Archive for Writing (other)

First Words: A Children’s Style Guide

First-Words

From “Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560

I was musing today about the peculiarly magical vocabulary of children, and then started recalling some special words from my childhood. I love these words because they represent a lost innocence of language—like a dead language we all experienced first hand but have hidden away for safe-keeping.

Such words are not easy to remember perhaps because most were trampled (in some cases painfully) by sensible adult words. Somewhere along the line, I learnt not to say “lightning bug” anymore because the correct name is “firefly”; same with “shooting star”, it’s “meteor”. But there are also silly words that no adult could have talked us out of, like “pee-pee”, “bumblebee”, “piggyback” and “choo-choo train”, which are special simply because they’re fun to say.

And then there are those golden spoonerisms, mistaken words that sunder the language with unimagined new sounds. Words like “bisghetti” (“spaghetti”), “bolleyvall” (“volleyball”), “varine” (mine for “ravine”), and my younger sister’s tour de force “Principal Lion” (for “Prince Edward Island”).

I tried to find some sort of style guide on children’s words but came up empty handed. A brief search of the Internet revealed itself tiresome and cynical offering none of the magic but only grey pedagogical resources on correcting children’s speech or exploitive photos of salacious spelling errors found in children’s art. “Well son, your innocence would have been lost altogether had we not posted it to the Internet.”

Do you have special words hidden away since childhood? If so, write me and let me know. I would like to gather them into a style guide of children’s words.

Please include the following:

  • The word and its meaning (or your younger self’s interpretation)
  • Your name and city of origin (if submitting on behalf of someone else, please include that person’s name and your relationship).
  • If possible, the known age of the person when this word came into being (an approximate is fine).

View a sample of First Words – A Children’s Style Guide taken from what’s been collected so far.

Convect Your Way to Success

Convect Your Way to Success Or What I Learned from Continental Drift

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were two theories bandied about to explain the curious matching of coastlines, most notably the near-perfect spooning of South America into Africa.

One theory put forward was that Earth must have been much smaller in the past and then expanded—like a balloon—forcing the coastlines apart.

The other theory was that the continents simply lost interest in each other and over millennia gradually drifted apart.

Hobby-horse-continents

Originally, the Expanding Earth theory held the dominant sway among those concerned with such phenomena while Continental Drift held little. But over the ensuing decades of research, the two theories reversed their polarity and now Continental Drift has gone mainstream relegating Expanding Earth to a back eddy of angry comic book artists ranting late night on myspace.

I drift. And why not?
It’s good enough for continents; why not me?

The problem with an Expanding Earth is that there’s no known (or plausible) source for that expansion. Where’s all the extra matter coming from and what’s moving it? Whereas Continental Drift has a clear energy source, Expanding Earth has none. You can’t move anything, least of all continents, without energy.

Continental Drift’s energy source emanates from the earth’s core where gravity (the Earth’s and the Sun’s) is heating up the mantle and causing convection to put pressure upon the surface. A common analogy for this process is soup boiling on a stovetop causing its surface scum to move (continents are scum—you heard it here first).

Yes, Continents Drift.
But Whither They Wander, They Care Not.

I knew a man who insisted that medieval maps, with all their childlike inaccuracies, were in their day actually truthful depictions of the world at that time. In his understanding, it was Continental Drift that had rendered the maps inaccurate.

I should have asked if the fanciful marginalia depicting griffins, sea monsters, and galleon-devouring leviathans were also factual, they presumably having mysteriously died off just as the Age of Reason dawned, “Thar be monsters! Oh wait. Never mind, they’re gone now.”

There is an ocean of truth that separates how we perceive things and how they actually go. Imagine, as in the scenario above, if we had gone from Gondwanaland to the present setup in under 500 years. What a bumper-car ballet that would have been—land masses scudding across the seas, their inhabitants waving helplessly from the hilltops as they sailed past. Morocco would say “Farewell”, to Nova Scotia while “Hasta la vista!” would come a final chide from South Africa as Argentina departed bound for pars incognito. “Hey, mind your steppe!”, Nepal and Tibet would sneer in condescending unison at the careless approach of the Indian…ahem…sub-continent.

Other than deep time and incalculable amounts of basalt, what’s the difference between continents and people? If India were—half way along its route into Asia’s underbelly—suddenly to stop mid ocean and say to itself, “Where was I going with this again anyway?” Continents simply drift, but it’s fair to say they never digress.

Continents Drift, but People Digress

As previously discredited, Expanding Earth postulates that there was a smaller Earth, then something (magical) happened, and the Earth became larger. Expanding Earth is pure fantasy yet it does serve to explain how dreamers dream.

I don’t mean visionaries or people who live to see their dreams fulfilled. I mean, unrealistic people or any of us when we’re thinking unrealistically, because let’s face it, it’s in us all to waste a portion of our lives dreaming fruitless nonsense.

We think, in these times, “I’m small and then when something magical happens, I’ll be bigger.” But if we’re to affect real change in our lives, we have to follow the lead set by the continents under our feet. Such change requires constant pressure and patience—the universe is taking care of patience (in spades!)—so it’s our job to take care of pressure.

Continental Drift is sometimes a very personal matter, although in a general sense it can be summed up in the following six-step process:

Step 1:   Set your course in the direction you want to go and then start going there. Talk to people, build your resources, take action, do things, most of all…apply pressure.

Step 2:   Expect nothing (you’re not likely to see any results for a long time). Don’t miss this step—it’s very important.

Step 3:   And don’t digress. Keep applying pressure in the direction you want to go.

Step 4:   Eventually something’s going to give. It will happen like a jolt—like an earthquake. It may even seem like magic (it will certainly seem like magic to others who don’t see all the pressure you’ve been applying). You will have moved incrementally in the direction you want to go.

Step 5:   After the jolt, the pressure will be released for a time. Nothing will start happening again. Don’t worry.

Step 6:   Repeat steps 1 through 5.

That’s it! It’s not magic. Sometimes drifting moves mountains. Hell, it’s good enough for continents, so why not you?

“No man is an island,

entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were.

as well as if a manor of thy friend’s

or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind;

and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.”

—John Donne, 1572–1631

The Moon and the Leaf Blower

Moon&LeafBlower

Apart from the noise and the self-evident futility of the common leaf blower, what most disturbs me about the whole practice of charging money to fling nature’s bounty into the neighbour’s yard is its name. It lacks a certain…poetry.

In English, we’ve employed clever tricks to give everyday joe-jobs a sense of honour and wonder. These include translation into dessert-sounding Romance languages and obfuscation with marketing bumf (aka, bull).

Take our penchant for French titles. Translating some plain old English thing into French instantly transports it from the mundane suburb where it resides to the court of Louis XIV. Thus, “Kitchen Help” is elevated to “Sous-chef”, “Hairdresser” is blown away by “Coiffeur”, and “Civil Servant” escapes all its grey servitude in the guise of “Attaché”.

We also like to upmarket ordinary jobs by inventing bullshit English job titles. This technique effectively euphamizes their true nature, transforming the lowly “Dishwasher” into a “Ceramic Technician” and the “Garbage Man” (in addition to solving the need for gender neutrality) into the commanding “Waste Aquisition Officer”. This practice circulates so widely it scarcely raises eyebrows anymore, as in the “Marketing Assistant” who now can claim status as “Social Media Guru”.

But “Leaf Blower”…hm. That one stands awkwardly in its field (both the job and the machine)—unadorned and entirely lacking any pretension of upward mobility.

What if we borrowed a little from French—would the title gain some of that gallic allure if we opted for “Coureur de Feuilles”? Has a certain je ne sais quoi, non?

Or taking a more technical tack, we could simply render “Leaf Blower” as “Astro-arborist”, as in “Dammit Jim, I’m just a doctor, not an Astro-arborist!”

Celebrate National Upspeak Day?

BC Ferries’s busy route plying the waters between Victoria and Vancouver sees lots of tourists, many of whom have no idea about (or care for) the local marine life they’re sailing over.

Perhaps that’s why the crown corporation has seen fit to add a biologist to its retinue of stewards, cashiers, and deckhands—to provide a little eco®–friendly PR about local marine life up top as their powerful propellers churned it up down below.

On a recent trip, the particular onboard biologist on duty delivered her short talk on marine ecology—entirely in up-speak…

She:

“Eelgrass is a flowering plant?”
We:

(Silence)
She:

“It’s found along the coast of BC in sub-tidal areas?
We:

(Silence with a few looking about for the exits)
She:

(Before anyone could decide whether to accept or refute her previous semi assertions),
“Marine animals depend on it for their survival?”

By this point, her up-speak had an urgency that was making everyone uncomfortable. Those who hadn’t already left were now fidgeting with their phones (perhaps hoping the answers could be found there—you never know, debarking might be preceded by an exam). I tried to listen and learn something, but finally got up for coffee and some other less arduous distraction.

On Being in Tune

OnBeinginTune

Last night on YouTube, I interspersed viewings of hurricane Irma raging across the Caribbean with research into what other clarinettists consider to be playing in tune. My conclusions: This is a poor time to book a Caribbean holiday and, two, most people have not the slightest notion why they are proponents of long-tone exercises.

Playing long tones is like a religion that’s degenerated into empty gestures of devotion. Lacking any concept as to the intent of long tones, one tuning guru said, “The purpose of long tones is to, well, here’s how to do them…”, and he proceeded to play. Later, he added “Long tones are necessary so you can check your pitch”, but as he played, my tuner registered huge pitch swings (I don’t know what criteria he was using to check his pitch—he had no tuner in sight). For him, playing long tones is an act of faith.

Another proponent of long tones kicked off her presentation with the statement, “The reason for playing in tune is so you can play with a piano or other instruments.” While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it entirely misses the point of playing long tones. The primary purpose of playing long tones is to play in tune—with yourself. Each pitch is in tune relative to pitches around it, so once you’ve played a note, the note to follow must correspond in tuning with the first. Also, there are laws of overtones to consider, which is where Mr. Pythagoras enters with his observations about sound waves. A pitch an octave above its predecessor will vibrate at double the rate—if it vibrates at any other rate, you’re out of tune (or you’re not even playing an octave).

Out in the weird world of YouTube, there’s a tuning troll who wants to take issue about tuners and how people use them. He’s learned about Natural tuning and Tempered tuning and wants to use his knowledge to bludgeon the long-tone gurus for their well-intentioned but inaccurate videos. Tuning Troll has a good point, but I think it’s an erudite sideshow designed to distract from the simpler task of playing relative pitches in tune. And here’s why.

Tuning systems don’t even come into play when considering unisons and octaves, which is why they’re a good place to start. Parenthetically, they come in later when looking more deeply at relative pitches and harmonic structures. For example, the note B is tuned differently within a G major triad (it’s the third, which means in Natural tuning it needs to be lower than Tempered tuning would assign it) compared with an E major triad (it’s the fifth, which is relatively higher). For now, stick to unisons and octaves and the good old Pythagorian way.

I’ve left the identities of the above-misguided tuning gurus anonymous, but I’d like to call out this one excellent video on tuning. It’s by master clarinettist Jose Franch-Ballester. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with him and learn first hand what his approach is, and in my sessions (and most importantly for you, in the following video), he explains the purpose of long tones. It’s almost all you need (well, that, and a couple of iPads) to get started playing in tune.

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part I

The pursuit of perfection

I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.

Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Viennawere we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.

For me, I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).

I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).

The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.

In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part II

…Continued from Part I

When music breaks your heart

But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.

Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.

In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.

As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part III

How do you return?

I was wrestling with the idea of playing music and (just like Kurtz) had the realisation that my playing back in the glory days hadn’t been especially great. The story I’d been telling myself was basically a victim one. I’d done everything I could and was cheated out of what I had deserved (there is a real story of deceit at an audition to prove it too)! But sitting there on the couch wrestling with the problem, I had a sudden dreadful thought. “What if I’m just mediocre?” I asked myself.

But as I listened, my heart sank. Rather than great potential lost to circumstance, I heard a harsh justice. The performance was not as good as I’d remembered. There were mistakes, of course. These were not what bothered me. Recordings accentuate finger slips. Few listners who aren’t also guitarists would hear them during the performance. The mistakes that bothered me now were botched prases, garbled lines that interfered with the music. There performance was full of musical ideas. But no piece was good from start finish.

Naturally, this deeply disturbed me although it was a fresh new thought. The next day, I took a look at that terrible question again and then asked myself “Now, do you still want to play music?” And like a rushing wind the answer “you bet I do” rushed through me. It turned out that the perfection I’d always aspired to was nothing but a chimera—the real goal was simply to play. In fact, to arrive is to die. It turns out that excellence is not a place (like a position in an orchestra), but it’s a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream—lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs. Is that time and effort, that talent and ambition, truly wasted?


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part IV

It’s About Excellence

 

But Kurtz’s Practicing is quickly becoming an important way-station in journey that has caused me to question my earlier life-choice to bail on music. Discovering the tárogató was another as was the long-awaited acknowledgement from the music establishment in the form of a BC Arts Council grant, but Practicing condensed all these little positive experiences into a sense that I wasn’t the problem, and certainly music wasn’t the problem—in fact, there really is no problem that a little practising can’t solve.

What I’d forgotten was just as music is a reward in itself (music has no goal other than to be music), my greatest satisfaction in being a musician was in the pursuit of excellence. Somehow that was skewed into the pursuit of perfection, but they’re utterly dissimilar. Where perfectionism is an unrelenting yet unattainable goal, pursuing excellence itself is the goal.

The Tárogató Project – Wrapping It Up

If the Tárogató Project hadn’t wrapped up with the concert (30 April 2017), then it certainly did when I submitted the final report to BC Arts Council. Doing so reminded me of all the people and events that came together (and that never would have otherwise).

About the Tárogató Project

The Tárogató Project (aka “Building a uniquely British Columbian Repertoire for the Tárogató”) was intended to commission two BC composers to each write a seven-minute piece of music for tárogató, which would build on its contemporary concert repertoire while not losing sight of its traditional folk roots.

By tying the commissions with an historical event, the project achieved far wider interest than would have been possible with only the commissions. The historical event was the 60th Anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Vancouver, in particular about 200 faculty and students from the University of Sopron’s Faculty of Forestry. The alumni went on to have a significant impact on UBC, and forestry practices in British Columbia and the final concert was attended by several families descended from the original group.

Read the article I wrote for UBC Faculty of Forestry’s Branchlines magazine.

The Project includes some notable artifacts

Listen to Arbutus by Jeffrey Ryan

Listen to I Will Stay Here by Adam Hills

Testimonials and letters: I received some importants letters of congratulations before and after the concert.

Also, I built a very cool new fingering chart for the tárogató, which is superior to anything I’ve been able to get my hands on. I offer it freely below.

Concert Programme

Big thanks to UBC’s Department of Forestry for helping to promote the concert and for coming on as a sponsor. Also, thanks to Vancity for providing some support with the concert itself. Their financial support helped St. Philip’s Church continue to offer such concerts without expending its music fund.

What I Learned

The entire process took a year and it carried with it its own joys and heartaches. I learned how hard it can be to work with musicians, many of whom function in some sort of off-the-grid pre-internet world, so arranging rehearsals was an extreme challenge. My 91-year-old mother is more reliable when it comes to responding to emails. On a brighter note, this project gave me something of great value to work at in music. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for excellence although time has worn of some of the downsides striving for excellence can bring. I understand my own perfectionist traits better and also my laziness. I’m learning on the one hand to chill out more, while on the other to quit wallowing and accept that some things require hard work to achieve.