Friday, April 30, 2010

The Downside of Learning to Play a Musical Instrument

Ever since I was a child, I've wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument. Back then, it was the organ. My parents enrolled me in a package of ten piano group lessons that I complained about because I was too young to appreciate having to wait around for 40 minutes of the hour-long lessons while the two other students received their 20 minutes apiece.

(Not that I'd appreciate waiting around for 40 minutes now, either.)

It was too boring for words and the little electric piano the teacher had us using sounded terrible. There was absolutely no joy in the experience that I had eagerly anticipated and my parents never tried it again.

In my teens, I got myself an acoustic guitar, some instructional material, and tried to teach myself to play. I thought I was doing fairly well and enjoyed the sounds I was making but quit because I didn't know it was normal for fingers to hurt like crazy until calluses built up on tender skin.

I'll spare you other painful details with more instruments in the intervening years because those two examples should suffice for you to get the big picture.

During my road trip in 2007, I bought an instructional book by David Harp that came with a CD and harmonica from the REI store near San Diego. It was different because it didn't have songs like other music books but taught riffs for blues and rock songs. They were very easy to learn and I was imitating a train with whistle the first night. Maybe it wasn't music in the sense of playing a melody, but it sounded good to me and, most of all, it was fun!

Until I misplaced the book and CD.

Last year, I bought a book and recorder from the Wal-Mart children's toy section for about US$10. Being adult about it, I refrained from buying one of the translucent bright red or blue or purple recorders and settled on a solid, sedate, ivory; not that I wasn't tempted to get one that was more colorful.

Several times last month, I watched "Australia" on HBO thinking more and more, "I can do that" whenever the boy played "Over The Rainbow" on his harmonica. So, I got my harmonica and copied the tabs for the song off the Internet.

Except the song doesn't sound right.

Getting another copy that doesn't sound right either, but in different places, I spent over three and a half hours one Thursday night with them and my harmonica making a third set of tabs that sound right to me.

My lips still hurt on Saturday.

This time, I know not to give up entirely as I did with the guitar, but what do I do in the meantime? I still want to make music and even my sporadic, paltry attempts are deeply satisfying.

Another thought that crossed my mind was, "What if I get another episode of Bell's Palsy?" although I've been at least 95% free of it since Christmas. With a minor sense of not being 100% okay, I decided that I need something else that's travel-sized to alternate with the harmonica. That way, should I lose control of one side of my mouth again, I could stick the mouthpiece into the other side and still be able to play.

I went back to the recorder and played through the lessons to see why I quit. Ah, yes, I remember. Lesson 7 introduces a note that requires me to uncover the thumb hole. That was the show-stopper.

You see, my thumb has a mind of its own.

When I tell it to cover the hole, by golly it's going to keep that hole covered no matter what. As a result, when I tell it to uncover the hole, it yields only with intense reluctance after much earnest protesting. When I tell it to cover the hole again, it yells at me to make up my [blinking] mind. There's no point to switching hands because both thumbs are in cahoots.

I hate being chewed out by my own body.

After a week of fighting over that single note, I'm thinking there's got to be something better for me.

My remaining options appear to be an ocarina or a tin whistle, also called a penny whistle although many are no longer made of tin and none cost only a penny anymore.

The ocarina is an old South American wind instrument that was made popular by Giuseppe Donati, an Italian brickmaker circa 1850. Issued to soldiers during World War I and II, ocarinas are having a revival because of "The Legend of Zelda" game series by Nintendo. Ocarinas are available in different styles, materials, colors, and prices starting at US$5 with the number of holes ranging from four to twelve.

The ocarinas with four finger holes that don't have thumb holes sound like they'd be the best for me. Those that have six or more holes may instigate more arguments with my thumbs.

Researching tin whistles is encouraging because they are reputed to be the easiest instrument to learn, don't have thumb holes (Hallelujah!), sound better than recorders, and are available in a wide range of prices. Since even professional musicians use whistles that cost US$25 or less, there's no snob appeal in having an expensive whistle. The thing that matters is whether or not you enjoy the way your whistle sounds.

The sole negative is that since the increased popularity of Celtic music that started back in the 1970s and because the majority of Celtic music is in the key of D, it's hard to find instructional material in the key of C even when it isn't Celtic music.

The good part about the soprano or high D whistles that beginners typically use is that they're easier to play than those in the key of C because they require less air. Because the holes are closer together, it's less of a stretch which may be a determining factor for the small hands of children.

Another good thing is that tin whistles all use the same fingering to produce the notes. Once learned, what one has to do to play in a different key is merely get a whistle in that key and get used to the whistle's different length and spacing of the holes which isn't that easy when it's something like a low D.

Learning on a whistle in a key other than D results in the student not sounding right only when playing along with an instructional CD or with other people unless they're also using instruments in the same or a complementary key.

Hannah Kate Kinnersley wrote in her Wall Street Journal article, "Music Lessons: Learning To Play The Tin Whistle," that learning to play a musical instrument is good for children because "Studies say that children who play an instrument score higher on math tests and show improved concentration. Adults who play score better in memory tests."

The advantages of getting an inexpensive, travel-sized, musical instrument is that you'll have something to entertain yourself and others during overly long waits, car and bus rides, hiking rest stops, or evenings by the camp fire; you'll be able to cheer and comfort yourself when you're lonely, and it won't cost much to replace if lost.

In addition to these advantages, it's ideal for your preparedness Grab & Go bag because it doesn't require batteries.

Even if you don't count relaxation or the sense of accomplishment that comes from making your own music, it's all upside. There is no downside to learning how to play a musical instrument.

All you have to do is select an appropriate instrument and find the method of learning that works best for you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Score! (Risë Stevens)

A side benefit of looking for "Amazing Grace" done by Janis Joplin was that it reminded me of my wanting to find "Risë Stevens in Songs of Jerome Kern" because her "Smoke Gets In My Eyes" is the best I've ever heard along with "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."

In case you don't know, Risë Stevens is a retired NY Met opera mezzo soprano, famous during the 40s and 50s, who successfully crossed over to pop.

Mom had the album and I hoped to inherit it one day, but it got ruined a long time ago.

Checking Amazon, I found a CD called "The Pop Side" that has those two songs plus a few others I recognized from Mom's album, so I ordered it (used) for only $5.23 including shipping. It arrived in only three days, in great condition, and the songs are just as good as I remembered.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Janis Joplin

A long time ago, a former neighbor said that the best version of "Amazing Grace" that he'd ever heard was done by Janis Joplin. I listened to it (on vinyl LP) and didn't like it, but decided to give it a second chance recently.

Looking around, the only versions I found are the medleys "Amazing Grace/Hi Heel Sneakers" and "Amazing Grace/Psychedelic Preacher." If the "Amazing Grace" parts of the medleys are any indication, I probably still wouldn't like her singing "Amazing Grace" by itself in its entirety just like back when my friend let me hear it.

However, the search did acquaint me with other songs of hers and there's no denying her raw power, emotion, and bluesy vocalizations.

If you've yet to hear Janis Joplin or haven't listened for a while, here's a sampling, courtesy of the folks at YouTube:

1. "Summertime" by DuBose Heyward, George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin.

2. "Turtle Blues" by Janis Joplin.

3. "Little Girl Blue" by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers from the stage musical and movie, "Billy Rose's Jumbo," sung by Doris Day.

4. "Me and Bobby McGee" by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.

Just for fun, compare "Piece of My Heart" written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns that was originally done by Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin's older sister, to Janis Joplin's cover and to Faith Hill's version of which Wikipedia reports that her first version was the closest to what the song writers had in mind.

Personally, I like Joplin's and Franklin's versions better.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: Cascade II Rain Poncho

A poncho is a poncho, right? All you have to do is slip a poncho over your head and slough through the rain.


It's all about the material and the hood.

Although my first rain poncho served well in keeping me dry, the hood was terrible, sliding back whenever it could which was whenever I wasn't holding onto it. Plus, even when I did hold on, it couldn't be pulled forward enough to shield my face.

The next poncho was too heavy and hot. The hood was better, though. I could wear a ball cap to have the visor shield my eyes and the hood would stay on even when I turned my face from side to side.

That's why I'm happy to review the Cascade II poncho that I got from Campmor two years ago. It's made of polyurethane-coated, mini-ripstop nylon with a DWR finish that's lightweight, comfortable because of the breathability, keeps me dry, drip-dries quickly when hung over the tub, and folds up small to be stored in the included envelope. I selected the Backpacker model because the extension would cover my hiking pack and travel pack when worn as a backpack without decreasing the amount of coverage for the back of my legs.

Fortunately, I've yet to have the opportunity to try out the extension.

As for the rest of the poncho, in very windy conditions, I felt the fabric was flapping more than I was used to with my other, heavier, ponchos and rectified it by attaching 5/8" (15mm) Velcro® adhesive-backed coin sets along the sides. I sewed them on with a few stitches in the center of each coin using thread matching the color of the poncho because I wanted to be sure they stayed in place.

One coin set went about 7" above the snap on the left side because I felt the arm spaces were too generous for me. (The sturdy snaps are located midway between the shoulder and bottom edge.) Another coin set went onto the same position on the right side. Enough space remains for me to pull my arms inside the poncho, like a turtle pulls in its legs, without needing to unfasten the Velcro® which permits me to carry items like my purse and another article under the protection of the poncho.

The third coin set went about 9" below the snap on the left side. Another set went on the right.

The next two sets went near my knees on the left and right sides of the poncho. I thought they might have to be unfastened to allow me to walk, but they never hindered me.

[Updated July 9, 2011 - During one heavy thunderstorm when I probably should have been indoors, the driving wind separated the Velcro coin sets near my knees making the poncho flap uncontrollably. As a result, I decided to put eyelets in so the sides can be tied together.]

In perhaps what was a fit of overkill because I had the rest of the pack of coin sets left over and nothing else to do that evening, I then stitched a couple of pairs equidistantly between the snaps holding up the extension flap.

(Tip: I laid the poncho on a flat surface and ensured the sides were straight and even before peeling off the protective film and attaching one side of the Velcro® adhesive coin. Next, I put the opposite side of the coin onto its mate. After double-checking that everything was still even, I removed the backing film, and pressed the poncho onto the adhesive back. Then, I separated the coins and stitched them into place.)

The best part of the Cascade II poncho is the hood. First, it has a zipper to close up the neck opening with a storm flap that has Velcro® closures to keep the storm flap secure.

Second, there is an adjustable Velcro® tab in the back of the hood to customize the fit of the hood.

Third, there is a visor on the hood.

Last, there are drawstrings to snug up the face opening so that only my eyes show, protected by the visor, of course.

These features have kept me completely dry inside this poncho that is the best I've ever used. After two years, it still is in excellent condition and looks only lightly used.

In addition to those features, perhaps more for preparedness and hikers/backpackers than for travelers, there are 3/4" wide loops at the corners to help create a groundcover, tent, lean-to, or roof over a hammock.

[Updated July 9, 2011 - On the regular poncho, these loops can be used to tie the edges together instead of using Velcro or installing eyelets to keep the poncho front and back from flapping in the wind. Using the loops isn't practical on the backpacker version because the loops on the back are at a different level than are the loops on the front.]

The care instructions are:

"Machine wash cold
Gentle cycle
Mild detergent
Tumble dry no heat
Do not iron
Do not bleach
Do not dry clean."

The Cascade II ponchos are available in two sizes, Regular and Long, and in two models, Regular and Backpacker:

Regular poncho, item #77704, measures 52" x 80"

Long poncho, item #77705, measures 52" x 104"

Regular Backpacker poncho, item #77706, measures 52" x 92"

Long Backpacker poncho, item #77707, measures 52" x 118".

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Too Good Not to Share #3

Harmonica like I've never heard it before:

1. E. Matthew Shelton performing "Oh, Shenandoah" on harmonica and guitar.

(Scroll down. It's the second demo that's below the lyrics and tabs.).

2. Larry Adler and Itzhak Perlman performing Gershwin's "Summertime" on harmonica and violin.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Boonie Update

During the torrential downpour early this morning, I donned my boonie and Cascade II rain poncho from Campmor, tucking the hood inside the neckline of the poncho to test my new hat, and walked across the street and back.

Happily, only a small spot on the top of my head got slightly damp. The brim kept the rain off my face and neck quite nicely and the comfortable chin cord prevented the hat from blowing away.

After returning indoors and removing my rain gear, I placed my fists inside the boonie to stretch it before setting it over an upside-down pot to dry. It took all day because it's cotton; I occasionally stretched it again to keep it from shrinking.

In conclusion, the boonie performed as well as I hoped it would under the conditions. Even so, I'm going to apply a silicone water-resistant spray to ensure my head stays dry under the worst conditions although I really should remain indoors if it rains as hard as it did this morning.