Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan and the NY Philhormonic

I recently came across this article in the NYT about the guest conducting of Mahler's 2nd by Gilbert Kaplan. I was quite surprised at the public nature of the criticism against Kaplan by members of the NY Phil, particularly the blog post by David Finlayson. The controversy is about Mr. Kaplan having created a reputation for conducting Mahler's 2nd with, in my opinion, only limited qualifications as a conductor. The deeper controversy is about funding for the arts. Should a patron like Mr. Kaplan (who donates around $10K per year to the Phil) be able to "buy" a shot at conducting for a night? I guess it depends on the priorities and resources available to the orchestra. However, I think this sets a bad precedent. While I'm in favor of trying to make classical music more accessible and attracting larger audiences, allowing an individual to "play conductor" at an actual performance seems a bit disrespectful to the musicians who have honed and rehearsed their parts. Who will the next donor/conductor be? What will the next major donor ask for in return for their monies? If I give some money will the NY Phil play one of my pieces?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Unanswered Musical Quesitons

This is the link. My favorites (i.e., the ones I think about the most and discuss most with others) are the questions on harmony.

Sound Problems

Over the last couple of weeks I've been gigging regularly, averaging three gigs and one rehearsal per week. At a gig a couple of weeks ago, an awful high-end buzzing noise started coming from my amp. I tried everything to isolate the cause or get rid of the sound: switching cables, bypassing my pre-amp, using a different speaker. Needing to play anyway, I EQ-ed much of the high-end out and tried to avoid the notes that seemed to aggravate the buzz. After the first gig, I brought my gear home and tried to recreate the sound as much as I could. However, I couldn't get that noise no matter what combination of EQ, volume and playing style I tried.

The following week, the sound was back. The worse thing was note the noise itself (I had found ways to EQ and play in such a way as to minimize it), but rather the look in the eyes of the other players I was working with. They looked at me as if I were some unprofessional goof, not taking care of or not knowing how to manage his equipment.

Again, the sound was intermittent and I was unable to track down a cause. FInally, at a gig this week I decided just to take my whole rig into a technician and play for the technician until we found the problem. I scheduled an appointment for Monday and had one last Saturday night gig to play.

Show time came. I went to tune up and there was the sound again. However, as I looked at my tuner, I noticed my amp was not on. How could I be hearing the noise without my amp on? I stared at my instrument and slowly my eyes focused on the culprit.

For years I've been using Underwood pickups. I think they provide the most full sound for my style of playing and have a lot of versatility (e.g., moving the pickup around on the bridge can give very different sounds, the pickup can be easily removed and switched to another instrument). The pickup itself is held to the tailpiece by a plastic cable tie. As I stared at the pickup, I noticed that the end of the cable tie was touching the body of the bass. Whenever I gave the G-string a good slap, the end of the cable tie vibrated against the body, producing a sound that, when amplified by the piezo pickup, sounded as if my amp was shorting out or the crossover in my cabinet was shot.

I borrowed someone's knife and in about 5 seconds eliminated the noise (i.e., cut the cable tie so that the end would not touch the soundboard). Cost of fixing the problem: zero; cost to my sanity and already high levels of stress: priceless.

I'm always surprised how easy it is to overlook the easiest of solutions to these kind of problems. It reminds me that oftentimes the problems we have with our sound are not due to equipment failures, but often to our instruments themselves or our personal playing style.

NYT Article on Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden has always been one of my favorite bassists. As many may already know, he's moved into more of a country/roots music style from his freer jazz moments with, among others, Ornette Coleman. Yet, being such an accomplished player with such a rich reputation, he appears to have been able to make this transition without too much of the scorn of critics. The complete article is here. This is my favorite part:

Mr. Haden still maintains traces of both his hillbilly and hipster sides, speaking with a flat Midwestern inflection but in a jazz musician’s argot. His aesthetic has been shaped in large part by sympathy for what he calls “the struggle of the poor people,” which allows him to draw a connective thread between the music of his birthright and the music of his calling.

“The beauty of it is that this music is from the earth of the country,” he said. “The old hillbilly music, along with gospel and spirituals and blues and jazz.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Google archiving Life Magazine

Google now hosts the photo archive of Life Magazine.There are lots of great photos, including these of Slam Stewart: photo one, photo two.

Sound in Motion (David McGill)

I recently finished reading Sound in Motion by David McGill. This is a great book. Originally written for wind players, the book discusses the fine points of phrasing and performance. The central theme on phrasing generally follows that put forth in Thurmond's Note Groupings, but in a more enjoyable and clear presentation. My read on McGill's directive of putting motion in your playing is that one should focus on grouping notes much as one groups words into sentences when speaking. In doing so, one must not look to the bar lines as indicating the end of a phrase (just as one would not look to the end of a line of written text when grouping words into sentences), but to the natural completion of the musical idea. In Thurmond's book, he focuses the reader/player on looking at the upbeats in a phrase as indicating the demarcation points of phrases and notes that should be emphasized. McGill presents this idea in a more illustrative way, with many clear examples.

As a bassist who spends most of his time accompanying others with walking lines, I found McGill's book an enjoyable and insightful read. After having finished the book, I tried to implement some of the ideas in the coarsest form: at a gig I tried guiding my playing by playing the root on the down beat of each phrase (I was playing with a jump blues group) and used the rest of the bar to phrase a line that moved towards the next chord. This a musical phrase was not walking over a chord, but rather a series of notes that brought me to the start of a new chord. This did not always mean playing other notes in the chords. In fact, I tried to avoid playing the other notes in the chord by focusing exclusively on creating a series of notes (starting on the second beat of the measure) which formed a complete phrase ending on the root of the next measure (first beat of subsequent measure).

The results were mixed. While the guys in the band commented that I sounded great that night (a noteworthy event as these guys are pretty short on complements) there were some grinder blues numbers that it did not work. In retrospect, I know why... and should have known at the time. That said, the gig was a success: I got a complement from the band, learned something, nobody got hurt, nothing got broken.

The Cherry Lounge, Grande Prairie Alberta

Over the weekend I was in Grande Prairie AB. We played a show and had dinner at the Chery Lounge (10833 100 Street, Grande Prairie, AB T8V 2M7, (780) 832-0494‎). The food here is exceptional, a real fine dining experience. Our first meal was steak, served with cucumber infused mashed potatoes. Our second meal (the next day) was bison steak with braised cabbage. Very creative menu, excellent food. If you're in Grande Prairie, check it out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Milt Hinton on NPR

NPR has re-presented their podcast on Milt Hinton. You can access it here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Three Finger Pizzicato

I've been working on developing a three finger pizzicato technique. NHOP had a great technique as can be seen in this video.

I've been trying to develop this skill with some success, but wanted to develop some more refined techniques and a less ad hoc sense of when this type of playing is best (read: when to use my ring finger for agility and speed). The problem, as I see it, has been on developing my ring finger to play more than just ornaments on the G-string.

I came across Sigi Busch's Jazz Bass Compendium and it has some exercises to get one thinking about how to incorporate your ring-finger (denoted with an "a" in the exercises) into your playing. I have found these exercises useful in getting started. The next step is to develop your own exercises, scales, etc which incorporate your ring finger in a systematic way. Here are his exercises:

Page 1:

Page 2:

Page 3:

Page 4:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Garubo's Inside

Last year I bought a copy of Kenneth Gaburo's "Inside" from Frog Peak Music. Its a great piece, but recordings of it are rare. Here's a video of Bertram Turetzky et al playing the piece (about 20 minutes in). In a related vien, while searhcing for recordings I came across Modbit, a weekly radio show of new music. Great stuff, including some Gabro works.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Alex Ross on politics

I'm a big fan of Alex Ross' blog. Here's a brief post on music in political ads. I'm still laughing at his accompaniment to Sarah Palin's response below. Enjoy. (In case you didn't know, Mr. Ross recently won a genius award from the MacAurthur Foundation. Congratulations Mr. Ross)

Friday, October 10, 2008

100 Guitarist in Saint Louiss

I friend forwarded me this announcement:

Experimental composer Glenn Branca is seeking 80 guitarists and 20 bass guitarists for his upcoming performance of Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City). This performance will be at The Pageant in St. Louis on Nov. 13 and is part of the SLSO Guitar Festival.

• Two rehearsals at Powell Hall: Nov. 11 from 2pm to midnight & Nov. 12 from 5pm to midnight

• Sound Check at The Pageant: Nov. 13 from 1:30pm to 5:30pm

• Concert at The Pageant: Nov. 13 at 8pm

Compensation is not possible, but food and drink will be supplied at all rehearsals and the performance. All musicians will need to be able to read standard staff notation and follow a part measure by measure.

If only I was in Saint Louis. I'm sure that this will be better than the 1800 guitarist who played "Smoke on the Water" or "the most air guitar players on stage."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Judging the Candidates by Their Musical Preferences

There's a fair amount of research out there about how musical tastes reflect deeper personality traits. Here's a look at the candidates is the U.S. election:

Barrack Obama: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder,
Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites), Marvin Gaye, The Fugees

John McCain
: ABBA, Roy Orbison, Merle Haggard, the Beach Boys, Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra

Joe Biden: all he says regarding his favorite music is "My sister's playlist."

Sarah Palin: all I found is this:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Federal Funding of the Arts

I just wanted to note on a couple of things going on locally and federally with regards to funding for the arts.

Here in Calgary, there has been a big push by the mayor to get increased provincial funding for law enforcement. A recent letter to the editor in the Calgary Herald ("Get Tough" September 19 2008) states one view on the issue (HT to Sean Perrin):
Overhaul the justice system so it no longer hugs a thug and starts treating criminals like criminals. They gave up their "rights" when they broke the law, so treat them the way they have treated the good people of our country. Build more jails and get the criminals in them faster and for much longer periods of time. How to pay for that? No fancy bridges, no high-dollar art in government buildings. Funnel all the money that is spent on art, culture and other non-necessary things. In some Caribbean countries, there is no leeway -- you break the law, you go to jail and you serve hard time for a long time. The penalties are too harsh to even consider breaking the law. We need a federal leader who will grow the backbone to seriously shake up the justice system. Come up with a budgeted, realistic and believable promise to do this, and you'll get my vote.
The view espoused here (to put it somewhat mildly) is that the arts should come second to other public goods. Some of this debate (and I believe the piece the author is referring to) has developed with the arrival of "A Device to Root Out Evil" in Calgary.

One of the questions raised by this debate is "What is the benefit of public funding of the arts?" Many have argued that funding of the arts is essential for preserving and developing a group or nation's idea of identity. In this sense, support for the arts supports Calgarians' sense of identity or pride in their city. (As a note, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research research group on Social Interactions, Identity, and Well-Being thinks that discussions of identity are often missing form policy debates and economic analysis. Issues of identity have been important in the Council of Europe's research on social exclusion.) Evidence from psychology and economics is that a shared sense of identity can increase cooperation, well-being, and more generally, social capital. In terms of public policy, increases in feelings of shared identity or community could reduce some criminal activity (through increasing the concern individuals have for others or reducing individuals' desire to eschew the law) and increase the productivity of public goods (by reducing the extent of free-riding problems).

Below is a video which takes aim the cuts to arts funding that have occurred under Stephen Harper's government. The message in this video is, I think, one of the importance of arts in preserving (here) Quebecois culture. A couple of notes on the video:
  1. Michel Rivard is a a Quebecois singer-songwriter. He is one of the founding members of Beau Domage.
  2. The French word for "seal" (the animal) is "phoque". It is pronounced f*ck.

Friday, September 19, 2008

An Introduction to Atonality

I was trying to explain atonality to someone. After failing, I found this:

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tradegy of riches

Right now, there are five double basses in my house. One is up for sale, one will be in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Writing a Fugue

Its been a while since I've written anything for this blog. Partly, its because I've been so busy with work and gigs. In any event, I have a couple of posts coming up soon on Stampede gigging (i.e., the Calgary Stampede, also known as harvest time for the musician, especially if you play an upright bass) and some biographies I've been reading on jazz players. Until then though, here are a couple of videos I came across while writing a couple of fugues based on songs by the Dead Boys. The first is by Glenn Gould, the latter by Daniel Pi.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What I'm Not Reading (to save my knees)

I'm currently sacrificing a book to save my knees. In a previous post I wrote about how I lock my knees while I'm playing (a result of nerves and habit I think). Well, this, combined with hiking, wrestling with my son, and yoga, have resulted in my right knee being in a lot of pain. I was told that the pain was, in part, due to locking my knees as it puts greater pressure on the knee. Now that I'm in a bit of pain, I lock my knee all the more when playing and then have to hobble away in even greater pain.

A solution: In trying to break this habit, I've been carrying Three Nights in Havana Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and the Cold War World by Robert Wright to gigs and rehearsals. I put the book under my right foot. This forces me not to lock my knee, but rather have a small bend in my knee. (The book is about 300 pages.) As a result I'm taking notice of my knee-locking habit and, so I'm told, keeping a small bend in my knee will strengthen the muscles around my knee.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"The World's Greatest Bass Player"

I just finished reading Bill Milkowski's biography of Jaco Pastorius, The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius. I was a little skeptical aobut the book when I started reading it, expecting it to be a tribute of sorts, glossing over the sadder parts of Jaco's life. That said, I really liked the book. Milwowski does a great job detailing the life of Jaco and demonstrating how bad his mental illness really was. The book isn't at all hagiographic, but rather portrays Jaco as he was, a gifted musician with a severe and troubling problems. Part of the problem he faced was the way his behavior alienated everyone around him and the extent of his denial that he needed help. I found myself emotionally moved at times, experiencing anger, sadness, and frustration. Its a good read for any Jaco fns or jazz fans in general.

It got me thinking. I've always been a big Jaco fan. Following him, my electric basses are Fender jazz basses. I have one (a '78) that's been with me for years. I used to have a '69 fretless. I sold it when we moved to Canada and it became a significant portion of the down payment on our house. One of the first pieces I learned was Teen Town and in high school I was always chided for playing the opening of Birdland as false harmonics rather than following the bass line as written.

I remember when I first learned of Jaco's death. I was in college at rehearsal for the jazz ensemble. The piano player told me about it and we talked a bit about him. The band had a few (well, more than a few) purists in it who either weren't impressed by him or (in one case) didn't know who he was.

It makes me wonder what he could have accomplished had he gotten (and accepted) his the help he needed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Levitt in the Blogosphere

I follow, very loosely, several blogs regarding economics and economic research. Given my past run-in with Steve Levitt (editor of the Journal of Political Economy and co-author of Freakonomics) I found this article interesting (originally referenced here).

There is a common question about the abuse of editorial powers in the economics profession, with a lot of gossip and stories circulating right now. On my recent trip to Europe, I was taken aback by how many people had stories about editors at various journals abusing their power or holding grudges against certain groups of authors. These stories have always been out there, but on this trip I heard a lot of very recent (within the last year) stories of editors behaving badly. It seems like we might be hitting a critical mass. Maybe some checks and balances will finally get implemented.

Monday, June 23, 2008

50 Days

I keep a log of my practice time, something to remind me what I'm working on and (on those days when I need a boost) to show me that I'm making progress. Yesterday I sat down to write something in it after practicing. To my shock, it had been 50 days since my last practice.

I had a lot going on over the last two months. I had a lot of deadlines at work and a trip to Europe to plan and get prepared for. I also have a busy family life that needed attending too. But 50 days? What happened?

It sounds worse than it may actually be. I had a lot of gigs in the two months, but not more than twice a week. Is that a lot? Do I have any other excuses for missing 50 days?

I'm trying not to think aobut it. Its inevitable that time can get away form you. For me, music is an avocation rather than a vocation. As a result, it sometimes must take a back seat. The last 50 days are a sunk cost. I'm putting it behind me and moving on.

However, I'm suffering for it. While I'm not back at step one, I feel like I'm re-training muscles to move in a disciplined manner, re-learning pieces, and generally struggling with intonation. (at least relative to where I was). On top of this, my callouses are gone and the Calgary Stampede is on the horizon. This is a busy gigging time for just about every musician in town. Without my callouses, it will be 10 days of pain so I'm on the rush to get some good time in with my bass.

Overall I'm quite surprised at how far my skills had dropped off in over 50 days. (As an aside, I started yoga again after at least a 3 month break. I'm having the same realizations there as I am with my bass playing.) Maybe I shouldn't be, but its striking how many things (particularly playing the bass) are not like riding a bike: you can and do forget. It reminds me of the old quote (which I heard as attributable to Louis Armstrong)
If I miss one day's practice, I notice. If I miss two days practice, the critics notice. If I miss three days practice, the audience notices it.

Cure for Color Blindness

For the last 41 years I've been color blind. As a kid, I colored in things wrong and failed (to everyone's amazement) those tests where you have to pick out a number or letter from a circle filled with colored dots. As an adult, I've made fashion faux pas, mixing the wrong colors so many times that my wife now checks to make sure I'm not a walking eyesore of color.

Anyway, I recently got a new pair of sunglasses: a polarized pair of Oakley Hijinx. These replace a pair of Arnett Hot Cakes that I've had for over 10 years. After all that time, my wife and daughter convinced me that they looked silly; I looked as if I was a fly or maybe wearing goggles.

The polarization in these new glasses is incredible. I can see colors! At first it was a bit overwhelming. Everything just jumped out at me. Yellows were too bright. I'd get mesmerized by the different shades of green in a tree. I could tell the difference (for the first time) between the amber and red lights on street light. (I used to gauge the light's color by its position.)

I took an online color blindness test just to confirm that the glasses were helping. I scored 3 of 10 without the sunglasses., 6 of 10 with. I think I might have done better without taking the test on a computer: with the glasses on, I can barely see the screen.

Staff Paper Sources on the Web

I'm frequently using staff paper to outline pieces I'm working on and jot musical ideas, particularly pieces where I'm using non-standard notation for slapping, etc. There's something about writing out music by hand when brainstorming or transcribing that I find satisfying and liberating from working on a computer. (I use Finale; I tried Sibelluius but found it to be a bit more of a life-style choice.)

There's lots of staff paper available online for download. I typically use this site which has lots of different set-ups. However, all these formats are for 8.5 x 11. A few weeks back, a friend gave me some paper that was almost 11 x 17 and it was great to work with. I loved being able to have a gig space to make notes and work out ideas.

On that note, here's a new site I recently found. It allows you to choose the paper size, number of staves, color and line weight.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday in Bonn

Saturday there is a huge market in downtown Bonn. In addition to the fruit and vegetable vendors, artisans come out selling their wares. I was particularly intrigued by a potter who made vases that looked as if they were only two-dimensional. I actually thought they were pictures of vases until I got up close. He had an incredible sense of dimensionality, one that he was able to use to trick the viewer. Very cool.

In addition to the vendors, there were also plenty of street musicians out. For quite a while, I sat and watched a bass and guitar duo playing jazz standards ("All of Me," Girl from Ipanema") . The guitarist was playing on a classical guitar while the bassist was playing what looked to me to be an old solid top upright. The bassist was getting a great slap sound, throwing it in intermittently during his walking lines. He seemed to be playing heavy in the pizzicato parts (two fingers, lots of meat on the string) but his slaps were quite light. They were the perfect accent to his playing. It reminds me of something someone once told me about slapping (both electric and upright) bass: its an effect that doesn't compensate for the notes you choose to play. I think that sometimes we (by that I mean "I") forget this lesson and just slap away with not enough attention being paid to the actual notes, rhythm, and feeling the music is conveying. The bassist I saw today knew exactly the right balance between his music he was playing and his "effect."

One of things I was taken by was the number of people who were watching the pair play. People were really involved, some dancing, everyone applauding after each song. In fact, now that I think about it, very few people just walked by without stopping for at least a song. I know it sounds cliché, but there really does seem to be a greater appreciation of jazz in Europe than in North America. (I've noticed this many times before.) I'm not sure what the reason is (I want to hear a better reason than "cultural differences").

I also saw a bagpipe group, two string quartets, and a relatively large string ensemble playing out in the streets. All of these were playing for wedding parties who are walking just hanging out on the cobblestone streets downtown. I guess Saturday is also wedding day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eric Wilson's Against Happiness

I've been reading Eric Wilson's book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. I picked it up because several of the people in the research group I of which I am a member conduct research on subjective well-being (i.e., happiness). There is no shortage of criticisms regarding the search on positive psychology and happiness (for example, read this and this), and I myself have my own criticisms of this approach to studying economic policy.

Wilson's book, I hoped, would offer some interesting insights. Personally, my concerns with happiness studies are in part motivated by a framing effect that seemed right along the lines in Wilson's book. I think framing people's lives in terms of how happy they are can get people to think about the normative concept of how happy they should be. As a result, many people will feel unhappy as an artifact of not begin as happy as they should be. Since the pursuit of happiness motivates behavior, we should be concerned about giving people the wrong frame of reference or making salient benchmarks that should be irrelevant to current decision making. It's one thing to look at the income distribution and learn that you fall below median, it may quite another to learn that you fall below median happiness. That said, I'm not against studying the data we have on subjective well-being, I just think the results need to be interpreted (and implemented into policy analysis) with a great deal of caution.

This is what I hoped Wilson's book would deliver. Unfortunately, from my perspective, Wilson's book is a discussion of the melancholy in literature, particularly romantic literature. He talks about the power of feeling melancholy and how this is motivated great artists from Beethoven (who suffered from a "melancholy almost as great an evil as the other elements;" page 123) to John Lennon (Wilson's discussion of Lennon's melancholy starts with Yoko Ono; page 135).

As a result of perhaps poor product placement, this book has received a lot of negative reviews. (Here's Garrison Keillor's from the NYT.) So many that Wilson has responded, pointing out that people are looking at his book as something that it is not. It is an analysis of the melancholy from a literary perspective; it is not an argument or a case against happiness in research, as a policy tool, of in everyday life. We'll leave those arguments to others (for example, here, here, and here).

Beethoven Meets Goldie

Last night I took a walk around Bonn. Yesterday I wrote that Bonn was really a haven for classical music. But at night, I heard a lot of disco and jungle rhythms coming out of cafés and bars. Most interestingly, I heard (and more than a few places) classical remixes done in a drum and bass style. I know this make someone think of the 1980s remake of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and a disco style, but what I heard last night was much more tastefully done.

There is one thing here it stops all music. As you walk through Bonn right now you won't hear a single note being played unless it happens to be something going on in the Czech/Portugal soccer match. I swear it's playing on a big screen television every café I walked past.

I also stopped into a music store today. I was surprised to see how expensive things were. For example, starter electric guitar and bass kits made by Yamaha were selling for over €200. The same kits (made by Fender) sell for around $200 at my local Long & McQuade. The store had Cort guitars selling for between €300 an €500. I picked one up and it was just what you would expect from a Cort guitar: it felt like it was going to break in my hands. Although I was shocked at the prices, I was impressed by their sheet music selection for double bass. They even had a few pieces written for Bertram Turetzky. I thought about purchasing them (and still may) but alot of the specifics about the notation and instructions for performance were in German. Still these pieces are hard enough to find in Canada and the prices seemed reasonable. (In fact it look like these pieces had been marked down substantially from their previously crazy prices.)

Oh yeah, I'm also getting some of my work done.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beethoven House

I'm in Bonn Germany for a few days, working at IZA. I got in today so only had a little of time in the office, but went for a walk later on. My goal is to stay up until 10pm tonight. (I haven't slept since 8am yesterday Mountain time.)

I went to the Beethoven Haus on my walk, a place I've gone to both times I've been in Bonn. Bonn is really a city of classical music. Beethoven lived here and his museum is really quite amazing. I'm always awed by the instruments and the original manuscripts here. Matt Heller recently wrote about Beethoven's "style" of writing and the "need" for corrections. I have to say that looking at his manuscripts, I have no idea how to read them. I assume they are drafts, hence the markings and edits throughout. It gives a great view into part of a real genius' creative process.

My favorite exhibits in the museum are the instruments which Beethoven used when he wrote his String Quartet op. 18. The museum sells CD's of Beethoven's works performed on his instruments. I picked up the string quartets.

Tomorrow is time for real work though. I'm hoping the owner of my hotel will help me identify a few music stores here in Bonn.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Losing the gig..

I've always tried to be careful in terms of my priorities. So far I've been very lucky. I have a great family, a good job, and a moderately successful music career which includes performing and recording at my own studio. In my mind, my music career is very successful but I measure it in relation to my other commitments and playing a careful balancing act. I have to know when to say know to a gig or project and have to know how to keep my mind wrapped around the various gigs and ensembles I play with while still doing my job and being there for my wife and kids.

Well, finally things "broke": I got asked to step aside fom a project I was really excited about. Due to work, I would be missing a bunch of rehearsals for an upcoming musical that I've been heavily involved with (recording and accompanying record, composing music, playing gigs to raise money for the production). Since I was missing these rehearsals, the writer (under stong suggestions by the director) asked for musicians who could be there the whole time. As a result, I was forced to step aside.

I'm pretty upset about it as this was something I was really looking forward to. There are upsides: I have a lot more time now during a period which is already busy with gigs and family stuff, I don't have to sub out any of the gigs I was planning on subbing out, I can go see Jonathan Richman.... I'm sure there are others. That said, I feel a bit like this is a watershed moment. In some sense, I just had too much going on at once and things had to be let go.

This kind of makes me play a bit of a "shoulda, woulda, coulda" game with myself. Had I been more serious aobut my music at a time when I was focused on my education/career, would I have been a more successful performer/composer? Could I have been able to support my family as a musician? I know that this is a futile exercise , which makes it all the worse.

Oh well, onward and upward.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

After 11 years, my first electric bass gig

Last time I played electric bass for an audience was in 1997. I was on tour with the Demonics and Incredibly Strange Wrestling. (I was also serving a a ring announcer for the wrestling matches.) The last gig I did was in Chicago and my girlfriend (now wife) had flown out the night before.

So two nights ago I played a gig with an electric bass. I usually play double bass but, like many, started on electric bass and thought I could competently play the bass guitar. I dragged out my 1978 Fender Jazz Bass (modified with a Bartolini preamp and a Hipshot D-tuner) and stumbled through 45 minutes of music. I literally stumbled. I had forgotten how heavy and electric bass can be (especially my old beast). I still have a sore shoulder from where the strap carried the bass. Plus, I got a blister on my right-hand index finger. My hands take a bit of a beating slapping on an upright bass, but man am I out of shape with a bass guitar.

I think I'll make a point of practicing a bit before my next electric gig.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Six Rounds Review: Recap

So I recently wrote about Six Rounds Rockabilly Recoil pickup. After a few weeks of gigging. I'm totally sold on this pickup. Way easier and better sounding than the K&K pickup. If you're playing rockabilly and looking for a good sound, get this pickup. Definitely worth the price, but follow my installation suggestions.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Defining Success

In a recent post Arnold Kling made the observation regarding how important it is to define success in an appropriate way for your preferences. I've seen this argument here (where there are benefits to having different people define success differently) and here (where the idea is applied to the underclass). Needless to say, I agree with Arnold's observations.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The only way to Carnegie Hall

Practice, practice, practice. We all know its the key to really understanding and being able to make great music with you instrument. Now, the Harvard Business Review has an article about the importance of it: Check out Ericsson et al "The Making of an Expert."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Six Rounds review

I recently received the Six Rounds Rockabilly Recoil and Double Barrel pickups for upright bass. At a recent gig, I broke an old Underwood when I fell off my bass unexpectedly (long story; maybe another post). I was looking for an inexpensive pickup to replace it and came across those made by Six Rounds.

The Recoil has one wing pickup and one fingerboard pickup (similar to the K&K rockabilly system) while the Double Barrel has two wing pickups (much link an Underwood). The Recoil also has a separate volume control for the fingerboard pickup which, unlike the K&K, is passive and doesn't require a battery. I use a separate preamp and really liked this feature.

I got the pickups before the first in what was a long series of gigs. I was short on time and didn't have the option of experimenting with the pickups. Installing the pickups was easy, although the fingerboard pickup on the Recoil is much larger than that of the K&K. As a result, I had a harder time finding a large enough flat spot under the fingerboard where I could install it. I ended up putting it at the top of the fingerboard.

I started with the rockabilly recoil pickup on a Czech plywood bass, but also had another underwood hooked up to do a comparison. While I had briefly tested everything at home before the show (albeit at low volumes) that night the recoil did nothing but feedback. I ended up having to roll off all the bass in order to get anything usable. (I should mention that throughout these gigs I was using a Fishman Preamp, an Acoustic Image Focus and a Bag End cabinet.)

The next day, I decided to run a few experiments. I tried a lot of different EQ tricks but then used something harder (a saw reed) in place of the cork spacers that came with the Six Round pickups. This solved the feedback issues immediately. Its as if the cork absorbs too much vibration from the bass and weakens the signal received by the piezo. As a result, what should have a sharp attack gets muted and those low frequencies are left to bounce around the room. The reed (or anything harder) solved this problem. After some more experimenting, I found that a reed on the bottom and a cork spacer on the top gave me the best sound for the wing pickup.

That night I tried the same set up and the Recoil gave me a more natural sound, rivaling the Underwood. When I slapped, the Recoil was an improvement over the Underwood.

On Sunday I had a gig at an art gallery and used the Double Barrel with one reed and one cork spacer in each wing. It sounded great.

Over the next gigs I compared the Double Barrel to the David Gage Realist on a plywood bass and a carved instrument. These were mainly jazz, swing, and folk gigs so I didn't do a lot of slapping. Across all of these gigs, I needed to modify my tone to fit the genre. Again, using a reed in the wing as a spacer, the Double Barrel gave the Realist a run for its money. The only cases where the Realist and the Underwood were noticeably better were when I mounted the pickups on a carved bass (the Realist captured more of the tonal color of that bass than did the Six Rounds) and when I was bowing.

So, after giving the Six Rounds pickups a workout over two weeks of gigs, I'm impressed with them. For the price I don't think they can't be beat. They sound great and are easy to control in terms of their ability to give you the tonal color you want. I think for regular gigs, this is a great option, particularly the Recoil as you have the extra control with the fingerboard pickup.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Nice tool for research, music, and general computer use

I just came across Evernote. It works like Google Notebook (which I use frequently) but does not require you to be online to use. Rather you can sync your computer with your online store of notes and access everything off-line. I use this not only for my research, but also to save blog comments, lead sheets, etc. Its a great tool.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Bass Buggie review

I recently received a Bass Buggie from KC Strings. I'm impressed: It's easy to attach, easy to remove, and moves great in traffic. The fact that you can strap the buggie to your bass without any modifications (i.e., removing your endpin) is great.

I had two gigs yesterday and needed to walk my for a couple of blocks downtown (in both pedestrian and vehicular traffic). I know I could have done it without the buggie (I have before), but it was so much easier with this little contraption. Plus, it looked way cooler than huffing and puffing with my bass on my back. Moreover, given that I usually carry my bass using the shoulder strap or one of the handles on my gig bag, the buggie may actually extend the life of my gig bag as it won't have the stress on the strap or handles from long walks carrying my bass.

Kudos to KC Strings.

The buggy is priced at $110 or so, which seems comparable to the price of wheels (ranging between $75 and $136 depending on what you're looking for). That said, the practicality of the buggie over a bass wheel make it well worth the price.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

PJ Tan Violin Shop, Edmonton AB Canada

In a recent Contrabass Conversations interview, Barrie Kolstein gave some advice on buying a bass. I think the most interesting piece of advice he gave was something along the lines of “If you find a bass that feels right to you, that you can play and feel comfortable with, buy it.” I had received this advice from others, including Ken Smith, Arnold Schnitzer (both via email) and a guitar player I used to play with (over drinks).


On a recent trip to Edmonton, I stopped by P.J. Tan’s Violin Shop. This is a beautiful shop with exquisite violins, cellos and violas. I’m talking about simply amazing instruments. As a bonus, P.J. and Graham are absolutely great. Genuinely good people who are committed to the music and the instruments they support.

I played one of the few basses they had in stock. I loved the neck immediately. It’s a bit shorter scale than I’m used to, but has a nice flat round feel that reminds me of my old King bass and (oddly enough) a Fender jazz bass. The sound is awesome: big and hearty, dark but with a bright finish. (It’s like I’m describing a bad wine.) It felt great and, following the advice above, I bought it. Surely more money than I could afford to spend, but what an instrument. P.J. is doing a few things to it (e.g. repairing a seam and re-shaping the bridge) and delivering it this weekend.

I’ll write more and post some pictures of the bass soon. Right now, I want to give my endorsement right now to P.J. Tan’s Violins. It’s difficult to find a good luthier who you trust. I would make the drive to have P.J. or Graham work on my bass.

LaFaro, Bremy, Bruce

I recently picked up a copy of Scott LaFaro transcriptions by Phil Palombi. I'm a big fan of LaFaro's. I've often joke that if Paul Chambers is the Charlie Parker of the bass, then Scott LaFaro was the Randy Rhodes of the bass, but ahead of Randy's time. (Listen to his solo on Waltz for Debbie and tell me there's not a little bit of Hessian in LaFaro.)

In any event, I've been working through this book and learning a lot. At a recent gig I was playing to an almo0st empty room with a trio and decided to try some of the LaFaro-ish tricks I had picked up from the book. I was quite happy with the results, particularly how rhythmically using triplets and quintuplets in my solos added a nice feel and gave me room to explore different note groupings. I was also incorporating a lot of double stops into my playing that night.

I was really excited when, on one of our breaks, a patron came up to me and mentioned how much he liked my playing and, to my surprise, said that some of my playing was reminiscent of Scott LaFaro. I graciously thanked him for the complement and told him about the book. A little while later somebody else came up to me and said how much they like the band and mentioned how my playing reminded them of a young Pete Bremy (of the Vanilla Fudge) or Jack Bruce (of Cream). I thanked them for the complement. That said, I liked the first complement better.

Man, Jenny McCarthy drives me nuts...

and not like she used to back in 1995.

I'm at the point now that I think she's doing a disservice to the autism community. Yesterday she was on CNN with three doctors for debate regarding vaccines and autism. (For those of you don't know, yesterday was World Autism Awareness Day. April is Autism Awareness Month.) While three doctors were calmly debating the relationship between vaccines and autism, she was freaking out, interrupting and talking about how vaccines contain mercury, aluminum, and ( I'm not sure about this one) antifreeze. She railed about when her son died. When Larry King questioned her about this, she said it was only for two minutes. (I guess her son has something in common now with Nikki Sixx and Dave Mustaine.) I think her main point is the following (slightly related to, but ten years than, the accompanying picture):

"In 1983, the vaccine schedule was 10. Ten vaccines given. Now, today, there are 36, and a lot of people don't know that. I do not believe that vaccines are the sole cause for autism. I do believe they are a trigger. There's something in the immune system that is weakened in these kids, they maybe can't process the vaccines. I don't think it's solely the vaccines. I think there's toxins in the environment, pesticides. It's kind of like a pile-up. If you can fill up a bucket of all this stuff going on with these kids, if they have a weak immune system, all that crap is going to overflow."

The main reason why she drives me crazy and I think she's doing a disservice is that she's pushing parents in a direction that leads them to pointing fingers rather than working with their children. I fear that her writings about how she cured autism to lead parents to scouring the Internet for the secret cure rather than spending time with their kids. I've seen too many parents get caught up on a diet which will supposedly cure autism but really only results in a child not eating what is put in front of them. If there was really a cure for autism, it wouldn’t be a pharmaceutical industry trade secret. It would be out there and available.

Second, I think Jenny McCarthy lacks a fundamental understanding the economics involved with making decisions. I'm not talking about the economics of the health-care industry and budgets and the like, but rather about the fact that every decision requires us to trade off costs and benefits. Although vaccines may be related to the increased incidence of autism, eliminating vaccines is not the alternative. While forgoing an MMR vaccination has the potential benefit of reducing the likelihood of the onset of autism, it also increases the likelihood of contracting mumps, measles, rubella (all of which can be fatal in small children). In turn, it increases the risk of an outbreak of these diseases.

That said, maybe Jenny McCarthy does understand these trade-offs and she did say in her CNN interview that she would rather her son have mumps and autism. I think this is kind of a crazy statement: I don't think I'd be capable of making any type a decision like that.

I think this autism debate just highlights another place in which individuals need understand some basic economics with regard to the fact that every decision we make, be it buying a house or deciding whether or not to vaccinate our children, involves trade-offs. Some of these trade-offs affect a small group of people; others that can affect a large group of people (as in the choice to forgo vaccines and risk an outbreak).

Note: My fundamental feeling on the issue is that there is a genetic component which determines your sensitivity to various compounds and chemicals, some of which are included in vaccines, some of which are included environment. Vaccines interact with these inherited sensitivities and sometimes results in the onset of autism. I don't mean to make light of the issue or the struggle that the parents of an autistic child face. I just think it's important to keep these trade-offs in mind.

Albertan Tar Sands

Calgary made the Democracy Now broadcast of April 2nd. There’s an interesting discussion of Calgary in regards to the actions by U.S. oil companies regarding investments in clean(-er) energies and the availability of oil in Albertan tar-sands (which is about the dirtiest way to get oil). Much of this discussion came from Naomi Klein’s piece “Baghdad Burns, Calgary Booms.” Worth reading and listening too if you’re interested in Alberta’s oil reserves, the environment, and how the behavior of world markets and the lack of investment in alternate energies can make extraction from the tar sands actually economically feasible.

Worse Paper Cut Ever

Last Wednesday I suffered what must qualify as the worst paper cut ever.

I picked up a ream of paper at work and slid my hands along the sides of the package with the intent of opening it. Unfortunately, the label on the end of the package slipped underneath the fingernail on my right-hand middle finger, putting a 7 mm cut between my finger and fingernail. After cleaning up the blood and using some super glue to reattach my fingernail, my thoughts turned to the weekend. I had five gigs between Thursday night and Sunday morning, each about four hours in length and each requiring that I slap on my bass (rockabilly and jump blues). Basically I prepared for a weekend of pain and suffering.

To a large extent, the weekend went as I expected: I was in pain. Every time I slapped (which requires pulling the string away from the fingerboard with my right hand) my finger ached. Every once in a while I would try to slap only using only my index finger. Unfortunately, is left my middle finger dangling in the air where on more than one occasion it smacked into the fingerboard or hit a string fingertip-on. By Saturday night, the cut on my finger was big enough to fit a G-string.

I did the best I could to take care of the cut (short of having been more careful opening the package of paper). I used lotion and wrapped my finger at night. During the day I tried to keep it covered and used Polysporin to help it heal. I was really amazed at how well Polysporin worked at speeding up the healing process. Before each gig (and sometimes between sets) I used a little bit of Liquid Skin to avoid opening the cut again. In the end, I learned was a lot about taking care of a cut and a little about how not to open a ream of paper.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Keep the Buses Running on TIme!

I don't ask much from my city government. Fix the potholes, maybe a good recycling program, police and fire services. The other thing I want is buses that run on time. Or lease run predictably.

One concern of every municipality is public transit, particularly ridership. Cities want people to take the bus: it's good for traffic's good for the environment and maybe even good for social capital.

However, keeping public transit running on time never seems to be a priority for local politicians. I remember not so fondly when Willie Brown became mayor of San Francisco. In almost an instant the buses were running late or running inconsistently. It wasn't a surprise to see two or three number 39 buses backed up one right after the other.


Yesterday I experienced the same frustration. On my way home from work I wanted to take the number 20 bus. I called the scheduling line and was told of the next number 20 bus was in 16 minutes. So I decided to take another route via the number 72 bus. As soon as I climbed aboard the number 72 and the bus pulled away, a number 20 pulled in behind us. Being on the 72 I call to see when the number 4 bus was coming (I needed to transfer to this bus). I was told 19 minutes. Five minutes I got to my stop just in time to watch the number 4 bus pull in and out of its stop as there was nobody there. Had I known the number 4 bus would be there, I would have gotten off at a different stop and taken a back alley to get to the number 4. Even with all my waving and running, the bus driver didn't wait.

In the end, the experienced convinced me that the buses here are screwed up as well.

I don't think municipalities really realize how important public transit is to people. Local politicians tend to focus on the problem of traffic without ever really pushing for an efficient solution. Instead of talking about improving existing bus service, they talk about the need for light-rail train services or subway systems to be built. Here are my suggestions for improving public transit and, hence, reducing traffic.

  1. Cut the price of the bus ticket from $2 and change to $1. One coin. One loonie. It's easy convenient and quick. Moreover, this price change should increase ridership. There are some estimates of fare elasticity (i.e., the extent to which a change in the price of a bus ticket affect ridership) and they all seem to fall around -.4. This means that a 50% decline in the price of a bus ticket will increase ridership by approximately 20%.
  2. You can make up for the lost revenue by jacking up the cost of parking downtown. This will also encourage people to use public transit.
  3. Gasoline taxes are also effective way to increase ridership. One study estimates the gas price elasticity of ridership to be 0.3, meaning that a 10% increase in the price of gasoline would result in a 3% increase in ridership.
  4. Finally, and above all else, keep the buses running on time. Or at least predictably.

The issue for local governments when they consider public transit is how to pay for it. While providing public transit is costly, I believe they often forget that individuals make all sorts of trade-offs in their daily decision-making, and that riding the bus or taking a car is one of these trade-offs. An understanding of some basic economic ideas (like elasticity, like opportunity cost) should be introduced into these considerations regarding “keeping the buses running on time”.

Diagnosing Autism

Here's an interesting article from CNN, mainly for parents needing help getting a proper diagnosis of their children with respect to autistic behavior. I think the article is good, but worry sometime about the potential for over-reaction. In some sense, I worry the article makes it easy for parents to see "autism" as a label to explain certain behaviors that could be attributable to other causes.

Reading this article made me think of some other incidents I've experienced when autism makes the popular press:
  1. When The Curious Incident About the Dog in the Night came out, everyone recommended it to me. Some even asked if my son was like the kid in the book. I never read the book. At the time I was reading a lot of books for parents and clinical work on autism and therapy techniques. I couldn't handle reading about autism for fun. (Some people actually recommended it to me as a "fun read" since I had a son with autism.)
  2. Jenny McCarthy's book about her son is (from what I've been told) a quick and easy read. However, most parents who read the book then spend lots of time looking at various diets and other "non-traditional" approaches to treatment. While these are potential sources of benefits, my experience has been that the benefits from these are (for most individuals) on the margin of the greater benefits obtained through one-on-one therapy and interactions. My worry with this kind of book is that it suggests a "cure" for autism which may distract parents form the daily needs and regular therapy an autistic child requires. I think its important to remember that Jenny McCarthy has a lot of resources (i.e., money) which permitted her to give her son 24 hour support. Most parents don't have this and so must be perhaps more organized with their time in caring for their child. I know too many parents who have spend literally hours per day looking on the internet for the miracle diet or the silver-bullet of vitamins. This time probably could have been better spent with the child or taking care of oneself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ray Brown's slap technique

Here's a great video from YouTube of Ray Brown talking about the history of bass playing. Lots of players in the roots/rockabilly genres forget that jazz layers used slap techniques, refining them beyond their original incarnations. In this video (one of nine videos of Ray teaching a masters class) Ray talks about the history of playing technique and does some great slapping. Particularly interesting is the speed and smoothness of his slaps. I love the flow of his arm motion parallel to the strings.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

A New Band of Note

Well, I just found out that my nephew has a new band: They're called We Can't Grow Mustaches. Awesome. The only down side is that my nephew, alas, is a drummer.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fans (?)

Last night (28th of February 2008) started as one of those gigs and musicians hate. We were playing rockabilly/honky-tonk and, at first, the crowd seemed to like the music: dancing, applause after each song. However, by the time the second set started we were hated. A few groups of tourists had come in and approached the band with requests for funk, reggae, Nirvana, Three Weeks ‘till Tuesday (our one of those bands). Finally, one guy in a down jacket (Why do you wear down jacket in a club?) requested Johnny Cash but wanted it played with a funk beat. (I'm not even sure what that means.)

Not that we were particularly playing for these guys, but we play Johnny Cash, without the funk beat. As we started to play the song, or guitar player walked up to the mic and said "We're going to play Johnny Cash for the guy here in the life jacket," referring to the guy’s down jacket. Basically, for the rest of the set were getting ready for a fight.

It's a hard gig when the crowd doesn't like you. It's harder when they're drunk and want to physically hurt you.

For the rest of the second set, no applause. No dancing. Just scowls. Near the end of the set the drunken tourists of note got up and did some strange 1980s looking dance. Something Molly Ringwald would've done in the Breakfast Club. I think they were trying (a high school sort of way) to make fun of us. (I don't mean to be condescending, it’s just how you would make fun of a band in high school: dancing away you think reflects poorly on them. If I was still in high school or have the IQ of a bowling ball, I would have been offended. OK, now on being condescending.)

Fortunately (I guess) the group of tourists in question each did 14 shots of Jagermeister. (On their web site, Jagermeister promotes responsible drinking. Maybe they meant responsible binge drinking?)

Somewhere between the second and third sets, the tourists of note disappeared. A bouncer told me he threw out two of them for getting a fight with each other. A server told me the one of them got sick and the girl’s bathroom. (I should mention, they were all guys.) Maybe it was just the presence of these guys, but the third set had dancing, applause, and smiles on the faces of all. In the end it was a fun gig, although I think we were a little disappointed that are revving up for a fight was for naught.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Taking Care of Your Hands 2

In a previous post I wrote about taking care of my hands. I would like to write briefly about a few things I've learned about slapping with respect to caring for your hands.

There seems to be a myth out there that you really have to pull hard on your strings to get a good sound. That's not the case: yes you need to pull the string, no you don't need a lot of distance from the fingerboard to get the desired slap. Instead, only use the tips of your fingers and pull enough just to get the string to rebound off the fingerboard. In terms of caring for your hands, your fingertips are already "padded" in the sense that the skin there is stronger than on the rest of your fingers. As a result, using your fingertips avoids injuring the fleshy part of your fingers on the insides of your knuckles. (I've seen some people literally curl their fingers around the string and get stress cuts all the way down their fingers.) By using your fingertips, you also obtain a smooth motion in which the hand pulls away and the string naturally rolls off the pads on your fingertips, slapping against the fingerboard.

Yes you will get blisters doing this. I think that’s just the nature of slapping on an upright bass. The trick though is trying to minimize any serious damage while at the same using a part of your hand that is relatively quick to callus.

The other advantage of using your fingertips and not hitting too hard is that you are less likely to smack your fingers into the fingerboard. Some players I know get these nasty breaks in their skin where it looks like their fingernails are separating from their fingers. We've all heard the stories about some stodgy teacher wrapping her students’ fingertips with a ruler. That's exactly what you're doing each time your fingertips ram into the fingerboard as a result from an overzealous and slightly miscalculated slap.

The basic lesson on caring for your hands while slapping: don't have to slap hard and you don't need to use a lot of finger on the strings. Hope this helps.

Taking Care of Your Hands 1

It seems that at almost every gig, someone asks to see my hands. I think they wonder how destroyed my hands are after an evening of slapping. Years ago, I played with the psychobilly band. After every gig with that band, the fingertips on my right hand looked like hamburger meat. Sometimes during a set, I would pour super glue on them. Sometimes I'd wipe the bloody hand across my shirt. All in the name of punk rock. (I met my wife while playing with that band. She used to come to gigs with an array of first aid items. In part, she won my heart by fixing my fingers.)

Now, I take better care of my hands. People (mainly other players) ask me if I have any tips on taking care of your hands. Here are a few:

  1. I put Burt’s Bees hand salve on a night, particularly when my hands have taken a beating at a gig. It's pretty greasy. I try to let my hands soak up the moisture while I sleep.
  2. During the day, I put lotion on my hands. I know it sounds namby-pamby, but Burt's Bees makes an almond milk lotion that is pretty great.
  3. If I do get a cut or split in my finger, I use liquid skin to seal it. I used to use Super Glue. One problem with Super Glue is that it can form crystals that actually make the cut worse. Also, it usually takes part of your skin with it when it comes off. That said, it will do in a pinch and it's easy to find at almost any store in any town.
  4. Wear gloves to protect your hands on cold days and nights. I often put on lotion and then my gloves, again protecting my hands and giving them time to soak up the moisture.
  5. When I get a blister, I lance it with a sterilized needle after a gig (usually at home). I know it's not the best, but in my experience it speeds up the healing process and allows you to keep playing. It seems to me the worst thing you can do is have a blister pop while slapping on your strings. Aside from making a mess, you're exposed to a lot more germs.

Next time, I'll write a little bit about right hand technique (if you can call anything that I do a "technique") with respect to taking care of your hands.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jazz Jams

I just came across Bill Anschell's web site. He had this great description of bassists:

Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he’s listening.
He has some funny takes on jazz jams and "jazz math."

Friday, February 22, 2008

A proud father daughter moment

Yesterday I experienced a true bonding moment with my daughter: she asked to borrow some of my Murray's pomade. I've been using Murray's (exclusively) for 15 years. Its beautiful to watch your little girl blossom into a greaser.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Being new to playing in an orchestra, I'm a little flummoxed as to what the role of the conductor is and how I should be "using" the conductor. While I'm playing in the orchestra, I'm so fixed on the music in front of me (and what the rest of the section is doing) that the conductor could be doing about anything. In the end, I need to figure this out.

On this point (somewhat), here is a great post about conducting technique. I love the video at the end. If you have the chance, turn off the sound of the video and put on whatever music you'd like. It seems to work well with almost anything else. Its like the harmony between Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the Wizard of Oz. Crazy man.

Practicing tips

I only recently discovered Bass Musician Magazine. It's an online magazine to which Contrabass Conversations’ Jason Heath contributes. Overall, I think it's pretty good, although you can't really trust or expect great things from everything you read online. While many of the technical articles are largely targeted towards beginners, there are some interesting articles on avoiding injuries by Randy Kertz and some good articles giving tips for practicing. What I particularly liked was on the idea of "doubling" by Adam Nitti. His general theme is on increasing your speed. The typical way this is done is by setting your metronome and slowly increasing the tempo to build up speed (he calls this the "metronomic ladder"). Nitti's suggestion is to play a piece (say a scale or arpeggio) at a given speed three times and then, without changing the metronome, doubling the speed for the fourth repetition. For example, play a scale three times as eighth notes in the fourth time at sixteenth notes. Eventually, as you get better at playing the piece at the initial tempo, you can increase the metronome tempo or increase the number of times you play it at the double to speed. In his words

"the reason this approach is so effective is because it shocked your system at the plank twice as fast momentarily under focused concentration and attention to detail because you are only playing a single repetition at double-speed unit not become overwhelmed by the faster tempo, and thereby have a much higher success rate with respect to your conditioning."

I've been trying this technique with my warm-up exercises and that without it very useful.

Another tip I came across is in Margret Elson's "Passionate Practice." The tip (in full detail on page 51 of her book) is to take a piece your trying to learn, get in a relaxed state, and then play only the first bar plus the following downbeat. After having done this get back into a relaxed state and play the second bar plus the following dounbeat. Stop again get into a relaxed state and continue with the subsequent bars or groups of bars (e.g., play four bars plus the following downbeat). I found this technique very useful on the more difficult pieces I'm trying to learn. The technique made me focus on just getting a small part of music down. Oftentimes, I get overwhelmed when I try to play a piece. This technique has allowed me away to break the piece into smaller chunks which I can get my head around and then assemble into the full piece. That said, I don't follow this technique religiously. I only really use it on parts work by myself getting tripped up.

Just as a note, I like Elson's book. I've read reviews of it that haven't been very good, although a lot of their criticisms are well-founded. She talks about putting yourself in a relaxed/alert state using a "calming light" exercise. She also talks about positioning your hands in "puppy dog position" and using a "magic carpet" to raise your hands to your instrument. If you can get beyond this terminology (which I feel compromises or trivializes what she's trying to say), I think the book has a lot of nice lessons and tips on how to prepare yourself for learning and performing.

In defense of chaotic practice

Whenever I sit down to practice I try to give myself at least five minutes of just making noise on my instrument. I'm not really just making noise, but I'm giving myself a little bit of time in which I can experiment and try new things. I usually do this after my warm-ups and largely just let my fingers, hands, arms move freely. Sometimes a little melody will emerge and I'll play variations of it. The point of this is really twofold. First it kind of fun after having engaged in a series of warm-ups that, in and of themselves, are not very exciting. Secondly, sometimes I discover a little fragment or short melody that I wouldn't have found otherwise. When this happens I play some variations over the melody and then take a moment write it down. This fragment usually sits in my notebook unattended to for some time. I then given another look and sometimes it gets transformed into the core of an actual piece of music.

The idea of giving myself this freedom to make noise comes from William Westney's The Perfect Wrong Note. When I first read this book, I enjoyed it as a good read. I've actually gone back and read it a few times now and have become more appreciative of its central ideas. Many books on practicing (and indeed many teachers) encourage you to have a plan for your practice. While this may be useful in preparing for a performance or audition, it oftentimes doesn't let you explore your creative ideas. What I like about Westney’s book is that it encourages you to let yourself play in an undirectied and unstructured manner. The idea here is to try to find that "perfect wrong note" or "divine mistake" which brings your ideas together and gives your music or performance that spark which makes it unique.

Beyond finding a perfect wrong note in music, there are plenty of cases of technological innovation which have been the result of "finding the perfect wrong" way of doing something. For example, sticky notes were discovered by 3M after a failed attempt to make an adhesive. (Similarly, the dust masks made by 3M were the result of their failed attempt to make disposable bras.) In terms of technology, I've been told that the manner in which glasses poured to obtain a flat surface was discovered by a son of the original Pilkington of Pilkington Glass. Apparently he knocked over several mold of molten glass. When the glass cooled, it was perfectly flat. His accident (although resulting in minor injuries and damage to equipment) led to a technological improvement.

Exceptional trivia

I've recently supervised my first graduate student in completing her Ph.D. Like most people who finish a doctoral degree, she went out on the academic market to find a job. In fact, in my opinion, she did quite well and got offers from some very good schools. In the end, she turned them all down.

I struggled with making sense of this. We always tell our graduate students to think hard about starting a Ph.D.: they have to be sure this is something they like and want to pursue because it requires an awful lot of work. And when we say "this is something they like it want to pursue" the "this" in that phrase is academia.

Before the job market got into full swing, my student mentioned that she wasn't sure if she wanted an academic job. I told her not to turn down the jobs she hadn’t been offered yet and encouraged her to go through the interviewing process. In the end, she wanted more to her life and what academia could give. This is not to say that academics have empty lives. I think of my life is quite full; I'm an academic, a father, a husband, a musician, and a lot of other things. In fact I think it's my job as an academic which permits me the freedom to pursue my other avocations.

That said, most academics are really, as a friend of mine once said, "purveyors of exceptional trivia." I don't see any of my colleagues making discoveries in their research the truly benefit the world. See, I'm in the "soft" sciences where a lot of what goes on as research is oftentimes clever model building in order to support an opinion. The research that does have an impact on people's daily lives is that research which, unfortunately, is looked down upon but most of us in the profession. These are the short policy briefs that point out in a straightforward way that, say, disability benefits have not kept up with inflation. These pieces are somewhat looked down upon because they don't involve a clever model or use sophisticated mathematics. Rather they use the simple tools of the trade to make a point.

These pieces make their point in such a clear way that they are actually read by policymakers who didn't realize that, say, disability benefits haven't kept up with inflation and therefore raise disability benefits. The end result of this research is that the well-being of people receiving disability benefits is improved. I have a hard time believing that the more "academic" research on the buffalo hunt, Canadian military history, or what were the reasons behind extending the franchise in the 19th century will have as important benefits. (And yes, I've researched one of those topics.)