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singing tone on a piano


lachesis

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I've never really thought about this before, but this is kind of on my mind now: How much does a pianist's "touch" matter to the tone? In other words, when you strike a single note, is all that matters the velocity with which you strike? Obviously, velocity is all that matters on a synth. But on a piano there appear to be two viewpoints:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/273

1) You can make notes sound more percussive or more singing by the way you press the keys, so things like acceleration of the key matter in addition to velocity

2) All that matters is velocity, and the singing voice effect is made by manipulating the melody. Any effect of "caressing the keys", or other expressive movements is purely psychological. This article: http://www3.sympatico.ca/norma.barr/library/piano/tone_piano_playing.html

also seems to follow this view.

 

The question does seem pedantic, and either answer won't change the way I play, but these are fun questions to ask, at least I think they're fun.

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I posted that second article a few months back and this is indeed an interesting topic. I'm reading Bill Evans biography and lot is discussed there about his singing tone.

 

Personally, until I spent more time with an acoustic, I was lacking in tone. But having done a few months of exercises on nice acoustics has really cleaned up my touch. Much more to go as my teacher's tone is just awesome in comparison. But that velocity I find is part of that muscular snap that come from some very controlled fingers.

 

I recommend that serious players always have an acoustic on hand to practice or their tone may not sing otherwise. I think it is also something that is pretty hard to do by yourself. A teacher's guidance was very helpful and shifting posture, arm weight, etc. In my case, I was using too much arm weight. It's hard to gauge the appropriate actions based on a book description for sure.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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I wonder where acceleration falls into the mechanics of the strike. I doubt that even the best player is able to cause the hammer to travel at a constant velocity before it strikes the string.

 

I haven't studied the dynamics of the action linkage (would be a good problem for 3rd year mechanical engineering students, though!), but I would think that the hammer undergoes an acceleration (change in velocity) and then delivers an impact (change in acceleration) when it strikes the string. Or is there something about the mechanism of the action that creates a smooth response (i.e. mitigates the acceleration of the key being struck into a nearly constant velocity hammer movement)? If electronic keyboards can very accurately reproduce the dynamics of an acoustic strictly through the velocity of the key being depressed, it would stand to reason that the motion of the hammer is mostly constant velocity (with negligible acceleration and deceleration times at the beginning and end of the stroke, respectively), but I doubt it. I doubt that the relationship between key velocity and hammer velocity is linear.

 

Have any mechanical engineers out there looked into this?

 

Regards,

Joe

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Aaaaaarrrggghhh... Lost my long reply because my stupid PC jammed. :mad:

 

There's no need for two variables linked to speed in the case of an acoustic piano mechanism. The basic physics formula F=ma explains everything, since speed (velocity) is linked to acceleration. For "loudness" on a piano mechanism, there is only one variable, call it strength, force, acceleration, velocity, speed, impact, or else. It's the very same thing and there's only one. :)

 

Then... We have other variables not linked with "loudness" : like the way the notes are tied together or not, which is called legato/non-legato/staccato.

 

If we forget about the metaphysical and esoteric theories (and a number of teachers who like to make things more complex than they are already) about the "singing tone", this concept can be simply explained on a grand like this : to connect the harmonics/overtones created when playing a note to the next one by using legato in a passage or melody. The singing tone can't happen if you play staccato or non legato (unless you're using some pedaling). Simple as that.

 

No need to examine the quantic physics of the piano hammers sympathetic role in the strings sound nor the sub-heptaparaparshinokhish effect of the wood natural resonance injected in a piano sound when one uses the very exact acceleration to the sixth decimal. :cool:

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Originally posted by Cydonia:

No need to examine the quantic physics of the piano hammers sympathetic role in the strings sound nor the sub-heptaparaparshinokhish effect of the wood natural resonance injected in a piano sound when one uses the very exact acceleration to the sixth decimal. :cool:

Now THAT'S funny. :D:D

"In the beginning, Adam had the blues, 'cause he was lonesome.

So God helped him and created woman.

 

Now everybody's got the blues."

 

Willie Dixon

 

 

 

 

 

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Sorry Cydonia,

Just thought I'd throw it out there. I agree that the mechanical explanation probably has little value to students and players. But as a mechanical engineer it piques my professional curiosity; you know, linkages and mechanisms and stuff. I was hoping a manufacturer's engineer might provide a reply about how velocity alone can be used for expression, and justify ignoring inertias and accelerations of the various components of the linkage.

 

But that's okay. Now back to your regularly scheduled thread! :thu:

 

Regards,

Joe

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Originally posted by Cydonia:

Aaaaaarrrggghhh... Lost my long reply because my stupid PC jammed. :mad:

 

There's no need for two variables linked to speed in the case of an acoustic piano mechanism. The basic physics formula F=ma explains everything, since speed (velocity) is linked to acceleration.

I'd really like someone to explain why this is so. (It may have been in the long reply that your PC ate.) I do understand that people have reduced to velocity. Velocity is not the same as acceleration.

 

Mass can vary depending on whether one is moving the hand or just the finger. Or so it would seem to me. I agree with the observation that much of the cantabile style has to do with phrasing.

 

I am speaking from ignorance. I don't know that it isn't the case that velocity by itself can account for all variations in tone. But it seems simplistic. So I am asking.

 

Maybe I should have paid more attention in physics class. :rolleyes:

 

Jerry

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Originally posted by Cydonia:

No need to examine the quantic physics of the piano hammers sympathetic role in the strings sound nor the sub-heptaparaparshinokhish effect of the wood natural resonance injected in a piano sound when one uses the very exact acceleration to the sixth decimal. :cool:

oooohhhh talk dirty to me.... :wave:
"style is determined not by what you can play but what you cant...." dave brubeck
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Originally posted by Joe P:

Sorry Cydonia,

Just thought I'd throw it out there. I agree that the mechanical explanation probably has little value to students and players. But as a mechanical engineer it piques my professional curiosity; you know, linkages and mechanisms and stuff. I was hoping a manufacturer's engineer might provide a reply about how velocity alone can be used for expression, and justify ignoring inertias and accelerations of the various components of the linkage.

Joe,

 

Don't be sorry, my reply wasn't directed at you at all. :)

 

No, I'm the one who should be sorry because my own little frustration against my own stupid computer crash in my last reply lead to a misinterpretation. :)

 

I remember having a quite detailed discussion some months ago about this with Jazzwee and others in a thread here and just like you, I am quite interested in the physics aspects of digital and acoustic piano mechanisms/systems.

 

What I mean by "there's not much room for metaphysical or esoterical" is aimed at those who think or were unfortunately wrongly guided by teachers who believe in things like (that was part of my lost reply) :

 

- a pianist can induce vibrato in his/her tone

- a pianist can change tone of a note after it was struck and/or while it is held (without use of pedals)

 

Believe me, I saw piano giants like Rudolf Serkin do that kind of silly stuff onstage (moving his fingers in a lateral manner like he was adding some vibrato or effect to a held key). Looked totally silly to me. That's fine if it helped him concentrate or feel as he wanted during the piece, but besides that totally esoterical reason, there's absolutely no way such gimmicks can improve tone or give a more singing tone. :)

 

As I mentioned earlier, my view on the "singing tone" concept is to make a passage more alive, more musical, by connecting the notes together. Physically, the harmonics/overtones of a given first note will be "passed" to the next struck note only if it's played legato.

 

In more "physics" words, if I inject a few milliseconds of silence between the notes playing on a grand, those harmonics/overtones won't be passed very efficiently or not at all from one note to the next. In more "musical" terms, we would then call this non legato playing, actually the way a classical pianist should play if there's no legato or staccato specified on a given manuscript. So the tone can be nice, but it won't sing much at all.

 

The same passage played legato, which means by letting the previous note continue to play a few milliseconds as you depress the next note in a given melody or passage, ensures you connect the physical sympathetic effect of the strings, so to "energize" the strings of the new note with the "still alive" vibrations of the preceding note. If you play staccato, the preceding note's vibrations are already dead, so you can't energize the new note of the melody, explaining why you can't get a "singing" tone.

 

Of course, opinions may vary on this. ;)

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I can't talk about physics because I know very little ... and I can't address the metaphysics because it doesn't answer any questions in any meaningful way.

 

My take on this - anyone can play one note at the piano at various velocities or loudness. What separates the boys from the men - being able to control subtle shades of dynamics and that comes from having more technique than is needed.

 

I have played private parties on the same old Steinway for the last six years or so. The piano needs to be regulated and is not fun to play. I played that piano two nights ago and I actually had some fun. The piano is still a bear to play but it's getting easier for me to control since I have more technique than I had last year. (It takes thousands of hours but things do click into place eventually.)

 

For me it comes down to technique - being able to connect notes ... or not and being able to control dynamics. It is always difficult for beginners (or those with little technique) to be able to play very quietly or with finesse. Some guys have a wide dynamic range at the keyboard and some guys have less. You can have a narrow range but still have a great deal of control of dynamics within that narrow range. Technique, control .... singing tone ... take your pick.

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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Originally posted by Dave Horne:

Technique, control .... singing tone ... take your pick.

Exactly. It pretty much summarizes it.

 

It's much more difficult to play well softly than loudly on a grand piano.

 

Interestingly, our grands ancestors were named fortepiano, a name chosen at the time because it was revolutionary to have a keyboard able to play soft (piano) and loud (forte), as opposed to the harpsichord. Strange that our newer instruments are now called pianos, even though they can sound much more forte than their ancestors. Go figure. :D

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Dave has a very strong point. The fact is that when you step up to a different piano, you have to be able to control it, regardless of the action. Pianos are a huge variable, light action, stiff action, darker tone, brighter tone - you can't change the piano to suit your needs, you have to be able to play it to suit your needs, and that equals technique. LOTS of it. The point on playing quietly is also huge - the strength and control that you need to have to really play quietly well at any tempo is pretty daunting.
A ROMpler is just a polyphonic turntable.
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Originally posted by Dave Horne:

For me it comes down to technique - being able to connect notes ... or not and being able to control dynamics. It is always difficult for beginners (or those with little technique) to be able to play very quietly or with finesse. Some guys have a wide dynamic range at the keyboard and some guys have less. You can have a narrow range but still have a great deal of control of dynamics within that narrow range. Technique, control .... singing tone ... take your pick.

This is very well said. One thing that separates expert pianists from beginners is the ability to play very soft, and control subtle gradations of touch.

 

BTW my experience about touch is rather schizophrenic: While rationality tells me that it can only be a matter of how fast the hammer strikes the string, my experience tells me that after a short period of familiarizing myself with a particular piano, I know how to achieve a singing tone. I know the moves, and the hand position, and what muscles to activate, etc. Only, I'm not 100% sure of how these movements connect with the whole keylever/escapement/hammer mechanism.

 

I know for sure what other elements are in the picure, other than velocity:

- The "super-legato" one often imparts to expressive melodies (or viceversa, the dry, non-legato touch which works well for swing, or Mozart)

- The use of the pedal, which can *totally* change the color of a note. I've noticed that in a 'singing' passage, I tend to apply the pedal some time after the attack. How fast you push *and* release the pedal makes a huge difference too.

- How fast (or how slowly) you release your melody notes. This is a rather neglected aspect of piano technique, but it does matter quite a lot in exposed melodies.

 

I guess all these elements combined, plus sheer velocity, make what you ultimately call 'personal touch' on an acoustic piano. But I like to think that there are more mysterious elements, still to be studied, involved in the picture.

 

And needless to say, digital pianos are still light years behind in reproducing these subleties.

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Originally posted by Cydonia:

Originally posted by Joe P:

[qb]

As I mentioned earlier, my view on the "singing tone" concept is to make a passage more alive, more musical, by connecting the notes together. Physically, the harmonics/overtones of a given first note will be "passed" to the next struck note only if it's played legato.

 

In more "physics" words, if I inject a few milliseconds of silence between the notes playing on a grand, those harmonics/overtones won't be passed very efficiently or not at all from one note to the next. In more "musical" terms, we would then call this non legato playing, actually the way a classical pianist should play if there's no legato or staccato specified on a given manuscript. So the tone can be nice, but it won't sing much at all.

 

The same passage played legato, which means by letting the previous note continue to play a few milliseconds as you depress the next note in a given melody or passage, ensures you connect the physical sympathetic effect of the strings, so to "energize" the strings of the new note with the "still alive" vibrations of the preceding note. If you play staccato, the preceding note's vibrations are already dead, so you can't energize the new note of the melody, explaining why you can't get a "singing" tone.

 

Of course, opinions may vary on this. ;)

It depends on what a "singing tone" means.

Singers cannot pass the harmonics/overtones of a given first note to the next note even if they are phrasing legato. And singers can also sing notes detached. So a "singing tone" is a very vague term to me. I think it just means a nice well defined sound in general terms. Which comes from technique and control.

Harry Likas was the Technical Editor of Mark Levine's "The Jazz Theory Book" and also helped develop "The Jazz Piano Book." Harry spends his time teaching jazz piano online and playing solo piano gigs.

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Originally posted by Tusker:

I'd really like someone to explain why this is so.

I'll try to respond to the case. Note that this has nothing to do with "singing tone" but to my claim that there's no need for two variables linked to speed (as proposed in the #1 article cited by Lachesis).

 

You are right when you say "mass (m) will vary depending on whether one is moving the hand, just the finger", using armweight or not, etc. Also, let's translate F in the formula by the force of impact against the acoustic piano strings or, in other words, loudness of a given note.

 

Joe is also right when he says "hammer undergoes a change in velocity and then delivers an impact change in acceleration when it strikes the string". Acceleration (a) is defined as a change in speed. Since all keys are initially at speed 0 and end up at speed 0 at the moment of impact against the strings, the difference of speed (or call it velocity amount, acceleration between the initial 0 speed and last 0 speed at impact) determines F (force or loudness of the note played).

 

In short, as I see the piano mechanism as a system which translates force into an impact, F=ma translated to acoustic piano simply means :

 

note loudness = weight * velocity

 

---------------------------------

 

If for another last highjack (sorry again) we examine how most digital piano interfaces work, we find that they simply use a set of contacts that translate a difference of time in order to determine velocity only (which corresponds to "a" in F=ma).

 

Which is why this system isn't so precise to emulate a real piano mechanism and give only very limited dynamics range, since it can't really take into account the mass (m) or weight used by the player. It can only translate a difference of time between the first contact closed (on most keyboard almost at mid-course of a key!) and the second contact closed when the key is almost completely lowered down. The faster you press on a key, the smaller the difference of time between the switches. But this system is only velocity sensitive. It actually transforms F=ma into F=a (or loudness=velocity) and can't take into account mass (weight), explaining the big reduction in dynamics compared to a real grand action.

 

Another type of system used in certain rare digital pianos/controllers and which IMO are closer to a real grand mechanism are those impact sensitive, but I'll forget about this here, since my post is already terribly long.

 

------------------------

 

Now to go back on the singing tone topic, but using a digital piano, we end up with an even more big problem : there's nothing physically resonating, no real strings, so no way to "energize" a new note in a melody using the previous one playing legato like I said earlier.

 

Maybe a way to achieve this would be to use something similar as in the old Yamahas CP80s, real strings in the digital piano, but this time not to create the main sound. They would only be used with some complex electromagnetic-->digital system to reproduce real sympathetic resonance energizing between legato notes, which then would then be transformed into digital to modify the sampled piano notes. :wave:

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And on Yamaha P series the hammer attack portion of the note samples are much louder than the sustain portions making legato even more difficult if not impossible. This is the main reason I dislike the Yamaha P series.

Harry Likas was the Technical Editor of Mark Levine's "The Jazz Theory Book" and also helped develop "The Jazz Piano Book." Harry spends his time teaching jazz piano online and playing solo piano gigs.

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Originally posted by Jazz+:

And on Yamahas the hammer attack portion of the note samples are much louder than the sustain portions making legato even more difficult if not impossible.

:freak: not true, playing legato most of the time with no problem. Anyway this is tweakable thing if needed.
♫♫♫ motif XS6, RD700GX
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Originally posted by Tusker:

[QB]

 

Mass can vary depending on whether one is moving the hand or just the finger.

/QB]

Ah - but it can't, you see, because by the time the hammer reaches the string its no longer in contact with the key. If it were it could not rebound so it would muffle the sound. That is in fact the basic invention associated with the piano - the escapement mechanism.

 

So its like playing the church bell by throwing pebbles at it.

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Originally posted by lachesis:

...How much does a pianist's "touch" matter to the tone? In other words, when you strike a single note, is all that matters the velocity with which you strike?...

No. We are NOT limited to velocity in our creation of music on the pianoforte. I think the ATTITUDE with which we approach a piece (or section, or phrase, or note)is very important. My classical teacher used to say things like: "Now on this Chopin piece, imagine an entire string section playing this melody" or "hear the brass-like accents in this Brahm's piece".

What I'm saying is, our mental approach to the music we are playing is very important, and influential on the audible result, because our mindset also sends out corresponding technique messages to the body as we play.

 

p.s.- I saw "non-legato" somewhere up above. Isn't that "portamento"? I'm not sure.

Never try to play anything live.
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There's a factor here that I've read about in multiple places that affects the pianists ability to control tone. It explains a little bit why some people can make the piano sing -- and this is related to what they say is flexing of the hammer. Since it is a piece of wood there is a bit of flex in it and this is why acceleration/force/whatever of different levels affects the sound. Otherwise it won't make any sense since the hammer is not directly affected by the player yet tone changes.

 

Dave H., I appreciate what you're relating. I'm a little surprised that you're going through technical skill changes of major proportions after playing so long. It really gives me hope.

 

Unfortunately, I had a lot of catch up to do in this area as early teachers didn't focus on it as much. But now I actually like hearing myself play whereas before I did not.

 

Maybe this thread should also discuss the things that one should practice to achieve good tone. Those with a lot more technical skill can chime in.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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Originally posted by Jazzwee:

Maybe this thread should also discuss the things that one should practice to achieve good tone. Those with a lot more technical skill can chime in.

What one should do is try to achieve good tone when practicing. Doing Hannon? How does it sound? Get my drift - you should ALWAYS endeavor to have good tone when playing, regardless of whether you are running scales, working on an arrangement, or performing. You should even be conscious of trying to play with the best tone possible when playing a digital. If you can't control your tone when doing things like exercises, you be fighting a losing battle the rest of the time.
A ROMpler is just a polyphonic turntable.
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I agree with that K. That of course is a basic thing to practice.

 

For me, it required doing some exercises to ensure that I can produce good tone with every finger in all situations. Hard to describe my exercise but it is wide chords with alternating pairs of fingers played legato and in tempo and in all 12 keys. It helped develop more finger independence for me in more awkward positions. Hanon for me is too closed position so the extended fingers need practice in maintaining tone also while stretched.

 

The only problem with this exercise for me was that I got a little tendonitis doing it for months and very intensively. But now it is effortless and my overall technique improved.

 

This is probably my favorite exercise among several I do daily.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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Jazzwee,

 

Sounds like you're talking about Philipp's "Exercises for Independence of the Fingers." I bet you were taking a five-note fully-diminished seventh chord (e.g. B-D-F-Ab-B) and then played various finger combinations while holding down other finger combinations? When I was in music school Philipp was notorious for both of the effects you described: (a) finger independence, and (b) tendonitis. A little surely went a long way.

 

As for all of the physics discussed above, Byrdman's got it right. Because of the escapement mechanism, when hammer hits string the only mass in the equation is the mass of the hammer assembly (and the string). The only acceleration is the deceleration being caused by gravity, friction in the action, air resistance and, ultimately, the string itself. You can do whatever you want to the key as it's going down, but once the escapement cuts the hammer loose Isaac Newton's in charge, not you.

 

Larry.

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Originally posted by Jazzwee:

Maybe this thread should also discuss the things that one should practice to achieve good tone.

For classical, once I believe I can play a piece right with both hands, I then practice the tone on one side only (left hand playing normally, right hand doing all the gestures and notes, but silently - barely touching the keys). Whoops - now I can hear problems of tone in a certain passage. If I practice LH only (no RH silently) to achieve a similar result (find the tone problems), it doesn't work as efficiently since I'm not involved with the RH and it becomes too easy - and it's not the way you'll play the piece anyway.

 

Then do the same reversing the hands. And then afterwards you may begin to believe you're playing the piece a little better. ;)

 

Note that this is sometimes optional, especially for fugues, since a fugue badly played will sound terrible every time (regardless if you silently play the RH or LH). :)

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Originally posted by iLaw:

Jazzwee,

 

Sounds like you're talking about Philipp's "Exercises for Independence of the Fingers." I bet you were taking a five-note fully-diminished seventh chord (e.g. B-D-F-Ab-B) and then played various finger combinations while holding down other finger combinations? When I was in music school Philipp was notorious for both of the effects you described: (a) finger independence, and (b) tendonitis. A little surely went a long way.

 

Larry.

It's not that. The exercise I do is very musical. My teacher has the title "Lydian Exercise" in the sheet music. The holding down the finger combinations are probably similar but the fingering contortions are unusual. I don't know where he got it from but he studied under the technique expert Madam Chaloff. Maybe he invented it based on a combination of other exercises. Doing finger independence/evenness of tone exercises with fingers stretched in various positions was kind of unusual for sure but the effects were pretty quick. He refers to it as "going to the gym". His credentials are impeccable so I trust his teachings.

 

What I like about it actually is that it sounds good. It sounds like you're playing real music with block chords. Because it is musical, you get to focus on the tone a lot, especially multiple fingers. Hanon is one note at a time in comparison.

 

BTW - I read about that exercise in your example. That's the exercise where you're not supposed to raise your fingers or something. While other fingers are playing. It's not that for sure.

Hamburg Steinway O, Crumar Mojo, Nord Electro 4 HP 73, EV ZXA1

 

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Originally posted by Tusker:

Originally posted by Cydonia:

OK, sorry for my very very long post again.

I'm not. Thank you. :thu:

 

Thanks to Byrdman as well. "throwing pebbles at a church bell" Why does that make me wonder if that was a childhood practice of yours? :D

 

Jerry

Who me?
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