When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod to the world (17 years ago yesterday!), the marketing tagline was “1000 songs in your pocket.” The premise was a revolution: music fans could carry an entire library of music on a device the size of a deck of cards. It heralded a new era of digital music following the highly illegal Napster era of the late 90s.

I can still remember getting my first iPod in 2005. Every computer I had ever used was a bland beige color, and the experience of using these devices didn’t do much to excite the imagination. The iPod was a bright white color, and the experience of scrolling through my expansive music library on the device was almost as exciting as listening to the music contained within.

Now digital music has turned to a new era: streaming music. Services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music offer users 50 million songs to listen to. That is 50000 times the amount of music the original iPod could hold. All this comes at a price of $10 a month ($5 for students—the steal of the century!).

Want to listen to that one hit-wonder from 1998? It’s there. What about that obscure album of Tuvan throat singing produced by Willie Nelson? Also there. Need the theme from Mission: Impossible when you’re running late for work? They’ve got you covered.

I have one issue with these streaming services: the experience they offer for classical music is terrible.

Most music consumers today aren’t classical music experts. That’s fine! At the same rate, if this music has stood the test of time for centuries, it’s probably worth preserving—and better yet, it’s probably worth bringing it “to the people.”

This is where streaming services fail.

They’re only set up for popular music (which is also fantastic music!). If you want to get into The Beatles, it’s a pretty easy experience. Search for The Beatles, and Apple Music will bring you to a dedicated page with an attractive photo of the band at the top, with an extensive “About” section written by esteemed journalist Richie Unterberger. This page contains all of The Beatles’ albums, with top songs listed, all of their albums, and so on. It even links you to The Beatles’ solo careers. Musically, it is everything you could want out of The Beatles, and that is fantastic! (They even list “Something” in the top songs—my favorite Beatles song!)

Now let’s say you are interested in getting into classical music. You search for one of the biggest names of the 19th century: Hector Berlioz.

You’re presented with an odd cartoonish drawing of Berlioz, despite the fact that photographs are available. The first thing listed is an album of “The Finest French Classical Music,” which contains one movement of a work by Berlioz alongside a handful of other French composers spanning about 100 years, with no continuity in musical style between them (other than the fact that they all happen to be French). The first “top song” listed is called Symphonie Fantastique, which is one of Berlioz’s most famous works, but it is actually the second movement of this work as performed by the Odense Symphony Orchestra (a Danish regional orchestra, rather than, perhaps, the London Symphony Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic) for a movie soundtrack. Scroll down a bit and you are presented with a confusing array of albums containing works by Berlioz and others, a playlist of “essentials” presented without much explanation, some live albums (Berlioz died 20 years before Emile Berliner recorded the first album in history), incomplete biographical information (it lists his birth date, but not his death date, and the actual bio is what I would deem a "blurb”), and a smattering of “similar artists”—explain to me how Johann Strauss, the Austrian Waltz King, is at all similar to the early French Romanticist Hector Berlioz.

Notably absent are: a list of works by Berlioz; any information on the themes in his music; and a clear list of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.

And most importantly, there are no program notes to be found. Let’s take a look at the aforementioned Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz wrote the work after becoming obsessed with Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson (he even rented a room with a particular view so he could watch her as she came home until she went to sleep—kind of a creepy guy!). The work is programmatic in nature, with each of the five movements telling the tale of an artist falling in love, realizing he can’t have the girl he wants, taking opium, murdering her on his trip, and participating in a “diabolical orgy” (his words, not mine) with her beheaded corpse, witches, skeletons, and ghouls.

Kind of an interesting story, yes? Probably the kind of thing an aspiring classical music fan would want to know, yet it is completely missing from Apple Music. A compact disc would contain this in liner notes, but liner notes have tragically disappeared from digital music.

The San Francisco Symphony’s Michael Tilson Thomas has been instrumental in creating the Keeping Score PBS series, which looks to bring the inner workings of classical music to the general population. Free websites like Wikipedia and the International Music Score Library Project provide fantastic resources to the hardcore classical music fan and casual listener alike. Why is it that Apple Music, a service that draws $6 billion annually by my estimate, can’t provide a quality experience?

(I haven’t used competing services, but from what I can tell, no one has properly appealed to classical music audiences.)

Classical music isn’t dead; there are exciting living composers writing classical music. It isn’t elitist either; works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart lay the foundation for all of Western music today—including everything you hear on the radio. Listening to classical music is an inclusive, enriching experience that all people can benefit from. Who will step up to the plate and deliver?

AuthorBenjamin Charles

I was so proud of my students for all of their hard work this semester. They put on a two-hour-long percussion ensemble concert featuring some incredibly difficult works by David Pegel and Zack Browning. To add to the pressure, both composers came to hear seven(!) of their works performed.

You can imagine, then, the disappointment I felt when I found out that something had gone wrong and the concert recording didn’t work. Thankfully, this turned into an opportunity: we were asked if we would like to record something to make up for it.

As much as I would have liked to have recorded all of the works from the concert, it just wasn’t feasible. We had a very narrow window of time, so I decided to pick (arguably) the most difficult work: Zack Browning’s Flying Tones. (Zack also loved the way these guys played and mentioned how cool it would be if we recorded it. Challenge accepted!)

And wow, did these guys deliver! We only did two takes, both of which were good; the second one was about as close to a perfect live recording as I could imagine. This recording contains no audio splicing whatsoever, and very little audio editing in general (more on that below). It’s one continuous take…that’s about all there is to say about it.

Special thanks to Doug Tejada for his audio recording skills on this!

Because I always like to talk about the recording a bit, I’ll go ahead and share a few tidbits:

1. For some reason, approximately the first 90 seconds of video on the audio take we used didn’t work. I managed to sync up the video from the other take, running it at 102% speed to accommodate for the slight difference in tempi. I was shocked as to how natural it looks—I can’t tell the difference, and I’m the one that made it. (Thank goodness we did have the other take of video to use for this!)

2. There was a similar scenario with the chimes from 7:17-7:43. That one was my fault—I didn’t capture the player on my second camera. No worries, though, I used the other take and played it at 102% speed. (Amazing how consistent they were—the entire second run was apparently 2% faster than the first one.)

3. There are three audio edits: two spots with a couple of whiffed cymbal notes and one spot where the vibe player dropped a few notes. I just recorded those missing notes myself and inserted them they were needed. The acoustic is slightly different, but they go by so fast in context, it’s hard to notice. For example, at 6:51-6:53, the vibe player only played the last two notes; the first eight notes are me playing on a separate day in a different room. I toyed around with the EQ and pan a little bit to match it up, and it’s almost impossible to tell. See if you can figure out where the cymbal notes are! (I actually started the upload, wrote this part, then cancelled the upload to mess around with the pan a little more to get the stereo field just right.)

4. My favorite part is the trade-off that happens from 9:31-9:55 on the video. After we finished the second take, I had them play that one part again and zoomed the cameras in on the individual players. Yet another instance of what you see is not what you get, as discussed in a previous blog entry: the video you see is a completely different take from the audio. The fast cuts make for a cool effect.

5. Doug (the aforementioned audio guru) frequently leans forward and comes into the frame. I’m fairly certain he didn’t intend to make a cameo appearance on this video. I didn’t notice it when we recorded, because he was out of frame when I checked. No worries, though, he was always in the bottom left corner; after the expertise I gained from editing my last video, it was a breeze to take some different footage and overlay part of it over Doug’s head...hopefully that makes enough sense alongside this photo.

Now you see him, now you don't!

6. There were a couple of times when my aging camcorder, used for the closeup shots, got some strange digital artifacts. I managed to cover them up fairly well using the same technique as #5 above, but unfortunately the frames sort of skip a bit. Nothing that can be done about that, so once or twice you see a player freeze up for a couple of frames.

Oh, and before I forget: thanks so much to (left to right) Xander Southern, Gunnar Bergan, Darshan Jhaveri, Ethan Cassell, and Chris Hooper for the fantastic playing, Doug Tejada for the audio, and Zack Browning for the monster piece!

And now…enjoy the recording!

AuthorBenjamin Charles

There’s this meme going around Facebook right now where people nominate each other to post their top 10 album covers without any description. My colleague Andrew Stonerock nominated me; normally I don’t go for these chain mail things, but it was fun compile a list. I elected to break the rules and provide a bit of background on each, including my favorite track. I also decided that greatest hits albums would be banned from my list, which I sort of skirted around with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin choices. In alphabetical order by performer:

The Beatles,  Love

The Beatles, Love

The Beatles are my favorite band. I don’t have the words to explain why, so I won’t even attempt. That being said, how could I pick just one album? Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is so diverse, Abbey Road contains the greatest love song of all time, Let It Be is iconic, and so on. Luckily George Martin, along with his son Giles, created the Love album for the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name; their mission was to provide the entire Beatles experience in a condensed period. The album does just that, capturing everything from early Beatlemania to the artsy psychedelic tracks and beyond. It’s hard to pick a favorite track, but Drive My Car/The Word/What You’re Doing is a delightful mashup (which also includes Paul’s roaring guitar solo from Taxman and horn riffs from Savoy Truffle). George Harrison’s Something doesn’t get much of a special treatment on this album, but it remains my favorite Beatles song. (For my favorite treatment of Something, check out Paul's solo version that starts on ukulele and...well, you can see the rest for yourself.)

Brian Eno,  Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Perhaps one of the lesser-known names by the general population on this list, Brian Eno has worked as a collaborator or producer for some of the biggest names in music for almost five decades, including David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, and Genesis. He even created the startup sound for Windows 95 (ironically, he used a Macintosh computer to create this sound). In the late 1970s, he set out to create a series of four albums of ambient music to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This first installation was designed to reduce the chaos of a bustling airport setting—and it does. It’s one of the most relaxing things to listen to, particularly because you don’t actually need to actively listen to it to get the full effect. The whole album is entirely ignorable, which is weirdly its greatest strength. It doesn’t lend itself to having a favorite track, because it belongs in the background.

David Bowie,  Blackstar

David Bowie, Blackstar

David Bowie effectively recorded Blackstar on his deathbed. He knew it would be his final offering, and the album carries that weight throughout. Every single performance on the album is stellar from both Bowie and the backing musicians. The title track is fantastic, but Lazarus probably stands out as my favorite track, particularly the gut-wrenching saxophone solo (which was cut for the music video version, so make sure to check out the full album version!).

Don McLean,  American Pie

Don McLean, American Pie

Ok, so the title track is a pop culture sensation, an epic narrative that becomes an instant sing-along when played, and has even inspired a Weird Al parody. It is admittedly just a very good song. But have you ever listened past that opening track? Two tracks later comes Vincent, a stunning tribute to Vincent Van Gogh (“The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”). Later on comes my personal favorite, The Grave, a chilling tale of a soldier that perishes in the Vietnam War. The whole album is far more brilliant than it ever gets credit for.

Jacob Collier,  In My Room

Jacob Collier, In My Room

Jacob Collier is, in a word, nuts. He’s a musical phenomenon that beggars belief, redefining what is possible. His understanding of harmony is unparalleled, and he has a rhythmic language that incorporates Latin styles, Indian music, and more. And, despite all of this brilliance, he manages to package everything up in a way that anyone can understand. You can study his use of microtonal voiceleading, his rhythmic pulling, his use of mixed meter, and so on, or you can just listen to his great music and enjoy it. His slow jams are every bit as entrancing as his uptempo stuff. Impossible for me to pick a favorite on this one, but if I had to, it would probably be Don’t You Know—hip use of odd meter, crazy harmonic extensions, and killer solos. (There's also a version of Don't You Know with Snarky Puppy, but I prefer the solo version.)

Keiko Abe,  Marimba Fantasy

Keiko Abe, Marimba Fantasy

Keiko Abe is my favorite marimba player. She has been involved in every aspect of playing this instrument, including repertoire expansion, instrument design, and technical development. Marimba Fantasy contains some of her best-known compositions, all featuring her astounding gigantic marimba sound. My favorite track is probably Variations on Japanese Children’s songs; the raw power she achieves blows every other marimba player out of the water. This was (and still is!) my reference point for what a marimba should sound like.

Led Zeppelin,  Celebration Day

Led Zeppelin, Celebration Day

John Bonham is probably my favorite drummer. His high-octane drumming could create enough electricity to power the continental United States. It is perhaps a bit ironic, then, that I selected the one Led Zeppelin album that he didn’t play on. For those not in the know, he tragically passed away in 1980, and Led Zeppelin disbanded after. Led Zeppelin did reunions in 1985, 1988, 1995, and 2007; Celebration Day is a live recording of the 2007 reunion, featuring John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, on drums. Jason’s drumming proves to be every bit as electrifying as his late father’s, and the rest of the band is as tight as they were in their heyday. My favorite track has to be the final encore, Rock and Roll. The opening line alone (“It’s been a long time since I’ve rock and rolled”) contains so much sentiment, excitement, and power.

Paolo Nutini,  Caustic Love

Paolo Nutini, Caustic Love

Paolo Nutini seems relatively unknown in the US, in spite of the fact that he has two quintuple platinum albums. His third album, Caustic Love, is the least commercially successful one, largely because it doesn’t contain any of the pop hits of his previous two (i.e. New Shoes). In spite of this (perhaps because of this), I think it’s his best album. My favorite track is, by far, Iron Sky. It contains an audio excerpt from Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, with an Orwellian message of rising up against an oppressive power to make “life free and beautiful.” (There's also a music video of a session at Abbey Road where they recorded Iron Sky, but it falls short of the album version.)

Ravi Shankar,  The Sounds of India

Ravi Shankar, The Sounds of India

I learned of Ravi Shankar through the Beatles, and as soon as I started listening, I was hooked. This album has bits of narration at the beginning of the tracks to explain the melodic and rhythmic forms used in Indian music, which serves as a particularly nice introduction for the uninitiated. My favorite track is Bhimpalasi, which has 14 beats to the bar...try to keep track of that with your Western ears.

Sigur Ros,  ( )

Sigur Ros, ( )

If you thought the last album on my list would be an Icelandic ambient rock album, you would be correct. It’s just a masterpiece—one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. It’s like the Brian Eno album above in the sense that it can perfectly fade into the background. Unlike the Brian Eno album, though, it somehow manages to demand the listener’s attention as well. It’s absolutely riveting in its understatement. Every track is untitled, and the lyrics are in an entirely made-up language called Vonlenska, inviting the listener to create his own meaning for the music. My favorite is probably the third track—the sort of searching, spiraling piano line feels soothing to me.

And that's my top ten!

AuthorBenjamin Charles

I recently created a new video of George Hamilton Green’s Triplets, as performed by five Ben Charleses. It was an enjoyable project to try out some new audio and video editing tricks I’ve picked up. (It was also an excuse to use my new MacBook Pro…thanks Apple for giving creative people so much power!) And, being a bad magician, I figured I would reveal how this sort of video is created for the uninitiated. But first, check out the video!

To make a long story short (and state the obvious): what you see is not a completely accurate representation of what is going on.

Another great example of duplicating a person for a music video can be found in Jacob Collier’s Hideaway. Obviously Jacob didn’t clone himself to make a video—he’s using an editing technique called masking, the same as I did in my Triplets video.

Here’s how the process works:

  1. Record yourself performing, preferably on one side of the frame.
  2. Without moving the camera, record yourself again on the other side of the room.
  3. Place one video on top of the other (think as if you have two pieces of construction paper stacked on top of each other).
  4. Cut a hole in one video so that the other shows through (again, the construction paper analogy works well here).
  5. Repeat…you can create an army of yourself!

Here's a screenshot of the editing process in Final Cut Pro. The red lines indicate the mask I have applied around light blue shirt Ben Charles. Notice how closely I had to cut next to purple shirt Ben Charles.

Some tricky situations can pop; for example, in my video, there are two Ben Charleses on each marimba, usually in very close quarters. This means I have to go through, sometimes frame-by-frame, and make adjustments to the cutout. It also means that, at some point, one person is probably going to be blocked by another. If you look closely at the marimbas on my video, you’ll see this happen (fairly regularly, in fact). I could have gone to very extreme lengths to try to get all of this perfect, but it was a fun side project, not a professional commercial operation. You also don't really notice it much on the fly. The same thing happens on Jacob’s video—if you look at 2:30 on the recording, the Jacob all the way on the left has an arm that disappears a bit.

(Side note: because of this editing trickery, my video contains two marimbas…which are actually the same instrument, just duplicated the video!)

And now, one more big secret: what you see is not what you hear. I would go as far as to say that this is the case with 90% or more professionally produced music videos.

Getting good sound is difficult. It requires a studio environment (or close to it), with very specifically placed mics, probably some physical separation between multiple players, and so on. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to making a music video on the beach, in a train, skydiving, and so on. The good news is that if you record something in a studio, then sing at the same tempo while skydiving, you can swap out the skydiving audio with the studio audio, and everything will be in sync. Your brain wants to believe what it hears and sees, so it just assumes that the audio and video go together.

In my case, I recorded all of the audio for the marimba parts in one night. When I recorded, I had a metronome going at 110 beats per minute in my headphones. As I recorded each new part, I added them into my click track so I could match the style. If I didn’t like the way something lined up, I could use a technique called splicing to remove one part and substitute a replacement. If I had absolutely no skill as a percussionist, I could even go as far as to record each individual note and splice them together—obviously that would be very time-consuming.

When I recorded the video, I had a metronome going at 110 beats per minute, always just out of the frame so the viewer couldn’t see it. It actually didn’t even matter if I hit wrong notes; for the most part, the camera is so far away that you can’t tell. (Don’t worry, I tried to hit the right notes, even if it wasn’t necessary.)

I then imported all of the video footage and synced it up to the “studio” audio, then got to all of the masking described above. So the audio and video were actually recorded on separate days. In fact, if anyone else recorded this same piece at 110 beats per minute, I could swap in their audio recording. (But don’t worry, you are both hearing and seeing me.)

And, if you didn’t notice, I still hadn’t actually done the studio recording of the xylophone solo part! So that was the final step. Once that was recorded, I tweaked my studio mix a bit, removed all of the existing audio from the video, and swapped that in.

The whole process took probably around 25-30 hours of work, and I’m pleased with the result!

Now here’s a bonus, just to show you what I mean by all of this…as an inside joke with my friend Akira, here’s Triplets as played on chairs. Notice that the audio and video are completely unrelated?

AuthorBenjamin Charles

I vividly remember my first piano lesson with Joan Gillespie in second grade. I rode my bike to her house, which I had trouble finding, and then we went over "D is for the doggy with the two black ears." It was just fun. I fell in love with music at the moment I walked in Joan's house, and that feeling has stuck with me for quite a long time.

Me with my first piano teacher!

Over time, I changed from piano to percussion and went on to receive three degrees in music, all inspired by those early experiences with Joan.

But something tragic happened, starting around 2011. I started to become burned out. Music wasn't as fun anymore; it was a lot of work (as you might imagine for a doctoral program). Even more than that, though, I was in a bad living situation, the details of which I won't list here. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I look back now, I realize I was deeply depressed. This thing that brought me so much joy for so many years seemed to have dried up.

I pushed through for a few years, and things eventually started to get better. I was in a much better living situation, had great friends and teachers, and began making a little bit of money from my chosen profession.

Then enter 2016: the year I found Jacob Collier on YouTube.

I was just blown away (like everyone is) by his music. If you haven't listened to Jacob, just stop reading now and watch every YouTube video he has. No seriously, I'll wait. Go. https://www.youtube.com/user/jacobcolliermusic

But what struck me even more than the talent was the joy. There is no worry of hitting wrong notes, poor critique, or any of the other things musicians lose sleep over. Just pure unadulterated joy.

I was lucky to go see him play live in Dallas and happened to see him before the show. I walked up and chatted for just a few minutes. He is an just a perfect human being—no hint of an ego or insecurity. He was even kind to snap a photo with me!

They say don't meet your heroes. They were wrong.

So to close out 2016, I thought it would be appropriate to do a Jacob Collier cover—my first cover video ever!

Thanks so much to Jacob for inspiring me and helping me find joy all over again.

AuthorBenjamin Charles
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One of my favorite things about the @ Percussion podcast is getting to converse with amazing guests every week. One of my other favorite things is the way it connects me to the percussion community at large—I have had so many great conversations with percussionists outside of the podcast!

I was recently speaking with rising Oberlin freshman Eli Geruschat about choosing a career path in a creative field. It’s one of the most exciting and intimidating things for a young student (and his or her parents!) to think about. I have reached the point where I would say I have finally “made it” (more on what that means to me in a moment), so I figured I would share bits of my story and some thoughts I’ve picked up along the way.

(As an aside, Eli is one of the most impressive young players I have encountered, and is someone everyone should keep on the radar—check out his awesome performance of October Night.)

To start out, I’d like to point out that my definition of “making it” is being able to fully support oneself financially exclusively doing the creative work he or she wants to do. For me, this means teaching full-time at a university and performing music that I love. It does not mean being rich or having everything one could possibly want out of life. (I could count the number of financially wealthy classical percussionists in the world on one hand.)

One other point before we really get started here: one deterrent for people looking to go into a creative career field is that the chance of success is generally lower than safer paths. This is likely true—I remember being a freshman at the University of North Texas, looking at my freshman class of around 30 percussionists (within a studio of about 150). This was at one university (admittedly a very large one). Multiply that out by few thousand universities in the US, and you can see how this begins to feel impossible. At the same rate, there is no guarantee of success if you go into a “safe” career path, and the fulfillment afforded by doing what you love is so rewarding that it’s hard for me to imagine choosing something else to make money. And if a career in music (art, animation, dance, etc.) doesn’t work out, it’s never too late to do something else.

(If I were to try to be hip, I would have just summarized the last paragraph with a Macklemore lyric: If I'd done it for the money I'd have been a lawyer. Yes, I censored that—you can Google it if you want to know where the F bomb goes.)

Ok, all that out of the way, here we go:

I would highly recommend reading Ed Catmull’s enlightening book, Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar Animation Studios, and his journey is astounding to me. The formation of Pixar took around 12 years, and then it was another 10 years before the company was actually a success. In short, Catmull’s history goes like this:

1963-1974 Undergraduate and graduate work at University of Utah. Spent 60000 minutes creating short film called Hand in 1972, sleeping on the floor near the computer to maximize time working. (Watch Hand and tell me you would have spent the equivalent of 42 nonstop days working on it.)

1974-1979 Worked at New York Institute of Technology, a startup research lab founded by Alex Schure, who dumped an estimated $15 million of his own money to keep things going. (Schure loved speaking in bizarre prophetic statements like “our vision will speed up time, eventually deleting it.”)

1979-1986 Worked for the Graphics Group, a part of Lucasfilm, a moderately successful group that brought computer animation into the realm of special effects. The goals of the group didn’t align with George Lucas’s vision, and he ultimately sold the group off to Steve Jobs for $5 million cash, plus a $5 million investment in the company (from Jobs)—the new company became known as Pixar.

1986-1995 Pixar floundered between hardware sales, software sales, and computer animated advertisements, effectively hemorrhaging money. It was during this period that Steve Jobs had to throw in a staggering $54 million to keep the failing company alive.

(If you’re keeping track of the math at home, we’re around $80 million in the hole at this point.)

1995 Pixar releases Toy Story, an overnight success, one of the greatest films of all time, with a box office return of $362 million. (Keep in mind that this figure doesn’t include all of the merchandise, home sales, etc., nor does it include the fact that Toy Story 2, released four years later, made $485 million at the box office.)

Now imagine being Ed Catmull’s mother in 1994. Your 49-year-old son has “wasted” millions of dollars and has never produced anything of note to the general public. He has chosen to go into the field of computer animation—quite frankly, a field that doesn’t exist. I am sure there were some awkward moments for Mrs. Catmull at cocktail parties.

(Another great story I won’t go into here for brevity’s sake is Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.)

The point here is that the investment you must make in a creative career field to succeed might seem ridiculously large, and you might not see a return on that investment for years, or even decades. The only thing you can do is believe in yourself and what you are doing; eventually success will come.

Riding on the coattails of the last point, it is important to point out that you must support yourself by whatever means necessary. If your goal is to be the next Evelyn Glennie, performing percussion concerti with the finest orchestras in the world, you will probably not achieve this goal by the age of 25. If you have rich parents that will support you indefinitely, great! If not, you will likely have to work a job to support yourself—and there is no shame in this at all. When Nancy Zeltsman started out as a marimba soloist, she worked in a health foods store by day to pay the bills and get health insurance. One of the most incredible percussionists in the world, Casey Cangelosi, worked at Old Navy. I had the glorious job of selling appliances at Sears. (If you ever need a refrigerator, I can answer all your questions!)

I would say, though, to try to limit this sort of job as much as possible—in so many words, if you can work 20 hours a week and pay all of your bills, or work 40 hours a week and drive a nice car too, opt for the former. The goal is to support yourself, while still allowing as much time as possible for your creative activities. (Composer Mark Applebaum once referred to this as "the Taco Bell plan"—working at Taco Bell to support yourself while creating art elsewhere.)

(I thought about trying to be a middle school band director for a few years to make money after my undergraduate degree; Mark Ford advised me not to do this, as I would probably enjoy making money and not have enough time to practice. It is also a terrible idea to do something like teach middle school if you are not passionate about that; I think middle school band directors have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and I have so much respect for what they do.)

It is also notable that if you are creative (which you probably are), you can find ways to money doing things related to your field. Because you are a specialist in your field, you can probably make more money this way, albeit available work will likely be more limited. In this regard, I maintained a private studio of mostly high school students (which I enjoyed significantly more than selling dishwashers). I also found freelance work (i.e. “gigging”) and wrote concert reviews for a newspaper. All of this can add up to great supplemental income.

However you make income along the way, you will learn valuable lessons you didn’t expect to learn. Working at Sears taught me a lot about large-scale planning (i.e. making large purchases), made me more comfortable dealing with people, made me thankful to have a career path I was passionate about, and so on.

You will most likely have to make some sort of sacrifices along the way. The most obvious is the financial sacrifice—at 22 years of age, a lot of people graduate college and start making good money. I spent five years in graduate school at that point—not a great way to turn a fast profit. I also took out student loans, which pail in comparison to the sort of money we were talking about with Ed Catmull.

One of the hardest things to do when you’re pursuing a creative career is to start a family. If you’re a starving artist on year 5 of graduate school, you have probably moved across the country a couple of times; finding a husband or wife that has a flexible enough career to go on this journey with you is tough, and having kids is very expensive. You might have to put these things on hold for a bit—but I would also like to point out that you might not need to. I have met some happily married couples, sometimes with both people in the arts. So this isn’t necessarily something that will happen, but certainly something that can happen. (It’s impossible to predict where you will end up with any certainty, especially in this regard, so I wouldn't live in fear of it.)

You will come to certain brick walls that feel like they are attempting to stop your career. A deadline to learn a new piece that is so soon it seems impossible. A dire financial situation. 20 failed job applications. (These are not made-up scenarios; in fact, I have suffered through all of them—and more.)

My favorite book, Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture addresses brick walls:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

I would like to add to that: the brick walls make what we do much more meaningful and valuable. I would have loved to be where I am today when I was 22 years old and fresh out of my undergrad. I would also not value everything I have earned to the same degree as I do now. I worked for over 10 years to “make it” (child’s play compared to Ed Catmull), and I value every single aspect of my life so much more because of it.

Talent is almost a complete myth. I have met exactly two people in my life I have ever considered talented. I am certainly not one of them. These are superhumans that can do unthinkable things with seemingly no effort. Both of these people have worked their fair shares—don’t get me wrong—but it seems as if what they are able to achieve is untouchable. If you want to see what I’m talking about, one of these two talented people is Michael D’Angelo, who I would say is as close to a musical equivalent of Superman as we will ever get.

That being said (and quoting John Cage here), “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch onto things.”

If you think there are a significant number of people more skilled than you are, you are correct. That will never change. All you can do is work to become the best person you can be. When I stopped comparing myself to others, I found that I felt liberated. Yes, music is competitive, but that doesn’t mean I have to live in fear of what other people are doing. Which leads me to my penultimate point…

The best person doesn’t always get the job (I would almost go as far as to say never gets the job). This sounds like a bad thing on the surface. It is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a wonderful thing.

Here’s the thing: probability dictates that you will never be the best person to apply for a job. No matter how good you are, there will always be a Michael D’Angelo in the world. Your “talent” (really your hard work) will get your foot in the door; the other skills you have will get you the job. In so many words, there is no substitute for the hard work to get you there, but the other skills you have will put you over the top.

In my case, I was going up against an established percussionist that I greatly respect for the job at Tarleton State University. His credentials blew mine out of the water, and he was an extremely impressive performer the two times I saw him in concert. I don’t know how his on campus visit went, but I have a feeling that my ability to talk (largely acquired from working at Sears and co-hosting a weekly podcast, as well as writing concert reviews) was a large part of what put me over the top. On paper, he was the far better candidate, but for some reason I won the position.

Lastly, the reward for taking the risk of a creative career path is so good I can’t even come up with a word for it (perhaps “scrumtrulescent” is adequate). I have been able to travel so much because of my field, I have met so many wonderful people, I have had so many great experiences performing concerts—I could go on and on. You could give me a stack of million dollar bills and it wouldn’t be as valuable as one great performance or one good person I have met.

AuthorBenjamin Charles
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I am excited to be beginning a new chapter of my life as Visiting Assistant Professor of Percussion at Tarleton State University!

This really is a dream come true for me: to have a full-time position that supports research and creative activities.

I am particularly excited about this position for two reasons...

  1. I was so impressed by the middle and high school music education system when I was working on my undergraduate degree in Texas. Middle school bands in Texas sound better than a lot of high school bands elsewhere. Now I get to be in a position where these wonderful students will feed into my University, and I get to feed them back out into the professional field.
  2. The University is a cultural center for the city of Stephenville, Texas. I loved how the University of Illinois was a cultural center in Champaign-Urbana; it brings a new level of interest when the University can support the community it exists in.

The faculty and students had such a positive buzz when I was there. The interview and audition process should have been draining, but being around such energetic people felt invigorating. I am looking forward to getting started this Fall!

AuthorBenjamin Charles

Musicians do not exist in vacuums. Every musician has had teachers and, directly or indirectly, students. Piano lineages particularly fascinate me: Mozart may have taught Beethoven a few lessons; Beethoven taught Czerny; Czerny taught Liszt; Liszt taught Siloti; Siloti taught Rachmaninov; and some living musicians can trace their roots to this lineage.

There have also been interesting stories of composers as teachers: George Gershwin went to Paris to study with Maurice Ravel, who famously refused to teach him, asking "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" John Cage was told by Arnold Schoenberg, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." When Cage told Schoenberg he had no feeling for harmony, Schoenberg described this as an impassable wall toward his study for music; Cage replied, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."

Likewise, contemporaries largely influence a musician's artistic output. Strauss and Mahler, the two titans of late German Romanticism were well aware of each other (I have heard both as friends and rivals). Tchaikovsky couldn't stand Brahms. Bartok and Shostakovich parodied each others' music in their own pieces.

Here is the fun part for me: much of percussion music has gone through a colossal transformation in the past 100 years; beyond that, probably the most exciting part of this transformation has come in the past 50 years. Many of our Mozarts, Strausses, and Bartoks are still alive today (or are only one generation in the past). Living percussion legends still actively perform today: Steve Gadd, Alan Abel, Keiko Abe, Steven Schick, and Giovanni Hidalgo, just to name a few. Lineages are relatively easy to trace too: Clair Musser worked for J.C. Reagan; Musser taught Vida Chenowith; Chenowith taught Leigh Howard Stevens; Stevens has influenced just about every marimba player today.

In a previous post, I mentioned the influence Keiko Abe and Kate Vorel had on my concept of sound. Other influences have included my first percussion teacher, Don Bick, who inspired a great love of music within me; Mark Ford, who taught me how to play with precision; William Moersch, who taught me what great music is; and Svet Stoyanov, who taught me how to perform.

My greatest influence—perhaps inspiration would be a better word choice—is not one that might be immediately evident in my playing: Ed Smith.

Ed is (mostly) a jazz vibraphonist by trade, having studied with David Friedman. Dig deeper, though, and you find that Ed formed a world music group, D'Drum, in 1992; spent a brief amount of time performing with John Cage; and has been traveling to Bali, Indonesia since 1995 studying gamelan music. All these influences inform Ed's vibraphone playing. In 2009, Malletech brought a new vibraphone to PASIC with a unique vibrato system, and Ed became the first signature vibraphone artist for this new instrument.

Three years later, Ed had his PASIC debut, which I was lucky enough to be in the audience for. Ed opened the concert with his own composition, Neptune:

The second Ed started playing, my eyes welled up with tears. At the time, I was completely unhappy with how I sounded and I wanted some sort of fast answer to fixing my playing. I now had the answer: I was on a journey. Ed's playing has been informed by so many influences, and he continues to tweak and refine his playing. In short, he doesn't have it completely "figured out" who he is, and that's what makes his playing exciting and beautiful.

Ravi Shankar greatly influenced George Harrison's music, not in style, but in philosophy. Likewise, Ed Smith influenced not what I play or how I play, but why I play music.

Who influenced you?

AuthorBenjamin Charles

This past weekend had one of those "dream come true" moments for me. Allow me to take a trip down memory lane...

2001: At the recommendation of my first percussion teacher, I began listening to recordings of Keiko Abe—I still remember my excitement of pressing play on her Marimba Fantasy and Fantastic Marimba CDs (I never could keep track of which title corresponded with which tracks for fairly obvious reasons). I was blown away by her massive sound on her five octave Yamaha marimba—still the "perfect" marimba sound I have in my ear to this day.

Circa 2002 or 2003: I learned a couple of Keiko Abe's pieces, including Prism, which became one of my favorite marimba pieces, especially considering it fit on my 4.3 octave marimba. I remember performing Dream of the Cherry Blossoms on my high school's talent show (and winning!) and performing Prism on my high school senior night.

2004: I won the Greater Richmond Youth Wind Ensemble concerto competition and got to perform Paul Creston's Concertino for Marimba. It was my first concerto experience, and I was hooked.

2004: I received a DVD of the University of North Texas performing Prism Rhapsody II under the baton of Eugene Corporon with Keiko Abe and Mark Ford playing the solo marimba parts. This was the first professional video recording of Keiko Abe (that I know of anyway) ever produced, and it was probably the biggest influence in my decision to attend the University of North Texas. Prism Rhapsody II became one of my favorite pieces, and I dreamed of hearing Keiko Abe perform it...furthermore, I dreamed of performing it myself!

2005: I began school at UNT and...

2006: Keiko Abe came to UNT! I was so fortunate to get to play Memories of the Seashore in her masterclass, which is still one of my most fond musical memories to this day. The North Texas Wind Symphony did an entire concert of percussion concerti (two performances at UNT and one at PASIC in Austin—all three of which I attended), which included Prism Rhapsody II (along with Russell Peck's The Glory and the Grandeur, which quickly became another of my favorite pieces—but that's another blog post).

A very young Benjamin with Keiko Abe after performing in her masterclass at the University of North Texas

2007: I met Kate Vorel for the first time. I remember seeing her perform (Keiko Abe's Variations on Japanese Children's Songs) and being blown away by her playing, even at a young age. Kate became one of my best friends and consequently one of my largest musical influences.

2010: I won the University of Illinois concerto competition with two friends—Akira Robles and Andy Miller—performing Russell Peck's The Glory and the Grandeur. My second concerto experience, and my first experience playing a concerto with others (as a chamber music lover, this was fantastic). We were lucky enough to get two performances: one with the wind ensemble and one with the orchestra at the University of Illinois.

2012: Complete technical overhaul, changing to traditional grip in my quest for my "perfect" marimba sound. (That's yet another blog post.) I had to go back to taking baby steps, which was frustrating, but it was so rewarding to finally sound like "me" on the instrument.

2015: I was asked to give two performances of a concerto at FAU, and I chose Prism Rhapsody (for solo marimba). I sort of half dared Kate Vorel to come play the second part of the duo version of the concerto with me on one of the performances. Kate being one of the few people in the world as bold as me, she accepted the challenge and flew out for the second performance!

So there you have it: Around 15 years in the making, I finally got to perform Prism Rhapsody II with one of my favorite musicians in the world. It was an incredible experience, and I hope for many more performances with Kate in years to come...

AuthorBenjamin Charles

I love chamber music. It's as simple as that. I enjoy performing solo music, but sometimes the stage can feel lonely. I enjoy performing orchestral music, but sometimes I feel lost in a crowd. Chamber playing takes the virtuosity found in solo playing and combines it with the communal music-making of an orchestra; it's the best of both worlds, really.

When I think back on my favorite musical experiences, most of them are performing chamber music—either percussion chamber music or mixed chamber music. A few favorites have been John Cage's Third Construction (probably the first truly great chamber piece I was fortunate to perform), Daniel Levitan's Marimba Quartet, Paul Lansky's Threads, and Kevin Puts's And Legions Will Rise (which is in my top 5 pieces of music for any medium, and I think is entirely underplayed by percussionists!). I have also had the privilege of performing two concerti for chamber groups: Karel Husa's Concerto for Percussion and Wind Ensemble and Russell Peck's The Glory and the Grandeur.

Perhaps my favorite chamber music experience, though, has been performing Béla Bartók's epic Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

I was lucky to see Pamela Mia Paul, Türev Berki, Christopher Deane, and Paul Rennick perform the Bartók Sonata as an undergraduate student at the University of North Texas. I remember being so blown away by the performance that I couldn't sleep that night. I then somehow managed to almost completely forget about the piece for years.

Then, while doing graduate work at the University of Miami, I was again fortunate to see Svet Stoyanov perform the Bartók with his two piano/two percussion group Hammer/Klavier (with Gwendolyn Dease, Thomas Rosenkranz, and Michael Sheppard). Svet mentioned that this is a piece everyone should perform at some point.

As I was in the process of planning a chamber recital anyway, I took Svet up on the challenge. Having seen the brilliant Maria Sumareva perform a solo piece by Bartók, I asked her if she and Masahumi Nakatani would be interested in performing with my good friend Karlyn Mason. Fortunately Maria and Masahumi agreed, and I'm so glad they did!

I am always hesitant to share full live recordings. In fact, I never do. I am of the persuasion that music is meant to be heard in the context it was originally intended—a live performance should be heard in a hall, not through computer speakers. It allows players to perform without the fear of making mistakes, which is a beautiful thing. It is not freedom to make mistakes, which should never enter a musician's mind, but rather forgiveness in case something does happen.

I usually only upload recital "highlight reels" for this very reason. I find sections that I am completely comfortable with presenting as recordings. This doesn't mean I am not satisfied with my performances, but rather that I wish to leave them as live performances.

This probably explains why I have kept this recording to myself for almost two years. Upon reviewing the recording, though, it seems like a crime to not share. It is an extremely tight performance; sure, I would have done a second take of a couple of things, but in the context of a 25-minute piece of music, these things become microscopic.

As always, I don't like putting these things out there without the express permission of all of the performers (and the composer when possible—Mr. Bartók was not available for comment), and all three of my colleagues graciously granted me permission to share.


AuthorBenjamin Charles

I am happy to share my new recording of Mark Applebaum's Aphasia!

I first came across this piece watching Mark Applebaum's brilliant TED Talk. I was blown away by all of Applebaum's thoughts on music, and this piece seemed so easy to practice and perform from a logistical standpoint (in the context of a percussion recital where the stage is littered with instruments, a piece that requires only a chair and audio playback is welcomed). This is not to say that Aphasia is an easy piece—quite the contrary, in fact.

I learned Aphasia in the summer of 2013 and performed it for a few friends at the University of Miami in the fall. I was disappointed that they did not seem to "get" the piece as much as I did; in fact, they mentioned that it was boring after a while. I once heard an adage that an inventor who creates a great product cannot blame people for not "getting it," and I have often had similar thoughts about music.

I examined my performance further and came to the conclusion that it was indeed boring. The performance came exclusively from my arms and hands, with effectively no movement from my body or face. Applebaum specifically states in his score that the performer should not add his or her own emotional content on top of the piece, so I was cautious to change anything. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to change the intensity of my face without creating cartoonish expressions. I also put a lot of thought into how to involve my body, especially my shoulders, into the motions to make them seem bigger, heavier, more labored.

After much work, Aphasia was a new piece. I ultimately found that I was respecting the composer's intentions while interpreting them in a way the audience could connect with.

The piece has been quite a joy to have in my repertoire! I was able to perform it for Morris Palter in a masterclass, who was encouraging and gave some helpful pointers. I was also able to perform it for the entire Florida Atlantic University Department of Music at a Music at Noon lecture I did. I even took it to an elementary school talk I did, where the kids got quite the kick out of it.

I was initially nervous to record. There are already a handful of recordings of Aphasia on YouTube, and I wasn't sure that I had anything unique to contribute. I toyed around with the idea for quite a while, and when I finally had the time to work the piece up to a recordable level, I went for it. I realized my unique perspective coupled with increased production value could make for a worthwhile recording.

I did fourteen takes from various angles, three of which were with a live cameraman (i.e. moving), eleven of which were on a tripod. I created a multicam video in Final Cut Pro, so it appears that all of the takes were done at once (which is why you never see a camera, even though it should clearly be in the shot from various angles!).

The whole project was a blast, but I was still wary of sharing it, as I feared I had taken too many liberties in performance and production. I emailed Mark Applebaum the video, and he graciously gave me his express permission to make it public.


AuthorBenjamin Charles

After recently coming across a couple of fascinating blog posts by Bill Cahn titled "Instruments You Can't Buy" (Part 1 and Part 2), I was inspired to share a couple of recent experience I've had building my own pipe-o-phone (a la Paul Lansky's Threads) and "tables" (for Thierry De Mey's Musique de Table). I've never been much of a builder of things, so hopefully this could be of help other non-builder types!

Last year, my percussion ensemble at Florida Atlantic University played a few movements of Threads. We constructed a D major diatonic pipe-o-phone by cutting lengths of 1-inch diameter steel conduit piping from a hardware store. Some friends that had done this before gave me varying advice on the topic, including someone that pointed out you can find a pipe xylophone formula online to figure out the correct lengths for different pitches. Alas, I did not get that scientific with it, and used a trial-and-error based process to get the correct lengths.

I purchased three or four 12-foot lengths of conduit piping, which sadly could not fit in my car (ironically, a Honda Fit). Luckily I also purchased four or five hacksaws. A student and I managed to cut the pipes in half in the parking lot and headed back to FAU for further work.

The Threads group all pitched in to help, along with a couple of other students that just happened to be standing in the right place at the right time (or perhaps the right place at the wrong time?). I would say it took the better part of two hours to get all of the correct lengths in tune. The most difficult part comes when a pipe is just a bit flat, as you end up attempting to saw off the something the width of a dime with a hacksaw (while trying to not cut any fingers off). We managed to get the whole set done without any injuries!

I suppose one could build a much more permanent mounting solution for the pipes, but we had great results with just placing them on top of bits of foam insulation on top of a board. This makes the pipes relatively portable in case one ever encountered a rare pipe-o-phone gig. (Hey, it could happen!)

The good news is that they sound great! It is so rare for me to come across instruments I really think sound great--even brand new $15000 marimbas can all too often be duds. These pipes sound incredible and are created with well under $100 of equipment (I would estimate $70 for the pipes and saws--labor is free if you have students!).

(To be fair, I did buy the students pizza.)

This year, we premiered a new piece by Miami-based composer Matthew Taylor. In the initial discussions about the piece, I told Matt that we had these pipes that he could use, and we could even make more--even if he had a crazy request for quarter tones. Turns out he did have that crazy request, and we added quite a few more pitches to our set (C-naturals, F-naturals, and three quarter tone-sharp pitches toward the upper end of the pipe-o-phone). It began to become disorienting for the players to have two pitches that are a major third apart (i.e. F-natural and A-natural) with several pitches in between (F-quarter tone sharp, F-sharp, G, G-quarter tone sharp), so we used some bright pieces of paper placed in front of the pipes as indicators for the players to be able to quickly find their pitches.

I will post the measurements for the pipes soon, but for now, here's a picture of the complete set for Matthew Taylor's piece, with the two pipe-o-phone players finding the nodal points on the pipes:


The concert also contained one of my favorite pieces that I first discovered while studying at the University of Illinois, Thierry De Mey's theatrical masterpiece, Musique de Table. When I performed Musique de Table, my friend Andy Miller made the tables all on his own, so I only had a rough idea of how they were constructed. I had seen Professor Svet Stoyanov's tables while studying at the University of Miami, but again, I didn't know exactly how he had constructed them.

I brought one of the students performing Musique de Table to the hardware store and we talked through the design of the tables. We found some 4'x2' boards of a material called sande (again, I am not the builder type, but it seems like this is some sort of thin plywood). The hardware store was kind enough to saw these into four 1'x2' boards for us (we considered making three evenly-sized tables, but figured it would be best to have an extra). We also found some long pieces of wood that were an inch and a half wide, and approximately an inch tall. We sawed these into four two-foot pieces to go along the long side of the tables, and eight 10.5-inch pieces to go along the short sides (which were a foot long, but we had to leave 1.5 inches for the overlap with the two-foot pieces...difficult to describe clearly, but trust me on this one!). We picked up some wood glue and a few C-clamps and were on our way back to FAU (after escaping from a very awkward conversation with a crazy man that frequented the hardware store).

We glued the "legs" around the bottom of the boards and clamped them in place and cleaned up a few rough edges from the saws with some sandpaper. Here's a photo of the tables in progress (David gives the wood glue his seal of approval):


The tables ended up being the perfect height to slip microphones under. A lot of people use contact mics for this piece, but I believe we used floor mics (in addition to not being a builder-type, I am not a sound recording-type either). We tried sanding the tables in one direction to achieve a texture more suited for scraping, but the wood was too soft to really hold a texture. If I had to do it again, I would probably search for a slightly harder wood, but this certainly got the job done.

We were lucky to have made an extra, as one of the boards chipped slightly during a rehearsal. Not enough to ruin the board, but enough to only keep it as a back-up. I would recommend not using the tables until the last few rehearsals before a concert, as they are somewhat fragile and don't really enhance the players' understanding of the piece.

When my mother saw me perform Musique de Tables at the University of Illinois, she casually mentioned she thought it would be effective to wear plain white masks (like you often see on theatre programs). I loved the idea, so I bought some cheap masks from a costume shop a while back to use with this piece. Side note: the masks don't have nose holes, so breathing is difficult, but the effect is worth it!

For the concert, we used a black tablecloth, which we taped in place. All of the wiring for the microphones was hidden and taped in place, so the whole presentation looked very elegant. Coupled with the white theatre masks and delicate amplification, I thought it made for quite the striking performance:

AuthorBenjamin Charles