Hearing piano practice

Hearing piano being practiced upon is a welcoming sound when one is a stranger in a big city.

In the distance, I can hear someone practising piano. Last night, until about 9:30 PM, it was harmonic minor scales. Maybe it’s a music school. How can someone practice at all hours in a day?

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Piano playing in Taipei, Taiwan

What a joy it was to meet up with my old friend Tina, whom I’ve known since my teenage years. The way we met was in class in the Hakka town of Miao Li Gong Guan. She was accompanying choir – and I noticed she played a wrong note on the piano.

To discover after a lifetime of wedded bliss, motherhood, career, …. she still plays the piano — that’s the joy!

I grew up in a neighborhood where our fathers were colleagues, our mothers volunteered for community activities, and we kids went to school together. We were competitive, and we all learned to play the piano. Every other year, we’d “return” to our native lands (Taiwan, Korea, etc) on “home leave.” Some industrious parents (like mine) would put us through school so we’d progress in our own languages. That’s how I met Tina.

How many of us still play the piano? Few.

My entire family learned to play the piano. First my father — in college — he learned to play the black keys. He bought a new Yamaha upright (a console) in Okinawa. My mother, my 6-year old sister, and I started piano lessons from a Japanese neighbor, the wife of one of my father’s colleagues. Eventually when my brother became of age, he started lessons, too.

As I listened to Tina sightread the Chinese equivalent of “fake book,” that is, jian pu (simplified Chinese music notation) as right hand melody and accompaniment in Western chords, I thought of all the years that had gone by. Suddenly I felt a shake. The ground beneath me trembled on the morning of Wednesday 27th March.

I stopped her. “What is it?” I asked.

Tina stopped playing abruptly.

The IKEA loft bed above the covered upright piano was shaking from side to side.

“It’s an earthquake,” she replied and went back to playing the same piece.

Barely a week has gone by since she came to pick me up at the airport. Today she waited for me at the same airport with presents.

I wish there was more time to play music — we have not even managed a duet together — ever.

“Come visit me,” I said. “You’ve missed out on all those great places I’ve lived.”

A future blog: jian pu — simplified Chinese music notation

What money cannot buy in Taiwan

Even with the positive effects of globalization, it’s still not possible to get what you want where you are. Sometimes you have to travel elsewhere to be able to choose what you want at a better price than you can get where you live.

In Taiwan, it’s possible to eat very well for less than what it costs to buy a cup of coffee in the USA.

For lunch, we three ordered 4 dishes from an authentic Szechuan restaurant: tofu, greens, clam soup, and 3 bowls of Szechuan wontons (chao shou). The meal came with unlimited self-service white rice and sweet black jelly drink (xian cao, or hsian tsao, or translated literally, fairy grass). The bill was US $12.00.

In the early afternoon, I got a haircut for US $3.50 — just the cut, no shampoo or blow dry.

Later I ordered a small bowl of wonton noodle soup for about US $1.50 from an outdoor, roadside stall (hawker). It was so filling that I barely had room for papaya, pineapple, salt-water goose leg, steamed bamboo leaf parcel, and other small dishes (xiao cai; hsiao tsai) afterwards.

Yet, at the same time, an iPhone 4S costs about US $663 outright. SIM unlocked. It’s better to get such gadgets in the USA. Accessories, such as iPad and iPhone covers, on the other hand, are quite inexpensive and varied. I bought a nice iPhone 5 cover for a mere US$10 at a convenience store in Taipei.

The 2.5 hour coach ride from Taipei to Taichung cost me US $6.00 —- quite hard to believe.

My nondescript hotel in Taichung has all the amenities I need for the week: wireless Internet, shower, TV (though I don’t need this), clean bed & daily change of sheets and towels, shower, toilet, two mirrors. I can get boiling hot water or cold water from a dispenser in the hallway. It’s a 5 minute walk from my father’s home. How much? Less than US$ 25 per night.

The walk to my father’s home meanders through a shopper’s paradise of colorful assortment of shoes, clothes for all seasons, and other material goods. Sales range from 10% to 90% off. Everything is primed for “shop till you drop.”

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold for someone who is not here to shop but to maximize the experience of one precious week for another year or more before I see my father again.

A holiday away from paradise

Where do you go on holiday if you already live in paradise?

Most people, I daresay, imagine going on holiday as going somewhere to escape the daily routine, somewhere very different from their usual existence.

You can conjure up an image of sipping on an exotic cocktail at sunset in some mosquito-free tropical paradise. Or going on a ski holiday in the Swiss alps. Or a yoga holiday in the Himalayas.

A holiday is a place away from the hustle-bustle, far from the madding crowd.

When you work in a place as beautiful, clean, and uncrowded as the island of Maui, which has been voted the top traveller’s choice for 16 consecutive years by Conde Nast readers, it’s hard to imagine going anywhere for a holiday. Anywhere else would be “suboptimal” so to speak.

Where would I go on holiday if everyday is a holiday?

As I write, I am in an non-descript hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, on holiday. For the past 3 hours, I have been sitting on my single bed, reading articles on my iPad and listening to the heavy drops of rain and downpour.

Never mind the noise pollution, air pollution, and visual pollution (i.e. clutter). Urban traffic prevents a straight path on the sidewalk from the hotel to my destination.

But I am as happy as I can be.

Just yesterday, my friend in Taipei introduced me to the best eateries in her neighborhood. I was sad I couldn’t stay longer to sample them all. Before I left, we took photos of piano sheet music she’s collected over the years. [Bookmark this for a future blog post!]

In Taichung, the sunset market carried my favorite Chinese delicacies: pickled boneless chicken feet, pickled fish skin, green seaweed, steamed Shanghainese dumplings, home-made soya milk, and pearl bubble milk tea. Tomorrow we will feast on stir-fried eel. I count the number of meals I have left and hope I have enough time to digest each one before the next and that I won’t waste a meal opportunity on a bad choice.

It’s the contrast that we want between work and holiday. It’s also getting a distance from work to reflect upon life in a different environment, one in which you’re a temporary visitor.

Two year anniversary of Concert Blog today!

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo’s concertblog on wordpress.com began 2 years ago. Time to categorise the topics.

Hard to believe that it has been exactly 2 years since we launched the Concert Blog on WordPress.com to document our adventures and discoveries in music. Since our first blog on 24th March 2009, we have evolved from writing about our duo to reviewing concerts and sharing insights into cultural economics of concertizing.

The two-year journey has taken us from the Netherlands to England, Crete, Belgium, Spain, Finland, Denmark, Italy, France, Taiwan, and the USA. In addition to the musicians and composers who have actively contributed to our concertizing and exploration in the world of live and recorded music, we have worked with artists, photographers, film makers, and other interesting people from all walks of life to make concerts happen. What we learned, we shared. We are grateful to all the feedback from readers and audiences everywhere.

It is now time to categorise the different topics and make it easier for readers to access from our Blog Page.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo in Wailea, March 2011. Photo: Dennis O'Keefe
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo in Wailea, 16 March 2011. Photo: Dennis O'Keefe

Time to celebrate! But Robert flies to Phoenix tonight and Anne to San Francisco in mid-May.

2010: a year in reflection

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo traveled and performed in three continents: Europe, Asia, and North America in 2010. Among the highlights were house concerts, concerts in churches, collaboration with other artists, and showing others how to produce concerts.

As the last blog post in 2010, we would like to thank all readers for reading, referring, commenting, and supporting this blog. 2010 has been an incredible year for our piano guitar duo. We have never traveled as extensively in any year as this one. We have never collaborated with so many people as this year. We have never had such a variety of gigs.

Monument House in Utrecht, Netherlands
Monument House in Utrecht, Netherlands

We began the year in the Netherlands with our usual concerts.

In February, we made a weekend trip to Belgium to open a new exhibition with a selection of solo, duo, and improvisation in beautiful historic Brugge. It was one of several collaborations with other artists.

In April, we made a whirlwind tour of Taiwan, introducing ourselves to the Taipei Rotary Club and a string quartet in Taipei.

From January to April, we coached new house concert hosts on how to produce concerts from their homes, culminating in our debut of the 30-minute long Grand Potpourri National to open a new concert series and the release of our first CD Summer in the home of an artist.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo CD Summer
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo CD Summer

In May, we organised our biggest house concert yet: a dozen musicians in 4 different concerts in one day! The Glass Vase Concert was free entry with cover art commissioned for auction. The bonus was the chef-catered Egyptian dinner for 50 people, who queued for seconds.

All the insights from our experience of producing house concerts and interviews with others were presented in a paper to economists at an international conference in Copenhagen in June.

Besides performing as a duo, we also worked with other musicians such as French horn player Emile Kaper and American cellist Stephanie Hunt. We found that piano and guitar worked well with other instruments and the audiences love the idea. We programmed one house concert in Amsterdam with our duo, Robert’s solo guitar of Bach Chaconne, piano and cello, and finally piano, guitar, and cello.

In September, we traveled to Zeeland in the southwest coast of the Netherlands to give 5 concerts in 3 days. It was a busy month, made busier by our reluctance to cancel any concerts including those that took us by surprise and decided upon last minute (impromptu).

The highlight of the year was undoubtedly the coast-to-coast America Tour, from Boston to Sacramento in 5.5 weeks. We thank our hosts, guests, and everyone who made this tour happen. We had no idea it would be so empowering and fantastic.

What next? Who knows? We bought ourselves one way tickets to paradise and started a new blog to lure our friends to come visit us. We look forward to seeing our friends from Davis, Houston, Seattle, and Nebraska in the first few months of 2011.

Hope you have enjoyed these blog posts. 2011 promises to be an entirely different year.



Piano and guitar in the Monument House Utrecht, Netherlands
Piano and guitar in the Monument House Utrecht, Netherlands

Holiday greetings: by skype

Skype chats or skyping allows a two-way conversation online, for free, and the chance to catch up during the holidays.

The friend, who told me about skype as early as its beta version release, has also given me great advice about other things. Little did I know how essential this “typing in the sky” has become, especially nowadays on the portable iphone.

Skype is one of those must-haves if you’re traveling a lot. It’s a free application that is more versatile and powerful than MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and other online chats (including Facebook chat). It’s also possible to see each other via a Webcam and also talk to each other via microphone and headphones.

Our first concert on this tour was confirmed on skype. The producer of the North Meadow House Concert Series in Connecticut showed me his 18th century farm house on webcam. It was that concert booking of 23 October 2010 confirmed in mid-August 2010 that determined our first destination for the America Tour. We booked our first plane ticket about a month later for Boston.

Skype was also instrumental in finet-uning and concluding our travel arrangements for our trip to Taiwan in April 2010. Once again, we chatted with someone we’ve not yet met but who was to become a very important part of our musical journey.

This morning, as I multi-tasked in eating my daily breakfast of freshly cut tropical fruit and checking e-mails while resisting the urge to jump into the Pacific Ocean (because the view from the balcony is so tempting), I decided to send off holiday greetings to my friends on skype.

Happy Holidays!

I’m starting a new blog called MauiTips to tempt my friends to come visit.