Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's like a little jewel you hold in your and and appreciate

So, what's with the whole banjo thing?

I've seen guys, like Pete Seeger, and John McCutcheon tell stories while plucking a banjo through out the entire thing. They take breaks and play actual music, but more it's really about creating this constant rhythm running through out the story. Brian Rohr does something similar with a drum (I recomend Brian's video, Eating Baba Yaga), and more recently, while I was doing a show, a guy showed up with a banjo. After I finished we started talking and he told me Abiyoyo while plucking the banjo through out.
I find this technique incedibly charming, and I feel like it's got an almost gem-like quality - it turns the story into a little sparkly thing, like a jewel that you can almost hold in your hand and enjoy.
I tried to do this with FMF, but it just didn't work with the rhythm of the story - at least not the way I want to tell it. But, I am a huge opera fan, especially Wagner's der Ring des Nibelungen, and Wagner uses a technique called Leit Motif.
Leit Motif is a technique where every important character or event gets its own musical theme. The most often used modern example of this is Star Wars (and when I say Star Wars, I mean the movie my people call Star Wars, but people today call "A New Hope"). Next time it's on TV, probably sometime this weekend (and it really doesn't matter when you read this), check it out, the most obvious example is what's called "Luke's Theme". There're this french horn that plays every time Luke Skywalker strikes a dramatic pose. Now that you know, you'll always notice.
So, I thought - Leit Motif that's perfect! I can play a character's theme whenever they come or go, fading out the rhythm as I start telling again, fading it up as we move on to the next event. I think it works beautifully. And, I don't need as many songs as you would think - certain chord progressions present certain moods, so many events can be covered by plucking differrent rhtythms in different chord progressions.
It's working out pretty well, and I think it has that gem-like quality I'm looking for.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Upcoming workshop

So, I'm hard at work on my summer reading program, mailings are going out, I'm getting decent at the banjo, and I'm working on the telling, but life won't let me have it that easily.

I've always said there are times of the year when things happen, certain weekends when lots of events are taking place. For me (well, for my business anyway), it's usually the first week of September, the last week of October, and every week in June. But, this year it seems like a lot of stuff is falling at the end if April.

This year, on the first weekend in May, the Storytellers of San Diego are hosting the Story Swapping Festival. It's a festival put on each year by different Southern California storytelling groups, and this year it's our turn.

I was asked to put on a workshop for the festival, which is perfect timing because I already have way too much to do at the end of April.

Honestly I hadn't thought about my workshop in over a year when I tried to sell it to the big conferences. In the end it wound up being one of the many reasons I became disgusted with the storytelling community on the national level.

I seriously considered turning it down, but this is not national storytelling where you only get to speak if you have a bow tie or a Grammy, this is the Storytellers of San Diego, my group, the group of which I am the official treasurer, and I know these people are honestly interested in what I have to say - so I didn't turn it down right away. I also had to consider all that I had going on at that time - the Storytelling Festival, the Train Song Festival, a field trip and two library gigs, not to mention my overly demanding full time job as a software engineer.

And, the last time I taught storytelling, to a bunch of kids, I bombed, and I didn't really care for the experience.

When it comes down to doing anything there has to be a compelling reason. Why would I want to present my workshop? One of my new mantras is that everything I do should be considered against whether it us good for my career. And really, teaching a workshop is not.

There are, of course, a few good reasons to do it. The first is respect, I mean, I was specifically asked to do it, which is pretty cool. And it means that other tellers may see that I'm someone who might be worth listening to, even though I'm not after their particular ticket-buying dollar. Peer-recognition does puff up my low self-esteem.

But, there are two very big reasons to do it. The first is Angela Lloyd. A lot of how I develop stories is based on a workshop of hers that I attended at the Los Angeles festival a few years ago. She will be at the Storyswapping Festival teaching a workshop. I don't know if she'll be teaching the same one, but I will be referring to it. And who knows, if the workshops aren't at the same time maybe she'll find mine as useful and I can pay her back.
Secondly, is for me. I tell the stories I tell because they're the kind of stories I like. But, no one else tells stories like this, and I would like to hear some. So, if I teach a few tellers some of my secret recipes maybe they'll tell some of the kinds of stories I like best.

After all that, there's really no way I would ever turn down an opportunity like this. So, workshop it is. I've got a lot of work to do to get it right but I think it will be fun:

Big Bang - Hollywood-style action-adventure storytelling.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A theme and a deadline

I know, I know, what happened to poor Flash Gordon? Why does he always get left by the wayside when something else comes along?

The beauty of Summer Reading is that it gives me everything I need to make a great show - a theme and a deadline. Next year's theme is dig into reading, and I got this urge to perform Fantastic Mr. Fox with a banjo, so I've given myself nine months to become a good banjo player. And, what that means is poor Flash gets pushed to the back burner once again.

But, there is hope, the Summer Reading Program for 2014 is Science Fiction based, so I know Flash will finally make his appearance then - and maybe I'll get a theremin for the music!

One thing I have become very conscious of in the last few years is the passage of time. Before I started this endeavor to become an entertainer I went to a website (, which doesn't appear to be working, but will give you the same information) that told me exactly how long I have left to live. This is pretty sobering.

As a result, I'm very careful about which projects I decide to take on. I describe it as thus: if there are a hundred places you'd like to visit, and you go on vacation once a year, and you discover you only have forty years left to live, where will you choose to go?

The same is true of storytelling projects. If I have 53 (as of 2012) projects I would like to produce, and I take on two or three big projects a year, 50 projects are going to have to wait.

Sorry Flash, I'll see you next year.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I want

Desire is an interesting thing, isn't it?
A couple of years ago, I thought it would be better of myself to eliminate the phrase "I want" from my vocabulary. It hasn't been easy.
Then, I thought better to modify the usage, instead of saying "I want a new motorcycle", or "I want the latest smart phone", I would limit the usage to things like "I want to do five more sit-ups", or "I want to make my wife breakfast". These are real, actionable items that improve life and living, not detract from it with accumulation of meaningless, un-necessary stuff.
But the question comes at the drawing of that line, how does one set goals and eliminate desire at the same time? Isn't the wish to eliminate desire a desire in and of itself? Wierd huh?
I recently (20 days ago in fact) started a quest to earn myself a Firefly banjo ukulele with a walnut neck and hardwood fretboard. The thing is, when the Firefly banjo-uke came out I wanted one, but I was starting to work on my "can't say 'I want'" philosophy, so I couldn't get one. Besides, it would just hang there on the wall next to my unplayed bass, so there was good reason not to buy it.
Recently (about 20 days ago in fact) I started working on Summer Reading 2013. I know, it's pretty early, but Flash Gordon just wasn't moving for me and I was still high on Summer Reading 2012, so I looked up the theme for next year and found it to be: "Dig into Reading". I decided on a story I really love, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I started out making a drawing to represent the show, a fox, a few scrolly banners with text, and a banjo. A banjo? What was the banjo doing there? I don't know, it just fit.
So I started thnking about that banjo. So many great old-time fiddle tunes would work well with FMF, played during the digging and chases and such like that, things like Turkey in the Straw and the Chicken Reel. But how to play them? I have a tin-can banjo I built when I started learning about music. It's actually a very playable baritone uke. I could strum it and play the melody on harmonica - I already play a bunch of fiddle tunes that way, including Turkey in the Straw, and this is the way I usually work, but I want more - I want to learn more and different styles of ukulele playing, I want to do the melody and the chords on the banjo, I want it to be simpler in equipment, I want it to be richer in musicianship and musicality. That's a lot to want.
So, I thought, "I should get the Firefly banjo uke?"
Here's where things get a little difficult, I'm not supposed to "want" things. I thought, "Just get the darn thing, you can afford it." But, that's a problem in and of itself. Back in the day I would've worked extra shifts, saved money, took on side-jobs. It wouldv'e taken at least a month to get together an extra couple of hundred bucks. In the end, I would've either given up, thus indicating that I didn't really want the banjo,  or I would've earned the banjo and I would appreciate it that much more.
So I devised a system to get the banjo I "wanted" by earning it.
A banjo ukulele is tuned, strung and plays the same as a regular ukulele, so I don't need a banjo uke to learn to play banjo ukulele and I've got a couple of soprano ukes that I can work with.
So I did what I do whenever I'm making myself do something for a number of days, I made check boxes in my notebook, thirty of them in fact. And I started to teach myself to play clawhammer style ukulele. I won't get into the details of clawhammer style playing here, suffice it to say that it's a style of banjo playing that is used ofr old-timey music and that happens to work very well on one other instrument, besides the banjo, the ukulele.
So, now I've created some very explicit conditions. I can get a banjo uke if I practice clawhammer style playing for thirty days, without fail, if I miss even a single day I can't get it. Period.
Today is day twenty, and the one thing, more than anything else that has kept me going, is not the desire for the banjo, but the fact that I've posted my progress on Facebook every day. I started on day 4, just as a lark, and didn't post a day 5, but by days 6 and 7 I realized that people were reading the posts and I had developed a system of accountability.
In all, I think this raises more questions than it answers. Am I eliminating simple desire for the uke by forcing myself to learn/earn it first? Is this the good kind of "I want"? Or, am I just tricking myself to get something I want?
I don't know the answers to these things, I just know that, as a person, I'm not finished yet, and this is somethig I can do that will hopefully help me finish well.
If you want to follow my progress, "friend" me on Facebook.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Give us a kiss

The other day I re-watched the TED video featuring J.J. Abrams. It's one that I find particularly inspiring. J.J. is a little all-over-the-place, but that's ok, he covers a lot of material and is engaging.
I was particularly re-watching this video for his talk about Jaws. In it he explains that the movie isn't about a shark, it's about a man, struggling with his life. J.J. shows a scene from the movie where Chief Brody is sitting at the table, deep in thought, while his son mimics him.
Eventually he says, "Give us a kiss."
"Because I need it."
It's amazingly touching and it says more about the character than anything else in the movie.

It reminded me of the Scottish Games this summer, I told the story: The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies. It's a good story, there're lots of opportunities for vocal sound effects and anachronistic humor: "The wedding cake had one of those novelty cake-toppers. You know, where the Prince is trying to run away and the Princess is grabbing his coat-tails." But, in the denouement: "He wrapped his arms around her waist and give her a kiss. The kind of kiss between two people who have been married for what seems like a lifetime and they love each other more and more everyday."

I delivered that story three times over the weekend, and for all the laughs and fun people had through out the entire twelve minutes, when it came to that part, suddenly the walls came down - in just a few seconds the whole audience, even the teen-aged boys, sighed.

That's the secret sauce, isn't it? Art is best when it is emotionally impactful. Whether it's laughter, fear, courage or love, it's the human factor that really hits 'em where they live. Heroes should have weaknesses, lovers should sacrifice and villians should be passionate about their motives. It's that thing that everyone talks about, that being "genuine". I think that's what makes a great artist, the ability to deliver genuine emotion.

This, more than anything, is my over-arching "what I'm working on".

There's a short-short story that's commonly attributed to Ernest Hemmingway, "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn."
Talk about pathos!

Friday, August 3, 2012

it's a giant

This week I'm in Columbus, OH.
Whenever I visit a new city I study up on the things that I like to visit - tourist traps mostly. While so much of the travel media spouts "be a traveler, not a tourist" I wear my tourist badge (it's actually an iron-on patch) with pride, ambling through the streets like a rube, ogling at giant balls of string and waiting for the local toughs to take the big camera from around my neck. I have noticed the travel media seems to prefer you sit in the living room glued to the set rather than actually being a tourist, or a traveller. But that's a different blog.
Today I visited some sites I was most looking forward to - I visited a faithful reproduction of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria and the local science musem - COSI, the Center for Science and Industry.
I like visiting science museums when I travel, and COSI is one of the best I've been to. To begin with the place is freaking huge, and there're so many high-quality attractions, some I would consider theme-park quality. But that's a different blog.
The reason I'm writing about COSI on a blog about music and storytelling is because of this:

That, is the skeleton of a one-hundred foot tall giant, named Gigantic, it was scultped from fencing material by artist Tim Reitenbach.
As someone who talks about giants for a living, it was incredibly cool to see this beast, hunched over in a three level mezzanine, glowering at me.
A hundred feet tall didn't seem like so much, particularly hunched up under the ceiling. I think that's because he's so separated from people - it's kind of like when someone places a soda can in a walk/don't walk light suddenly you realize just how big they are because you have some context.
That's a difficult thing isn't it, context. I've been trying to figure out a way to describe comparitive sizes of various things for years. It has to be something the listener is familiar with, but you don't want it to be so out of place that it's jarring.
Recently I told the goblin spider, and I described the spider as being "as big as a moving van" with legs that spread out a dozen feet from its body in all directions. I don't know if that worked, I know that a moving van is pretty big, particularly when you think about it in the conext of a giant spider, but again it's all relative, if the listener pictures a moving van driving down the road, it's not so big, but if somehow thay're able to conjure the image of a moving van supported by eight legs, spinning about and lunging towards you, well then maybe I'm doing a good job.
As coyote said, wandering through the desert,I shall have to think about this.