Category Archives: Inspiration & Tips

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.

What Would Toots Do.png

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.

uke at celebration.png

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.

 

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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]


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.


Keys to Success From Abby Wambach and London 2012

I’m catching up on sleep. My blood pressure has returned to normal. I haven’t wept in at least three days.

That is to say, the London 2012 Olympics are over, and slowly but surely life is resuming its normal rhythm.

This year we did our best to watch as much of the Olympics as possible, recording events happening during the day, following on Twitter, and watching primetime coverage in the evenings. We took it all in: the success, the defeat, the joy, the heartache, the triumphs and failures. We watched again and again as Olympians had their moment to shine. Some of them did so, flawlessly, and others struggled under the immense pressure.

And the whole thing got me thinking. What makes these Olympians, or anyone for that matter, able to rise to the moment? What makes them able to pick themselves up and start again after crushing defeat? What can I do to be more like them?

I think it boils down to three elements, none more important than the other, each equally essential to success:

Do it.
Understand it.
Believe it.

Whatever “it” is that you want to accomplish.

How successful is the diver who skips out on practice? What becomes of the world’s fastest woman if she doesn’t understand the physics of how to get out of the starting block efficiently? How does a team come back from being down a goal — three times! — to win in the final seconds of overtime?

Perhaps at this point you’ve heard about the infamous semifinal women’s soccer game between Canada and the U.S., the game in which a rarely called free kick was given to the U.S. because the Canadian goalie held the ball for too long. And it’s possible you’ve heard that leading up to that call, Abby Wambach, veteran player for the U.S. team, was counting, loudly, near the ref each time the goalie held the ball to bring attention to the matter. Finally the ref called it – and the free kick resulted in a handball that resulted in a penalty kick that resulted in a goal that equalized the score for a third time. And then the U.S. came back to win in overtime with a fourth goal — the latest goal in Olympic history.

Do it. Understand it. Believe it.

You see all of these elements at play in this situation. First, Abby knows the rules of the game inside and out and how to use them to her team’s advantage: a goalie shouldn’t hold the ball for more than six seconds. It’s a rule, so is there any harm in pointing it out when time is most certainly of the essence? Second, she is fit enough to play — hard — for more than 120 minutes. Guess how she got there? She practices and practices and trains and practices. And finally, when her team was down a goal for the third time, Abby didn’t resort to stepping on other players’ heads (see: Melissa Tancredi); she simply kept believing that winning was possible. And guess what? It was.

Now apply this to me, or you, or anyone. If you want to do something, or be something, or accomplish something, then do it, understand it, and believe it.

Get out there and take photos. Get the best training you can afford and start learning how to mix songs better. Take a deep breath now and then and tell yourself that you’re courageous, you’re talented, you’re capable, and you’re ready.

My success, my desires, may never result in a gold medal hanging around my neck, but achieving them would feel just as good. (Deep breath: I’m courageous, I’m talented, I’m capable, I’m ready.) Thanks for the inspiration, Abby, and London 2012.


School’s out – time for learning!

Phew! The school year is over – at least til summer school starts – and although I love teaching, I’m sooooo excited about that.

Because I want to kick back and relax? No! Because I want to devour the last several months’ issues of Electronic Musician, work through hours and hours of tutorials on a bunch of pro music software packages, and get back to my schedule of producing a piece of music per day. I’m also teaching a new online course over the summer, which will be a great experience.

Sitting on the patio, catching up on industry magazines

Learning time – on the patio, on a beautiful summer morning. Rough!

A piece per day. When school’s not in session, I’m all over it; I manage it. But once school ramps up, it’s pretty tough to pull off. So another goal I have for this summer is to better organize my teaching materials for the coming school year so that I minimize my weekly prep time once school is in session.

It’s the old “chip away at it each day instead of cramming” thing, and since I preach it to my students, I oughta practice it too.

Here’s the thing: I’ve pretty much got my act together. But I pressure myself to improve my classes each time I teach them. So I don’t just pull out the same thing from last semester; I typically review and rewrite/redesign each module to fix what didn’t work, add new findings, and so on. And that’s the right thing to do. But I could do more of it in advance, which would allow me to spread out the work hours over months instead of days. It’s the old “chip away at it a little each day instead of cramming” thing, and since I preach it to my students, I oughta practice it.

So here’s a sampling of what’s on my plate for the summer:

  • a wad of tutorials at lynda.com – no matter your discipline, you can probably find valuable training there
  • the full set of MSP tutorials (I’ve used the Max side of the legendary Max/MSP suite for more than a decade but have only a little experience on the MSP side)
  • a big dive into Numerology, an amazing step-sequencer made right here in ABQ, for which I’m beta-testing a top-secret new module (eee!)
  • a similar dive into Xewton Music Studio for iPhone, for which I’m also a beta tester; I use it as a sketch pad currently and want to explore a little more with it
Xewton Music Studio Screenshot

Xewton Music Studio for iPhone does Apple’s own GarageBand several better.

  • teaching an eight-week, online music technology class during June and July, and prepping for teaching my regular classes next year
  • initial work toward a Working Classroom theater production that will go up in mid-September
  • prepping for the opening concert of the ISEA2012 Conference, which should be very, very fun…

It’s amazing how much energy you find when you love everything you’re doing.

What do you have on tap for this summer?


The Value of Retrospect

I had a boss once who’d say, “I don’t care what’s on your resume. I don’t care what you did before; I care what you can do right now.” I saw his point when it came to certain b-schoolers on staff, but for my own purposes I thought of it more like, “Hey, sweet! Every day is a new opportunity to do something amazing! No baseline needed!”

Yeah, I’m Pollyanna like that.

Well, last week, I gave a talk about my composing work to a class of composition students, several working on their masters’ degrees in composition. It turned out to be a great opportunity for retrospection: how I started, the multiple paths I’ve maintained (so like a Gemini), my graduate studies, my many and varied extra-curricular pursuits, the incredible people I’ve gotten to work with, what about my work has changed and what hasn’t.

The Spreadsheet For Section 2

Evidence that during my thesis composition process, I was clearly out of my mind. In a good way.

Given that my audience would be a bunch of students preoccupied with thesis work, I decided to spend the bulk of the talk discussing my own. When I began preparing my slides, though, I realized that I might have to turn to my not-terribly-consistent journals for details about how I constructed my thesis, because it was 10 years ago. Like a place I used to live, it’s got certain landmarks that I’ve retained and used to navigate conversations about such things over the years: It’s called Name Day and is for electronics, oboe and cello; it’s based on the prose poem of the same name by the remarkable Teresa Phillips; it deals with her diagnosis with bone cancer as a toddler and the aftermath; and it employs serial techniques – the use of external information (in this case, the poem itself and aspects of Teresa’s post-op X-rays) to drive musical decisions. That much, I can recite on command. Any deeper, though…

Because, you know, I’m not crazy about paper at this point; I try not to collect or keep it. And to my memory, I’ve only recently become disciplined about documenting how each of my pieces is put together and especially how it’s performed. I’ve had to, though, because so many of my compositions – in contrast to my thesis piece – use some new/different combination of gadgets than the last; are performed by me as structured improvs and so not typically scored; and are performed once, maybe twice, right after completion and then not again for months or even years. So by comparison, I wasn’t sure how much I would’ve documented 10 years ago about a piece that resulted in a definitive score. What more was to document? And how much of the supporting material would I have bothered to keep?

Chicken Scratch

From the trusty blue spiral manuscript notebook.

But I looked through our bookcases anyway – and was rewarded with the spoils of being supremely Type A (about some things). Each item I unearthed brought a bigger smile and a stronger rush of memories than the one before. There was the original master print, complete with front matter describing the compositional process (phew!). Behind that, photocopies of the original hand-written score. In another section of the same shelf, the abused but still-legible prints of the spreadsheets in which I painstakingly tracked certain details of the piece – one for each of the three sections of the piece, and each one a taped-together tiling of 9 or more letter-sized sheets. Sooooo OCD!

Each of those documents represents hours upon hours of teeth-gnashing and triumph, self-doubt and certitude, and above all, complete surrender to the process. I worked so incredibly hard on it. I can see the spreadsheets tacked to the wall of my bedroom studio, the blue spiral music notebook I carried everywhere for months, and the lights hitting the performers as they took the stage for the premiere. These memories, and what they say about my capacity for hard work and even healthy obsession, could reinvigorate me on the worst of days.

Page One

Page 1. Beginnings, endings, all good.

To that former boss, I’d throw a well-worn business maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. In Composing Kitchen language, I’d say that retrospection doesn’t have to be a consolation, an indulgence or a crutch; it can be a tool. Knowing what you’re capable of can propel you to do something that’s not just amazing, but even more amazing.

So go ahead: Read over your resume – be it literal or figurative – and then vow to exceed everything on it.

If you’d like more detail about Name Day and/or to hear excerpts,
leave a comment. I’ll be happy to tell you a ridiculous amount
based on my copious documentation.