Archive for December, 2010

To Eat or Not to Eat – A Horn Player’s Recording Dilemma

Posted in Blog, Music with tags , , , on Friday, 24 December 2010, by Stan

Barbara McNairy at the Antelope Valley Mall  (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

November, 2010

Singer Barbara McNairy was in the process of putting together her Christmas CD titled Christmas Is. She asked me to play flute on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. I happily agreed. Now all we had to do was find a day when all parties would be available.

One Sunday after church Barbara asked when would be a good time for me to record my part. I replied, “right now!” She asked Corvelle if today would be good for him. He said it would be. And that’s how it began. No preparation, it was just on.

We descended on Corvelle’s studio a little after noon. Jackie brought out some roasted pumpkin seeds, water and tea. After sitting around talking for a while, the subject got around to the task at hand. It was then I realized what we had to work with was a blank canvas. This could either be very good (think spontaneity, allowing ourselves to be completely used by the Spirit), or very bad (think hours of recording with nothing we liked).

I didn’t know if I’d be playing the melody or improvising behind Barbara. We didn’t know what style we’d play. We didn’t even know at what tempo to take the tune. Only two styles came to my mind; either play it in 4/4, legit, around 140 BPM, or as a jazz waltz. Barbara preferred upbeat, straight. And I was to play the melody.

Settling in at the controls, Corvelle prepared to record our first take. I placed the cans, sorry, headphones on my head. We were going to just use a click track to keep time but Corvelle laid down a multi-layered percussion track. He did this off the top of his head. Each instrument a different rhythm, each a perfect contribution to the whole. It had a decidedly Middle-Eastern flavor to it. I could imagine the three kings from the song travelling across the desert to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus. I was really feelin’ this groove. It got me in the mood to lay down the track. Mind you this was just to keep time for me to play against. I don’t know if they kept this in the song because as I write this I haven’t heard the finished product.

As the ideas flowed it was decided we’d do three choruses of two verses each, six times through the melody. I played it through six times non-stop, all in one take. Not bad, I thought. It was then that Corvelle told us that that took only about a minute and a half. Now we had to figure out what else to add to the song.

Meanwhile, Corvelle wanted me to record over the initial track to make it fuller. I got a couple of notes into the first verse and realized that I had to play it exactly as I had played it before. Same breaths, same accents, same phrasing. Now how exactly did I play that before?

I was standing up all this time. You flute players out there know that even though it is a relatively small instrument compared to, say, a saxophone, the flute requires a lot of air and breath control. My body was reminding me of this because I hadn’t eaten yet. Jackie offered me something to eat but initially I declined.

I don’t like to eat before I play for a couple of reasons. One, because I play wind instruments, food particles can end up inside the horn. Two, because if it’s a big meal, it affects my breathing and slightly reduces my lung capacity. No matter how hungry I get before we play, it’s better for me to just tough it out until after the gig.

By the end of the second track I was feeling light-headed. I had to stop for a bit. Going against my own play first-eat later rule, I asked Jackie for an apple. After eating it (and swishing really good with water) and instantly feeling much better, I was back at it.

Ideas continued to flow. Now we were going to do a harmony over the second chorus. Which was cool but I only had the chart for the melody. This was going to involve stepping up a bit here. I told myself that I very often have to transpose charts in concert key on the fly for Tenor so I should be able to do this. After two or three false starts, I finally got the hang of it. Again, same breaths, same accents, same phrasing.

The chart we used was the traditional version. Aside from the meaning of the lyrics, nothing really special about it. Another part of that blank canvas; here are the notes, you make them come to life. While doing the harmony, I heard Jackie singing a note that was different (read better) than the harmony part I was playing. Thought it deviated a bit, I liked it so we used it.

Next, Corvelle suggested doing something of a round. We tried to figure out how that would work. We decided I was to start the melody again three beats after the initial melody started. Here is where it gets interesting.

Up ‘til now I had been playing the melody and playing it again on top of the same melody. Even the harmony part was on top of the same melody. In my headphones I hear what by now sounds to me like a full flute symphony. Now I have to ignore every bit of that lush concerto and come in three beats after the ‘flute symphony’ does. And stay there until the end of the verse. It actually worked out pretty good…until we got to the third line. Without getting into the musical terminology, the second note of the third line clashed with the last note of the second line. When I heard it while recording I thought I had played a wrong note. When I played it the second time making absolutely sure I played the right note I stopped. Sure enough, during the playback, there it was. I studied the chart again. That’s when I discovered the clashing notes. Doctor Corvelle recommended dropping the note from the second part of the round and using that whole section in a different part of the song.

I kept waiting for Barbara to offer her suggestion but every time I looked over at her, she just looked so content. She just allowed us to do what we do. She did say that she liked what we had put together so far. That was good to hear. A couple more takes and Corvelle said we pretty much had what we needed. Barbara seemed happy with we had.

Sometimes the best experiences are those that are unplanned. Thanks Jackie and Corvelle for being such gracious hosts! And thank you Barbara for the opportunity!

On Assignment – Palmdale Christmas Parade 2010

Posted in Blog, Photography with tags , , , on Saturday, 18 December 2010, by Stan

Palmdale Christmas Parade 2010 Palmdale, California (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

December 11, 2010

Palmdale, California – I got the call on Friday to photograph the Palmdale Christmas Parade. Unfortunately I had another engagement at the same time. I ended up splitting the difference; leaving the parade early and arriving to my initial appointment late.

Officially, the parade is named the William J. “Pete” Knight Christmas Parade and is sponsored by the Palmdale Chamber of Commerce. This year’s parade had the theme “A Celebration of Family”. Usually the parade heads down Palmdale Blvd. so that’s what I was expecting this year…until I looked up the starting time and found the course had been changed. Now it would travel north on 5th St West, running between Avenue Q and Technology Drive. From a traffic standpoint, this was a much better route. 5th Street West is much less travelled than is Palmdale Blvd. There are fewer businesses along the route, and the majority of the ones that are on the route could still be accessed during the parade.

As a photographer I had to plan where I was going to post myself for the best view under the day’s conditions. The main problem was that instead of running east-west, the parade would be running north-south. That meant the late-autumn sun would be a huge factor when shooting southward. And that is the direction the procession would be coming from. The only way to eliminate the sun from my shots would be to stand on the east sidewalk and face southwest.

Arriving early, I staked out a spot with a good patch of sky in the background. The buildings that would be in the frame looked nice and did not create a distraction. Though the route wasn’t long at all, I still wanted to catch the participants early on along the route so they would still be fresh. (Is that really important? Look at the faces of the marching bands and other walking performers at the end of the Rose Parade). The view of the oncoming procession was unobstructed. Unusually warm weather here in the Antelope Valley for this time of year was icing on the cake.

So far so good. But, being December in the High Desert of California, the morning sun was quite bright and reflected off anything even remotely shiny, including the asphalt. Using the spot meter was a quick thought but that would have resulted in blown-out backgrounds in almost every shot. Matrix metering worked better. I only had to touch up a handful of shots and only had one unusable one. That one was of a huge black and chrome vehicle. The chrome reflected the sun so harshly that the lettering on the side was completely obliterated. Combined with the black color of the rest of the vehicle, my poor Nikon didn’t stand a chance of exposing it properly. The black asphalt looked almost white in the photo. But the D200, amazingly, caught the driver behind the windshield even through the glare!

One really good thing about photographing smaller parades – aside from not having people decide to stand in front of you at an inopportune moment – is being able to walk a couple of feet out into the street to get a better angle on the subject. With people facing forward and backward on various floats, being able to move around like that makes it possible to have more faces in the shot.

Being a photographer at events like this does have it benefits. When people see your camera, they’ll turn and look directly at you and give you a smile and a wave. I was surprised to see so many people I knew in the procession. When I called out to them, not only did they turn around, but everyone riding on the float with them turned around. Big smiles at being recognized, big waves, everyone looking right at you, perfect shot!

As parades have a tendency to do, the procession occasionally stopped while some of the participants up ahead performed for the judges. Taking advantage of this, I was able to get a few really good images. And I was able to take a few moments to enjoy an event that I was photographing. That doesn’t happen very often. In most cases it’s shoot, shoot, shoot now and enjoy the event later when editing the results.

As I mentioned earlier, I had another appointment and was unable to see the entire parade. Click the link and you can see what I did get at this year’s Palmdale Christmas Parade.