Monthly Archives: April 2013

Doubling Dilemma

Last week my friend and fellow tubist Mark came through town with his band Lost in the Trees.  The band is an orchestral pop/folk band, employing the violin, cello, horn, and tuba as well as drums and guitar.  As you might guess, they have a really unique style and are a creative wellspring to listen to.  As Mark and I were talking and hashing out the details of his stop in Philadelphia, I was surprised to learn that for this show, the band was playing as a more traditional rock/pop band.  They were just guitar, keyboards, drums, and Mark on bass guitar.  I had seen him play bass a few times before, so I knew he could, but it was still surprising to see him without his tuba for the whole show.

After the show we were talking about his learning this other instrument.  He was talking about how he had been playing bass for about three years and was relaying some of the fundamental information he had picked up along the way.  For instance, you apparently have to mute the other strings while you’re playing or else they just resonate the whole time.  This came as a revelation for me, because I too am trying to learn to play the bass.

Darth basser and Tuba Skywalker

I’ll never join you!

A few years back a friend of mine was clearing out a few instruments he had in storage, and I picked up his bass and bass amplifier.  Stringed instruments in general have never been my forte, but I figured if I had it around the house I might take the time to get to know it better.  This, despite the fact that I always looked at the bass as the easy way out and the tuba as a true and noble instrument.  Hey, everyone plays the bass, but how many rock tuba players do you know?

Many of you have surely picked up the flaw in that last paragraph.  The part about figuring that if it was there, I would learn it.  Certainly having it in my house is an important prerequisite to learning it, but the effort doesn’t stop there.  I need to actually make the time to work with the instrument, develop a method for organizing the content to learn, and follow through with both.  Yes, once again I have traversed into the continent of Obviousia.  Why wouldn’t I think that type of commitment is necessary?

The problem for me is that I can pick many things up pretty quickly.  If there’s a tricky line to learn on the tuba or accordion, within an hour or two I can usually work it up to sound good or at least passable.  My job entails learning software quickly and being able to pass that information on to others, and it’s something I’ve become very good at.  In most types of games, I can quickly figure out the strategy necessary to win (even if I sometimes fail in achieving that strategy).  Overall, I’m good at finding patterns and using them to maximize efficiency.

When I encounter something for which I cannot immediately find the pattern or for which a slow acquisition of dexterity and muscle is required, I tend to balk.  My brain tells me that it’s not interesting enough, which to some extent is true; I am not at the level with that particular skill or tool in which I can perform the activities that I know to be possible.  I’d rather do those activities on an instrument with which I am familiar than take the time to learn them on something new.

So what, I’m doomed to only do the things that are easy or which which I’ve already acquired the skills?  That’s no way to live my life.  So I’ve been trying to figure out ways to persist past the initial stumbling stones.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

Embrace the mistake (Me fail English?  That’s unpossible!)

A coworker of mine has a Post-It note above her workstation that reads “We become experts by not trying to do things perfectly the first time.”  I am terrified of being bad at something the first time I try it.  I’m sure some of it is the (irrational) fear that others will think less of me for not being instantly competent.  The larger part of the equation comes from the identity I’ve built up of myself as an all-around talented person.  If I can’t succeed right away it shakes the foundation of who I think I am.  By understanding that making mistakes doesn’t make me incompetent, but rather leads me on the road to becoming more competent, I can more safely start to get my hands dirty with learning new things.

Embrace incremental improvement (Climb the ladder, Monty)

It’s hard to remember back to the time in which we did not know the subjects of which we are experts now.  For instance, there was a time in which food magically came from Mom and Dad.  Over years of watching them, then helping them, then trying to cook on my own, I gained my own culinary awareness.  It took lots of time and many mistakes and revelations along the way to make me the food genius that I am today.  When I go to learn another instrument that doesn’t come naturally to me, it may be helpful to savor each moment of learning and to celebrate each small accomplishment.  Through remembering that the things I love took time to learn, and becoming more fully aware of the process and how it relates to me as an adult, it can become a delightful experiment about self-awareness.

Make your time ([INSERT SIMPSONS QUOTE HERE])

I mentioned this above.  I need to commit myself to improvement by allowing myself the time to do it.  This is the toughest one for me for two reasons.

Firstly, my spare time has dwindled over the past year.  Along with my full time job, I am gigging or rehearsing on a lot of evenings and on weekends.  When I add in the important downtime of being with friends, with my family, and by myself, I’m running out consistent times across the week to devote to improving my weaker skills.

Secondly, not letting myself off the hook for a moment, I have problems with time management.  In fact, if anyone were to tell me the first statement above, I would immediately question whether they are truly committed to improvement.  We find time to do the things we want to do.  Usually “I don’t have time” is a cop out, meaning I’m not interested in making the time.

I know there’s truth in both statements.  I both am working with constraints and am having trouble organizing my free time (possibly the second is a result of the first).  But it’s something I need to pull together if I’m going to continue to improve.  As my former tuba teacher used to say “Air is finite.  Efficiency is not.”  So it goes with time and time management.

In any case, talking with Mark about the bass was quite helpful, if only to remind me that it can be done.  One can be a tuba player and find the time and motivation to learn another instrument (even one as evil as the bass).  I need to shuffle my priorities and develop some new skills, but I know I can do it.  The alternative – just using the skills I have learned to this point – is just too bleak.  It’s time to get this party rocking with my choice of bass instruments.

Next stop, Contrabassoon!

Luke with Contra

Watermelon Magic

Last week I got a text from a trumpet player I haven’t spoken to in a while:

“Hey Tubadan, this is Adam.  How’s it going?  Want to do a recording session on tuba on Saturday in the afternoon for 2 hours with charts already made up?”

The price was right, and I had the afternoon free, so it was a no-brainer.  I wrote back and told him sure.

As the day approached I went through my typical worry over the unknown.  I didn’t know anything about the artist I’d be recording for or who else would be on the session.  What if the charts were too challenging?  What if they didn’t like my sound?  These sorts of things don’t actually happen to me, but I suppose I do like to torture myself to some extent.

Then the day before, Adam contacted me to confirm.  I asked him what we’d be recording for.  His response:

“It’s for some score for an IMAX movie or something along those lines.”

This was intriguing and posed more questions than it answered, but I was game for whatever came up.  While I worry when I don’t know the full situation, I also feel liberated, since there’s nothing I can really do to prepare except be in good shape for the session.  So I made sure to practice regularly a few days in advance, trying to keep the whole range of my instrument comfortable and in good tone.

Watermelon Magic PosterOn Saturday I arrived at the studio, which was in a back room of a club in town.  I had played at the club multiple times, but never knew there was a recording studio.  I met the engineer Peter and the film producer/creator Rich, who told me about his project Watermelon Magic.  It’s a story of a family on a farm and a young girl’s learning about the magic of plants growing.  It has a funny quirky story with some nice educational components as well.

The crazy thing about the film is that it is made completely from still photographs.  As Rich explained to me, IMAX films are extremely expensive to make, in part because the cameras used have to film at an extremely high resolution.  Ordinary video cameras can’t manage this, but high end digital cameras can.  So Rich exploited this loophole to make his film out of still shots run together quick enough to give the illusion of motion.  He also used time-lapse photography to show the growth of the plants.  Even though these were done as a series of stills as well, he ran these at a much higher frame rate so it actually does look like a movie.  The result is a film that can be shown in an IMAX theater that cost significantly less than a typical IMAX movie to make.

Back to where I fit in, Rich and Peter explained that they wanted to have some real horns on the soundtrack.  At that time, they had only used MIDI to create virtual and sampled instruments, but they were looking for something more real.  There was a particular section that warranted live instruments and they also wanted some horn cues to play some of the incidental music for the film.  Then they shook things up a bit when they told me that the parts would be completely improvised (despite the message Adam had sent) and that the only players would be myself and Adam on trumpet.  So much for worrying that I couldn’t play the parts!

Peter set up the microphones and Adam and I got ready to play the first sequence.  There was an African drumbeat over a scene of the main character building a fence, and Rich was looking for a nice groove to be played over it.  They turned the video monitor so we could see it as we played, and we laid down a few takes.  It had been a while since I played with Adam, but he is a phenomenal player with great sensibilities for melody and feel, so recording was easy and really fun.  Once we found a style we liked we did a few more takes, and then Adam overdubbed playing just his mouthpiece over our favorite take.

Afterwards, we each recorded a few of the movie cues individually.  I would watch the film playing and add in what I thought would be a good soundtrack to it on the tuba, then Adam took his turn.  Lastly, we planned out a few “cliche” cues (like the sad trombone for instance) together and played through them.  We each came up with a few good ones, including a chromatic descent a tritone apart, a quick little march, and then a minor slower version of the same march.  After just about every take, Adam and I would crack up at what we were doing.

We listened back to some of what we recorded before packing up and going our separate ways.  I had a smile on my face the rest of the day thinking about how much fun I had exercising my creativity.  Certainly I’m a part of an industry that involves creative thought in so many areas, but it’s not often as raw and intuitive as what we had recorded that day.  It certainly helped that Rich and Peter had both ideas for directions we could go, as well as the experience and foresight to let us experiment and find what worked.  I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun in the studio (apologies to everyone I’ve recorded with ever).

In addition to being a beacon of positivity, this experience also reminded me of all the exciting and creative endeavors that people are doing that fall under the radar.  Musicians are exploring new subjects and new ways of expressing them.  Visual artists are creating innovative approaches to expression in a variety of media.  Filmmakers are finding ways to reinvent their craft.  Authors are introducing unique perspectives of the world around them and of their own boundless imaginations.  These are gifts to be thankful for every day.  I’m just as guilty when I allow exhaustion (or laziness) keep me from discovering the next new thing, but we owe it to ourselves and our fellow humans to continue to explore our own imaginations and to support and encourage those who are doing the same.  Take that chance to be a part of the art community by participating, supporting, or both, and you’ll soon discover that watermelons aren’t the only things that are magic.

Watermelon Magic Trailer from Spring Garden Pictures on Vimeo.

Minecraft: Starting from Scratch

Last week at work, I was at a meeting about gaming in education.  No, we’re not talking about Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail, as awesome as they were (AppleII IV eva!).  Our particular subject was the game Minecraft.  I only caught the tail end of the meeting so I missed a lot of specific applications, but we were each given a free trial of the program to try it for ourselves.

If you haven’t heard of it, Minecraft is an open-ended game with an emphasis on exploration, construction, and problem solving.  It is referred to as a sandbox game, in that there is no particular plot and no direction in which the players are pushed.  You essentially roam a massive world (either your own private world or a multiplayer world on a server) collecting resources that you use to craft tools and build structures.  As you dig deeper into the earth, you find more valuable resources that allow you to craft stronger tools and further customize your world.  If you are killed, you respawn back at your starting point or back at your house if you built one.

minecraft with tuba

No pigs were harmed in the making of this block sousaphone.

I’ve known about the game for a long time, and the idea of it really didn’t appeal to me.  As a friend recently described it, it sounded just like playing with legos.  After I started messing around in it, though, the appeal became quite clear.  The amount of things that you can create in the world is huge.  I spent some time finding materials to make my two story house with a glass enclosed bedroom and a tree growing out of the roof.   I harvested wood and spider silk to make a fishing rod.  I made a furnace out of stone and baked some bread.  I found diamonds at the bottom of a deep mine shaft, which I then used to make a strong pickaxe.  I found the remains of an ancient tunnel covered in cobwebs and with remnants of mine cart tracks.

Perhaps the most exciting moment for me was when I tunneled to the bottom of the earth and found a vast pool of lava.  Next to it, I found an underground spring.  As a lover of explosions and “what-if” moments, I had to know what happened if I directed the flow of water into the pool of lava.  Liquids in Minecraft follow their own laws of physics that are different from real-life physics, so I began experimenting with placing blocks to control the flow of the water.  Sometimes the results were the opposite of what I intended, but after some trial and error, I was able to turn a huge swath of lava into a field of obsidian.  The 8 year-old in me who used to love mixing different chemicals in a big bucket just to see what happened was absolutely elated.

It was at that point that I slipped and fell into the remaining lava, incinerating myself as well as all my possessions.

This wasn’t the first time I would have to start from scratch in the game.  While I was learning how the game worked I had fallen off a giant cliff, starved to death, and been mauled to death by a zombie.  Yes that’s right, there are zombies and skeletons and a really creepy thing called an Enderman that all come out once night falls.  I eventually had to turn off the monster component until I knew what I was doing.  Each time I started from scratch, I knew a little more about the world I was in and how I could make it as engaging as possible.  I learned the things to craft earlier and the ways to build a house quicker.  In some ways, I’m actually excited when I have to start from scratch, because I get a clean canvas upon which to imprint my vision.

In real life, the idea of starting from scratch is terrifying to me.  Whether it’s a project I’m working on, a work process, or fundamental shifts in the way I live my life, stepping outside of the prescribed method and exploring new options is something I rarely attempt.  While all the fears I have about starting from scratch are negative (I’ll be wasting time, people will look down on me, I won’t be able to support myself), there are also positive potentials as well (I could save time, people will respect me, I’ll be able to support myself better than ever) that I conveniently ignore.

However, it’s too easy to become mired in the same processes continuously when we’re working on a project.  At some point it can be useful to scrap the safe approach that has produced adequate results and pioneer into uncharted territory with a bold new vision. We still hold onto the knowledge from each new attempt, even if we’re using it in a different way or within a different discipline.  As I’ve noted multiple times, many of the skills I’ve learned playing music have been useful in my office life, and vice versa.

In a way, we never really start from scratch.  When the skeleton shot me in the head with an arrow while I was starving to death, I lost all the wood I had harvested, the coal I had mined, and the chicken eggs I had found.  The next time around, I was able to build a shack before falling off a cliff into a ravine.  After I consulted a Minecraft expert named Ned, he gave me pointers as to where to keep my house, how to construct some of the basic necessities for survival, and how to build certain structures.  That iteration was the one in which I died in lava.  However, I continue to learn from my failures and grow from the experiences.  Even though I start each time with no possessions, I retain the knowledge to better survive in the next world.

I am quite aware that this analogy is not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be.  Certainly trying something new and different from what we are accustomed is a scary experience, but it’s also an exhilarating experience.  My “demises” in the various facets of my life are less grisly, but they retain the same impermanence that I’ll encounter bouncing back from endeavors that may be unsuccessful.  I can embrace the change, embrace the exploration, and even embrace the metaphorical (I hope) fear of being eaten by monsters.  Minecraft may be a “sandbox” game, but I’m loving discovering how useful it is on the playground as a whole.

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