December 18, 2013

Album Review: Pitbull - Global Warming



I don't remember the first time I did the Macarena. I don't even remember the last the time I did the Macarena but I'm sure it wasn't that long ago. Maybe it was a wedding I attended in October. I know I heard a Macarena Christmas song a couple of days ago that people were singing along to and possibly dancing to. I was too focused on decorating cookies to pay much attention.

I was a middle schooler when the Macarena took the world (or at least the white-suburban world) by storm. It was a dance that people liked so much that we would do it at sporting events, in the privacy of our own bedrooms, anywhere that people felt the need to take part in large-scale social events.

I have a distinct memory of a 5th grade middle school dance, held in the gymnasium with all of the lights on. They were those big hanging dome-lights that look small from the gym floor but you know could easily crush a kid if they ever fell down. Whenever a student hit one with a kickball everyone would scatter and giggle, but not giggle too much because this is gym class and your pre-pubescent masculinity is being tested now and it fucking matters. They're the lights that take forever to turn on, you flip the switch and worry that maybe this time nothing will happen, but you notice a tiny inferno in each light bulb, like an old man slowly rising from his already fitful sleep.

The dance was held on the last day of school, from noon until the buses mercifully appeared to take us away. Attendance was mandatory. There were no alternatives, no movie to watch, no soccer game to play, just forced socializing, hopefully with the opposite gender. Despite spending the entire year eyeing each other we were not going to mingle. Hell no.

We did the the Chicken Dance, maybe some sort of slide or shuffle, definitely the YMCA, all from our respective sides of the gym. There were a few brave souls who would traverse the no-mans land in the middle of the dance floor (no black-soled shoes please) to talk to the girls or even dance. There was the occasional slow dance, when everyone would turn to look at the wall and talk to their friends. Everyone knew that there would be one final slow dance at the end of the day. This was the important one, this was the one to finally dance with that boy or girl you'd been thinking about the entire year.

My girl had a French name which I didn't know was a French name. She was also a year older than me and all of her friends were older than me, and taller than me, and more girl than I was boy. We had been in a group presentation earlier in the year during which I'm pretty sure I was a useless mess, even more shy than I normally was. I decided at that point, several months earlier, that I would tell this French-named girl that I was in love with her. Now, this year-end middle-school dance was my last chance. The next year she would be in a different class and be surrounded by other 7th grade and 8th grade boys, with little use for a scrawny 6th grade boy with glasses and a hair-cut that resembled a vivisected mushroom.

The entire social was just a preamble to the end. The final song represented a chance to dance with your special someone and then separate and hide your embarrassment, or to at least ask and live with the rejection on your own rather than face it daily in school. If she said yes, I could get close, for the first time in my life, for three-point-five minutes, sway arrhythmical, and then avoid the resulting awkward emotional limbo by heading home for the summer. No matter the result, there would be an unfortunate fallout, one that necessitated a summer's-worth of recuperation and emotional re-building. Nothing would be the same.

The minutes counted down to that fateful moment and I steeled myself to go ask her for the final dance. How would I navigate her friends? How would my friends act afterward? I hadn't told them that I liked the French-named girl. I didn't really care about them at this point. I was fixated on this one thing, this one thing that I felt an irreversible compulsion to do.

I worked my way across the barren wasteland, with the penultimate song blaring in my ears, threatening to mix up the galaxy of narratives running through my skull. I was through the circle of friends and asking for moment to the side. All of the rehearsal came in handy, when muscle memory took over and the words escaped without any actual brain activity. She agreed to partake in this exercise, to enter the contract of inarticulate adolescent social experimentation. As the final strains of an age-appropriate pop song ended we found a space on the floor, finally alone save the panoply of our middle school peers. We placed our arms around each other, me around her waist, her around my neck. My hands were clasped behind her back, so as to minimize the amount of intentional touching while maximizing the amount of inadvertent, excusable contact. It was nearly time to start swaying.

The fucking Macarena.

December 16, 2013

Why are all of the people staring at me?

"All of these people are looking at me. These people, these frogs, this goat...

Even this woman is looking at me"


Make-Up Lessons: Why You'll Never Win

Sisyphus, according to Greek mythology, was a king sentenced by the gods to roll a giant stone up a hill, only to have the stone roll back down. He was doomed to repeat this task for eternity. His struggle represents the futile quest for power, the meaningless of life and, for me, the absurdity of make-up lessons.

Sisyphus, the piano teacher, carrying his boulder of make-up lesson obligation.

If you talk to any piano teacher about their make-up policy you are likely to get either a groan, a bitter decree of teacher's rights, or a vacant stare that chills you to your very soul. Make-up lessons are the game that never pays dividends. In pedagogy classes one of the first things students will do is create a make-up policy. In the real world, this make-up policy is the first domino of bright-eyed idealism to come crashing to the ground.

First, let me tell you about my own make-up policies. I have two.

If the cancelled lesson is my own fault, say for a concert I'm playing in or if (God forbid) I get sick, then the make-up lessons are on me. I will come in on days I normally have off, or stick around for a couple of extra hours to do any make-ups. If I can't make it up over the course of the school year, students get a summer lesson credit.

If a student cancels a lesson here are the terms: If I'm notified at least 24 hours in advance I will try to find a make-up time for them. If I'm notified a month in advance I almost always make a time. If I find out less than 24 hours in advance the lesson is forfeit. I will only schedule around previously scheduled lessons, meaning I won't come in another day that I don't already teach, and I only offer times that are adjacent to existing lessons. If there's bad weather, as long as the building is open and I can make it to work we will still have lessons.

My makeup policy was created in response to an extremely influential (among teachers at least) article written in 2001 by Vicky Barham on the website Ottawa Suzuki Strings called "Make-up Lessons from An Economist's Point of View". In it Barham argues that lessons should be viewed as a non-returnable, non-durable good. Once a spot has been reserved for a student, a teacher should not be expected to have to make obligations for a student beyond that particular spot. The only way to make-up a lesson is to take some other time during the week, for which the student has not paid for, essentially asking the teacher to give the student two products for the price of one.

My policy is not as hardline as Barham lays out for a few reasons. If a student is the first or last of the day and I am notified well in advance I will usually reschedule because the time that they open up becomes free time for me. I head home early and trade that time off on some other day when I stay late. I will also gladly reschedule students into spots that are open. Sometimes two students can swap lessons in a week, or I can fit a student into a spot that is open in the middle of the schedule every day. Between these two things I can get out of the majority of bad rescheduling.

Overall though, the concept of make-ups is a losing bargain. Make-up policies are a social contract between the teacher and the parent. Both parties have to accept it. And even though at the outset of piano studies we sign an actual physical contract, parents don't always accept it. Many parents understand our arrangement. Some parents don't, and they are a constant source of concern for teachers.

The most obvious thing a parent can hold over teachers is the threat of un-enrolling their children from a teacher for inflexibility of scheduling. I've only ever had a couple of parents who became confrontational about this and pull their children from my studio, I believe in large part because of scheduling. In the case of one student, I had explained my studio policy (which gets presented at the beginning of the year in writing and verbally and which is posted on our studio blog all the time) and the student had cancelled or not shown up to at least two lessons in a term. At the end of the term a parent tried to schedule make-ups to which I told him that I wouldn't be able to and explained why, like I've done with many parents. He became very angry and we finished the term but he did not enroll the student in the following term. A similar situation happened with a parent who brought his children to a 45-minute lesson 30-minutes late and caught me in the middle of packing up to go home. We had a stand-off in the hallway to which I finally relented when I felt physically intimidated. This parent also did not enroll the following term.

The threat of lost income is the biggest thing shaping make-up policies. For a student to quit a studio, for the majority of teachers, is an assured loss of income in the near term, and a potential greater loss of income as long as the spot remains open. For me, a suddenly dropped student represents anywhere between $160-$1000 for the year. Often the spot can be filled quickly, but at certain times of year when enrollment is low this loss is hard to make-up.

Doing the make-ups themselves can also represent a loss. If you're doing a makeup for a student who is in the middle of your schedule, and you can't find a middle-of-the-day time to reschedule them into and no other student takes their spot, you are left with a blank spot in the time they paid for as well as a newly created time for which you are not getting paid. Essentially you are losing $25-$50 of potential income. This added up over the course of the year with dozens or hundreds of make-ups can equal a large loss of money. I have at least one of these rescheduling scenarios every week.

Barham recommends having a zero-makeup lesson policy. Because I also do free-lance musician work I don't feel that it's fair to have to impose rescheduling 2-3 lessons every year on my own account but offer no flexibility to students. My only zero-tolerance policy is for missed lessons that I haven't been notified for. If I get no warning (and an email 15 minutes before really doesn't count) then I never make up the lessons and parents (with the one exception above) understand this and don't expect me to make it up.

The school I work at is mostly patronized by middle-class urban dwellers who I think understand the predicament that music teachers are in. We don't earn very much and have limited hours in which to work. On the other hand lessons are expensive for families and people want to get their money's worth.

My advice to new private music teachers would be this: be tough for your own mental health, but expect to make concessions. It's not an easy business to be in, especially if this is the primary source of income in your household. Be extremely organized so that you don't waste a lot of time chasing make-ups around. Try to understand where parents are coming from, but also try to gently remind them of your own situation.

Good luck.

December 5, 2013

Staying Healthy in the Studio

Music can be a disgusting trade to get into. Percussionists have it easy, since (for the most part) they make contact with their instruments through mallets and sticks. String players usually don't play anyone's instruments but their own. Wind and brass players however are in a field where everyone is constantly buzzing their lips and exhaling gallons of their filthy microbe-laden air. Singers are constantly sick for the same reason. Pianists have the unique experience of sharing instruments. Because pianos are too big to carry we get to put our fingers on the same keys that hundreds of other pianists, or piano students, have also been putting their fingers on. Fingers that have been on door-knobs, toilet seats, eyes, ears, mouths...you get the idea.

Kids are notoriously bad at basic personal hygiene and controlling their bodies around other people. It is because of this that piano studios can be the gateway to an illness-ridden lifestyle. Every day I see kids wipe their noses with their hands, cough into their hands, pick their ears with their hands. Sometimes kids will even sneeze or cough directly onto the piano keys, aerosoling their invisible illness into my previously pristine air. Of course, I try to get hand sanitizer onto them before the digits hit the ivories but most of the time it's too late. When flu season kicks into high gear I'll often send an email out to parents reminding them to talk to their kids about proper coughing and sneezing techniques, but there are always students who come in and spend a third of the lesson coughing with open mouths, eyes bugged out, directly onto the keys and music stand and my hand if I haven't gotten out of the way. Coughing into my face at a close proximity? Yes, it's happened.

So what do I do to keep healthy? Well, the first year I just wasn't healthy. I got sick constantly throughout the year with the apex being a nasty hit of norovirus at my family's Christmas celebration (sorry I blamed the meatballs, mom). But this is an experience many teachers can relate to. The first year is the sick year, then your immune system gets stronger, you sleep better because you know what you're doing, and the workload eases down (sort of). So first step to staying healthy? Get sick because you have no choice.

Make sure you stock plenty of hand-sanitizer in your studio. If your school is really nice they might do it for you, but a big bottle of sanitizer is worth the cost. When I was teaching group piano classes, I actually bought one of those two-liter mondo-bottles for the piano lab. Students were very appreciative. Like I said before, you won't be able to catch those dirty paws every time, but sometimes is better than never. Also, make sure you have a box of facial tissues. It sounds obvious but my school doesn't supply them, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Plus they're handy when kids cry.

Reminders are always good, but kids (hell, grown-ups too) have a hard time remembering not to touch their faces during lessons. We touch our faces constantly. I've gotten better about not touching my own face during lessons, but most of the time I forget and then immediately use some hand sanitizer (I go through a lot of hand sanitizer and I would gladly accept a sponsorship from any leading brands). Adult students can often remember decently well when I warn them, but we have a compulsive need to wipe our runny noses and the hand is nature's tissue.

One of the hardest things about sick kids is that you can't do make-up lessons for them. I mean, you can but you shouldn't, because you would constantly be chasing make-ups. Parents feel obligated to bring their sniffly child into the lesson because lessons are expensive and they want to get their money's worth. I absolutely understand this, but I still encourage them to leave their infectious precious ones home.

I've tried to mandate hand-washing before and after lessons but it didn't work. It takes time, is hard to implement, and realistically, it's often the chronically sick kids who aren't very good at washing hands in the first place. Also, it just takes one nose wipe for those clean aromatic hands to become sinful petri dishes again.

I keep my distance from sick kids. Often I will share the bench with younger children because the proximity makes it easier to see what they need help with and it creates an environment less like a scary doctor's office and more like a game. When kids are sick however I will sit across the room and see how long I can hold my breath for. I then sanitize my hands every time I touch the keys. I also have a chair that I sit in which I can move closer or farther away depending on the severity of the sick student.

Flu-shots are excellent. When I started teaching I decided to get annual flu vaccinations. This year however my insurance provider (HEALTHPARTNERS, I will name you because you did me wrong on this one despite being generally great) pulled my coverage for pharmacy flu shots, and required me to go to a clinic for one. I have been bad, a public menace, an irresponsible teacher, by not getting one. Because instead of going next door (I literally live next door to a pharmacy) I now have to make an appointment, drive to a waiting room, sit around, and waste clinic time to something that used to take 15 minutes (and zero precious provider minutes). I'll probably end up just paying the $30 at the drug store for the convenience.

I feel intensely guilty about this (apparently not quite guilty enough to schlep over to the clinic though) because although I don't want to get sick, I really don't want to make the children in my studio sick. Getting sick as a privately-employed piano teacher is rough. You only have three options:

1) Teach while sick and be miserable

2) Re-schedule the lessons, which is a different kind of miserable

3) Cancel the lessons and pay the parents back, which is expensive and thus, miserable

Teaching while sick is also bad because you have a greater chance to make your children sick, and they get their friends and family sick and soon you've contributed to a public health crisis. Great job. It's for this reason that health is super important in our field. Children are more susceptible to the severe aspects of illness and teachers should take all the precautions they can. That means get over your unfounded paranoia of vaccines, use real cold medication, get sleep, and do all of the things that you are probably able to do and afford.

FOR YOUR HEALTH!

I'm going to go get my flu shot now.

December 3, 2013

It's Time To Leave: When to Kick Parents Out

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons in two different locations. One was at my piano teacher's house and the other was in the recital hall of the music school she worked at. Both were spacious, with areas for parents to sit and listen to the lesson, while still remaining fairly invisible to both my teacher and me.

Such is not the case for my current studio, nor the majority of teaching studios. My studio is only just big enough for the piano itself, plus a student and myself. I have also have a small desk, and three extremely uncomfortable chairs. Realistically though, it's big enough to have three people in the room.

I will usually invite parents in to the first lessons with a new student, especially if the student is under the age of 9. For beginners, having the parent in the lesson is extremely beneficial. Parents can learn alongside their children and emulate my teaching at home to help their kids through practice sessions. Some of my absolute best students are where they are because their parent (usually it's just one) helped them along through the first months of learning piano. There comes a point though, when it's time for one-on-one lessons.

Some parents, as good as their intentions are, are unable to simply sit back and observe. I've had parents interject comments between mine to the student. I've had parents interrupt what I'm saying. I've even had parents feed their children answers to the questions I'm asking. All of these things are examples of what hurts your student's learning process. In the piano studio, there should only be one source of authority, the piano teacher. Because piano teaching is a one-on-one dynamic, to have the child's attention divided between two sources is very confusing. Additionally, because the parent is already the primary authority in the student's life, to have that parent undercut the jurisdiction of the teacher can be a heavy blow, sometimes delivered early in the lesson. This applies to matters of actual piano playing, as well as discipline.

As far as feeding children answers, there's no real excuse. It just doesn't make sense. I use the Socratic method with my students, meaning I will wait as long as it takes (within reason) to get an answer from them. I often don't care if the answer is wrong, I just care that the student thinks about it. To take that process away from the child undercuts the entire process and in a way, wastes more time than if the child stumbled to the conclusion herself. A student (who no longer studies with me) one time had a parent reach across and play the correct note for her as I was trying to lead her to find it. I assumed that the same thing was happening at home, since the child's progress was extremely slow even after a number of months of lessons.

Disciplinary problems can often be solved by having the parents leave lessons as well. This is a really counter-intuitive solution, and one that I never would have come to without observing it myself. I've had students be little monsters with their parents in the room and then fine the next week once the parent is settled in the waiting room. My hypothesis is that children know their own parent's limits and exactly how far they can push it without the parent going off. Children also know that their parent isn't as powerful in public as they are at home. There is no way to chastise a child as severely in the piano teacher's studio as they can in private. I think that students respect the teacher more when the parent isn't there.

Sometimes there are no negative reasons for why the parent should step out. Either the skill level required to understand what's happening is beyond the parent, the parent is not really paying attention (lessons are a great time for parents to catch up on email) or the child would just feel more comfortable on their own. Music lessons are a great way for kids to grow up. They learn responsibility, and take charge of the consequences of their action (or lack of action). Those things are learned best on their own, with the teacher doling out any praise or condemnation on their own. Parents have to do enough of this as it is, and it can mean something very different coming from a person of authority who is not related.

The hard part for the piano teacher is figuring out how to tell the parent when to leave. Luckily, for most of the parents I've had to do this with, it was because the student was advancing and parental supervision was no longer necessary. It was a simple "I think we're ready for one-on-one lessons next week." I often offer an every-other-week model if parents are unwilling to sit out entirely, or invite parents to come in for the last five minutes of every lesson. This allows me to debrief them on anything new, or give instructions on how to practice with them at home.

For kids who are having disciplinary problems, I'll often tell the exasperated parents that one-on-one lessons tend to have a positive effect in this regard. That's usually enough. Some parents are often relieved to sit in the waiting room, because it lets them off the hook a bit. I think there's a bit of guilt in this but there really needn't be.

I've made a little guide below on what to do and what not to do in your student's piano (or other music) lessons. This guide could probably apply to any situation in which a child is receiving personal training.

Dos and Don'ts for your Child's Piano Lessons

DO sit in on your beginning student's first term of lessons. This will help your child feel more comfortable and you will learn how to help them.

DO take notes. I had a father bring a pad of paper with him and he took meticulous notes on the assignments and strategies for helping his child learn. That student is one of my best now and I credit the father heavily. He is also still able to help even though he no longer sits in on the lessons.

DO take this as a chance to observe how your child tackles problems. Think of it as a case study of their entire personality. You are the scientist observing your own child.

DO think of it as your own private pedagogy lesson. Most teachers at a music school now have had many years of experience as well as advanced degrees in their fields. 

DO ask questions at the end of the lesson, though try to save them for the end instead of interrupting.

DO give your child benefit of the doubt. They often know the answers that you might not. 

DON'T interrupt the lesson, or really interact at all unless prompted by the teacher. 

DON'T feed your child answers to questions.

DON'T feel bad about removing yourself if you feel that you're not needed in the lesson. If you're doing emails or checking Facebook in the lesson, go ahead and sit in the waiting room. I recognize that parents are super busy, and if these 30 minutes are your only time to do some personal stuff, by all means go do it. 

December 2, 2013

Project Overload!

I'm back. I'm so back.

It's been three months since my last post of any real significance. Just when traffic was starting to pick up and I was settling into a nice steady rhythm of posts BAM I got hit with a huge project at the same time the new school year started.

I've discovered since leaving school that
1) I'm really only capable of focusing on two projects at any given time

and

2) I live my musical life project-to-project

Since the middle of the summer, after I finished the latest Dead Kings of Norway album I've been working on setting Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle to music, using a new translation by Alistair Beaton.

It's over now. I finished all 30+ musical numbers, had two awesome performances and it's over. It was at once the most exhausting, yet gratifying thing I've worked on. I've wanted to write a large-scale musical-theater work for a long time and I finally got my opportunity.

I'll write on that subject some other time, but my point is that I was working on this all-encompassing project for the past four months and I'm finally DONE. This was one of those projects where you divide your life up between "before the performance" and "after the performance". I worked on very little beside Chalk Circle (well, and my piano studio) and now I'm excited to move onto new things. I've got some good posts brewing about real-life piano teaching advice as well as other musical items.

New projects? A new Crystals in the Deep album and in a few months, some live performances of both Crystals and Dead Kings songs.

September 25, 2013

Morning Soundtrack - ProleteR


As I'm getting ready to work this morning, I'm listening to this gem from French Swing-Hop producer ProleteR. I don't usually get into music centered around beats, but the use of Jazz and swing music really has me excited.

September 7, 2013

St. Paul 9/6, 2013

Reunion Party
9/6, 2013
St. Paul, MN


September 6, 2013

It's almost September 15th

I have to pay my taxes again soon.


NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO


September 5, 2013

Sha la la la la la la la la la la la la tee da (just like that)

It's not just the rhythm, it's the MUSICALITY of the playing.


September 4, 2013

Carlos Seixas

Carlos Seixas
1704-1742


"Obviously a clubber"

August 25, 2013

EuroTrip Updated

I finally updated my travel blog from last summer's big trip to Europe with better quality pictures and some corrected spelling. Click HERE and scroll to the bottom to start the trip all over again with me.


Summit Hill 8/24, 2013

House Party
8/24, 2013
Summit Hill, MN


August 24, 2013

Looks Fun

Step 1: Shake
Step 2: Play


August 11, 2013

Prepare Yourself:

Cage and Stockhausen in a fake plane.



August 5, 2013

Dead Kings of Norway - Erika

The new 
Dead Kings of Norway 
album 
Erika
is out

LISTEN TO IT

August 2, 2013

Dead Kings of Norway Returns!

One of my bands, Dead Kings of Norway, is finally releasing a new album next week. I finished recording it almost two months ago and have been sitting on it. Here's a track from it:


Compare and Contrast: Two Hinson Edited Anthologies

Maurice Hinson is probably the most widely published creator of and best known editor of piano music anthologies. In the post-James Bastien world, it seems like half of the printed collections of classical music have the Maurice Hinson stamp on them. And who is better to curate these collections? Hinson, creator of the Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire has a vast knowledge, not only of pieces, but also of their relative difficulties and places within the canon.

One of the reasons I've always appreciated Hinson is for his love of American music as well as 20th century repertoire. Pianist's Repertoire is beautiful resource to turn to when looking for contemporary composers and he even includes composers who may not be proven yet, but who are contributing valuable works to the repertoire. Most pianists who have gone to a big university for their education should recognize at least one name in the book as a professor they either had, or saw roaming the halls of their school. That kind of meticulous upkeep is something to marveled at.

I saw Hinson speak as the keynote at the 2009 Minnesota Music Teachers Association Conference. He talked a lot about the importance of rags in the education of young pianists. He spoke of the many pedagogical reasons for teaching rags as well as their place in the history of American piano music.

I was a little to surprised I didn't find more rags in the collection he edited for the Alfred Masterwork Edition of Anthology of American Piano Music. It's got the "Tiger Rag" arranged by Teddy Wilson, and two pieces by Joplin (one of which is a waltz) but not much beyond that. In fact, this entire collection was a disappointment for me. If it had been labeled "the roots of American piano music" or "the heart of jazz" or something along those lines I would have been more on board. Maybe it was problems with publishers, but this collection is sorely lacking in the field of American romanticists, serialism, and the avante-garde, all of which are crucial points along the timeline of American piano music. Beside a number (too many) of pop-jazz pieces by Leroy Anderson, there are arrangements of "Somewhere over the Rainbow", "Blue Moon", and "Old Folks at Home" as well as four songs by George Gershwin, two from Ellington and Fats Waller, and arrangements of songs by Beiderbecke and Rodgers. Other composers who made the cut over some of the American greats include Stan Kenton, Nevin Ethelbert, Raynor Taylor and Euday Bowman. Copland is represented by "The Cat and the Mouse" and Romantic composers Beach and Griffes both get a piece. Barber's got a single un-engaging "Love Song" and Edward MacDowell has his obligatory etude-like character piece. Some interesting and welcome inclusions are Zez Confrey, Ross Lee Finny and Blind Thomas Wiggin's hard-to-find "Battle of Manassas".



This anthology prevents a skewed view of American composition as overly-reliant on rag motives, and obsessed with patriotism. I'm not trying to diminish the importance of musical theater writing or jazz on art-music but there are far too many pieces that hinge on quotations (and not in an Ives kind of way) or song and not enough that show the originality of American composition.

In stark contrast stands the Anthology of 20th Century Piano Music, also edited by Hinson and published by Alfred. I felt like American composers were given a better representation here than in the above volume. There are some duplicates, such as Finney's piece, and one of Griffes' pieces. Luckily this volume includes different Copland pieces as well as Cowell, Emma Lou Diemer, Lou Harrison, and Leonard Bernstein. Other non-American composers include Prokofiev, Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy, Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, and Schoenberg. I'm sure Shostakovich was a difficult exclusion due to space, although I wonder at the choice to go with so many French composers over Russians.


If I had to choose between the two, I'd go with the 20th Century book over the American one. They are labeled intermediate-early advanced although both include pieces on the more difficult end of the spectrum. Their printing is crystal clear with excellent editorial marks by Hinson, who helps to decipher some of the difficult and unusual markings along the way. The books also contain notes in the front with information about the composers and pieces as well as a breakdown of their forms.

July 30, 2013

Brigadoon for Kids

I just got done doing the classic musical Brigadoon with a summer theater camp that I work at every year. I thought I'd share some of the things I did to make the show a bit more manageable for kids.

The camp I music-direct at puts on a show every summer with around 80 kids aged between 6 and 14 years old. We also don't use microphones. There are some general things that apply every year, such as the need to maximize volume while keeping the health of the performers a priority, arranging the songs so that they remain interesting while not too difficult, and keeping the orchestra quiet.

Brigadoon has some unique challenges for a music director.

Vocal Ranges
This show (and lots of older shows in general) have insanely high soprano parts. The main song of the show, "MacConnachy Square" shows up multiple times across the show and in higher and higher keys. By the end of the show, the composers have sopranos singing a high B at a fortissimo dynamic. This note is just not feasible, or desirable, from most elementary and middle-school singers. I had to do a lot of rearranging and octave-dropping with my singers to make the songs not only palatable but good sounding.

Harmonies
This show relies heavily on the harmonies to make the songs interesting. We did a lot of work on singing parts this year but even with that emphasis I ended up collapsing most of the score into three part harmonies. With this age group you also have to deal with boys whose voices are unchanged or in transition. I ended up with a soprano/melody part which included the young boys, an alto part with some of the girls who sing strongly as well as some of the strong singing unchanged boys, and a tenor part. For the boys whose voices had dropped but weren't strong enough to sing a harmony part, they joined on the melody singing an octave lower than the sopranos.

On a few of the songs, such as opening and some other smaller features, I had groups of strong singers do four-part harmonies but even those I arranged to make the part singing easier. This show required by far the most re-arrangement I've ever done for a show. When writing harmony parts I essentially tried to make them as tuneful as possible while preserving the harmonies from the show. This meant a lot of jumping from voice to voice as written in the original score.

Solos and Duets
Brigadoon has quite a few large chorus numbers and even more dances (more on that in a second), but it still relies heavily on solo songs. We had strong actors in a our lead roles this year but a slow song can still feel like it drags a song down in the hands of a non-professional. I kept the solos relatively intact this year but in Act II I cut the bridge out of one and chopped some of the others down a bit to keep the show moving along.

Dances
A show that relies heavily on dance is great when you have professional dancers but for a choreographer figuring out what to do with 80 children, it can be overwhelming. We ended up cutting most of the big dances out completely, and kept the big spectacle dances as special features. One of the big centerpieces, the "Entrance of the Clans" turned into a somewhat improvisational set of music that required a lot of chopping apart of the written music to fit what the choreographer had created.

Bagpipes
We were lucky and got a really great piper to work with. The show only requires him to be used in a funeral scene, but we decided to use him for a scene change before the "Entrance of the Clans" as well as to open the second act. I found that a melodica sounded pretty close to a bagpipe for rehearsals and would have substituted pretty well in a show as well. Just bring earplugs if you're in a confined pit!

Operatic Style
Compared to modern musical theater, some songs in Brigadoon sound fairly operatic, with high soprano lines and dramatic flourishes in the orchestra. Keeping the orchestra down enough to hear the singers was difficult at times and getting young singers to grapple with these songs in a way appropriate to their voices was a constant source of work.

July 26, 2013

Please, Not on Stage

At a recent gig at a small town block party our band was faced with a request. We had just finished playing "Shout" and only had about 5 or 6 songs left when a woman approached the stage and asked us if her friend could sing the song with the band. He wanted to sing the number we had just performed, and he wanted to do it in Spanish. "He just got into the states a few days ago and really wants this. Promise you'll let him do it. Promise!", she pleaded us. The band glanced around awkwardly and finally said, "Sure, he can sing it in a few songs."


Saying no to people is awkward, especially for Minnesotans, and when you're in the spotlight and people are waiting for you to make decisions it can be even more difficult. But I'll go ahead and say it right now, for the future: "Just Say No".

We were getting to the end of the night and had played all of the songs in our set when someone in the band remembered the promise we had made to the lady from before. We called him up and everyone in the band looked around nervously.

The guy was perfectly nice, he had been hanging around and watching the entire set (he was hard to miss wearing a bright yellow day-glow t-shirt) and even when he got on stage he was quite congenial. He didn't speak any English, but luckily we had someone who could translate for us. It turned out that he didn't want to sing "Shout", rather it was "Jailhouse Rock" (I think). The Presley classic had been our first song of the entire 2.5 hour set so apparently he had been waiting around the whole night just itching to belt out a Spanish version. So after a bit of bumbling around on our packed stage we deciphered the song he wanted to sing, readied our instruments and played the first chords.

He was awful.

I'm not going to be nice and say that he "made a great effort" or some other Minnesotan platitude that sounds uplifting but actually hides the hideousness of the whole thing. He stunk. It may be that "Jailhouse Rock" wasn't actually the song he was thinking of, or it might just be that he was born with a charismatic personality and a scientifically incomprehensible vacuum where his sense of rhythm was supposed to be. The first verse went somewhat normally, but by the time the band was on the chorus, our visible-in-all-light friend was already yelling about a "gato on a saxafon". The wind left his entourage's sails at breathtaking velocity. The water went from lapping at his heels to being 8-feet deep. The excitement in his eyes turned to fear.

Eventually he ended the song and sometime later the band did as well. He said thank you and left the stage, and we played one last song to go out on a good note.

My anger about this experience doesn't rest solely on the man who sang. I have a feeling that his friend, the pushy lady, caught him singing along a bit and demanded that he force his way on stage. Or maybe it really was him, in which case his bombing serves him right. If pushy lady was to blame though, she's the worst kind of audience member. The kind that views the world as her play-thing.

Bands practice to play on stage. Often a lot. There's usually a long collective musical experience put together in a band and that experience is what makes it work. To demand that your friend gets put on stage is offensive to everyone who has worked hard to make the music work.

I've been in other situations where people push their way on stage. At a bar I played at a group of drunk 20-somethings demanded the tambourine from the singer and proceeded to play keep-away and bang it erratically. At my college after a recital, it was not uncommon to see other students go on stage and play the the pieces that had just been performed while people were still in the room, including the recitalist.

I try to be a humble musician, but if you want your time in the light, work for it. Make a band, learn your pieces, do whatever it is you want to do and perform, but don't shit on someone else's work.


July 24, 2013

L.M.G

Every time I mess this section up I imagine Gottschalk laughing at me.

July 14, 2013

Mendota Day 7/13, 2013

Mendota Day
July 13, 2013
Mendota, MN


July 6, 2013

And then that happened...

I really like Anderson and Roe but this...


..okay it's actually kind of cool.

June 16, 2013

Stickers: Grandma Delivers Again

In a previous blog post I compared myself to a drug dealer, peddling stickers to hungry piano students just practicing enough to get their next fix. If I'm a drug dealer, then Grandma is my Columbian connection.

Every month or two, my Grandmother in Indiana sends me a small manila envelope exploding with stickers. I just received another shipment yesterday and they are amazing. So amazing that Grandma herself had to open it and rifle through them a bit before mailing them off. That's quality control.

This particular collection is a package by Mrs. Grossman's, a Californian company founded by one Andrea Grossman, who claims to have invented the "sticker roll". In perusing their website I've also discovered that those textured stickers are called "dimensional stickers". Consider that your sticker education for the day.

This particular set contains flowers, bugs, paw prints, birds and of course; cats. Cartoon cats AND real cats. As you can see below one of the cats totally looks like a kitten version of long cat.

Here are the stickers, all piled on top of each other:


June 5, 2013

Van Cliburn Finalists

Last night the finalists for the 14th Van Cliburn International piano competition were announced and my three favorites all moved on! That is because I have excellent taste in pianists and am 100% prescient.

this and all other pictures from Cliburn.org
Here are your 2013 Van Cliburn finalists:

Fei-Fei Dong


Fei-Fei is one of my two favorites to win the competition. She has a maturity and depth to her playing that isn't found among all of the competitors. For her, the music is about expression instead of fireworks. I only saw a bit of her solo recital, and all of her Brahms Quintet, but I was blown away by not only the musicality of her playing but also her stage presence. She communicated the music better than any of the other competitors I watched.

Beatrice Rana


I only caught the Schumann Quintet of Rana and was impressed, although not floored by her playing. It had energy and poise if not an overt musicality to it. This could be caused as much by the piece (which has its moments, although I don't love overall) as by her playing. I really liked her interviews though and at moments I could sense a real passion coming through the music. She's up first in the finals with Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto.

Nikita Mndoyants


Mndoyants is the only finalist who I didn't see perform so I won't comment on him but I like his repertoire. In the semi-final round, apart from the commissioned piece, he performed Scarlatti, Debussy, and Mussorgsky. Definitely breaking the mold of a typical Cliburn repertoire.

Sean Chen


One can't write about American Sean Chen without writing about his hair. He's got insanely great hair. It waves in front of his face when he plays. There, I've done it. To be honest I'm a bit surprised to see Chen in the finals. I felt conflicted while watching him play his program. I loved his fire, especially on the commissioned work, Theofanidis' Birichino, as well as his Ligeti etude and Petrouchka but I thought that his often reckless and mistake prone playing style would keep him out. In retrospect I'm thrilled that it didn't. He took huge risks both in his programming and his approach to performance and I'm glad the judges rewarded him for it. Also, his Trois movements du Petrouchka only seemed to have Deux movements. He made some slick arrangement of the Cliburn mainstay Petrouchka which bypassed or at least shortened the slower second movement, while adding in extra voices and parts heard only in the orchestral version. The audience adored him for it. I think Stravinsky would have been a bit perturbed, but so what?

Vadym Kholodenko


Vadym is by far my favorite competitor, and possibly an unlikely audience favorite as well. I say unlikely because he is neither young (but Cliburn standards) nor is he particularly gregarious. He makes extremely funny faces when he plays (but can't hold a stick to Italian pianist Allesandro Deljavan) and is one of the most interesting and complete pianists I've ever heard perform. He performed the entirety of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes (except no. 9) with a deep passion and intellectualism that Liszt deserves but doesn't always receive. His technical mastery is evident (he's in the damn Cliburn) but he brought feeling and deep unspeakable emotion to the music. He took a risk with his programming decision in the semi-finals both because the Liszt etudes are thought of as too overdone historically, as well as the risk of only programming one thing (beside the commissioned work) which doesn't show a wide breadth of style. Oh, and did I mention I actually really liked his chamber recital? I am extremely excited for his final round performances in which he'll be playing Mozart's 21st Concerto, and Prokofiev no. 3. 

Tomoki Sakata


Tomoki Sakata is another potential audience favorite. He's the youngest competitor (19 years old) and has a soft but engaging personality. His interviews are adorable but his playing is mature and laden with sensuality and emotion. His Debussy Etudes in the semi-final round were exciting, as was his Schumann Piano Quintet. I don't find his playing as complete as Khodolenko or Dong but he's got an incredible career in front of him. I wouldn't be surprised to see him win the whole thing actually. His playing is absolutely in the top three or four and the Cliburn really likes young pianists. (although his age would not be the biggest reason for a win). I like him a lot and am hoping he returns in 2017.


If you want to catch the final rounds, you can stream them all at the Van Cliburn website.
Click here for a complete schedule of the final concerto round.







June 4, 2013

Van Cliburn Competition

It's mostly over but in case you weren't aware, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is underway in Fort Worth, Texas.

My piano crush: Vadym Kholodenko absolutely crushing the Liszt Transcendental Etudes


For the initiated, it's one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world, only happens every four years, and all of the performances can be streamed online from their website. I was busy with my new album during the preliminary rounds but I've caught up during the semi-finals and it's been fantastic. I've been watching/listening to about 2-5 hours of live piano and chamber music every day. The quality of the playing is totally fantastic as is the production of the entire event.

The webcast is crystal clear and exquisitely shot (not just a "single-camera-in-the-back-of-the-hall" kind of stream) plus there are really fun interludes between the performances with some behind-the-scenes interviews and vignettes. Although pianists may not always be the most interesting people on earth I love the humanizing effect of these casual interviews.

After watching all of the performers in the semi-finals, my favorites have to be Ukranian Vadym Kholodenko, Chinese Fei-Fei Dong, and Japanese Tomoki Sakata. That's right, I've snubbed the Americans. Oh, and crazy-faces Italian Allesandro Deljavan played some kick-ass Soler sonatas.

Click the link below to check out the schedule and watch some concerts. Also, check out the sometimes hilarious twitter feed.

Van Cliburn Homepage

May 31, 2013

Practicing Matters

Remember when you took lessons as a kid and you never practiced? With the exception of a very select group of individuals, nearly everyone who has studied an instrument went through a time when they didn't practice. Even professional musicians like myself went (and go) through these periods. You went to your lesson with a guilty look, told your teacher you didn't practice, and then everyone sighed and your teacher managed to fill the next 30 minutes with guilt-ridden teaching. Or maybe you thought you could get away with it, and just fake you way through it. Teachers know.

Listen, it happens. Sometimes practicing takes a backseat to other important things. And your teacher wasn't really all that mad at you because you had let them down. Your teacher was mad because it sucks to teach kids who don't practice. That's the secret of music teachers. We might say, "you're really letting yourself down", which in some cases is true with particular high-potential students, but overall a 30-minute lesson (or god-forbid a 60-minute lesson) with an unprepared student is hell.

Also, little version of you, you're not the only kid who didn't practice over the last week. You're the first student of the day and I have 10 more students to go, only 2 of whom have practiced. That' one hour of interesting teaching and four hours of oh-my-god-when-does-this-end. And you probably feel exactly the same way.

I know, I'm getting paid regardless of whether the student practices. But a student who doesn't practice also doesn't improve, and a student who doesn't improve usually ends up dropping out of piano lessons.  And a teacher who loses students feels: A) disappointed, B) frustrated, C) scared because of lost income.

For a teacher who has to struggle through an entire day of lagging students, it's easy to go home feeling like what you are doing has no purpose. It's easy to feel like you're just yelling at brick walls. Teachers in general are undervalued in our society and music teachers are as well. We have chosen a path teaching what we love (and in fact, music is something that most people love) in order to continue the tradition of musicianship. A music teacher is essentially serving a public good by contributing to a culture of music while sacrificing financial reward. To feel like your dedication to the public good isn't paying dividends is what feels bad.

Parents, students and future parents of students:

You (or your student) needs to practice. If they don't, your favorite teacher will burn out.

May 24, 2013

New Album

I've finished writing songs for a new album. It will arrive soon. That is all.

May 23, 2013

Drumming in the Apartment

I started taking drum lesson a little over a month ago and have been having an absolute blast. It was something I'd been wanting to do for a long time and finally decided it was time to learn.

One of the things that had been keeping me from learning was the inability to practice in my apartment. Other musicians know that apartment living is often not conducive to mastering your instrument. I've actually taken to cutting down my piano time because of disturbances to my neighbors. Headphones on my electric piano (or an electric drum set) will not help because the problem isn't the sound, it's the vibrations. Every time you stomp on your kick pedal, or depress a key on the piano with some force, the impact is sent into your floor (more-so for hard wood floors) making it vibrate and act like a big drum. Even if you can't hear it, the people below you can. Even if you're on the bottom floor, there's a chance the vibrations are being sent up your walls to the people around you. So you can understand why I was nervous about taking drums.

I did a lot of research on drumming websites and found a particularly novel solution that involves drilling holes into sheets of wood and separating them from each other with tennis balls. This looked a bit too expansive for fitting into my office, plus I just needed something basic to fit a few pieces of equipment onto. I've got a real drum set at a different location, but for my apartment I just needed a few things to practice on. Here's what I ended up with, first the padding:


I bought a few things from Target and some other stuff I had laying around. From the floor up:

On the bottom is a really squishy bath mat with a rubber surface on the bottom. These are great because not only does all the squishy-ness absorb vibrations, the rubber keeps it from slipping.

On top of the bath mat I've got some nice thick bubble wrap. Putting layers of air between the impact and the floor is the best way to get rid of vibrations, and this bubble wrap is thick enough to not pop, but still has large air pockets.

As you can imagine, piling layers of squishy materials on top of each other will not make for a very secure practice area. I put a sheet of cardboard on top of the mat and bubble wrap for a more secure surface. That's the only purpose of the cardboard.

Partly because the carboard was ugly, partly because it was slippery, and partly because I wanted a tiny bit more absorption, I put a simple towel on top of the cardboard, and that was it!

Now as said, I'm not using a real drumset, just some cheap stuff to practice on:


From left to right (excluding the throne):

Hi-hat with practice pads on it. This is probably the noisiest part of the set still but it's still pretty quiet. The only downside is that the pad on the top cymbal makes it a bit hard to practice open hi-hat playing or left foot pedaling. 

Vic Firth Practice pad on a snare stand. It's super quiet and replaces a snare drum for practicing.

My kick pedal is being played into a combination of pillows. Read below to see how I put that thing together.

On the far right are some simple guitar hero drums that were languishing in my parents' basement. Those aren't totally necessary (I just added them yesterday) but I was finding myself wanting something else to hit when practicing my fills and they simulate toms really well.

There's no ride or crash cymbal because I didn't find them totally necessary at this point, however I can use one of the pads on the right to simulate a ride for coordination only.

The most complicated thing (and potentially disruptive) was the kick pedal. This is where a lot of the annoying impact would come from. I ended up doing the following:


The "bass drum" itself is a seat cushion tied to a crappy $4 pillow (it was actually two pillows for $4 at Target). The back pillow provides all the dampening you could want while the seat cushion provides a harder, bouncier surface to imitate rebound. It's also slightly audible so you can hear if you're striking correctly. It's not totally perfect, but it works just fine for beginner practicing. Behind that pillow contraption is the box the pedal came in with a 25lb free weight inside of it. The pedal needed something to attach to or it would just flop around, so I stuck one flap of the box out, put the weight inside and duct-taped the opening up so that it looked totally normal except for that one flap. I then attached the pedal to that flap, stuck the pillows between the pedal and the box, placed the box against the wall and the pedal on the padding and voila, no impact or extra sound!

The thing is not totally secure, meaning parts rock around a bit as you play, but overall it hasn't been distracting. I imagine this kind of thing would be of little help to a more accomplished drummer, but as a beginner who lives in an apartment, it's been perfect!

May 16, 2013

Odd Couples

We have this tendency, with composers born and active around the same time, to automatically pair them together. In piano literature classes we compare and contrast their styles (I actually just did this today with two of the subjects below) and treat them as though they worked in essentially the same vein whether or not they actually did. I mean, they were both composers right? Here are some of those composers, why they are paired together, and what makes them different.

Claude Debussy and Marice Ravel

Ah the original odd couple. Maybe this comparison is the reason why Ravel told everyone he was actually Basque and not French. Or maybe it's why Debussy slept with so many women. Or probably none of that. Debussy and Ravel were both operating at the same time, were both extremely successful in their own lifetimes and both composed in what could be called an impressionistic fashion (although they both apparently hated being called that, more in common!) although they styles diverge after that. Debussy can be thought of as a bit more amorphous while Ravel often composed in stricter tempos with a concrete pulse. Of course, they both dabbled in the opposite but overall Debussy feels more like clouds of notes without an emphasis on melody, whereas Ravel often weaves fine melodies above spinning accompaniment. Entire papers and books have been written on the topic if this strikes your fancy. Does it strike mine? Not really.

Scriabin and Rachmaninoff

I've always found this pairing odd. Scriabin, the doomsday-bringing mystic and Rachmaninoff, whose biggest eccentricity was that he refused to join the 20th century are always paired together in books. They were both Russian, born and active over basically the same period of time, but apart from a contest in which Rachmaninoff placed first and Scriabin second (an actual contest, not the concert-hall popularity contest that was also won by Rachmaninoff) these two had quite divergent lives and musical styles. Scriabin got lost in theosophy (woo cults!) and Rachmaninoff basically had a straightforward life. Scriabin's music sounds like Chopin from the future and Rachmaninoff sounds like Chopin from....Russia. Rachmaninoff was so rooted to the past that he was quoted on saying that 20th century music held nothing for him. Although that didn't stop him from putting on a bunch of concerts of Scriabin's music after his death in 1915.

Webern and Berg

I like to imagine these two students of the Second Viennese School (note: not an actual school) hanging out awkwardly with Arnold Schoenberg in his small flat in Vienna. In my mind the three of them are sitting in the parlor, sipping coffee out of tiny cups and listening to Schoenberg talk about the difference between atonality ("not my bag") and pan tonality ("my bag!"). Webern desperately wants to leave, but Berg is all "but he's our great teacher, we must respect him!"

Ginastera and Albeniz and Granados and De Falla

These guys all have the characteristic of speaking Spanish, therefore they get lumped in together. But Ginastera wasn't even from Spain, de Falla lived longer than the other Spaniards, and they all wrote pretty different music.

Schumann and Schubert

Their names both start with "Sch" so they get compared. Honestly. I guess they both died young, wrote lots of art-songs, and exemplify the Romantic movement (albeit in different eras) as well, but I'm pretty sure it's just in their names. To put it simply, Schubert was acted as a bridge from the classical era and Schumann was as romantic-era and individualistic as you can get.



May 2, 2013

Sticker Stash: Djeco Animals

I have some favorite stickers. And as usual, the kids don't really like them all that much. And these stickers aren't even wacky! They're just really finely designed animals, from French children's company Djeco. I'm really drawn to the style of design on these animals, and many of them are quite large meaning you really get to appreciate the artistry of the stickers.


You should really check out their website at www.djeco.com which, despite long loading times, is incredibly awesome. I wish I had an excuse to buy all of the cool games and stuff they have on there.

Oh, and one more reason why I love these stickers, the squirrel on the right side of this sheet:


May 1, 2013

The Studio Recital Skid

I have my spring studio recitals coming up this weekend and I couldn't be more excited. Not excited because I love recitals, excited because soon I will be done with the studio recitals.

Studio recitals have become the bane of teaching for me. Typically I will pick out recital pieces with my students about 5-7 weeks ahead of time (adjusting for any breaks we might have) so that we can learn the piece, get it memorized and then have some lessons for the piece to settle in. The problem with starting them that far in advance is that despite all of my efforts otherwise, kids will focus on their recital pieces and neglect all other practicing for over a month.

I will emphasize the fact that we're going to continue working on other pieces and keep progressing, and that it's on the student to keep the recital piece active, but on the back burner. It doesn't work though, especially for the spring recital. I don't know if it's that kids are tired of working on new pieces and like the familiarity of something they've already learned, or if there's just a fatigue around all things "school" at the end of the year. Regardless, the pace of learning of most of my students slows to a decrepit, barely-alive slither.

The kids may not realize it, but I get bored listening to the same piece week after week. It sounds great, actually it sounds REALLY great. Kid, you're playing this piece the best I've ever heard a student play it. I just don't want to hear it again. I want to hear you get better at piano, not Rabbit Times".

I actually have a hypothesis that my students would get better faster if there was no recital to slow us down. Some kids get really excited about the recital and are constantly asking me when the next one is. Those kids are usually the ones that move through the material quickly.

The recital will be fun. The kids will look cute, and they'll mostly play really well. I'll be proud of them, and their parents will be proud. But I just can't wait to move on to new things.

April 26, 2013

Awesome Advertising


For your pleasure


From International Piano, Nov/Dec 2012

April 25, 2013

I've been laaaazy

No actually, I haven't been lazy. I've been very much the opposite (except when I'm watching Game of Thrones). I'll be back up here with more posts soon. Things have just gotten pretty busy lately between a choir concert, playing a musical, a studio recital coming up, getting summer plans in order, recording for my studio, recording for the musical, AND working on a new album in between all of that. So yeah, my mornings have been pretty busy. Oh, and I started taking drum lessons! SWEET!

I'll be back here soon though with some stuff (like tomorrow probably) including bad piano advertising, recordings of me drowsily singing, and more stickers.

April 16, 2013

Sticker Haul: Woodland Musicians

Probably my favorite set of stickers that I've bought are these "Woodland Music Stickers" by Victoria Madsen. Go buy them. THEY ARE AWESOME. It's just a bunch of animals and the instruments they would play if they had any capability of doing so. If you thought a skunk played trumpet, WRONG, it plays bagpipes. Also, I like the stereotypes associated with each instrument. Banjo players are hicks (and...is that a vole?), triangle players are dumb (not true) and pianists are stodgy (true).

LOOK AT THEM





Find these Dover-published stickers HERE


April 15, 2013

App Review: Blob Chorus

Music training apps come in a few varieties. There are the note recognition apps which test you visually. There are the ear-training apps that test you audially. There are also apps that do both of these things. Blob Chorus is of the ear-training sort, although I wouldn't exactly recommend it unless you're desperate to entertain a very young budding musician with a lot of patience.

Blob Chorus, an app made by British company eChalk, is a simple extremely intuitive game in which you match the notes of singing blob characters. Gameplay consists of:

1) You hear each Green Blob sing a single note
2) The Purple "King" Blob sings a note
3) Pick the Green Blob that matches the King's note.

On the surface it's actually a pretty decent idea for a game. Basic note memory is a low-level skill but an important one. The ability to hold a specific pitch in the memory and either sing it back or recognize it on an instrument comes easily to some kids and more slowly to others (including this teacher as a young musician) so an app that works out this skill makes sense. 

Unfortunately the execution of this app holds it back from being very useful. The artwork is bland at best, with the most interesting item on the screen being the blobs themselves, which are all completely identical, save the purple coloring on the King Blob.



I can get over the bland artwork. What drove me crazy about this game was the audio file used for the singing. You can hear it (and play it) here. Each Blob sings the word "blob" in a baritone male voice with so much vibrato it obscures the actual pitch being sung. In sets of blobs where two are only a half step apart, the pitches sound almost identical. Some of the notes are sung longer than others, either from inaccurate recording or from shifting the pitch on a single recording thereby dilating the time of the audio file. The tone of the voice itself also obscures the notes being sung. Additionally, There is no key established so the notes are extremely hard to keep track of, even for a professional.

If you answer a question incorrectly, the wrong blob you just clicked on explodes. You get points for how many blobs are left on the screen by the time you get a correct answer, which is signified with a halo and flashing lights on the little presentation board (music stand?) in the lower right hand corner. The only option available is to increase the number of blobs on screen between 2 (easy) and 8 (hard). If you want to check out the frustration with the voices go to the link above or below and crank it up to 8 blobs. 

I did try this app out with a student to see if I'm just a curmudgeon who over-thinks these kinds of things. I sort of am. She seemed to like it, smiling a lot while she played and telling me at the end that it was good. She got a lot wrong though, mostly by choosing blobs with very close notes because it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Also, she didn't like the animation of the blobs exploding nearly as much as I did.


The Short and Sweet:
What: Blob Chorus
Where: Play it here or download it for your mobile device on Android or Apple
Cost: FREE!
Positives: Good concept, good skill to work on, intuitive
Negatives: Male voice, poor recordings used, poor artwork, 
Should You Download It?
If you want a tiny bit of frustrating fun then by all means. Maybe my standards for educational apps are too high, but this product could be much better with only a few tweaks. 


April 14, 2013

Sticker Haul: Old-Time Bunnys and Grandma

I'm pretty sure my interest in stickers has turned into a legitimate infatuation. Yes, I'm now basically collecting them. Most of them end up on the books and folders of my students, but some of them...they never leave my apartment.

After discovering the trove of online sticker deposits a couple of weeks ago I ordered a bunch. Also, my Grandmother has been sending me large amounts of her own sticker collection (some of which have been very popular among the kids). 

I scanned a few to share with the world. Most of the ones that Grandma sent me were "classic" meaning pictures of flowers, ballerinas, puppies etc. Some of them are even the classic "lick and stick" style which my girlfriend assures me the kids will love but make me a bit nervous (child-saliva everywhere). 

Some of the ones I especially like are these gold-framed oval stickers. There's one sheet with ballerinas, puppies in baskets, fat birds, and a house that the kids have been devouring so far. This sheet I kept because they look like miniature Thomas Kinkade knockoffs. 

The second Painter of Light would be so proud

One of the sticker sets that I found on Amazon was "Old-Time Bunny Rabbit Stickers" edited by Maggie Kate. Dover books prints tons of these little tiny books with stickers in them and they are intensely precious. INTENSELY. 


As you can tell from the cover, it's basically just pictures of rabbits doing the following:
  1. Being normal rabbits
  2. Emerging from eggs (these are the annual reptilian rabbits)
  3. Rabbits being humans
  4. Some disturbing combination of the above
My favorite are obviously the rabbits being humans. Sure the ones with kids holding enormous bunnies are good, but the ones with a bunny dressed as a dapper gentleman and walking with a cane are the best. I included the scan below so you can see another of my favorites, grumpy apron-wearing mom rabbit.



I also got "Glitter Old-Time Cats and Kittens Stickers" (similarly by Maggie Kate) but these were more disappointing. Sometime I'll write about how glitter was made by God to punish humans for their waste and excess but for now I'll just say that I hate glitter. If you want to get an idea of what they look like, just imagine the above rabbits as cats and then coat them almost entirely in green glitter. I stuck the book in a plastic bag and may never speak of them again.

You may be asking yourself, did I buy those Lisa Frank stickers I was so excited for? Just wait.