cello lessons from a dead genius

By , January 28, 2013 8:05 pm

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time …

In the summer of 2011, I quit my job to resume full-time music studies. During the summer semester at the Berkeley Jazzschool in California, I started learning John Coltrane’s solo on the title track of his famous album Blue Train. It was really tough going, but addictive – I was getting my arse handed to me on a plate on a daily basis by a dead person, but I felt like I was way off the well-trodden path and that was really satisfying!

After 3 months studying in various places in the USA, I got back home and resumed work on this transcription in earnest. It became part of my daily routine, and I craved the day that I could play the whole thing note perfect at the same speed as the original. There were so many notes to fit in that I had to come up with totally new ways to use my left thumb, on which the normal cellist’s callus grew to epic proportions. Trane became the best cello teacher I never had. Unfortunately, just around the time I was getting close to being able to nail it, real life intervened, and I had to refocus on earning money. Inspired by Benoît Sauvé’s incredible rendition of the same solo on recorder (recorder?! what a mofo – check out his other videos), I did a couple of very rough recordings with my compact camera for posterity, and moved on.

Sometime later, I discovered a John McLaughlin video on YouTube (sadly no longer available) which had an awesome animated transcription at the bottom – a really cool glimpse inside the craft of a master musician. Then it occurred to me that I could do the same kind of thing with my video, and publish it in case there are any other jazz cellists out there who would be interested in it. I put a lot of effort into notating and fingering it, so it seemed a waste to just let it rot and never see the light of day. After all, I already had the source files and a video, so it was just a simple matter of combining the two, right? How hard could it be?

Very very hard, it turns out. I had to write two new pieces of software, completely overhaul a third, and fix some obscure bugs hidden deep inside a fourth. But I didn’t discover that until I’d reached the point of no return …

I’ll probably blog more at some point about the software engineering hoops I had to jump through in order to make this all work. Email me if you’re interested.

In the mean time, hope you enjoy the video! (You can also view it on YouTube.)


Rediscovering music

By , August 12, 2011 5:18 am

I’m sitting on a plane from LA to Chicago. This is my fifth flight in the last two months, having already been to New York, Ohio, Florida, and California, and it’s probably about time I explain what the hell I’m doing, as I have friends and family who have seen various confusing status updates I’ve posted on Facebook and Twitter whom I owe the full story.

Just over two years ago, I blogged about taking a leap of faith and turning down two great jobs because they didn’t involve doing something I was truly passionate about. It was a gamble, but even after two months I could tell it was going to pay off. Sure enough, two years later, I found myself with a wealth of new experience and knowledge which I’d had a ton of fun acquiring, plus a healthy boost to my CV and set of friends and connections within the industry.

Then the stars aligned again, and I found myself with another life-changing dilemma: take an even more awesome job than the one I was in, or quit IT altogether and face an indefinite period of zero income. Pretty obvious what to do, right? I quit.

If that sounds crazy, it’s because it probably was – definitely another leap into the unknown. But I’ll try to explain my decision. Continue reading 'Rediscovering music'»


Flying with a (carbon fibre) cello

By , August 1, 2011 10:17 pm

When flying, most cellists are faced with either buying an extra ticket or getting a flight case, paying oversized baggage fees, and praying. Experiences vary widely and are in places well documented and full of useful advice, e.g.

My situation is different because I have a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello which is incredibly robust and generally does not even go out of tune when checked in as normal baggage and placed in the hold of the aircraft in a normal hard case. My case is a Bam Hightech measuring 54.5 × 21 × 13.75″.  It seems virtually all airlines policies regarding oversized baggage operate in “linear” or total dimensions, which generally means by summing up the 3 separate dimensions together (although in some cases the wording is so confused, even that’s not clear).  This means my case has a linear dimension of 89.25″ which unfortunately is outside the 62″ standard limit, and even just outside Delta’s second tier limit of 80″.  Having said that, so far I have always managed to get it treated as normal sized baggage just by behaving exactly as if it was a normal suitcase, or even need be simply by confidently pointing out that the height is 54.5″ which is under 62″. In my experience, most staff at the check-in gate are not familiar with the exact terms in their airline’s policies, so having the right attitude (confidently knowledgeable and up-front but non-confrontational) can go a long way.

I’ve done some research on the policies of some popular airlines and referenced the relevant extracts below, with one section per airline. The quotes I’ve taken are focused mainly on national flights within the USA, because despite being from the UK, I’m currently flying around the USA a lot. However the policies for international flights seem similar, although sometimes with higher fees.
Continue reading 'Flying with a (carbon fibre) cello'»


Audio looping with Free Software

By , July 13, 2011 8:24 am

I’m currently on a musical pilgrimage around the USA.  I brought my Digitech JamMan Delay unit with me, because I was attending Christian Howes‘ phenomenal Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus, Ohio, where I knew I would learn how to turn this gadget into a hugely useful practice tool.  (Incidentally, I was not disappointed, and will blog more when I get time about how awesome Chris’ various educational offerings are.  Until then, click the links!)  Unfortunately at some point after leaving Ohio, the JamMan stopped working.  I guess it didn’t like being surrounded by a bunch of smelly clothes and then getting thrown in the hold of a plane. (UPDATE Sept 22nd: actually it turns out that it was fine – the power adapter just needed the UK standard of 240 Volts, and the US standard of 110V wasn’t sufficient …)

So the other night I found myself desperate for a replacement.  I do have a Boss ME-70 with me which has a built-in phrase looper, but it only stores 38 seconds which is barely enough to get to the bridge of Cherokee.  Even worse, there is no way to undo/redo loop layers or store the whole thing after you power the unit off.

Then it occurred to me that I could potentially combine my laptop (a cheap Samsung N150 netbook) with a microphone, headphones (as a poor man’s substitute for an amp), and some software to achieve the same thing.  At this point, those of you with a Mac will exclaim “sure – use GarageBand!”  However, as shiny as Macs are, they are expensive and I also can’t stand Apple for philosophical reasons.  (I can’t stand Microsoft either, which is why I use Linux, but I digress.)  If you are interested in an alternative approach to looping with software, read on!

Continue reading 'Audio looping with Free Software'»


harmonicas, and a reharmonisation of “Foreign Lander” by Tim O’Brien

By , January 15, 2011 2:38 pm

How do three music addicts survive when attempting to travel for 25 days without a musical instrument? Answer: they cheat. I caved in on day 3 and bought a harmonica in Kuala Lumpur:

Despite being sold as a “chromatic” harmonica, it could only manage a rough approximation to three octaves of C major. Also, the holes are in a different place for the top octave, which meant every time I attempted the “do re mi” major scale, I accidentally finished with “… fa sol la ti MI” followed swiftly by a profanity, and consequent howls of laughter from Corinna. It cost very little and sounded progressively worse the more I practiced it, although I only place the blame partially on the harmonica for that. In case you don’t believe me, here’s the proof:

(Now seems a good time to mention that if you haven’t already seen Shane singing 5 octaves on the piano, go and watch it immediately.)

Eli followed suit shortly after, although he managed to buy a harmonica which was not only roughly in tune with mine, but even stayed in tune with itself! He also proved to be a quicker and more dedicated student than myself. Nevertheless, by the time we reached Xmas day in Bangkok, we were able to give reasonably credible renditions of the harmonica duet version of Jingle Bells to our unsuspecting families over Skype.

Corinna sensibly eschewed* such a crude instrument in favour, sorry, favor of something much sweeter – her voice. She also steered us very gently away from the harmonicas towards singing too, although with my range being comparable to Shane’s, and Eli’s “occasionally unstable” falsetto, I’m not sure that was quite as sensible.

Anyway, I digress. We learnt Tim O’Brien’s beautiful song “Foreign Lander”, and figured out some harmony and a bass line, which by the time of the final performance with banjo in Changi airport actually sounded pretty good! However my jazz tendencies mean that I sometimes get the urge to take something simple and beautiful and do evil corrupt things to it. So when I got back to London I reharmonised it as follows:

(If you know how to play the piano properly, please ignore the fact that I don’t …)

[*] One of the many running themes of the trip was “words you write/understand but never say” – for me ‘eschewed’ falls into this category. ‘Sidewalk’ used to too, but after 25 days with two Americans, I found it magically popping out of my mouth. Eli came up with ‘idyllic’, Corinna with ‘laviscious’ and ‘ephemeral’, and there were several others I will need help remembering …


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