Optical Illusions

Are you looking for a fun activity to do outdoors with your kids or youth group? All you need is a camera, an eye for location and a subject (with a solid core) who can hold a pose. Very little photo editing is required.

First, take a hike. Check with local hiking groups and online websites to find hikes that are appropriate for your age children then take them to the summit. Bring lots of water and snacks. Don’t forget the water and bring plenty of water. Did I mention not to skimp on the water? Bring more water than Brett Kavanaugh drinks beer. I like beer.

Whatever mountain you choose, if you are not an experienced hiker, read trail reports to figure out how long a round trip will take. Plan accordingly. Bring flashlights (along with water) in case you miscalculate. Chances are you live near an area with short one or two hour hikes. You can also do a Google Image search of your chosen peak so you can see pictures of the summit that other hikers have taken and plan your photo layout in advance.

Then, look for a ledge, large flat slabs of granite or a large rock (erratic) that they can lay on. What is important is for the camera to get either high or low enough to catch the subject but with either only sky or rock in the background. If you catch any trees in the background you will have to do some editing for everything in the background will belie the optical illusion. This is why you may have to hike to the summit of the mountain and look for layered ledges or a large erratic. If you try this on a slab of granite, make sure there are no shadows from trees or people which will give away the illusion.

Once you find your location, safety always comes first. Do you know what the leading cause of death is while hiking? The selfie.

Find a crack or bulge in your rock and have your subject lie down on their side below it with their bottom arm stretched up to the crack or bulge (a more realistic picture will have their arm at a right angle). They must lie in a straight line. Their upper arm should be relaxed but held up in the air pointing toward their feet. Their head can be angled downward and their eyes can look all the way down toward their feet. This is the “acting” part to give the illusion of awe of the height. Too much acting will look fake. Anyone brave enough to climb a cliff won’t have the look of fear on their face. Likewise, a real climber would not hang by his fingertips and smile for a camera. Real climbing is serious business and poses often look fake or at least, not dangerous. This should look like a candid pic snapped in the midst of action.

Now the hard part. The subject needs to raise both feet and legs off the ground. At least the upper leg. Point the toes downward, this is very important. Likewise, the arm should have the relaxed grace of a ballerina. After the picture is taken, load it into a photo editor and simply rotate it once in the proper direction then save it.

Another tip to ensure that the photo looks as real as possible, the subject shouldn’t wear loose clothing, loose long hair and, their shoelaces should be tucked in. Gravity will grab anything it can to make your photo look fake.


Halloween Organ Concert Ideas

I am often asked for repertoire ideas for Halloween Organ Recitals. It is not that difficult. Take any melody in a minor key, play it with a four foot flute in your right hand, maybe with a mutation, and with your left hand, do a slow palm glissando on both black and white keys with strings or softer flutes. Here are several songs I have played in the past:

Postlude Sollenele

Night on Bald Mountain
(gasp, I can’t find my vid)

Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Chopin Prelude

Moonlight Sonata

Chopin Mazurka

Little Prelude and Fugue in G minor

Addams Family

The Munsters
(gasp, I can’t find my vid)

London Bridge (because there are human sacrifices in each pillar – orphans)

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Hall Of The Mountain King

Boellemann Toccata

The Lost Chord

Flight of the Bumblebee

March of the Marrionettes

Couperin Fugue

O Fortuna/Phantom of the Opera

Variations on a Recitative Schoenberg
(gasp, I can’t find my vid)

Ring Around the Rosie (about the plague)

Point Of Sound

One of the causes for strain, stress, injury and other maladies pianists, organists and typists experience is simply that they press too hard into the keybed of their device or instrument. Let’s first take a look at sports and then physics (that HS subject you think you don’t use in real life).

As a baseball player stands at home plate and the ball is hurtling toward him, he back-swings, forward swings, hits the ball, then all the energy left over from the swing dissipates into the follow through. The same action occurs when an athlete swings a tennis racquet, kicks a ball, swings a golf club, punches someone, throws a ball, etcetera. That is Newton’s third law of physics that every action has an equal and opposite action. In order to forward swing, one must first back swing. Even when we walk forward, as one leg is extending up and forward, the other leg is pushing backward. So according to the laws of physics, in order to type or play the piano down, one must first lift up. Many of us were trained or taught to play or type from a resting and relaxed position which actually creates tension because holding a position requires effort. So we know that everything requires an opposite motion and a follow through. I bet all you smart kids out there know exactly where I’m going with this.

Now imagine that our baseball, tennis, soccer, golf, football players or boxers are standing before a concrete wall and they backswing then forward swing but instead of hitting an object and following through, they strike the immovable wall. All the energy of the swing, instead of following through and dissipating, ricochets back into the athlete. That can hurt.

A piano is much the same. Many pianists press into the keybed of a piano and not only does that fail to produce any more of a tone but, all the energy of pressing down is being transferred back up into their finger joints and tendons. We often don’t notice this until after an hour or so of practice or the next morning when we wake up with stiff fingers. We are taught by bad teachers “no pain, no gain.” In this case, it is very much a lie. No pain, no gain is fine when building muscle but not for bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and certainly not for our technique. Often poor technique, strain or missed notes are a result of what we are not doing rather than what we are doing and often we are using the wrong muscles.

Sit at any acoustic piano and very slowly, depress a key so you don’t play a sound. At some point you will hit a little bump in the action, then press through it and you will hit the keybed. That little bump is the point of sound once you actually play.

As a pianist drops the controlled weight of their arm onto a key, they must use Newton’s third law. As they hit the point of sound, much like an athlete striking a ball, they must then follow through without hitting the keybed. When they press into the keybed, not only is their energy backfiring but, they are pressing down and according to Newton, we can’t set up for the up motion if we are pressing down. This hinders technique. You can’t play down if you don’t play up and you can’t play up if you are pressing down.

So, the key and cure to playing without tension or pain is learning to play to the point of sound and simply following through and not pressing into the keybed. Unbeknownst to most teachers, their students press into the keybed. It is a motion that is often invisible. When a student experiences problems with technique or pain, the teacher often says practice more or run exercises to build strength and endurance and the teacher is often oblivious that the way the student practices is what needs to be addressed, not a clock.

Danger Will Robinson. Before anyone tries to learn to play to the point of sound, there are other components of technique which must first be in place. This includes controlling arm weight, controlling up/down, controlling in/out from the shoulder and elbow, using the fulcrum of the elbow, controlling rotation of the forearm through the use of the pronator and supinator muscles. Likewise, there are movements to avoid such as abduction, curling the thumb under the palm, isolating a finger, equalizing fingers, radial and ulnar deviation, and trying to play too relaxed, still and quiet.

A virtuoso technique looks like it is effortless and relaxed. That is true, the fingers are relaxed because the arm does all the work. Observers are often looking at the pianist’s hands and fail to notice the elbow and arm is actually doing most of the work. Pianists who attempt to play from the fingers and have fatigue, are told to relax so, they relax the same muscles they are continuing to use and they achieve nothing.

Once all of the proper motions are achieved and the improper ones eradicated, point of sound will just happen. Some “techniques” such as the Russian Technique, surreptitiously imbue the pianist with these movements but personally, I would rather learn the physics and ergonomics of movement rather than being tricked through mindless imitation. Although, it works to some degree. Where it fails is when a pianist encounters a passage they can’t execute and if they knew the mechanics of the arm, would be able to figure out what sort of adjustment is required to play that passage.

I once studied with a leading concert pianist in my area who didn’t know what he was doing but had a phenomenal natural technique. His instruction to me was to watch him play then imitate his motion. That would have been fine but I already had bad habits hardwired into my brain which were getting in the way. Since he didn’t know anything about ergonomics nor physics, he had no idea how to fix me other than prescribing “practice more.”

I once gave a lecture on this topic and a pianist disagreed with me about Newtons third law citing that the piano is down, not up. The finger must come straight down onto a key. If the pianist is playing with a “still and quiet hand” and they must also play black keys, note that the black keys are higher than the white keys. This results in the still and quiet pianist to stretch or twist to reach those keys which in turn create vector forces or, two muscles pulling one bone in two directions simultaneously. This creates tremendous imbalance in the arm which controls the hand and fingers and this leads to an incoordinate technique. Keep in mind your fingers have no muscles. They are moved by the flexor muscles in your forearm so that is where the pianist must first play from.

If you were to walk up stairs, your ascending leg would lift HIGHER than the next stair, then come straight down onto it. If you tried to walk upstairs without lifting your foot higher than the step, you’d trip. Playing the piano is the same. We must use the larger muscles of the arm to get the fingers higher than the notes we are desirous to play. Of course as we become more efficient, we minimize the height but make no mistake, although it may appear invisible, it is still there. Hanon knew this and prescribed the pianist to isolate one finger and lift it high but, this isolation engages the flexors and extensors at the same time resulting in strain to the long flexor tendons which leads to median nerve entrapment (AKA carpal tunnel syndrome). Remember the arm, hand and fingers can only move in one direction at a time. By abducting, for instance, the hand gets pulled in two or four directions despite the pianist trying to play a passage in a specific direction.

I have no conclusion to this post other than don’t try this at home. Find a teacher who knows what a pronator and abductor is and work from there.

Amazfit Pace compared to Garmin Vivofit and Map My Hike

I’ve been researching wearable trackers and have been looking at three products which all boast the same relative features: Fenix 3HR ($479), TomTom Adventurer ($349) and the Amazfit Pace ($159). You can find a 20% or 30% discount on retailmenot.com for the Pace. The Amazfit is new on the market. It premiered in China mid 2016 and in the USA on January of 2017. I was interested in the Pace because of it’s price. Especially if it did everything I wanted and at a third of the price with a discount. There is a lot of misinformation about the Amazfit Pace online, I suspect because it is still new or its competitors are trolling it. Here is some of the incorrect data out there;

“It is only in Chinese” – only if you purchase the Chinese version. Buy the USA version (Pace) if you want it in English.

“It is only in metric.” The Pace is in Imperial.

“It is only in military time.” Some of its native clock faces are in 24 hour time, others are in 12 hour time. There are 13 faces to choose from and it is too bad they can not be customized or utilize third party apps. Maybe they will change this in the future with an update.

“It does not have breadcrumbing or altitude features.” It does. When you begin a workout, you can choose from RUN, WALK, INDOOR RUN or TRAIL RUN. I beleive the altitude gauge only displays in TRAIL RUN mode. Breadcrumb is also in TRAIL RUN, you just have to scroll to the bottom screen for it.

I have two friends, one with the Fenix 3 and the other with Ambit 3. Then next time we go hiking together, I will do a more detailed comparison. For now, I performed a simple test of the Amazfit Pace, my Garmin Vivofit and the Android app Map My Hike. Here is the comparison data. I walked two blocks in an area surrounded by houses and trees.

Altitude: Pace said I was at 351 feet. The Altitude app on my phone reported 331. whatismyelevation.com said my elevation was 334.

Heart Rate: The Pace utilizes a PPG heart rate sensor while my Vivofit uses an ECG heart rate chest strap sensor. ECG is regarded to be more accurate while PPG is good for averages.
First check: Pace 73, Vivofit 70, my finger 68. My peak heart rate was listed: Pace 156, Vivofit 108.

Steps: Pace 967, Garmin 989.

Maximum speed: Pace 4.14 mph, Map My Hike: 4.1 mph
Calories burned: Pace 36, Map My Hike 56, Garmin 46.
Mileage: Pace .43 miles, Map My Hike .43 (I forgot to mark my Garmin but it is not GPS and I’m sure would be a little more based upon more steps).

Sleep. Neither is particularly accurate because I watched an hour of TV in bed before going to sleep and watched about an hour when I woke up.
Deep sleep: Pace 2 hours and 21 minutes. Garmin 4 hours and 42 minutes.
Total sleep: Pace 8:39, Garmin 9:09

As you can see from the attached pictures, neither my phone nor the Pace were very accurate but, I will blame that on the houses and trees. Maybe I need to recalibrate both or walk faster. Both were very accurate when I tested them while driving. The Pace tracks both Russian (GLONASS) and USA satellites and picks them up very fast.

The third photo is of the GPS tracking feature. In some wearables, this is called “Breadcrumb.” For me, this is a valuable feature because I wander off trail sometimes and using this “map,” it will help me find my way back.

It is also worth noting that one can get the Noom Walk app for a pedometer, Map My Hike for mapping and Altitude for a compass and just use your phone for the same relative data.

Who knows which one of these tools are the most accurate. If you use them to relatively and consistently track your own data, you can get a good measure of your activities and metrics.

A mark of a good company is that they give ownership of their product to their customers and clients. I hope Huami Amazfit will make their product available to third parties so that customers can customize their own workout metrics, watch faces and app export. Right now the Pace only works with Strava.

I don’t like how the Pace is propitiatory to a phone and does not work on its own. Once activated though, you don’t need to carry the phone around and, the pairing was a little confusing and not at all like the demo videos online.

The transflective screen is excellent outside in the sunlight. Not so much indoors.

Push notifications work very well and instantly. Those are very much customizable.

So, would I buy an Amazfit Pace? I don’t know yet. For sure, they give “the big boys” a run for their money so the big boys better take notice.




A better send-off than wretched 2016 deserved

Songs to Amuse, Steamer No. 10 Theatre, Dec. 31
Shawn Stone | Monday, January 2 2017

Keyboardist Malcolm Kogut and singer Byron Nilsson (aka B.A. Nilsson in these pages) brought their cabaret act Songs to Amuse to the stage at Steamer No. 10 Theatre on New Year’s Eve, where a happy crowd heartily laughed at a two-hour (including intermission) program of (mostly) 20th-century songs intended to, as advertised, amuse.

They began with “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which was originally introduced in a 1939 movie by Groucho Marx, and widely known now thanks to Kermit the Frog’s version. It’s a pun-filled, slightly salacious chronicle of one woman’s varied and outlandish body art, and as an opener, a pretty good indication of what was to come. Written by Harburg and Arlen around the same time they were composing the songs for The Wizard of Oz, Nilsson also told the story of–and sang–a lyric excised by a studio exec out of concern that it would “date” the number. The line? “When she sits, she sits on Hitler.”

What was the thing with everyone underestimating Hitler’s long-term prospects?

And that was the show: Smart, varied musical approaches by Kogut, fine singing and snappy patter by Nilsson. There were songs by Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer (the latter allowing Kogut to add a little synthesized Irish fiddle); songs made famous by the likes of Al Jolson (“Why Do They All Take The Night Boat to Albany”) and Blossom Dearie (Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie”); a trio of thoroughly delightful numbers written by the Brit duo Flanders and Swann; and many more.

Nilsson even tossed out a couple of lines from DeSylva, Brown and Henderson’s “Turn On the Heat,” one of the more demented songs from that most demented year of Hollywood musicals, 1929.

Particularly enjoyable was the woe-filled (as opposed to woeful) temperance ballad, “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” This horrible tale of 19th-century death and abandonment provided the opportunity for a jaunty sing-along. The duo helpfully included the lyrics to the refrain on the back of the program: “Mother, oh! Why did you leave me alone/With no one to love me, no friends and no home?/Dark is the night, and the storm rages wild/God pity Bessie, the Drunkard’s lone child!”

While there was no happy ending for “Bessie,” we in the audience had a fine time singing about her misery.

As the second half of the program wound down, the duo saved something special for the end: the 1937 labor ballad, “Capitalistic Boss.” This rich bastard’s lament gave Nilsson a chance to tear into a life of greed, exploitation, indolence, political violence and selfishness with an angry glee, as the narrator continually returned to one line of defense: “Something is wrong with my brain.”

The evening ended with everyone joining in on “Auld Lang Syne.” Kogut and Nilsson sent us out into the cold with warmer spirits than when we arrived, and ready to enjoy whatever revelry the last three hours of 2016 had in store.


Lessons and Carols for Small Churches

Lessons and Carols for Small Churches

Someone asked for a hymn based lessons and carols format for churches with small or no choir. Here is a template of one that I have used in the past.

Entrance Hymn “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”
Opening Prayer
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
First Lesson Genesis 3:8-5, 17-19
“Once In Royal David’s City”
Second Lesson Isaiah 11:1-3a, 4a-9
“Away In A Manger”
Third Lesson Luke 1:26-38
“The Snow Lay On The Ground”
Fourth Lesson Luke 2:1-7
“Angels From the Realms of Glory”
Fifth Lesson Luke 2:8-16
“What Child Is This”
Sixth Lesson Matthew 2:1-12
“We Three Kings”
Seventh Lesson John 1:1-14
“Silent Night”
Recessional “Angels We Have Heard On High”

Other carols to consider: “Joy To The World,” “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day,” “Lo, How A Rose E’re Blooming,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” any Advent hymn or, you can substitute any solo or a choral anthem the choir is working on.