Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Musical Household

I originally wrote this on February 4, 2012, while visiting my dad's home in Oregon. We're back there now and I'm reminiscing and copying notes I wrote back then on Facebook here to my blog. The last time I was here, the muse was really in me and and wrote, and wrote, and wrote. This time, not so much muse, so I'll just copy, copy, copy.

Visits to my dad’s always involve chores and a to-do list. I’m his technical support for computer, home entertainment, and even home decorating questions. The last one should give some idea how desperate he is.

This time we made some major changes to his home entertainment center. He had purchased a new, 43” TV for his family room. So we took the 32” flatscreen out of the family room and put it in the bedroom. Then we took the 25” TV out of the bedroom and replaced his current computer monitor. So every workstation and entertainment system got an upgrade.

The new TV uses HDMI inputs and my dad likes to play the TV through his surround system. Long story short, we decided to upgrade the sound system too and purchased a new A/V receiver. We bought a Pioneer system that has four HDMI inputs and Dolby 5.1 sound. His old system was a surround system too, and involved a DVD recorder and two VHS tape decks. Over the years he copied all his old VHS tapes of various singing groups to DVD. So we’re simplifying his configuration and I’m actually rewiring the whole system.

When we’re done he’ll have a dual well VHS / DVD player / recorder, a CD players, and an old cassette player. He also likes to listen to both the sports programs on AM radio and music and news on FM. So it is a very nice multi-function system with more remote controls than people have hands and feet.

I’ll be writing up technical procedures for how to copy a program off the DVR and onto DVD so he can share with his friends. The daughter of one of my dad’s good friends has a home improvement show on the local Portland TV station that my dad records and makes copies of for her.

After a trip to Home Depot, BiMart, and Radio Shack I had a new collection of wire, cables, and plugs, and I just finished soldering banana plugs for the new speaker connections. It has been a while since I had a soldering iron in my hands, and it was fun. I love the smell of the rosin flux in the morning. Since I was a technician long before I graduated from college and became an engineer, I’ve always been proud of my mechanical skills with soldering iron and diagonal cutters.

When I’m done his dolby 5.1 system will be humming … no, don’t want hum … it’ll be singing.

In preparation, I needed to move his cabinet away from the wall. There were some cables not being used any more, and I wanted to start all over fresh. In order to move the cabinet, I cleaned out the bottom which was full of records. The records were a flash from the past.

Both of my parents were very musical and our home was filled with music when I was growing up. I mean it, our house was literally filled with music. From when we got up until we went to bed, there were always records playing. We had no TV and so all we did in the evening was listen to music and read. These records I found were a big part of it.

Let me describe how it was. My mother was a classically trained pianist and organist. I grew up in a home with two pianos. One was an upright player piano — I could play that one. :-) The other was a Steinway grand piano. Apparently my grandparents bought a house that contained the piano. and that’s how we got it.

My mom had played those big church pipe organs and really wanted an organ. We even got a device that fit over the Steinway keyboard and, when you pressed a piano key, a little pin went down and triggered an organ sound out of a speaker in the Organo box — I think it was called an “Organo.” But what my mom really wanted was a Hammond Organ. Unfortunately, they were very expensive in those days.

My dad eventually traded in the Steinway and bought my mom a brand new Hammond M-101. Not a B-3, but pretty nice. I know it cost over a thousand dollars, even with the trade in. Remember, in 1959, a thousand dollars would buy a new car!

My dad was also a musician. He was part of a gospel quartet in high school, and he played the accordion. Some of you readers may know of Jake Hess who sang with the Gaithers. Both my dad and Jake were from Haleyville, Alabama, and they were friends, although my dad says he never performed with Jake.

My dad was and still is a great singer, and I remember going to concerts where he sang. I especially recall him singing the Handel’s Messiah at the local church. I think he could sing every part from baritone to high tenor. Mark has inherited a lot of the wide range of voice my dad had, although even Mark can’t hit as low of notes as dad.

But here is the difference between my mom and dad: my mom read music and that was how she played; my dad played by ear. Still I remember some great duets by the two of them. Later, after I had moved away, they had both a big Baldwin Organ and a Story and Clark concert grand piano. (Dad still has the piano.) They would play together and my dad would sing. It was great.

My mom was a big, big opera fan. Her favorite was La Boheme. Once my dad purchased tickets for her to fly from Montana to New York City to attend the Metropolitan Opera. He didn’t go with her because he had to stay behind and run the grocery store, but my mom traveled all the way to NY to see the great opera she loved.

In the record collection I removed from the cabinet I found a bunch of Time-Life Records called “The Story of Great Music.” Each album contains four long play records and the titles include:

“The Baroque Era” — Bach, Corelli, Couperin, Handel, Purcell, Rameau, Scarlatti, Telemann, and Vivaldi.

“The Age of Elegance” — Beethoven, Boccherini, Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart.

“Age of Revolution” — Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Weber.

“The Romantic Era” — Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Verdi.

“The Opulent Era” — Brahms, Bruckner, Offenbach, Saint-Saens, Johann Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner.

“Slavic Traditions” — Balakirev, Borodin, Dvorak, Glinka, Janacek, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Smetana.

“Prelude to Modern Music” — Debussy, Mahler, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Richard Strauss.

“The Early Twentieth Century” — Bartok, Berg, Gershwin, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, and Webern.

“The Music of Today” — Babbitt, Bernstein, Boulez, Britten, Copland, Hindemith, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, and Walton.

These record albums, continually played on our “hi-fi” record player in the living room, and our 1959 set of World Book Encyclopedias were my classical education. I remember so many nights laying on the living room rug, listening to the symphonies, and just reading articles in the encyclopedia. Man — what a nerd!

(And I made my own chip dip. I mixed Miracle Whip dressing, pickle relish, and cottage cheese and ate it with Frito chips. If that doesn’t certify my nerdness, then I don’t know what does.)

I started piano lessons when I was in fifth grade. I also played a couple of years in band, the clarinet — really wanted to play the saxophone, but this guy at the “Golden Montana” where we rented my instrument, told my parents it was best to start with the clarinet and switch to the saxophone later.

Like the advice given to Leo Kottke’s school band teacher when he told him he had gotten a guitar and was really enjoying it. His teacher replied, “OK, but remember, your future is in the trombone.” I spent several years in piano and organ lessons until the magic day I suddenly realized that I could play a popular song. The first rock song I played on the keyboard was “Road Runner,” a simple twelve bar blues instrumental lead by the — wait for it — saxophone!

So that was the musical home I grew up in. It all came flooding back when I unloaded those records along with tons of opera like Madam Butterfly, Carman, and La Boheme. My dad has a turntable, maybe it’s time to lay back down on the living room floor and test out the new sound system. The encyclopedias are here too. Now if I can reproduce the chip dip recipe, it will be a complete retro event.

Quite a jump from mono hi-fi to 5.1 surround sound, but then the records are just mono anyway. Just a couple more banana plugs to solder on the speaker wires and I’ll be ready.


  1. Well at least everyone got an upgrade out of it, even if it was sort of a hand-me-down from the other rooms. The piano looks amazing! Do they still play it these days? While a 5.1 surround sound is nice, nothing can beat the keys of a piano played by an actual musical genius. :)

    Angel Garcia

    1. Angel,

      Sadly my mother passed away about six years ago from Alzheimer's. Due to the long illness, it's been over twelve years since I heard her play. They sold the last organ when they moved to Oregon in the 80's. I don't think my dad has played his accordion since about that time.

      My dad is now 88 and can still sing very well, but he no longer plays.

      Mom wasn't a genius, but she was darn good and I miss hearing her play.