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WORK IN PROGRESS : A Forte in Piano : Whether playing, selling the instrument or giving music lessons, Mel Kirkman Jr. rarely misses a note.


The piano was shiny and black, a Yamaha baby grand. Spruce sounding board. Polyester overlay finish. List price around $10,000. In a crowded Oxnard showroom on a slow Thursday morning, Mel Kirkman Jr. knelt before it.

"Brand new one," he said, reaching into the instrument's innards. "Just came in."

This was inside Keyboard Fantasy on Ventura Boulevard, where Kirkman and colleagues sell pianos, organs and all manner of electronic keyboards. Kirkman, 46, is the manager, scheduler of deliveries and lessons, duster of three dozen showroom instruments, coaxer of customers and unpacker of new inventory.

While cars whooshed by outside on the Ventura Freeway, Kirkman extracted a handful of packing paper from the Yamaha's insides.

And then, between phone calls and customer visits, he ran through some conventions of his trade.

The product: "A piano has to be two things. It has to be a beautiful piece of furniture because you're going to see it every day. . . . And it has to be a musical instrument."

Novice customers: "They're a little leery. They don't know whether a piano's worth $5 or $5,000. . . . So a lot of them try to shop over the phone. How do you talk about sound and beauty over the phone?"

Liberace: "He's got 12 fingers. He was the pianist's pianist."

Grown-ups who take piano lessons: "They're tired of playing golf, they're tired of fishing, they're tired of knitting. And they want to get into creating music."

His favorite song for showing off a piano: "I usually use 'Memory' from 'Cats.' I like the song, and everybody else seems to, also. And it shows the range of the piano because it goes from low to high."

Kirkman spoke through a salt-and-pepper beard, wore a blue blazer over a buttoned-down shirt, with flashes of gold on his neck, wrist and ring finger.

He started with accordion lessons at 7, he said, and had encouragement from his piano-playing father. As a 16-year-old student at Black Fox Military School in North Hollywood, Kirkman was playing for money with the sons of Art Linkletter and Loretta Young. For years, he played professionally around the country with bands, clubs and shows.

But things change. Kirkman ran a restaurant in Oregon for a while, then returned to this area about 10 years ago, selling keyboards by day, playing them by night.

"It was like I was living two lives," he recalled.

He let go of the night life. Now, said Kirkman, he sits in occasionally at Tony's Steak & Seafood in Ventura or the Wagon Wheel Restaurant across the freeway. But the piano showroom is where he does his real work.

As Kirkman spoke, one of his grown-up students appeared at the door, a computer disk in hand, a frazzled expression on her face. In the course of playing her favorite song--"Memory" from "Cats"--Arlene Grether had run into trouble. "When I get to the bridge, I don't know, it goes klunk," she said.

The computer disk goes into an attachment to her keyboard and stores an arrangement of background music to accompany her playing. While she tried to explain the problem, Kirkman punched buttons, had her play through the song a few times and delivered a diagnosis: She was coming in one measure early, thereby causing dissonance when she and the machine changed chords on different schedules. In the parlance of another trade, it was operator error.

Kirkman passed on a few tips on timing and offered a complimentary disk. Grether, owner of two Keyboard Fantasy keyboards, drove away happy.

Now it was around noon. In an hour, a dozen or more people would begin gathering for a group lesson. Time for one more demonstration.

"I don't need to play professionally any more," Kirkman said. "I really don't. I can get my sensation of music through others because we've helped them learn it."


Work In Progress is an occasional feature that offers a fly-on-the-wall look at people on the job.

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