Category Archives: music

#366daysofmusic

Near the end of 2015, I read a couple of articles about people who set themselves a daily challenge for the year. One woman crafted a miniature chair; one man sought out and consumed a different flavour of taco. I had previously completed a year of collecting one-second video clips each day and was looking for a new creative but bizarrely obsessive way to mark the passing of time, so the idea of doing something a bit more engaged and therefore challenging appealed to me. So, while other people were resolving to spend 2016 reducing energy consumption and producing less waste and becoming more active in charity efforts, I pledged to listen to, and review, a new music album each day of the year. We all give back to society in different ways.

Throughout the year, people who were aware of my quest kept asking the same question: Why are you doing this? This is, really, two questions: First, Why have you decided to spend the year doing a particular thing each day? and, second, Why is the point of this thing? There are many answers to the former: I enjoy being creative, it feels good to set and achieve a goal, having a routine helps keep you motivated on days when you’re feeling lacklustre, doing this ensures I will have at least one thing to blog about this year, and so on.

I originally thought that the latter question was simpler, and had only a single answer: I have a ridiculously large music collection and this will a) justify my ownership of all those albums and b) encourage me to finally listen to things that I’ve never even played once. Almost immediately, though, I began to realise that there was a lot more going on underneath the surface. I had hoped to encourage brand new musical adventures and the revisiting of albums I didn’t feel had received sufficient attention, but I found myself pushed and pulled towards particular songs/albums/artists/genres on particular days or in particular situations. My head might say, “You should listen to the Frazey Ford you’ve never heard,” but my heart would say, “Nope. I want to wrap that Loreena McKennitt around me like a warm blanket.” Some days I could barely force myself to listen to anything at all, but on other days I had a near-continuous soundtrack from my first cup of tea until I turned out the light at bedtime. I thought perhaps there might be some sort of deep and fundamental truths I could unearth by reflecting on all this more systematically, so like a good little scientist I began to collect data. Let’s take a look, shall we?

One of the very first things I noticed–also commented upon by friends who followed the progress of my project on Facebook–was a consistent generosity in my ratings:

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Over the course of the year, my ratings averaged out to 7.5 out of a possible 10, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 10 (not that I gave too many of either of those two extremes). The most common rating, also the median, was 8. Obviously my sample here was biased, because I was predominantly listening to music I already own–which, given the amount of research and sampling I typically do before committing to an album, probably meant I was pretty fond of the record itself, the artists, or both, by the time I made the purchase. On top of that, despite my initial interest in exploring the neglected corners of my music collection, I couldn’t help but feel drawn towards albums I knew and loved; I was cherrypicking the best ones and, for the most part, avoiding the stuff I’d deemed unworthy. Finally, I tend to be relatively generous whenever I give marks to anything, so in addition to focusing on the best of the best, I am probably guilty of inflation caused by over-enthusiasm. I know all of these things are true, but I prefer to think that I just happen to own really excellent music.

Despite the biases mentioned above, I did actually try to facilitate diversity and variation in my listening. When I’d had too many top-ranking albums in a row, and especially when I kept choosing the very same score again and again, I would deliberately select something I was less familiar with or that I’d previously dismissed as substandard.

Quality over time

To some extent, you can see this reflected in my listening pattern over the year (above). Although the bulk of ratings are clustered in the 7-8 band, you can see regular peaks and troughs, especially after a little plateau. There was more variation right at the beginning of the year, in early April when I did my painful survey of Cat Power albums, and then in early September when I was short on time while traveling and therefore chose albums predominantly based on their length (where shorter = better) rather than their quality. Basically, I think this graph shows that, despite my best intentions, I was fairly consistent in prejudicially choosing tried-and-true albums throughout the year. [It’s worth noting that the “0” towards the end of the year is actually an “n/a” associated with a novelty album. I don’t think I own anything atrocious enough to merit a real 0.]

I do feel guilty about failing to explore certain overlooked albums. When I started #366daysofmusic, there were specific records that I wanted to listen to; Joan as Police Woman’s “The Classic”, Sara Watkins’ self-titled album, and the aforementioned Frazey Ford all spring to mind. I listened to none of them. I also feel guilty about inconsistencies in my rating methodology. On the day that I picked a particular album, I might listen to it once or multiple times, after either having never heard it before or heard it many times previously; sometimes I already knew the artist and was predisposed to be positive, but other times I was unfamiliar with the performer and probably more likely to be skeptical. I knew it wasn’t really fair to consider all of these listening experiences equal, especially considering that many artists, and even entire genres of music, provide an experience that needs to be repeated and pondered–nurtured, even–before you can be fully appreciative. All those albums that have, or might have, grown on me over time were given short shrift in #366daysofmusic. Given that it wasn’t a full-blown scientific study, I think I can forgive myself, but the point remains: It pays to be a patient listener who doesn’t dismiss things too readily.

I am also all in favour of being open-minded when it comes to genres. I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly eclectic listener. There are certain genres I don’t own in droves or listen to routinely, and, on the flip side, others that I strongly prefer. I like all sorts of styles, however, including those that blend elements from different periods and disciplines and cultures. Did #366daysofmusic reflect that variety?

genre-frequency

To the best of my abilities, I assigned each of my chosen albums a genre, and the resulting graph (above) shows that I do, indeed, listen pretty widely across the musical spectrum. When people ask me what my favourite genre is, I tend to default to “Americana” because it is an easy way to summarise that I like earthy-sounding stuff that draws from predominantly country, folk, bluegrass, traditional, and early rock influences. Basically, I like what my voice sounds good singing; I am also a sucker for the haunting sound of melancholy melodies and eerie reverb. Harmonic, moody music.

I find myself groaning in aural pain every time I turn on BBC Radio 1, so I never would have guessed that I listened to so much music best categorised as “pop”; then again, “pop” is short for “popular”, so I suppose its prevalence kind of makes sense. The peaks associated with “indie” and “rock” also caught me off-guard because I though that I dislike those genres.  I suspect the mismatch results from the fact that I am inordinately fond of, and own all the albums by, certain artists within those genres–Alt-J, for example–but view those as exceptions to the rule. There are many ways to be “rock” or “indie”, after all, and it is possible to like the decor within a particular room but not like the overall style of the house in which those rooms are found. Or something.

In order to see whether my ratings were kinder in some categories than in others, I produced the following graph that breaks at least a half dozen data analysis rules:

Rating by genre

At first glance, this suggests that there is a slight gradient across the genres, with some getting consistently more favourable reviews than others. I’ve left off the label of the bottom axis because it’s a riot of words, but the genres towards the left, more favourable, side are things like “folk”, “soundtrack”, “pop”, and “indie”. The ones towards the right are things like “reggae”, “hip hop”, and “electronic”. There may be kind of a legitimate pattern here: The genre with the highest average rating is “traditional” and the genre with the lowest (discounting the “blues” outlier driven by a particular album I really dislike) is “jazz”; I do, in fact, really love traditional music and really dislike jazz, on the whole. But, as I said, this particular sample was generated by very biased data gathering techniques, so further music listening would be required to explore this pattern further.

The last graph I made looks at whether I exhibited any temporal patterns in terms of what genre I listened to when:

Genre over time

I randomly assigned each different genre a number between 1 and 22, so what you’re looking for here are clusters of neighbouring lines of the same height. For me, the most noticeable trend is that I started off with admirable variety over the first few weeks of the year, hopping from one type of music to another as I made my way through my collection. At the end of the year you can see a little cluster of genre 20, which was “holiday”. In between, you can see groupings of similar genres interspersed with brief forays into something different. As with the plot looking at quality over time, I can’t help but interpret this as evidence of a tendency to retreat into a comfort zone that I have to consciously work to prod myself out of for the sake of exploration and variety. I’m just relieved to see that there are peaks and valleys, and that I do sail off into new and uncharted waters occasionally. I hate to think that I may be missing out on something amazing simply because I’ve fallen into a rut.

The graphs are an amusing way to visualise my #366daysofmusic adventure, but they fail to capture the most interesting and important things I learned. I found that my mood really influenced what type of music I was willing to listen to. If I was feeling stressed, I wanted some soothing classical piano or Loreena McKennitt. If I was bummed, I was drawn towards Lana Del Rey or Bon Iver. If I was feeling energetic, I might play Lady Gaga or The Black Keys. I noticed that my choice of music could either reinforce how I was already feeling or help me actively combat it: Wallowing in some lugubrious Lera Lynn is perfect for savouring a sensation of gloom, whereas Mark Knopfler is balm to a suffering soul. Singing along always made the listening experience more enjoyable, and dancing around further augmented the happy mood. Even though I might not want to crank up the trance when I’m in a grump, I discovered that it’s likely to do a lot more good than drooping around with some Carla Morrison or Chelsea Wolfe (however much I may like their albums).

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One of my favourite places in my hometown is Hoffa’s music store, which I photographed for a blog post about the things that make Athens most dear to me.

I also noticed that I continue to have very strong associations between certain songs/artists/genres and particular memories and sensations. Once your mind has established links between specific tracks and specific people–especially people you’ve been in a romantic relationship with, and especially especially people you’ve broken up with–I think it must be nigh on impossible to erase them. I’ve gotten to the point where “The Sound of Silence” is no longer ruined by its connection to the ex-boyfriend who first played it for me, but I still can’t play it without having at least a fleeting thought of that idiot; how annoying. Country music always reminds me of summer, and hearing it makes me picture driving down a midwestern US highway with corn fields on either side. The soundtrack to The Matrix brings back scenes from my high school track meets, and “The Electric Slide” will always time-warp me to middle school dances.

If you’re lucky, you begin to know yourself better as you grow older. You refine your tastes and you hone your abilities to pinpoint exactly those experiences that will bring you the greatest pleasure. Part of this probably has to do with growing wiser, and part of this probably results from necessity: You have to spend so much time and money doing super-important grown-up things, you have to figure out ways to avoid wasting precious seconds and pennies. On the one hand, this means you can accurately predict that if you like Artist X or Album Y, you will also like Z (increasingly intelligent algorithms also help with this). On the other hand, you risk becoming blinkered and missing out on those joyous moments of unexpected discovery. It is a tricky balance to strike, and I was surprised by how reluctant I sometimes was to strike out on a little auditory adventure. If music is a microcosm representative of the rest of my life,  I will obviously have to be ever-vigilant of my feet-dragging tendencies.

The final lesson I learned is that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing–even music. After obsessing over my daily selections for the entirety of 2016, I hit a wall in 2017. I needed silence. I needed birdsong drifting in through an open window. I needed the music produced by my own instruments and not somebody else’s. I needed to focus on thoughts rather than noises. I needed to seek enlightenment and enjoyment through some other medium (hence #poetic2017). This abrupt desire to take a hiatus may have been unrelated to #366daysofmusic; I did also overindulge on the La La Land soundtrack shortly after Christmas, and perhaps that was the last straw. Regardless of its origins, the need for silence was strong and lengthy and I am only just returning to normal. I have gained a deeper appreciation for people who review music for a living; I do not know how they manage to listen as widely and deeply as they need to for their jobs without going crazy from lack of peace and quiet.

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When I was young, I spent many hours at various rehearsals at Ohio University’s School of Music

What I haven’t gained a deeper appreciation for is music itself, because that would be impossible. Even when I wasn’t listening to it recently, I was still playing it (as in, on my instruments), and reading about it, and buying tickets for concerts. I don’t remember the time before I learned how to play piano, and some of our earliest family films feature me singing fearlessly and with great aplomb right into the lens. Lasting friendships have sprung up with fellow music performers, not just because of a shared excitement about particular genres and artists, but because there is a special sort of bond that develops when you join together to create beautiful sounds and rhythms using your own bodies. Music has provided a soundtrack to my life that has augmented my very highest moments and helped to rejuvenate me and fill me back up at my very lowest and emptiest. It provides a sort of spiritual sustenance.  It has been a constant companion, not just for the 366 days of 2016, but also for the approximately 12,700 days that preceded it. However many more thousands of days are left to me, I hope that they, too, are days of music.

Further reading

  • By happy chance, Susan Maury curated Real Scientists during #366daysofmusic. She has some amazing wisdom to share about music psychology.
  • Music is more portable than ever, and some researchers are looking at the role of music in daily life.
  • I’m not the only one who loves music so much. Scientists are trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent in human cultures.
  • If you want to become a better listener to music, you might want to read this article.
  • Do you have a particular fondness for the tunes of your youth? Blame your neurons for that musical nostalgia.

Getting some culture

When I was a little girl, my parents used to buy us season tickets to whatever events were on offer at Ohio University’s Memorial Auditorium; we went to see orchestras, musicals, plays, and many performances that were some combination of two or more of these things. When I was older, I branched out into talks and book readings. However, concerts have always been my favorite cultural outings. Since my first pop concert (Yanni, if you can believe it), I have seen virtual unknowns and iconic veterans and everyone in between (including Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Kathleen Edwards, Rufus Wainwright, and Neko Case, just to name a few).

Down here in Cornwall, though, it is not always easy to attend these sorts of shows and performances. We are really, really far away from pretty much everything; getting here can be logistically tricky, time-consuming, and expensive. As a result, Falmouth folks generally need to hit the road if they want to get some culture.

Prior to this summer, Sasha and I hadn’t made too many trips for this purpose; mainly we just went to gardens and beaches and other outdoorsy, nature-related destinations. This past spring, though, I began to feel an urge to diversify. I kept my eyes open for cultural opportunities, and, over the course of just a few months, managed to make up for quite a lot of lost time.

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The Eden Sessions stage

Our first adventure took us to the Eden Project, which hosts a number of summertime musical acts in a series called The Eden Sessions. At the last minute, Sasha and I found out about a concert by Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band that sings in a made-up language. Their music is very atmospheric, and I can’t imagine listening to it in a better venue than Eden; it’s the type of sound that needs to be released out into the open air, rather than contained inside the walls of a coliseum.

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Sigur Ros in concert

The band accompanied their acoustic performance with a dramatic light show. Sasha and I weren’t too far away from the stage, but we were off to one side and couldn’t see the performers very well. Being able to see all the lights more than made up for this; it was kind of like watching a man-made version of the aurora borealis.

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The Sigur Ros light show, as seen from the top of the hill

I wasn’t feeling too well on the evening of the concert–I’d had a headache all day and my sore back was making the picnic-style seating very uncomfortable. Despite this, I really enjoyed myself. The band gave an amazing performance and the overall show was fantastic. I think it’s probably one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to see.

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Hand stamp from The Exchange, the Bristol venue where Daughn Gibson played on 30 August 2013

The Sigur Ros show was followed by another musical act that was much farther from home, and was facilitated by something I heard on the radio when I was visiting my parents in the US over the summer. While listening to National Public Radio, I heard a profile of Daughn Gibson, an artist who had previously made a living as a trucker and a clerk at an adult store, among other things. His music was as gritty and unusual as you might expect; the clips played on NPR sounded odd but intriguing. I purchased the album after returning to the UK and immediately fell in love. When I visited Gibson’s website in the hopes of tracking down some song lyrics, I discovered that he would be playing at Bristol’s The Exchange–with tickets going for a mere £7.50 a head. Sold!

Sasha and I drove up after work on the evening of the concert, with the intention of checking into our hotel, eating dinner at one of the restaurants picked out of my Good Food Guide, and then heading to the show in time to skip the opening act but see Gibson’s performance. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans. We ran into absolutely terrible traffic that turned a 3-hour trip into a 5-hour nightmare; we had to cancel our dinner reservations and eat a quick and mediocre meal in the hotel.

However, because our accommodations were so close to the venue, we got to The Exchange in time to see both acts. This actually turned out to be a good thing; the (local) warm-up band was extremely talented, and the lead singer had a particularly incredible voice. I wasn’t keeping a close eye on my watch, but I’m pretty sure that their set lasted about as long as Gibson’s, which was surprisingly short. I believe it was the first show of his tour, and that he’d come to the venue straight from the airport. I was a little disappointed that the show didn’t last longer, and that the sound wasn’t better (it was hard to hear his voice over the music, and to discern his lyrics). However, he did play one of my favorite songs from his new album, and I did pay less than £8 for the ticket, so I suppose I got my money’s worth.

To make the whole Bristol trip worthwhile, Sasha and I went to the mall the next day to buy a bunch of domestic things that are hard to find here in Cornwall. On our drive back home, we listened to Daughn Gibson’s entire album; that helped me feel as though I’d adequately shared the music with Sasha, who had not heard any of Gibson’s tunes prior to our trip.

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The exterior of Supperclub, the intimate venue where Lindsey Stirling played a secret concert for winners of her ticket giveaway contest

The next outing was one that I had to make alone, since it occurred right in the middle of the work week. I was freelancing at the time, which meant that I had no scheduling constraints that couldn’t be overcome; the same was not true of Sasha or any of my friends. But, as an only child used to entertaining myself, I was more than happy to go it alone–especially since the event in question was not one that I expected any of my acquaintances to particularly enjoy.

I had unexpectedly won a pair of tickets to go see the electric violinist Lindsey Stirling, who made a name for herself by converting her appearance on America’s Got Talent into a full-time career, thanks to her incredibly popular YouTube channel.

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Lindsey Stirling in action

I have been a huge fan of electric violin ever since I bought a Vanessa Mae album back when I was in high school. I stumbled across Stirling’s music purely by accident, but was immediately hooked. She’s got an enthusiastic and bubbling personality, and transfers all of that energy into her performances; not only is she playing music that she herself arranged, she is also doing it while dancing steps that she choreographed. Her performance was incredibly high-energy and fun, and I never could quite get over the fact that I was being treated to the show for free.

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Sunrise over London

Of course, it was only the concert ticket that was free; I had to pay for my own transportation up from Cornwall, as well as my hotel. It’s not cheap to get to or stay in London, but I managed to find an amazing deal on my accommodation–the photo above shows the lovely view out my window. It was only a 20-minute walk from the concert venue, via swanky (and safe!) Notting Hill. The only drawback was that my en suite bathroom was about the tiniest room you could imagine:

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I could literally shower, pee, and wash my face simultaneously, if I’d wanted to. (Note: I did not try this, in case you are wondering.)

Three of the next four outings were all courtesy of Hall for Cornwall, which is only a 20 minute drive from our apartment. When I saw how many things they had scheduled–plays, musicals, concerts, stand-up gigs, etc.–I felt like a fool for never having gone there before.  I was particularly excited about the possibility of seeing stand-up, since I watch it all the time on TV, but had never had the chance to see live. Two of the acts scheduled for HfC were some of my absolute favorites–Jimmy Carr, famous for being incredibly un-PC and inappropriate, and Alan Davies, famous for acting as Stephen Fry’s dunce-like foil on the TV show QI. (HfC had also booked Sarah Millican, another of my favorites, but unfortunately her show was already sold out.)

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The Jimmy Carr show was up first, and it was in the same format as some of his previous shows that I’ve seen broadcast on TV–but, happily, this one had all-new material. As you might expect, there were quite a few hecklers in the audience, but Carr was very adept at dealing with them. A couple provided remarks that turned into some of the funniest jokes of the evening; however, there were also a couple of truly cringeworthy moments courtesy of people who were trying to make Carr mess up, but only ended up embarrassing themselves. In any case, I laughed so much that my face hurt by the time we left, so I considered the show a success.

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Stage at the Princess Pavillion

Our second stand-up show was one that was hosted by HfC, but actually took place at the Princess Pavillion right here in Falmouth. I found out about the performance when I visited PP for the Falmouth Tea Festival, which turned out to not really be a festival or feature much tea…but at least I saw a poster advertising the upcoming show of Steve Hughes, an Australian comedian that I’d previously watched on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.

Hughes is a liberal conspiracy theorist who does a lot of political material. His opening act was an unexpectedly amusing New Zealander who made some very astute cultural observations about Brits. Hughes picked up on this theme before diverging into philosophical and political musings. Some of his material was both entertaining and thought-provoking; other stuff was a bit long-winded and self-indulgent. Overall, though, it was enjoyable–and a mere five minutes’ walk from our apartment! (I had never seen a performance in the Pavillion before, and I found it to be a cozy little place that created a nice atmosphere; I can definitely see us going back there.)

Alan Davies' set at the HfC
Alan Davies’ set at the HfC

Our final comedy gig of the season was Alan Davies’ Life is Pain show at the HfC. Sasha felt some trepidation over this performance, because we’d never actually seen Davies do stand-up and weren’t sure if he would be as funny in a lone act as he is in a group on TV. However, I think this might actually have been my favorite of the three gigs we went to see. Davies’ humor is not nearly as biting as Carr’s or Hughes’; he is almost sheepishly self-deprecating and relaxed, which creates the feeling that he’s just an old friend goofing around on stage.

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Alan Davies in action. I’d been afraid to take a cell phone shot until he paused mid-show and posed for some students photographing him in the front row.

The poor guy had traveled all the way to Cornwall from Northumberland, and, assuming he was telling the truth, had only arrived at the HfC minutes before he was due to go on stage. He was quite good at engaging the audience in a conversational sort of way, which created an entirely different atmosphere than the one during the Carr show, in particular. Although Davies had ‘hecklers’, they were all strangely friendly, and many of them were genuinely witty and funny. I think this probably stems from the identity of the audience as much as it does the comedian–I’m guessing Davies’ fans are generally a bit calmer and more mature than Carr’s.

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The spare but incredibly clever set of Mansfield Park

To round out my cultural experiences this year, I also went to see a play–the first play I’ve attended since watching Much Ado About Nothing with my mom during the last summer I lived in Williamsburg, VA (home of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival). This play was another ladies’ night; I went with my friend Sarah, who, like me, is a huge fan of Jane Austen. I knew that she would be the perfect date for the play adaptation of Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Funnily enough, neither of us ranks Mansfield Park as one of Austen’s best books, but we both wanted to give the show a chance regardless. One of our big quibbles is with the main character, Fanny, who has a tendency towards wimpiness and is maybe too much of a goody-too-shoes (by today’s standards, at least). However, in this particular rendering of the story, both the script and the actress did a good job of toeing the line, allowing Fanny to be pure and morally upright without being too much of a prude, or being pushed around too much by her insensitive family.

I was also really impressed with how few cast members were required for the entire show. Several people played two roles, and one played three–and I did not even realize the full extent of the redundancy until the very end, when everyone came out to bow. The cleverness and efficiency of the casting were upstaged (pun intended!) only by the amazing set. Entrances/exits and clothing changes were assisted by the ‘maid’ and ‘butler’ who stood on hand to provide the bonnets, ribbons, baskets, etc. that were used to indicate where people were, what they were doing, and when each scene was occurring relative to the last one. It was one of the simplest but most effective sets I’ve ever seen, and I applaud (another pun intended!) whoever designed it.

It looks like we are done seeing live shows for the season; we head to the US in about a month, and have already dedicated most of the intervening weekends to a conference and local gatherings with friends. If we want any other amusement, we’ll just have to go to the movies. (Not a bad second choice!)

For the future, though, I plan to sign us up as ‘Friends’ of the Hall for Cornwall–a designation that will allow us sneak peaks at scheduled shows, as well as access to better seating. I am looking forward to seeing what kinds of performances the new year will bring–both in Cornwall and beyond!

Pennywhistle mania

When you’re a kid, you can be pretty certain that you will have a good summer. From mid-June until late August, you don’t have to worry about anything except choosing ice cream flavors and deciding how you will amuse yourself for the afternoon. It is amazing–relaxing, enriching, entertaining, and, most of all, fun. Then you grow up and summers are like the other three seasons of the year, but with better weather outside your office window. If I had to make you a list of the top ten things that depress me about being an adult, having to work summers would definitely be high on my list.

However, I am currently “between contracts” (to be extremely euphemistic), which has given me an opportunity to have a bit of freedom this summer. For the past couple of weeks, I have been able to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it. It’s fantastic. I’ve watched DVDs, I’ve cooked elaborate meals, I’ve gone on ridiculously long walks along the coast, I’ve tried my hand at making a video, and, perhaps most enjoyable of all, I’ve taken up a new instrument.

Proof that I have been taking long walks along the coast–even in less-than-stellar weather

I last learned a new instrument in high school, when I decided that I absolutely needed to be able to play the guitar. Unfortunately, the idea of the instrument was better than the reality. I struggled to translate my musical savvy from the piano to the guitar, and it was extremely frustrating to me that I made very little progress, very slowly. The best I could ever do was use the guitar to play chords so that I could sing along or write my own songs; I never really got to the point where I could contemplate playing a solo or picking the main melody. My big problem was that I could never really wrap my mind around how the guitar worked. My understanding of the instrument was very superficial, and I had no real intuition. That (and my busy schedule) is why I haven’t played guitar for at least a year, and so felt inclined to lend it to a colleague for the summer. “Why not”, I figured? “What is the likelihood that I’ll want to play it?”

Of course you know where this is going. With all this spare time (and energy!), my desire to make music resurfaced, but I had no instrument to hand…well, almost no instrument. On a shelf in our spare bedroom, tucked away in its original packaging, was a Walton’s tin whistle that my mom bought me at least a decade ago when she and my dad were in Boston. I tooted on it a couple of times after I first received it, but have otherwise left it alone all this time; I had a guitar to play, after all, plus I knew nothing about woodwinds and had no real reason to make the time to learn.

My Walton’s tin whistle, a.k.a. pennywhistle, a.k.a. Irish whistle, a.k.a. whistle

The whistle came with an incredibly brief instruction booklet and notations for a few songs. Many of them were Irish folk tunes that I didn’t recognize, though I was able to attempt some of the traditional American songs that were included. Within a half hour or so, I could haltingly get through an entire song, but there was nothing magical happening. So I decided to get some help from the Internet.

My first whistle tune. Now that I have a bit of knowledge about the whistle, I’m a bit baffled by this notation. It’s written in the key of F, but the Walton’s whistle is in the key of D. Further, if you cover all the holes, as in the first note, you get a D, not a C (as shown here). Hmm.

What I discovered was that practically every man and his brother plays the pennywhistle. Apparently it is an extremely popular instrument–probably because it’s portable, cheap (you can get a decent-sounding one for about $5), and, according to just about everyone online, pretty easy to learn. If you type “tin whistle” into the YouTube search bar, you get over 100,000 hits. You can find tutorials for learning to play things like the “My Heart Will Go On” flute solo from Titanic (like the one here) to “Concerning Hobbits” from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (like the one here). There are also clips of upbeat traditional dancing music (e.g., jigs, reels, polkas), as well as for slower, more haunting songs like “The Irish Sea” (a.k.a. “The Arran Boat Song”) and “King of the Fairies.”

Although you could jump in feet first and learn by copying, you can also get some actual instruction in order to learn the logic of the instrument–which is exactly what I wanted. Lucky for me, there is a fantastic website called the Online Academy of Irish Music, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. They have tons of videos for virtually every Celtic instrument you can imagine; for the whistle, they offer introductory, intermediate, and advanced lessons that not only teach you specific songs, but also scales, exercises, and techniques.

Over the course of my first evening, I went from knowing absolutely nothing to familiarizing myself with all the notes on the whistle, memorizing a new song, and learning an exercise to improve my fingerwork. I have since picked up an additional three songs from OAIM, plus another couple from other YouTube videos. This is remarkable because memorization has never been my strong suit; I have always felt very naked without sheet music in front of me. I try not to move on to a new song until I feel confident about the last one, which is why my repertoire is pretty small even though I’ve been playing for several weeks. Now that I’m fairly comfortable with the basic tunes, I’m beginning to learn some of the embellishments that characterize the best performances, and also to play songs at speed (Irish music can be very fast!).

My whistles: my original Walton’s, a Feadóg, and a Clarke.

Because whistles become waterlogged after a while, and also because each whistle has its own unique sound, I have purchased a couple others to keep my Walton’s company. My first addition was a pink Feadóg, partly because I couldn’t resist the ludicrous color, and partly because Feadógs are pretty highly regarded as far as inexpensive pennywhistles go (feadóg, incidentally, actually means “whistle” in Gaelic). Unfortunately, I think mine has a bit of a flaw, because it does not produce a good clear sound even on the easiest of notes. That is a shame because it responds really well to fingerwork and does a fantastic slide. My favorite whistle is my Clarke, which has a wooden mouthpiece. Some beginners complain about the Clarke because you have to learn a whole new “mouth posture” (if there is such a thing) in order to play it. It is totally worth the effort, though, because the whistle produces such sweet notes; the wood also gives the music a gentler, more haunting aspect.

The whistles are a terrible temptation throughout the day. Even though I’m technically unemployed right now, there are still things I’m supposed to be doing–most importantly, work on the revisions to my book. However, all I really want to do is wander around the apartment whistling (it is particularly fun to whistle in the bathroom, because it is so echo-y). I’ve taken to using the whistles as a reward; every time I meet a goal, I get to do a run-through of all the songs I know, and then it’s back to work again. As you might imagine, I set myself lots of goals.

I also have some goals associated with the whistle. First of all, I want to eventually purchase a low D whistle (an octave down from the soprano D whistles I currently play) so that I can play the solo from Bryan Adams’ “I’m Ready.” It’s a song I’ve loved since I first heard it on MTV Unplugged–way back when MTV still played music–and I have always been particularly captivated by the whistle portion of the track. (No wonder; it’s played by Davy Spillane, who is practically a god of Irish music.) Secondly, I would like to pluck up enough courage to actually go play with people. I’ve already had an (unsolicited) invitation from a friend to go join in with his band, so it could really happen. I’ve always been shy about performing in public, plus I’ve never been good at improvising and just going wherever the music leads. Many whistle songs–perhaps even the majority–are meant to be played with a variety of instruments, for a crowd of dancers; I feel compelled to at least give this a try.

Bernard Overton, the “Father of the Low Whistle.” As you can see, the low whistle is considerably larger than the soprano, and therefore requires more air. I will need to work on my lung capacity before attempting to make music with one of these! Image courtesy of Piper’s Grip.

My only fear is that life will conspire to make this difficult. I never seem to have enough time to do all the things I want to do–the story of an adult’s schedule. Even when time is not an issue, there are so many hobbies I start and then have to give up or cut down on for some reason or another (bowling, kayaking, swimming, soccer, guitar, singing…). There is some hope, though. Since getting back into photography a few years ago, I’ve been very consistent about taking pics and trying new techniques; I also continue to creep along with my crochet projects, and I manage to keep my blogs updated in some way or another even when I am swamped with work. It’s all about finding ways to stay motivated, and choosing not to do the irrelevant stuff (*ahem* Facebook *ahem*) when you could be spending your time on more creative and rewarding things.

In the hopes that I will, in fact, continue to love and play the whistle as much as I do now, I have recorded myself performing all the songs I’ve learned to date. Hopefully I can periodically repeat the exercise in the future and see (or, more accurately, hear) evidence of improvement. That’s the goal, anyway, and now that I’ve stated it in public, it will be embarrassing if I don’t follow through!