What Would Toots Do?

Saturday evening, 9/10/2016, Albuquerque lost a true citizen – an active, feisty, hilarious woman who was so incredibly engaged in her life, her family and her community that I struggle to imagine another like her: Toots (Virginia) Rideout Obenshain. I’ve thought for the last few months about why and how Toots lodged herself so deeply in my heart.

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As an educator, she spent years working with APS students who required special attention, focus and patience, and from every tear-jerking and/or side-splitting story I’ve heard, did so with uncanny people-smarts, love and (sometimes scandalous) humor. I get the impression that she got called to the Principal’s office more often than her students did. Her work inspired her own children’s careers in innumerable ways, within and outside of the Albuquerque Public School system.

 

Speaking of her kids, she raised four of the finest people I know: smart, kind, funny and competent people who think far beyond themselves, always. They all married equally awesome people and now have a gaggle of sweet, bright, thoughtful kids of their own. No doubt in my mind they’ll all contribute to their communities.

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Getting uke-y with Dair and other awesome musicians at Toots’ Celebration of Life, 2015

But other people’s kids are where many of even the best parents stop short. Not so with Toots and family. There’s the young man who was turned out of his home after coming out. Toots and her husband Scott took him in and eventually saw him off to college, all the while encouraging him to reestablish communications with his family. There’s yours truly, who met Toots’ daughter Dair, Dair’s partner Mayr, and the rest of the Obenshains during one of the toughest times in my life. How they managed to make me laugh, even smile, in those days, I don’t know, but they did. It might’ve had to do with my first Easter Sunday at their house, when another daughter, Becky, cheerfully presented me with a dyed egg that said, “The Easter Bunny sucks.”

It’s hyperbole to say that they saved my life but… to be honest, not by much. That was 22 years ago. I’d never seen such a close-knit — and yet welcoming and ever-expanding — family; it was foreign to me and frankly pretty magical. To this day the Compound, expanded with homes for the grown kids and their families, has some sort of “everything’s going to be OK” fairy-dust dome over it for me and so many others.

As an advocate for underdogs, outcasts and overlooked people of all stripes, Toots was unstoppable. I’m fairly convinced that she became president of ABQ PFLAG within about 24 hours of her own daughter coming out. I watched her march with PFLAG and the Raging Grannies in ABQ’s Pride parade many a time. I just recently saw scanned images of a letter she wrote in 1966 to Pres. Lyndon Johnson (yep) regarding the casually dismissive treatment by the Fort Riley (Kansas) Officers’ Wives Club of their Jewish members. Dair refers to this as “How the Obenshains Joined the Fort Riley, Kansas Jewish Community and Scott’s Future in the Army Was Nipped in the Bud.” I tend to think Scott’s future was affected more by the time Toots tried using the clothes iron to defrost the freezer in their base housing but then fell asleep with her napping kids. So many stories!

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Scott and Toots at Karen’s and my wedding – that smile!

I bought The Artist’s Way for her a while back and begged her to use it as motivation to write down some of these stories, but she demurred, citing a lack of confidence in her writing abilities; she passed the book to Scott. I was disappointed but not surprised. She supported and encouraged and loved and inspired everyone around her. I hope someday to receive a collection called “Toots’ Tales” or… (geez, you guys need to come up with a better title!) from a family member, for belly laughs and for lessons in how to live a life.

 


Road Rally 2015! Quick Tips on Exporting Audio from Several Popular DAWs

This brief blog post, written to accompany my Collaboration Nation panel appearance at TAXI Music’s 2015 Road Rally Convention, provides some tips and how-tos specific to the technical aspects of collaborative composing and producing.

Ideally: Establish up front a common sample rate and bit depth for everyone involved to use on the project, and stick to it.

How to Export Audio Tracks – Concise How-tos for a short list of popular DAWs

Logic Pro X: File > Export > All Tracks as Audio Files (Command-Shift-E)

Ableton Live:

  1. Select the tracks to be exported (or deselect for all)
  2. File > Export Audio/Video (Command-Shift-R)
  3. In the window that opens, Selection area > Rendered Track menu > All Individual Tracks (or Selected Tracks Only)

GarageBand: 

  1. Before recording, go to GarageBand > Preferences > Advanced and set Audio Resolution to Best. This gives you 24-bit.
  2. Per track you need to share, solo it, then Share > Export Song to Disk…, uncheck Compress, then click Export. This gives you the full-resolution file.

Reaper: 

  1. Select the tracks to be exported
  2. File > Render… (Option-Command-R)
  3. In the window that opens, Render menu > Stems (selected tracks) or Master mix + stems.

Point being, not using the same DAW as another writer is not an obstacle. Not at all.


Off we go!

It’s been a staggeringly long time since I last wrote for Composing Kitchen. I could wring my hands about it, beat myself up about it, shut it down in defeat and resignation… but I’d rather try again and see what happens this time.

Karen and I are in the midst of a big upheaval: We are relocating, bit by bit, from Albuquerque to the Baltimore/DC area to be closer to some of my aging family members. In short, I don’t feel right about being this far away as they reach the need for care. I want to be there and be helpful — and Karen, huge-hearted as she is, essentially insisted that we go. And so off we go.

We decided this in August. Because Karen’s last job search took about six months, she jumped right in with enthusiasm – and her first two applications earned her interviews, and one of those an offer. She’s now with a right-minded, woman-owned small business that aligns very well with her personal values, judging by what we have seen so far. So she’s been gone since October 3. Meanwhile I’m holding down the fort, coordinating renovations to the house before putting it on the market, working my various jobs (composing, teaching music technology, freelance writing/editing) and exploring options in the Baltimore area.

Karen is living with my sister and paying her with excellent cooking rather than rent. For me, it’s very sweet to know that Karen is still connected with me through my family, and I’m so glad that she has my sister for company rather than being completely alone in a new part of the country on top of starting a fairly high-pressure new job. We’ve reminded ourselves many times already that plenty of families – in the military, particularly – deal with far more painful and dangerous separations every day, and we’re keeping it in perspective.

So a ton is going on for us right now, but there’s also a ton of wonderful stuff that’s happened since I last wrote and I intend to feature some of the highlights here. The short version? I got so busy with composing, and having a great time with it, that this blog fell by the wayside.

The original point of Composing Kitchen was to write about how Karen’s and my career shifts were working out in hopes of providing help, inspiration or at least the occasional knowing laugh to other musicians, artists, career-changers and attempters-of-new-things in general. So that’s what we’ll focus on.

Off we go!


The holidays — time for the “little” things

Did anybody really have a break this winter holiday? In our household there was a whole lotta working going on, though in my case most of it was at home, at least.

We’ve all heard the productivity gospel about making our work spaces comfortable. Why do we blow that off as a would-be-nice?

Karen, as a spa employee, worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve — but we still managed to celebrate. I worked whenever she did and played whenever she was available. We went on some great trail runs, made amazing meals, shared some old and new traditions with good friends, played a few curse-inducing matches of FIFA 2012, and overall did manage to rejuvenate.

Plus, I was fortunate enough to receive some much-appreciated gift cards from various family members. Between those and some Black Friday / Cyber Monday sales on various music software, I’ve got myself very inspired for another year of hard but totally fun work.

As mundane as it sounds, here’s one thing I’m quite excited about: A heater! Glamorous, right? The truth is, my little studio, a.k.a. the guest bedroom, is pretty cold throughout the winter. OK, it’s FREAKING GLACIAL. But not just any space heater will do. Loud fans have no place in my composing and mixing space.

I did some research and soon thought I’d found a stylish and compact solution in this hip little orange/white number from Sunpentown.

A review claimed that it was “absolutely silent.” Sadly, that’s absolute b.s. It’s cute as a button and quieter than many, but not silent by a long shot. Back it went.

In exchange, I’ve ordered a really well-reviewed oil-filled radiator heater by DeLonghi. As radiator style heaters go, it’s pretty sexy! …in a Darth Vader sort of way. So we shall see.

So, I know that this might seem like a small thing, but I realized last winter – yeah, a year ago! – that the cold was making my studio time uncomfortable, but I was too busy to do anything about it. I even caught myself avoiding working there – which meant I was out on the living room couch with headphones rather than good speakers, and with a fraction of the sound library I’d saved and saved for. Oh. And all because I didn’t want to be in there freezing my scrawny butt off. That had to end.

So I’m getting a heater, dadblammit, and I’m not settling for a cheap, noisy piece of crap, either.

Look, we’ve all heard the productivity gospel on this topic: Remove all possible obstacles. Make your work space humane, at minimum, and ideally inspiring and soulful too. Make it a joy to be there. So why do we blow that off? I’m really good at working hard… and not as good at taking time for creature comforts. But this stuff that might seem unimportant catches up to us.

What gifts will you give yourself for the New Year?


Getting Better, Getting Pickier, Getting Better…

Ever seen the Web site There I Fixed It? No? Oh, go! Go now and check it out to see gems like this:

That should do it!

That should do it! [From There I Fixed It]

So, I haven’t done anything worthy of that site, but there was a time — early in my new-homeowner years — when I was just clever enough to pull off some questionable DIY feats… and apparently not clever enough to take the time to do things properly. The truth is, sometimes I preferred the wham-bam-done! method because I knew that if I tried harder, I might open a can of worms that I couldn’t handle. Or didn’t think I could at the time.

That’s the funny thing about learning: When you’re intimidated by something, you’re in no condition to learn; you’re too freaked out to handle the challenge! Evaluating your own work is much the same. When you’re unsure of yourself, you’re more likely to accept “good enough.” But if you want to go from amateur to pro, “good enough” never is. You have to raise your standards. And just as with learning, you’re much more capable of pushing yourself when you’re feeling secure.

Until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself.

So I find this a fascinating chicken-or-egg question: Do you get better at something and then, from that new foundation of confidence, get pickier? Or do you start being pickier and then get better because you’re pushing yourself?

My experience points to the former, but who knows for sure? The one thing I do know is this: Once you discover that you’re able to do better, you’ll never want to go back. The first time I earned straight A’s in my undergrad years, that was it. I wasn’t satisfied with anything less for the rest of my education. But until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself. It’s no coincidence that I loved all of my classes that semester. You’ve got to love what you’re doing enough to really, really dig in.

So, yeah, better and pickier… I’m not sure “which came first” even matters. As long as you keep things positive and healthy – don’t browbeat yourself; don’t impose unreasonable expectations – this is a great cycle to initiate and stick with. Whatever it is you do, make each finished work better than the last. Compare your best stuff to successful work in your discipline and reset your targets accordingly. Get pickier, get better, and then get even pickier. And whatever you do, don’t get featured at There I Fixed It.

One way to add that guest room you've always wanted.

One way to add that guest room you’ve always wanted. [From There I Fixed It]


A real workout: Reps within reps

I’ve written a lot here in Composing Kitchen about something not terribly flattering: self-doubt. I always just put it out there on the table because I figure if you’re reading this, you’re probably considering (or already) re-engineering your life, and let’s face it: That is scary stuff. You might feel like the proverbial 98-pound-weakling facing one of those sweaty WWF guys.

Me against myself

From the outset, self-doubt has been my most well-muscled opponent. And to hit my goal of a new piece of music every day, I’ve had to wrestle it down every day. I’m happy to say I’ve bulked up pretty well.

Sure, I still get butterflies when I enter my studio: What will I write? Will I perform the parts well? Will I record and produce it well? But over time, I’ve built up much more confidence — faith, maybe —  that I will, eventually and ultimately, come up with something worthwhile.

I think that has to do with reps: just doing it, over and over again.

It’s clear that the types of writing I’ve done the most come pretty easily now. Song form, with repeated sections, causes just about zero jitters. But for the last month or two I’ve been creating the soundtrack to a really sweet indie film called Roswell FM, and although many scenes work well with (and the director prefers) song-style backdrops, other scenes require through-composed music, meaning it has no recurring sections but instead changes moment to moment to support the action/dialogue. Not as easy.

Even so, my work on Roswell FM has been like a mini-study of how this reps thing works. Scene by scene, I gained a little more confidence about each phase of the work: Interpret the director’s comments and my own gut to determine what the scene needs; choose the right musical feel to achieve that; and then compose, perform and produce it pretty close to how I hear it in my head.

Each one of those steps is huge! The nice thing is, though, that in between film jobs I’ve done that last chunk so many times that I’m faster and more skilled with it than ever. And experience leads me to trust that the others — the interpretation part, and the more demanding skill of through-composing to a scene — will also get easier with repetition.

So what’s the lesson here? I think it’s twofold: First — and this one isn’t news — take that big, daunting project that you have in mind and break it down into sub-steps. But then figure out the specific skills required for each step. Are there some skills that you can boost outside of the “big project” context by doing, doing and doing some more, to the point that they get scratched off the list of worries? If you’ve got a screenplay in mind, are you writing something to sharpen your dialogue ear every day? If your goal is a photo exhibit, are you shooting and shooting every chance you get?

Break it down and say, “Bring it on! More reps! The more the better! Grrrr!” And pose like a WWF guy.

Grrrrr.


Elephants, Inspiration, and Sage, Apple, and Cheddar Scones

 

 

(Previously posted on Buried Carrots)

I wanted to see the elephants. I wanted to do something different with my day. While out for my early morning run, I took a different turn from my usual route so that I would run past the zoo and see the elephants through the fence. I knew from a past visit that the zookeepers hide food from them inside the enclosure because the animals enjoy the game of hide and seek. And sure enough, there they were, quietly seeking out their morning treats. I like to see them when they don’t know anyone is watching, before the gates of the zoo open and they are flooded with noisy visitors. I like to see them peacefully enjoying the cool, quiet morning, undisturbed.

Many days I run the same route, turn after turn. I could see the elephants every day if I chose to; they are only a little out of the way. But so often something pulls me along my usual way: I have to be at work, I have to run the errands, I have to, I have to, I have to.

Today I have to do something differently.

Visit the elephants.

Then come home and continue the grind, but with a fresh perspective because I shook up my day — even if just a tiny bit — and did something to make myself smile.

It worked.

After weeks of feeling uninspired in the kitchen, I suddenly felt renewed. Freshly baked Sage, Apple and Cheddar scones soon filled the kitchen counter and the house smelled of autumn. Sharp cheddar, sweet apples and fragrant sage make these savory scones the perfect match with a hot cup of soup – just the thing when fall is right around the corner.

So do something differently. Visit the elephants. Make the day unique. You might find that it’s just the thing to put a spring back in your step.

Sage, Apple and Cheddar Scones: 

4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup very cold butter cut into small pieces
2 large eggs
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 green or red apples, finely diced
3 teaspoons finely minced sage 
½ cup diced sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 375˚

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Pulse to mix. Add the cold butter to the flour mixture and pulse until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Transfer mixture to a bowl and stir in the apples, cheddar and sage. Place in freezer for 5 minutes.

In a small bowl combine the eggs and ¼ cup of the heavy cream. Whisk well to combine.

Add eggs and cream to the flour mixture and stir until dough just comes together. Add additional tablespoons of heavy cream if necessary.

Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface. For mini scones divide the dough into four equal portions. Form each portion into a rough circle 5-6 inches across. Cut each circle into 6-8 wedges. For large scones form two 8-10 inch circles, then cut into wedges.

Place wedges on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned.

Recipe adapted from Good Life Eats.