Monday, September 22, 2014

Shake It

I found this article from the most insightful one I have read about teaching fidgety students.  She gives a printable chore list here.

Balanced and bare foot writes about kids' need to move.

Here is some great sensory, active play ideas!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

So You Want to Make a Record Part 2: Recording

The single biggest barrier young bands face to making a record is money.  Studio time is expensive, period.  In Ames, the cheapest you will find is $15/hr. but that is exceptionally low.  Rates from $50 to $100/hr. are not unusual.  And time in the studio absolutely flies.  Unless you are very well prepared you will struggle to get enough takes to produce a satisfying result.  And don't forget that tracking is just the first step.  The studio will also charge you for editing and mixing.  The minimum time needed for an experienced audio engineer to edit and mix a typical four-piece track is ten hours.  If you are doing it yourself double or triple that.  Unless your record is incredibly successful you won't sell enough copies to cover the studio cost.

The single most important goal in the recording process is to capture good performances.  Without good performances, you won't be happy with the track.  That's why I encourage young bands to build a simple studio themselves rather than pay for pricey studio time.  You will have to compromise on the sound quality and production but being able to keep going until you get it right is priceless.

AT2020 USB mic
Technology has made semi-professional sounding recordings possible on a very reasonable budget.  If you have a computer with at least 2 GB of RAM you won't need to buy another box for recording.  If you can afford it, buy ProTools, it's the industry standard.  If you can't, download Reaper for free, I highly recommend it (thank you, Caleb Kuennen!).  Add a click-track to your project and you are ready to begin.

Line6 POD 2.0 Amp Modeler
If you are tracking vocals, you will need to buy/borrow a decent large-diaphragm condensing microphone.  We borrowed (thank you, Paul Mungons!) an Audio Technical AT2020 USB mic that lists for about $150.  Jenny and I were pleased with the fidelity with which it captured our voices.  It was also really quiet.  While tracking vocals in your home office may not be ideal we made it work.  Try to find a room without a lot of natural reverb unless that's what you are going for.  I recorded the electric guitars (a white Charvel and a gorgeous natural-finish Alvarez Dana Scoop) direct from my Line6 POD 2.0 via the USB port.  While I did have some noise issues with this approach, it saved me a lot of time micing amps.  All the guitars needed major EQ work in Reaper to achieve a good tone.  Reaper includes a number of excellent filters that I used as a starting point for EQing drums and vocals as well.

While the tracking phase was long and painstaking, the editing and mixing stage was the most challenging as I didn't have a lot of audio engineering experience prior to making the record.  Despite a number of helpful articles online the learning curve was steep.  I made a number of big mistakes that cost me time, but it was worth it in the end.  The most important thing is to listen.  Listen to each instrument.  Listen to groups of instruments.  Listen to the whole track.  See how the record sounds on a number of different sound systems (headphones, car stereos, etc.) before the release.  Be sure to let your collaborators hear the mix in progress.  Be prepared to compromise.  The record isn't finished until the whole band is happy.

Friday, May 10, 2013

So You Want to Make a Record Part 1: Songwriting

Since I picked up the guitar in high school I've wanted to make record.  This spring I released Sweetness and Sorrow (The Lighthouse Band, 2013, Independent) with three friends:  Renee, my bass player, Harry, my drummer, and Jenny, my co-vocalist.  It took seventeen years to produce a recording in which I could take pride.  Let me give you a little advice that will help your record happen faster.


Songs begin as seeds.  If you hear sounds in your head as I do, start with those.  Maybe you'll find a phrase that seems especially resonant; plant that.  If your band is more organic, start with a really good jam.  But start you must and work from there.  Good songs don't come easily.  "Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language" (John Irving).  Songwriting is even more challenging as you must wrestle with lyrics, melody, and rhythm together.  For this you need good technique.  But great chops and knowledge of music theory are just the raw materials.  You still have to build a house someone would want to live in.  It's not so hard.  Songs are just feelings turned into sound.  Put your emotions through your amplifier and you can't go wrong.

The Anxiety of Influence

Many young musicians are inspired to play by the music they love.  I was no different.  I still remember a friend handing me a tape of songs he thought I might like.  Most were ultimately forgettable.  But there were a couple that fascinated me.  I remember sitting in the dark as the opening chords of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" (U2, Achtung Baby, 1991) washed over me.  I didn't completely understand the lyrics, I was too young.  But I felt more than knew that this was a song about lost love.  There was no turning back.  It's nearly two decades later and I'm chasing my own songs now.

Artists like U2, Phil Keaggy, and Dream Theater have been huge influences.  They are at once sources of inspiration and places I labor to leave behind.  Literary critic Harold Bloom describes this tension as the "anxiety of influence."  It took me years to realize I could make music I liked without being derivative.  The key is to filter your influences through your personality.  Your individuality is the best source of originality.  Let your experiences, strengths, and preferences be your guide.  And don't be afraid to take risks.  Failure is part of creativity.

Balancing Lyrics and Instrumentation

If you are writing lyrics you probably have some notion of what the song is about.  The subject may be relatively concrete, a story about an experience for instance.  Or it may be more abstract and hard to identify.  Either way, you have entered into a process of communication.  However, your words must fit into the structure of the song.  Rhythm, meter, and rhyme constrain the lyrics and affect your ability to communicate the denotative meaning of the song.  Each songwriter has to decide how much clarity he or she is willing to give up in exchange for emotional impact.  Personally, I favor songs with evocative imagery and interesting instrumentation over good storytelling and a clear theme.  From an information theory perspective, the words form a relatively small part of the song.  Recall that a text file containing the lyrics may only be one kilobyte in size where an audio file will typically take up several megabytes.  Most of the "information" is in the sound.

Still, good lyrics can unlock memories, paint pictures, and transport the listener to a new world.  Great songs happen when the lyrics and instrumentation reinforce and enhance each other.  There are great songs that leave a lot of room for interpretation (see Coldplay's Speed of Sound) and tunes with a more obvious narrative (e.g. Singing In My Sleep by Semisonic).  You have to decide how each song will negotiate the dance of lyrics and music.  "The song is king."  So says Jerome Fontamillas of Switchfoot.  I couldn't agree more.  Records are made of songs, not vice versa.  Don't sacrifice the integrity of a song to make it fit into the overall concept of the record.  Ten to fifteen loosely connected but individually cohesive songs will work better than a bunch of shaky tracks related thematically.  (Are you listening my progressive rock pals?)  Concept albums are for experienced musicians with a number of records under their belts.

Before you start tracking, sit down and talk about each song as a band.  Try different arrangements and see how they feel.  Remember, you'll likely be playing these songs live after the record comes out.  Then rehearse as much as you can before a note gets recorded.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Pride Reflex

12 “ How you are fallen from heaven,
      O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
      You who weakened the nations!
13 For you have said in your heart:
      ‘ I will ascend into heaven,
      I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
      I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
      On the farthest sides of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
      I will be like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:12-14).

Pride stands squarely at the center of the world’s spiritual history. Its roots go down deep in the soil of this planet, penetrating the core of our individual beings. It is fundamental to human nature. We cannot understand ourselves until we recognize that poison within us. This evening we will examine the nature of pride. Specifically, we will see how pride:

1) Pollutes relationships

2) Distracts us from legitimate pleasures

3) Causes misery

4) And ends in destruction.

But first, what is pride? How will we know it when we see it? The dictionary definition of pride is: 1. a high or inordinate opinion of one's own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc. 2. An excessively high opinion of oneself; conceit. Pride is simply the exaltation of the self. Pride is me making much of me. It is a way of making myself appear bigger, look better, seem greater than I truly am. Pride is the celebration of the self apart from God.

In the above passage from Isaiah, we observe the workings of pride on the mind of Lucifer. “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God,” he says, and with that the perfection of God’s creation is gone. At the root of the first rebellion is an unwillingness to accept your place in the created order. The creature wishes to usurp the Creator. Satan did not want to submit to the authority of God, and neither do we. What was it that tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? Was it not the promise that “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5)? Adam was tempted by the promise of becoming like God. We are no different. We hope for apotheosis, secretly yearning to drag our throne into the heavens.

Christopher Marlowe understood our instinct to transgress boundaries in the search for knowledge. Marlowe’s play, “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus,” is one of the most under appreciated works of English literature. Faust is a brilliant man who seems to have mastered many disciplines (arete). The story opens with Faust rejecting the limitations of traditional sources of knowledge: "Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion" (SparkNotes, Doctor Faustus). Faust is not satisfied with the knowledge available to unaided Man and turns to black magic (hubris). Listen to Faust himself:

"All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command: emperors and kings

Are but obeyed in their several provinces,

Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;

But his dominion that exceeds in this [sorcery]

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man:

A sound magician is a mighty god" (Marlowe 994).

Faust's thirst of the power of knowledge is so great that he sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for the service of a devil named Mephastophilis for twenty-four years (ate). Mephastophilis reveals the hidden nature of the Universe, but refuses to tell Faust who created the world. Faust travels the world, but instead of using his new found knowledge for the benefit of mankind, is reduced to playing practical jokes (SparkNotes, Doctor Faustus). As the end of the twenty-four years approaches, Faust begins to regret his choice. He begs for deliverance: "O God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul, Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransomed me" (Marlowe, 1022). In the end, a group of devils drag Faust of to hell (nemesis). Here are his chilling last words: "Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer! I'll burn my books-ah, Mephastophilis!" (Marlowe, 1023).

After Adam, we all face Faust’s temptation to overreach (ate). Now sin and death has been loosed on the whole world. It infects every area of life, including our most cherished relationships. I want to pause and examine the way that pride interrupts the spirit of brotherhood that should persist between individuals.

First, pride replaces love with competition (Lewis, The Great Sin). Lewis put it best:

The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive - is competitive by its very nature - while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others (Lewis, The Great Sin).

Pride replaces harmony with invidious comparisons. It offers the “pleasure of being above the rest” (Lewis, The Great Sin). And it is never satisfied. There will always be someone better, and our pride will never let us rest until we have surpassed them, until the whole world lies below us. In the place of the pure, legitimate joy of pursuing excellence for its own sake, pride suggests an endless series of competitions, of enemies to be vanquished. Because there can be only one best.

Pride interrupts our vertical as well as our horizontal relationships. Pride prevents us from knowing God (Lewis, The Great Sin). Again, Lewis:

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that - and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison - you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you (Lewis, The Great Sin).

Pride offers to exchange intimacy with God for your own way. Pride offers you more of you. Why do we choose ourselves? What can we offer ourselves that is so irresistible?

The answer is that at some level we recognize our brokenness. We sense that there is something ugly buried deep inside. We don’t want to look at it. We don’t want to acknowledge the darkness that has taken up residence there. It hurts. It hurts to really see ourselves. It hurts to admit that we are thieves, or liars, or cheats. We don’t want to be gossips, or slanderers, or gluttons. So we hide behind pride. It offers a refuge from our sense that we are fatally flawed. But prideful pleasure is a vapor: you cannot hold it. It is a dish that leaves you hungry as soon as it is past your lips. It is a building that seeks to rip out its own foundation, as Spurgeon knew:

Again, pride is the maddest thing that can exist; it feeds upon its own vitals; it will take away its own life, that with its blood may make a purple for its shoulders: it sappeth, and undermineth its own house that it may build its pinnacles a little higher, and then the whole structure tumbleth down (Spurgeon, Pride and Humility).

It promises pleasure but only drives the needle of despair deeper.

We could talk for hours about the pain that pride has caused throughout our personal histories. Pride introduces corruption into our lives a thousand times a day. Let me give an example from my own life. Last week, I received an email from one of my students. He was struggling to get anything out of my lectures. He felt as though he was teaching himself. Could I perhaps do a few more examples in class?

I must confess, I bristled when I read the email. I hadn’t even really thought about what he was saying, but I felt a powerful urge to strike back. My response was automatic, almost instinctive. How dare he question my methods?

This is an example of what I describe as the pride reflex. It happens immediately when someone suggests we have come up short. It isn’t even rational. The truth is, it is my job to teach the material to the best of my ability. Once I calmed down, I remembered that the only thing that matters is how effective I am at doing that. I decided to eat my pride, and change. The next class period the students worked examples. And guess what? They got a whole lot more out of that lecture. In other words, my student was right and I was wrong. By accepting his feedback, everyone benefited.

Pride hates outcomes like that. It wants to convince us that we’ve got it all figured out. It is there when we refuse to change in order to better love our wives, husbands, children, or friends. It helps us rationalize our choice too hurt each other. It explains away our faults, sooths our bruised egos when we fail. “It’s okay. You’re still better than him!” it consoles. It stands between estranged husbands and wives. It turns friends into enemies. It tries to convince us that words like grace and forgiveness don’t apply to him. It whispers that things will never be the same again. It assures us that we’re worth it, that whatever we just have to have today is worth it. Worth letting nothing and nobody get in our way. Pride tells us that we can have it all.

Where does pride end? It ends here, in Job chapter 20.

4 “Do you not know this of old,
      Since man was placed on earth,

5 That the triumphing of the wicked is short,
      And the joy of the hypocrite is but for a moment?

6 Though his haughtiness mounts up to the heavens,
      And his head reaches to the clouds,

7 Yet he will perish forever like his own refuse;
      Those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’

8 He will fly away like a dream, and not be found;
      Yes, he will be chased away like a vision of the night.

Let me encourage you with this thought: it doesn’t have to be that way. I want us to imagine for the moment a world where people have unlearned the pride reflex. The Scripture promises, “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honor is humility” (Proverbs 18:12). God who made me tells me that humility will earn his praise! I admit that I long to feel the honor that only God can bestow. If the praise of man is so seductive, how much more potent must be the approbation of God Himself? Recall the luminous lyric, “You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). The glorious truth is that you are not a robot or a helpless piece of foam afloat on the moral ocean. You have a choice. You can pursue the pure, satisfying, everlasting joy that is the presence of almighty God. “But Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:14). Such is the kingdom of heaven – what does that mean? In this little vignette Jesus communicates something that is beyond earthly understanding. It has to be experienced to be understood. He is trying to show us a small part of what it means to truly be with Him. He says to each of us, “Child, come to me.” And He waits for us with open arms. In the arms of the Savior we find the peace that prideful pleasure could never provide. Suddenly, the chains of guilt and self-loathing fall away and you see Him. In the hands of God we find acceptance conditioned on nothing, meaning relative to no one.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Symbolism and Meaning in Mythology

I finally got around to posting my Mythology paper.  Here is the introduction:

MAN BREATHES IN THE WORLD, and breathes out myth. His voice carries over the emerald Aegean, rises from rippling Dakota plains, echoes in Norwegian fjords - a great chant of spoken dreams. What do we learn by listening? Myths are stories, and as such, are a way of crossing boundaries. In one sense, they form a bridge between the Self and the Other. In myth, the primeval and the transcendent are united in a mystical Something spanning the gulf separating the possible from the impossible. Nature becomes a vehicle for Supernature. Historically, the supernatural elements in mythology have been seen as a way for primitive peoples to explain nature. They function as an early form of science. Note how the Native Americans of Wyoming used such a myth to explain their environment.

The Kiowa story has it that eight children were playing in the woods, and there were seven sisters and their brother. The boy is pretending to be a bear and he's chasing his sisters, who are pretending to be afraid, and they're running. And a terrible thing happens in the course of the game. The boy actually turns into a bear. And when the sisters see this, they are truly terrified and they run for their lives, the bear after them. They pass the stump of a tree, and the tree speaks to them and says, "If you will climb up on me I will save you."

So the little girls scamper on top of the tree stump. And as they do so, it begins to rise into the air. The bear comes to kill them but they're beyond its reach. And it rears up and scores the bark all around with its claws. The story ends, the girls are borne into the sky and they become the stars of the Big Dipper. It's a wonderful story because it accounts for the rock, Devils Tower, this monolith that rises nearly a thousand feet into the air, and it also relates man to the stars.

Read the whole paper here:  Mythology paper full text

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mythology posts

As some of you know, I've been taking a Mythology course at DMACC this fall. A large fraction of the course is dedicated to online discussion questions. My responses to date have been posted. I've also reproduced a summary of each myth to facilitate discussion. Let me know what you think!

Medea II: Marry Medea?

Regarding Medea: If you are female, would you marry Jason? Why or why not? If you are a male, would you marry Medea? Why or why not? Cite specifics from the text to support your response but then offer the reader your gut feeling about either Jason or Medea. Your gut feeling does not need to be substantiated.

Medea is such a rich, complex character. If Euripides was interested in psychological realism, he certainly succeeds with conflicted, magical, magnificent Medea. Is she wife material, however? I have been married for seven years now, so I have a real flesh-and-blood woman as a point of reference.

In my view, character is everything when considering with whom to spend your life. Medea exhibits strengths and weaknesses on this point. Her fierce loyalty to Jason is on display throughout "Jason and the Golden Fleece" and "Medea." She is willing to leave her home in Colchis to become "a stranger in a strange land" in Hellas (197). All she asks is that Jason give her his word that he will remember her help in capturing the Golden Fleece (197). When Aeetes threatens the Argo, Medea is willing to sacrifice her own brother to save Jason: "For we must push little Apsyrtus into the grasping hands of Thanatos!" (216). Endlessly resourceful, Medea disguises herself as a priest of Artemis in order to help Jason remove Pelias from the throne of Iolcus (221).

Medea asks for only one thing from Jason in exchange for all of this: faithfulness. This is, of course, too much to ask for the supremely fickle Jason. When Jason breaks his wedding vow to marry Glauce, he unleashes the darker side of Medea's character (227). Suddenly, Medea's love turns to hate. She cannot bear to be mocked: "For I cannot let Jason abuse me! Or he will laugh at me ... And wherever I walk upon Mother Gaea, I will hear it mock me." (237). Medea then turns all her considerable creativity and power towards making Jason suffer. First, she murders Glauce and King Creon (239). Then, to leave Jason utterly alone in the world and despite the protests of a mother's heart, she kills her sons as well (239).

While I admire Medea's courage and loyalty, I would be afraid to marry someone capable of "such reckless hate" (Tolkien, "The Two Towers"). Though I like to believe that I would never betray Medea like Jason did, everyone makes mistakes. Forgiveness is essential to any healthy relationship, especially a marriage.

My gut feeling is that Medea is neither completely good nor completely evil; she is simply human. She is truly one of us.