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October 31, 06

The Battery Blog - Update on the Kwikset Powerbolt 1000

Back in February 21, i blogged about installing this keypad lock for our front door. One of my main questions back then was how long 4 AA batteries would last to power the lock, day in and day out. Well, yesterday it looks like i found my answer, as the unit finally gave up the ghost after a day or two of sluggish, unresponsive behavior:

2/21/06 - 10/30/06 = 251 days (at least, if i'm doing this correctly within Excel...)

Not bad! If the above formula remains consistant, then my next battery change should take place around July 8 2007.

One grudge i have with the unit is that there appears to be a green power indicator light in the back - i would assume it would give off some sort of flash when the batteries are about to croak - but it didn't give off any such warning, rendering it pretty much useless...

Yet another lesson on the benefits of blogging!

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October 26, 06

Back to Brian - Sounds Like Now Updated



Just got an email from Brian Sacawa, classical saxophonist, with some terrific updates on his life musically, geographically, and digitally.
  • Musically: he's in the middle of a 37-day concert tour of the northeastern states. Cool!

  • Geographically: he's relocated to Baltimore. Great to have colleagues in the vicinity!

  • Digitally: his critically acclaimed blog has been visually revamped, taking on a clean, minimalist look (his sites have always been clean and unfettered, but now even moreso - looks cool!) and a new URL address: http://www.briansacawa.com/blog/. i've updated my blog link accordingly.


  • Brian is another one of those musicians gifted with a literary mind. He has fascinating insights not only to the contemporary art music scene, but to the cultural world at large. Be sure to check out his flickr photo sets too!

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    October 25, 06

    Open Foot Surgery, and a Sculpey Cradle How-To




    Well, it's been a frustrating discovery - upon opening the innards of my Delcom USB Footswitch, i discovered that the clicking sound isn't caused by a plastic tab, but rather is instrinsic to the reliable operation of the pedal: it's actually the sound of magnetic leads touching between two contact points (i assume the "off" and the "on" triggers). There's no way that i can see to deaden the sound aside from maybe removing the magnet(s), but that would in turn render the footswitch less that 100% reliable. Click on the picture to see a quick video demonstrating the problem close up.

    One slight bit of good news is that i can return my unopened Dremel Tool and get my money back, since i won't be needing it to cut any plastic parts open or sand down any protruding tabs...the other bit of good news is that i received an email a few days ago from Delcom, stating that several other customers had been requesting a 'silent' footswitch, and that they were going to look into that possibility. I'll keep you posted as i hear from them...


    So, upward and onward - the Sculpey clay cradle has been working reasonably well, so i've decided to post some step-by-step pictures on how i made my latest version.

    Here are the setup tools: a box of Sculpey oven bake clay, a piece of tin foil, and my Griffin Powermate USB controller:

    Sculpey Clay, tin foil, and my Griffin Powermate

    Sculpey comes in a stack of ridged sheets, making it relatively easy to tear off the clay in strips:

    Sculpey comes in ridged clay sheets

    First step is to roll two clay balls, large enough for the bottom diameter of the Powermate -

    Roll 2 clay balls

    Next, flatten one of the balls to form the base of the cradle:

    flatten one of the balls to form the cradle base

    With the other ball, place the Powermate on top to form the ramp, pressing into the clay to ensure a flat surface:

    using the Powermate to form the clay ramp

    Place the Powermate/clay ramp assembly on top of the flattened base:

    Place Powermate and ramp on top of flat base

    To form the supporting walls, tear of long strips of clay and roll ropes to wrap around the base and ramp:

    Rolling ropes of clay to form the cradle walls

    Coil the clay ropes around the base in layers...

    Coiling the clay ropes around the base in layers

    ...until your supporting cradle wall is high enough to secure the base of the Powermate:

    Rope wall side view

    Rope Wall rear view

    Use your thumbs to smudge the rope layers into a smooth surface:

    Smudging the rope layers to form a smooth surface

    This also enables the clay pieces to bond together:

    Smoothing the pieces to create a bonded unit

    Here's a closeup of the finished piece with the Powermate removed. You'll notice i added a little pinched nub along the base. This will help me to visually align the cradle and Powermate on the floor, as i need to have the whole thing angled for the optimum footpress action:

    The finished cradle, with a pinched nub on the bottom added for visual alignment

    Here's a picture of the view from directly above, as i would see it from being seated at the piano:

    How the finished cradle would look from a seated position at the Piano

    Now, into the oven at 275 degrees for about 1 hour, pull it out, let it cool - and hopefully it'll be ready for tonight's recital.





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    October 24, 06

    An American in Latvia

    One of the works i'm featuring in my next Visual Recital is "Vernacular Dances" by Charles Griffin, a New Yok-based composer currently in the middle of a two or three year stint living and working in the western region of Latvia. Charlie and i met in Classical Lounge, and subsequently he generously provided me to the scores of both the "Vernacular Dances" as well as a freshly inked piano 4-hand 6-movement work entitled "From the Faraway Nearby: Homage to Georgia O' Keeffe" which i will perform in Arizona with my colleague Walter Cosand. As perhaps a precursor of great things to come from Charlie's new blog, the London Times has already selected his very first entry as one of their "Blog of the Week" features! Do check it out - he does a marvelous job of painting the cultural, historical and musical background of his post-Soviet Occupation era environs, and goes into some fascinating insights regarding the daily ins and outs of the composer's craft, working with the particulars of different musicians, making adjustments to accommodate their capabilities, etc. What a wonderful read!

    Bravo, Charlie, for both some fantastic music and now an excellent blog to boot! Hope you will all take the time to get to know this fascinating composer!

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    Cataloguing Creativity

    As amazing as particleIllusion by WonderTouch has been for adding 'special effects' to my Visual Recital, i quickly came across a major headache: 1600 emitter samples spread across 68 files with 'descriptive' titles like "cnv_emitters_04_04.iel". When i first got the program, i was having tons of fun opening each file and exploring the embedded lists of effects, but it quickly became a time-draining nightmare when i wanted to come up with specific visualizations. How in the world does one hone in on that one special effect for water ripples buried within such an enormous library? Opening up 68 files one by one is the equivalent of searching a file cabinet's drawers one folder at a time in alphabetical order with all the folder labels missing or unreadable.

    Living digitally means thinking and working digitally. Too many times i've seen folks treat their digital information with the equivalent finesse of an old manual typewriter. In other words, reams of data is left scattered across virtual desktops and folder stacks just as badly as their physical counterparts. One solution is to learn to find or create systems that dynamically catalog the information so that it can be accessed, searched, and analyzed in multiple ways. In other words, i needed to create a database.

    I'm a rabid user of Microsoft's Access, the default Database program included with professional versions of Office. I'll go into some detailed Access stories in a future blog , but suffice to say for now that there would be absolutely no way i could manage the huge amount of information i have to deal with daily (student recital programming and schedules, gig hirings and invoices, staff pianist assignments and time sheets, chamber music coaching log oversight, etc. etc.) if it weren't for a massive Access database that i've developed for Curtis over a 10+ year period. The big drawback of databases is the care in which the initial data system needs to be designed, and the enormous time it takes to input the information initially, but the end benefits are indisputable. The speed at which i'm able to isolate specific bits of information is simply staggering. Once the barriers to searching are overcome, it's amazing to see how easily creativity and inspiration can flow.

    If anyone is using particleIllusion SE version and would like to have a copy of my database, let me know and i'll post it on my site for downloading. The database breaks down each effect by name, folder, and file location, and includes a memo feature and a 'favorite' tag for more detailed description and effect filtering. If the interest is there,i'll create some additional output reports that can show search results and/or just alphabetical lists of all the effects either by name or folder.


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    October 23, 06

    Like Father, Like Son

    It's been exciting to watch Paul using his Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC on a daily basis for all of his 7th grade schoolwork. He's gotten very comfortable with scanning his own textbooks into the computer, along with keeping all of his digitally handwritten notes in order. GoBinder has been his primary program for scheduling and notetaking - we've kept the textbooks as separate PDF files to keep GoBinder running as efficiently as possible (it tends to get bloated very quickly). Paul scans his paper handouts into PaperPort and is able to keep all his notes, tests and papers together digitally.

    With Band season getting underway, Paul came up to me and asked if there was a way to "turn" his own digitally scanned music pages. Ah, what a wonder to see how technology naturally encourages the extension of capabilities and curiosity! Paul now has his own Delcom USB footswitch and corresponding software (for some reason, the WinSwitch program's website was not loading properly - i had to give Paul a copy of my own program. If anyone else is having difficulty accessing the company's website to download drivers, let me know and i'll be happy to send my files to help you run your own footswitches).

    Paul on the Clarinet with his Footswitch and Compaq TC1100

    The Compaq TC1100's 10.4" XGA (1024x768) display is smaller than my Fujitsu Stylistic 12.1 inch screen - one of my readers was asking about using smaller screens for reading music. To be honest, i hadn't tried it until loading up Winswitch on Paul's computer, but i have to say i was pleasantly surprised at the smaller screen's legibility. Granted, Paul felt more comfortable setting the viewer to Full-Screen mode instead of its default view, so that's probably a more practical solution for the smaller hardware dimensions.

    Paul reading music off of his Compaq TC1100's 10.4 inch screen

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    October 21, 06

    The Quiet Revolution

    Yesterday i had the opportunity to make a presentation about music and technology for the Musical Studies department here at Curtis. I focused on four primary technologies:
    1. Tablet PC's
    2. Smart Boards
    3. Digital recording
    4. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) applications

    The Tablet PC's music reading and annotating capabilities were demonstrated using PDF Annotator, along with my footswitch page turns. I had my backup Compaq TC1100 Hybrid Tablet PC to pass around for a little hands-on "show and tell". After talking about Tablet PC's, the concept of Smart Boards was a logical segueway. Smart Boards, the digital answer to the traditional blackboard, are being seriously considered by Curtis, especially as the price quoted by a local vendor is so much more reasonable than any of us had expected. I was able to show a video clip demonstrating the ease of use with the Smart Board, incorporating both digital pen and finger drawing and screen manipulation.

    The Digital Recording segment touched on the use of portable high quality USB microphones like the Samson C01U, coupled with the editing and text annotating features of Audacity, the open source audio recording/editor. The use of digital recording opens the door to some dynamic pedagogical concepts. To demonstrate, i played a sound clip from a rehearsal i had recorded a few hours earlier and showed how easy it was to add text 'tags' in realtime as the audio clip scrolled along, marking places which needed attention. I also discussed some possible asynchronous teaching models, one example being a student chamber music group which could record their rehearsal, upload the Audacity files to a web-based server, then have their faculty coach download the files and annotate the recording and digital music score with comments from any internet-connected location, enabling a far more efficient use of time - and in some instances, a more detailed analysis of musical concepts and corrections.

    My overview of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) covered its various content distribution capabilities, from music files through online services like iTunes and portable MP3 players like the iPod, to text content through blogs and online RSS readers like Bloglines or the new Windows Live homepage service. You can view my screencast video demonstrating how to add an RSS-fed website's content to a Windows Live page here.

    I tried to summarize the main benefits of these technologies as twofold: 1) the ways they eliminate physical boundaries and barriers, and 2) the ways they can help us to better manage, contemplate, and disseminate an increasingly overwhelming flow of information.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see the most enthusiastic responses to my presentation coming from the people who had initially expressed the most fear of anything computer-related. As the iPod turns 5 years old and Tower Records is going out of business, there is a dramatic new landscape facing the classical musician of tomorrow. The good news i tried to share is that becoming digital thinkers and artistic musicians do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts, but as one faculty member put it, it will involve a significant cultural shift in the mindsets of music conservatories and institutions around the world.

    This is just a quick and dirty summary of the presentation, omitting many, many interesting points of discussion and ideas - if i have time, i'll try to come back and fill out this report with more details. The quiet revolution has begun!


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    October 18, 06

    Prelude to a Prelude

    Again, my apologies for the paucity of posts - every waking moment is being spent putting the next Visual Recital together, both musically and visually. I have to confess, i was hitting a creative block the past several months - first step was to narrow down the new repertoire i wanted to present, and i came across some really terrific stuff from composers i met on Classical Lounge and MySpace respectively - "Vernacular Dances" by Charles Griffin and 3 selected preludes by John Carollo. My goal is to try to present fresh new contemporary works in every future Visual Recital, since the whole point of the visualizations is to make the music easier to understand and connect with.

    While the musical inspiration was there, the visual inspirations had been really running dry. I'd been exploring various programs, everything from traditional 2-D hand-drawn animation software (ToonBoom) to a plethora of computer-generated visualization software from the VJ forums (VJ = "Video Jockey"), such as vjforums.com.. I'm hoping to work up to using ToonBoom more extensively, but that will take some time (and maybe more manpower for the things i'd REALLY love to do...) While output had been slow, research had been pretty intense...

    ParticleIllusion has been a tremendous burst of creative inspiration. Forgive me if i keep rambling about a particular product, but that's my tendency when i find something that gets me really excited. It's interesting to look at how one finds inspiration for creative projects - very often, it's the result of an enormous amount of backroom legwork, research, and just day-by-day mulling and mental wrestling. When the creative dam breaks, it's an incredible rush and you feel like you're racing to ride the tide of ideas!

    Here's another quick preview of another visualization for one of John's preludes titled, "Edward's Polymath". Click on the image to view the video clip:



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    October 16, 06

    Ooooh, the Pretty Lights...

    Here's a sneak peak at a few image effects for my next upcoming Visual Recital presentation. These two scenes are inspired by one of the preludes i'm playing by Hawaiian composer John Carollo, entitled "Watery Abstractions" - click on the images to see the video clips:




    Cool, huh? Effects courtesy of an amazing program called particleIllusion by wondertouch. I've been exploring some open source particle generators like VSXU (which, by the way, wins the award in my book for coolest interface EVER), but the problem is that a significant investment in time seems to be required to really get your head around the various mathematical variables and functions and whatnot...the nice thing about particleIllusion is that the interface is simple enough to jump right into, and the library of available pre-rendered effects is really quite staggering and incredibly customizable. I purchased the SE edition for only $99 (the full professional version goes for $399), and am so far very pleased with its ease of operation. You can layer images or AVI video in the background and have the various particle effects (like smoke, water, fire, sparkles, etc.) overlayed on top for seamless integration.

    Can't wait to finish putting this show together!





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    October 14, 06

    To Build a Better Mousetrap...

    Since noticing the way the wooden cradle was possibly catching the cap of the Powermate, i started working on modifications to the cradle. First step was to cut out a 'floor' for the cradle, ensuring consistant contact with the bottom edge of the Powermate regardless of the texture of the floor (ie, carpet vs. wood).

    Modified cradle for my Powermate

    The next step was to build some sort of ramp to do two things: 1) Lift up the Powermate to clear the cap from the inside edge of the cradle, and 2) to provide a firmer base for the bottom of the Powermate to push against, hopefully ensuring less wobble and misaligned foot presses. For the ramp, i used some Sculpey oven bake clay - clay that actually stays soft until you bake it in low (275 degree) heat in the oven. It hardens when cooled after the baking.

    Sculpey, Oven Bake Clay!

    Haven't played with clay since my middle school days, so i forgot some of the basics of rolling balls and tubes to create basic shapes - my ramp came out rather jagged and slanted, but it seemed adequate enough to do the trick. The hole in the middle was to enable me to lift the clay ramp in and out of the donut hole with a pen:

    My Powermate cradle with a new clay ramp

    The whole modification lifted the Powermate significantly, requiring a higher foot angle for operation. Here's a front view of the new setup:

    Front view of the Powermate in its modified cradle with the clay ramp

    And another view with the setup under my main studio piano:

    The Powermate and cradle under my studio piano

    I spent the next day practicing with the new cradle setup. It was still somewhat aggravating, as my pedal turns still seemed somewhat inconsistent. It was then that i began to realize that my foot was actually having a tendency to miss the Powermate entirely, instead hitting the wooden cradle itself either to the sides of the Powermate -

    Missing the Powermate with my foot...

    - or along the wooden rim in front:

    Missing the Powermate again...

    It took some practice to get my foot to consistently push the Powermate in its proper position:

    The proper placement of my foot for the Powermate

    Missed page turns most often took place between fast passages, when my foot instinctively lunges for the press. Interestingly, the missed pages were quite consistent, so with a little extra concentration, i was able to "correct" my foot position in those passages (sigh - as if finger technique weren't hard enough!)

    The real test came during last night's recital. I had to accompany most if it, some with familiar repertoire, much of it unfamiliar. Do i dare try out the modified cradle solo? Or should i use the 'backup' 2-pedal system as a safety, as i did with my Shostakovich performance earlier on Tuesday? Well, derring-do-Hugh decided to see how the first work went with the solo setup - Mozart's Violin concerto No. 4 in D major, a very comfortable work. Turns out, the page turns were flawless, not a single missed one! That gave me the confidence to stick with the setup solo for the rest of the program.

    The remainder was mostly good - a few missed turns in the Grieg Cello Sonata no. 2 in A minor, but nothing critical (fortunately, the 2 or 3 missed turns happened in spots that were easy to maneuver with manual button presses - the fast passages turned just fine with the Powermate cradle). I was tempted to write up this blog this morning concluding that the cradle modifications were a satisfactory success...

    ...but then, my mind started wandering (as it oh so often does!)...was there a way to design a cradle without the wide wooden edges, to avoid 'false hits'? The pianist's foot relies on feel - it can be hard to distinguish the wooden cradle's edge from the surface of the Powermate. Since my "Sculpey discovery" for the ramp, why not design an all-clay cradle?

    So that's what i did this afternoon -

    Fresh out of the oven - two Sculpey clay cradles for my Powermate

    Fresh out of the oven - two Sculpey clay cradles for my Powermate!

    If this works out well, i'll make another and post step by step pictures of its assembly. My old art class memories came back and i used the old ball and tube roll techniques to come up with fairly smooth designs for the new clay cradle/ramps.

    Here's a closeup:

    Closeup of the new Sculpey clay cradle ramp for my Powermate

    ...after cooling, i applied anti-slip rubber sheets to both the bottoms and the inside ramps:

    Rubber grips for the Sculpey cradles

    Here's a closeup along the side of the Powermate fitted into its new clay home:

    The Powermate in its new clay cradle

    Of course, the coolest thing about the cradle is the fact that i can still see that sweet blue light pulsing from the bottom of the Powermate:

    The glow!  The glow!!

    So, the big question: how well does it work?

    A little too soon to say - so far, so good, i think, but i'll want to really put it through its paces, particularly on different floor surfaces. Here's hoping the new design is another step in eliminating missed page turns...

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    October 11, 06

    Pedal Trouble

    Oh no...not again...
    The past two weeks has seen an upsurge in erratic Griffin Powermate pedal behavior. Just as my pedal comfort level was rising, suddenly pages stopped turning and my old foot placement paranoia returned in a desperate attempt to find optimal consistency. The first hiccups occurred during a conductor rehearsal with Maestro Eschenbach and violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg on a concerto by Clarice Assad (beautiful work, by the way). i had written a piano reduction of the score, but was dismayed to be struggling with the page turns instead of focusing on the musical aspects (as if the part wasn't hard enough by itself!!) Now with the fall concert season in full steam, these pedal inconsistencies are really throwing me for a loop. Just this past Friday at an important violin/piano recital in New York with Misha Simonyan (unbelievably amazing violinist, btw), i ended up turning half the pages with my finger instead of my foot. Monday night, the opening recital of the series here at Curtis, the pedal behaved somewhat better, but there were still a number of pages that didn't respond to foot actions and had to be turned 'by hand'.

    What was going on?? With computer peripherals, there are usually only two paths to explore when tracking glitches: software and hardware. Perhaps some extra spyware was creating memory buffer delays? I ran AdAware and indeed came across a couple of data-mining nasties lurking in the background (usually picked up from websites with advertisers that want to track your browsing habits), but even after wiping them out there was no improvement. PDF Annotator, my default digital music score reader, has an option to increase the memory buffer size, presumably to help open large files faster by pre-loading them into the buffer. I increased the buffer 5-fold, again no tangible improvement. Defragging the drive, cleaning it with CCleaner - all the normal maintenance tools didn't make any performance dents with the Powermate.

    With software bug-tracking options dwindling, i started focusing on hardware solutions. This was particularly critical as last night's recital of Shostakovich's Violin Sonata with Victor Danchenko loomed. I had been experimenting with using a rubber band to keep the Powermate from slipping out of the wooden cradle i created. Perhaps i was doing a "Robert Schumann 4th" on the wire (19th century romantic composer Robert Schumann tried to improve the strength of his fourth finger by creating some sort of harness to keep the finger stretched while the others played - ended up shredding the tendon and ruining his piano playing career).

    Rubber band with Powermate and cradle

    Removing the rubber band didn't help, unfortunately - perhaps the wire had been pinched for too long? Well, luckily i had a brand new Powermate sitting around as a backup, so i decided to retire the older unit to see if the problems still persisted.

    Grr - even with the newer Powermate, i was still running across inconsistencies. The strange thing i began to notice was that the Powermate seemed to perform just fine on carpeted surfaces, but only freaked out on hard wooden ones - aka, the wooden surface of a concert stage (yes, Myrtle, there IS a Murphy's law for concert stage appearances! My foot pedals prove that!)

    I then remembered how wonderfully the Powermate performed back when i was doing that recording session with Jan Vinci - in that situation, the Powermate was actually buried under layers of towels to muffle what little sound it made, and somehow that dramatically improved its consistency. I made a little ad hoc dishrag 'glove' to see if it would help, but to little avail. I tried adding little rubber 'bumpers' to secure the back of the Powermate from slipping around in case it was being misaligned for foot presses - still no help.

    With showtime approaching for last night's concert, i knew i couldn't risk pedal glitches, not with something as fiendishly difficult as the Shostakovich. Luckily, i still had one of my old trusty Delcom USB foot switches in my bag. I quickly tested out having BOTH the Delcom AND the Powermate plugged into the two USB ports - fortunately, no conflicts. The plan was to have the Powermate used for slow, quiet passages where the foot pedal needed to be inaudible. Slow foot presses seemed to be reasonably consistent, i was finding. The Delcom would be used during the fast/loud passages, since the sound of the footswitch's click would be completely drowned by the music. It would also act as a standby in case the Powermate didn't turn (which did happen a few times, actually) - much less distracting than having my hand leave the keys to turn the pages.

    A funny thing happened as i was sitting backstage, getting ready to go on. As i was examining my Powermate/cradle setup, i noticed the top cap of the Powermate had gotten wedged in and stuck on the rim of the cradle...aha! Could this be the culprit? The cradle was basically a doughnut shape with nothing on the bottom except a piece of rubber grip matting....i recalled how one of my Powermate's caps had popped off over the summer, and just assumed it was the result of too much pressing, but could it have actually been because the rim of the cap had been rubbing up against the edge of the cradle?

    Broken Powermates

    Perhaps the Powermate's inconsistencies stemmed from its occasionally being wedged and jammed...i got a paper towel, folded it up and placed it on the bottom of the cradle to give the Powermate a height boost, clearing its cap from the cradle's inside edge.

    Overall Powermate performance was better the times i used it, but not perfect. Turns out my decision to have double pedals was the right thing to do - the Delcom is my old reliable, perfectly consistent with regard to performance, and worked great to catch the one or two pages the Powermate neglected to turn. I'm going to look into cutting a firm 'floor' for the Powermate cradle and possibly adding a molded clay ramp to firmly secure the bottom of the Powermate, in addition to giving it a height boost. Next concert: Friday - i'll keep you posted as i work on ironing out the new bugs in my foot pedal system...

    My other project will be to open the guts of one of my Delcom foot switches to see if there is some way to silence the annyoing click. Here's what it looks like on the inside:

    Opening the Delcom USB Footswitch

    A small metal strip acts as a lever to depress a little plastic dipswitch. The dipswitch (in orange) protrudes from a sealed plastic housing - looks like there must be some way of opening it, but it appears to be either a really tight fit or it may be glued down:

    The Delcom dipswitch - source of the clicking sounds

    I need to find a dremel saw small enough to cut open the top of the housing to see how the dipswitch is configured. Hopefully there will be a way to smooth down or remove the plastic tab that must be causing the clicking sounds...anyway, that's the game plan (after i buy a few more backup units just in case...)



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    October 09, 06

    Music Meets Tech #19: Visual Recital Concept Beta - NYSMF 2006

    Here is a video of the complete Visual Recital performance of "Histoire de Babar" by Jean de Brunhoff and Francis Poulenc, narrated by Keisuke Hoashi, presented this past summer at the New York Summer Music Festival. Running time is about 25 minutes. Due to the length and size of the video file, i've opted to present this in several formats - the Quicktime format is the smallest. This is also being presented as a podcast (a rather LARGE one at that - about 110 MB!)

    Click here for the Quicktime version.




    Can't view the clip? Download the player plug-in from Microsoft

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    October 04, 06

    Time for Spandex and a Cape...

    Boy, i thought my Birthday was bad enough!
    Yesterday afternoon in the middle of one of my rehearsals at Curtis, i get an urgent call on my cell phone from a 'certain' orchestra. Apparently, their harpsichord player had a family emergency and was unavailable to perform in the Bach violin concerto for the evening concert - would i be able to fill in? Yikes - my mind started spinning! Playing piano reductions for private auditions or conductor rehearsals was one thing - stepping out on stage at Verizon Hall on an unfamiliar instrument (every Harpsichord has their own unique setup and pedal/string configuration) with unfamiliar repertoire and no rehearsals in an unfamiliar setting (i usually play in FRONT of an orchestra, not from inside! I haven't played an orchestral part since...oh my, since my student days? Can't remember!) - my stomach did a quick nose dive, i swallowed a deep gulp, took the plunge and said "Yes, i'll do it." i didn't have a tuxedo in my studio, so i would have to cancel the rest of my afternoon rehearsals to rush home, pick up my clothes, then rush back in time to try out the instrument and perhaps have a quick runthrough privately with the Maestro to check tempi. The personnel office offered to run someone over to Curtis with the harpsichord part so that i'd have at least the afternoon to look at it. My spinning brain made it difficult to finish the rest of that rehearsal, trying to mentally cope and prepare for such a crazy situation...was i insane to stick my neck out on the line like that?

    ...a few minutes later, my cell phone chimed again. The orchestra again, but this time a bit chagrined - there had been some miscommunication, apparently, and they had someone else to fill in for the harpsichord part after all. "No need for me to be there tonight, right?" i asked. They confirmed that there was no longer any need, and i breathed a long sigh of relief. Whew, that was close - scary, but close. i think i aged 10 years in 10 minutes from that call!

    i managed to call my cancelled rehearsal back and went through the rest of the afternoon as originally planned. As my day started to wind down, i was trying to decide if i wanted to go home or spend a few hours with my own practicing first, since i didn't have a chance to go through my own repertoire. A quick 10 minute cat nap was in order to recharge my batteries and prepare for what remained of the day...

    ...suddenly, my cell phone chimed yet again. The Orchestra. This time, there was a sense of panic on the other line.

    "We need you. NOW."

    Apparently, the other person had taken a look at the part and determined it was too difficult to do, what with the lack of rehearsal and the unfamiliarity of the instrument. It was now 7 pm. The concert was about to begin at 8. I quickly stashed my Tablet PC into my small portfolio and dashed out the door. Now this was TRULY insane!!

    One slightly fortunate thing about the situation was the fact that i had done a private conductor rehearsal with the Maestro and the soloist on the piece with the piano reduction of the concerto. I was thinking that if the Harpsichord part really looked impossible, maybe i could just use the piano reduction score as a backup...you see, the scary thing about playing within an orchestra is the fact that it feels like i'm playing "blind". Direct collaborative work involves seeing the full score with all the parts, so that you can follow along with all the musical activity at all times, and being in an acoustically balanced situation on stage where you can hear everyone else that you're working with. In an orchestra situation, however, you're stuck with just your own individual part with very little (if any) indication of what's going on around you in the score. There are usually lots of rests to count before entrances (i HATE counting rests blind), and you are simply unable to hear all the other parts globally because you are surrounded with the sound of your immediate stand partners - the sense of surrendering control of the musical situation to someone else (a conductor, in this case) can be somewhat terrifying.

    As i had mentioned, having had that conductor/soloist rehearsal last week would certainly be a help in being already somewhat familiar with the soloist's tempi. That wasn't much consolation though, as i stepped into the room with the 2 manual harpsichord and looked at the five pedal setup with only minutes to figure out how to change the string settings for the different sections of the piece. I asked the personnel manager where the harpsichord would be situated on stage - would it be in the back, tucked away and hidden? Nope - it would be in front, right under the gaze of the Maestro. Great.

    The soloist was an angel - she graciously gave me one-on-one time to run through the critical transitions and various tempo traps. The orchestra personnel somehow managed to find an extra tuxedo set pretty close to my size. The harpsichord was wheeled onto the stage, and suddenly there i was - getting ready for my "debut" at Verizon Hall!

    As the orchestra players trickled onto the stage, there were expressions of pleasant surprise on most of them and words of friendly encouragement as we ran through our last minute warmups. It's quite remarkable what a calming effect the company of friends can have on a stressful situation, as most of the orchestra members are colleagues or friends i grew up with at school or students that have recently graduated (and still several others whose auditions i accompanied!) The hall lights dimmed, the welcoming address boomed over the speaker system, one of the cellists made a friendly invitation to the audience for CD signings and a 'meet & greet' with the cello section after the performance - and then, it began.

    With the piano, we have lots of ways to sneak in subtly if we're not sure of an entrance - the una corda pedal (the "soft pedal"), a slower touch on the keys, the magic of the damper pedal to 'wash out' fuzzy notes...alas, those tools are unavailable on the harpsichord. The plectrum action demands a determined touch, especially on quiet passages when the pianist's instinct is to depress the keys softly. Stress sometimes has an amazing effect on mental clarity, and somehow i remembered to maintain a firm touch throughout, despite my horrid fears of making a determined entrance at the wrong time! I even managed to figure out some quick change effects with the pedal system, allowing me to switch between the single-string lute effect and a gentle multi-string chorus effect for the slow movement.

    I was astounded at how "blind" things really are on stage in the middle of an orchestra! When you are a soloist, you have the benefit of playing in front where most of the acoustic signature can be heard relatively well to make out the global scope of the piece. But within the orchestra, there was simply no way to hear the soloist. One really needed to completely trust the conductor for all cues, tempi, and entrances. Thank goodness this conductor was wonderful to follow! There was the added benefit of having my part mirrored by the celli and double basses, so at least i had a sense of chamber music ensemble to sink my sound into. One scary moment was the soloist's cadenza in the first movement - just her and me. Hard to tell if we were really together, but i tried to keep my focus glued on the maestro's cues as much as possible (hope it worked...) As insane, scary and as stressful as the situation was, i actually had...fun! What a thrill to be playing glorious music with wonderful musicians! I kept thinking of something Pamela Frank mentioned the other day - "When you feel stressed about music, remember to ENJOY the music and use that to relax!" She was right - once the music began, the company of friends and the joy of music making took over and the stress literally melted away.

    Well, i have no idea to tell if it actually went well...but i had fun trying. This situation definitely beats all others hands down for insane last-minute-ness! i joked with my wife last night: at least i never seem to run out of things to talk about with my blog, given the way my life seems to run these days!

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    October 03, 06

    Rock Star Hair

    Keisuke Hoashi, the Director of Communications at the New York Summer Music Festival, just sent me a link to a gallery of pictures taken during my Visual Recital there this past summer. Ugh! Never mind the Babar performance - get that man to a barber! (sorry, bad bad attempt at a pun...)


    I'm just getting around to editing the video from that recital - i hope to sample video clips from that performance posted here soon. Keisuke graciously stepped in at the last minute to do the narration for the "Histoire de Babar" by Poulenc, freeing me to concentrate on activating the pedals for the visual effects (as if the music itself wasn't hard enough! lol) Not sure if i'll have time to refine the visual presentation by the November recital at Cabrini College, but i'll do my best...in the meantime, please visit the gallery and enjoy the pictures that Keisuke posted (never mind the horrible hairstyle...sheesh)




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    October 02, 06

    Tech Even a Wife could Love

    It's a rare day when my wife can actually confess to liking any particular piece of technology. Just the other day, she had to find a restaurant where a drug rep dinner was taking place. In the past, that would've been cause for trepidation, as she's not comfortable with trying to follow directions outside of her normal routes between work and home, much less finding her way with night time driving. This provided her an opportunity to try out our new Garmin nüvi 350 mobile GPS system, the indespensible camping trip companion if you'll recall from my earlier summertime blog post. I had noted how easy it was to use with its clean interface and excellent satellite lock-on capabilities. It's portability made it a snap (literally) to move from the family van to her car - another reason to consider this type of portable GPS system as opposed to an in-dash model.



    When she came home from the dinner, she ran right to the piano room where i was practicing and exclaimed, "I LOVE this thing!!!" Guess that's a pretty good verdict for ease-of-use and reliability of the nüvi 350 from the Mrs.!

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    Welcome!

    Thank you for visiting this site! I hope you'll find this to be a friendly place to learn about and discuss the fascinating technologies available for the Classical Musician. A great place to get started is with the ongoing "Getting Started" series. Remember, the worst questions are the ones you never ask, so feel free to email me!

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