If I Had Written the Score to Interstellar

If I was Hans Zimmer, I would be a bit annoyed.

What is arguably the best score Hans Zimmer has ever written, the music for Interstellar, has thrilled me to my core. However, I came to that conclusion by an indirect route.

Like many of you, I saw the movie in all it’s cinematic glory when it was released in 2014. But it was not until 2017 that I fell in love with it, both the movie and the score.

In preparation for an after-dinner talk to a panel of the American Heart Association’s 2017 Science Conference, I was looking for an inspirational way, preferably with great video and sound, to describe the sport of competitive free diving. This past summer I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best free divers and free diving instructors in a Colloquium put together by the University of California at San Diego, Center of Excellence in Scientific Diving.

I had pretty much given up on finding something to help me illustrate the beauty, and challenges, of competitive free diving. That changed, however,  when I came across a posting from a group of tactical military divers. In a short 3-minute video the young French diver Arnaud Jerald set his personal free diving (CWT, Constant Weight Dive  discipline) record of 92 meters in a competition in Turkey. He placed third in a field which included world record holders in the same event.

Three things made the diving video great, in my opinion: 1) the subject matter which vividly shows a human activity little known by most people, and understood by even fewer; 2) steady and clear video produced by a new underwater camera, the Diveye, and 3) the accompanying music.

A film score is only successful if it aids the audience in generating an emotional response to a movie scene. In that respect, a great movie hinges not only on good acting and script, but on an almost telepathic connection between the film director/producer and music director/composer.

In the free diving video clip, the accompanying music swelled in concert with the audience’s tension, generated perhaps unconsciously in response to the drama of the moment. And then there was organ music at just the right point. For me a pipe organ truly is the most impressive and grand of any musical instrument.

And just when the cinematic moment was right,  you could hear the heart beats, helping us realize what a strain it must have been on young Jerald’s heart as he reached his deepest depth, far from the surface, and air.

Indeed, when I gave the presentation, the video clip seemed to have the effect on the audience that I was looking for. But afterwards, I was relieved that no one had asked me where that music came from. I had no idea.

I don’t recall what led me to Interstellar as the music source: it may have been a random playing of movie soundtracks on a music streaming service, but once I heard a snippet, I recognized it. “That’s it!” I shouted to no one in particular.

It wasn’t just me; my family, including a nine-year old granddaughter had heard me rehearse my talk many times, and they also immediately recognized the similarity between the free diving video, and part of the Interstellar soundtrack.

The closest musical correlation to the diving video was the “Mountains” track in the movie soundtrack. Strangely, the match was not perfect. In fact the differences were easily notable, a fact I discovered after I bought both the movie and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. And I must note, I think the music in the diving video is better.

Perhaps the full music was present in the original version of the movie, and perhaps some fancy mixing in the sound room deleted it. If so, too bad. But I must admit, the quiet musical nuances would have been missed during the cacophonous sound of a 4000 foot tall tidal wave sweeping upon a tiny spacecraft. There was lots of shouting and screaming.

As for my opinion that Hans Zimmer might be annoyed, well, I suggest you watch the portion of the full movie where the Mountain track rises to prominence. That is the part where the tidal wave, initially mistaken as mountains, appears on the horizon of the first planet the Horizon space craft landed on outside of our galaxy.

As exciting as the action was, and as wonderfully crafted the dialog and acting, it obscured the finer points of the music. Fortunately, the free diving video, coming as it does with no dialog at all, puts the music in the perspective that I, at least, can completely enjoy.

I find it fitting that in both videos, the incredibly powerful music was used to showcase humans extending themselves to their absolute limits. Of course, one of those stories is fictional, and the other is real.

 

 

 

A Matter of Chance: Music Makes the Video

I was recently asked to give a 30-minute after-dinner talk to the 3CPR Resuscitation Panel of the American Heart Association at their annual scientific meeting in Anaheim, CA. In the audience were scientists, cardiologists, anesthesiologists, anesthetists, emergency physicians, and resuscitation technicians. It was a multimedia event with professionally managed sound and video.

Knowing that the group would be well acquainted with the role of chance in medical procedures, I chose to use a segue from medicine into the topic of extreme adventures in military and civilian diving. The focus of the talk was on how chance can turn adventures into mis-adventures.

I revealed three areas where Navy Biomedical Research is expanding the boundaries of the state of the art in military and civilian diving. One area was in deep saturation diving, another was polar ice diving, and the third was breath hold diving.

As an introduction to polar diving, I wanted to create a video travelogue of my National Science Foundation-sponsored research and teaching trips to the Arctic (Svalbard) and Antarctica (McMurdo Station and vicinity.) These projects were spearheaded by the Smithsonian Institution, and my participation was funded in part by the U.S. Navy.

To begin the preparation of the video, I assembled my most relevant photos, and those taken by various team mates, and imported them into my favorite video editing software, which happens to be Cyberlink Director.

Then I went looking for potential sound tracks for the approximately 5 minute video. Considering the topic, I thought Disney’s Frozen would have familiar themes that might be acceptable. I rejected a number of YouTube videos of music from Frozen; most were too close to the original and included vocal tracks. Finally I came across the “Let It Go Orchestral Suite” composed by the “Twin Composers,” Andrew and Jared DePolo.

It was perfect for my application. I extracted the audio track from the Suite as shown on YouTube, imported it into Director, and lined it up with the nascent video track which included all images and other video segments.

To match the music to the video, I simply cut back on the duration for each of 97 images, keeping the other 5 videos in their native length. By experimentation, I found that 3.21 seconds per image resulted in the last image fading out as the music came to a close and the end credits began to roll.

On the first run through of the new video, I couldn’t find anything to complain about; which for me is rare. So I ran it again and again, eventually creating an mp4 file which would play on a large screen and home audio system. But I couldn’t help notice that the gorgeous score would sweeten at interesting times, and serendipitously change its musical theme just as the video subject matter was changing.

How fortunate, I thought. It was then that I began to realize that “chance” had worked its way into the production effort, in an unexpected way.

First, the music seemed to my ear to be written in 4/4 time, with each measure lasting 3.2 seconds, precisely, and purely by happenstance matching the image change rate. At a resulting 0.8 seconds per beat, or 75 beats per minute, that placed the sensed tempo in the adagietto range, which seemed appropriate for the theme of the music. (Without seeing the score, I’m just guessing about the tempo and timing. But that’s how it felt to me.)

The timing coincidence was rather subtle at first, but as the finale began building at the 3:39 minute mark, the force of the down beat for each measure became more notable, and the coincidence with image changes became more remarkable. There was absolutely nothing I could do to improve it.

In some cases the technical dissection of music can be a distraction from the beauty of the music, but I’ve done it here merely to point out that sometimes you just luck out. In this case it truly was a matter of chance.

In my mind, the DePolo Orchestral Suite makes the video. Hope you enjoy the show.

To learn more about these composers and their music, follow this link. 

 

The Lifetime Gift of Music Education

Score 5th SymphonyOf all the things I accomplished in secondary school, the one that still brings joy to my heart and tears to my eyes is the music I performed in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. Under the steady guidance of Mr. Kenneth Geoffroy, our marching band, orchestra and Wind Ensemble director, we tackled music that was complex and passionate. Fifty years later, I still remember every note of the Fourth movement, Allegro non troppo, of the Fifth Symphony by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

That is not to say that I can tell you which instrument was playing which note at any given instant. I do not have a photographic memory, and never saw the full score for Wind Ensemble. But since a wind ensemble by definition did not have string instruments, clarinets carried the major parts that violins played in the full orchestral score. I played the clarinet as first chair, and thus played the majority of the “melody”.

The decision to post this today came unexpectedly when I set up a Shostakovich channel on Pandora, and played it through our stereo system. While attending to other matters in the house I heard music that was very familiar. In fact it was so familiar that I found myself singing in my not so beautiful voice the da da da of the 1st B flat clarinet line for the entire Fourth movement. I knew exactly which notes were coming next. I had memorized it many decades ago, and my brain had recorded it for playback after a half century of neglect.

Mr. Geoffroy often called for us to emote in our playing, and some music was especially emotional, such as the Prelude and Love Death in Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. If you did not sway in your chair, moving your instrument from side to side, you plainly weren’t feeling the passion of the music.

And today, as I rediscovered the Allegro non troppo of Shostakovich, I found myself consumed by joy, the same joy I felt when sitting in the middle of the ensemble, emoting my heart out just as Shostakovich, and Mr. Geoffroy, intended.

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High school prepared me well for the science and writing that defined my career. And for that I thank the sometimes stern, oftentimes nurturing teachers who looked for potential in every student coming under their care. But sometimes it’s the extracurricular activities that enrich our being, which bring joy at unexpected moments even a life-time later.

I would pray that when school boards are tasked with cutting programs, they think long and hard about the intangibles of performance arts. It is true that not every student enrolled in music or performance classes will make a career of it. In fact, I would guess that the number of high school students moving into a music or acting career must be very small indeed. But life is not just about work. It is also about “smelling the roses”. And music from the Masters, as long as it can stir the heart, is a very sweet smelling rose indeed.

Due to the passage of time, it is too late for me to personally thank Mr. Geoffroy; but I would like his family to know that he helped students, not yet adults, accomplish something beyond their wildest expectations. In my mind, that is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned teacher.

In the following video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It is in the quiet passages mid-way through that my memories are the strongest. It was there that the clarinets and flutes carried the music with full authority.

 

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kenneth-geoffrey-fixedFrom the South Bend Alumni Association Hall of Fame Archives

Kenneth Geoffroy was instrumental in creating the South Bend Youth Symphony and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. As a skilled trombonist, Mr. Geoffroy played with the South Bend Symphony and the Midwest Pops. He also was a member of the music faculty at Indiana University South Bend, president of the Indiana Music Educator’s Association, conductor of the Southhold Symphonic Wind Band, and coordinator of fine arts for the South Bend Community School Corporation from 1967 to 1982. Mr. Geoffroy first proposed the idea of a summer musical festival to be held at St. Patrick’s Park, the foundation for the renowned Firefly Festival. (1981)

 

A Novel – A Song Just Waiting to Bust Out

SAM_0557One of the most memorable quotes I’ve heard from a child came from his experience listening to classical music. I don’t remember who said it (Google comes up empty-handed), but I’ve never forgotten it.

“A symphony is music with a song waiting to bust out any minute.”

Those words were the child’s response to listening to a symphonic piece. The little listener kept expecting to hear a song, but no sooner did the musicians seem to be closing in on a melody, than the music changed and darted off down another musical path. I suspect that was a little frustrating to the kid; but at least it kept him listening, expectantly.

Being a musician, I can fully appreciate the correctness of his innocent comment.

Classical music is technical; in fact, highly so. Orchestration is a wonderment to those of us who aren’t both talented and trained in the art. The printed lines for a solo instrument, like the clarinet I file0001662840435play, are defined by strict mathematical relationships between frequencies of sound. If the math is not precise, then the sound will not be precise and melodic. That is to say, the sound will not be music, but rather noise.

I consider myself a technical person. As a scientist, I understand the technical rigor and precision which is required for composing and orchestration, but also for scientific and engineering calculations and publications. Indeed, I’ve spent decades writing technical papers, many with a fair amount of mathematical basis. I kept the creative, the musical side, bottled up, because it’s not publishable. Technical publications are, well, technical. They are neither pretty nor tuneful.

But as I mingle vicariously with other technical writers, I find that some of them also have a pent-up desire for creative writing. With a somewhat guilty feeling, they have actually penned very good, non-technical prose. And even a few poems.

Now that I, a scientist, have released my first novel, Middle Waters, hugely imaginative compared to my day-to-day paid technical writing, I feel I have birthed a bastard child.

Oh, but how I love that child.

Now let the song begin…

 

What Is That Music?

The mark of great music is that you will always remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it.

In early 1977 I was a young First Lieutenant in the Army, training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. I had flown up there to attend 3-months of Active Duty for Training. It was winter, but on one weekend when the weather promised to be beautiful, several of us piled into a car and headed South to Washington, DC. None of us had been to DC before, so the trip was one of discovery and high expectations. Smithsonian_Air_and_Space_Museum

For a space and aviation enthusiast like myself, the long-anticipated highlight of the trip was the chance to see the newly opened Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and to see my first Imax movie, which happened to be “To Fly”.

In the dim light of the large sloping theater, we waited for the movie to begin. Meanwhile, music was softly playing.

You know how when you’re at a restaurant or bar and someone is playing, you’re not necessarily aware of the music per se. It’s just part of the ambiance, the background. But as that music began, it started with deep strings, rhythmically, methodically stroking through the music.

Deep bass notes have always thrilled me. I am a player of clarinets, which have no bass properties to speak of, so perhaps it is the novelty of bass that so captures my imagination. And so it had slowly begun to work on me, that anonymous music.

It was clearly classical, most likely some well orchestrated version of what must have originally been chamber music. As I listened ever more attentively, the music built on itself  and added complexity which maintained and then grew my interest. I had never heard it before, and neither had my friends, but I began questioning myself, “What is this music?”

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Excerpt in the key of D

After over four minutes, when you would think the pace and melody would be becoming somewhat worn, the composer threw in some accidentals, which frankly shocked me, as they must have the music’s first listeners. There was a string of four eighth notes, and one of them sounded flat, while its pairing just two notes away was not. What is this, I thought? And then in the next measure it was repeated, so it certainly wasn’t a mistake. It was an intentional musical device, and one that I loved for its novelty.

It was as if the composer had been holding back for that subtle surprise until near the end of the piece. Just as you thought you knew what to expect, something new appeared in the melody.

Strangely, I left that theater thinking as much about that mysterious theatrical prelude as about the movie. And for an aviation enthusiast, that’s saying a lot.

Before long, I began to hear that piece elsewhere, and with increasing frequency. In fact, the music enjoyed a burst of popularity starting in the early 1970s, the same period when I first heard it.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It is now so well known that it has its own web site. The following video featuring Canon in D was compiled by “diemauerdk”.

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According to the Internet, Canon in D first became available to the masses through a 1970 recording, reportedly by the French musician Jean-Francois Paillard. Oddly, even though it was written in about 1680, it was not published until 1919. I have no doubt that its rise in popularity was due in no small part to the large audiences exposed in the iMax theater at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The fact that it was the main theme of the 1980 popular movie, Ordinary People, only helped to propel it to mainstream consciousness.

On viewing the piano sheet music it’s easy to spot where the usual C#  F# structure of the key of D is flatted to produce an appealing effect. The four notes of note, if you will, are D Cnatural B C#. To an ear accustomed to hearing C# throughout most of the piece, a Cnatural sounds flat; but in a delightfully unexpected way.

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I consider myself lucky to be one of the first Americans to hear what was to me new music, and to appreciate that it was a very special work indeed. However, I must wonder; three hundred years from now, do you think any works from present day artists will be “discovered”, and enjoy an almost universal popularity?

 

 

The Aesthetics of Flying in Clouds

When it comes to vocations and avocations, I know of none more aesthetically pleasing than flying and diving. I’m sure there are many others, but I simply don’t know them.

My vocation is diving, and flying is my avocation. I also know commercial pilots who dive in caves simply for the joy of diving. Those two activities, flying and diving, are fairly similar, as I’ve noted before.

There are experiences in flying and diving that make them more than enjoyable. They are actually breathtaking, when one takes the time to appreciate them.

For me, the breath taking part is flying into and out of clouds; what is called instrument flying. It’s called that because when you’re in clouds you can’t see the horizon, and you can’t trust bodily sensations, so you are entirely dependent upon your aircraft instruments to make sure you, your passengers, and the aircraft, do not come to harm.

Granted, there are times during an instrument flight when you see absolutely nothing outside the aircraft. Some have compared it to flying inside a milk bottle, which is in my opinion an apt analogy. If it happens to be smooth flight, then there is no sensation of flight at all. The electronic equipment counts down the miles, but as far as you can tell you are in aerial limbo, seemingly suspended in time and space, encroaching on the edges of the twilight zone. 

But when you eventually break out of those clouds, you instantaneously switch from sensory deprivation to sensory overload. The view can be spectacular. 

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When I was an instrument student, long before GPS navigation, instrument flying was hard work, especially when training. It still is in many ways, but technology has made flight in the clouds more precise, and frankly easier over all than it used to be.

But in the clouds a pilot is still too busy “aviating, navigating, and communicating”, to catch more than a brief glance outside, to enjoy the ever shifting textures of white clouds, blue sky and a multitude of grays in between. Occasionally you spy greens and browns of the ground, seen fleetingly through breaks in the cloud cover.

It is a grand theater in the sky not visible from the ground. For that reason, it is special, and to be seen in that moment and that place by no one else in the world except you and your passengers.

The video below gives a sample of such variable flows of scenery, with visibility ranging from zero to miles. The entire flight looped around my home airport in Panama City, FL, as I was radar vectored along a large rectangle, eventually joining a course bringing the aircraft back to a straight-in approach for landing.

This particular flight was a currentcy flight, so the departure and approach to landing was repeated several times. The video, however, ends just after I set up the navigation devices for the next approach. (I suggest you watch the video full screen at the highest resolution possible – 1440p HD.)

The only way I can hope to describe the beauty of such a flight is through the music which accompanies it. The quietness, the excitement, is all there. And from one who has experienced all those emotions during the flight, I can attest to the relevance of that music.

 

 

 

 

 

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The birth of our first child was a moving experience. Sometimes I forget just how moving it was until I hear a song my wife and I used to sing to our infant son.

He’s grownup now, with a child who will soon herself be grown up. So much has happened in our lives and my children’s lives that it is easy to forget how young parents feel about the creation of life. But something as simple as a song can bring it back, almost as powerfully as if we were reliving it anew.

In college I picked up the guitar and probably spent more time playing it than I should have. But it was an exciting time to learn guitar music, thanks to the popularity and talent of folk singing groups like Peter, Paul and Mary. I bought and played as much of their music as I could, and well remember a live concert in Atlanta, Georgia. I was enthralled.

As it turned out, my guitar playing helped attract the attention of the girl who eventually became my wife. When our son was born, and we first laid eyes upon that child, that song, The First Time, seemed so appropriate. In fact, for us, it still does.

I’ve never heard it played for an infant, or a young child, but it is entirely fitting with the exception of one word. (We sang, “Kissed your face” instead of “kissed your mouth”).

By the time our son was born, there were two popular versions, the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the Scottish original, and the fabulous Roberta Flack version. Both of those versions are made available here.

If you have a baby on the way, or a young child at home, listen to the lyrics and the melody and see if you don’t agree with us that this music evokes an emotion difficult to express in any other way.

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If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …

How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords

I’ve suffered from chord envy for years.

No, I’m not talking about the chord of aircraft wings and some etymological, coincidental semblance to musical chords.

No, the problem is much more serious.

You see, I’m a woodwind player, a clarinetist to be exact, and like brass players, I can’t play chords.

A chord is a musical element with more than one note played at a time. In fact, my most loved musical elements are chords. They can be beautiful, or powerful, but I can’t play them.

Music for Bb clarinet.

With my instrument, I’m stuck with playing one note at a time. And due to years of training to do that one function well, my brain will not allow me to diversify. I can only read and interpret one note at a time. If I was to write a simple chord for woodwinds, I’d have to hire three musicians to play it. But give a chord to a pianist, or guitarist, and they’re quite at home. 

I can in fact play a wide variety of chords on a piano, organ, or guitar, and I have often done just that. And of course I can read the keyboard notes. I just can’t read them and play at the same time. My brain’s not wired to do that.

Music for pipe organ

I’ve watched my wife play organ chords on the treble cleft, bass cleft, and pedals. That is, both hands and feet are playing, at the same time!

How does she do that?

If I’d started playing piano at the same time I’d started playing the clarinet, 3rd grade, I’d have no problem. My brain would have wired itself to, as we are fond of saying, multitask. I suppose if I’d started reading two or three books at the same time, in my early childhood, I could do that now. But I didn’t, and so I can’t.

So you see where the chord envy comes from?

But the other day I had an epiphany. Right out of high school I started flying very simple aircraft; a Piper 140 and a Cessna 150. In some sense they’re like the clarinet. But a long time ago I transitioned to so-called complex aircraft; Bonanza’s, Mooney’s and my beloved Arrows. They’re sort of like pianos, in complexity.

And then came the instrument rating – complexity added to complexity, and with it, a heavy responsibility. The combination of complex aircraft and instrument rating is in some ways like an organ – lots of button, pedal and key pushing, all at the right time, and in harmony with the air traffic control system.

An aircraft instrument trainee (gee, there’s another musical parallel) works hard to develop a scan of the instruments to maintain situational awareness and control the aircraft without outside visual reference. It’s tough in the beginning.

But now, with experience, I don’t even think of a scan. I simply take in the entire panel, with all its separate instruments and subconsciously perform the required control inputs to keep the aircraft headed in the correct direction, right-side up.

My epiphany is, that is exactly what a keyboardist does when they are playing six or more notes at the same time. I can’t play musical chords, but my brain has wired itself with repetitive practice to do essentially the same thing with my aircraft.

So now, when I push in the throttle and start the takeoff roll in my Arrow, it’s like the beginning of  the Fan Fare for Also Sprach Zarathustra. The engine powers up from idle (middle C, 261 Hz, C4) to higher RPM’s (G4, 392 Hz) and then full power (C5, 523 Hz). And as my bird lifts into the sky, that famous two chord sequence strikes at an even higher pitch (C major and a sixteenth note later, C minor.)

[Want to know how the frequencies of those notes roughly relate to engine RPM? Multiply by 4.]

As the chord begins dying away I’m simultaneously pulling up the gear, turning as directed, watching the engine instruments, and heading off into the skies with the reassuring droning note of the engine vibrating through our bodies. It’s that same note that reprises the quiet beginning of Strauss’s ASZ.

I can do it! No more chord envy.

As you already know, the same principle, complexity mastered through training, applies to any complex endeavor where situational awareness is vital, be it soccer field or battlefield.

[Update, I don’t know that musicians necessarily make better pilots, or vice versa, but at least they have their own association (Flying Musicians Association) and web site: http://flyingmusicians.org/]

Tex Ritter and Recovered Songs of Youth

It was a day of contrasts when I discovered that my vinyl 45 rpm records saved since my childhood were inexplicably lost. Imagine my joy, however, when a few hours later I discovered that the much beloved songs of that era were available for downloading from the internet!

I’m dating myself of course, but songs from Tex Ritter, the singing cowboy, were the ones which meant the most to me; songs like Red Rooster, Froggy Goes Courtin, the Theme from High Noon.

And of course, worthy of enduring admiration were songs my mother used to sing to me when I was little; like the somewhat zany 1944 hit, MaresEatOats. And songs my older brother would play, like the unforgettable mystery song, The Thing. I downloaded as many of the free, and legal, mp3s as I could find from one or two sources. The source for all of the Tex Ritter songs was http://www.kiddierecords.com/, a music recovery project that is well deserving of donations.

I started thinking about songs like MaresEatOats and Red Rooster when I found myself spending more and more time entertaining a 3 and a half-year old. What better way to entertain her than singing and playing songs that meant so much to me as a child?

Magically, as if time knew no boundary, the preschooler responded to those songs just as I had many decades before. What a thrill it was to share that simple but engaging music, and to watch her bouncing with seemingly endless enthusiasm in perfect synchrony with the beat.

One of the oddest songs written and sung by Tex Ritter is Blood on the Saddle. Although the title and words sound ghoulish, the fact that it is featured on the animatronics show, Country Bear Jamboree at Disney’s Magic Kingdom Theme Park near Orlando, FL clearly illustrates that it is comical and child-like.

Country Bear Jamboree, Magic Kingdom

Here, for your benefit, is a link to Tex Ritter’s recording of  Blood On the Saddle.

I won’t be playing this one for little preschooler; the tempo is way too slow to keep her entertained. And besides, how would I explain a song about “blood all around” to a three-year old?

Only Classical on Sunday

Music Appreciation classes notwithstanding, I sense that the best way to become absorbed in music is to sit in the middle of it, in an orchestra or choir, and to be part of the organic music-making machine. Although I am not from a strongly musical family, my mother was a dancer and dance instructor, and we owned one of those cool Hammond Drawbar organs, on which I learned basic chord structure. Mom and Dad bought me a clarinet in 4th grade, letting me graduate to a beautiful LeBlanc clarinet by the time I was in high school. It is still, many years later, one of my greatest treasures.

In college I usually traded the clarinet for a guitar, which was a more sociable instrument for the college crowd.

Sadly, I let my musical skills atrophy somewhat with age, but that instrumental passion has been replaced by a broader love of good music, and an imperative to pass that love on to my children and grandchildren.

My wife is a keyboardist, and we have owned two pianos and two organs, with our living room currently filled by a Yamaha Grand piano. Our family room is, I shouldn’t say filled, exactly, but accented by a “Baby” Grand, to wit a pink Barbie Grand just the right size for a 2-3 year old toddler/preschooler.

Although I am not a music professional, I started training my children with a simple rule. You guessed it, “Only classical music on Sunday.” We could rock our hearts out six days of the week, but Sunday was for God, and classical music.

I guess that simple rule paid off: my son sings and plays the guitar, and was the leader of a darned good band in high school and college. He married a violinist and pianist, and they own a piano that his 10-year-old daughter plays superbly. She is far more accomplished than I was at her age.

Our daughter recently retired her electronic key board “with piano-like action”, and bought a real piano, with far-better feel to it. She plays our  Grand with a skill and beauty that is mesmerizing.

Now, this is where the fun begins: the musical education of a 3-year old, my daughter’s daughter.

So, where to start?

I began with an animated version of Peter and the Wolf, starring Kirstie Allie and my Sea Hunt diving hero, Lloyd Bridges. While the animation captures the attention of our preschooler, she cannot help but be affected by the Sergei Prokofiev score. Of course, I point out to her which instruments are portraying which characters, with my favorite being, no surprise, the clarinet – aka the cat!

It helps that the little one sits in my lap so I’m free to cuddle her, and ooh and awe over the beauty of the music, and when suitably inspired, conduct the orchestra, as if it needed my conducting. At any rate, she gets reinforcement that the music is special – not just the animation.

Now for diversity. The next music I started playing was found in Fantasia, both the original version that I loved as a child, and the 2000 version which I’ve only recently seen. They are both spectacular on a hi-res computer monitor – and I don’t even have Blu Ray.

What prompted me to write this blog is the stunning compatibility between the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers, and the Disney animators who put Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” to music. This combination must send this 3-year old into sensory overload. At least it has that effect on me.

Just as I was immersed in music during my formative years, Little Preschooler is close to the screen, surrounded by the music, and getting positive reinforcement from Granddaddy. Isn’t that how you teach music to children?

Let me share with you Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Remember, the actual DVD is far better quality.

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– John