Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sticking Your Neck Out

Recently, I've been entertaining some moderately unorthodox thoughts about my tenor sax. Overall, it's a fantastic horn, and I really like how it sounds... but every once in a while when I'm playing, I feel like it's going to get away from me completely. It's hard to explain -- maybe some of the sax heads out there can understand what I'm saying -- but the horn is so free-blowing that a lot of the time I feel like I'm about to lose control. This unsettling feeling, coupled with some intonation issues that have always been the case with the horn and the fact that a previous owner obviously put the horn through some seriously hard service, has led me to believe that perhaps I should look into replacing the neck.

There are two stand-by makers of aftermarket saxophone necks out there: one is very expensive, and the other is moderately expensive. Both would require me to spend a good deal of money on something that I might not like, even though both products get great press. I am a saucy fellow, but doing that sort of thing makes me nervous.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I remembered how G$ had once told me about a conversation he had with our college sax professor about trying different necks back in the day... which rang a bell about a later time in the same conversation when G$ had told me about different necks he auditioned when he bought his luscious Reference 36. That led me to do further research -- the substance of which is neither here nor there -- which led me to believe that the neck of a Selmer Reference 54 might fit my 1959 Buffet Super Dynaction. I further realized that the store in which I teach unwashed, farty urchins to play flute has a Reference 54 gathering dust in its stock room.

This afternoon, after lunch, I swung into action.

The Reference 54 neck is somewhere in the neighborhood of half a millimeter too small for the receiver on my horn -- something which, I'm told, can be easily fixed -- but I got several pitches and their octave-up brothers to speak... and I was astonished. The same core sound was there, but that edge-of-oblivion feeling was gone. The octaves were perfectly in tune. It was exactly what I was looking for.

So, now I have to scrape together the funds for a Reference 54 neck. I'm also interested in trying out one of these, and I have a new classical mouthpiece/ligature combination for my alto arriving shortly in the mail, so keep your eyes open for an evaluation of that. Right now, it's all about getting my sax priorities in order. Not a bad place to be.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Buckwalter: Director of... Orchestras?

It may seem improbable, but that's my new job title. That's right: your saxophone-playing, never-been-in-an-orchestra, grooved-out correspondent is going to be an orchestra teacher. Who would make such a strange decision, you ask? It turns out these people would. And which orchestras are they? That would be these. (I've given myself the assignment of updating the website over the summer to reflect who the new sheriff in town actually is.) It's an exciting opportunity for me, and I'm really up for the challenge of teaching a bunch of students something I don't know much about.

And a quick note to any of you aspiring teachers out there: it took exactly nineteen days for me to get a job out here. Just something to think about.

I'm off to learn about composers of grade 4 and 5 high school strings music!


Thursday, May 17, 2007

You Shall Know Them by Their Bass

In response to The Mayor's gracious request, here is my bass and its best friend in the world, my amp. The bass is a Fullerton Ventura 4, featuring active electronics and, as you can see from the picture, a MM+J pickup configuration. Check it out.

The amp is a dinky little Peavey Max 126. It puts out ten whole watts of power, which is really all I need. The neat thing about this little amp is that it's got a vintage compression switch, which lets me switch from a clean-sounding, more modern sound to a more compressed-sounding tube-ish vintage sound. And the amount of vintage tube-ish compression can be controlled with a separate dial. For a little amp, it's pretty sweet.

The bass is lots of fun, but if I get particularly serious about being a bass guy, some things will have to change. My only complaint about the bass as it is right now is that the pickups don't treat all the strings equally. That is, the E A and D strings all sound one way, and the G string (heh, heh) sounds another way, almost more acoustic than amplified. My instinct and some research leads me to believe that this is due to the pickups in the bass being sort of cheap, so I'm kicking around the idea of putting some different pickups in. G$ seems very satisfied with his Bartolinis, and I hear good things about Nordstrand pickups too. We'll just have to see.

But there you go. There's my bass. And with it, I can rock you like a mountain.


Friday, May 11, 2007

All Strung Out

With student teaching over and summer employment yet to begin, I've had lots of time to practice playing my new bass. At the suggestion of many of my dear friends -- G$ chief among them -- I picked up some light-gauge strings at a going-out-of-business sale a few days ago, and threw them on. I don't know much about bass strings, so I bought the only set of lights that the store still had in a four-string set, and they turned out to be these. I'm not sure what kind of strings my cheapo bass came with, but man, what a difference these new ones made.

First off, the sound is a lot brighter. Associates and internet resources tell me that some of that brightness will go away as the strings get broken in, but I think a lot of the brightness will stick around. Along with being more bright, the sustain is much more pronounced. You might even say that you could go out and get a sandwich... and then come back and they'd still be going "wah."

Secondly, these strings cause much more of a sympathetic vibration in each other which, because I am lazy/no good at muting the strings I'm not playing, add all sorts of interesting overtones to the notes that I am playing.

I have to say, I didn't really like the new strings at first, but after an hour or so of playing with the settings on my amp and messing with the onboard preamp knobs, I think I have something pretty cool. Next up in the string experiment will be some sort of flatwound string... possibly from Fender or DR (once they come out with their flats). The neat thing about playing bass for me so far is that messing around with the instrument itself to get different sounds is MUCH cheaper than trying to do the same thing on saxophone. Reeds don't make all that much of a difference (in my experience), and good mouthpieces are so outrageously priced most of the time that you can't just try one out to see if you like it. And I don't even want to talk about pad/resonator/key-height voodoo. I don't understand those things, and I don't have an extra $800 sitting around to find out.

Bass is fun. Everybody should get one. Right now.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Who's honouring me now?

Yes, it has been a long time since I threw something up here, but that's because I've been busy setting fire to the thatched-roof huts that comprise the village of the Graduate College at UNLV. (I've also been student-teaching, but never mind that now.) Because of the ferocity of my fire setting, I was inducted into the inter-disciplinary honor society of Phi Kappa Phi last Tuesday. It's nice to recognized for having laid waste to your fellow graduate students with such panache.

In one week, I'll have finished my student teaching. For those of you playing the home game, this means that I will have successfully tricked the taxpayers of Nevada into believing that I am fit to teach their children something other than a bunch of cool Zippo tricks. I'll have more time to write when that's over and done with, but for now, a teaser: I have taken up the bass guitar. More on this later.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

I am this guy.

If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor. Because every one of you is this guy.


Another Voice in the Chorus

Some of you may have noticed that the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued its report today. I've been trying to find a link to the actual report, but you can find a summary of the findings here and a link to an executive summary of the report in PDF format here. Before I go any farther, let me be clear: I agree that our education system needs reform. Until I got to college, I was largely self-educated, and it is my strong belief that the public education system in this country failed me in every way possible. Where I get off the reform bus is where all the politicians seem to want to get on.

Among the various findings of the commission are booya ideas like raising teacher pay (well played), ending formal education in tenth grade to allow students to continue on in their own way (I'm still on the fence about that one; I need to know more), and this outrageous, foolish, and absurd finding:
Another major shift would be to have independent contractors operate schools,
though the schools would remain public.
Are you kidding me? Why does everybody want to believe that the answer to making education in America better is to make it more like business? And independent contractors... well, I suppose that's a fair change to make. The independent contractors we have working for us in Iraq are certainly paragons of trust and good, non-corrupt work. Yikes.

Here's my point of view on this issue: the schools need reform, there is no doubt about it. But re-orienting them so that they create better workers is not the answer. The problem with public education in this country has always been that it favored industry too heavily. If you question that truth, check out the essays of my favorite educational theorist (and New York teacher of the year) John Taylor Gatto.

Gatto's conclusion is essentially that in order to educate our children, we need to get them out of the schools. He favors homeschooling, which is something I most definitely oppose for no other reason than that most homeschooling is done by parents who can barely dress themselves, much less instruct their children in the particulars of chemistry. But I agree with Gatto inasmuch as he thinks that American education is essentially worthless. The problem with our system -- and the system that educates the teachers, which is a problem for another post -- is that it creates workers instead of thinkers.

Education should not be about creating anything other than complete adults. Complete adults necessarily are good workers and good citizens; workers are not necessarily those things. Education should be about disciplining the mind, about learning how to learn, about developing critical thinking skills and the ability to question the world around you. We pay lip service to this idea in American education by requiring, among other things, foreign language study. I say lip service, because the justification for the study of foreign languages -- especially Spanish and especially here in the Pacific Time Zone -- is primarily to enable students to communicate in a business context.

The report makes a number of other interesting recommendations, and I will most likely be providing commentary on them presently as I delve further into the findings of the commission over the next few days. But as far as initial reactions go, this panel's contribution to the conversation seems pretty standard: they have identified some key problems but have made recommendations that are either exceptionally unlikely to be implemented or are not nearly forward-thinking enough.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Corna: Rock On

When I set out to buy something that either has great variety or about which I know very little (or, often, both), I harness the power of both Internets -- known to some as Teh Interweb -- and The Google to do exhaustive research. I become outrageously informed, often boring The Madame with lengthy dinnertime discourse on the subject, and then pull the trigger. It's a cycle sort of like addiction, and when I'm in it, I crave information the way the hawk craves field mice.

I'm in that cycle now, trying to learn everything I can about bass guitars. Today's topic is pickups, and I'm doing my best to get to the bottom of what the substantive sonic differences are between active, passive, humbucker, and 2JB pickups. I think I have a pretty good idea.

But never fear: this post is not about that. This post is about this. I found it by accident, but it's amazing, and you should investigate it without delay. And yes, it's a link that's safe for work unless you work in Squaresville. If you work in Squaresville and The Man is your supervisor (and if The Man hates exuberant rock and roll), then save it until you get home. It's a good read. Just remember not to mess up The Devil's Horns. That would be lame.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Barack Chapelle?

Does anybody else think that Barack Obama's speaking voice sounds like Dave Chapelle's white guy voice? Think about it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brokeback Mormon II: The Return

For some reason, I see the same three Mormon missionaries everywhere I go. It's not just that all Mormon missionaries look the same either. It's the same three guys. I go to Target, and they're there already. I drive the to the university, and I pass them on the road. I saw them in the library too: they charged toward me, the light of Nephi burning in their Salt Lake Eyes. It turned out that they just wanted to use the computer directly in front of me, but if you've ever been charged by three crazed members of the Lost Tribe of Israel, then you know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, in celebration of the fact that I seem to be mystically connected to these three guys, here's a little background on our friends from the Beehive State. My hat is off to you, Matt and Trey. Verily I say unto you: you are doing the Lord's work.