Music For All Ages, But Mostly Babies

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

-William Congreve, “The Mourning Bride,” 1697

That quote has, over the years, been paraphrased into something like “music soothes the savage beast.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) But here, in this space, I always strive for as much accuracy as a two-minute Google search can provide. You’re welcome in advance, and maybe you’ll win Final Jeopardy! one day if you can remember this.

Remember this face, and remember that he's not William Shakespeare.
Remember this face, and remember that he’s not William Shakespeare.

Anyway, it’s no secret among parenting circles that music is a very powerful resource for soothing babies, savage ones or otherwise, and it seems the consensus is that the earlier you get them started, the better. Many of the baby classes Gina and I went to discussed and recommended playing music for our child while he was still in the womb, which is pretty much as early as you can get. There’s no definitive research that this will actually make babies smarter, even though there’s evidence that they can actually hear and react to it, but if playing Chopin or Led Zeppelin or Johnny Cash can do anything at all to increase his odds of becoming our meal ticket to a gold-plated retirement, I say “go for it!”

In truth, this was the easiest item to check off our pre-baby list. Both Gina and I are listening to music of all kinds for several hours every day, and though we usually don’t crank very much up in the evenings, you can’t always rule out an impromptu dance party in our house based on some tune we can’t get out of our heads. But since I play in our church band, I’m usually trying to rehearse the songs at least once or twice a week, and of course there are weekends or evenings when I just feel like grabbing the guitar and playing a bunch of covers. And to top it off, in a painstakingly slow manner, I’m also writing my own original material. You’ve got the radio, YouTube clips, movie scores, singing in the shower, humming along to that song one of us heard in the grocery store… suffice it to say, Noah was – and still is – exposed to a variety of music.

And you know what? It really does make a difference. On the days when I’m watching him alone, if he’s being really fussy, all I have to do is pick up the guitar or mandolin and he calms right down. The only slight problem with this is that once I start, I cannot stop the sound of the instrument for even a split second or the wailing will begin anew. This leads to a lot of half-formed chords and banging noises in between songs, or maybe me just speak-singing to a generally awful-sounding dissonance while I fumble to remember the next tune or cue up a new tab. It sounds like a crappy premise for an action movie, but maybe now I know how Sandra Bullock’s character inĀ Speed 2 felt?

Because Speed 2 was superior to the first movie, which was already a cinematic classic, in every aspect.
Because Speed 2 was superior to the first movie, which was already a cinematic classic, in every aspect.

I discovered this magical coping technique at about the right time, a couple of months ago, and it saved us from many extended bouts of fussy baby. Now I make sure an instrument is handy at all times, which is quicker than even cuing up a song on my phone.

The other new musical aspect of our home is what I’ll call “vocal transitions.” Does Noah need to go take a bath? To make that whole process more fun, let’s sing as we go from the play-yard to the tub! Does Noah need to calm down late at night in the nursery? We’ve got your lullabies covered. Does Noah have a dirty diaper? Let’s sing about it as we change him!

Spend a little time in our house these days and you are 100% more likely to hear a song about poop. A terrible song, yes, but perhaps entertaining for the sheer inanity of it. But really, we’re only playing to our one biggest fan, and so far he’s easy to please. Consider a recent composition by Gina:

“Poopy-oopy-oopy in your pants, pants, pants
Poopy-oopy-oopy in your pants”

I mean, it’s not Dylan, but it’ll do.

This is all well and good, but now we have a new problem: we haven’t yet figured out what to do now when Noah makes ear-piercing noise even when he’s not upset. A typical day in our house now consists of a few seconds of blessed silence that are quickly shredded by high-pitched yells with all the volume his five-year-old lungs can muster. NOAH WANTS TO BE HEARD! Gina calls it “testing out his voice.” I can verify that it works. And yeah yeah yeah, I know, it’s only going to get worse until we can start to teach him about the concept of “volume.” When I had a fever and an accompanying headache recently, that wouldn’t have been welcome advice.

Until that glorious day when Noah discovers his inside voice, picks up an instrument or two, practices a ton, gets famous, and is our meal ticket out of here, I guess we’ll be content with the lot we have… and singing about poop.

When We Run

Over Labor Day weekend, I was afforded the opportunity to perform a song I’d written at our church. This was a big deal to me, and I have our bandleader Andreas to thank for gently prodding me to submit a number for consideration. He is a songwriting machine, so it was gracious of him to ask.

Ever since the days of my and Stuart’s various incarnations of middle- and high-school bands/duos (namely Caffine, The Express, Summer, Big System, U.S. 52, and Hello to the Ghost), I’ve been involved with making original music. But most of those songs were Stuart’s creations, with me contributing bass-lines, or piano licks, or the occasional lyric here and there. My earliest attempts at putting all the pieces of the musical puzzle together on my own were pretty laughable for many reasons, not the least of which were that I could barely play bass and piano in those days, and I don’t know too many pop songs that were written solely from the bass.

Anyway, as I picked up the guitar and got better at it through the years, inspiration struck me on and off again to write something original. With a very few exceptions, I would give up before completing the piece, and I darn sure didn’t believe in the few completed songs enough to play them for anyone. I would record them on whatever software I had on my computer at the time and leave it at that. Most of the time, the music and the lyrics just wouldn’t mesh, or I’d be worried that what I’d written was too much like a cover of whatever band I was listening to heavily at the time, which it probably did.

But hey, I’m older now, and that gives me both the wisdom to not care what other people think so much (I’ll always sound like my influences) as well as the modicum of confidence to just follow through on an idea and see what happens. That’s what happened this summer: the right mix of timing and blessings and inspiration hit with this particular song, such that I was just wrapping it up (and actually kind of liking the result) when Andreas asked if I had a song available.

That being said, even after making my live debut, I’m still not really all that confident in letting my music be heard. I know that shouldn’t matter, but for years it’s been such an internal, private pursuit of mine that it seems weird to actually let a song go out into the world.

For all of these reasons (as well as preoccupation with becoming a parent), it’s taken me a while to muster up the courage to post this demo for you all to hear. I also have a recording of the acoustic bluegrass-y live version from church, but I’m still working on improving the quality of that recording. So for now, I submit this GarageBand demo of “We Run” for your hopeful listening enjoyment. Ironically, In addition to being drawn from a favorite Bible passage, for me it ends up being about a lot of what I’ve written about here.

I hope you like it, but hey, if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay too.

I’m also committed to this being just the beginning. With a little help from Divine inspiration, or whatever part of the soul these kinds of things spring from, I’m just going to keep going and enjoy writing at whatever speed I can.

Playing the Mandolin

I previously wrote about the painstaking process I went through to choose my new mandolin. Since then the challenge, of course, has been learning how to play it. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t do much just sitting in my room, so I’ve had to pick it up and play it every now and then.

The only formal music lessons I’ve ever taken were several years of piano in middle and high school. Those lessons were invaluable, since they taught me to read music and the basics of theory, but it was clear after several recitals that the piano didn’t come naturally to me. I could practice a piece dozens and dozens of times, making mistakes all the while, making my parents suffer and cats in the neighborhood angry, while never quite reaching perfection. I could eventually grind a piece out when I had to, but it wasn’t as if I was one with the keyboard.

Anyway, I still used that foundation and a lot of informal lessons from my friend Stuart to progress pretty well on the bass, and from that early success it seemed that the handheld, fretted stringed instruments were more of my bag. From there, teaching myself acoustic guitar wasn’t a huge leap, and that was the last instrument I learned.

The mandolin, I’ve since discovered, is a different animal and so it must be treated. It’s strung like a violin, so all of the chord structures are new to me. The doubled strings sometimes chew up my fingers more than the guitar ever did, but that’s ok, all musicians go through some type of torture in the name of their instrument. What I do like about it is the contrast it offers compared to a guitar. You can throw a mandolin into any song and some surprising tone combinations come through. It’s like adding just the right dash of spice to your chili. I love that it can stand in as a choppy, rhythmic, almost percussion instrument in bluegrass and folk tunes. But it also has almost as many moods as the guitar, softening up sad songs even more if you know how to pull off a great tremolo (which I don’t. Yet.) Like all acoustic instruments, a mandolin can come alive when in the right hands, and I love that.

I recognize that I’m not quite the right hands yet, but at least I’m not the wrong feet. Most of the time I find myself just noodling around with my mandolin, but when I focus and get through a couple of lessons in my book, I can start to play something that sounds recognizable, or at least not bad.

I think the biggest hurdle is going to be finding the time to just play the thing enough to get some repetitions under my belt. I need to memorize a few chord patterns and songs and slowly work my way up. I got through the basics of guitar by picking out tabs for pop songs that I wanted to learn how to play. It’s a little difficult to find direct inspiration like that for the mandolin, though, since there aren’t that many popular songs that are solo mandolin tunes (unless you’re a virtuoso like Chris Thile or Sarah Jarosz or something, and they’re two in a million). I guess I could dig deep into Led Zeppelin’s back catalog. And as fun as they all are, I think it will be a while before I can chicken-pick my way through a wild and wooly bluegrass tune. But hey, you never know when being able to play “Losing My Religion” or the intro to Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” will come in handy!

If any of you are ever interested in picking up the “Mando,” I do highly recommend Don Julin’s Mandolin For Dummies or any of his other instructional books. I remember when the …For Dummies books were just trying to teach people how to use Windows 95, but they’ve since expanded their offerings to include every topic under the sun, and Don packs a lot of great tutorials into the book. Plus there are play-along music files you can download.

I hope you enjoyed this little detour into my trials of learning a new instrument. More than anything, these last few months have reminded me that it’s the trying of new things that keeps the brain sharp! So everybody go out there and buy mandolins. Or, you know, whatever else floats your boat.

Choosing A Mandolin Is Not As Easy As It Seems

Earlier this year, after my birthday, I decided to treat myself to a new instrument using some saved-up Guitar Center gift cards. Any musician can immediately identify with the internal struggle this type of decision ignites. There’s a kind of universal law, I think originally posited in Germany in 1879, that says (loosely translated from the original German) “a man cannot own just one instrument of choice, for upon purchasing an instrument he must soon own one of a different color, style, shape, or rare vintage to hang on a wall and admire knowingly.”

Well, thankfully for my budget, I don’t subscribe to that law. I don’t hang my instruments on walls. Who has time for that?

So anyway, after some soul searching and several wasted afternoons prowling the Guitar Center – which isn’t easy because it’s all the way out in Seven Corners and who has time to drive all the way out there and if I’m going to do it, I might as well spend the whole afternoon there and pick up some strings and picks while I’m at it to not make the trip a total waste, and you know the first one’s always free but I can stop any time I want – I narrowed my choices to a five-string bass, a banjo, or a mandolin.

I consider my primary instrument to be the bass, and yet I still only own the one I’ve had since high school. It’s a four-string Yamaha that has never led me astray. So branching out to a nice five-string held a certain allure, though it felt a little like betrayal. A big fat six-string bass was also an option, but let’s face it, those are overkill, and I can only imagine they give you carpal tunnel. I decided I wanted something brand new.

That left the two folkier instruments. Given my West Virginian upbringing bluegrass, gospel, and folk have never been far from my heart, even when I wouldn’t want to admit it. But now all of those genres are cool, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t care. But it does help that many of my latest favorite bands use a healthy dose of both in their songs.

But which to choose?

Looking from the aspect of idols, musicians I admire, didn’t really help. Banjo has Bela Fleck; mandolin has Chris Thile. Both are awesome, and I inherently knew I’d never get anywhere close to their levels of talent. Any other deciding factor, like number of strings or size, seemed immaterial.

I wish I could say I had a moment of clarity where the one came floating down to me in a ray of light, but there was nothing so clear-cut as that. In the end, I chose the mandolin, for no good reason, really. I settled for an entry-level Washburn “Mando-pak” (I’ve since learned that the mandolin players’ community likes to preface lots of words with “Mando” and that the cool kids refer to the instrument that way). You can see my mando below. That sounds dirty.

Just waiting to be played.
Just waiting to be played.

Anyway, my mother-in-law got me a Mandolin for Dummies book to go with it, and I’ve been off to the races ever since, slowly but surely. For some reason, most recently it’s been much, much more slowly – more like a dead stop – but at least it’s something that can challenge me for years to come. In the coming weeks, I’ll reflect on my experiences in learning to play. For now, I can definitively say that the “mando” is a lot of fun. I think this is the beginning of something beautiful and folky.

The Perils of a Music Collection

Back when mp3’s were new, hard disk space was still at a premium, and you were basically limited to listening to music files straight from your computer unless you had an external hard drive (which to me were rare in the early 21st century) or a CD-R drive. When I got my first computer with such a drive back in late 2000, I finally had the capability to make that staple of all music lovers in the early ’00s: the mix CD. My process back then was pretty simple: every time I would buy a bunch of CDs, I would listen to them enough to decide which were my favorite five or six songs on each that would likely make it onto a mix CD at some point, and only rip those to my computer. This practice continued throughout the Napster and post-Napster phases of college (where I still continued to buy CDs while simultaneously discovering whole new worlds of music on Napster and its derivatives). Finally, hard drives got huge enough that space was no longer an issue, so I began ripping whole darn albums.

Fourteen years later (give or take a few months), I’m trying to make sure my entire music collection is ripped to my computer. Now, what seemed like a prudent idea back when I could back up all of “My Documents” on a single CD is causing me a bit of a headache. I may own the full album, but only a few songs of it might actually be on my hard drive. I never even ripped some of my earliest purchases. Not even iTunes Match can help with that, since there’s no record of me buying it through iTunes. What’s more, I ripped songs at a much lower quality back then, and for the obscure stuff, again not even iTunes Match can help upgrade them. Sure, for some of these albums I could buy them again on iTunes and save some hassle, but that would literally cost me hundreds of dollars. I opted for the low-dollar but high-time-consuming route, involving a massive spreadsheet and cross-references with my iTunes library. For those who know me, it isn’t really surprising that I went this way.

As a result, over the last few months, I’ve gradually been taking trips through time with my music collection and filling in the gaps, so to speak. I decided it wasn’t just enough to get the files on my computer. I wanted to listen to each song as I went along, as well.

I’m dusting off long-forgotten albums, and since I usually didn’t listen to the full album much after ripping my top tracks to the computer in those days, I’m basically discovering brand new music that in some cases I’ve owned for nearly twenty years and probably haven’t heard for at least ten. It’s a cool feeling, with some real surprises mixed in. Who remembered that Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving was such a funky album underneath all that electronica? I don’t think I fully appreciated it when I first bought it in high school, but it probably subconsciously affected my bass playing as much as the Red Hot Chili Peppers did. On the flip side, there have been a couple of albums (The New Radicals come to mind) where I began to question my self-worth and entire musical well-being as I struggled to make it through the deep album cuts. They might be candidates for being deleted later on, though I usually try to take the good with the bad.

I guess I’m preparing myself for the eventual complete demise of the CD. I will go down fighting in that war. But in going through this project, I’ve been reminded of two once-common CD features that we will surely lose in the all-digital-music era that awaits us:

  1. The mysterious “hidden track zero,” or a song hidden in the pregap of the CD. Do you remember these? I guess this was more or less a gimmick, but on a few albums, you could rewind “before” the first track and hear something hidden that the band left for the curious fan. I was surprised to see that my CD-ripping program found several of these that I didn’t even know about. Of course Wikipedia has a meticulously compiled list of albums that have them. Most of them appear to be about sex and drugs. There’s no way you can get quite the same sense of discovery and entertainment in iTunes, is there?
  2. Hidden tracks at the end of albums. Most of the time, these end up making the last track of an album twenty minutes long, only to reward those who listen to (or skip through) fifteen minutes of silence to listen to a couple of minutes of random noise with a few instruments. Sometimes, like “#34” on Under The Table And Dreaming, they are placed after several tracks of silence. You can somewhat get away with this in iTunes, but really the jig is up if someone notices the last track is insanely longer than the rest of your album. I think most artists just list these as “bonus tracks” or even “hidden tracks” right up front, which is a nice oxymoron.

Both of these are twists on bands doing the same thing on vinyl albums, rewards for the diligent or for those who forgot the album was over and left their turntables running, only to get scared witless when music started up again out of the blue.

Study it VERY carefully. (Source: ultimateclassicrock.com)

But if I’m not mistaken, if you look close enough at a vinyl record, you can tell where there is music and where there is silence. Not so much with a factory-pressed CD. So, I suppose we’ll have to look back on this as a quirk of a bygone era, until people come up with a way to “attach” a second music file to another music file so that it is invisible but overrides the music player to cause the hidden song to play a specified amount of time after the first song is over.

On second thought, that sounds an awful lot like a virus, but maybe that’s what we need. Get on it, people!