Tag Archives: Music

It’s a good time to be a Nintendo based virtual musician

It is a good time to be a virtual musician, especially if your platform of choice comes from Nintendo. This past weekend saw the release of versions of the popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band game franchises for the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii, respectively.

Guitar Hero On Tour brings the guitar strumming fun to the DS. I had a chance to try it out over the weekend and it is, in the words of my niece, “freaking sweet”. Like the console versions, GHOT has a custom guitar controller.

“But the DS doesn’t use separate controllers,” you say? Check this out:

That in combination with a pick-shaped stylus and the DS touch screen make for very cool game play. Check out the official game site for all the details.

The Wii version of Rock Band is, I’m sure, quite similar to the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 versions in terms of music and playability. Since I already have Rock Band for PS3 (working my way through a “Hard” solo tour), I doubt if I’ll get the Wii version, but I know my brother’s kids are already hounding him for the Wii version.

When musicians become gamers

Video games like the Guitar Hero franchise and the recently released Rock Band give gamers a chance to become “musicians”, if only in pretend. It was by happy accident (thanks to shuffle mode in iTunes) that I heard a discussion yesterday with NPR music blogger Carrie Brownstein on an (unfortunately unknown to me) NPR program on the subject.

The discussion centered on what Carrie had written in the post Are We Not Gamers?, which in turn derived from a review of Rock Band that Carrie wrote for Slate.com.

The line between gamers and non-gamers is clearly diminishing, if not already obsolete…. The best and newest games, such as Rock Band, meld the virtual with the actual; they make little distinction between what is palpable and what is imagined. With Rock Band, you are hanging out with your very real friends, playing along to the master recordings of real songs, and on screen you are atop some of the biggest stages in the world.

Of course, the truth is that you are nowhere except in front of your TV. But Rock Band professes that it doesn’t matter–though you might not be creating memorable music with your friends, you are creating a memorable, real-life moment, all with the help of the unreal.

I likely would not have written anything here about that discussion (or the blog or the review), except for something that happened to me on Monday night. On that night, I attended a parent’s meeting for my son’s high school band (he’s a percussionist) at which a local music store salesman presented SmartMusic.

My first thoughts (I hesitate to say) as he went through the demo were along the lines of, “This is a lot like Guitar Hero, except with real instruments.” To say that I was impressed with the system would be an understatement. Of course, it could have just been good salesmanship by the rep, but I don’t think so. Here’s the basic description of SmartMusic in their words:

Students never practice alone when they have SmartMusic at home. This interactive, computer-based practice system helps students get better faster, and makes practicing more fun. With amazing accompaniments for more than 30,000 titles, challenging exercises, and the ability to record personal CDs, SmartMusic is the future of music learning.

With SmartMusic loaded on a computer, students plug in a vocal or instrumental microphone and begin practicing. They play or sing their part with accompaniment and receive, in real time on the computer, detailed feedback on their performance. Ideal for woodwind, brass, string, and vocal musicians of all levels.

SmartMusic is your instant backup band that makes practicing fun!

If you remember Marc Prensky‘s 12 reasons games engage us, SmartMusic seems to meet all but the last one. Basically, they’ve taken the things that make learning in video games fun and applied them to learning in real life.

Something for Nothing

As with religion, and I’m sure many other things, it is hard to discuss the concept of mastery in the abstract. To talk about religion you pretty much need to discuss it in the context of a specific denomination. Likewise, to discuss mastery it is easier, and more meaningful, to discuss it in the context of a specific activity or field of endeavor.

Every now and then, though, I come across something that I think captures the spirit of the concept of mastery. And sometimes I rediscover something that I enjoyed a long time ago, and realize that the reason I enjoyed it so much is because it spoke to my interest in mastery.

Even though it is now nearly 30 years old, the Rush album 2112 is still a classic. Aside from the epic title track, one of my favorite Rush songs has always been Something For Nothing. I hadn’t heard it in a while (the iTunes shuffle mode hasn’t come around to it recently), but hearing it last night (I had placed disc 3 of the Different Stages: Live CD into the CD player) I realized why I enjoy it so much (aside from the great music!).

Here’s a sampling of the lyrics by Neal Peart:

Waiting for the winds of change
To sweep the clouds away
Waiting for the rainbow’s end
To cast its gold your way
Countless ways
You pass the days

Waiting for someone to call
And turn your world around

You don’t get something for nothing
You can’t have freedom for free
You won’t get wise
With the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dreams might be

Those last three lines pretty much say it all, don’t they. It’s good to have desires and goals, but you can’t wait for someone else to give it to you. You have to go out and get it for yourself, and it may not be easy. (In other words: Execution is key.)

Of course, the rewards are worth it in the end as the lyrics, again, so eloquently capture:

What you own is your own kingdom
What you do is your own glory
What you love is your own power
What you live is your own story
In your head is the answer
Let it guide you along
Let your heart be the anchor
And the beat of your own song

Apple may credit iTunes album purchases

In my last post, I recommended buying just a couple of Liquid Tension Experiment songs from the iTunes store if you didn’t think you were up for the whole album. I must admit, I’ve never really considered how iTunes handles buying a whole album if you’ve already bought an individual song or two, but thanks to MacNN | Apple may credit iTunes album purchases, I know now. Interesting, since I guess I always thought this is how it should work anyway.

A good, though small, example of a company re-inventing how it does things.  Worth a quick read if you buy from iTunes.

– – — — —–

The serendipity of knowledge

Album Cover - Liquid Tension ExperimentA month or so ago in a discussion about the value of blogs and wikis as collaboration tools, Dave Snowden stated, “Knowledge discovery is serendipitous, not planned.” Last weekend, I had a ‘no-tech’ version of this experience at Mozingo Music in Ellisville, where I had taken my son to pick up some new sticks and mallets (he is a percussionist).

While Ian was looking through the different options, my eyes were drawn to the shelf of instructional DVDs. One in particular caught my eye, Mike Portnoy‘s Liquid Drum Theater. Though I didn’t buy the DVD, the info on the jacket made me want to learn more about Portnoy’s music with various groups. The group that stuck in my mind was Liquid Tension Experiment (with such a cool name, how could it not).

I’m always on the prowl for good new music, preferably good instrumental rock, and what I found with Liquid Tension Experiment on their two, aptly titled, CDs – Liquid Tension Experiment and Liquid Tension Experiment 2 – didn’t disappoint me. After listening to a couple of 30 second excerpts on the iTunes store, these two albums very quickly made their way into my collection of songs. (I’d have provided links to the albums in the iTunes store, but I’m not sure you can actually do that in a browser.)

To say that these guys are good would be a gross understatement, so I was anxious to see what else they had put out. Turns out that Liquid Tension Experiment was kind of a ‘side-gig’ for Portnoy and others, so they only released the two CDs mentioned above. As an ‘experiment,’ I would say that they definitely succeeded.

If you don’t want to buy both full albums but want to get a good sample of what they’ve got to offer, I’d recommend Paradigm Shift or Freedom of Speech from the first album, and Acid Rain or Biaxident from the second. You’ll be glad you did.

– – — — —–

Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget

A blog post I wrote a year ago. Playing around with David Allen‘s Getting Things Done. A recent article in Fast Company. Reading Steven Johnson‘s book Mind Wide Open over Thanksgiving. Autism.

All of these things came together in my mind over the past few days. (If the internet is a global cocktail party, and blogs are its conversations, I’m the guy who takes it all in and thinks of something to say as he’s driving home from the party. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, especially with topics such as this one.)

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

This same question has come up, albeit in a different context, in that other domain in which I blog: autism autism.

MOM – Not Otherwise Specified recently posted a very interesting piece about the role of memory, and the inability to purge it, in autistic behaviors. In her post, she quotes Paul Collins’ book The trouble with Tom:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

This also plays on my long-held dislike of best practices, at least how most people implement them. If you are so caught up in what has happened before, it is hard to get caught up in what is to come.

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve. Witness Tiger Wood’s reinvention of his swing, twice, and Neil Peart’s reinvention of his drumming.

– – — — —–

Thunderhead – A tribute to RUSH

I’ve been a fan of the Canadian rock trio Rush for many years, since high school, so when my brother called me up a couple of weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go check out a local Rush tribute band I immediately agreed. I’m glad I did.

Thunderhead logoThe band, Thunderhead, played at the House of Rock in South (St. Louis) County on a Friday night (9 Feb). We got there early to make sure we had a place to sit (and set down our beers!), and good thing. As show time approached the place filled up quickly.

Like Rush, Thunderhead is a three-man band: George Whitlow on bass, keyboards, and vocals, Corey Nelson on guitars, and Mike Ramsey on percussion (you can’t simply call it “drums” when you are talking about Rush!). And I have to say, these guys ROCKED. (Well worth the 5 buck cover.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the show, as I had never seen a “tribute band” perform. I had in mind the “cover bands” that travel the club circuit, playing a collection of covers from various bands, genres, etc. The music is usually good, but very rarely do the bands seem to make a whole-hearted effort to re-create the sound of the original. (Not saying that’s bad, I love a good cover band.)

A ‘tribute band,’ on the other hand, has as its goal a faithful reproduction of most, if not all, aspects of a bands music and performance. In that, Thunderhead succeeded.

One of the things that became immediately obvious when they started playing was that this wasn’t just a bunch of guys that got together on the weekends to play some music. I can only imagine how much time they put into 1) learning the music as individuals, 2) learning the songs as a group, 3) staging the performance (lights, sound, etc), and 4) rehearsal of the whole package.

With the exception of some vocal problems George had (a cold exacerbated, no doubt, by the thick smoke in the club), their performance was right on. As much as I’ve always enjoyed Neil Peart’s lyrics, it is Rush’s musicality that I most love. The extended guitar solos in songs, the mandatory (and brilliantly executed) drum solo, and the group jams that are Rush’s instrumentals were great. My personal favorite – the jazzy, funky, and rocking La Villa Strangiato.

If you live in the St. Louis area, keep an eye on their tour page for upcoming dates. If you are a fan of Rush, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out.

Share your musical creations on iCompositions

Like many others, I have been making use of Flickr and YouTube to post pictures and video. In fact, part of my recent new layout of this site was to allow me to post links to those sites. Over the Christmas break, I discovered a new site to share my digital music creations: iCompositions.

So far, I’ve posted 4 songs, which you can listen to from my artist page. One was done in Apple‘s Soundtrack application (which came with Final Cut Express), the others in GarageBand (part of the Apple iLife suite of apps), all exclusively using Apple Loops – I’ve not quite made it to the point of recording any original material.

Most of the songs I’ve put together have been in the context of video scores. I’m working my way up to songs I think can stand on their own. Like many of the social sharing sites, iCompositions has a large community of people who are more than happy to help you as you learn and to provide comments and criticism that will help you improve.

iCompositions is also a great place to find new music from a large collection of independent musicians in a wide variety of genres. Something for everyone’s taste. Quite a few of the songs I’ve found there have made their way onto my iPod (like makpiano88‘s Awakening).

– – — — —– ——–

Genius comes in many forms – A review of “Some Kind of Genius”

I originally posted this review on my autism blog, 29 Marbles. While it is all too common for people to dismiss achievements of autistics as simply a ‘savant skill’ and not as true mastery, Tony’s story goes a long way to putting that perception to rest. Just another example of how autistics, and others with ‘disabilities’, are people just like the rest of us. The story is also an example of the journey of a parent on the master’s path.


Recommendation: You should add this book to your must-read list. I’ve long been fascinated by genius. Or, more specifically, the process of genius and figuring things out. My book shelves are full of these kind of books, mostly about scientists, mathematicians, and the like. This past weekend I finished Some Kind of Genius, which chronicles the musical achievements of Tony DeBlois from his first toy organ at the age of two and public performances at five that astounded the audience through his training at elite musical schools and his several CDs.From an early age, Tony’s skill was apparent. He could quickly and easily play back anything he heard. He could even improvise and improve. As he got older and in more and more rigorous training, he could listen to his teacher and play back what they just played even as the teacher continued to play. He also has composed original tunes, played with several bands and organizations, and sings. As someone who dabbles at the piano and has a hard enough time just playing a single song, I consider this ability genius. From the book is this description of 15 year-old Tony’s audition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston:

Janice arrived with Tony at the audition and took him directly to the piano. The members of the committee stood around the piano, anxious to hear him play. Gathered for this audition with Lipman were Rob Rose, director of Berklee’s special programs; Dave Weigert, chairman of the piano department; Paul Schmeling, of the piano faculty; Bob Doezema, guitarist/composer and assistant director of the summer program; and famed saxophonist-turned-educator John LaPorta, one of the legends of the school. They had all sat in this space countless times before, listening to hopeful young musicians from all over the world. Berklee, the planet’s top college of contemporary music since its founding in 1945, boasts an alumni list that is a veritable who’s who of jazz, rock, electronic music, and other genres, and students know that getting accepted means they’ll get the best training available in their field.

Berklee alumni include composer/producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, film composer Alan Silvestri, guitarist Al Di Meola, modern big band leader/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, pianist Diana Krall, saxophonist Bill Evans, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, members of Aerosmith, and many others. Tony started the audition with a short classical sonatina, then moved on to one of his favorites, George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” complete with his improvised insertion of the Flintstones theme, which revealed his clever and original approach to the piece. Those brief moments were a revelation. The committee realized that they had a formidable talent on their hands, a rare, special boy whose playing contrasted sharply with the rest of his behavior.

Did I mention that Tony is blind? And autistic? When I started reading Some Kind of Genius : The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois I was expecting (hoping?) to learn more about how Tony DeBlois‘ mind works, more about Savant Syndrome (which I’ve written about before). Indeed, there is some basic information about Savant Syndrome in general and discussion of Tony’s particular skills. From Dr. Darold Treffert is this description of why savants may have the skills they have while the rest of us don’t:

I’ve come to believe in the collective unconscious not as psycological myths that are handed down by generations but as actual wiring, instinctual, which I call software installed. It’s clear that some of these prodigious savants are knowing things they cannot have learned. It had to come installed. This level of memory may also explain why it appears that we come with tons of software installed that we don’t use. It’s not because we’re lazy but because it would cause the same situiation as when I try to use all my software on my computer at the same time – it would crash. It’s almost as if some of these chips have a survival value to us if something happens to us. I think we tend to look at ourselves as being born with a tremendous piece of hardware, the brain, and a blank slate, and we become what we put on this disk. But I think savants come with this installed and they have access to it that we don’t.

As impressive as Tony’s story is, though, for me the real story of Some Kind of Genius is that of Tony’s mother Janice. From well before Tony’s birth, Janice’s life seems to have prepared her for the challenge, responsibility, and adventure of raising Tony and his brother Ray. And from the account she gives in the book, she more than lived up to the challenge. For parents of an autistic, or blind or other “disabled,” child this is a story of inspiration and what can be achieved if the desire is high enough. Almost all of us will see a little bit of our own story in Janice and Tony’s. The struggle to understand what is happening with your child. The desire to have the best life possible for your child, by figuring out what they are good at and helping them excel. And the fights with the system to make sure your child get what they need and deserve.

It is also a story of sacrifice. All “special” parents know nothing is ever easy and getting what your child needs sometimes means sacrificing for yourself and possibly others, all too often leaving “casualties” along the way. For everyone else, this is an inside look into what special needs kids and their parents must go through to get what is appropriate for them. My only complaint on this front is that Janice and co-author Antonia Felix almost make it seem too easy, too matter-of-fact. An “insider” will understand what was going on in the background of this story, but those unfamiliar with the struggle of “special” kids and parents will likely not quite catch it.

The most uplifting part of Tony’s story is his acceptance in the world of music. In almost every case (at least the ones documented in the book), the professional musicians and music educators that Tony works with see him as a musician first, a nice guy next, and only then as blind and autistic. This, I think, is the hope of all parents, special or otherwise: To help their children find their place in the world and make it their own.

ps. If anyone reading this happens to know Ellen DeGeneres, could you please pass on to her Tony’s desire to meet her and appear on her show? [Disclosure: The publisher offered the book as a complementary copy in hopes that I might mention it here.]