle, completely transparent, and, I have to say, incredibly clever.
So, greedy folks. You think that you are simply trying to maximize your net worth. You may be. I simply take advantage of your ambition and make myself bigger. Thank you for contributing to my success. Please keep up with the good work.