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February 23, 08

Visual Recital Workshop at the Greenport School

In this video, I presented a Visual Recital workshop at the Greenport School in New York, featuring movements from Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and artwork by 3rd, 4th, and 6th grade students under the supervision of art teacher Anne McDonald. The workshop and concert were made possible by the Greenport Music Festival.
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Concert at the Kimmel Center Tonight

Tonight, following the Philadelphia Orchestra's concert as part of their "Postlude" series, i'll be performing the Strauss Cello Sonata in F major, Op. 6 with cellist Derek Barnes on stage at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center:

Rehearsing in Verizon Hall with Derek Barnes

This early work is very prescient of the much better known Violin Sonata in E-flat major - lots of majestic themes, dramatic chord colorings and harmonic shifts. A wonderful sonata that deserves to be played more often!

Hope to see y'all at Verizon Hall tonight!



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February 09, 08

Debt Free...on TV??

Our "Debt Free" video on YouTube has been getting a lot of play and attracting a wonderful batch of comments! One commenter mentioned that she saw the video aired on "The Dave Ramsey Show" on the Fox Business Network sometime last week after (according to this person) Dave himself showed the video to his wife Sharon and she told him to air it, saying that it was the funniest thing she had ever seen (or something to that effect)!

Can anyone confirm this? That would be so cool if this were actually true!



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February 05, 08

Visual Recital Workshop at the Hamilton School

i can't think of many teachers better than good ol' experience, and certainly this past week's Visual Recital workshop at the Hamilton School proved to be a gold mine of learning on all fronts!

The session began with an initial visit with a group of the school's 4th - 6th graders. Cellist Susan Babini and pianist Michael Mizrahi had been introducing the group to the first movement of the Sonata in F major, Op. 99 by Johannes Brahms. Realizing that we were going to have limited class time with the kids, i chose to "pre-empt" the design of the visualizations by selecting a general theme and creating the visual backgrounds ahead of time. I wanted to present ideas that would be as contextually familiar to the West Philadelphia students as possible, so Bonnie Slobodien and i brainstormed the idea of "Two Views of the Schuylkill River" (wow, you know you're from Philadelphia if you can not only pronounce that word correctly - "Skoo-Kill" - but also spell it from memory!!) The basic idea was to show contrasting elements in the music, such as:
  • fast

  • slow

  • peaceful

  • majestic


  • The Schuylkill River is the main body of water that runs through Philadelphia, featuring a major highway on one end and a lovely park on the other. Initially i was going to stick with just a riverside highway scene and a blank riverside park trail background, with the idea that the students would be encouraged to draw things that move fast on the highway (cars, trucks, motorcycles and whatnot), and contrasting things that you would find in a peaceful riverside park (trees, flowers, clouds, ducks, boats, etc.) Analyzing the Brahms made me realize that almost 8 minutes of music comprised the first movement, and that there was plenty of opportunity to feature other contrasting sections. I eventually came up with the following added backgrounds:
  • the Fast scene, featuring the Schuylkill Expressway

  • Fast opening theme

  • the Slow scene, featuring Kelly Drive (the scenic route next to the river)

  • Slow Theme

  • a busy street scene, representing a part of town that lies next to the river and under some big highway overpasses - this was going to be the "busy" theme


  • Boathouse row, a picturesque series of crew houses used by local universities and crew clubs right along the river - this would be the "peaceful" theme

  • Peaceful theme

  • The Art Museum - this would represent the "majestic: grand" theme

  • Majestic theme

  • The Ben Franklin Bridge at night - this would represent the "majestic: exciting" theme, with the students primarily drawing fireworks for this scene


  • We had two back to back classes to work with, for a total of about 60 students. Given the time restraints, we kept the art medium simple: crayon pencils on white paper, to be cut out and pasted with glue sticks onto black construction paper backgrounds.

    What an amazing output of creativity! Giving the students empty scenes to work with, they all vied to produce several items for EVERY one of them!

    Note to self: i thought that pasting the cut out pictures on black paper would make it easier to isolate the images for transparent backgrounds, but it turns out to be actually more tedious. Time can be saved by eliminating the cutout/gluestick actions, and the scanned images can be "lassoed" manually, copied and pasted onto transparent backgrounds, and saved as PNG image file formats.


    Unlike the Mad Cow visual recital workshop in Colorado, i at least had about a week to scan in the images and place them into the scenery. Well, a jam-packed week so it turned out, what with the Greenfield Competition finals, all the rehearsals in preparation for that, and Karate graduations for the kids and me...it was a challenge to find the time to get this all done (which led to late, late night programming sessions...which then led to - kaff kaff - this yucky cold i came down with...)

    Primary programs used for creating the visual backgrounds:

  • ArtRage 2, a fantastic program that can realistically simulate paint, markers, crayons, pencil, and a host of other physical media - works exceptionally well with Tablet PC's

  • Inkscape, the open source vector drawing program. I really fell in love with the simplicity of use with this one - i had been a longtime CorelDraw user back in the old days, so this was like working in old familiar territory. The "technical drawings", such as the Ben Franklin bridge, the highway and the yellow dividers, and anything else that required symmetry or precision was best crafted with Inkscape.


  • Primary programs used for cropping, cleaning, and in some cases making animations with the students' pictures:

  • Macromedia Fireworks - i'm sure i could use GIMP to extract the scanned images and paste them onto transparent backgrounds, but i just work faster in Fireworks...

  • Macromedia Flash - several kids came up with pictures that were almost identical (sunshine, flags, etc.), so i took advantage of some simple Flash layering and alpha fades to make animated blends between the pictures and exporting them as animated GIF's


  • Initially, i was only going to have static backgrounds with all of the image "actors" moving in automated loops within each scene. The only trigger points would be to advance to the next scene. Fortunately, i was able to get some great help from the developer of Liquid Media to create an "unlimited ammo" trigger system. Using the X-Keys USB 12-port switch interface, i was able to incorporate 3 pedals - one to advance the scene, and two others to be used by the musicians to trigger events within specific scenes. For example, in the Fast highway scene, there was an active background of the highway zipping along and cars traveling over it. If the cellist stepped on her pedal, a series of special cars would drive by at a faster speed. If the pianist stepped on his pedal, helicopters would fly by the sky overhead.

    Here are some pictures from Monday's VR workshop:

    Mr. Guy Cannon's music classroom setup at the Hamilton School:


    Susie giving a cello lesson to a curious student:


    Michael surrounded by eager pianists:


    Our indefatigable director of Education and Outreach from Astral, Bonnie Slobodien, encouraging the students to "respect our friends by listening quietly" - well, that lasted for a few seconds at least...


    The main man himself, Mr. Guy Cannon - a cooler music teacher i have yet to meet!


    Michael and Susie prep the students for the world premiere of "Brahms on the Schuylkill River":


    Michael demonstrates how the cars can be triggered to zip by on the highway scene:


    Student balloons float over the Art museum and Susie's head:


    Susie and Michael performing during the Boathouse Row scene:


    One concern that Bonnie and the musicians had was having the visuals overwhelm the students' reception of the music. I think we came up with some great activities to balance the excitement of having one's own artwork animated to live music and the need to encourage stronger listening skills:

  • I came up with the "Ta-DA" game on the spot, where the students were challenged to recognize and count the number of times the "Ta-DA" theme was played - ie, the 16th note to tied quarter notes motif that runs throughout the theme (highlighted in yellow):


    When the theme fragment returns at the beginning of the development section, the "Ta-DA's" turn into "Oh-NO's!", highlighting the change to minor and its resulting shift in mood:


    The Ta-DA's come back at the end as "Hoo-Ray" (or something to that effect), reflecting the heroic final statement of the motif in the last few measures - we thought of the association with something proud, noble, and majestic - like fireworks!


    Interesting to point out how a rhythmic fragment can change somewhat, turning from 16ths -> half notes into 8ths and quarters.


  • Another listening game involved everyone closing their eyes and the musicians playing a random section of the movement. The students would have to guess which scene the music was associated with, then open their eyes to see if their guesses matched what was on the screen. It was quite remarkable to see how quickly they matched the musical associations we established with their artwork!


  • The most fun was having two students at a time come up and press the pedals to trigger the action themselves in synchronization with the musical motifs. This worked so well that i'm going to try to design future Visual Workshops with more pedals so that larger groups of students can get involved in activating the visual triggers in conjunction with the elements they hear in the music.


  • (Another note to self: kids remember everything they draw. I mean, EVERYTHING - i fit in almost all the pictures, but had to contend with a handful of disappointed faces when i didn't have time to scan in this turtle or that car or that balloon...next time, put EVERYTHING into the Visual Recital!!)


    I had several video cameras running, but no hands to actually push the "record" button - what with all the activity and excitement, i just didn't get a chance to lay down a lot of video or audio. What i need in the future is a team of interns to help me set up the documentary equipment...well, i'll go through the few minutes that i did manage to record and see if i can pull together a short clip. If not, i'll make sure that i plan the videotaping at the next Visual Recital workshop in Greenport, NY more carefully.

    whew...quite a long-winded blog post today! Lots of exciting ideas, lots of stuff learned - i'm already excited about the next project!

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    February 03, 08

    Quick updates

    What in the world...how did a whole month fly by so quickly?? Needless to say, it's been a complete blur of activity on several fronts - here's a super quick rundown of some highlights:

  • Worked with composer Jennifer Higdon and violinist Jenny Koh with Maestro Eschenbach on Higdon's new concerto for violin, chorus, and orchestra titled "The Singing Rooms" - what an amazing combination of musical elements!


  • Several trips to New York with two finalists for the Young Concert Artists auditions, a trombonist and a violinist - neither won, but both played phenomenally (and i think i created quite a buzz with my use of the Tablet PC as music reader and footswitch page turner! So many judges kept hounding me with questions about them!)


  • Greenfield Student Concerto Competition for the Philadelphia Orchestra! Lots of rehearsals, several finalists, one winner from my batch in the senior division (congratulations, violinist Bryan Lee!) Oh, get this - remember that story about the time i helped a poor cellist get through her Greenfield competition round when her cello endpin slipped? Well, it happened again, but this time on stage in Verizon hall during the final round! Quick as a flash, my belt came off and i fashioned an improvised endpin stop strap - in front of an audience and the Philly Orchestra judges, of all things! LOL - just a few minutes before that, i was strapping duct tape to the bottom of a harp to fix a loose foot! Sigh...just call me the Music MacGyver... (btw, Wikipedia has a neat list of problems that the MacGyver character solved here...my wife loved that show as a kid...


  • Visual Recitals galore!! Presentations at the Inglis House, Springfield Estates retirement community, and now a workshop for the Hamilton Elementary School in North Philadelphia all thanks to the Astral Artistic Management folks (Bonnie Slobodien, educational outreach coordinator in particular!) Part of my blog embargo this week in particular has been due to the fact that i've been holed up in front of my computer scanning in the artwork from 60 kids and incorporating them into a new template-based format that i'm trying for the workshop - i'll try to post some videos about it as soon as i can find time to breathe! Monday's the "big show" with Susan Babini on cello and Michael Mizrahi on piano performing the Brahms F major cello sonata.

  • Visual Recital Workshop for the Delaware Valley/Pennsylvania Music teachers association - this was a lot of fun, real "nuts and bolts" session on how i put my Visual Recital programs together, from music analysis to storyboarding to effects and programming. Many thanks to Lydia Ferrell-McVay for her tremendous enthusiasm and support of the Visual Recital concept! You can see some pictures from the workshop at the following link: http://homepage.mac.com/lferrellmcvay/lfmstudio/News/VR1/VR1.html


  • I'm proud to announce that as of Saturday, Feb. 2, Paul, Eric and i are now officially Tae Kwo Do Yellow Belts in the MacKenzie Gold Medal Karate studio! We actually signed up the end of December, and i've been taking classes right alongside Paul and Eric (Paul's doing the advanced Leadership class, which involves some really cool weapons training). What a terrific program! Master Turley, the instructor in our local chapter, is an exceptional educator and a terrific inspiration to keep coming to classes. I never realized Tae Kwon Do could be so much fun! And it's particularly exciting to see the way it's already building character and confidence in Paul and Eric!


  • 'Hebrew Melodies' CD edits coming along - wow, this CD is going to sound GREAT! I just received the full 2nd edit CD with all the tracks and can't wait to start handing this over to full production!

    On the horizon:

  • Visual Recital workshop in Greenport, NY (Long Island) - coming up in about 2 weeks - i'll be going up solo, and further developing some new templates for the students' artwork. The developer of Liquid Media, the presentation program i primarily use for the Visual Recital, has been particularly helpful in teaching me to create a new trigger effect that gives me unlimited "ammo" for better spontaneity! He promises me that the new upgraded version of Liquid Media (code named: "Nitro") will be forthcoming around June, with some really, really cool new features!! I can't wait!!


  • Q&A bag - gosh, i've really racked up a pile of questions from emailers and visitors to the site! My sincere apologies for not responding sooner! I'll probably put the questions together either in a blog post or in an audio-only podcast - lots of neat topics and items to discuss! Many thanks for posting your questions, and keep them coming - i promise to get to them as soon as i find time to breathe...

  • Videos, videos, videos - man, i don't know where i'm going to find the time to work on my huge backlog of videos, but i guess first things first...


  • Living Debt Free - in a word, it's AWESOME!!! My attitude towards work has experienced a complete turnaround - i'm just started to learn about the basics of investing, and want to share what i've picked up from the books i've skimmed through. Expect more more finance-related blog posts (hmmm...maybe i should think about putting together a new website specifically for Musicians and Finanace...MusicMeetsMoney.com?)


  • Tutorials and Demos - i want to put together a new series of tutorials for the Liquid Media program, as well as some demo screencasts of the uber tool that i've developed over 10 years to run my day-to-day operations paperlessly at Curtis, my custom-built Student Recitals Database. Lots o' fun learnin' to be had!


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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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