Monday, 26 April 2010


But now they're called animations of course. And a friend of mine, Matt Reeve, recently asked me to write the music for one he was making to enter into a competition. The competition was organised by a company called Aniboom and called for a Sesame Street style animation.

We opted for a counting song and Matt managed two sequences to go with the same piece of music. One is called Ten Divers and the other is called Ten Cannonistas.

Clicking on either link takes you to the page where you can view that animation. If you can be bothered to vote then please do. It may help us to win, or at least remain in the top 100. Voting is a bit of a faff - you have to register - but it's election year (in the UK anyway) and you'll be glad of the practice.

I found writing a counting song surprisingly difficult, although once I got the hang of it they just kept coming. The problem was that songs move in multiples of 2, 4, 8 etc. whereas we tend to count in tens. I could have written a song that stopped at eight but, in all my years of watching pre-school TV, I didn't see any that didn't make it to ten. And somehow I don't think a composition in 5/4 would cut it with the under fives.

Well, actually I think under fives might go for a counting song in 5/4 but the judges, presumably adults, might disagree. Anyway, I'd love to know what you think of both the song and the sequences.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Soundtrack to Your Life

8.45 am, the local health centre. I am still in shock at having got an appointment for the same morning I made the call and don't feel fully awake. I prefer a gentle start to the day, however early I have to set my alarm to get it, along with a second cup of tea. Some time after 9 o'clock I realise the waiting room has pop music playing. It's been a while since I've seen a doctor and this surprises me. I am used to noise in libraries nowadays, although they haven't started playing music yet, but a disco beat in a medical facility is a new one on me.

The DJ tells me I am listening to Heart FM. I've heard of this station - it isn't just for hospitals - but am not a regular listener. She (or he? are there two of them?) is playing some kind of 'guess the year' game with the audience of which I am now a member. "The soundtrack to your life," she tells me in that happy pop-radio voice. I wonder why they still do this when the answer is only a click of the mouse away. I look around at the others waiting to be seen by the doctor. The receptionist apart, there doesn't appear to be anyone here under fifty and no one is visibly enjoying the disco beat, even if it comes from some time in the early 1980s. I like the music of Sting well enough but 'Every Breath You Take' sounds singularly inappropriate in the present circumstances. If I didn't know better I would think the DJ was taking the micky. I can't have been the only one in the room who just wanted some head space.

Now it's the Eurhythmics and Annie Lennox singing 'Sweet dreams are made of this'. The thick synth bass is almost too much. I usually hate listening to inane presenters waffle endlessly between tracks but the speculation of her listeners as to whether the year is 1982 or 1983 comes as a relief. Spandau Ballet arrive a little later with 'True' (have you guessed the year yet?). It's an anodyne song but at least it's only a dance number if you're feeling smoochy.

Finally, at 9.40am (God bless the NHS) I get to see a doctor. I must have missed the part where the year is revealed. That must have been while I was trying to drown out the din by playing arpeggios in my head. As I leave the building five minutes later the couple in their 80s, who have been waiting almost as long as me, still appear baffled by the benefits of technology as implemented by well meaning managers busily paving the road to Hell with their good intentions. Perhaps the manager who came up with this particular idea should come and attempt an early morning sing-song going. 'Roll Out the Barrel' or 'Bohemian Rhapsody' perhaps? Maybe they could try a line-dancing session and gauge the response.

The Eurhythmics may have formed part of the soundtrack to my life but then so has silence. Even in my early twenties, when feeling the worse for wear in the morning I know which I preferred. Nothing in the intervening years has made me change my mind. I happen to know that, as well as Heart FM, there is an entire genre of 'healing sounds' available on CD but silence is so much cheaper and far less likely to irritate. Please let silence be, if not the soundtrack to my whole life, at least the soundtrack to my doctor's waiting room.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Ocean Drum

I have blogged before on ocean drums, effusively singing their praises. My opinion hasn't changed. This is an instrument with a real wow factor. My earlier post gives you some background information along with my thoughts on the pictorial-versus-plain argument. (Personally I find the illustrations, along with the name of the instrument, too leading. Children are quite capable of deciding for themselves what a given sound suggests. Feeding them ideas before they have a chance to develop their own does nothing to foster their originality or listening skills.)

In the earlier post I mentioned the calming effect of the drum on over-excited children and on those with a short attention span. I repeat that now because I continue to find it a very useful feature.

I have seen these drums on the internet for under £10 (pounds sterling) for a 10" (25cm) model. I don't know what the quality is like but the picture doesn't fill me with confidence - the only good thing about poor quality items is that they tend not to last very long. And I would be inclined to go bigger. Remo make excellent, physically robust, ocean drums of 12", 16" and 22" diameters. If I were buying for a school I would go for the 16" size: small enough to be manageable but big enough to get the impact of all the ball bearings rolling around inside like waves on the beach. My own drum is a 22" example, without the kitsch illustrations. The main problems with a 22" drum are cost and storage: if you can't keep it somewhere safe between use you risk throwing away a lot of money. But it is truly awesome and doubles as a prop in drama situations.

Playing techniques: The usual thing to do is hold the drum horizontally and tilt it so that the ball bearings roll around inside making the characteristic 'waves on the beach' sound. A very dramatic and thunderous effect can be created by holding the instrument firmly in front of, and parallel to, the chest and shaking it vigorously back and forth. This causes the ball bearings to beat with force against both heads of the drum.

A more serene activity is to have one person lie on the ground and two others hold the ocean drum, clear skin down, a few inches above their supine colleague's head. The effect is like lying just below the surface of the water, watching bubbles and foam on the surface. Very calming, it is particularly impressive with the 22" drum. Sadly, I once left my own drum for some time in a cold attic with, unknown to me at the time, a leaky roof. The ball bearings rusted so now my ocean resembles the North Sea rather than the Mediterranean. Store yours in a dry, reasonably ventilated place at room temperature.

The video below shows the drum played very expressively. It can also be played as a conventional hand drum or with a soft-headed beater, often supplied with the instrument and pictured above. The sound is reminiscent of a snare drum.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Beneath thy Guiding Hand

There is nothing like doing something different. I have worked for the Girl Guides before remastering material, originally recorded on mini-disc for cassette duplication, to make it suitable for release on CD. But on Sunday I found myself recording them live for the first time in order to make their fifth CD release.

There were some thirty adult Guides, many of whom learnt their craft in the 1940s, in a room with a couple of guitars, a keyboard, a pair of bongos, some recorders and a set of hand chimes. The Guides had spent the previous day practising and we managed to record most of the fifty-two songs in one take. We started at 9 am and had finished by 4.30 pm. The live room, effectively a lounge, was so packed with performers that any hope of separating instruments was abandoned at the outset. I put a stereo mic by the conductor (who, herself, was jammed up against the fireplace) in the hope that if it sounded good to her it would sound equally good on the recording. I had another mono mic, my faithful Neumann, that I used to favour anything I thought might need a boost later: the bongos, spoken parts and the like. Half the kit I bought turned out to be unnecessary but with Be Prepared as my motto for the day I felt reassured by its presence.

Hautbois (pronounced Hobbiss) House
is a former vicarage that was given to the Girlguiding Anglia by two sisters who were active in the movement. Its 30 acres of land host all sorts of outdoor activities although I dare say you could still find someone to teach you how to fold a napkin if you looked hard enough. The pictures show some water-based challenges being undertaken - training, in fact, for future instructors, along with the abseiling tower. I have also seen archery targets on previous visits and they have a fair number of canoes. I am sure I am just scratching the surface of all the things on offer.

The songs include secular and religious material and will be accompanied by a booklet to enable leaders to teach the songs to young Brownies and Rainbows. In all honesty it is not the kind of music I would usually choose to listen to but I did find it surprisingly uplifting. A lot of the subject matter was very lighthearted ("Banana's of the World unite..." and "Earwig O") and most of it was sung in a major key. And although I am not especially religious myself it was hard not to smile at lines like "Ho, Ho, Ho, Hosanna..." and "He, He, He, He loves me..." If you like happy clappy then these are the folk you need around your campfire. Whether I'll still be smiling on day four of playing with levels and putting it all together ready for duplication remains to be seen.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Jawbone or Vibraslap

In the popular imagination at least, the jawbone is part of any self-respecting shaman's tool-kit. Children are always fascinated when I tell them about the animal origins of sound I am making with my factory-produced vibraslap: the skeleton picked clean by crows or vultures and the teeth loose in the jaw.

The modern instrument was invented by Martin Cohen. Metal pins replace the teeth and a wooden box, open at one end, functions as both jaw-bone and resonating chamber. The pins strike the walls of the box to produce the sound. Actual bones are prone to breaking but this is a much stronger instrument. The really clever thing, however, was the attachment of this box to a piece of sprung steel with a wooden ball at the other end. Striking the ball makes the steel vibrate and the 'teeth' chatter, hence the alternative name of chatterbox. The sprung steel saves developing the wrist technique that would otherwise be necessary to produce the characteristic rattlesnake sound.

No doubt the sound of the jawbone would have sent shivers down the spines of our shaman's audience and it can still provide a useful, tension-inducing sound effect for film and stage. It has also become a common rhythmic ingredient in both Latin and popular music where it functions more like a guiro (scraper).

Playing technique. The best result is obtained by holding the instrument ball up by the ergonomic bend in the steel rod. Harden the palm of your other hand by by splaying the fingers and strike the wooden ball. Bouncing the ball off other surfaces is a possible alternative but may result in too much force being applied, doing nothing to improve the sound but rising injury to the vibraslap. Striking the box produces a different, some would say inferior, sound and is also likely to reduce the life expectancy of your instrument.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Triangle

Whereas there are kids who will insist, on catching a glimpse of my dulcimer, that I have brought along a guitar there is no mistaking the triangle. And while 'kokiriko' is a name that is rarely remembered, 'triangle' is never forgotten.

Triangles have been used in European orchestral music since the 18th century. Like any instrument it is difficult to play well, in spite of its simple appearance. It is now used in popular music, too, and is very much a part of the Latin percussion collection. Good quality instruments are made of carbon steel but school instruments tend to be made of stainless steel. Probably the finest triangle I have ever come across was made of hammered brass. It was at one of Michael Deason Barrow's Tonalis workshops and was just one of a truly wonderful collection of instruments.

In orchestral situations tone is everything and the triangle must be suspended by a piece of string to prevent damping. To stop the instrument from spinning when hit with the beater, this piece of string needs to be an inch or so long (2.4cm). Tying a short length of string between the handles of a large bulldog clip will provide a secure mounting for the triangle as well as a way of holding the instrument. The clip can be held in the hand or attached to a stand. A metal beater is used to strike the side opposite the open corner.

The application in Latin music is much more rhythmic, the tone being secondary. A larger triangle is used and it is suspended over the index finger of the hand you don't write with. This hand is used to allow or damp the sound as required by the rhythm being played by the other hand. Damping is achieved by simply gripping the instrument with the rest of the holding hand; this has the effect of stopping the metal from vibrating.

Children are frequently underwhelmed when presented with instrument, looking wistfully at whatever has been given to their peers on either side. However, a quick demonstration of the damping technique will give them something to think about. They should master Pattern A without too much trouble. If you really want to impress them, master Pattern B and play it at speed. My own triangle seems to have been confused with a school collection so, for the time being at least, you must make do with the dots. When I either reclaim or replace the missing instrument I will post an audio demo.

As it is not a great expense you might like to buy a variety of sizes. An 8" instrument will cost you less than than £5 (pounds sterling) and a 4" less than £3.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The dulcimer

This steel-strung dulcimer has to be one of the most popular instruments I have ever taken into a school. It's a sure-fire hit with both children and teachers. It can be sourced from Hawkins Bazaar in the UK where they give it the less than specific name of 'music maker'. Mine says it is a zitabo and was made in China. I notice the new ones are called cymbalas and appear to come from Russia. The build specifications of the new model appear to be identical to those of my own and the writing on the box assures me that it meets European Union and American safety standards.

It really does have a beautiful sound. It is also fairly robust and the plywood sound box is unlikely to get broken. I have had two strings broken in two years of taking it to sessions. On each occasion it was when a child tried to extract too much volume. I no longer include it in the 'let's all explore the instruments at once' sessions that I still, against my better judgement, find myself involved in from time to time. Fortunately it comes with two spare strings. After that I am confident that guitar strings could be pressed into service.

Along with the spare strings, there are two plectrums (or plectra if you prefer), some rubber feet and, most importantly, a tuning key. I have never stuck on the rubber feet and this means I can teach the children about the damping or enhancing effects of playing the instrument on different surfaces. The tuning fork allows the instrument to be tuned to suit the occasion. Mine is tuned to E Major but many other scales suit it very well. I particularly like a pentatonic scale that, in Norfolk at least, passes for Japanese. This goes EFABCE.

Actually, the tuning on mine is wayward having just had two strings replaced as well as a hammering from various workshops. Tuning is a challenge as a very slight tweak with the key will make a great difference to the pitch. The new strings, one of which broke unexpectedly, keep slipping but this is probably to be expected. All the guitarists I know suffer from this problem when they change their strings. But it has a wonderful tone and natural reverb and it is these that make it a winner.

Finally there is some sheet music, written like none other I have ever seen, and some tuning tips and re-stringing instructions.

At just under £20 (pounds sterling) it is exceptionally good value. I have no idea what sort of working conditions are enjoyed by the people who make these instruments but console myself with the knowledge that they must be better off than the poor folk working in the firework factory down the street.

&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_4">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">href</span>="">Dulcimer demo by The Miracle Men&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_6">lt</span>;/a>

Thursday, 1 April 2010

April's free music game

This month's featured free music game is called Duets. It's a good way introducing a collection instruments to a large group in a short space of time. It works even better with a smaller group and a longer time frame but the point is that it does work with a large group. And it works well. I have found it a very useful ingredient when running taster sessions.