April 24, 2011

Marking up Musicals

Filed under: 20-minute,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 8:35 pm
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The sound of music

I like to play musicals. There’s just something fun about learning a show, performing it a bunch of times in quick succession, and then being done with it. I usually play high school musicals, sometimes in a pit with students, or sometimes just a bunch of Old Folks. The shows chosen in high school are usually popular and fun, and frequently challenging. West Side Story kicked my butt the first time I played it, and Singing in the Rain has brutal brass parts. “You mean I only have two beats to yank the mute out of my horn?” Plus you get to meet and bond with a wide spectrum of other musicians. Nothing like 20 minutes of scene-change music to give you a topic of conversation later.

I’ve played 29 shows over the last 25 years or so. In that time, I’ve developed a method for marking my book that makes end-of-show time easier. Ideally you erase your book when you’re done. Take out any cuts, markings, cheats, or changed vocal cues so that the next user of your book doesn’t have to wade through a lot of junk. Supposedly the publisher will fine you if you leave your book marked up, but that never seems to happen given the number of pre-scribbled books I’ve encountered. Still, I don’t like leaving a mess for others to clean up, whether it’s the next dude with the Reed 4 book or a high schooler who’s being forced to erase my book by their band director.

Every show is going to have cuts, that is, sections of songs or dances that are removed. Maybe the song is too long. Maybe the music is too hard. Maybe it’s in the wrong key for the singer. You can always spot a first timer when they make huge pencil markings on the music to indicate a cut. “CUT TO 87” with a huge arrow scribbling over the intervening measures.

There are two problems with this technique: you have to erase a whole hell of a lot more. Also, cuts change. If the cut is made to measure 45 instead of 87, you have to erase 43 bars of scribbles. If the cut is removed (perhaps Little Johnny finally learned to mambo), you’re faced with a lot of erasing.

I use Post-It® notes, in particular the skinny brightly-colored flag-like “page marker” ones. They’re the perfect size for covering up part of a staff of music, say to change the count of a rest, or to block out a part that’s covered elsewhere in the group but is confusing you for a solo entrance. The bright colors make it easy to spot during performance.

The big thing is that they can be picked up and moved easily. Cut’s been changed to bar 43? Just pick up the flag that has the destination arrow on it and put it onto bar 43. The vamp is going to be repeated 8 times? Put a little “8x” on a note. The vamp is out? Just take off the note. The repeat is no good? Tear two skinny notes and hide the repeat bars.

You can make the flags stick out of your book too, making “flip back three pages for the reprise” situations easy. Just put a couple of flags on the page you need to flip back to and have them peek out the side. Easy to grab and turn. I also use the full-sized notes to write “SUCKS”, and put it in my part with “SUCKS” sticking out the top. I can see exactly where I clobbered an entrance or a solo the night before, and can look at it before the next show.

You can also get rolls of Post-It tape. I use that if I re-write a chunk of music and want to attach it to the book. Regular scotch tape will ruin the paper, but Post-It tape lets me easily take it off once the show’s done.

I used to use a fancy system with different colors for different actions – green for cuts, purple for vamps, red for repeats, but that was too complicated. If I see “Cut to 45”, I know what that means. So the colors are just a nice visual side effect.

Next time you play a show, give the Post-It flags a try. I’m all for less erasing and having a flexible system to adapt during changes in the show, which you know will happen.



Getting Started with Animal Balloons

Filed under: 20-minute,balloons,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 3:59 am
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Poodle of light

Today I did my annual “make balloon animals at the First Lutheran Easter Egg Hunt”, which of course was fun. After posting a quick “did this. I’m tired. Nap time” status to facebook I got a message from one of my good friends from high school: “You HAVE to teach me how to do balloon animals. How did you get started doing this? Do you have an air pump? Where do you get your supplies?”

Back in the mists of time (1985 I think) I had picked up one of the Aaron Hsu-Flanders books from a local bookstore. It had 20 balloons, a little “ear squirter” pump that took at least 20 squeezes to inflate one balloon, and a Garfield-sized book of grainy black and white photos for making various creatures, starting with a dog and ending with a teddy bear. There were only about ten critters you could make from the book, but I was hooked. I found a place in town that sold the higher-quality balloons. Oddly enough, it was an oxygen supplier. I learned to mouth-inflate because I got very tired of the squeezy pump that came with the book. Since then I have acquired books, VHS tapes, DVDs, attended conferences, and generally had a good time making my little inflatable rubber friends. There are few hobbies that can elicit expressions of pure joy like this:


I get all my stuff from T.Myers Magic, at Good gear, good prices, good people. Check out TJam on the Road for their road show. If one comes close to you, go to it!

Avoid the kits you see in bookstores or from Wal-Mart. The balloons tend to be terrible and the instruction books only slightly less so. T.Myers has a starter kit of a pump, a basic intro book, and 100 “Qualatex 260Q” balloons which you should try first. 260 is the technical term for the common animal balloon, and Qualatex is the main brand. These babies are silky smooth and feel like professional tools, vs the junk you get at big box stores. These balloons can withstand a massive amount of abuse before going BOOM.

Even though I mouth inflate, I recommend starting with a good hand pump like the 260 Blaster that comes with the T.Myers intro kit. Two or three pumps will get you a full balloon. Otherwise you’ll incite carpal tunnel with the lame pumps. You can also get floor pumps that’ll inflate a balloon in one gesture, as well as electric dealies. Mouth-inflating is physically demanding and could lead to mouth or eye injuries. My years as a bass trombone player have given me chops of steel, so be smart and be careful.

Once you use up the 100 balloons in the starter kit and decide you’re having fun, the next thing is to acquire is Captain Visual’s Big Book of Balloon Art. This is an incredible compendium of single-balloon figures, as well as some multiple-balloon creations like a giant octopus, a little red wagon, and a number of cartoon characters. I find the diagrams to be very easy to read, although some friends found them less easy to follow. You can build quite a repertoire from this book.

If you’re into videos, the ones by David Bartlett, a.k.a. Mister Raiinbow, are exceptionally good. Twisted: A Balloonamentary is a documentary of some characters in the balloon twister community. You’ll laugh, cry, and have your faith in humanity restored. I’ve met, and learned at the feet of, about half the folks in this film.

If you’re into GodStuff, Ralph Dewey has a huge line of books for “Gospel Twisting.” John Holmes has an incredible “Christ on the Cross” figure as well. Even if you’re not into that kind of stuff, you can learn a huge amount of technique from Ralph and John.

BalloonHQ is the place for balloon twister and balloon decorator (a.k.a. “stacker”) discussion, and the site has a huge Guide to Ballooning. You can get lost in there for days on end.

Balloon twisting can be a slippery slope. Soon you’ll be getting more books and DVDs. Then getting balloons in single colors so you always have the perfect shade of blue available. There are special bags and aprons you can get for carrying them around. Smiley faces. Alien Faces. 260s. 160s. 350s. 321Bs, and on and on and on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

If you decide to start making balloons for other people, like at church, the flea market, Take Your Kid To Work Day, be sure to join the World Clown Association and get the Entertainer’s liability insurance. You don’t want to get financially wiped out if some kid chomps a poodle and gets injured or chokes to death.

If you take my Advanced Mac OS X Bootcamp from the Big Nerd Ranch, one of our mid-week activities is learning about balloons, as well as making your own. It has no relationship at all to programming, but a nice breather during an intense week of teaching and learning.

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April 22, 2011

More Air!

Filed under: 20-minute,bassoon,Mark Norman,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 6:35 pm
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Halloween tree

Another one of Mark Norman’s favorite phrases back when I played in his bands was “More Air!”. Playing a wind or brass instrument requires air. Many amateur musicians don’t Play Out enough. This can be linked back to not using enough air. Hence, When in Doubt Playing Out requires More Air!

Mark used to work with the Music and Arts chain of music stores in Northern Virginia. For whatever insane reason, they let him make a radio commercial. It of course featured tuba, since Mark is a tuba player. The commercial was a “lesson” with Dr. Adidibandyopatai (or something like that), with a hilariously terrible Indian accent, repeating “Morrre Aiirrrrr!  Morrre Aiirrrrr!” to his struggling tuba student. Over this tableaux Mr. Norman intoned the availability of private lessons at Music and Arts. It was probably the most surreal commercial on the local radio at the time.

To this day, Sharlotte and I still say “Morrre Aiirrrrr!” to each other.

I myself have had a More Air moment. I’ve always had pretty good technique on trombone and bassoon, but kind of a fuzzy, weak sound. I had one or two lessons with Mark, and we did the usual exercises of using wind power to keep a piece of paper pinned to the wall as long as possible, and blowing into weird torture devices to suspend a ping pong ball in a column of air. But the advice of, “dude, just use more air. Fill those lungs and blow” is what did it for me.

Pushing More Air through your horn leads to other improvements in your playing. You need to collect a large lungful of air in the first place (unless you’re an oboe player, of course). You can’t collect a good quantity of air if your posture is bad. Sitting up straight, on the edge of your chair lets you inhale more deeply. Poof. More Air!

You also have to learn more control over your instrument. Sure you could force a lungful of air through your trombone at mach 3, but it’ll last five seconds and sound terrible. You need to learn control over your air. By making your More Air last longer, you’ll get better tone, a better dynamic range, plus be able to sustain longer phrases. More Air in the lungs let you keep a constant column of air going into your horn for a longer period of time. A consistent air column means you have less work to and fewer adjustments to make from moment to moment.

Maybe you’ll need a different reed or mouthpiece to support putting More Air through your horn. That’s one reason why I like the David Brundage bassoon reeds: you can push a huge amount of air through them before the sound starts distorting. If you have to fill a church sanctuary with sound during a solo piece, you need to have the volume and projection that come from moving More Air through the horn.

It’s amazing, but that two word piece of advice was the start of a chain reaction that has drastically improved my playing over the 15-some-odd years since I first heard it.


Certifications as a Learning Tool

Filed under: 20-minute,programming,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 1:18 am
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Shoktar devourer of worlds

Matt Kloskowski had a posting on his Lightroom Killer Tips blog about LightRoom 3 ACE (Adobe Certified Expert) certification test prep materials becoming available. Then there were a couple of paragraphs defending the whole certification process: basically, if you’re looking for a career that is based on Lightroom or Photoshop, having the ACE sticker on your resumé is a good thing. It shows potential employers that you have a certain base-level of knowledge, and the sitck-withitedness to see the ACE through to its completion.

Possessing a certification doesn’t mean you’re good, of course. I’ve worked with Certified Oracle DBAs that were freaking amazing. (xux, I’m looking at you), and others that barely knew how to analyze a table. Both were certified Oracle DBAs. Both had passed the tests. But quite a difference in knowledge, ability, and work ethic.

That being said, I kind of like certification tests. Even if you don’t need the certification and don’t intend on taking the tests, they certification test contents provide a curriculum you can use to learn stuff.

I rarely admit it, but I have an Oracle 8i DBA certification. I took the five tests, passed them on the first try, and got my little certificate and card. Did I want to be a DBA? Hell no. Good DBAs live a high-stress life keeping twitchy and cranky systems up and running. But I wanted to be a better developer. I like being self-sufficient. If I could set up my own Oracle instance I could do local experiments and not rely on the remote systems. If I knew how all the different moving parts interact I can design the physical layout of my schemas so that disk I/O is somewhat optimized. If I knew how the profiling tools work I can rapidly tune queries, or at least figure out what tradeoffs I need to make to achieve adequate performance. If I knew how backups worked I would know the difference between a good backup scheme and one that’ll bite us in the ass if the DB turns toes-up. I could also restore to a test cluster to run tests against “production data” that wouldn’t actually affect the production site.

Oracle’s exams were broken into five tests. I used Oracle’s training materials as well as the “Exam Cram” series of books to steep myself in the material for each test. I could have skipped taking the test of course, but the company was willing to pay the $100 or so for each one, so it was a no-brainer to take. That little certificate might have come in handy later on. (It didn’t)

After my Oracle work, I was needing to learn Java quickly for a contracting gig. At everyone’s recommendation I tried working through Bruce Eckel’s introductary book Thinking in Java. Unfortunately, it’s what I call a “loops are cool!” book. As a developer with fifteen years of experience under my belt, I just couldn’t fathom slogging through beginner programmer material.

Then I found the Java2 Exam Cram books. I really should have looked for those first. They were geared, of course, to giving you the info to pass Sun’s Java certification tests. This was perfect for an experienced developer. The books were a distillation of all that was different with Java from other languages, as well as a discussion of any truly peculiar portions of the language. A week of reading a couple of these books prepared me for kicking butt on-site.

So, looping back to Lightroom, will I take the Lightroom 3 ACE test? Nope. But I’ll probably pick up some of the educational materials so I can find out more about the software product I use after every photo shoot I do. I’ve already spent a couple hundred dollars on software, and hundreds of hours of my life learning bits and pieces of it, and I know I’ve really only scratched the surface of what it can do. So I believe in the long run it’ll be money well spent.


April 20, 2011

Why I don’t go out much, part 2

Filed under: 20-minute,music,rants — Mark Dalrymple @ 2:07 pm
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D3C 3836

I tend to attract annoying people whenever I venture forth into the world of public performances. In fact, I’ve already written about that once here, with a string of bad experiences at the Lord of the Rings movies. A friend who read it told me “It must be a Lord of the Rings curse”. I wish it were so. I wish it was just limited to that. So here continues the Litany of Annoyance.

We have some good friends in the area, with a daughter who is a serious over-achiever.  In addition to knowing everything Star Wars, she has an incredible singing voice. The final high school choral concert of the year featured her singing a solo. I was expecting a somewhat noisy audience, given that it’s a group of students and parents in a somewhat backwater part of the state, but I was completely unprepared for the rudest grandmothers in the world. You’d think that if you were coming to a concert to hear Little Johnny sing, you would be quiet during the singing parts so you could actually hear them, and talk during the quiet parts. Bizarrely enough, they talked incessantly (and loudly) during the singy parts, and were silent during the in-between parts. After a brief, but friendly, dressing-down by me, they stop talking at the tops of their lungs, and only quietly muttered about “that bastard” sitting in front of them. At least I got to hear Erin’s solo.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is not immune to Audience Members from Hell. Sharlotte and I went to a “building the audience of the future” concert with some fun pops stuff on it. If this is going to be the audience of the future, I think I’ll stick to things like “CD’s” and “mp3s” and “sitting in an orchestra“. We were up in one of the middle balcony sections. Two rows ahead of us and about 30 degrees to our right was a guy eating a big bag of Peanut M&Ms. Crinkle-crinkle-crunch-crunch. Luckily he didn’t throw M&M shells on the floor. Behind us a couple of rows,and near the exit was a Young Teenage Couple making out. Behind us were some folks chatting. And in the row ahead of us, about 10 seats down, was a dude flicking his ticket. *flick*. And not in *flick* time with *flick* the music *flick*flick*.  I was *flick* amazed at his *flick* arhythmic abil*flick*ity to have no correlation *flick*flick*flick* with the music. *flick*.

Even the subscription concerts aren’t immune. Brahms Requiem. Nice piece, with the Mendelssohn Choir doing the backing vocals. The Brahms was on the second half of the concert, with the first half being some modern stuff. Persichetti in particular, and something else. I actually like Persichetti having played some of his band music. The folks behind us apparently hated it. Hated It. They obviously Just Came For The Brahms To See Their Friend Singing, and complained bitterly about being denied that. I’m ordinarily a meek and mild individual, but I had to ask them to be quiet, or leave, since they’re obviously not enjoying the music, and not making it especially pleasant for anyone else.

Musical theater. I was playing a run of Brigadoon in college. Someone out in the audience had a screaming child. Said screaming child was present for both halves of the show. Those of us in a pit (and it was a sunken pit, not able to see the audience at all) were giving each other the “can you believe that?” “no, I don’t really believe that.”

We went with a friend to see Fiddler on the Roof at a downtown theater. Behind us was a father with two young girls, maybe 6 and 8. Too young really for the show. Even though Fiddler has some familiar tunes, it’s a really heavy show. From the outset, the girls were asking “can we go home Daddy?”. “No, watch the first half, and if you want to go home at intermission, we’ll go.” They were reasonably well behaved, although Father Unit decided he had to explain everything that was happening. At half-time, the girls informed their parent, in unison, that they wanted to go home. “We’ve already seen half of it girls, let’s see the rest of it.” Argh! The girls did the right thing and started complaining bitterly, and thankfully they all left ten minutes into the second half.

Really. It’s not you. It’s me. Tell me how the concert or movie was, and I’ll be glad to live through you vicariously. *flick*


April 19, 2011

Learning iPhone Programming

Filed under: 20-minute,cocoaheads,programming,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 5:15 pm
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D31 2840 1

This last weekend I taught an Objective-C and iOS bootcamp to a group of students and faculty at WVU down in Morgantown WV. They have a cool “AppLaunch” project going on, to inspire students to write real applications on iDevices and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit, and they invited me down to kick off the technical portion.

A common question I got beforehand is “what’s the best way to get up to speed on this stuff?” That’s kind of like asking “what’s the best kind of pizza”, it all depends on where you’re coming from, where you want to go, and how fast.

If money is no object, take a Big Nerd Ranch class. In addition to teaching there, I have taken a number of Ranch classes from a bunch of different instructors, and they are all top-notch. The Ranch has a way of doing things that ends up with a really high quality product, enjoyable to both instructor and student. This will cost you a couple thousand dollars and take a week of your life, but you will be well on your way to iPhone programming studliness. Check out AnneKate Halsall’s Taming the Wild Dogcow tumblog for impressions and ah-has during the course of a class.

There are a number of video courses available. Stanford CS 193P iPhone Application Development is online. I had come across another one that was really awesome, but I’ve lost the link :-( . I’ll update this posting if I come across it.

The next level down is books. I love books. I learned to program from books and magazines. Old folks may remember back in the day when computer magazines had pages of BASIC program listings. Keying those in and debugging the inevitable typos is how I learned to program. There are two books I really like for iOS programming: the Apress Beginning iPhone 4 Development: Exploring the iOS SDK by Dave Mark, Jack Nutting, and Jeff LaMarche; and the Big Nerd Ranch iPhone Programming, the Big Nerd Ranch Guide by Aaron Hillegass and Joe Conway. I recommend people read both of them. If one book glosses over a topic the other covers in depth. Disclaimer: I’ve been the technical reviewer for the Apress Beginning iPhone books since the first edition.

What order to read them? If you’re strapped for time, read the Ranch one first. It’s short and to the point. Dedicate a weekend or a couple of evenings and type in everything. Then start working through the Apress book at your leisure.

If you’ve got more time, or you’re working over a longer period of time with other people, such as the Pittsburgh CocoaHeads Learn iPhone project, use the Apress book. It’s longer and wordier (380 vs 630 pages), but goes into topics in more detail. Some of the code is repetitious so you might not want to type in everything.

You’ll want some introductory books if you’ve never programmed before. Stephen Kochan’s Objective-C 2.0 programming Language good. I’m partial to the Apress Learn C on the Mac by Dave Mark, followed by Learn Objective-C on the Mac the latter written by me and my hero Scott Knaster. This pair was designed to take you from “loops are cool!” up through Categories, Properties, and Predicates. If you already know C you can go straight into Learn Objective-C. If you already know how to program in something else and just want a quick brush-up on what’s peculiar to C, I’ve broken out the first two chapters of the first edition of ore Mac OS X Programming into a C Refresher. Learn Objective-C has an appendix on what weirdnesses to expect if you’re coming from other languages like VB or Java. I know I get frustrated when I have to wade through “loops are cool!” when picking up a new language, so it’s nice having different places you can catch the train.

Finally, take a look around your community. You may have an active CocoaHeads or an NSCoderNight chapter, or perhaps an iPhone programming MeetUp. If there’s not one now, start one! There’s nothing like having living breathing people to ask questions of, and to generally hang around with. You might discover one-off classes like what I did at WVU, or longer-term learning projects like what we’re doing at our local CocoaHeads.

(slightly edited and re-posted over at the miniblog)

April 14, 2011

Indoor Cycling

Filed under: 20-minute,cycling — Mark Dalrymple @ 3:10 pm
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Global keiser

Indoor Cycling.  Sounds kind of pointless, doesn’t it? “You go inside, strap yourself to a stationary bike, and pedal nowhere for an hour or more.”  Why not just go outside on a Real Bike?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love riding bikes outside.  Nothing quite like the rush of wind going down a big hill, or the thrill of accomplishment once you reach the top of an even bigger hill.  But Indoor Cycling can be a lot of fun in its own right.

“Spinning™”, a trademarked form of Indoor Cycling, emphasizes a group dynamic.  You’re in a crowd of other folks on bikes, with loud, driving music, getting cues from an instructor.  This is a lot of fun, losing yourself at a primal level with a group of other people.

There are also virtual rides, pioneered by Global Ride out here in Western Pennsylvania.  A virtual ride is a first-person trip in an exotic location, such as Hawaii, Italy, France, or Rhode Island. You’re on your indoor bike watching a video on a big screen, transported to another place.  Throw in some awesome music, and a group of other folks, and you have an indoor experience that replicates much of the outdoor experience.

Riding outdoors is awesome.  Except in my neck of the woods in winter.  Between the ice, snow, and generally terrible drivers, you’d have to be insane to be out on a bike in the winter.  Instead, you can go indoors and work out.  With a structured plan like Cycling Fusion’s Winter Training, you can do work indoors that translates directly to riding outdoors.

Indoors you can concentrate on the four phases of your pedal stroke. Outdoors if you do too much of that you’ll end up in a ditch.  Indoors you can closely monitor your heart rate and see how it changes with exertion.  Outdoors you’ll end up in that ditch again.  Indoors you can do hard intervals followed by quality recovery time.  Outdoors you’re at the mercy of your route and the wind.  One day’s recovery segment becomes hard work as you pedal into a 20 mph headwind.  Many indoor bikes these days have power meters, so you can apply power-based training principles.  Outdoors, power meters will add a couple of thousand dollars to the price of a bike.

For me, I spend late fall and winter inside, where it’s comfortable, and work on the fitness, strength, and skills I’ll need for the next year.  In the spring it’ll probably be half-and-half, with summer primarily being outside.  Unless of course it’s over 100 degrees and 105% humidity, in which case I’ll head back in to someplace climate-controlled, or at least has a bunch of fans.


April 13, 2011

Rapid Learning

Filed under: 20-minute,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 6:05 pm
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Back in the mid-late 90s I stumbled across and the Troubleshooting Professional online magazine. It’s a somewhat odd place, an entire site dedicated to troubleshooting and discussing the ten-step Universal Troubleshooting Process. I sometimes point young programmers to the universal troubleshooting process, becaue having instructions to follow means you don’t cut corners. You can zero in on your problem faster without floundering around and wasting time.

Steve Litt, creator of the troubleshooting process, also created a “rapid learning” system. This boils down to building a lexicon of terms and concepts about whatever it is you’re learning about, build demo systems, and apply the troubleshooting process when your demo systems don’t do what you expect. It’s applicable to all sorts of technical systems, from learning to configure your Postgresql database to absorbing the iOS location and motion APIs.

I know how I learn best, and that’s “eyes to hands to eyes”. Back in college I copied my class notes at the end of every day. I had my scribbly class notebook, and my neater real notebook. I got rid of the scribbled notes after they got transferred to the neater book. Not only did my class notes turn into something legible (my normal handwriting has a half-life of about four hours), but by reading the class notes, writing them down, and then reading them again, it cemented the concepts.

Back when I was studying for my Oracle DBA certification, I would read the materials, type the information into a text document, then read it again, the information stuck. Plus it gave me a pile of text I could go back and search through if needed.

Nowadays I follow a process similar to the Rapid Learning system. Say I’m wanting to learn about the Apple keychain API. I use VoodooPad as a repository of notes.  I watch WWDC sessions and transcribe the slides. That eyes to hands to eyes thing again. I read the API docs and build a lexicon of terms and meanings. This consolidates the necessary information into one place, where in the docs the core information is usually scattered amongst a lot of pages. I also note important calls that I’ll be using or writing about. This keeps all the information in one easy-to-find place, easily searchable later.  Plus with VoodooPad’s handy page linking I can push ancillary information off into another page. It’s there if I need it but out of my face if I don’t. Then I build some projects and figure out why they don’t work. Before I know it, I’ve mastered a new technology.

April 12, 2011

Manual and TTL

Filed under: 20-minute,photography — Mark Dalrymple @ 5:01 pm
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I went to the FlashBus yesterday, an around-the-US tour by two of the big names in small-flash photography: David “Strobist” Hobby and Joe “Numnuts” McNally. David is a manual shooter and Joe is primarily a TTL shooter. The dude sitting next to me, and several others at the seminar didn’t seem to get the distinction between Manual and TTL flash usage. And unfortunately this about the only part of the entire day where I felt the explanations were weak.

Manual is what it says: everything is manual. You have to tell each flash how much light to dump when it is triggered. You can adjust the flash by changing its power directly on the device, usually by fractions of power like 1/128, 1/64, etc or by using a CLS remote unit but telling each flash to be manual. The Elinchrome Skyport system also lets you adjust Big Flashes in manual mode remotely. You’re just telling each flash exactly how much light to dump when triggered. How that light looks, is entirely up to you. Want more fill? Increase your fill flash a stop from 1/32 to 1/16 and see.

How do flashes get triggered? There are a couple of ways – you can PocketWizard each of them. You can also optically slave them so that a trigger flash, say a 1/128 speedlite on your camera, will cause the other flashes to fire. Nikon calls this “SU-4” mode. A CLS commander can also trigger the lights.

TTL, on the other hand, has a back-and-forth conversation between the camera and the speedlight that figures out how much power each flash will dump when triggered. You configure the lighting ratios on the commander: the key light is 1.0 (baseline), the fill light is -1.0 stop, the kicker light is +1.3 stop, and so on.

When you press the shutter release button the camera, a complex dance happens. A preflash is emitted. The speedlite looks at a message encoded in the flash, and then fires itself. Each of the groups fires in turn, the camera sees how much light is being produced by them, by using a sensor inside the camera getting the light Through The Lens (hence the name TTL). In conjunction with the ambient light, the camera’s exposure settings, and an N-thousand database of exposure scenarios, the camera figures out on the fly what the absolute power each flash needs to dump. “Group A, you’ll fire at 1/4. Group B, you’ll fire at 1/16. Group C you’ll fire at 1/2.”.

Once each flash is told what power they’ll fire, they’ll wait until they get an “OK! Go!” signal from the commander, and then dump their light on to the scene.

In manual you have complete control over every light. You could have 37 lights each with a different settings. It is more labor and mentally intensive configuring each light, but because you have complete control, there are no surprises from shot to shot.

In TTL you give up a measure of control to the computer brains in the speedlites and the camera in exchange for convenience. You just specify the ratios of light between different groups. You can move from dark lighting conditions to brighter, and system will compensate by telling the flashes to dump more or less light. The exposures will generally look pretty good. You spend more time taking pictures than configuring lights. But then you also get to debug things when things go weird if TTL gets confused.


April 10, 2011

When in Doubt, Play Out

Filed under: 20-minute,Mark Norman,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 10:33 pm
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Play outOne of my favorite band directors from my sordid past is Mark Norman. That man could get a group of mediocre musicians to perform far beyond their skill, and generally perform it well. I’m still impressed that our little community band in Loudoun did the complete DeMeij Lord of the Rings Symphony after only a year or two of existence. Mr. Norman is a source of a large number of short and sweet sayings related to music. One of the ones I have taken totally to heart is “When in Doubt, Play Out.”

I spend nearly most of my music time in the amateur realm: community bands, orchestras, high school and community theater musicals, and church music. Occasionally I get paid, but I know I am purely an avocational musician. One thing I have noticed amongst my peers is that many of them are timid. They’re afraid of their horns.  They’re afraid of their parts. They’re afraid of the music. “I can’t play that solo!” “I don’t want to play this part by myself!”

When in doubt, play out. The solo might be easier than you think. If you screw up. Big Deal. We all screw up. Sometimes even spectacularly in concert (I know I have). If you screw it up, try again.

If you’re timid in rehearsal, you’ll be timid in performance. Practice makes permanent.  You might as well not be there. The part you are covering is important, otherwise the composer would not have written it and the publisher would not have spent the money to publish it (well, except maybe for alto clarinet parts. I believe those are a contractual liability left over from the late 1800s). The part deserves to be heard. Inner parts too. Sometimes the third clarinet part is more important than the first.

I’m a firm believer in the conductor’s hand. I’ll play my part out with the power I think it deserves. If I don’t get The Hand from the conductor I assume I’m playing it right. If it’s too loud for the texture I pull it back under direction. That way the conductor understands that I know my part, that I can handle my part and the part will be there when needed, and that that I’m actually watching them (gasp). They’ll know that the part will be there on the performance. The highest complement conductors pay me is saying “I’m not worried about you, the part will be there.” A timid player might bring out an important part during rehearsal at the conductor’s request, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there when the time comes during performance. That makes conductors nervous.

The same thought applies to entrances. A timid entrance can be worse than no entrance. No entrance means “someone messed up their counting, but as a group we kind of know where we are.” An early entrance is usually pretty obvious when it happens and the group adapts. A timid entrance telegraphs “I think I’m in the right place, but I’m not really sure. Do you know?” to the rest of the ensemble. This can send a ripple of uncertainty through a section or even the entire group. Lots of bad things can happen if everyone is questioning their place in the music. In rehearsal, if you’re not sure of your entrance, play out by all means. The conductor will correct you if you’re wrong, and you try again. It’s No Big Deal. If you’re right, you’ll have a little more confidence in your entrance the next time you play it, plus the rest of the group knows what that part of the piece sounds likes. In performance, of course, if you’re lost or unsure, ask you neighbor where they are.

Solo entrances absolutely demand that you play out. It’s your time to shine! You’ve spent a lot of time and money to get to this point in your musical career. This is where all that works has gone for. Stand up (musically) and say “look at me! I am covered in awesome right now!” You can’t pull that off if you’re frightened of the part.

When in doubt, Play Out!


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