Another Jam Session

After many months, Craig Saxon and I got together again to jam at my house.  Mostly I played drums.  I have improved.  I got a pretty good one drop reggae beat going on “No Woman, No Cry,” but the fills were pretty lame.  It was something of a victory anyway because I used to play a standard rock beat on this song.  The one drop beat with the kick on the 2 and the 4 with the snare makes a world of difference.  We did some jazz beat stuff too.  I might post some of that later.  But the last thing we did was all guitars.  It was one of those jams that is like free flowing currents of water interweaving and changing, with intertwined melodies and phrases.  It doesn’t really go anywhere, but it has some interesting moments.  It surprised us.  We weren’t recording, but the computer was all set up and I happened to be sitting in front of it, so when I realized that what was happening was interesting, I hit the record button midway through.

9/29/12 Free Form Jam

I am playing a Telecaster through my Super Champ XD and Craig is playing my Agile LP through the tiny Vox Mini 3.  It’s in mono recorded with one mic because my M-Audio Mic Preamp died a few months ago and my Behringer mixer seems to be going out too, leaving me with only one mic preamp, a cheapo ART Tube MP, which seems to always come through in a pinch.  There is some noise from the snare drum resonating with the bass notes.  Sometimes it sounds like someone is playing brushes, and sometimes it sounds like noise.

Because the piece doesn’t really go anywhere it tends to stay in the moment.  It does establish and explore a mood, not sad, but reflective, maybe a little resigned.  Or maybe it is just background noise, or elevator music for aliens.

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Blog as Writing Course: Lessons Learned

After stepping down from my position as Writing Center Director in 2010, I have been teaching full time in the English Department for almost two years. Before I became a Writing Center Director, I had made my living teaching Freshman Composition, and over the years I probably taught more than a hundred sections. However, when I stepped down from my administrative position it had been years since I had actually taught a writing course. I was surprised to find that I felt that I did not know how to teach writing, or even what it was to teach writing. The traditional course with assigned readings, a handbook, four or five essay assignments in response to the readings, maybe a researched paper, some class discussions, drafts submitted for feedback, final drafts submitted for a grade, all that seemed less than adequate and not to the point. That sort of course is just going through the motions. The writing is just an exercise designed to prepare students for real writing. The audience is a fiction, the purpose a pretense, the genre–the college essay–a pedagogical artifact. I didn’t want to teach that course anymore.

However, the department wanted me to teach English 303 “Advanced Expository Writing.” It is a core course. Every English major has to take it. Somebody has to teach it. I am a writing specialist. There was no way to say no. I had to design a course that I could teach, that would avoid the problems noted above. I wanted a course in real, not pretend, writing. I thought about this Guitarsophist blog, and my own blogging experience.

I get about five hits a day on this blog, mostly from search engines looking for information on the “Roland Ready Stratocaster” guitar or, more recently, the “Tama Silverstar Metro Jam” drum kit. Those are review/opinion pieces on musical gear that is not well-covered in traditional sources, and readers seem to find those articles useful. Five hits a day is nothing. My daughter has a simple crochet pattern up on her blog that sometimes gets thousands of hits a day. However, even five hits a day means that I have readers, and having actual readers means that I have to think of my audience, a real audience, when I write. Even the potential for readers who may not actually show up influences my writing. Students in a traditional writing course, no matter how much we talk about audience analysis and do read-arounds, peer editing, and all of those audience-building tricks, know that they only have one important reader, the instructor, and that the instructor reads it to grade it, not to use it for any actual purpose. If student writing were posted to a blog, there would be a potential outside audience for it, and that potential might make the writing task more real.

Student blogs, therefore, might be a good pedagogical tool. However, that means that part of the course has to be about creating, designing, and managing a blog. I had been blogging for a while. If I did this, I would have to figure out how to teach students these skills.  As it turned out, this was a problem for some students, especially since I did not have a smart classroom equipped with a computer and a projector.

If a public audience is going to access the writing, the writing has to serve some purpose for that audience. It has to inform, or entertain, or comfort, or inspire, or do something for that audience that makes them want to read it. That meant that the assignments had to be something other than college essays. I would also have to design assignments that would live comfortably on the web, that would make sense as blog posts. That required some thought.

I also considered the fact that most writing these days is published on the web rather than in print, and that email has become the primary mode of business correspondence. Electronic texts are real writing!

I created six assignments:

  • Reflective piece: How I became the Writer I Am Today
  • Business Letter, Plus How to Write a Business Letter
  • Informative piece: A Review of Something
  • A Rhetorical Analysis
  • A Research Report for a Decision Maker
  • An Op-Ed piece
  • Revisiting the Reflective Piece: How I Have Changed as a Writer

They also had to do weekly posts to a “commonplace page” which were quotations from things that they were reading for this class or other purposes to which they would respond.  Posting a business letter to a blog didn’t make sense, so I had them do some web searches on “How to write a business letter,” choose the two best sources and the one worst that they found, write some explanatory material, and then post their own efforts as examples.  This was a bit awkward, but they reported that they learned lot from doing it.  The assignment that was most awkward in the context of the blog was probably the rhetorical analysis.  Here is how one student began:

Welcome, welcome masses of the Internet! Today I decided to try and mix something old with something a little new and by old I mean rhetorical analysis (and for those thinking “hey I learned that in school, I know all about that” quiet, daddy’s talking) and by new I mean I’m going to apply it (or more specifically the Aristotelian appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos) to something found in today’s world. –K. Deushane

Talk about creating an ethos!

I decided that for this course most of the texts we read would also be online, but I found two books that I thought would be useful:

  • Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2006.
  • Holcomb, Chris and M. Jimmie Killingsworth. Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.

The premise of the Harris book is that all academic writing is essentially rewriting other texts for new purposes.  I’ll let one of the students describe the approach:

The terms were: forwarding, countering, taking an approach, and revising. I felt that I learned the most from the forwarding and countering parts of the book as Harris presents a way for writers to use other writer’s writings in their own words. That is, Harris outlines how to use other writers to back up my own writing without merely regurgitating their words. The part on countering was also helpful as it describes how to rebuke other author’s writings without simply disagreeing or showing research or evidence that contradicts them. Some terms that Harris uses in describing countering are: arguing the other sides, uncovering values, and dissenting. I found these terms and explanations to be especially useful because they taught me how to effectively counter claims by other authors. I did this by highlighting the strengths of other writers and then showing how they do not go far enough in their claims and assertions. Additionally, I highlighted ideas that other writers had argued and countered by showing problems from those ideas; I wrote about concepts that writers had not effectively defined, and I wrote about the limits of ideas of other writers. All of the concepts from Rewriting were addressed and discussed in class and this was instrumental in helping me develop as a writer. –D.J. Hernandez

That is a lot to learn from one book.  The Holcomb and Killingsworth book also elicited positive comments:

Performing Prose was the one of the two that really stuck to me.  The content of this book is golden. I always wondered what a college level writing textbook would be like, and this basically met all of my expectations. It’s easy to read, makes loads of sense, leans toward the technical side which I like, and doesn’t sound overly preachy and boring. –A. Heng

However, the books did not get rave reviews from every student, and I think that I could have integrated them better with the course.

I created a WordPress blog called “Writing in the Web World. ”  I made it private, so students had to request permission to read it.  I posted all of the assignments there, and I put links to all of the student blogs in the blogroll, so my blog was a portal to all of the other course blogs. It took a while to sort all of this out.  Most of the students made their blogs public to the whole world.  A few made theirs private, so we had to request access.

Several students reported that submitting papers as blog posts made them somewhat casual about deadlines.  Here are comments from a couple of students:

One issue I had with the blog however was that it doesn’t provide much of a sense of urgency. This phenomena might be limited to just me, but something about having to post up my work online as opposed to turning in a solid copy of work fill me with less of desire to work than turning in a hard copy. –A. Heng

Some issues I had with the writing assignments being posted on a blog, was keeping track of what I had to do and when assignments were due. Since I was not turning in hard copies of my work, I was often confused of what I have turned in and what I have not. I fell behind on my assignments quickly, and it was much more difficult to catch up. I also admit that I did not comment much on other people’s posts and I fell behind on my commonplace. –A. Morales

I must admit this was true for me as well.  It was harder to determine what I had read and what I hadn’t, and if I didn’t read right at the deadline, it was harder to determine when something had been completed.  It was also harder to respond.  I was using the WordPress comment feature, so if I wanted to refer to a particular sentence I had to copy and paste it into the comment window.  I usually made general comments first and then created a section of the response called “picky stuff” in which I suggested sentence-level changes.

Even with these problems, I will do something similar when I teach 303 again in the spring.  This student pretty much summarizes what I was trying to accomplish:

What I’ve learned from creating this blog is that there is an entire new audience out there for me to write for. No longer is writing in class just for the professor or the occasional student, but for someone completely new to my writing. There is feedback from not just one person, but feedback from the entire world, or just anyone who is able to access my blog. Before I would write what I had to just to get an A on my paper, which meant writing something I know the professor would like. In previous writing classes, I would sit in class to learn what kind of person the professor was, and through that, I was able to write something in an essay they wanted; I would write something that would catch their attention, something they would like that would get me on their good side, which meant getting a higher grade. Honestly, I was manipulating them, I did not put all my effort into the writing assignments because I knew the right thing to say that would make them happy or make them laugh just so I could get a good grade. Now, writing on a blog, I’m not just writing for one person, I’m writing for the world and because of that, I am able to give my honest opinion on something. I am now able to write whatever I feel like I want to write because I don’t know the world personally. Here, I can be my real self, not having to worry about getting graded by people who read my blog. –I. Chu

A couple of student posts attracted comments from outsiders:

From my own blog, my review of the Zeiss 50mm lens garnered attention from a blogger from Florida. It was a definite eye opener for me. There were people out there reading that I had never seen or heard of, that review put one of them at my electronic doorstep. –J. Colwell

When the other students heard about this, they were both inspired and a bit fearful.  Their writing really was out there for people to read.

Teaching the course this way was a lot more work than the traditional way, and there were numerous glitches and problems.  All things considered, however, I think university writing courses need to go in this direction.  Students at this level need to learn to do real writing for real people, not just academic exercises.  Even though it was more work, it felt like it was more productive work.  I will do it again.

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Rehearsal with Craig Saxon

Craig and I got together to play today. It was the first time I had played the Tama kit, or any acoustic drums, with another musician. I also added a new cymbal, a Sabian Raw Bell Dry Ride, to the mix. More on the cymbal later.

This track is the first we recorded. There are two cheap knockoff SM-57s: one in a boom stand as an overhead and one on a table. This did not lead to the best recording quality. Craig is playing my white strat through the Fender Super Champ XD. I am playing the Tama kit with the Tama 12″ snare, with Vic Firth AJ6 sticks. The drumming is definitely amateur, but Craig’s guitar playing is always worth a listen.

TamaSnarewithCraig

This next track is with the Kent snare.

Breakdown-KentSnare

Finally, here is a long track, almost fifteen minutes, that begins with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” morphs into “Third Stone from the Sun,” and then wanders into “I Feel Fine.” There are some moments here where we are pretty locked in. This has the 1971 Ludwig snare and I am playing with Pro Mark Hot Rods, which are designed to give less volume. They sound different, especially on the toms.

strawberryfields3rdstone-newdrums

A good day of making music, and I am starting to feel like I will be a drummer when I grow up. I wish we had a recording of the version of “Gloria” that we did. It brought me back to playing someplace like Rosemead High School in about 1969, except I was behind the drum kit instead of playing rhythm guitar. Those were the days!

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Three Snares and Some New Hi-hats

I have had the Tama Silverstar Metro Jam kit for almost a month now.  My touch is getting better, and I can pretty much do on the Tamas everything I could do on the TD-4.  I like them!

Before I ordered the Tamas I had started talking to a guy on the Drum Forum (DFO) about some old snares that he had.  Then when I set up the Tama kit, I didn’t like the 12X5 snare that came with it.  To tell the truth, I didn’t really I know what a real snare should sound like, but I thought it was too bright, with not much sustain, and that the sound didn’t really fit with the rest of the drums.  It turned out that my first impressions were mostly wrong, but I went ahead and bought a couple of old snares, a 1971 Ludwig Standard that had had the paint stripped off and some hammering done to the shell, and an old 14X5.5 maple Kent.  Here are the three snares that I now own:

Three Snares

Tama 12X5 Silverstar, 1971 Ludwig Standard, and Kent Snare Drums

During shipping a screw came loose inside the shell on the Ludwig, so I had to take the batter head off, fix the screw, and tune it up again. I am starting to get comfortable taking drums apart and tuning them. It is not rocket science. The Ludwig is very dry and very sensitive. It seems to me that it would be good for jazz and brushwork, and it is fun to play rolls on it because it is so responsive. The Kent, on the other hand, has a fatter, mellower sound. To me it sounds more like rock ‘n roll. The batter head on it is a Ludwig Weather Master tom head that looks like it has been used on hundreds of gigs.

Kent wooden snare drum with old Ludwig head.

The Kent came with an old Ludwig tom tom head on it.

The drum would probably be more focused if I changed the heads, but for now it sounds good and I like the vibe of the old head.

These two drums are very different.  I have already learned a lot about snare drums from owning and playing them.  The Drum Forum (DFO) is a good place to learn about drums and meet other drummers.  The members there are mostly pros who have been playing for a living most of their lives.  The age factor there probably skews above 40, and there are a lot of vintage enthusiasts.

Yesterday I put the little Tama snare back on the stand, and it sounded pretty terrible.  However, from working with the other drums I knew that it was not tuned up right, and that the stock heads, which are still not broken in, had stretched.  I tuned it up pretty high and it started sounding pretty good.  It tends to ring a bit, so I put an Aquarian Studio Ring on it, which is just a ring of plastic that damps down the overtones.  Now I like that snare too.  It is smaller, not quite so loud, and the sound is in between the Ludwig and the Kent.

I also bought some used hi-hats.  To my ear the 14″ Wuhan hi-hats sounded good open and part open, but the closed stick sound was dull and lifeless.  That might just be me, or my playing, but I found some similar opinions on the web.  When I play with Craig Saxon we play a wide range of stuff from classic rock to Frank Sinatra, at low volume, so I wanted hats that were versatile and not too loud or cutting.   I decided I wanted a pair of 13″ Zildjian New Beats.  I started looking on the Guitar Center used gear site, and I found a pair that were in the Brooklyn store for $159.  New, they cost $274.  They looked brand new in the photo, so I bought them online, and had them shipped to the Pasadena, CA store.  That whole system worked well, and the GC employees were very helpful.   Here are the hats:

Zildjian 13" New Beat Hi-Hats

Zildjian 13" New Beat Hi-Hats

According to the serial numbers these were made in 2010, and except for some fingerprints, they do indeed look brand new. They still had barcode stickers on them. They would not be cool on the DFO site, or on Cymbalholic, where old vintage cymbals and new esoteric ones are popular, and it is hip to scorn new product from Zildjian. However, to me they are crisp and expressive, and exactly what I was looking for. I may buy some more used cymbals this way.

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Tama Silverstar Metro Jam

I love my Roland TD-4 electronic kit. It’s great for small gigs and for recording midi drum tracks. It made me interested in drumming and I learned a lot. However, it also made me interested in acoustic drums. I especially felt that playing exclusively on rubber cymbals was giving me bad habits. I decided that I wanted a small, portable kit that would be suitable for coffeehouse gigs, and after some research I ordered a GMS Subway SL kit from Indoor Storm. They warned me that it might take a while to ship, but I got tired of waiting after four months. In the mean time, some new possibilities opened up.

It seems that small portable drum kits are very popular right now. A number of manufacturers have small four piece “bop” kits that are designed for jazz. The Yamaha “Hipgig” and the Sonor “Jungle” kit are even smaller kits that are built around a large floor tom converted to a bass drum. These two are fairly expensive. However. Sonor recently came out with the “Safari” kit, a very reasonably-priced ($339 street) kit with basswood shells. I almost bought that. Instead, I went with the new Tama Metro Jam kit for $499 because of the birch shells. Mine is in sky blue sparkle. Here it is set up in my music room:

Tama Metro Jam

Tama Silverstar Metro Jam kit in the music room.

I ordered the kit from American Musical Supply. It came in two boxes:

Tama boxes

The kit shipped in two boxes.

The smaller box contained the floor tom and the bigger box contained the rest of the kit, with the snare and small tom packed inside the bass drum shell.

Floor tom

The floor tom out of the box.

Inside the main box

Inside the main box.

Everything was well packed. I had to install the bass drum heads and tune them up. There are lots of videos on YouTube about drum tuning, but they tend to contradict one another. For example, one says to tune the resonant (bottom) heads on the toms higher than the batter heads, another says to make them the same pitch. One says never tap the head with the drum key because you might damage the bearing edges, but another shows a guy tapping with the key. The toms on my set were tuned with the resonant heads higher.

Tuning drums requires a good ear and patience. It can be frustrating. I am getting better at it. I may change the heads soon. The stock heads on any set of drums are cheap because most serious players will put their favorite heads on.

Right now I am getting used to playing the kit. Acoustic drums are LOUD, especially when you are used to hitting rubber things. I really need to work on dynamics and control. I am having fun though.

Update 2/23/13:  I have changed all the heads.  I have a coated Remo Powerstroke 3 on the batter side of the bass drum, and a coated Ambassador on the reso, with a three inch felt strip to muffle it.  It makes a nice warm thump!  I put Evans G2 clears on the batter side of the toms, with G1 resos, but I changed the G2s to G1s because it was hard for me to get the 2-ply heads in tune with the 1-ply heads on the bottom.  I like the G1s better anyway.  I put a coated  Remo Ambassador X on the batter side of the snare, and an Ambassador snare-side on the reso.  To tell the truth, I got the slightly thicker Ambassador X by mistake.  I wanted a regular Ambassador, but this head sounds good on the drum.  I am very happy with these drums!  They were a good price, they are well made, and they sound great!

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Gig at Portola Elementary School Fair

Yesterday I played a gig with the Craig Saxon Band at Portola Elementary School in Ventura.   It was my third gig as a drummer.  I am getting better!  The Roland TD-4 kit performed well, and it is certainly easy to set up and transport.  Craig played guitar, guitar synth, harmonica, and sang, and Mike Timpson played bass.  People are always interested in the ekit, especially former drummers who gave up their big, loud acoustic kits a while ago, and miss drumming.  I still think that the weak link in ekits is the cymbals, but one can certainly make music with them.

Here is a picture from the gig:

Craig Saxon Band at Portola Elementary School

It was a beautiful, cloudless day on a huge green lawn playing music with friends for kids and adults having a great time.

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Wuhan Traditional Series Cymbals

I bought my Roland TD-4 electronic drum kit to input midi drum parts into music I was recording on my computer.  Drumming turned out to be a little more complicated than I imagined, so I had to work with some instructional DVD’s and practice some fundamentals.  I got better, and a couple of times when my friend Craig Saxon came over to jam, I played drums instead of guitar.  This worked fairly well, so Craig invited me to come and play drums at a couple of coffeehouse gigs in Camarillo.  The electronic drums are very convenient to set up and transport, and it is easy to control the volume, so they work well for small venues like these.  However, I started to want to play real drums.  I ordered a GMS Subway SL kit, which is a small kit designed to fit in small cars and not be too overwhelming.  Unfortunately, it is backordered with no clue about when it will be available.

In the meantime, I had to buy cymbals, so I set out to learn about them.  The Big Three brands are Zildjian, Sabian (which split off from Zildjian) and Paiste.  Entry-level cymbals are usually made of B8 alloy, which is easy to work and can be cut out of sheets.  Professional cymbals are made out of B20 alloy, with 20% tin.  This is much harder to work, but sounds much better.  The best cymbals are handmade, and very expensive.  A ride cymbal, a crash cymbal, and a set of hi-hats could easily cost $1,000 new.  Most drummers buy them used, and want to play the cymbal before they buy.   Handmade cymbals all sound different.

However, I knew nothing about cymbals so I wouldn’t know a good one from a bad one. When you are learning something new, sometimes you just have to dive in.  As with nearly everything, I found that there are cheaper brands made in China.  I saw good reviews of Wuhan and Dream cymbals on several different forums.  The Wuhans are handmade, B20 alloy, and about $200 for a set that included a 20″ medium ride, a 16″ crash and a set of 14″ hi-hats.  Wuhan claims to have been making cymbals for 1,900 years, but I am sure that most of that time, they were making gongs.  I decided to order a set.  Here’s a picture of the whole set:

Wuhan Cymbals

Wuhan New Traditional Cymbal Set

I don’t have cymbal stands yet (they are supposed to come with the GMS Subway SL), so when I got these, I set the ride and the crash up on the TD-4 rack.  That didn’t work for the hi-hats, so I haven’t done much with the hats. I must say that after hitting the rubber pads on the electronic kit for a year or so, hitting real cymbals was quite overwhelming.  I had gotten used to hitting the pads pretty hard.  It took me a while to adjust to the volume of real metal.

The crash sounds very good to me.  It’s loud and trashy, and has a nice bell.  The ride cymbal I am a little uncertain about.  With ride cymbals, there is the stick sound, the bell sound, and the wash.  The wash is the overtones that are generated as you hit it.  This cymbal is very washy, and the overtones are not quite in tune with each other.  It is very complex.  It reminds me of the huge chord at the end of “A Day in the Life.”  It’s a beautiful dissonance, but would it fit in with my music?  Here is a picture of the 20″ medium ride:

Wuhan Ride Cymbal

Wuhan 20″ Ride

I wanted to see how the ride and the crash sounded with other instruments.  In the following clip, I am playing the acoustic cymbals with an electronic kick and snare, thus the recording is less than ideal.  The bass is my Douglas Hofner Beatle Bass clone, and the guitar is my Xavier Telecaster clone on the neck mini-humbucker.  I did each instrument in one take, so there are mistakes.  My aim was to hear the cymbals in context.  The whole thing ended up with a sort of Doors vibe.

Wuhan Odyssey

The cymbals were recorded with a pair of GLS ES-57’s, which are clones of the Shure SM-57.  So the bass, the cymbals, and the microphones are Chinese, but the guitar is Korean.  At about 1:58, I start riding the crash and hitting the bell on it.  At 2:30, I switch back to riding the ride cymbal.  It is interesting that the 16″ crash has a lower-pitched stick sound, but a higher pitched bell, than the 20″ ride.

Comments about the cymbal sound are welcome.  Are the wash overtones musical?  That is the question.

(Update: After listening to this clip several times, I think the ride is a keeper.  It is certainly interesting.)

(Update, a year later: I have never been able to like the 20″ ride. It is too washy and dissonant. I bought a Sabian 21″ HH Raw Bell Dry Ride to use instead. However, I like the 16″ crash and the 14″ hi-hats quite a bit. I bought a used set of Zildjian 13″ New Beats which I use a lot, but the Wuhan hats are trashy and responsive, and fun to play. )

(Further update: After playing a 1970’s  Zildian EAK that a colleague loaned me for a while, my ears have become somewhat accustomed to the sound of a jazz ride cymbal, and I now think that the 20″ Wuhan ride is perfectly fine, especially with a small piece of gaffer’s tape on the underside to control the wash a bit.  I am less fond of the Wuhan hats than before.  They sound good open or slightly open, but the closed sound is a bit dull.)

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