Tarantella for Sax – rough as guts

I’m trying to get into the routine of posting at least one lesson videos every week, and currently a couple of students are doing Tarantella for saxophone. It’s a clarinet piece by Carl Baermann, but it translates quite well to saxophone.

And in my attempt to put my best foot forward into the vast internet, here’s my unfortunately hurried 8:30pm on a Tuesday night quick-demo of Tarantella for saxophone.

…and the reed was too hard.

I’m of the mind that at the moment, creating content regularly is more important than trying to make it ridiculously high quality. Truth be told, I just don’t have the skills or equipment to make amazing videos. What I can do though, is get used to embarrassing myself in front of a camera, stuffing up my notes, but doing so in the most authentic way possible.

There’s certainly no way I’m going to be able to change much of my teaching style, but what I can do is be more aware of diction, trying not to waffle too much, and making sure I cover just a few core learning aspects in order to keep the video reasonable succinct. I should also practise the pieces a bit more.

This video was admittedly too long, so perhaps I should have noted down exactly what I wanted to cover. Perhaps I need to be prepared to make more video cuts, rather than doing everything in one take. I wasn’t going to throw this effort away though, someone may find it useful. From here, it’s just a matter of improving for next time…

…with a more appropriate reed.

Coded Notes – the YouTube Channel

Lockdown was an odd opportunity to reflect on some things I’ve wanted to do (or at least revisit) for a long time. With the world seemingly grinding to a standstill, the day job became 80% time and pay which freed up some time to explore a few things. One of them was trying to learn piano (again), another was to get back into the habit of writing some music with some future goal of making a music book one day. The other thing was something that felt out of necessity during Skype lessons, and that was making videos of lesson content. All those videos, plus later ones, are now on a YouTube Channel.


First, some backstory on videos and classes. I started teaching in 2001; a pre-camera phone era. I’m not even sure how good digital camcorders were, but they probably weren’t cheap. No one ever recorded lessons.

On a related note, in the social dancing scenes, such as salsa, bachata, zouk, etc, I was dancing just as the camera phones started to be a thing, meaning suddenly there was an opportunity to record the moves/routines covered in class. But what was the etiquette for that? Initially, teachers were reluctant to let anyone record them, but they were more than happy to let the students record each other at the end of class. Eventually, the writing was on the wall and now, at the end of the class, it’s basically, “okay, get your phones if you want a recording”. So long as nothing is uploaded to social media, the teachers (even the touring professionals) are more than happy to have recordings made at the end, including explanations.

In regards to music classes though, I’ve only occasionally been asked by an adult student or a parent ask to record me playing the homework music. Perhaps it’s because it’s more an audio, rather than visual thing, and camera mics are still no good at recording a wind instrument. Lockdown however, has shown that the videos I’ve made have really helped some of the students. Some aren’t fussed, but some students really want to ‘copy the answer’ as soon as possible, rather than ‘solve the puzzle’, so to speak. You can tell it’s benefited some students.

I initially made all the YouTube video unlisted so that the students could access them via a direct link but so that the world couldn’t see. Now, it’s open the world.

Why would I do this!

Want to get a quick demo on how to play James Rae’s Latin Jive?

Once upon a time, I think we all probably tried to maintain an online persona that was completely independent of real life. We’d be able to hide behind usernames and avatars. Now, with the advent of ridiculous amounts of social media, and Google’s stranglehold on everything, I’ve finally given up. The only thing to do now is to try and put one’s best foot forward and contribute with something positive.

This realisation happened with Patreon, where Olga and I have been receiving patronage for Chartopia. We really needed an introduction video, so naturally we had to front up and show that there we two developers working really hard to make an awesome Roleplaying random table/generator app for people to enjoy. We couldn’t really hide if were to make Chartopia this truly credible tool that the roleplaying community could get behind.

With the inertia overcome, I’ve now made 68 videos of clarinet and saxophone lesson material demos!

I’ve named the channel after this blog (because why not), and gradually the quality is improving. I started off with a little Sony mic plugged directly into my sister’s Lumix G85, then roughly edited everything in iMovie. Despite Lockdown, I managed to get myself a Motu M4 audio interface and experimented with my Shure 57 mic. With its preamps, the Motu produced a high quality recording with the Shure 57, but the Sony mic, plugged into the Lumix camera, sounded terrible. The trouble was that the Shure 57 mic can only pick up the instrument, not the voice, so I tried to get the Sony mic to do that. Unfortunately when editing the audio, cutting between the two mics didn’t work out so well on account of the Sony mic pulling in a lot of noise in comparison to the Shure 57.

Eventually I got my hands on an Audio Technica 2020 which had been able to handle voice and instruments just fine, so long as I use some compression and gain tweaks in Audacity. Now my videos are sounding half decent for something that I quickly edit in about 30 minutes.

The goal now? Well, let’s just say that there are so many really good clarinet and saxophone players on YouTube already that I’d be dreaming to think that many people are going to watch what I do, so this is currently for my students and myself. I now get to have some fun trying to add more production quality; perhaps some image overlays, better video cuts, figure out how to get rid of pops and clicks in the audio (like the annoying sounds my mouth makes as I prep to play). At some point I’ll even have to style the background behind me, and figure out the lighting.

These videos are now another tick in ‘add something positive to the internet’ box.

It turns out the day job didn’t need the 80% for long and all those three-day weekends became no more. It’s all back to normal, making it more an effort to cram all these goals into the short amount of spare time available.

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.

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.


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



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.

Pokémon in class

We are now week 2 into Pokémon Go’s release and New Zealand is not immune from the fervour. In fact, being at GMT+12 means we’re usually the first to get a game release and when it comes to mobile games, NZ has proven to be a valuable soft launch region for new game releases; there’s not too much going on in this time zone, we’re a small population of almost 4.5 million people and we’re quite tech savvy. It allows the game developers to sort through any issues in a manageable way.

Pokémon Go has become one of those conversation topics that help lessons become less ‘stuffy’ and formal. Yes, there’s only so much one can cram into 30 minute lessons and I try my best to get the most learning material in there as possible but kids lighten up immensely when their teacher brings up something like Pokémon Go.

I learnt about it last Thursday. Some of my students had spent the day doing the Westlake Bands tour of some of the Intermediate Schools on the North Shore.

“…but Pokémon Go got released in NZ today and everyone just spent the day playing it.”

Ha! The teachers just can’t blanket ban phones anymore, it would be impossible. The idea that everyone has the power of a Playstation 2 or 3 in their would seem crazy when I was in high school where the Nokia 3310 was the phone to have (and 2 years earlier we’d say ‘put your phone away you yuppie!’). Even the teachers were probably wishing they could get in on the fun and games but knowing full well that they have to keep up appearances of being the ‘responsible ones’.

In last week’s class, at the encouragement of one of my youngest students, I created a Pokémon Go avatar and captured the tutorial Pokémon. He thought it was great.

Come this week and I’ve been quizzing the kids. “So, have you caught ’em all?” They’re currently on 2 weeks school holiday so it’s going to be chaos in school when they go back. At their inevitable question back to me I have to say: “No, I haven’t been playing it. All I’ve caught in the tutorial Pokémon and a Spearow about an hour ago.” (I played way too much Shadow Cities to be sucked into another location based game).

It turns out the Glenfield Leisure Centre is actually a Pokestop, whatever that is.


Breaking the schedule

There’s a recurring nightmare that I have, one where I totally forget that I’m supposed to be teaching and that my students are wasting their time waiting for me to show up.

That happened today.

I showed up at 5:30 pm to teach as I usually do and a student of mine was waiting for me; I’d completely forgotten that because he couldn’t come this Saturday, that we’d arranged for him to have a lesson at 5 pm the following Thursday… meaning today.

Usually I write this stuff down. In fact, I’d made the same 5pm arrangement with a different student the week before. What was different this time round? Well, his last lesson had finished hastily because the next student was early and one of their parents wanted to speak with me. It all became a rush and I never wrote down the change of lesson time. It’s like at that point, I’d completely forgotten everything. pooffff, gone.

So I showed up just before 5:30, saw my student waiting in the foyer and I got that horrible oh, no, feeling as the realisation dawned that I’d just made a monumental stuff up. I felt terrible. These are the moments where the mind gets bombarded with several thoughts at once; “I’ve just mucked around this student,” “how did this happen?” “what a stuff up”, “what do we do now?”

There was nothing that could be done, of course. This week I had a 5:30 student and all I could do was apologise profusely. The student seemed cool about it, “don’t worry” he said. At least he lived locally.

Oh man, what a horrible start to the evening.

Flexible Me

Teaching is sometimes an exercise in logistics and a great example happened this weekend. I usually teach a Saturday but this week I wanted to participate in the 11km Coastal Challenge run.

That meant I had the choice of either cancelling all Saturday lessons or rescheduling them. I suggested to everyone to come on Sunday instead, and luckily all but one was able to do so.

So far, so good.

The one that couldn’t hasn’t been able to do Saturdays all February because of robotics competitions (that’s a great excuse), so we’ve been doing make up lessons for 1 hour on Tuesdays. I’m gutted that that’s my free evening gone, but oh well.

Then there were two students that couldn’t come to their Thursday lesson this week so I suggested, “come on Sunday this week.” So my five Thursday students dwindled to three, but luckily the two were able to move to Sunday this week.

Then I got a call from a sick student saying they couldn’t do the Sunday lesson so I suggested they come on Tuesday, which would be after the other student’s make-up lesson.

And during the week I got a text message from a parent requesting that their son reschedule their usual Saturday class to a Thursday for next week, which I could do.

So in the space of one week, I had transferred most Saturday students to a Sunday, moved two Thursday students to Sunday, moved two missed Sunday lessons to next Tuesday then also rescheduled a next Saturday to the Thursday of the same week.

Phew. I think it all worked out well considering. I get to try this all again when the Tough Mudder event happens in April.