Video games are fun but music is forever

After finishing a class with a student I went out to the foyer to see my next student sitting at a seat by his mother playing a game on his tablet computer.

“Shouldn’t you be in a practice room warming up?” I asked as he walked to the practice room. (I hope I wasn’t in earshot of mother).

I like computer games, I’ve had a huge amount of enjoyment on them and recall fondly the fantastic game mechanics of Close Combat and World in Conflict, the absurdity of the early Command & Conquer series, and the story line of Knights of the Old Republic. I remember the hilarity of the police chases the first time I played GTA3. Earlier than that, it would have been Red Baron on the 386, or even earlier still, Load Runner, Blue Max, California Games and Airborne Ranger on the C64.

Despite having clocked up a ridiculous amount of hours on games I somehow managed to get in clarinet practice, do my schoolwork and partake in other extra curricular activities. Something must have been working right in the household.

Perhaps I should thank my parents for never getting me (or allowing me) a game console, especially not a Nintendo Game Boy. Heck, Dad was so tight, any new computer we bought (beyond the very first i386 PC, which was top of the line for its day) was already about two generations behind. It took ages to upgrade from a 5 1/4″ drive to a 3 1/2″ drive to a CD drive; from a ribbon printer to an ink jet; from an i386 to an upgraded i386 to make it an i486 to finally an AMD Duron then later a Pentium 4; and from dial-up to, well, not dial-up. I think I may have even paid for ‘not’ dial-up.

I have mixed opinions on today’s digital trappings. Games, especially those with story arcs, are as memorable as great books. The popular ones will be referenced in pop culture for decades and you’ll be in the know. But then there are time sinks like Facebook and I’m just so glad it wasn’t around during my studies. All we had was ICQ and then the much simpler MSN messenger. Good luck to the parents in trying to keep kids away from phones and tablets.

Yet I don’t play games anymore; the PS3 was stolen in a burglary and my eyes don’t like playing on a small mobile screen. The closest I get to games on the phone is practicing Spanish using Duolingo. Yet music I still do. I teach, I play in the WCCB, it gets me away from the computer – a good thing considering the hours I pour into the Chartopia side project. Okay, so maybe I’ve just transitioned from games to software side projects…

…but I’ll likely play music forever.

So back to the student who was playing a game while waiting. He wasn’t aware that he was free to grab an empty practice room and warm up because he’s usually my first student on a Saturday (it was Tuesday). For that, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

Freebie lessons

I’ve gone and done something which, after 17 years of teaching I’ve never done; given a former student a few lessons to get them back into playing again.

As a member of the West City Concert Band, I’ve often been asked to encourage my students to join.  It was actually my original clarinet teacher who encouraged me to join the WCCB all those years ago (the mid 90s) and I attribute that experience to having accelerated my clarinet ability during those early years. I’d hazard a guess to say that a lot of my playing then was (positively) modelled on the clarinetist sitting next to me.

I’ve never been able to encourage my students to join either the WCCB or any other community band, although a couple of students did a few school terms with the North Shore Youth Orchestra without my influence. ABRSM exams I can promote, the band, not so. It didn’t help that the WCCB wasn’t actually that great 6+ years go. Encouraging school level students to participate in outside-of-school music groups is difficult because of distance, time and the fact that the high school bands and orchestras are just so damn good now.

But what of my former students? The ones that no longer have so many school activities? I don’t make a habit of keeping in touch with any of them although a couple of them I’ve bumped into at band festivals/performances, playing for the University of Auckland Concert Band in fact.

For whatever reason though, probably because it was the early days of Facebook, I have a couple of students added as contacts. I noticed one had made passing references to playing saxophone so I contacted this former student and made mention of the WCCB, asked her to think of it as a reason to start playing again and then offered a couple of freebie lessons to help her blow out the cobwebs.

It certainly helps that the musical quality of WCCB is light years beyond what it was 6 years ago. (…as I proof read this, the WCCB has just cleaned up at the 2017 NZCBA Festival with best band, best performance piece and best performance of the set work).

A return to the place I teach was quite nostalgic for the student. The venue was the same but I guess everything seemed a bit smaller given that she’s taller. “Even the vending machine is still the same!” she noted. “I bet some of the overpriced chocolate bars are probably the same too.” I replied.

One could say she was my biggest fan; the guy that played in a ska band, worked for Serato and, yes, she said it, looked like what Harry Potter should have grown up to look like (I used to wear glasses and my 6ft 2″ frame would tower over Daniel Radcliffe).

Will she persist and join the band? Maybe, maybe not, but hey, I got her to get a saxophone out again and for the time being, she’s have a good time belting out some notes.

Work Hazard

While the U.S. bleats on about health care reform, New Zealand, thankfully, has it’s own universal ‘no fault’ accident coverage that works just fine. The Accident Compensation Corporation is a government entity of which we all pay into via tax on our earned income. If we come a cropper, the ACC will not only pay for treatment to your injury but will compensate you for a large portion of you income while you’re off work.

Good luck getting something like ACC working in a place like the US with its litigious culture and anti-democratic-socialist morons in Congress. The whole point of ACC is it’s ‘no fault.’ If a neighbour slips and breaks a leg on my slippery driveway, I won’t be sued and the neighbour will be patched up at no cost to them.

What has this got to do with music (and clarinet playing).

Well…

I went to the dentist and the hygienist noticed some very fine cracks in my top teeth that she could only see with the light at a particular angle. I’m pretty sure I’d noticed them before but I just figured I was getting old and teeth just did that over time.

“Cracks don’t happen like that naturally, they’ve had some kind of trauma.”

Not being someone that gets into fights or gets smashed up playing rugby, there was only one thing that stood out as a possibility for the cause of the cracks.

Teeth versus clarinet mouthpiece.

On occasion, likely from sheer absent mindedness, I’ve gone to put my clarinet in my mouth and completely missed. It sounds completely absurd but it happens and the result is smashing my mouthpiece against my top teeth. Those tiny chips at the top of my mouth piece aren’t there from dropping it, those are from full on dental collisions.

It turns out that my teeth didn’t get away scot-free after all and now I have teeth with trauma.

In comes ACC.

At the behest of the hygienist (and the actual dentist who was brought in to confirm her suspicions), X-Rays were taken and I filled out an ACC form to explain how the injury came about. A few days later, the ACC sends back it’s fantastically consistent replies.

“…We’re sorry to here about your injury…

“Based on the information provided, we’re pleased to confirm  that we’ve accepted your injury for cover.”

And this is why ACC is freakn’ awesome. It’s not so much about the current trauma, it’s that, now that a claim number is against this injury, any subsequent flow on damage that occurs, say, if the teeth completely crack and cause (as the dentist said) a $3000 bill, I’m covered. Phew.

And I know the system works. In 2001, at the age of 17, I had repair work done on a chipped molar courtesy of a tackle I made while playing bull rush (dental for under 18s is free in NZ). 15 years later, that repair work chipped away a bit and it was (because the claim number existed) fixed by the dentist free of charge.

Hurray for my taxes doing what they’re supposed to do.

 

Flare Audio – Ear Protection

I have a love, hate relationship with Facebook. It’s great for staying in touch with people and it’s useful as a basic news aggregator (although RSS feeds read via Feedly is a far superior tool). For example, “Return of the Cafe Racers” and “Dual Sport Delinquents” are good ways to motivate me into restoring a bike and doing some motorcycle adventures.

Then there’s the humour courtesy of the collective wit from the people-of-net.

But I waste too much time on the damn thing (and on browsing the internet in general). It’s a rabbit hole, a time sink, a mental sponge (and all those other good metaphors).

Now Facebook has added ads it the form of “Suggested Posts” (the ad blocker isn’t smart enough for blocking those) but, somewhat fortuitously, that’s how I learnt about Flare Audio’s Isolate Ear Protectors. At the time I was looking into getting some replacement ear plugs for use with the motorcycle (long rides at high speed become a bit much on the ears) and so seeing this ad actually got my curiosity.

It was a Kickstarter campaign and by backing them with a hard-earned £46 I hoped to purchase their ISOLATE® PRO – Titanium ear protectors.

I was curious for a variety of reasons:

  • I needed some ear protectors that were better than the basic foam ear plugs I was using for the motorcycle. Generic silicon ones marketed to motorcyclists are about $30NZ.
  • I own very expensive custom made Etymotic Research earplugs that I use for music rehearsals. They’re amazing. I wanted to compare them.
  • I wanted to see for myself the claims made by Flare that the attenuation was reasonably even against all frequencies.
flare_audio_ear_protection

Fancy packaging for what is essentially a chunk of titanium wrapped in foam tips. Different tip sizes were provided.

Attenuation

noun

Physics. a decrease in a property, as energy, per unit area of a wave or a beam of particles, occurring as the distance from the source increases as a result of absorption, scattering, spreading in three dimensions, etc. [source]

The problem with foam ear plugs is that all the high frequencies attenuate a lot but the lower frequencies get through. The result is an uneven auditory experience were the overall sound is a bit muddy.

Expensive, profession musicians earplugs by the likes of Etymotic do a far better job at attenuating the lower frequencies, therefore creating a more balanced sound. Flare’s titanium (yes, you read that right, freak’n titanium!), ‘wrapped’ in a foam outer is supposed to also achieve the effect of absorbing more of those lower frequencies.

Do they work?

Actually, yeah; perhaps a bit too well. I tested the titanium ear protectors during a band rehearsal and they were too potent; I could hear myself okay but I couldn’t hear my section very well. Hearing people speak was also vastly dulled. Maybe Flare wasn’t bluffing when they claimed the attenuation was high. At least it knocked out the flam’n trumpets and piccolo.

Great for a more muted motorcycle ride though.

The Etymotics don’t kill the sound as much, and the spoken word is far easier to hear (even though my ER25s are marketed as taking 25dB off). The custom silicon fit also means that it also doesn’t have that my-ear-feels-like-it’s-full-of-water-feel, which is what the foam does. I suppose I did pay a small fortune for them so you’d hope them to be better.

Now that I’ve dug up the graphs from both Etymotic and Flare, it seems to imply that Etymotic has more even attenuation across the frequencies whereas Flare’s drops off quite a bit between 1-5kHz. A clarinet’s high G is 1,568 Hz so perhaps it’s not a big deal.

Loud Students

I haven’t used earplugs in lessons for quite a while but more recently I’ve felt a bit sensitive to louder instrument playing. I have two beginner students (clarinet and sax) who both can’t yet control their volume (I don’t to make it a big deal at the moment) but the sound bounces around the walls of my small studio room. Ouch.

I apologise to them (because it seems as little rude, as if I’m trying to blot them out) and put the ear plugs in. Having titanium ear plugs certainly makes for a good show and tell item though.

Ear Protection for Musicians

Without a doubt, one of the best purchases I have ever made was my ER-25 musicians earplugs (by Etymotic Research Inc.). While playing in a ska band during my Uni days, the drummer had a pair and swore by them. Let’s just say it got pretty loud playing in the bass player’s parent’s garage and the standard foam earplugs didn’t sound that great.

Avoiding all the jargon, let’s just say that a pair of decent earplugs will dampen the volume evenly across all frequencies meaning that everything sounds the same, just quieter. The problem with a pair of cheap earplugs is that they typically quieten the higher frequencies more than the lower therefore leaving you with all the muddier sounds.

I bought the earplugs about 13 years ago now and I remember it costing me a small fortune. For some reason $300 NZ comes to mind, which seems crazy excessive but the process of getting them was a bit involved. I had to get a mould of my ear canals which would be sent to Australia so that the earplugs could be custom made for my ears.

I arranged an appointment  with Bay Audiology to get moulds done but being the professionals they are, they insisted on first testing my hearing. Sure enough, my left ear was slightly worse off that my right courtesy of my music students sitting to my left; nothing to worry about though. Then the audiologist said that he couldn’t take moulds at that time because my ears had lots of wax in them and it needed to be removed. He couldn’t do this personally (no idea why) so I had to book another time to get some kind of ear-wax-remover-specialist to get it out of there. Imagine that.

With the wax removed (a strangely cleansing experience), the original audiologist stuck this massive toy syringe into each ear and filled them full of putty. The moulds were sent to Aussie and in a few weeks I got my earplugs.

Nice.

ER-25 earplugs.JPG

Red for right and ‘antennas’ to help get them out. I really should clean them.

Why so loud anyway?

Given this strange culture we’ve adopted whereby the music in clubs get so loud that no one can have a conversation without shouting at their neighbour, the earplugs found use well beyond practising in the band or playing gigs, I used them while an audience member at the likes of The Kings Arms Tavern where, despite being a great venue for gigs, the low ceiling makes the venue incredibly loud. I got to experience the awesome The WBC and Reel Big Fish in all their glory but thanks to my ER-25s, my ears that didn’t know all about it two days later.

All these years later, the earplugs have found more use again with the West City Concert Band. Our brass players are great but gosh they’re loud. Sometime it’s to hell with the rounded mellow tonality and in with that penetrative blare they use. Then there’s that damn piccolo which seems to be impossible to play below 120 dB and cuts straight through my brain. The earplugs fix that.

Down Sides

Unfortunately the ER-25s aren’t perfect for a wind player. The nature of wind instruments mean it’s in contact with your mouth and the vibrations play a big part of the sound one hears. The result is that the player gets a somewhat weird audiological experience when wearing earplugs. It’s not bad, bad, it’s just different. In my experience, saxophone and clarinet sound better than trombone but that may just be due to my lesser confidence with playing brass. As a trumpet player said to me though, you just play by ‘feel’ anyway.

Sometime the West City Concert Band gets so loud you can’t even hear yourself and good luck keeping yourself in tune if you can’t hear yourself. The earplugs, despite making you sound like crap at times, actually helps for tuning and strangely makes you concentrate on tone too, given that if you’re sounding pretty good with earplugs in, it’s probably sounding pretty good.

Facebook ads

Have you noticed Facebook’s increased used of Suggested Posts i.e. Advertising; Ad Block Plus isn’t filtering them. Well, funny enough the ads actually worked on me because it pointed me in the direction of Flare Audio‘s Kickstarter campaign for their new Isolate Titanium earplugs. It was good timing on their part because I’ve been shopping around for earplugs to use with my motorcycle and I’m running out of cheap foam earplugs that I’ve been using. I figured using $300 musicians earplugs for my motorcycle riding wasn’t a good idea given the frequency I drop the foam ones on the ground.

So Flare Audio’s new earplugs came about and after a couple of days umming and ahhing, I’m bought them. It felt impulsive and they cost about $100 NZ but curiosity pretty much got the better of me and they’ll be arriving a week or so.

It’s going to be interesting to see how they compare to the custom moulded ER-25 earplugs so watch this space for a subjective review.

Worth it

One of the questions you get asked when buying a new motorcycle helmet is “how much is your head worth?” I suppose the same can’t really be said for earplugs because a pair of foam ones still do the job. Still, having some expensive ones would certainly encourage one to use them more. I think I’ve got my dollars worth out of mine (gosh, did I really pay $300?).

Get earplugs people, you don’t want hearing like my dad’s (blame that on using .303 rifles in the airforce with no ear protection).

Playing at the Auckland Town Hall

The Auckland Town Hall is a fantastic venue for ensemble concerts. During high school I received free tickets to NZSO concerts courtesy of some kind of mentoring program (I can’t remember the details now) so I got to see the best NZ had to offer in the way of orchestral performance. Maybe somebody thought I had promise at being an amazing, influential musician (shucks) but I did learn that listening to over one hour of a Mahler symphony bores me witness. It doesn’t matter how good the orchestra is, watching orchestral music is not that interesting unless the percussion players are racing around all over the place.

Once the Town Hall’s renovations were completed in 1997, the Town Hall was also the venue of choice for the Auckland Secondary Band and Orchestra Festival, gleefully called ass-bof by us high schoolers. It’s called the KBB music festival now so I hope KBB payed some big bucks to get the naming rights.  I hear from my students that it’s now held at The Holy Trinity Cathedral, which although is a nice venue, I’d have thought it a bit cavernous. Maybe the cost went up, or maybe the teachers didn’t like the students galavanting around the CBD.

I think the last time I was there was for my 2008 graduation.

Who’d have thought that in 2016, I’d get the chance to play in that same venue again. Taking that up a notch, who’d have thought I’d be playing with the West City Concert band who, to be fair, were entirely average at best until about 3 years ago with ‘the changing of the guard’.

So here we were, last Saturday, at one of Auckland’s premier concert venues playing a 3-piece set for our Band Together concert we co-hosted with the Auckland University and  Manukau Concert Bands.

WestCityConcertBand_BandTogetherConcert_2016

Look at the size of that organ.

It turns out the massive Town Hall organ was restored in 2010 and the musical director of the Manukau Concert Band didn’t want to waste the opportunity of using it. Consequently we had  some members of each band combine to perform the Finale of Saint Saëns’ Symphony No. 3. Yeah, the one with the organ.

The concert was a success (it sounded pretty good from where I was sitting but the recording was probably using a mic that didn’t do the ensemble justice) but it was notable for another reason. Two of the students in the Auckland University Concert Band were former students of mine and it was great to see them still playing. One, whom I taught for 8 years from beginner to grade 8 (with distinction), was back for a few weeks after his first semester studies in France; he’d found out that his time home would coincide with the concerts so got involved.

The other student I assumed would drop clarinet after high school but I was glad to see I was wrong. She was stoked to be able to have the opportunity to keep playing ensemble music. The UoA wind band is almost like a social club and doesn’t have anything to do with the UoA school of music. It’s essentially student led and conducted and most of the players don’t study music at the university; it’s a perfect no-pressure environment for all those wanting to continue music during tertiary studies.

Well done to those who had the gumption to put on this concert, it was a nostalgic experience (I even dragged the folks and grandparent to it).

Being a programming teacher

One of the consequences of being a software programmer is the never ending desire to make side projects. Unfortunately the typical programming day job has tasks that are  so narrowly focused that you end up using only a limited number of technologies to solve problems within a limited domain. Yet programming is such a vast field with many programming languages to try, various problems to solve or projects to play with; it’s a giant sandpit full of toys!

When I started teaching music I was still in high school (2001) and was teaching myself old-school HTML and Javascript; there was no practical way to do software show-and-tell in 2001. By 2008 the Playstation Portable was released and colleague and I were programming a Desert Strike clone for the PSP Homebrew called Mobile Assault. I remember a saxophone student bring in his Sony PSP and thinking that the screen/image quality looked amazing (480×320); way better than the Sega Game Gear and the Nintendo Game Gear that came before it. So when Mobile Assault, the game I spent years of spare time on, was released first for the Homebrew PSP and  then the iPhone, that same student was keen to try it out.

My students had become my beta testers.

For example, that student proved that someone who had used a virtual/touch joystick on the iPhone had no problems flying the helicopter whereas those who hadn’t played similar games found it more difficult. I discovered that some of the controls weren’t so intuitive, like the take off and land button. Usually after a bit of trial and error, it was discoverable though.

When I made my Breezy Bubbles kids game (which was supposed to be a nice simple and quick project that still took a year to get out the door), my students would ask how the game was going and I’d show them. It was meant to be a game that could be played without needing instructions so I’d give them the game to try and observe what problems (if any) they had in figuring out what to do. The gameplay required the the player to tap/pop bubbles in a certain order, and order that was shown in a mini-bubble-list in the top right of the screen. The idea was that as the player ‘button-mashed’ the screen to figure out what to do, the screen would provide feedback such at that list adjusting as the player popped the bubbles in the correct order.

It was interesting seeing the kids reveal the gameplay via trial and error. After a few tweaks, it worked pretty well.

Naturally the students would ask how many I’d sold.

Generally just being a software guy at all is intriguing to the students. “Wow, so do you make any games?” At the moment I’ll say “well, not at the moment, but I’m working on a tool for Dungeon Masters to help them with their role playing games.” I’d then bring out the phone and ‘roll the dice’ on an example Star Wars Random Encounter table that I’d entered into the web app’s database. I’d then narrate the encounter using my story-telling voice.

“Wow, cool!”

Only last week, one of my young students indirectly found a bug in my software. It turns out when I did my search for ‘Star wars’ the grammar sensitive iPhone capitalised the first letter of the search term. It turns out that the search feature of my app is case sensitive and so only a few of the many Star Wars tables showed up. That was a good find (I really should be writing more tests in my software).

I’m pretty sure my second clarinet teacher was a software programmer but I have no idea what he did exactly. I do remember he flew hang gliders though.