05/13/14

Practice makes perfect


Ukulele practiceWhenever I’m asked for advice from new ukulele players on how to get better, or what secret they need to know to play better, I tell them it’s simple:

Practice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

That’s really all these is to it, whether you believe in the 10,000 or 20,000-hour path to accomplishment hypothesis. You gotta practice.

Only when you have practiced enough will your fingers be loose enough, your callouses build sufficiently, and your wrist be flexible enough to play without strain. When you’ve practiced enough you will be able to make chord shapes without having to look them up. You’ll know where to find Bb and D# on the fretboard without stopping to count frets.

Practice. Easy to say, but what with all the distractions – the dog, the TV, the phone calls, the internet, Facebook, the phone again, the neighbour’s kids, the sunny day, the grumbling tummy, the empty coffee cup begging for a refill, the unfinished blog post you’re writing… it’s hard. I find it easiest to go somewhere alone and quiet, and just sit down with some music and work away at it. Close the door and keep the world out for a little while.

I also find it useful to walk around the house with a ukulele, just noodling, fingering the strings, trying chords, maybe even playing a song or two while upright and walking. Sometimes you come up with something interesting when you start out with unstructured time.

I also find just walking around while playing something without really focusing on practice is meditative. It helps me think; clears my mind and makes issues clear. And it helps my motor skills.*

But practice isn’t just noodling around for an hour or so every day. It takes focus, concentration and effort: you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. However, it also needs to be varied and fun. It shouldn’t be a chore you begrudge putting time into. Set tasks, change songs or try to explore different rhythms and strumming patterns. Pick a song you don’t know and learn it: make it a challenge to yourself.

As Dr. Christine Harper tells us:

Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!”… In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.

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05/8/14

How many chords?


Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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05/6/14

Still hot and getting hotter


Blair's After Death SauceIt’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since I last updated my web page on hot sauces, and about 15 since I first wrote it.

My, how times flies. So many years, so many hot sauces since then.

I’ve been a hot sauce aficionado for much longer than that, though. Most of my life, and all my adult life. But only in the last two decades has there really been a significant choice available in product. I can remember when Tabasco was it; the only hot sauce ever found anywhere. Now there are stores that specialize in nothing but. And the choice of hot peppers is tremendously expanded, too, from the barely-warm jalapeno to the brutally hot bhut jolokia.

The little bottle above left – Blair’s After Death Sauce – is one I opened this past weekend. Hot, scorchingly hot, but tasty, too. I’ve always liked Blair’s sauces. This mix is much hotter than the original Death Sauce, but below his Sudden Death. I went through a bottle of the latter, late last year, but didn’t like it as much as the After Death or his “cooler” sauces. Sudden Death was not as tasty, but hotter and that makes it difficult to get just the right amount, since so little is needed.

Personally, I want flavour as well as heat. After Death has both heat and flavour, without quite tipping over to the inedibly hot level – assuming you’re sparing with it. Which I seldom am, of course. But likely next time I find a selection (we found the latest bunch in Orillia), I’ll move down a notch to a slightly cooler sauce, in exchange for the added flavour.

It’ll still be ten times hotter than most of my readers can bear. But keep in mind: hot sauces work by tricking you: they’re not really hot (as in temperature) no matter what your tongue tells you. You think your mouth is burning, but it really isn’t. And your body quickly adapts to the sensation:

…your nervous system isn’t going to just let you suffer with your mouth on fire. So it also launches a whole series of actions to help us deal with the pain. It releases endorphins — the morphine-like compounds that give you a natural high. And it makes the nerves on our tongue more tolerant to pain.
In other words, spicy peppers may hurt at first, but then they have an analgesic effect…
When (hot sauce) hits your tongue, capsaicin activates sensory neurons in a very specific way. They bind and open up a receptor on the nerve’s surface, called TRPV1.
This receptor also gets activated by high temperatures — anything above 109 degrees Fahrenheit. So your brain thinks the nerve is touching something hot when the hot sauce hits the receptor.
A similar mechanism happens with mints and cough drops that give your tongue a cooling, icy sensation. Cold temperatures are sensed by a receptor closely related to TRPV1 (called TRPM8).
And guess what molecule also activates this receptor? The menthol in peppermint and spearmint. So minty gums trick your mind into thinking you’re eating something cold.

It’s called an endorphin rush:

Despite the incredibly intense burning — which persists for about 20 minutes — Barrus says the 40-minute period of bliss that follows is worth the pain.

“There’s a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness,” he said. “My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good.” Released in response to stress and pain, endorphins are brain chemicals that reduce the perception of pain.

Long-distance runners know the feeling, albeit without the initial pain.

Life without hot sauce – meals without at least a dab – is dull. Boring. Mundane. Hot sauce doesn’t have to be so hot it makes you weep (although that’s okay, too…), just hot enough to make your eyes widen and the endorphins to kick in.

Sampling the latest bottle got me thinking about hot sauces again (it seems as I age, my tolerance for heat is increasing – what I now consider mild I used to think of as hot….). And what has transpired since I first wrote about them; how the market has grown and gone mainstream. And to bemoan the lack of a good local selection of hot sauces (not a single local grocery store carries the Tabasco habanero, which is light years hotter and tastier than the standard Tabasco, much less anything exquisite like Blair’s sauces…).

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05/4/14

Random grumblings for a Sunday afternoon


Star WarsWhy can’t I buy Yorkshire Gold tea in town? I can buy Barry’s tea, from Ireland, and Morse’s tea packaged in Nova Scotia locally. As well as other brands. Surely someone can bring in Yorkshire Gold… and yes, I’ve gone to every grocery store in town and asked for it. Even Sobeys – where I had been told it was available – the staff there had no idea what it was. Never heard of it, I was told.

Barry’s tea is nice: a bit on the robust side, which we like, but the tea bags could use a tiny bit more to give it that oomph. Available at Metro.

Tetley has two new teas on the shelf: Bold and Pure Ceylon.The Bold doesn’t taste to me any different from their regular tea. But I like the Ceylon, albeit it’s not as full-bodied as I would prefer. Still, it has a nice flavour and may replace my regular Tetley. Available at Freshco.

What happened to Tazo Tea? I used to really like their full-leaf Awake tea, an English breakfast tea, and often ordered it at Starbucks. But the last two times I’ve bought a box for home consumption (one bought at a grocery store, the other from Starbucks), I’ve been greatly disappointed. The first time because the tea turned out not to be full-leaf (the box label was unclear…). The second because the full-leaf bags contained only a small portion of what they used to contain. The result in both cases is a weak, watery, insipid tea. No more Tazo for me, in future.

I prefer whole-leaf teas and tea bags because they seem fuller and richer than the broken leaf and leaf dust you get in the standard grocery-store tea bag. But they’re not the common product: most brands don’t offer full leaf. Most are called  “orange pekoe”  but are really broken orange pekoe – a low-level grading.

Lately we’ve taken to drinking Typhoo Tea. Even the decaf is pretty good. PG Tips, another Brit tea, is fair, not really much different from Tetley. Have to ask Susan to bring back some other teas from England when she goes across the pond this summer.

I bought a box of Choice organic English breakfast tea at Costco last week. Ho hum. Like the Tazo Awake, the bags or their contents are too damned small to make a decent, strong cuppa. Takes to bags for my large cup. Another one to avoid in future.

Costco (at least the Barrie store) has a limited and rather unexciting choice of teas (not to mention it seems to have dropped the green cerignola olives – the best olives they’ve ever stocked – and their superb vidalia onion salad dressing in favour of mediocre product . Which means we are on the verge of giving up on Costco entirely (well, maybe if they keep those large bottles of marinated artichokes, we’ll hang on, albeit grimly…).

Too many products we get to know and love that get dropped. Happens at local grocery stores, too.

Used to really like Costco, and made a trip there every three or four months. Now my respect has plummeted and the few times we do go there, we buy very little compared to the past. Even their selection of DVDs is flaccid, and their selection of books is sheer crap. But they do have good shirts and clothes. Still… why can’t they keep a single brand of olives in stock?

A few weeks ago, we were down in Brampton and visited an Asian food market. Great place, full of wonderful produce, fish, sauces… I ended up buying a bag full of green teas (and a hot sauce). One of those boxes was a Korean green tea, which I have not yet tried, but I have never sampled Korean tea, so I’m looking forward to it. As soon as I finish my current supply of Lung Ching (Dragonwell) green tea, I’ll open it.

Dragonwell is my current favourite Chinese green tea. The current box is from Golden Sail, but it’s only fair quality. There seems to be a faux market in Dragonwell teas, with some low-quality products being passed off as the real thing. I can’t tell which is authentic, but I can tell which tea tastes good; which has a full, rich body. Frankly, that’s all that really matters to me.

I enjoy some Japanese green teas, but not a steady diet of them. Sencha is my favourite, and matcha when it can be had, but I’m iffy about the roasted brown rice and barley in some other varieties.

In my experience, most of the green teas in the Asian markets are only fair quality; some are actually mediocre. It’s a guessing game, but because the prices are usually modest, it’s not a big investment. I buy several and hope for the best. Regardless, I usually use them all. The boxes don’t really give you a lot more than vague promises of quality, but now and then you get a treasure.

We used to buy a lot of tea and sauces at Soon Lee’s, in Scarborough (along with many great hot sauces), but since they moved, we don’t have a good substitute Asian market (although we did find a good one on Kingston Road last year). In Brampton, we went with a Chinese woman who translated the labels so i could pick products by description, rather than just guessing (which is why I ended up with a bottle of Uncle Chen’s “chilliciously hot” extra hot sauce when I would have otherwise overlooked it).

You can get a nice, organic green tea called Uncle Lee’s, from both Metro and WalMart. It’s almost as robust as Ten Ren green tea, but not quite. Ten Ren you’ll have to get out of town – we buy ours in Chinatown at a tea shop on Dundas Street West. To my palate, Ten Ten makes the very best green tea. I have tried a few of their black and herbal teas, too.

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05/4/14

Reading music and music theory


reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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04/17/14

What do we know about Bell’s Palsy?


Bell's PalsyBell’s Palsy is one of those rare ailments, and one that annoys more than threatens, but can be difficult and socially awkward for sufferers. It’s also one that still baffles researchers as to its cause. And also for an effective treatment.

According to facialpalsy.org,

The name ‘Bell’s palsy’ comes from 19th-century Scottish anatomist and surgeon Sir Charles Bell, who discovered that severing the seventh cranial (or facial) nerve causes facial paralysis.

It has no vaccine, no known method for prevention, and the treatment is still uncertain.

Wikipedia tells us:

Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve VII (the facial nerve) causing an inability to control facial muscles on the affected side… Bell’s palsy is the most common acute mononeuropathy (disease involving only one nerve) and is the most common cause of acute facial nerve paralysis (>80%)… The hallmark of this condition is a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight.

It also says:

It is thought that an inflammatory condition leads to swelling of the facial nerve. The nerve travels through the skull in a narrow bone canal beneath the ear. Nerve swelling and compression in the narrow bone canal are thought to lead to nerve inhibition, damage or death…
Some viruses are thought to establish a persistent (or latent) infection without symptoms… Reactivation of an existing (dormant) viral infection has been suggested as a cause of acute Bell’s palsy. Studies suggest that this new activation could be preceded by trauma, environmental factors, and metabolic or emotional disorders, thus suggesting that a host of different conditions may trigger reactivation.

Which, in essence, doesn’t tell us a lot about the actual cause or why it recurs; mostly it remains guesswork. Bell’s Palsy affects about 20 people per 100,000 population, and the incidence increases with age and with certain medical conditions.

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