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February 27, 07
A Public School Outreach for the Visual Recital
Some time ago one of the parents in our local PTA heard that i was a musician and invited me to play two back-to-back shows at my kids' elementary school. We're one of the fortunate school districts around that still has a music program of sorts, but i still thought it would be a good idea to invest in a digital piano setup rather than rely on the old upright at the school.
Well, a digital piano with all the computers, racks, speakers and whatnot certainly adds to the bulk of stuff i now have to carry around for the Visual Recital show!
Here are some shots of the stage setup - i must say, it makes a big difference having a stage with curtains - i think the rear projection screen looks much nicer this way. Another benefit to a curtained setup is the fact that i can keep the lights behind the curtain turned off - that in turn means i don't have to put the additional tarp frame together to focus the projector beam.
And here's a picture of my digital piano setup:
I wanted to use the Pianoteq simulator
running on my old Toshiba Tablet PC, but i couldn't figure out how to get the MIDI cables set up properly to port the sound to the speakers. For the first morning show, i had to resort to using the Ivory
samples with the Muse Receptor
What a joy to see my two youngest boys, Eric and Timmy, beaming as they came into the assembly room with their classmates! I couldn't resist coming down from the stage to give them both hugs! Unfortunately, the school is very restrictive on publishing unauthorized pictures of the students' faces, so i can't post them here...
The Ivory samples worked reasonably well, albeit they felt a bit muddy and limited in their expressive range. The kids really had a good time with my presentation of Poulenc's "The Story of Babar", and were kind enough to clap after EVERY little musical segment!
After the first show, a throng of students came up to the stage to pepper me with questions. The older students wanted to know how i put the visuals together. The younger kids had questions about Babar's mother, the old lady, what happened next to Babar and his friends...fascinating how they focused so much on the story elements and wanted to learn more about the characters themselves!
I had a little time after the first show to fiddle around with the Pianoteq setup. I was using an open source VST host program called Cantabile
. Basically this program enables you to load and play virtual instrument plugins, such as Pianoteq. I was using my M-Audio Fast Track Pro USB audio interface
to route the MIDI signal out of the Roland RD700SX keyboard into the computer, then out to the quarter inch audio ports to the self-powered JBL Eon G2 speakers.
The MIDI indicator lights were blinking on both the Fast Track Pro and the Cantabile software interface, but still no sound. Turns out i needed to assign the ASIO
(Audio Stream Input/Output) to the Fast Track Pro's drivers. Here's how to do that step by step within Cantabile:
1. Go to 'Tools' in the menu bar
2. Select 'Options'
3. Click on the 'Audio Driver' tab
4. Within the 'Driver' frame, click the drop down menu and select 'ASIO - M-Audio USB ASIO' (or whatever other ASIO your particular USB MIDI interface uses)
I used the Pianoteq simulator for the afternoon show. I kept the polyphony count lower to be on the safe side with the Toshiba's slower CPU (1.5 Ghz) and meager RAM capacity (only 256 MB) - i have to say, it held up remarkably well! There were a few crackles here and there when the polyphony got dense and loud, but i don't know if it was on account of the JBL speakers or Pianoteq choking on the CPU (i suspect the speakers...i don't like the way they sound). The Pianoteq simulator definitely gave me more colors to play with over the Ivory samples, and somehow came out clearer over the muddy JBL speakers than my sampled Bosendorfer...
My back is still pretty sore from all the heavy lifting and assembly/take down of all the equipment. (Funny how the janitor asked me if i needed help AFTER i put everything together myself...sigh)
Well, at least i've demonstrated that the Visual Recital is now fully portable, musically and visually speaking, which was the whole goal of my "Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano" blog series. I'll be looking to partner with schools and outreach organizations to bring this show to other venues that have little or no exposure to Art Music in hopes of exciting a new, young audience. As soon as i'm able, i'll post a video clip from the second show (featuring the Pianoteq simulator).
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February 26, 07
Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 6B
Oh, i forgot to mention in my last post - there are other virtual pianos out there, apparently - one product that gets mentioned a bit is TruePiano
. To be honest, listening to the samples on their website
really disappointed me - sounds like a toy Casio rather than a real acoustic instrument. Maybe my opinion would change after playing around with the program, but i'm still much more impressed with Pianoteq
...now if only Pianoteq could figure out a way to make itself compatible with Muse Research's Receptor
One thing worth mentioning, TruePiano is considerably cheaper than Pianoteq - about half as expensive in fact (around $180). That might be a determining factor for some folks.
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Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 6
New frustrations abound...now it feels like the treasure chest i alluded to is not only half empty, but its contents have suddenly been revealed to be only plastic imitations...
My excitement over Synthogy's Ivory
high-resolution piano samples quickly dissipated when i started working on Poulenc's "The Story of Babar" - French literature seems to reveal the sonic limitations of digital pianos better than almost anything else i know. Playing "louder" literature like portions of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" can be very forgiving for the limited number of velocity settings that Ivory provides (a maximum of 10, if you can believe it, for each key). But once i started trying to shape delicate colors on the bottom dynamic spectrum, i kept getting the same one or two lowest samples over and over with nary a variation in texture or color...as if all my oil paints had been snatched away and i was given 2 crayons to work with. Add to that the fact that there are no continuous or half-pedal capabilities in Ivory, no sympathetic vibrations (and for some reason i can't get the una corda pedal to work within Ivory...), and you've got a recipe for immense frustration. Absolutely maddening, reminding me of why i hated digital pianos so vehemently in the first place...
Despite the burning hole in my wallet, i took a serious second look at Pianoteq
, the virtual piano simulator. The more i played around with the trial version, the more i began to become convinced that this
was the program i had been looking for. If you will recall from my "Digital Fishnet Treasures"
blog post, i wrote out a comparison between the two approaches to creating a digital piano - sampled, pre-recorded sound clips (Ivory), versus a simulator that actually creates the physical phenomenon of piano acoustics based on variable simulated mechanics (Pianoteq). While i had initially found some of the demo audio clips from Pianoteq's page to be somewhat tinny and "toy-like", my opinions changed drastically after fiddling around with some of the parameters, like the size of the instrument (you can simulate up to a 30 ft. long grand piano!), or the length of decay, hammer density/hardness, and other fascinating design aspects. But what got me really excited was the direct sense of control over touch and dynamic expressivity, with both keystroke and pedal effects. Pianoteq takes full advantage over all 127 MIDI dynamic levels, a HUGE improvement over the measly 10 that Ivory provides. Full half and continuous pedal effects are in play, along with after-pedal effects (the way the strings sound AFTER the pedal is released or recaptured), full overtone/harmonic blends, articulation variety...in short, it really feels like i'm playing a living
instrument that responds to every touch and gesture, with all the acoustic subtleties and harmonic complexities of a real acoustic piano! It may not sound like a Steinway D or a Boesendorfer Imperial Grand on a single note to note comparison, but i found myself falling in love with the enormous expressive landscape that Pianoteq's simulation provides!
The more i play with Pianoteq, the more convinced i am that this
represents the future of digital instruments - simulators, rather than samplers.
Oh, by the way, just for fun, i did a quick comparison with Pianoteq and the Roland RD-700SX's native piano samples (as well as the samples on the "Complete Piano" expansion card) - like comparing two glasses of wine side by side, it was startling to hear how thin and tinny the Roland's samples were compared to Pianoteq! Interestingly, when i pipe the whole system through my JBL EON self-powered speakers, the Ivory samples sound awfully muddy (more blame on the JBL's, i think), but the Pianoteq somehow manages to sound much clearer.
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February 24, 07
Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 5
Here's a picture of Timmy helping me test out my new digital piano setup, complete with a brand new double keyboard rack:
Machines from left to right are:
Zoe, the Gateway M285-E Tablet PC with Core 2 Intel Processor and 2 Gig RAM, serving double duty as graphics processor for the Visual Recital components and controller interface for the Muse Receptor via Crossover Ethernet cable
Kaylee, the Fujitsu ST5022-D Tablet PC that serves as my main music score reader
Jayne, the Receptor by Muse Research, which holds all the hi-res piano samples and acts as an uber-sound synthesizer, connected to the Roland RD-700SX keyboard via MIDI cable. Jayne also has a direct connection to Zoe via the Crossover ethernet cable
In case the above picture is too dark:
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Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 4
The subtitle to this post should be, "Almost...but not quite." I feel like i've opened a treasure chest, only to find it half full.
First the good news:
2 GIG of RAM installed in Jayne, my new Muse Research Receptor, makes all the difference in the world! I can run Synthogy's Ivory with ALL the bells and whistles, full 160 voice polyphony and artifact sound effects (damper sounds, keybed sounds, etc.) all happily intact and purring like a cheetah!
The sound samples are breathtakingly beautiful! I know the Steinway D sound quite intimately from all my years as a student and faculty member at Curtis, and this really does sound like the real Kahuna!! The Bosendorfer Imperial Grand also packs a whollop of a sound, and makes playing on my Roland RD-700SX feel like an absolute dream...amazing how much of a psychosomatic effect one experiences physically when the sound comes so close to reality!
Now the bad news:
Ivory only recognizes basic damper pedal commands. Ie, there are NO half-pedal effects - the dampers click on or off. No in-betweens. This is VERY disappointing.
On a similar vein, there are no advanced sympathetic vibration effects available with Ivory.
It also appears that there are far more limited dynamic velocity ranges with each keystroke, maximum being 10 volume levels. 10?? You've GOT to be kidding me...basic MIDI is supposed to give at least a 127 level range...sigh...
This feels a bit like i've won a date with a supermodel who looks absolutely stunning and is decked out to the nines, but upon closer inspection smells like she forgot to wear perfume - or deodorant. Great looks, but some sorely lacking subtleties that would perfect an otherwise incredible product. I'll try sending an email to Synthogy to see if there are any plans to address these issues in any future updates.
I purchased a crossover ethernet cable to enable direct communication between Jayne (the Muse Receptor) and Zoe (my Gateway M285-E Tablet PC). Turns out the two need to dance some intricate steps before they'll even recognize they're in the same room together -
1. Turn both machines off
2. Attach the crossover ethernet cable to both machines, then turn on the Muse Receptor first. Apparently the Receptor acts as a server host of sorts (if i read that correctly...)
3. Next, turn on the connected computer. After boot up, the computer should recognize the Muse and be able to access its GUI via the Receptor Remote Control applet.
This is one of those situations where reading the manual is essential to make heads or tails out of operating the Receptor properly.
Oh, i almost forgot - the piece de resistance, a comparative audio file with the Receptor running at full speed on 2 Gigs of RAM. Let me know what you think!
Click here for the MP3 audio file.
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Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 3
It's...AAAALLLLIIIIIVVVVVEEEEE!!! (insert maniacal laugh here)
It took several hours of installing the 10 DVD's worth of Synthogy's Ivory
piano samples into my new Muse Research Receptor
. To put a long story short, much wrangling and wrestling and head banging ensued to figure out how to get the hi-res sound samples to work properly. Some of the online and inline instructions weren't all that clear, so I may write up a little step-by-step installation guide later on today.
Ivory recommends computers with a minimum of 1 Gig of RAM - my Muse currently has only 256 MB, but i was curious to see what would happen in a test run. Ivory gives a plethora of options to optimize performance by turning on or off functions ranging from polyphony (number of notes played at once) to extra sound effects like mechanical clicks and soft pedaling and various reverb options. I tried turning off all the extra bells and whistles to see if i could coax Ivory into giving me a sneak preview before installing the extra RAM - here's what i got (keep your volume down):
Click here to play an MP3 sound sample of Ivory's Imperial Boesendorfer piano sample
Not bad until you get about 20 seconds into the recording - then you hear the Receptor freaking out, trying to cram the samples through the tiny 256 MB pipeline...
I can't wait to try this out after i have the full 2 GIGs installed - update to come hopefully later on today!
Oh, btw - my Muse Receptor has a new name now: Jayne
. Masculine - trust me.
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February 23, 07
Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 2
Unfortunate fact of being on the bleeding edge of technology: it's expensive. And conducive to headaches.
In order to get Synthogy Ivory's piano samples into my new Muse Research Receptor module, i first have to get the Receptor to talk to my computer. I thought it would be as simple as plugging in an ethernet cable from the back of the Receptor to the ethernet port on Zoe, my Gateway M285-E Tablet PC.
No, no, no, heaven forbid something would be as simple as a single cable connection! No, it turns out that unless you have a special
crossover ethernet cable (whatever in the world that might be...), you need to have a ROUTER to connect the two machines together. Fortunately, i have an old Linksys router lying around...nice of Muse Research to NOT include such a cable in the first place, eh?
Murphy's law started having a field day with me - couldn't get the machines to "see" each other, took at least 2 or 3 tries before they started being friendly and hospitable. Then, after playing around with the "settings" button on the Muse Receptor, i finally
figure out how to see the specifications of the unit - turns out, it only has a measly 256 MB of RAM. Ivory requires at least 2 GIGS
Nice of Muse Research to post hardware specs of the device in an easy to see location, eh? The 8th Street Music Store dealer had no idea what the specs of the Receptor were, and i don't blame him - there's no way to tell unless you scroll through the settings button...
I tried looking up the RAM specs on www.Crucial.com
, my favorite online discount RAM provider. Turns out, the Receptor uses some crazy proprietary RAM chipset - must be uber fast or something, because i couldn't find a (cheaper) version of it on Crucial. More money down the drain to ensure that the hi-res piano samples from Ivory even have a prayer of running at a reasonable speed...
Now i'm in the process of loading 10 DVD's worth of piano samples into the Receptor. Each disk takes approximately 20-30 minutes to load.
Sigh. Needless to say, this remains, "to be continued..."
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February 22, 07
Digital Fishnet Treasures
One of the most interesting aspects of maintaining a website is tracking where my visitors come from, using a wonderful, free applet called Statcounter
(thanks to Tracey Hooten of The Student Tablet PC
website!). A few minutes ago, i found some interesting fishies swimming in my digital net - one link from an interesting forum run by the Piano Society
, where a reader suggested a visit to my site to learn more about digital music readers (i'll have to respond to the "seriously expensive" comment as soon as my registration gets approved...). On visiting the forum, there was an interesting banner ad for "Pianoteq
", a virtually modeled piano program.
Curiosity took hold of me, and i have to say i'm really impressed with this new type of digital instrument technology, where the piano sounds are actually created as opposed to 'triggered'. I'm just about to pick up my new Ivory piano sample library by Synthogy
from the Curtis mailroom, so let me see if i can explain the differences between the two types of virtual instruments (if i understand this correctly):
Synthogy's Ivory is basically a sophisticated collection of recorded samples of actual pianos, played with thousands of different parameters (ranging from different key strike velocities to damper pedal heights, etc.). Each sample is recorded at an extremely high resolution, and will correspond to specific actions on a MIDI keyboard controller (like my Roland RD-700SX digital piano). If i recall correctly, the collection of Ivory piano samples runs about 40 GIG in size, and requires some pretty hefty computing power to run in realtime (i'm crossing my fingers and hoping that i can run this with my brand new Receptor from Muse Research...)
Pianoteq, on the other hand, appears to be a program that acts as a piano simulator, generating all the complexities of hammer, string, and pedal actions in realtime. The program is amazingly small - only 8 MB!! You can adjust parameters like the soundboard, the voicing of the hammers (how hard or soft the felts on the hammers are), and the program can apparently simulate an amazing array of acoustic piano phenomena, including duplex scale resonance (where undampened strings resonate in response to other vibrations), repedalling and half-pedal effects, phase variations when strings are repeatedly struck...there's an amazing page full of audio MP3 samples, but what really got me excited was listening to an adaptation of an old piano roll recording of Joseph Lhevine playing a Liszt nocturne on the "reviews" page - the piano roll was digitally scanned and the information converted to MIDI, and then played through the Pianoteq simulator...
The Pianoteq simulator appears to be pretty impressive with its range of dynamic effects and generation of acoustic phenomena, but sometimes the actual tone of the piano itself sounds a bit flat and 'toy-like' - perhaps the parameters need to be adjusted better, but the concept is certainly exciting...i'll be keeping my eye out on this simulator as it develops...
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Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano, Part 1
What a difference a year makes! It's almost painful to read my old blogs about the reasons i hate digital pianos - handwritten in digital ink to emphasize my points! For a good laugh, read part one here
and part two here
. I'm a little surprised that i forgot to mention an interesting episode that took place a short time after i wrote those articles - composer David Toub
sent me a couple scores of his piano music, along with some MP3 audio samples. The first recording sounded like all the reasons i hate digital pianos rolled into one ear-splitting track - thin, tinny. mechanical, electronic simulations of a so-called piano sound emitting every sense of cold and soulless automation into the music (don't get me wrong - the music was terrific!! It was the MIDI sampling that got under my skin...) The second recording, on the other hand, was clearly the work of a live pianist on a great piano. Listening to that track was a little like comparing a great wine to badly mixed Kool-Aid. All the amazing subtleties of great piano playing gave me further evidence of the inherent advantages acoustic instruments still have over their electronic counterparts - hearing the way the damper pedal could blend and scoop the sound, listening to the wonderful interaction of complex overtones in larger chords, even the subtleties of the quirks of an acoustic piano, like the sound of the keys thudding on their wooden beds, gave a warmth and a living dimension to the recording.
David must've been laughing so hard when he dropped the bomb on me, as i gushed poetic about why i loved that live acoustic recording so much over the MIDI one - he explained with a twinkle in his voice that the second track wasn't the work of a live pianist, that was actually another MIDI recording, put together with high resolution computer piano samples.
My jaw has been dragging the proverbial ground ever since.
Skip back to today, as i'm in the process of assembling what i hope will be as good a digital piano as i can afford, given today's incredible technologies. I'm still falling short of the ultimate digital piano action on a portable instrument with my Roland RD-700SX (the high end Yamaha Clavinova CVP-309GP
really has me thinking though...), but i'm hoping the sound end will make a big difference. Rather than relying on the piano samples embedded in the Roland, i'm opting to go with the highest quality piano sample libraries that i can find and patching them through a dedicated machine called the Receptor by Muse Research
, self-billed as "the ultimate synth/sampler".
Since Zoe, my high speed Gateway M-285E Tablet PC needs to be dedicated to the graphics component of my Visual Recital, i need a second computer to run the high resolution piano samples. The Receptor basically functions as a dedicated computer whose sole purpose is to store massive sample sizes (i'm not sure how large the hard drive is on my Receptor, but they can run from 40 GB to 750 GB) and churn them out when connected to either a computer or a keyboard controller like my Roland via a MIDI cable.
The back of the Receptor provides ports for its own monitor, keyboard and mouse hookups, as well as an Ethernet port, several USB ports, an adat optical port, the standard MIDI port compliments, and what i assume are balanced 1/4 inch connections.
This baby is fresh out of the box, so i haven't had that much time to play around with it yet. It should be noted that the front panel offers easy, direct access to the loaded patches, much like a synthesizer box.
The next step will be to receive my copy of Synthogy's Ivory
, the highly acclaimed piano sample library, that offers ridiculously detailed samples of pianos like the Steinway D, the Boesendorfer concert grands, and several other jewels of the acoustic piano world. It should be in my mailbox by this afternoon, so hopefully i'll be able to load it up into the Receptor tonight and give it a whirl...
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February 21, 07
An Anti-Tech Culture?
Speaking with two different violin students on two different occasions, yet getting virtually a verbatim response from both, has me wondering how large of a classical/art music populace they represent in their views. I asked what they thought the reasons were for classical music students to be so reluctant to adopt technologies like Tablet PC's or other forms of digital score readers, given their advantages of storage capacity, hands-free page turning capabilities, and digital inking. They both wistfully remarked about the romance of having the feel of paper (i've heard this remark from so many other musicians as well!), as well as the joy of being able to see their physical collection of music scores. One student pointed out how much nicer it is to receive handwritten letters over emails as an example of the romance of paper. This romance seems to supersede the inherent limitations of paper - having to remember to bring your parts, the clumsy practice of turning pages by hand during performance (one major reason the Shostakovich Violin Sonata doesn't get performed more often, btw), the limits on physical storage and portability of one's paper library, etc.
This leaves me to wonder at the typical music conservatory student's pedagogical exposure to technology - aside from the marvels of acoustic science and artistic engineering built into every musical instrument (even vocalists having benefited from the incredible advances in medical sciences) and perhaps a metronome or a tuner, it's almost shocking to realize how little exposure they have to the digital tools that can directly enhance their art. Unless they are composers working with programs like Finale or Sibelius, or are perhaps proactive in getting "behind the scenes" with recording techniques, what is being done to show our art music students the amazing benefits of today's technologies? Moving away from the physical limitations of music information (scores, pedagogy, and performance practices) and learning to study, think and create digitally?
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February 20, 07
Forgive me for playing classical Paparazzi, but i can't resist name dropping - especially when good friends are making such meteoric rises in the Classical Music world!
, one of the preeminent major composers of our time, stopped by my office yesterday to discuss some workarounds for her upcoming piano concerto, being premiered by pianist Lang Lang
in May, i believe. I've been proof reading the score since the summer, and it's been a blast to see the piece coming together - it sounds absolutely fantastic!
Later in the afternoon, i accompanied some Curtis students for a master class given by violinist superstar Hilary Hahn.
I can't think of a sweeter, more down-to-earth, yet harder working, artistically convincing violinist on the circuit today than Hilary - and her soft-spoken, yet insightful, precise and practical teaching style conveyed all her best personal qualities in the class.
Yes, our Curtis students are such a serious bunch...
...um...maybe i spoke too soon...
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February 19, 07
The Sung Ski Bunny Ninjas
The recent frigid blasts of arctic weather gave us the perfect excuse to make a trip out to Blue Mountain
for a wonderful day of skiing this past Saturday. We've been skiing now as a family for about 4 years, and it's hard to believe that up until this point we really haven't skied on anything other than machine-produced snow - we simply haven't been able to coordinate our schedules with natural weather conditions. Suffice to say, now we know what a huge difference real
snow makes for ski bunnies!! Full picture gallery from the ski trip here
While it's been fun to watch the kids learn to ski (even Timmy had a great time during his first ski lesson a few months ago), it's been a particular joy to see Kyungmi really take to the sport. I think the first two years were absolutely terrifying for her, as she had never really done any high speed (relatively speaking) activity like this before, but somehow she persevered (bullied by her nasty husband, i suppose...) - last year she finally came around to actually having a good time, and THIS year SHE was the one biting at the bit to get out to the mountains at the first opportunity! After feeling the soft natural snow trails, she rapturously confessed to being totally addicted to skiing, and now wants to set her sights on a trip to Colorado!
My own ski story started when i was about 14 or so - i took a ski trip with my local youth group on a particularly icy day. No lessons, just got the rental boots, skis and poles, and had to figure out how to get down pretty much on my own. The only reliable method for stopping was to fall flat on my butt. Needless to say, the day was a mixture of terror and delight - well, mostly terror, i suppose. Uncontrolled high speed descents are NOT fun! The last run i took went particularly fast...once again, i had to fall back on my butt to stop myself before i careened totally out of control...but this time, my left hand was extended to break my fall, and somehow i twisted my thumb pretty badly.
Nothing was broken, but there was clear pain from the twist at the base of the thumb. I was already a second year student at Curtis, so i really had no time to rest or to take a playing hiatus - foolish, i know, but miraculously i didn't sustain any permanent damage to the thumb. I resolved at that point never
to go skiing for the rest of my life.
Funny how 20 years can give you a new perspective on things! I guess longtime friends - and perhaps readers of this blog - have noticed how i tend to jump into new projects and hobbies serendipitously! My love of archery sprang completely out of the blue as a teenager - my obsession with learning to bake bread, then my woodworking mania...well, finding some free time during winter holidays and wanting to have a family activity drove me to think about skiing. That, and some wonderful conversations with a colleague at Curtis who was also a ski fanatic got me really excited about giving the sport another chance. Lessons, lessons, nothing but lessons for the first two years - and that made such a huge difference!
I'm not ready for the black diamonds yet...perhaps never will be...but what a wonderful way to spend time with the family!
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February 17, 07
A Failed Sale
The kind folks at the Piano World Forums
have been enthusiastically helping me to track down digital pianos with wooden keys in the Philadelphia area - specifically, the Kawai MP8
. None of the local Sam Ash or Guitar Center stores had the MP8 in stock, but one of the PWF posters suggested a store in Delaware that might carry them, as they were supposed to be Kawai dealers (a rarity in this area, for some reason...not that i'm particularly excited about Kawai's to begin with...) A quick call to ABC Piano Discounters
connected me to a sales person who confirmed that, while they didn't have the MP8, they had a similar model - the CA-X
- which was supposed to have the same AWA wooden key action (strangely, the direct link to the CA-X model has been removed from Kawai's USA website...)
One of my rehearsals got canceled on Friday, so i took the serendipitous opportunity to make a trip to the Concord Mall in Delaware to check out this fabled digital piano. Much to my disappointment, the only portable CA-X had just been sold the previous day and was packed away in its box for shipping. They did, however, have a stationary console version, so i had a chance to play around with that for a while. The action was rather nice - mushy, but still a bit better than the typical flimsy digital piano keyboard, so my interest was piqued. Sound quality coming from the speakers was pretty lousy, but i was counting on using external software piano samples eventually to make up for that deficit. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the instrument was capable of half pedal techniques, and even sported sympathetic string vibration capabilities. A "Technician" button made quick adjustments to characteristics like keystroke weight ("light" to "heavy"), voicing (dull to bright) and several others easy to operate. In fact, the simplicity of the GUI had me thinking that this could be an instrument i could enjoy working on - if only it were the portable version.
A bit of nagging the salesperson had him revealing that there was one more store i might want to try, but it was quite a hike away - at least another hour's drive south, in fact. He gave me the phone number to Keyboard America
, and i was soon on the next leg of my digital piano quest. Bad traffic snarled the beginning of the drive, making the trip closer to a 90 minutes...endless farmlands, isolated counties, long stretches of barren highway...and finally, the gawdy store sign appeared like a beacon to some bizarre Las Vegas shrine...
I had the expectancy of something wondrously goofy in this place, stuck in the middle of nowhere - was my cutting edge techno-musical dream instrument to be found in this one-of-a-kind store?
Well, opening the front door revealed a promising sight...
A one-of-a kind wonder organ with blinding lights was the showcase doorstop attraction -
- but even those pretty lights paled beside the glare of - i kid you not - the world's ugliest
piano, made by Pearl River:
A sign on the piano proclaimed that this was one of only 3 models made and shipped to the USA - to which i say, there are 3 models too many...
Well, the P.T. Barnum atmosphere really helped to get me excited over finding the digital pianos i had been searching for so obsessively. In fact, they happened to have both
the portable version of the CA-X and the MP8. The CA-X is the upper keyboard pictured here:
...and the MP8 is pictured here above the silver Casio keyboard:
Hanging off the wall at an angle made it a little difficult to get a good feel for the instruments, but overall the "famed" wooden key action did actually feel quite nice, though not the earth-shattering glory experience i was hoping for. Better than the average digital keyboard, for sure, but still too marshmallow-y. I found myself leaning towards the MP8's action, as it felt a bit heavier and more solid than the CA-X. I really liked the CA-X's cherry wood finish over the flat black of the MP8, though...then i asked the salesperson if i could have the damper pedals attached to test the sustain capabilities.
Unfortunately, the damper only operated like an on-off switch - no half-pedal, continuous damper capabilities. When i explained to the salespeople what i was looking for in the damper action, they stared at me like i was trying to describe martians landing in their parking lot. They called one of the regional Kawai representatives and found out that both models did in fact have the half-pedal capabilities, but only with a specific dual pedal unit (which they didn't have in stock).
Then i tried seeing if the models had sympathetic vibration capabilities (where you hold keys down silently in one hand, hit the same notes with the other hand any octave lower, and the depressed keys will quietly resonate from the physics of the overtone series - yes, this time they looked at me like i was a Vulcan making first contact with earthlings...) Neither appeared to be able to do this at first; then i asked to take a look at the manuals, and after some scouring was able to determine that the MP8 could have that capability turned on. The CA-X could not.
I should mention at this time, that while i was having a lot of fun with these advanced capabilities and the feel of the wooden key action, i was NOT impressed with the sound quality. Both instruments sounded tinny and thin, even through my headphones (i brought them with me - a good suggestion from a PWF poster) - much like an acoustic Kawai, i suppose; not
a good instrument to be modeling your sound after in the first place...
By this time, i think the sales people were getting really annoyed at all my fussing and nit picking of the instruments. I asked how much the instruments were going for - the CA-X was priced at $1700, while the MP8 was $2300. Yeow! I saw the MP8 model being sold online for only $1999...quite a jack up! What was their return policy?
None. No returns allowed. The main salesperson argued that they couldn't sell the unit "as new" if it was sold and used.
That got me very, very dubious. Nevertheless, i found myself quite attracted to the MP8 - i really liked the cabinet look of the CA-X, but i hated it's GUI interface with the diode "light-runes", and really wanted the sympathetic vibration capabilities of the MP8. I was just about to pull out my credit card to make the purchase when i made a final inspection of the instrument - only to find that one of the keys was sticking up, and the front finish of the instrument was nicked in several places. Surely this was just a demo model, and they'd have a nice clean shiny instrument all boxed up and ready to carry away in back, right?
was the model i would be buying.
With the misaligned key and the damaged surface? What was all that about being able to sell something "as new"? I was not
a happy camper at the defective look of what i was about to plop my money into, and asked if there was something he could do about the price given these problems.
At this point, the sales person made a fatal mistake.
"You concert artists think you can just come in here and get what you want for nothing!!" he started railing. "What defects? There aren't any defects!! I already told you that you can get that key fixed! You can get it shipped to Kawai or send it to a shop! I'm already offering this as a discount - look how much it retails for originally! Asking for all these details that no one cares about, me spending all this time calling up reps and getting information for you!"
You know, if he had nicely explained that the price was firm and that they couldn't afford to go any lower, i would've been a moderately happy owner of a slightly defective MP8 and he would've been $2300 further in the black on his inventory spreadsheet. But with that heated response, i stared at him for a moment, stiffly bowed in that icy, Korean manner that severs relationships, and said, "i think the atmosphere in here has become quite unfriendly."
With that, i left.
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February 16, 07
Time Zone Updates for Windows Mobile Users
A radio piece on KYW-1060 this morning got my attention, focusing on the issue of new legislation changing when daylight savings time occurs. This requires a software upgrade for most (if not all) computer users - Microsoft apparently issued an automatic update for their Windows OS (operating systems) on Tuesday, Apple followed suit a day later.
One system that DOESN'T get automatically updated is the Windows Mobile system for things like PDA's and Smartphones. You'll need to manually install the software update and follow the instructions on Microsoft's "Windows Mobile Updates for Daylight Savings Time"
- do it NOW before you walk into your next rehearsal at an embarrassingly inappropriate time...
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The Yamaha Clavinova CVP-309GP
My new obsession with digital pianos had me visiting Jacobs Music
, right around the corner from Curtis. I didn't expect them to have the portable digital pianos i was looking for, but i thought they might have some models with some sort of wooden key action for me to try out. Turns out, they had the Yamaha Clavinova CVP-309GP
prominently on display that had exactly that, a "Natural Wood" keyboard, along with more bells and whistles than you could shake a stick at! I honestly have to say i was really, really impressed with the touch of the piano - the only thing missing was the feel of the escapement "click", which is actually (as one Piano World forum poster put it) a deficiency
in the 'real' acoustic piano's key action design, something that folks have been trying
to eliminate. Funny how an instrument's idiosyncracies can be something something that actually creates a closer bond to the artist (woodwind reeds, violin bowhairs, etc.) - i guess we need a love/hate relationship with our artistic tools to feel like we've overcome enough to create something worthwhile...
Anyway, back to the CVP-309GP - the instrument features sympathetic vibrations (holding down keys silently, playing the same notes any octave lower, and the silent keys will "sound" softly, mimicking the physics of an acoustic piano) to a point. One effect i found strangely missing was one where you put the damper pedal all the way down in an acoustic piano to open the full resonance of the instrument - play a chord, hear the wonderful "echo" from the piano, then release the damper to deaden the resonance. Well, i guess that's being a little over
obsessive...can't have everything (yet), but boy, these high end digital pianos are coming frighteningly close! Oh, and get this: there's some feature built into the front speaker set where microphones are set to capture the ambiance of the room and reflect overtone and resonance effects!
Yamaha has also put quite a lot of work into a new type of internet connectivity with their high end digital pianos - i haven't really read up on all of this yet, but apparently you can download music, have 'virtual lessons' (inter-instrument connectivity), a bevy of other features i'm sure, all with either a wired or wireless connection.
Two things hold me back from snatching one of these instruments up right away: the $10,000 price tag and the fact that this is a large, stationary instrument, not really meant for transport. If i were looking to replace my home Steinway, i would be giving this digital piano a very, very serious look...
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February 15, 07
One little switch makes a mighty difference...
I think i now know why the Roland RD-700SX digital piano didn't demonstrate the half-pedal technique i was looking for in one store (Sam Ash) and properly demonstrated it in the other (Guitar Center). Once i finished setting up the piano at home, hooking it up to my power pre-amp and Yamaha NS-10M Near-field studio monitors, i was finding that the smooth half-pedal capabilities were missing, forcing me to take a closer look at the damper pedal:
The top of the switch says "Continuous", the bottom says "Switch". Apparently, default setting is "Switch" - meaning, that the damper effect is applied all or none instantly at a certain trigger point. "Continuous" allows the half-pedal, smooth damper effect application (if your Digital piano supports this feature - seems like a lot of Yamaha digital pianos do, but not many others - i could be wrong...). i remember spending a LOT of time talking about the "scooping" pedal technique during my masterclass at ASU
- it's really a very effective way to make the piano sound organic, as you can directly control the amount of decay from a sustained sound.
I also installed the "Complete Piano" sound module expansion into the digital piano - turns out the original price was $279, so the $100 was really a steal. The sampled sounds are adequate, but not terribly thrilling - >shrug< i guess i'm getting what i paid for. Someday, i'd love to save up for a Muse Receptor
loaded with Synthogy's Ivory piano samples
...now THAT sounds like the ideal expansion for my Roland!
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February 14, 07
Concert Pianist needs Digital Piano!
One major downside to being a pianist lies in the fact that you are subject to conditions beyond your control when it comes to your instrument. By that i mean, more often than not (sadly) the pianos you're presented with in the concert hall range from disappointing to...well...think kindling and firewood, folks. As the Visual Recital
concept develops, it's clear that i'm going to have to think about playing in venues where terrible pianos are actually the norm. Rather than subject myself to miserable conditions and put up with sub par presentations, i've opted to go the digital piano route.
The last digital keyboard i bought was the Roland A-30 MIDI controller - a small, 66-key instrument with no built-in sounds. It was meant to be the interface for writing music into the computer. A separate Korg X5DR synthesizer module provided sounds for the times i needed to create audio tracks via my MIDI sequencer, Sonar. The A-30 was never meant for live performance and is continuing to age gracefully in my basement office.
Having never seriously considered a digital keyboard for live performance before, i was curious to see what the current technologies offered. I saw that Eric Haeker, founder of Arts in Motion
, had a Kurzweil PC-88 keyboard in his studio when i stopped by AiM for a visit the other day - he seemed to be really happy with the way that instrument feels. I asked him for what models he recommended, but he suggested instead that i do some research and try out instruments myself (always good advice no matter what instrument you plan to purchase).
Posting news about my anniversary video gave me a good excuse to jump back into the Piano Forums at Piano World
, a wonderful community i had been sadly neglecting for several months due to my crazy workload. They have a section in the forum dedicated to digital pianos, so that's where i posted the teaser topic: "Concert Pianist needs Digital Piano!"
Sure enough, the community was quickly showering me with some fantastic recommendations based on my wish list, which included the following:
Key action as close to an acoustic grand piano as possible
Capability for advance damper pedal techniques (ie, quarter and half pedals - being able to control the amount of sound dampening)
Sustain and Una Corda pedal capabilities
After reading through the myriad recommendations, i felt like i had a reasonable idea of what to look for and headed out to the local Sam Ash store yesterday afternoon to check out their wares. I was really interested in the Kawai MP8,
which has actual wooden key action and even sympathetic vibration capabilities! Sadly, this wasn't in stock at Sam Ash, so i was relegated to trying out the 'regular' digital pianos.
Banging through "Pictures at an Exhibition" and several works of Chopin and Debussy had the salesperson almost apologetic - he explained that they seldom get people who are so picky about the physical action of the digital pianos, so they don't really stock those types of instruments. I should note that i was looking for a stage piano, one that i could transport with relative ease, as opposed to the cabinet digital pianos that are really meant to stay put in one location. One Piano World forum contributer suggested i take a look at the Yamaha CP300, which features built-in speakers. I liked the quality of the piano audio samples, but the poor speakers really couldn't handle "The Great Gate of Kiev" - when i started pounding out those delicious octaves, the speakers were crackling badly at only half volume...that and the fact that the keys felt so flimsy ("like a toy piano") really turned me off to that model.
I took a look at the Roland RD700SX, and it did
have a nicer keyboard action - but one thing that struck me about the Yamaha digital pianos is that they seemed to feature the advanced damper pedal effects. I couldn't get that effect out of the Roland for some reason, so i initially passed on that instrument, wishing that i could combine the sound control capabilities of the Yamaha with the keyboard action/feel of the Roland.
Having picked that store dry, i walked down the side of the mall strip to Guitar Center, not really expecting to find a significant stock of digital pianos - and then, to my surprise, finding that they were extensively
stocked! I explained what i was looking for to Tom, my patient and knowledgeable salesperson, and he guided me to the Roland RD700SX - yes, the same model i had just seen at Sam Ash. Well, i sat down for another go at it...and then, surprise surprise, i found i was getting the damper effects i was looking for! Quarter pedal, half pedal, the ability to slowly scoop the sound and taper it with my foot - this was quite exciting! I turned to another salesperson and asked if the half-damper pedal capability was included with the RD700SX. He insisted it wasn't
Tried several more models, kept coming back to the RD700SX (yes, Guitar Center sadly did not have the Kawai MP8 in stock either...sigh...) Despite the other salesperson's insistence, i was certain the advance pedal techniques were present. He called the regional Roland rep and was told that the feature was NOT there - then went online, read the inside of the RD700SX manual...and then
found that, in fact, it was
capable of the effect! Oddly, the feature was only present in that model, and not in a higher-end model that goes for much more money...so here's to a good pair of ears and a sensitive foot!
Here's the new RD700SX at home:
I need to finish hooking it up and playing around with it for a bit before i can write an extensive review. I also managed to get an expansion module - "Ultimate Pianos" (LOL) - for only $100, a drop from its $250+ normal price, so i'll want to check out how that sounds as well.
Much more to write on this exciting new development, but i'll leave you with some pictures of my new piano's carry case by Gig Skinz, which features some nifty rollerblade-style wheels for easy transport and a nice, faux-velvet interior:
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February 12, 07
February 09, 07
February 07, 07
Lights...Camera...the Big Screen!
After much finger-crossing and extra help from Paul, Kyungmi and the folks at Darlington Arts Center
, the big 9' x 7' pvc/muslin rear-projection screen came up - and turned out pretty well, considering no heavy objects came crashing down on anyone's head!
Although my digital camera wasn't able to compensate for all the back lighting, you can see in this picture that the rear projection screen design allows me to stand right in front of the image without casting any distorting shadows. Next time, if space allows, i may have the piano situated more directly in front of the image for a more "encompassing" effect.
I'm going to post a gallery of pictures
of the pvc pipe frame assembly - although it was designed for one-man assembly, having extra help DEFINITELY makes it MUCH easier to put together.
Paul's really grown, hasn't he? Almost as tall as his dad now - and such a great helper!!
In the end, i went with a large piece of muslin cloth instead of the 6 mil opaque white painter's tarp for the screen material. The painter's tarp just had too many creases and folds that didn't look like they were going away anytime soon. At least with the muslin, you could stretch out some of the wrinkles somewhat for a smoother projection surface. Get this - a 10' by 8' piece of muslin cost only about $20!
The black painter's tarp was the most difficult piece to put up - i should note, the pvc frame actually consisted of 3 components: the main frame, a second tarp support frame, and a small projector frame to drape the black tarp over so that there was no material to get in the way of the light path. I'll sketch out the components when i have a chance so that you can see how it all comes together.
Next post will be a video clip from the performance demonstrating the larger screen and the extra horsepower that my new Gateway M285-E Tablet PC "Zoe" cranks out for lots of great graphic speed!
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February 06, 07
A Day of Shiny Arrivals
About a week and a half ago, Paul's Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC was making the one sound every experienced computer dreads above all others: crrrruuuunnnnch. The sound of a dead hard drive.
Or at least, i thought so at the moment - absolutely nothing was coming up on the screen, not even so much as a boot up menu. This was bad, really really bad, i thought. I gave a call to a local Data Recovery service and was quoted $100 just to look at the drive, and a possible recovery fee of up to $2500...yikes! I mean, Paul's schoolwork is valuable
Fortunately, i had the foresight to purchase 2 identical TC1100's. Hoping beyond hope, i swapped out the hard drive from Paul's machine and plugged it into the 2nd tablet pc...amazingly, the computer spun to life as if nothing was wrong! It looks like the defective unit's lcd backlight is broken, as i can actually - barely - make out the boot screens when i turn the unit on. That puppy will have to visit a repair shop soon, but in the meantime, i was down one tablet pc. I had been using the backup TC1100 as my graphics visualizer for the Visual Recital. So what to do?
What else? Buy a new computer! Woo hoo!
Initially, i started looking at compact Tablet PC's like the Fujitsu P1610 or the LE1600 from Motion Computing...but then a friend of mine got me thinking bigger and faster. Way faster. Makes perfect sense, since the graphics are by far the most processor intensive component of the Visual Recital
- i was just reluctant to think about carrying around a 6 lb+ brick of a laptop, after so many years of 3 lb svelte slate tablet pc goodness...
A quick search on eBay turned up the most amazing find: a Gateway M285-E Tablet PC with 15" widescreen lcd display, 80 gig hard drive, DVD rewritable drive, and - get this - 2.0 gHz Intel Core 2 CPU and 2 gig of RAM
- all for the stunning 'buy it now' price of $1,039!!
Truly a once-in-a-lifetime price for a one-of-a-kind Tablet PC powerhouse!
The Gateway (affectionately named "Zoe
") arrived after only a 4-day transit - and here she is!
Tons of ports and ways to put info into the machine, including an SD card slot (i suspect it actually can accommodate several types of cards, but i'll have to test that later when i get a chance), Bluetooth, Wifi with all the latest letter protocols, and oh did i mention that sweet DVD RW drive?
Yes, Zoe is heavy
- easily topping 6 pounds - but as long as i don't try to carry her around in the crook of my arm, i'll be a happy camper relegating her to graphic-churning duties. And, boy, what a huge difference a processor makes with happy gobs of RAM! This baby is FAST!!
As if all the shiny things decided to converge in one day, our new front door also arrived from Power Windows and Siding
- an expensive company, but they do a good job with carrying quality products and fast/reliable installations. Good service, but boy do you pay for it...sigh...
The installers wouldn't touch my Kwikset Powerbolt 1000
Keypad lock, so i had to re-install it myself. All in all, shiny goodness converging in a single day makes for a very happy camper!
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February 05, 07
Master class of the future at Darlington Arts Center
I'm backtracking a bit - quite a lot of blogging fell by the wayside as i prepared for the Visual Recital at Darlington Arts Center
this past Saturday, so blame the pvc pipe gremlins...
Last week i had the pleasure of giving a master class for four piano students at Darlington. Master classes have the odious reputation for being little more than private lessons displayed in public, so i always try to keep the audience in mind when doing these. In a similar fashion to sommeliers presenting a wine-tasting class or a good chef describing the fine points of a particular dish, i think master classes should be opportunities not only for the participating student to get some improvement tips, but more importantly for everyone attending to develop a finer appreciation for what makes great art music so enjoyable.
Along with the requisite goofy facial expressions, i used my Tablet PC
and projector to display the score for everyone to follow along with my digital ink annotations. A point of tech courtesy i picked up from teaching a master class at the Masterworks Festival
over the summer: one student vehemently objected to my displaying the score while she played, complaining that she didn't want everyone to follow along and see what mistakes she made - particularly if they were going to see me circling wrong notes and the like! Although i was a little miffed at the time, i really think she had a valid point. Nowadays, I keep the display turned off during the initial performance, then turn it back on only when i'm ready to present my ideas.
One fun feature i used was the zoom capabilities to highlight a few select measures at a time. The older audience members sitting in the back of the room really appreciated being able to see the score so clearly that way!
Another feature i used was a second tablet pc recording the audio of the class via my Samson C01U USB microphone
. Most master classes are presented with no follow up or feedback, giving the student little to reflect on other than whatever handwritten notes may (or may not) have been scribbled onto their score at the time. I try to present an mp3 audio file of the session for each student, along with an annotated copy of the score showing what i marked up for them. If i had more time, i would offer bookmarked mp3's, where the track numbers would correspond to number labels in the score for quick access to various spots discussed in the music (not this time, unfortunately, but hopefully in a future master class i'll be able to offer that feature...)
I try to stay away from discussing pedantic pedagogical details with the student in these settings and instead try to focus on issues that any audience member can learn to discern. For example, one fun activity involves me demonstrating a passage two different ways and asking the student - and everyone else - if they can hear the difference, and to describe what that difference is. Much like tasting two glasses of wine side by side, hearing how one phrase presents itself and returns, evoking a color change, can be a revealing experience on multiples levels for both student and listener alike. Sharpening the ears to distinguish various types of articulation, hearing the effect a particular fingering can have to make a passage even more effective - the fun really is in the listening and comparing, getting the student and the audience to articulate in their own words what they are hearing. Once they hear the possibilities, then most times they in turn can immediately incorporate that into their own playing.
Many thanks to Darlington Arts Center, the participating pianists, and the wonderful audience! Anyone asleep yet?
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February 03, 07
Visual Recital at the Darlington Arts Center Tonight
Hope to see lots of you at tonight's concert! Wish me luck on putting that PVC screen together...
Featuring works by
Charles B. Griffin
Location: The Darlington Arts Center
977 Shavertown Road
Boothwyn, PA 19061
Click the above picture for a 10' x 14' TIFF poster file.
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February 01, 07
Arts In Motion + Box Five
Arts in Motion is much more than just a music group that experiments with live music visualizations - in addition to their educational outreach mainstays, they are also committed to presenting cutting edge classical/pop fusions, such as the one that will be featured this Friday at the Art Museum - check them out!
What if Mozart wrote pop music?
Join Arts in Motion artist Mary Bichner, her band Box Five, and the Arts in Motion String Quartet for a very special evening of classical-pop fusion ("Classipop"). Hear Mary’s original compositions performed alongside the traditional sounds of Mozart, Chopin, and more! This stunning display of musical virtuosity takes place in the Great Stair Hall, as part of the museum's Art After 5 series.
When: Friday, Feb 2nd (Doors at 5:00 PM)
Where: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 19130
Cost: $12 (includes museum admission)
http://www.artsinmotion.org and http://www.boxfive.org for more info.
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