Being the Ongoing Chronicle of the Anticks, Misadventures, and Odd Deeds of an Overalls-clad Wanderer.

Friday, September 19, 2014

How do I get to Carnegie Hall?

A reader asks a good question:

How much should a 10-year-old trumpet player practice daily?

As in all such things, it depends. Such guidance should really be given with the advice of the kid's music teacher, who knows a lot better than I what kinds of material are being practiced, what skill level the kid has reached at this point, and so on.

For instance, 10 years old put a kid roughly in the area of 5th grade, which likely means they very likely have no more than one year of trumpet playing under their belt. That's not a lot. If they started in 4th grade and have been playing a year, then twenty minutes a day is probably reasonable. If they're just getting started this year, then twenty minutes a day is probably more of a goal to reach by the end of the year than a perfect starting point; for beginners, fifteen minutes is probably a good starting point. I would try to get to twenty minutes by the end of the year, and then try to reach 30 minutes a day by the time they've reached junior high. If they're still playing in high school, and if the kid is showing real interest in playing, then the target should be an hour a day. And all this might well be tossed out if it turns out that the kid has some serious passion for music, because then they'll want to practice more than any arbitrary goal anyway.

Studying a musical instrument is something that requires discipline, but it also requires motivation. It's easy for practice, especially for beginners, to settle into a drudgery that's just something to get through as quickly as possible. For most kids, music lessons start as a social thing, in school, as part of a band; the act of sitting in a room by oneself "practicing" isn't really something that a 10 year old kid has a great deal of experience with, so it's hard for them to get the habits down, and learn how to practice. My own experience was that I spent the better part of a year or two just flailing around, not really practicing much, until teachers and my older sister took some time and showed me how to practice. Giving a kid a piece of music and saying "Work on this" is well and good, but if the kid doesn't know how to work on it, then practice time becomes a boring exercise in playing through a piece badly a few times and then putting the horn back in the case.

I had a teacher once who had me working on some concerto or other -- maybe the Haydn, maybe the Arutunian -- and he said to me, "You can play this concerto just as well as Maurice Andre can. (Maurice Andre was one of the greatest trumpet players of all time.) You can play every note just as cleanly and precisely as he can. You know what the only difference is? He can do it faster than you can." This teacher taught me to slow a piece down to the point where I could play it perfectly, even if that meant slowing it down so much that it was unrecognizable. Then, he said, gradually increase the speed. If you find you can't play it perfectly at a certain speed, back it off again and work at it until you can. Eventually you get it so you can play it up to tempo. (And at the same time, this process develops all the various skills along the way so the next piece won't take so long to get to tempo.) That's what I mean by teaching how to practice. This guy, Mr. Rudgers at the Bristol Hills Music Camp, showed me a good way to work at a piece. It helped.

Another thing is that you never know if, or when, the motivation is suddenly going to strike. A kid might frankly suck at the trumpet for two, maybe even three, whole years before they wake up one morning and decide that they'd rather not suck anymore, or that Wow, that other kid is really good and hell, I can be just as good as that kid if I work at this and hey, maybe practicing isn't so bad in the first place. I know that can happen, because that's the way it was with me: I was a shitty trumpet player and got made fun of relentlessly by the other kids in band because I was shitty until I decided "OK, I am now going to work on not being shitty." That's not a decision you can make for your kid. Eventually everybody decides they're going to be good at something. If it's music, great. If not, then at least they'll hopefully learn enough to have a greater appreciation for music in the future. And besides, a person can be passionate about more than one thing. My active life in music is long over, and occasionally that's a source of rare regret for me, but had I stayed in music, it well may be that a couple of princesses never take to the stars. Who knows.

I'd also suggest that parents should not treat practice time as a daily home recital. All the parent should really do is enforce the agreed-upon duration of the practice session, and that's about it. Unless you're a musician yourself, don't say anything, other than an occasional "Hey, I can hear that your sound is getting a lot better!" Do not say anything like "Gee, Timmy, that one piece you played sounds like you need to work a lot more on it." Believe me, Timmy knows, and shame is not the emotion you want Timmy carrying into his interactions with music. And even if you do know a lot about music...back off anyway. It's really for the best. Parental expectation is also not a great thing to have to struggle with when you're also trying to remember the fingerings for D-natural and A-flat. (Along these lines, unless the instrument is the piano and therefore the thing is wherever it is, let the kid practice in their room or some other room with a door. Don't make them practice in the living room while you're there paying bills or watching the evening news or making dinner in the adjoining kitchen. Practicing should not be done with an audience, and the only reason practicing should be heard by parents at all is to know that it's getting done.)

Let's see, what else? Oh, yeah -- when I say "twenty minutes a day" or "an hour a day", I don't mean each and every day. Practicing seven days a week isn't wise, in my opinion. Now, passion may arise and then the kid will practice every day because they love playing, but even then, I'm of the view that a day off is good. It's good mentally, for what I hope are obvious reasons, but it's also good physically. Playing an instrument involves the use of muscles, and in quite a few cases (especially among the wind instruments), the muscle use is strenuous indeed. If you don't believe me, watch a great trumpet player sometime, or a horn player, or an oboe player, or any instrument. Making air vibrate the way it's supposed to inside a wind instrument requires making the muscles of one's face and neck do things that they don't normally do. Those muscles are collectively referred to by the word embouchure, and like all such muscle groups, they can be overstressed, injured through misuse, and worn out. The effects of a hard practice session or rehearsal on a trumpet player's embouchure are similar to the effects on a weight-lifter's muscles after a lifting session, so for the exact same reason, wind players should take a day off here and there, or if they do play, it should be something low-stress, like long tones in the low register. That's more the equivalent of stretching than exerting. I always found, though, that after a week of playing several hours a day (between group rehearsals and practice sessions), taking a day to not play at all (often Saturdays while I was in college) made me a lot stronger when I played again on Sunday.

For a 10-year-old, it's probably best to set a daily time as practice time, as much as that's possible. Eventually it will hopefully become sufficiently ingrained that they'll practice on their own, but to start with, the expectation that every day at, say, 5:30 they are to go practice for their fifteen or twenty minutes will help. Maybe let them not practice on Fridays or Saturdays, or some other weekday if they're on a soccer team or something like that.

And finally, maybe try not calling it practice. I once knew a drummer who said, "I don't practice. I play." The word "practice" just has the sound of required daily boring routine. Saying "Hey, Timmy, it's 5:30! You need to go play your trumpet for a while!" simply sounds better than "Hey, Timmy, it's 5:30, you need to practice." Practicing sounds like what you do until you're good enough to play. Maybe we'd have better luck with our kids and their music lessons if we enforced the idea that it's all an act of play. I have a notion that we call it practice because in that way we can trick our ever-so-Puritan American minds that we're not actually wasting time learning to play music, and I say, the hell with that. It's all play. Playing is good.

So let your kid play.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Something for Thursday

Want to hear something pretty today? Sure you do. Here is Sarah Chang performing Massanet's Meditation de Thais.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

You know, I still have people telling me how much sentence-diagramming rocks? You people got issues, man.

Onto the next thing. By way of a writing update, here's some wisdom from Mr. King:

It seems to me that every task, even things we just love doing, has some component that we just don't look forward to and grind our way past because the entire task is enjoyable on balance, even if that one part of it stinks. For me and writing, it's proofreading. Full-on editing, I like, but proofreading is like a weeklong trip in the company of Ms. Dully McDullerson. Important and essential work, but I'm never gonna enjoy it. (Plus, reading the book basically twice in two months is tough, although there is a benefit in that I'm bursting with ideas for the future volumes in the series now, which is nice.)

So there's the question: what's the "dull dreary drudgery" part of some task that you otherwise love doing?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Well, there's one "Aerial Dancer" off the streets....

Well, thank God that's over.

Seriously, this was just a terrible season of MasterChef. There were some fun moments and some contestants I liked enormously, but as the season ground on, it really took on an air of relentlessly shuffling toward a preordained conclusion: the coronation of Courtney. That's pretty much exactly what happened.

Look, I wasn't there and obviously didn't taste the food, so it's entirely possible that Courtney really did get through the entire season of MasterChef competition without ever making a single misstep. But the constant adoration piled upon her by the judges, coupled with her unimaginably irritating displays of self-love, got more and more annoying with each successive episode, culminating in last night's finale. Joe Bastianich, of all people, turned in the most incoherent commentary of praise for Courtney of the season when he praised a dessert that Gordon Ramsay panned, saying that her dish of meringue cookies with some sauce and cherries with a bit of salt added "pushed the limits of a dessert". Umm...OK, Joe. The whole thing reeked of desperation on Joe's part to continue the season-long tongue-bath of the most irritating contestant in the show's history. (And that's saying something. You know I love you, Joe, but ye Gods.)

Of course, none of that might have even come to pass had my favorite contestant, the borderline-manic Leslie, not mistaken salt for sugar in his final cake. Oops. (Although this confuses me -- would a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar result in a cake that one can chew thoughtfully and then swallow with a look of puzzlement, as Gordon Ramsay did? I've no idea, but it seems to me it should have resulted in a case of "GAHHH get this out of my mouth ptoooie!"

Anyway, as I say, thank God that's over. This does mean, however, that we're going to see Courtney sporting her insufferable Dolores Umbridge-in-her-twenties act at least once next season, so there's an episode I'll make sure to attend with lots of reading material. I'd also like to see the show get away from the team competitions, particularly the ones where they run a kitchen someplace. I watch Hell's Kitchen to see chefs trying to run a kitchen; I don't care if any of these "home cooks" can run a kitchen. But if they're going to have team competitions, I'd like the losing captain to not be able to save themselves from elimination. That's pretty bogus, and it did provide the moment the cemented Courtney as an asshole in my opinion this year, when she saved herself after helming the losing team; she said something like, "Well, our problem was clearly not the fine leadership I provided, so I'm saving myself." Ugh.

So anyway, there's that. Not the best year for MasterChef, alas. Not every season can have the greatness that is Monti Carlo, but still -- did I have to endure the cooking competition show's answer to Boston Rob?

(Don't forget to delurk, people! Say hello! Say something!)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Unlurkify thyselves!

I haven't done this in a while, so here goes: it's Delurking Week! Say something. For the next few days I'll open things up to anonymous comments (although if spammers start swarming, I may need to cut things off early). I'll still leave the moderation on and CAPTCHA thingie on, though. One can't be too careful.

Say hello!

(No politics, please -- just spread some good cheer. Thanks!)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What a bunch of A-holes.

If I were to offer a capsule review of Guardians of the Galaxy, it would be this: It's the first movie that I have seen twice in a theater since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. That means something, folks. I don't get to the movies very often anymore, because it's become a significant enough expense that it has to be something I most definitely want to see. Yes, there have been movies I've wanted to see again, but until now, none of them actually managed to get me to again.

Guardians of the Galaxy did.

Like many a person who went to see this movie, I never really heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy until I learned that this movie was in production. I did read some of the comics on a catch-up basis, and I enjoyed them, although I admit that I was a bit confused as to how this property would translate to the screen, especially being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

OK, for those out there not up on this jargon at all, here's a brief explanation. Marvel Comics, like DC Comics before it, had a bunch of successful comics featuring popular superheroes. They quickly realized that they could make their entire line more successful if they had their superheroes team up with one another on occasion, which meant therefore that the Fantastic Four existed in the same "world" as Spider Man. Over time, the Marvel Universe got really big, with lots of heroes and hero-teams doing heroic stuff all over the place.

Interestingly, some of these titles had their own internal "mythologies" that were also part of the larger mythology, and there were differences in focus, too. Spider Man pretty much stuck to New York City most of the time, but then you had the X-Men occasionally going off to space, and the Fantastic Four facing giant cosmic threats, and so on. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a filmed approach to this same notion, albeit with scaled down numbers of characters. Here, too, you have different things going on: Iron Man seems to exist in the techno-spy-thriller arena, whereas with Thor we have a hybrid of Norse myth and space opera. And with Guardians of the Galaxy, that's straight-up space opera.

So that's why I gravitated to Guardians of the Galaxy, obviously: because it's a space opera, straight-up. Aliens, spaceships, ray guns, lost artifacts on deserted planets, space prisons, a bad guy who apparently sits on a rock in space as he plans, a peaceful happy planet under threat of annihilation by a villainous alien who has found a cataclysmic weapon. To quote the movie's talking raccoon, "Oh, yeah."

And yes, this is a movie that sends you out into the night quoting a talking raccoon.

When I was reading comics, the X-Men titles were written by Chris Claremont, who was good at creating a big sense of scale with very high stakes in his stories. Guardians of the Galaxy, as a franchise and now as a movie, seems to me best described as a good Chris Claremont directed by Chuck Jones. Guardians of the Galaxy is full of heart and good cheer, creating a cast of flawed characters who have their own reasons for feeling like outcasts, and who then have to come together in order to save everybody else. What this film does in terms of its characters is a pretty amazing achievement.

The tone is struck early on. Before we even get the flipping-comic-pages Marvel logo, there's a scene in which a ten-year-old boy has to say goodbye to his dying mother minutes before a spaceship comes to whisk him away. After that we cut to this same kid, now an adult, landing on a mysterious, damp, and rocky planet. He's clearly looking for something, but before he does, he has one bit of business to attend to. He puts on a pair of earphones from 1985, clips an old Walkman to his belt, presses "play", and as the strains of "Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone take over, he enters the cave in a sequence that feels partially reminiscent of the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only our hero, Peter Quill (who reasons we won't find out until the very end of the movie also calls himself "Starlord") seeks out the artifact he's been hired to find. Only he does it in dance-step to the song, kicking rodents out of the way to the beat and then grabbing one to use as a prop microphone. That's what kind of movie this is: a space opera about a thieving outlaw whose emotional center is the mixtape his mother gave him years before.

Guardians of the Galaxy does very little exposition that isn't part of something else happening, which is part of how it seems shorter than it is. The film has very few infodumps, and really, it only tells you exactly what you need to know to understand what's going on. Other than that, it's illuminating to look back at the end and realize just how much the filmmakers have held back. Is Groot's species ever named? His planet of origin? Rocket cries that he didn't ask to "be made", but who made him? We're never told. Do we need to be? Probably not, because who hasn't known what it's like to carry around a burden that's all your own, that nobody else understands?

A lesser movie might have given long flashbacks to some, or all, of the characters. We might have seen Peter Quill growing up on Yondu's ship. We might have seen something of a raccoon being made sentient and, therefore, a freak. We might have seen where Groot comes from, and we might have seen Drax's family being killed. We don't see any of those things, because the film's script keeps its eyes on the prize the whole way. That's not to say the story isn't complex, because it is, but the story is very tightly constructed. Each thing leads logically to the next thing that happens, and each character's motivations are mostly clear. There is some muddiness, mainly in the villains' backgrounds and motivations. No one, in any of the Marvelverse films, has yet asked the million dollar question, "What does Thanos want with all the Infinity Stones?" I imagine we'll get there eventually.

What this film has to do, along with all the other Marvelverse movies, is set itself into that larger universe where this smaller story is a part of something much bigger that's going on. The Marvelverse films all seem to be slowly laying the foundation for an eventual cataclysmic encounter with Thanos, and I wonder how that's going to go – is there a Really Big Movie slated for, say, 2019, in which everybody shows up? I suppose we'll see. For now, we've got this one. One thing that was always so great about Marvel comics is that they always acknowledged, at their best, that they took place in a larger world, with which the main characters or heroes had to interact. That was always what informed their desire to do good, motivating all the world-saving they did. And there is a larger world in this movie, with real lives that intersect with those of our main heroes.

What I ultimately liked most about Guardians is that it tells a story depicting a cheerful world. The main planetary setting is bright and sunny, and even some of the other "darker" locations aren't entirely dystopic horror shows. This movie, along with the two recent Star Trek films (even with their faults) make me wonder, and hope, if a shift toward a brighter tone of storytelling may be in the offing.

Guardians of the Galaxy is ultimately, for me, a movie that gets everything just about completely right. It's hard for me to find a real flaw in it, at least, anything that really stands out. I love how the team comes together – the criminals that get arrested together end up staying together out of sheer desperation, only admitting toward the end that there's any kind of factor involving liking one another. Peter Quill becomes a leader without ever having any Big Moment In Which He Confronts His Own Darker Nature, which I appreciate. That's what this movie does so well: it's a nearly perfect example of what might be the most often-cited bit of advice for writers.

Show, don't tell.

Guardians of the Galaxy shows things. It doesn't slam on the brakes to tell you things.

A few random thoughts:

:: People who whine about "soulless CGI effects" whilst pining for the good old days of rubber costumes and model spaceships really need to shut up after this film, which proves, I think, that effects themselves either have "soul" or don't on the basis of the screenplay, and not the effects. The most emotional moments in this movie involve a purely digital character whose dialogue consists of just five words. From now on, if you want to talk about soulless CGI, there's the door. Talk about soulless writing.

:: Space opera movies should be a visual treat, and this one is. It has a look all its own, with swirling clouds of space gas and ships with neat geometry.

:: There are a couple of scenes where Rocket responds to Groot as if he's said something other than "I am Groot", which makes me wonder – is this like a Han-and-Chewie thing, where Han can totally understand Chewie's grunts? Is Groot actually saying things, or is Rocket just plugging in meaning where he sees fit? Interesting.

:: Tyler Bates's score didn't impress me the first time I heard it (before I saw the film), but when heard in the proper film order, with the classic rock songs mixed in, it becomes a very entertaining listen indeed. This isn't great film music by any means, but it's fun to hear. Those songs are perfectly chosen, by the way; each one hits the mood dead-on when it comes up in the movie. If you want to program a playlist for the score and songs in proper order, someone on the FSM boards figured this out. I knew there was a reason I still visit that site a couple times a week!

:: Great details abound in this movie. When the Guardians do their stereotypical "slow heroic walk down the corridor", Gamora is yawning, Rocket is adjusting his nethers. Also, there are so many tiny character moments that add up to great stuff. Frequently these involve Rocket, such as when he throws a damp blanket on Drax's self-pity, a favor which Drax returns at the end of the film when Rocket is suffering his own brand of heartbreak. And notice Rocket's response: it's like he's never had his fur stroked at all, which he probably hasn't. When Gamora starts to dance, it's not a full-fledged dance, just a slight rhythmic swaying. And when Peter gives Yondu the orb, it's interesting to me that Yondu waited as long as he did to see what was inside. Judging by his smile, he seems to have known – and not only that, he seems to be just a little bit pleased. Yondu is presented as some kind of father figure to Quill, and there’s something in his smile that says, “Yeah, that little shit turned out all right.”

:: Yondu’s pretty interesting on his own, and that’s something I always liked about the Marvel comics: the way the heroes could fight the villains one issue and have to team up with them the next. The line between hero and villain is more interesting when it’s moving around, isn’t it?

:: So where do the Guardians of the Galaxy go from here? In all honesty, I hope they stay where they are: out on the far-flung frontiers of the Marvel Universe, only having the briefest and most tangential contact with the rest of it, if any at all. It’s a big Galaxy, after all; somebody’s got to guard it!

I'm not interested in being "normal".

Let everybody else be "normal". I ain't got time for that! I'm just gonna keep right on being weird, thank you very much.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Some Random Pictures From Tumblr

It's a lazy morning and I'm trying to jumpstart my brain...meanwhile, here are some nifty pictures....

Friday, September 12, 2014

Costa Del Terry! Pegulaville! Marina del Kim! Otisburg....Otisburg?!

Lots of football news of late. Not all of it is depressing, but quite a lot of it is.

:: The most positive story is that, pending NFL approval, Terry and Kim Pegula are set to become the new owners of the Buffalo Bills. This is, well, huge. Worrying about the team's future viability in Buffalo has been one of this region's favorite pastimes for years, going all the way back to the late 1990s, and maybe even earlier than that. Ralph Wilson fueled some of this by deftly "convincing" local officials to pony up lots of money to renovate county-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium, and by stalwartly insisting right up until the end of his life that he had no secret backup plan to secure the team in Buffalo. Wilson maintained until he died that the team would be put up for sale to the highest bidder, and that's what happened.

It didn't help, in the late 1990s, that a bunch of NFL teams really did move for more lucrative cities: the LA Rams went to St. Louis, the LA Raiders went back to Oakland, and the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore. That last, however, did give the league enough pause to promise Cleveland an expansion franchise in a couple of years, and they even went so far as to declare the newly moved team a new franchise in terms of the NFL record books, so the Ravens can't count Jim Brown among their historic greats. Nobody ever thought the NFL would make any such motion to keeping football in Buffalo, and then the team started playing one game a year in Toronto, supposedly to help make money, but which felt like the first step in what would be a long, slow move.

The Pegulas are enormously wealthy, having made their fortune in the natural gas industry. Interestingly, no one around here had even heard of the Pegulas, despite their ties to the region, before Pegula announced his desire to buy the Buffalo Sabres a few years ago. It was the scenario that only the most optimistic people dared voice: "Oh, I don't worry about the team. When Ralph dies I'm sure some rich guy who used to live here will step up and buy them to keep them here." Well, that's pretty much what happened.

Is it a good thing that the Bills are staying? Sure it is. I'm not nearly as convinced that the team is as essential to the local mindset as some are. If the Bills moved, it would be a body blow to the psyche around here, but things would heal, in time, as they always do. I don't think the team leaving would be anywhere near as bad a blow to the economy as many do, but it wouldn't be good news, certainly. It is nice to know that people around here no longer need worry about that. The Pegulas' ownership of the Sabres has been a bit rocky thus far, and there's the fact that their fortune springs from fracking for gas, which is less than environmentally sound. But, for good or ill, the Bills are here. My personal fandom may be on the wane, but that doesn't mean I wish for them to leave and break the hearts of a lot of people I know. I do wish that the football team didn't command so large a presence in our community's emotional life, but that's the way it is.

:: I see that Penn State students still think that they and their football team were the real victims. I couldn't invent a more perfect example of the degree to which a sport's emotional hold over its fans can become toxic if I tried.

Someone on Metafilter pointed out the following: "In NCAA math, l'affair Sandusky (2-year bowl ban, 20 scholarships) is now officially less egregious than Reggie Bush taking money (2-year bowl ban, 30 scholarships)." Child molestation is second to a player taking money he shouldn't have taken. But then, that shouldn't be surprising, because...

:: ...Then there's Ray Rice, whose wife-beating was originally judged by the NFL to be not-so-bad a violation of its internal morality as smoking marijuana. Of course, then the rest of the video got released, forcing the NFL's hand because of public relations reasons.

It interests me to see the NFL taking such a hit over this one, to the extent that Roger Goodell himself is feeling a lot of heat. Quite well he should, since it's absurd to think that the NFL was genuinely surprised to see the entire video recording or Ray Rice punching his wife. (I continue to be confused as to why no charges have been filed in this matter. Obviously I'm no expert, but in a case like this, can it really be that if his wife declines to press charges, none will be filed? Is that really how it works? "We have video of a crime being committed, but the victim says 'No', so we don't pursue it"?!)

One person said on Twitter that it's important to remember that the NFL didn't act when they saw the video, they only reacted when you saw the video. That's right, and it's saddening, but again, not terribly surprising. What I think happened here is that Goodell figured the national media would pretty much do the same thing they did when he "investigated" the New England Patriots during the Spygate scandal: just say "OK, Mr. Goodell, thank you for your time" in response to his "I've investigated and handed down a punishment and we're done here." This time, though, it wasn't the national media that was driving the story, but rather TMZ, an outfit somewhat notorious for not really giving a shit.

I hate that it takes a woman being beaten to make it happen, but I'm always happy to see the NFL's image get tarnished a bit. The league holds too much power and mystique in this country, for what is essentially a rich kid's club.

:: The Bills are 1-0 and hosts Miami Sunday. Go Bills, squish the fish! (I know, they're not fish. "Pummel the mammals" doesn't do it.)