AUX

A few years ago, we bought a car. We’re not car people. We don’t really care all that much about doodads and amenities, and we prefer inexpensive things, so we got a pretty basic Prius. Its fanciest feature is probably power windows. The guy who sold it to us tried to sell us on an upgraded media package that would have included I believe Bluetooth for playing music from our phones, but we preferred not to finance $300 more for a feature that we figured we could emulate using the portable Bluetooth speaker we already owned.

Over time, the sound quality (or at least the volume) of our Jamboxes has decreased. You can hear music well enough (if not quite loud enough for my tastes) if you’re sitting in the front seat, but sometimes we like to load up an audio book or listen to some Radiolab on longer trips, and the Jambox doesn’t work well at all for this. The kids can’t hear it if we mount the speaker on the dashboard, and I can’t really hear it over road noise if we set it on the console between the front seats so that the kids can strain to hear it. So over time, I’ve begun almost to regret not getting the media package that would have let us stream from our phones to the car’s speakers.

We did briefly try out a device that lets you stream your phone via a radio station, but it didn’t work well at all. I recently found myself thinking that it’d be neat if somebody invented some kind of fancy device that would work somehow with the CD player in a way somewhat analagous to but technologically more advanced than those old cassette tape deck adapters we used back in the olden days. I imagined that it’d have some receiver in it that you could connect to via Bluetooth and that it’d do something like flipping bits on the media on the fly so that the CD player could read it and play whatever audio was being sent over. This no doubt ludicrous idea probably illustrates pretty well the depth of my ignorance about how audio technology works.

Last weekend, I was in my friend’s car, and for some reason I noticed that his radio was set to AUX mode. I asked what that was about, and he said that it was how he could play music and podcasts from his phone on his car speakers. Here let us imagine the sound of a needle being dragged across a record in that universal “stop and let’s consider what has just occurred” sound we’re all familiar with from the movies. I felt like a moron. All these years I had been complaining about crummy audio in my car and all I’ve had to do was find the auxiliary jack in my car and push a button to play music from my phone?

I came home that night and ordered a cable for the purpose, and I’m pleased to report that yes indeed I have been a moron, and now I can play whatever I like from my phone and figure that the whole family will actually hear it. This bodes well for belting out holiday tunes on the way to visit my dad for an early Christmas in a week or two.

Youth Orchestra

 

Until this summer, I had no idea that my daughter would have the opportunity to play a string instrument in a school orchestra. She is fairly small in stature and so naturally she chose the cello (I suppose she could have chosen the bass). It turns out that there’s a vibrant extracurricular youth orchestra scene in our area, and the other night, I took the kids to a concert.

There were five orchestras at varying skill levels and with varying instrumentation (the most advanced had full percussion and some brass and woodwinds too). It was remarkable how good the kids were. Even the beginners were passable, and the most advanced group played some stuff that seemed really difficult, and they played it astonishingly well.

Some of the song selections included pretty predictable classics, and with the concert running right up until bedtime, the kids were a little sleepy through some of the well-played but kind of lulling songs. The jury’s out on whether we’ll go to another concert.

I really enjoy live music, how it fills your chest and turns into an almost tactile experience rather than merely an aural one. I love the richness of tone you can hear when the musicians are right there in front of you. I like watching the conductor dance around, and when there are several orchestras with several conductors, as was the case here, I enjoy observing differences in how the conductors interact with their musicians and express the music physically.

One thing that really struck me, as we listened to a few songs I wasn’t familiar with, was what an amazing act of creativity the composition of music is. A person just makes up all these layered sounds with their harmonies and dissonances and counterpoints, with their changes in rhythm and volume and brightness. An orchestral composition seems just a dazzlingly complex thing, and it springs out of a person’s imagination. I suppose visual arts and writing can also be extraordinarily layered and complex, but whereas (having written by now millions of words in my lifetime) I can sort of vaguely imagine constructing something complex from words, this idea of turning silence into beautiful music as an act of creative will boggles my mind.

Cello

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My son makes things out of paper. He once made a moderately convincing machine gun, and he’s recently made a cube and a pair of scissors that actually scissored like a pair of scissors. Perhaps his greatest triumph to date has been this cello, which he modeled loosely on the cello his older sister now plays in middle school orchestra.

The little holes on the front, which sort of look like headless body builders because he misjudged the cut to make, are on a real cello called F holes, but when I was first acquainting myself with the instrument to help my daughter get started, I learned that the concave curves on the side are called the C bouts, had read that there were F holes, and managed to think briefly that the F holes were called the A holes, so that now occasionally I’ll do this schtick in which I name the other lettered bits of cello anatomy and express surprise that I never can find the A hole. I’m still waiting for my Father of the Year award.

Guitar

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Somewhere around a decade ago, I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. In high school, I had been a low-to-moderately talented trombone player — good enough to hold first chair in my school and fifth chair in the all-district band but probably not good enough to qualify for all-state — but don’t consider myself to be especially musical in general. For example, I can’t hear a note or chord and name it. I also can’t just decide to belt out a given note in my own voice. I can pick out simple melodies on a piano with trial and error but can’t just sit down and play a thing by ear.

So, about a decade ago, I bought a cheap acoustic guitar off ebay and spent a week or two trying to make my pretty non-dexterous fingers bend to the shapes required to play some basic chords. It hurt my fingers and I felt like I wasn’t making much progress, and it didn’t take me too long to give up. It’s been years since I gave that guitar to a friend who had mentioned being interested in playing again but didn’t have an instrument.

Last month, my company held an all-hands meetup as we do every year, and one of the activities during the meetup (these things are a mix of work and play) was a set of jam sessions with rented instruments. People who were able to play the various instruments that were available met during the week to play together. A set list emerged, and on our closing night party, colleagues rotated in and out of the band as they played a 40-minute set that was extraordinarily well done and fun. It was a real rock concert put on by people I knew (who I hadn’t previously known were musicians), and it was energizing and inspiring and fantastic all around.

It made me want to think about trying the guitar again. My fingers are almost debilitatingly un-nimble. Sure, I can type 80 or 90 words per minute in bursts, but otherwise, it’s like I’m working with meat hooks. I’m unable with either hand to form the classic American sign for the number three, for example. My fingers just won’t do it. They all bend together as if connected by thread, and it’s sort of physically uncomfortable to try. I had read that an electric guitar had a skinnier neck and was easier to play in terms of fretting, so a couple of weeks ago, I bought a starter guitar. I’ve been practicing pretty diligently ever since, using an app called Yousician to guide me.

I like Yousician a lot. It offers brief video tutorials for various skills and a karaoke style experience that teaches you to play and grades your performance. As you acquire skills and pass tests, you unlock new skills. Rather than just blindly trying to play random chords without knowing whether you’re even doing it right, you get instant feedback and learn chords in an order that I presume is pretty intentionally planned out (E, Em, Am, C, G, E5, A5, and D5 so far). There are two tracks you can follow — lead and rhythm. I started with lead and within a day or two was reading tabulature (ish) and playing simple songs. I followed that track for a couple of weeks and then decided to back up and start at the beginning for the rhythm track. Now I can play and switch between a handful of chords and play a rhythm part for some simple songs.

I have a ridiculously long way to go before I’ll feel like anything but a buffoon with this guitar, but I’m really pleased with the progress I’ve made so far, and even though I wouldn’t yet call what I’m doing making music, it’s neat to feel like I’m heading in the general direction of being able to make music.

Strung Like a Horse

A week or two ago, I got wind of a local show by a Chattanooga band called Strung Like a Horse. I’d like to see more live music but have weird anxieties about going to a show and being the creepy loner sitting in a corner creepily listening to the music. Or, if I feel like I can get past that anxiety, I have venue anxiety. Like: What if I don’t know what the dress code is or what if the venue turns out to cater to some demographic that I’m just really super far from fitting into, making me feel like a sore thumb, etc. Every once in a while, I manage to transcend my stupid little anxieties and go out into public. I did so to see the Strung Like a Horse show, and it was neat.

The venue was The International, which I hadn’t heard of much less been to. It’s a spacious venue with a small bar at the center, some lounge areas, and some open space in front of the small main stage. It was neither upscale nor seedy, so pretty comfortable venue-wise for me once I got past the bouncer and stopped feeling like a trespasser.

A nice little jazz/latin sort of band opened. I didn’t catch their name, but I liked their set. Then Strung Like a Horse came out, and the real fun began. The lead singer sports sort of a scraggly rattail and wore a suit with tails and with the coat’s sleeves ripped off. He played guitar and mandolin and was joined by a drummer, a fiddler, a banjo player, and an upright bass player. They were high energy and twangy and looked like they were having a lot of fun, which in turn made the show fun for me. I’m not good at counting heads, but I’d say there were maybe 100 people in front of the stage. Maybe it was 200. So, a nice crowd but nothing too overwhelming for your anxious sort who doesn’t love crowds any more than he loves feeling like a fish out of water.

Strung Like a Horse bill themselves as a gypsy punk grass band, and that feels about right to me. I’m pretty keen on all those things, so I really enjoyed the show and would surely go see another (if I could get past venue/crowd/etc. anxiety).

If the band sounds at all appealing, you can listen to them on rdio, and they have a few videos as well. Or go see a show if they hit your area.

I did a pretty poor job of taking photos, but here’s what I got:

 

The Oak Ridge Boys

I’m not sure how I was introduced to the Oak Ridge Boys when I was a lad, but I was, and I’m still a big, unironic fan of their iconic song Elvira. Here’s a video of a performance:

If you’re not familiar with the song, make sure you stick around for the chorus and the giddyup-a-hoom-bop-a-hoom-bops (which F calls giddyup-baboon-butt-baboon-butts). When I was a kid, I had a little 45 record of the song. The album had a blue sky label with a rainbow on it, and I don’t remember what was on the reverse side of it. I also had a 45 with a song on it called Pacman Fever. As far as I can recall, these are the only two vinyl records I could ever call my own.

I introduced Elvira to L in a fit of nostalgia when she was young and have recently turned both she and F on to it. Tonight, we went Youtube surfing and found another fun one called Bobbie Sue, which I’ve embedded below.