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