Category Archives: Improvisation

Pining for Novemberfest

The other day, I posted to Polkadelphia’s Facebook page:

Well, our first Oktoberfest season has come and gone. We had a blast playing from Philly to northern Jersey to the Polkanos. We had so much fun that I've decided to continue the party into... NOVEMBERFEST! Break out the insulated lederhosen, the polka Thanksgiving tunes, and beer beer BEER! We're coming for ya!

It was a kind of tongue in cheek way for me to both take pride in what I had accomplished over the previous month, as well as express some anxiety about the holes in my working schedule.

October was a very good month for me.  Polkadelphia was playing at least once a week, often much more.  While 2 or 3 shows per week for a polka band during Oktoberfest season seems a little low, I’m really proud of how much we accomplished as a band that hasn’t been around a whole lot.  I also had great gigs with 5 other groups across the month some of which were bands I had never played with before.  I got to play accordion in the West Philadelphia Orchestra, giving me the opportunity to expand my role in the group and learn new repertoire on that instrument.  I also got to write new songs as Neon and Shy and perform in one of my favorite venues (shoutout to the Zen Den).

Novemberfest!Last month I got to amp up my business acumen as well.  Booking Polkadelphia repeatedly taught me some new skills for finding work and negotiating.  I actually began to look forward to calling clients, instead of cringing any time the phone rang.  I had the opportunity to teach sousaphone lessons to a colleague, jumping back into the teaching world.  I was hired to build a new website for a client, and I got a few graphic design projects thrown my way as well.  And of course I got the brilliant idea for Novemberfest which, while not a full-fledged idea yet, has great potential for the future.

In October, I managed to meet my financial goals, meaning I earned enough to pay my monthly expenses.  This is an accomplishment of which I am especially proud, as it gives me the confidence and reassurance to continue working hard to make music my primary source of income.  It’s yet another reason I pine for Novemberfest, since I know running a polka band during Oktoberfest contributed greatly to my financial security for the month.

That last sentence there is the insecurity in me talking, and it has been nagging quite a bit lately.  The real trigger for it was the end of October, when I got my car inspected and found I needed major repairs.  The bill made a massive dent in the earnings I had worked so hard for, and I started second guessing myself.  Talking with a few other freelancers who assured me this sort of thing is always happening has made it a bit easier, but I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

It’s an odd pattern.  There’s a very small sweet spot between when I start a project (book a show, write a song, arrange a new piece for a band) and see it to fruition (play the booked show, perform the written song, showcase the new arrangement) in which I’m feeling like all is well in the world and I’m being productive. After that, it’s easy to start to panic that I’m not doing enough.  While it’s important to have a strong work ethic, it’s far too easy to be, as David Bowie says in Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, “religiously unkind” to myself.*

Looking back over October, I can see why I might feel this way.  I’m still finding ways to be physically comfortable after my back injuries.  It’s cutting into my productivity, as one of the few places where it doesn’t hurt to work for over an hour is in bed (where I’m currently typing this).  And as business-like as my bed is, there’s no escaping the fact that I go there every night to rest.  Also, as I learned in 9th grade, you can’t really practice the tuba (or any other instrument) in bed.  It just doesn’t work.

I’m also a little gun shy about performing too much.  It’s hard to feel the correlation between the pain I feel and the performances, so I don’t always know what specifically to stop doing.  While performing is sometimes about landing those big lucrative gigs, I am finding that it’s also about just getting out and being present.  So I’m trying to do that without overdoing it.  As a whole, I’m trying to continue my experiments in productivity without damaging the future of my productivity.

So I’ll continue to find new approaches, develop new ideas, and create new opportunities.  Now that I’ve seen it happen for one month, I know financial solubility can be a reality.  I’ll keep on pushing through the thin veneer of terror and impossibility that can cling like a film to see what’s on the other side.  Onward to Novemberfest, Decemberfest, and beyond!

*

I’ve been really loving this song lately.  While it’s ostensibly part of the Ziggy Stardust story at a point in which he is washed up and depressed, I find it a timeless inspiration.  We as creators feel that timeless drag towards self-destruction, the clock ticking away our time left to say something, anything, and the solitary confinement of the path less traveled.  And in one soaring ride, David Bowie offers consolation and respite.  It’s really such a gorgeous journey.

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Expertise for Non-Experts

While I’m known for my tuba playing and my very pretty face, I often have to utilize skills that fall outside of my expertise.  Sometimes that just means I’ll have to work on these tasks for longer than an expert in the field would have.  Often though, I find a fresh perspective that someone mired in the everyday tasks of these skills will overlook.

Last Thursday I had a show playing sousaphone in the Red Hot Ramblers.  We are a trio that play traditional (20’s) jazz and we have a monthly show at a quirky neighborhood bar.  Lately we’ve had a lot of requests for our Facebook page, but as a fledgeling group, we haven’t gotten that far yet.  For our show last Thursday, I made it a priority to get a photo of the band so we can start raking in those Facebook page likes.  While on a break, the three of us lined up in front of the beer cooler at the venue, someone pulled out their iPhone, and we got a few shots.  The following day, I was emailed the photo which looked like this:

dark image

I really liked the backlighting of the beer case as a bright focal point contrasting with the three of us standing in front.  Of course, the problem was that we were pretty much indistinguishable because of the shadows on our faces caused by the contrast of the backlighting.  Not much of a publicity photo for that reason.  But I really liked it as a start, so I decided to take it into Photoshop and see what I could do.

My experience with Photoshop is comprised of three elements: I teach a basic Photoshop class, I build posters in it, and I try to make the most ridiculous mashups possible for my own amusement.  My point being that I really don’t have formal training in either Photoshop or design.  I do however, have an eye for what I find aesthetically pleasing (or displeasing).  I also have a sense of playfulness with the projects I do and tenacity to keep trying things until they work in a way I like.  Hey, if it works for recording music, why not try it here!

First I tried adjusting the overall lighting levels, but the picture became too washed out or discolored.  The problem was that I wanted the lighted case to be vibrant without losing the darker areas:

too dark picture

The background is vibrant, but the foreground is invisible.

So I the separated the darker areas into their own layer and placed them on top of the vibrant background.  I cropped the photo and took out something that probably no one will notice, unless you’re from Pottsville, PA.

fancy background, normal foreground

Ah, the faces are back. (not AAAAAAAHHHH, the faces are back!!!!)

We’re still too dark here, so I changed the exposure for just the foreground:

faces exposed

Even more facial features

We look too purple in here, so I made some shifts to our color balance.  Notice how the background layer (the beer case) doesn’t change, just us fellas:

Now with balanced colors

Purple has been defeated!

Looking much better!  The last thing was our trombone player Larry’s bowtie.  It was a beautiful blue striped one, but in the low light, it came out as grey.  That would not stand!  I isolated it, made it it’s own layer, and pumped up the blue:

Final picture

Introducing Blue Tie and the Red Hot Ramblers!

So granted, I used some of the more advanced tools such as the histogram, adjustment layers and quick selection tool, but I used them in a trial and error fashion.  Were I a professional photographer, I might have dived right into a set of tools and performed some standard touch-ups.  But because I was testing it all along the way and seeing certain combinations of tools for the first time, I was constantly re-evaluating my process as I went.  What I lacked in know-how was made up for with a fresh perspective and a lack of preconceived notions.

A lot of organizations are starting to experiment with including employees from one department in projects that don’t directly relate to their department.  The idea is that by including an outsider’s perspective, everyone benefits from a re-evaluation of some of the project’s central tenants.  In my place of employment I’m actually working as an “outsider” in a current project.  We’re looking to revamp our means for faculty and students to communicate and share content, so rather than having only people intimately familiar with the product, they’re looking for my input as well.  I don’t know what’s possible, what’s impossible, or what has or hasn’t been tried before, so I have a unique insight that is unfettered by previous work.  It’s also exciting for me, because I get to step outside my traditional role into something new and potentially exciting.  After a while, if I’m just doing the same things or variations on them, my capacity for new creative thought gets diminished.

So yes, we need our experts.  We’ll always need people who are able to perform their tasks with laser focus and perform them well.  It’s also important to include the outsiders, the amateurs, the students, sometimes even the antagonists when we’re hunting for new ideas and perspectives.  Sometimes when you don’t know what you can’t do, you end up achieving in ways you never thought possible.

Confidential to Tricky in Eki-eki-stam-stam:  It meant quite a lot to me that you came out to see my show and quite a lot more than you told me you were a lurker on my blog.  It was delightful catching up; next time we’ll have to play some games.  Let me know when you sneak back to town and we’ll do a Barcade run.

Culinary Improvisation

Falcor Sousaphone

To the Ivory Tower, Falcor!

Reading through the list of my previous posts, I notice it’s been a while since I did a non-music central one.  Lest you think I’m holed up in my Ivory Tower endlessly scheming of new ways to incorporate music into my life… well, I guess you’re half right.  Most of the rest of the time I’m probably thinking about food.  In fact, recently while I was preparing for a musical “salon party” with a friend from out of town, after the fifth or so dish I made she commented, “so you like cooking, huh.”  I have about 5 or so staples that if you have ever been to my house, you’ve probably sampled.  Most of them began as a written recipe, but along the way I modified it to my own desires.  Today I want to talk about improvisation as it pertains to food preparation.

Many of my improvisations stem from a lack of ingredients.  I find gathering the correct components to be the most frustrating part of cooking from a recipe.  I rarely have almond extract, shallots, or rice flour handy, so when I browse foods of interest to make, I either have to make a special shopping trip or find a replacement from my pantry.  Sometimes an easy replacement can be found (honey for brown sugar, oil for butter, cream and water for milk).  I remember one time that did not go so smoothly.

I had recently acquired the Creole cookbook Beyond Gumbo by Jessica B. Harris, and there was a recipe for Exquisites, Nahuatl- Style Sweet Corn.  It involved some relatively obscure ingredients including a liquor called Pulque and a sprig of epazote, but it gave optional replacements for them as tequila and parsley.  For about a month I had it in my mind that I wanted to make this dish, so I finally picked up the corn and one Saturday afternoon, I went to it.  As I shucked the corn, I realized that I had forgotten to buy any of the other ingredients besides salt and the tequila, but for some reason I was undeterred.  It was only after I realized I was boiling corn in Tequila on a frying pan and that “lovely” aroma of burning tequila was supposed to be my lunch.  From the outsider’s perspective, I was an alcoholic who had reached a new low.

Gallo Pinto

Bacon number is zero in this case.

My favorite dish to make is also from Beyond Gumbo: Gallo Pinto.  If you’ve ever had the fortune of visiting Costa Rica, then you have probably had this ultimate breakfast food.  It’s essentially a rice and beans mixture with a few other vegetables thrown in along with a Worcestershire sauce and ground coriander.  It’s very tasty, and after visiting Costa Rica years ago, I became hooked.  The recipe called for a slab of bacon to be mixed in with it, but being the vegetarian I am, I opted to take that out.  Over time, I also realized that it could be made vegan without much trouble.  The offending ingredient is Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies.  There are plenty of good vegan Worcestershire sauces that you can pick up at Whole Foods.  The original recipe called for a tablespoon of the sauce, but I found that wasn’t nearly enough to impart enough flavor on the dish, nor was the teaspoon of coriander.  I end up using close to a third of a bottle of sauce each time I make this dish.  Finding the right balance of rice to beans took a while also, but I finally got it down.  So here it is, the improvised version of Gallo Pinto.


Gallo Pinto ala Dan

1 cup of rice (I use brown basmati, but use whatever you want.  Just give it time to cook)
4 cans of black beans (I like the saltless variety)
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 medium yellow onion chopped
1 bell pepper chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
2-3 tbsp ground coriander
Lotsa Worcestershire sauce
Salt to taste

  1. Prepare the rice.  If you haven’t done this before, boil 2 cups of water, then add the rice.  Reduce to low heat and cover the pot.
  2. In a large pot over medium heat, saute the onion and the garlic in the olive oil.
  3. When the onions become translucent, add the bell pepper and saute until the pepper is tender
  4. Drain and rinse the black beans.  Add them to the pot and stir.
  5. Drain any excess water from the rice.  Add it to the pot and stir.  Reduce to low heat.
  6. Mix in the coriander and Worcestershire sauce.  No, more Worcestershire sauce.  I know that bottle isn’t cheap.  Put more in.  The ideal color of the rice should be a dirty brown, and the flavor should be slightly sweet and floral (that’s the coriander)
  7. Add salt to taste.  I typically add a tbsp or 2.
  8. Serve in bowls with spoons.  To be eaten by mouths.

I often also up the rice and beans components for more servings.  I’ve found that I don’t usually have to increase the onion/garlic quantity to match.

Another improvised dish of mine came from an outrageous cookie recipe of the “something stuffed in something else” variety.  In this case, Oreo Cookie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies.  I saw this and immediately tried the recipe out, but came away somewhat disappointed.  Firstly, the cookies ended up shaped like little hats: a regular cookie with a lump of Oreo in the middle.  Secondly, and I feel guilty saying this, they were a bit over-the-top.  Now, I am all for ridiculous culinary experiences, but after finishing one of these cookies, the typical reaction was not usually satisfaction or even giddiness, but more like exhaustion.  There was just too much going on, and the cookies ended up being too big (blasphemy, I know!).

For a while I just made the cookie recipe without the Oreo.  It’s one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes on it’s own, which is what tends to happen when you use 2 sticks of butter.  Then I started considering how to make a chocolate version of the cookie using unsweetened cocoa powder.  However  the cocoa powder is a dry ingredient, so you can’t just add it in or it will affect the consistency of the batter.  I needed to subtract from the flour and make it up with cocoa powder.  After some experimentation (improvisation?) I found that by taking a cup out of the flour and replacing it with cocoa, the batter stays wet enough to form, but dry enough to not ooze everywhere.  The addition of white chocolate chips in place of semi-sweet seemed only natural.

After I managed that, a very important question arose: what to fill it with in its chocolate form?  After considering Nutter Butters and an assortment of candy bars, I went with a suggestion from my girlfriend Katie: Peppermint Patty.  After I made them and the initial group sampling process occurred, they were named Fat Mints, after their kindred Girl Scout Cookie cousin.


Fat Mints

That’s peppermint oozing out! Get your mind out of the gutter!

Fat Mints

2 sticks (1 cup) softened butter (I always use unsalted Plugra)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder sifted
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 of 10 oz bag white chocolate chips
24 Peppermint Patties, wrapperless (unless you like the taste of plastic)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix the butter with the sugars.
  3. Add the eggs and beat.  Do the same with the vanilla.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda.
    Now, I usually disregard any instructions to sift, but I find cocoa powder can be very clumpy.  So make sure it’s smooth when you add it into the bowl.
  5. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar mixture, stirring along the way.  Continue to stir until everything is well mixed.
  6. Add in the white chocolate chips and stir to distribute evenly.  You don’t need more than half a bag, since the Peppermint Patties are going to be the main attraction.
  7. Prepare a baking sheet.  I love me my silpats!  Then wash your hands, it’s about to get messy.
  8. Take enough batter to cover a Peppermint Patty, and form it into a ball around it.  Try not to use too much batter, as you’ll end up with the hat-shaped cookies that way.  Just use enough to make sure the Patty is covered.  Then place it on the sheet, keeping them about 2 inches apart from each other.
  9. Bake for 10-20 minutes, or until cookies are slightly firm to the touch.  Remove and let cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes.  Then place on a cooling rack.

The best part about Fat Mints is that the chocolate of the Peppermint Patty melts before the batter hardens, which allows the mint filling to distribute throughout the cookie.  Sometimes it oozes through the cookie, but it’s usually only 2 or so per batch that do that.  And they still taste awesome.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into how I improvise while cooking.  As with any improvisation, it takes some knowledge about the medium you’re working in, a creative mind, and the courage to take risks.  However, only by risking it all can we reach such heights as an innovative solo, a new invention, or the deliciousness of a Fat Mint.  Bon appetit in your own improvisations!

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