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Starting Out on the Right Note

This Ebay listing intrigues me: 1970's Analog deliciousness for the musically ambitious! Sounds great and trippy through effects!

Here’s a listing on Pinterest:

Synthesizer dedicated to everything synth, eurorack, modular, electronic music, and more.

I’ve played piano my whole life, and none of this rings a bell for me. Eurorack? Is that supposed to be Eurotrack? Wikipedia isn’t there for me this time so I turn to Google, where I find the following descriptions:

A strange, obscure proto-preset synthesizer/combo organ with a built-in drum box from 1974. It would fit a Blackpool dancehall perfectly-- or a Finnish tango bar…you get the idea. It's not really an organ, nor is it a synthesizer…its a “fun machine”…an obscure and very exotic piece of keyboard history.”

Ron’s first music lessons came straight from the Fun Machine. He didn’t need any music books because he had a user's manual, something he and the kids could navigate only when they couldn’t figure things out otherwise. The Fun Machine was located at his uncle’s home, which became a frequent destination for Ron and his six siblings. The Fun Machine made short work of playing chords by simply requiring the player to press single keys on a separate left-hand keyboard. It had drum beats, including “foxtrot” and “soul rock.” Even better, it offered multiple instrument and sound options-- trumpet, harpsichord, organ, and other non-traditional sounds.

Additionally, The Fun Machine served as something of a home gym, an ultimate “free weight” to be hoisted onto the back of a pickup truck whenever an occasion merited the transport: weddings, graduations, birthdays, any party would do. Unlike modern technology which can sometimes isolate people, The Fun Machine served as a social magnet, drawing young friends together as music so magically always does no matter the era. The Fun Machine allowed everyone a chance to be a star, one song at a time. Its name was perfect, and even the lettering for the name reflected this.

My childhood piano teacher Mrs. Wood had a beautiful Baldwin grand in her home and another Baldwin grand in her studio next door. Even as a child, I appreciated the deep warm colors of the bass register. Despite her appreciation of fine Baldwin craftsmanship, I’m sure she’d have had concerns about The Fun Machine as an instrument. She didn’t have the advantage of hearing Ron’s story as I did.

Ron explained that after his father passed away, his mother bought a Fun Machine so the kids could have one at home. It’s heartwarming to hear him talk about how this helped everyone weather this difficult period. He credits The Fun Machine with his love of music and his lifelong desire to learn to play piano “legitimately.” He started out as a kid in 1974. As an adult, he picked up where he left off, starting piano lessons on Cape Cod just as the pandemic was taking hold.

I haven’t seen Ron in person yet because our studio has been online for the past year. Like many retirees, Ron stays busy. Among other things, he has been volunteering many hours a week to help with community Covid efforts. He also heads up the annual Medford Invitational Tournament. Like others, he makes piano a priority in his life, setting a regular schedule to get to the piano at least four times weekly. He’s already performed three times at our online Piano Gallery events!

Admittedly, if Ron had begun formal lessons as a child, he’d have an easier time playing as an adult. What’s not clear is if he’d have enjoyed his lessons as much as he enjoyed The Fun Machine. There are many factors that come into play that determine what kind of experience a child will have with piano lessons, including choice of teacher. I think Ron’s experience, in many ways, was ideal. All the things we wish for children from music study were gifted to Ron: a lifelong love of music, a positive childhood experience that allowed him to better connect with family and friends, a healthy mental and physical activity, problem-solving skills, patience, and persistence. He didn’t have to be coaxed or threatened or bribed. His family provided this wonderful opportunity for the children, and Ron and his siblings still cherish the memories. Even now, his face lights up to talk about it. Ron held tight to the lessons learned all his life, patiently waiting for the day he could devote himself to learning to play the piano and read music notation. It’s truly inspiring.

Makes me wonder if I should order a Fun Machine label for one of my pianos, as a way of inviting a child to start their musical journey on the right note.

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