Adding a piano drawer to my camper van

Enjoying my van piano in the Elkhorn Mountains.

We designed our DIY Sprinter van to be a bike hauler with most of the comforts of home. Eight years later, I fell in love with playing piano and needed to figure out how to travel with a piano in the van PLUS bikes.

At first, I simply tossed my keyboard onto the bed and cuddled with it at night. When Chelsea traveled with me, I moved it on and off the bed every day…annnnoying. I needed a long-term solution.

So I built a piano drawer in my van.

The idea is simple enough: I attached a drawer to the underside of the van bed right above the mountain bikes. Figuring out the clearance and finding a piano took some time, but I finally settled on the slim-as-can-be Casio P1000X. At 52″ x 9.1″ x 4”, it wound up fitting perfectly. (Well, I did have to cut a hole in my bike drawer to lower my mountain bike.)

Pro tip: retrofitting is way harder than designing hobbies into a new build upfront. I’ve learned my lesson and shall NEVER AGAIN pick up a new hobby.

NOW my bike will fit with space for the piano drawer.

The piano drawer install

Once I figured out dimensions, the rest was fairly straightforward. After all, a piano drawer is merely a drawer with dimensions to hold a piano!

The faceplate is kinda cool, if I say so myself. I screwed little compression clasps onto the back of a piece of alder wood so that it snaps on and off without needing a visible latch.

The primary components:

  1. Draw slides. I found some inexpensive 4’ drawer slides cheap on Amazon.
  2. Stain: I used low-VOC polyx oil.
  3. Two compression clasps to hold the faceplate on (pictured as installed above).
  4. Some plywood I had plus alder my neighbor had lying around. Thanks Steve!
  5. A cable to connect my piano to my main stereo system so I can blast my Beethoven at distant mountains and enrage campers for miles around.
  6. Some felt for the top/bottom of the faceplate to prevent scratching.

One thing I noticed was a slight sway to the drawer when it’s fully extended. I thought a chock block under the drawer might be necessary, but when I play, my hands steady the side-to-side sway.

All in all, the project was straightforward and worked out exactly as I wanted. I’m pumped to have the piano in the van! Playing it in beautiful places with the door wide open and the view unfolding in front of me simply couldn’t be a better concert hall.

Now I can travel with my favorite things: bikes AND piano. What else does a boy need?

Photo gallery

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How I learned to play piano as an adult

Day one in my piano journey. I’d just figured out where middle C was…

Two years ago, my wife surprised me for my birthday with a digital piano. I’d mentioned my desire to learn a few times and, ever the muse, she called my bluff.

She was right. At 38 YO, I tumbled rapturously into the world of piano. The honeymoon phase is over, and yet I remain motivated to play every day and am still loving the journey.

After two years, I can play many pieces I’ve always enjoyed listening to (e.g. Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata 2nd movement, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, works by Chopin, modern works from Amelie). Plus many others that I can sit down and play from memory!

My sound isn’t pro (shocker!), but dammit, I am having FUN.

You, mega-savvy Traipsing About reader, can do it too!

Adults CAN learn to play piano

I share my achievements not to brag (many pianists young and old far outshine my abilities), but to offer hope to adult learners. If you’re telling yourself, “Oh, I could never learn to play,” let me persuade you otherwise.

My theory: kids are “naturals” at piano because:

  1. They don’t over-complicate things, focusing on foundational blocks that are small and approachable. (The same thing happens with language.)
  2. They play because they love it (or have a parent encouraging/requiring it).
  3. Adults carry the load for them! They’re able to practice more undistracted hours while someone pays the mortgage and cooks for them.

Adults don’t have these luxuries. We want to play songs that are too hard for us, we question if the time investment is worth it, and we simply don’t have as much time to practice.

I’m an adult. (It snuck up on me.) I’m married, run a business with employees, own and maintain a home. I have far too many hobbies. Friends do annoying things like interrupt my piano reverie to invite me on bike rides. *sigh*

And yet by carving out time each day to learn to play piano, in two years I’ve reached a level where it’s deeply satisfying, and beautiful for people to listen to (or so they pretend). A skill I’ll enjoy for a lifetime.

My goal every day is simply to get my hands on piano keys. I don’t obsess about doing all the scales; I (Here’s my post about my routine.) I get interrupted by life and sometimes I’m not focused. Of course I miss days (it’s hard to take a piano on a bikepacking trip!).

But usually, I make it happen. And I’m improving, bar by bar, piece by piece, week by week.

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Am I a piano nerd if I draw the key assembly to learn how it works? (RHETORICAL QUESTION!)

How I’ve made progress on the piano as an adult

Three things have led to me feeling successful and sticking with piano for two years:

  1. Deliberate practice
  2. Hiring a piano teacher
  3. Not biting off too-difficult songs

Deliberate Practice

When I started playing piano, I’d do some scales, arpeggios, whatever to warm up. Then straight into repertoire, which consisted of just trying to play something, over and over. I had no plan, just “start at the beginning and wear this down via submission.”

Picture me with a catapult outside a Song Castle. If I lobbed enough rocks at the walls, eventually I could break it down! The problem: I wasn’t being thoughtful about where or when to throw the rocks. Sometimes I attacked Song Castles that were WAY too big for my artillery.

Since then, I’ve learned to use deliberate practice to simplify things and hammer concepts into my brain in smaller chunks. (Yep, learn like a kid!)

I break songs down into their smaller parts (e.g. only working on 2 bars at a time, or breaking an arpeggio into block chords, or an octave into only the root note). I slow songs to 50% to start and only increase the tempo once I can lights-out play it. I might play the same bar 25 times in a row, firehosing it into my brain.

It feels slow in the moment, but I learn songs not just better, but faster, one bar at a time. Deliberate practice builds a stronger structure, brick by brick, versus throwing up a stick built house that blows over in the wind of live performance.

Scoring a couple hours of piano in a friend’s studio on a sweet grand piano.

Hiring a teacher

There are SO many resources for online self-paced piano lessons. They’re affordable and easy to use. They help. I use them. 

Let me encourage you to also hire a teacher.

Mine, a Brazilian named Antonio, offers me feedback and insight on my playing a video course could never provide. “Hey, what if you shifted your wrist 10 degrees? In most renditions, pros play that piece like ____. Perhaps this fingering for that passage works better for your hand?”

Not only are online lessons more affordable, they offer the benefit of being portable. When I travel in my van, I can bring my keyboard and still take lessons.

My progress accelerated dramatically when I hired Antonio for a weekly lesson. He corrected things I’d never even considered. If every pro had a teacher when they were learning, it’s probably worth it for us amateurs.

Piano with a view in my camper van.

Don’t get too big for your britches

Many intro piano songs lacked the complexity I wanted. Right out of the gate, I wanted to play the beautiful songs.

When the Saint’s Come Marching In? Shiiiit. March on OUTTA here: I wanted to play Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb, baby!

The problem: I had zero piano skills. I couldn’t even read music or play a scale! 

I was learning how to bungee jump by wingsuit jumping. Less risky on a piano (no bridges to smash into), but certainly a waste of time.

I spent HOURS learning the melody line to the Chopin nocturne…with zeroooo chance I’d be able to actually play it with the left hand added in.

My teacher helped me understand which songs would push me vs. shut me down. Instead of expending hours on a piece I had no chance of playing, I started grabbing achievable pieces. They still took work (I’m looking at you, Consolation No. 3), but I could do it!

Your future self will thank you

Recently a memory from college popped into my brain. I had just test driven my dream car (a Lexus IS300) I had zero chance of affording. The sound system was top-notch, crystal silky magic. 

Later, I chatted with a friend about how I couldn’t wait to own a car like that and listen to classical music while I drove.

“Don’t turn into an old man TOO fast,” she cautioned.

Now I’m an almost-old man at the ripe age of 40 and I get to listen to classical music while I drive…but I can also PLAY a bunch of it! 

Sure, it took focused work and required shifting time from other activities.

It was worth it. I’ve launched a ship I can sail on for the rest of my life, a journey into a whole new language—nah, WORLD— I hadn’t visited before.

And one of these days in the not-so-distant future, I’m going to take a successful crack at Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb.

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Getting whupped by Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 during a van trip in NE Oregon.