tl;dr

Banjo

Three days ago, my brother Sam and I drove up to Defiance, OH from our hometown of Ottawa, OH to visit "Pack Rat's," a pawn shop where he had seen some decent guitars at a good price (I've been wanting to buy a Telecaster¹ for a little while now). When we arrived there was a sign on the door saying the place was closed from Dec. 24 through Jan. 5 and, not wanting to waste the half-hour drive, we headed downtown to see if we could find any other music stores.

We happened across Don's Music Center on Clinton St. and went inside. It's a small store with guitars on one wall and some other instruments and accessories on the other. The checkout counter is just inside the door with some effects pedals on display, and there's another counter in the back where Don does his repairs. Behind that is a stairway leading up to an area for lessons and another repair bench. The prices are written on small posterboard signs behind each guitar. "I've got some sales running through the end of the year - $50 off this guitar (he points at a Les Paul), $30 off those (he gestures at a row of Squiers). Let me know if you want to try anything out."

Sam and I quietly look over the guitars on offer and Sam suggests I try out one of the thinline Squier Telecasters since I hadn't played one before. They're interesting, a semi-hollowbody version of a traditionally solid-body guitar. At the direction of numerous signs posted behind the guitars, I ask Don if I can try it out. He takes it down from the wall hook and pulls a little amp over for me to plug into. It's a small Fender amp with some different presets to model different types of amp/cab combos, and I'm not a huge fan of it. I soon discovered that it was just as easy to twiddle the gain/volume/tone knobs on it as to try to pick a preset, so I used it that way and had a much better time of it. The guitar itself wasn't bad; it was fun to try out something different. After the thinline Tele I asked to try out an Epiphone Special and Don was happy to oblige. It played pretty well but I noticed the tuners weren't particularly great. Such are the changes that come with a $200 price drop, I suppose.

We were about to head out, but I noticed a banjo hanging on the opposite wall and decided to try it out. It was an Epiphone closed-back 5-string banjo with beautiful wood grain that looked like walnut and had a cool eagle graphic on the back². I asked Don if I could try it out, and he got the banjo down for me. I had never played a banjo before; the closest I'd come was a 6-string "banjitar" tuned like a guitar that I had tried at Guitar Center once. That one didn't really sound like a banjo and just didn't feel right (even though I had never touched a real banjo to know how it was supposed to feel).

This one was different.

This felt like a real banjo, and more importantly sounded like a real banjo³. The instrument gave off a warm, plucky tone - sweet, rich, and mellow when played softly; strong, frenzied, and just a little harsh when played harder. This instrument felt natural even though I'd never played it before, and I found myself thinking, "I could learn this."

For the past few months I had thought that I might like banjo, just because I like the way they sound. Having played one, I knew this was an instrument I needed to learn. I didn't know how it would happen because money is pretty tight these days, but I knew I wanted to get a banjo somehow.

That night, my friend Alex came over to visit, and as it happened he ended up buying a camera flash and cord I had been wanting to sell (conveniently, I had them in Ohio with me). Suddenly, I had over half the money needed to buy that banjo. The next day I was telling my brother Matt about the banjo and how close I was to having the cash for it. In a fit of brotherly love, he PayPal'd me a contribution to the banjo fund, and I was ready to go.

I called Don's Music Center and asked about their hours. He said they'd be open until 5pm on the 30th and 11am-3pm on the 31st, except that his dad was sick and in the hospital and he might need to take a trip instead of opening the store that day. I briefly considered heading straight to Defiance but since I hadn't fully discussed the purchase with Caitlin yet and we'd be heading through there the next day, I decided to wait.

The next day as we came through Defiance, I turned down Clinton St. and found that Don's Music Center was closed. I was disappointed not to be heading home with a banjo, concerned for Don's dad, but glad that he was able to go visit him⁴.

When we got back to South Bend, I started asking around if any of my friends knew of a decent banjo for sale in the area. I checked Craigslist but didn't come up with much. My friend Nat mentioned that he had a banjo but didn't want to sell it, even though he didn't play it much. I asked if he might be willing to let me borrow it until I'm able to buy one, and he agreed to do so.

So that's where I am today. I've got a banjo in my hands and this excites me very much. The timing worked out for this thing to be my de facto new year resolution, and as such I went so far as to declare on Facebook, "2016 will be the year I learn to play the banjo."

Here we go :)

¹ a Squier Telecaster, that is. I'm not made of money, you know.
² turns out it was an Epiphone MB-200, and was mahogany rather than walnut
³ perhaps it helps that it was a real banjo.
⁴ the first time we visited the store, Don mentioned "I won't ever get rich from this store, but I own the building and everything in it, the building's paid for, and family is the most important thing anyway." Don is my kind of guy.

Conscientious Extraversion, part 1

I am not particularly outgoing by nature, and technology has generally removed any need I might otherwise have had for talking to other people except as it pertains to my job or my family. A song from Sesame Street suggests that there are in fact people in my neighborhood, people that I meet each day, but I have found that this need not be the case. Who might I meet each day? A bank teller? Nope, online banking. A checkout clerk? Nope, the self-checkout lane. A gas station attendant? Nope, pay at the pump. Asking somebody the time? Nope, my cell phone. Small talk in a waiting room? Nope, my cell phone. Directions when I'm out of town? Nope, my cell phone. Friendly strangers while I'm out for a walk? Nope, their cell phone (and earbuds). Whew.

At certain points in my life I have made a conscious effort to engage others in conversation where normally I would remain silent. Actually, the first example that comes to mind is not so much about engaging in conversation as it is about opening myself up to conversation, which can be just as terrifying. When I left my high school and the classmates I had studied with for 13 years, I went to Bethel College, where I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of strangers and barely knew anyone else. I decided that I would probably have a better experience if I met some people, and that probably most other people were not just going to come up and start talking to me. For these reasons I decided to say "Hi" to everyone I met on the sidewalks of Bethel's campus who wasn't already having a conversation. No "how are you" because I hate that most people don't want an answer (or don't give an answer), and no "Hi, my name is Peter" because that's weird and creepy. Just "Hi."

Hi.

A lot of people said "Hi" back, and though I don't remember it leading to any particular conversations, it made me feel a lot less closed off than I would have felt sticking to my nature and silently walking (or rolling) down the sidewalk. I'm sure it allowed me to participate in later conversations that I would have otherwise not been part of, either because I recognized a person from having said "Hi" to them or maybe because they recognized me.

The second example I can think of is a few months ago when I was shopping at Meijer by myself. As I passed by the aisle with the snack crackers I saw a man put a box of orange cheese-flavored things in his and his wife's cart, and she said, "oh wait, do we want Cheese Nips or Cheez-its?" This struck me as a perfect example of the mundane conversations we all have all the time - things that really don't matter in the grand scheme of things yet they're still really important to us on a small scale - and I thought it was hilarious and awesome. The inside of me smiled when I felt a weird urge to ask them which they decided on. This is not me. But, I thought, if it made me smile then maybe it would make them smile too. Or maybe they would just think I was weird. Whether I like it or not, I care a lot about what strangers think of me. On the other hand, there's a good chance I'll never see them again. In the end, my curiosity overpowered my shyness and I turned the cart around and felt myself walking back an aisle to where the cracker discussion had taken place. I don't remember exactly how it played out, but I said something like, "Sorry, but I overheard the earth-shattering discussion happening and now I just have to know: Did you go with Cheese Nips or Cheez-its?" It was at this moment that I suddenly realized what was happening. I had just strolled into a stranger's life and asked them a very personal question about what kind of snack crackers they preferred. What was I doing? This is embarrassing and weird! Wait, I think they're laughing. Oh good, at least it was ha-ha weird and not call-the-police weird. It only took about half a second to think all of that so I just kept going. I peeked into their cart and observed, "ah, Cheese Nips, huh? Good choice. Well, have a nice night!" Freed from the situation I had put myself in I wheeled the cart around and walked, maybe a little faster than usual, back toward the front of the store past the tank full of lobsters who thankfully were unable to point and laugh at my fit of social ineptitude.

Still, it made me feel good to share my observation with someone else and it felt good that they thought it was funny too. I walked toward the self-checkout with a goofy smile on my face.

Book Review: How We Learn

How We Learn is a book that reads like a great NPR story, and I mean that in the best way possible. It takes you on a journey, first through your brain and then through the history of learning research, before landing on some practical steps you can take to improve your own learning in specific situations.

Don't let the promise of "history" and "research" lull you into thinking the book is a boring one - in fact, after reading the first 100 pages across the course of several days (squeezing in a handful of pages whenever possible), I was finally able to sit down and read the remaining 130 pages uninterrupted. Ironically, the large chunk of reading began with Chapter Six: "The Upside of Distraction." Well, there may indeed be upsides to distraction when it comes to learning, but I was glad to be able to sit down and finish the book anyway.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens is the kind of title that prepares me to be a little skeptical. I came into the book thinking it was going to be positioned as some expert telling me why everything I thought I knew was wrong (or some kind of sensationalist thing like that). Certainly I have read plenty of insightful books that have shifted my perspective or broadened my view of a topic (Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Outliers come to mind, though I was less a fan of Blink), but for some reason I was expecting the book to wind up like a bad Netflix documentary - pushing buttons just because they exist without really saying anything of substance.

I am happy to report that I was wrong.

This book was written by a New York Times reporter who has been with the newspaper since 2004, and his expertise as a science journalist shines through in How We Learn. Carey doesn't claim to be a scientist, a researcher, or a leader in the field of learning, and as such he does not attempt to inject any sense of nose-in-the-air authority into his words. He writes as one who has done a lot of reading on the topic; he has talked with many people who have dedicated their lives to the field. While he doesn't introduce any new research, Carey also does not simply regurgitate the results of others' work. Rather, the author takes the findings of these researchers and uses them to look back on his own life before considering how they might apply more broadly to us as his readers. In addition, several of the researchers whose work Carey cites actually helped in the process of reviewing the book to make sure he was accurate in his reporting.

As I mentioned before, the book begins with a look at what we know about how the brain works (particularly as it pertains to learning). It's an interesting summary that lays the groundwork for some later stories, helping readers to understand them better. From "how the brain works," Carey progresses into a section I'd summarize as "how learning is affected by specific variables." This is the part where he not only shares some of the latest research, but also shows how scientists arrived at this point. It's a fascinating look at the history of learning theory, and Carey does a great job of mentioning larger historical trends (such as Freudian psychology) that affected scientists' decisions on where to go next. After reviewing the lands that learning research has traveled through, Carey brings us up to speed on the latest of "what we know now" and uses it to suggest several practical (I daresay actionable) ways that we can improve learning in our own lives.

The book wraps up with a brief Q&A section that serves as a recap of everything Carey just finished saying; it also serves as a quick reference guide for the major topics of the book. While How We Learn is a pretty easy read, it also contains a ton of information, so it's nice to have a refresher at the end of the book to consolidate everything that was included.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and came away wishing I owned a copy (mine was from the library) so that I could reference it down the road as I actively try to learn new skills and information. It's very practical in addition to being informative, and I may end up purchasing a copy of my own.

One feature I'd like to add to my book reviews (starting with this one) is a list of people I would recommend the book to. So, here we go - I would recommend How We Learn to:
  - Caitlin Metzger (my wife) because she's a great teacher and would be able to effectively leverage the book's material to help her piano and violin students continue to succeed.
  - Betty Metzger (my mom) because she is also a great teacher who would be able to bring the book's concepts into her K-6th music classroom.
  - Ben Eicher (my brother-in-law) who is heading into high school next year and could put the book's techniques to work as he continues his academic career.

How We Learn is an expertly-woven tale of how our brains work and how we can use them more efficiently. I'll give it three stars today and an additional two stars the day after tomorrow (to help the book commit its five-star rating to memory!)

Synthesis and Electronic Music

I have been fascinated by electronic music and music programming for a long time, at first more as a concept or technical exercise than an art form. It probably started in 1997 when my mom got a Yamaha PSR-530 keyboard for her classroom (she taught K-4th music) along with a MIDI interface box and Finale 3.7 for her school computer (a Power Macintosh 5400). The promise of being able to play notes on the keyboard and have them appear on the music staff seemed like pure magic. Unfortunately, due to either a problem with the MIDI box or a problem with how we set everything up, we never got that part of it working. I did, however, spend a lot of time writing out music after school and playing with as many features of the keyboard as I could wrap my head around.

Toward the end of my time as a student at Bethel College, the music department was getting rid of old gear, and I picked up a couple of keyboards for free, including a Yamaha PSR-6300. An early predecessor to mom's PSR-530, the PSR-6300 was a premier model in Yamaha's 1986 lineup. This one didn't have a power cord but I'm always happy to figure stuff out so I took it anyway. The first thing I did was to open it up and cut out the old power jack which took a nonstandard plug. As a temporary workaround (which has so far been permanent) I cut the end off of a cheap extension cord and spliced it into the wires which previously ran to the power jack. My plan is to eventually wire in a standard 3-pin power jack as is commonly found on computers and monitors.

Once I got the thing to turn on, I found that only two voices worked, and once you switched to the second one you couldn't go back to the first. I ordered a service manual and schematic diagram for the keyboard but never dug into it enough to sort out the problem. Finally, earlier this year, I did some additional research and found that the problem spot was likely buried deep inside the keyboard. I took the keyboard over to The Maker Hive in Elkhart, IN and made some new friends who helped me re-solder the bridge connector that had come loose. I put everything back together and it worked perfectly!

About a month after that, I ended up selling some of my camera gear and bought a bunch of music gear (I also paid off a student loan!) One of the items I purchased was the Alesis SR18 drum machine, which has MIDI input/output as well as a basic note sequencer that runs alongside the drum sequencer (ostensibly to program bass parts). The PSR-6300 also has MIDI input/output, so one of my first goals was to link the two units in order to control one with the other. It was easier than I expected and was just mind-blowingly cool. It felt like the dream I had held for the past 16 years was finally starting to take shape.

Another of the items I purchased at that time was a Korg MS-20 mini analog synthesizer. It's a modern recreation of a popular synth from the late '70s and early '80s. The newer model is functionally identical to the older model, except that it's scaled down somewhat (using 1/8" jacks rather than 1/4" in the patch pay) and that it has a MIDI input jack (via 5-pin and USB connections). The world of analog synthesis was another realm I had dreamed about for years but never been able to enter. It seemed so esoteric, versatile, and just plain cool, and I'm so excited to be able to experiment with it now.

Ever since my first exposure to a synthesizer (probably via Joy Electric's song Monosynth which incidentally was released in 1997) I've wanted to know more, to play with a real hands-on-switches hardware synthesizer. I fiddled a little bit with some software synths in college but they didn't really do it for me - it was too hard to mess around and figure out what everything does, but when you've got a panel full of knobs it's much more intuitive.

The main difference between a synthesizer and a keyboard is that a keyboard generally just plays back sounds that have been stored in it (especially newer ones) and while you may be able to modify or create expression with those sounds, they're more or less locked in. A synthesizer generates its own sound through the use of one or more oscillators which create an electrical version of sound waves, moving back and forth. Synths can produce different wave shapes which produce different timbres, or tone qualities. After that, the signal can be routed through any number of modules - filters that refine the sound, envelopes that define the volume of a sound over a period of time, low-frequency oscillators (LFO's) that can control some other aspect of the synth, and many more. Some synthesizers are an all-in-one package with pre-selected modules available for use, while others are entirely modular, being constructed in a cabinet of whatever modules the player chooses. These are then hooked together using patch cords. The MS-20 is unique in that it is semi-modular, with the ability to play it straight out of the box or to patch the signal through different modules as desired. It's not quite as flexible as I had hoped and some of the signal flow is a little confusing, but it's still an exciting world that I love exploring.

One thing I greatly admire about David Crowder*Band is their ability to use electronic sounds to enhance music in unexpected ways. Crowder further exemplifies this on his excellent solo album, Neon Steeple. Because of my respect for this aspect of his music and because part of the self-assigned challenge for my December Project is to use at least two tracks in the production process, I would like to use the MS-20 mini to enhance my rendition of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a non-melodic yet musical way. Figuring out how might prove to be difficult, but it's also going to be a lot of fun.

Tonight I played with the MS-20 and my Zoom H6 audio recorder in order to play with some of the non-melodic sounds the synth is capable of producing. I recorded them on the H6 and tried out the overdubbing feature which allows you to listen to one track while recording another over top of it. For the first track I tried to create a sort of wintry soundscape, and then on the second layer of audio I was just trying to create some kind of bleep-bloopy effect on top. This is what happened:

I'm not planning to use either of these elements directly in my song, but it was fun to play and get a feel for what I could do. I'm really looking forward to integrating some of this (particularly the wintry kind of sound) into O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

My goal with this song is to maintain a traditional feel that reverently acknowledges the glory of God coming to Earth as a human. I want the track to reflect the intense longing felt by a people awaiting the arrival of their Savior, and the joy we anticipate for his second coming. The final verse suddenly seems fitting, so I will leave you with it:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
  shall come to the O Israel!