Sunday, May 30, 2010

Banjo versus TV week 117: The Ballad of Bering Strait

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/23/2010 through 5/29/2010.
Banjo 682 hrs, TV 671 hours

I watched the film The Ballad of Bering Strait (and you can watch it too, for free, on Hulu). This 2003 documentary follows the Russian "redgrass" band Bering Strait.

Bering Strait

It's a little bittersweet watching this film about a group of kids trying to make it to the big time when I knew that the band would break up due to lack of sales only three years after this film was released.

But there are some great scenes, like this one of banjo player Ilya Toshinsky trying to explain his bluegrass set (Natchez Trace and Foggy Mountain Breakdown) to the faculty at a traditional Russian art academy.

The composer is Bela Fleck

Also in the last week:

  • I discovered

    ...a site that plays guitar tabs for you. It looks to be a useful practice tool.

    And for extra geekiness, it's got its own Songsterr API!
  • The various mutes that I mentioned ordering have now all arrived. I hope to have a chance to try them out and compare them soon.

Cross-posted at J.R.'s Banjo Hangout blog

Tempos of four banjo practice DVDs

Here's an analysis of the tempos of four banjo practice DVDs.

Why would I create such a thing? The other week I criticized The Ultimate Beginner Series by Alfred Music for having a play-along-with-the-band section that was "waaaaay too fast for a beginner to keep up with."

I'd wondered since if I'd been too harsh. So I pulled out my handy-dandy Korg MA-30 Metronome and used its tap function to find the tempo of the songs from that DVD.

Of course I needed to do the same with some other DVDs to compare. And I had to put them into a spreadsheet.

I color-coded each song, arbitrarily selecting these ranges:

(I treated most of these songs as being in 4/4 time so you might need to divide these tempos by two if you want to think in 2/4 terms.)

Then one thing led to another and soon I had...

...a chart of the songs and their tempos, in beats per minute. (Click on the chart for a better view.)

Let's run through the four DVDs that I compared, shall we? I've put together some slides to show how many slow, medium, fast and superfast songs are on each DVD.

Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner

Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner is the beginner-friendliest of my four practice DVDs, tempo-wise. Most of its 14 songs are played at a nice, slow tempo and the rest at a medium.

Each song has its own DVD chapter but it's a little awkward to practice with since the play-along chapters are mixed with chapters of advice and instruction. I wish the DVDs creators had tacked on a DVD menu that would allow you to play song after song after song as you practice, which is how I like to do it.

Most of the songs are in G, a few are in D.

Slow Jam With Murphy and Casey

I just purchased Slow Jam With Murphy and Casey a couple of weeks ago but its quickly become my favorite play-along DVD. It's got more songs than the other DVDs and the key changes are few and far between. The DVD is dedicated to play-along sessions so there's very little of the advice and instruction that interrupts some other DVDs.

(Incidentally, they threw in that one superfast song just so you'd hear what one sounds like.)

Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming

Intermediate Bluegrass Jamming (which has apparently been repackaged as Intermediate Bluegrass Jam Session since I bought my copy a few years ago) is basically a faster version of Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner. Its songs are pretty evenly divided between fast and superfast, with a token medium and a token slow song.

The songs are in a variety of keys: G, C, G, D, C, A, A, A, A, B, B, B, D, F, F, G, A, E, A, E, G, G, Bb, A.

I practice with this DVD occasionally. I'll admit that its higher speeds have scared me off, but this project has made me rethink that a little. I think I'll start using it more often. Besides, as the DVD's host Pete Wernick has pointed out, the tempos of these songs are pretty representative of what you'll encounter at a jam.

The fastest of my four practice DVDs, Bluegrass Banjo Basics And Beyond is part of The Ultimate Beginner Series. This DVD (and accompanying book) is also available in a mandolin or guitar.

You can read my critique of this series here. But, basically, the play-along sections of this DVD really are waaaaay too fast for beginners.

Cross-posted at J.R.'s Banjo Hangout blog

Sprint Mobile Broadband speed test

Using my Sprint 3G/4G USB U301 Modem from my my home office in Rogers Park, Chicago.

4G speeds:

Sprint Mobile Broadband 4G: 3,630 Kbps down / 754 Kbps up

3G speeds:

Sprint Mobile Broadband 3G: 1,478 Kbps down / 432 Kbps up

For comparison sake here's the speed tests for my Comcast home service:

Comcast home: 11,961 Kbps down / 2,902 Kbps up

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Banjo versus TV week 116: The question of the mandolin-banjo

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/16/2010 through 5/22/2010.
Banjo 678 hrs, TV 667 hours

The Banjo versus TV project faces an existential question.

When I started this project I set out the rules that determine what counts as banjo time, what counts as TV time, what counts as both and what counts as neither.

But those rules didn't anticipate this question: What do I do about the time I spend on the Gold Tone Mandobanjo 850 that I just bought (for $267.77, cheap!) on eBay?

It's mandolin-banjo and isn't strictly a banjo. So should I count the time I spend on the mandolin-banjo as banjo time or not?

Arguments against counting mandolin-banjo time as banjo time

The mandolin-banjo...

mandolin-banjo really a mandolin...

...with a banjo head. It's got eight strings (four identically-tuned two-string courses) like a mandolin. It's got the same scale length as a mandolin. It's tuned in perfect fifths, g d' a' e'', like a mandolin (and like a fiddle).

And if it's a different instrument than the banjo then I shouldn't count time spent on it as banjo time, just as I haven't counted time spent on other instruments as banjo time. Since I started this project in 2008 I've played various jug band instruments: kazoo, washtub bass, washboard, spoons and bottles. I also took a couple of months of guitar lessons so I could learn to follow along with the guitar player at a jam. And I've never counted the time spent on those instruments as banjo time.

Arguments for counting mandolin-banjo time as banjo time

Consider the banjolin.


The banjolin is really just a Irish tenor banjo...

Irish tenor banjo

...with a shorter scale length. The banjolin is tuned to g d' a' e'', one octave higher than the Irish tenor banjo's tuning of G d a e'.

The mandolin-banjo is just like a banjolin except that the mandolin-banjo has four two-string courses of strings instead of four strings. Same scale length, same tuning.

So the banjolin is a shorter Irish tenor banjo and the mandolin-banjo is an eight-stringed banjolin.

If I were playing an Irish tenor banjo (which I don't own, yet) I'd certainly count the time as banjo time. If I were playing its shorter cousin the banjolin (which I also don't own, also yet) I'd count that as banjo time, too. After all, I've counted the time spent on my sawed-off banjo...

Comparing J.R.'s sawed-off banjo to a standard 5-string banjo. banjo time.

So I should treat time spent on the mandolin-banjo the same way I'd treat time spent on the Irish tenor banjo or the banjolin: as banjo time. The extra four strings shouldn't make a difference.


All things considered, I'm going to count mandolin-banjo time as banjo time. Welcome to the family, new mandolin-banjo!

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

  • I've been working on that play-the-melody-on-a-single-string Alan Munde technique but I haven't been able to figure out what to do with the other strings. So we worked on that.

    I'd like to write up an explanation, but honestly I'm still processing it.
  • Also, of course, we talked about my new mandolin-banjo.

Also in the last week:

  • I've been thinking about that DrumDial that I saw demonstrated the other week and how it seems like a great way to verify even tension on a banjo head. So I bought one.

    I noted with interest a thread at the Banjo Hangout about tension readings. The thread was mostly about the readings for a Neary Drum Torque Wrench but a few people discussed the settings for their Drumdial. The Drumdial settings were 89 for a Gold Tone, 94 for an OME and 90 for some other banjo.

    I also found this advice (apparently from Tom at Janet Davis Music):
    For most Mastertone style banjos using a Remo Weatherking head, setting the head around 89 will give you a nice bass response with a clear treble, and going up to 90 or 91 will brighten the tone considerably. Different heads, like the 5-Star and Ludwig heads are thicker material, and will have better clarity around 92-93. Personal preference does play a role, so you can start with the tension around 88 and tighten the head evenly until you find the tone you like best.
  • A few weeks ago I ordered the banjo, mandolin and guitar DVDs and books from The Ultimate Beginner Series by Alfred Music.

    The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Banjo Basics book The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Banjo Basics & Beyond DVD The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Mandolin Basics book The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Mandolin Basics & Beyond DVD The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Guitar Basics book  The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Guitar Basics & Beyond DVD

    They've just arrived.

    I dunno about this series. On the plus side the instructions seem to be pretty good and I really like the way that all of the books feature the same songs. If you and some buddies are learning the instruments at the same time I can see that it would be fun to learn using this series.

    But the downside is it all seems kind of fast. The lessons don't have a lot of detail and they go through it very quickly. But the biggest speed problem is with the play-along-with-the-band portion of the DVD. Those guys are playing these songs waaaaay too fast for a beginner to keep up with.

    I followed the first few chapters of the mandolin book and the first half hour of the mandolin DVD with my new mandolin-banjo and I felt that I learned some good stuff. Nonetheless I have the feeling these books and DVDs are going to gather dust on my shelves for a while.
  • I just found out that one of my favorite comics, The Walking Dead is being made into a TV show for AMC. Cool.
  • I had to do without my iPhone for a while because I dropped it in a toilet.

    It made me aware of how much I use my iPhone for my banjo practice. I use a Metronome app...

    ...and the Omnituner app...

    ...a lot. But most often I use the included timer and camera to record my practice time.

    Those two images tell me everything I need to know for my practice log: When I practiced, how much time I practice for and what I was doing. See, that's the floor of my laundry room, which reminds me that I was working on chord forms while I was waiting on laundry. And these two images...

    ...tell me that I spent 20 minutes playing along with the Slow Jam With Murphy and Casey DVD.

Cross-posted at J.R.'s Banjo Hangout blog

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Agile adoption areas of concern

I'm at the Agile Comes to You seminar in Chicago, sponsored by AnthillPro, Rally Software and AccuRev.

Our hosts asked each table of attendees to come up with a top "current challenge, obstacle or area of concern you have while planning or scaling your Agile adoption." Then the collected them, put them on a slide and had a panel discuss the concerns.

I thought the room's collected concerns are an interesting snapshot of where agile adoption currently stands, so I present them here:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Banjo versus TV week 115: Gotta get me some mutes

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/9/2010 through 5/15/2010.
Banjo 673 hrs, TV 665 hours

I was in better health this week. I got in some actual practice and went to my first banjo lesson in a few weeks.

I also went a little mute-happy. I already own...

...but I'm in an experimenting mood. So I've ordered up...I'll let you know how they compare.

Banjo Newsletter May 2010Stuff from the May 2010 Banjo Newsletter:

  • Yes, that's Steve Martin on the cover, acting like he doesn't know which picks go on which fingers. Stop the false modesty schtick, Steve. It makes us actually mediocre banjo players feel worse about ourselves.
  • Loved Tony Trischka's interview of Steve Martin.
    • Steve Martin mentioned that Steve Arkin suggests putting a mute between the bridge and the tailpiece, which is what got me thinking about mutes.
    • When Tony and Steve described how a new student should learn Cripple Creek, I think it was a reference to Steve Martin's "I can't stand to play Cripple Creek" routine, which Tony has used in performance:

    • I'm really tempted to try Tony Trischka's School of Banjo online.
  • Plugs work. After reading in the Callous Thumb column about the Grascal's new album, The Famous Lefty Flynn's I put the CD on my Amazon wish list.

    Grascals - The Famous Lefty Flynn's
  • Ads work. I ordered a copy of Slow Jam With Murphy and Casey to add to my collection of play-along DVDs.

    Slow Jam With Murphy and Casey

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

David is in the middle of some heavy-duty dental stuff and had his jaw wired shut, which made for an interesting lesson. It made me realize how much of my lessons I spend chit-chatting instead of playing.

So we concentrated on Dueling Banjos, which allowed David to demonstrate a bunch of things to me without having to speak much.

Also in the last week:

  • NBC cancelled some shows this week that I used to watch (Lost, Scrubs and Heroes) and one that I wish I could keep watching (FlashForward).
  • I practiced that Alan Munde up-the-neck-solo technique that I'd previously described. I'm kinda okay when it comes to playing the melody on one string but I'm having some trouble figuring out how to play harmony or chords on the other strings at the same time.

Cross-posted at J.R.'s Banjo Hangout blog

I defeated the iTurd

Yeah, so I dropped my iPhone in the toilet. Or as The iPod Toilet Trap calls it, I "pulled off an iTurd."

A virtual reenactment

Naturally this messed up my iPhone, but it's back in action again. Here's how.

Packing the iPhone in rice for a couple of days (as the Toilet Trap recommends) fixed most of the resulting problems...

  • Phone kept powering up immediately after shutdown
  • Sleep/Wake button wouldn't work
  • Home button wouldn't work
  • Couldn't make calls because the SIM card was unrecognized

...but I kept getting this annoying message that popped up at seemingly random times:

Apparently the moisture messed up something in the docking connector, causing the iPhone to intermittently detect a new audio device.

I spoke with a genius at the Apple store about the problem but she told me that they wouldn't fix the phone because the moisture indicator had been tripped. She said I'd have to purchase a replacement phone.

Fortunately I didn't follow her advice. Instead I found a fix on YouTube that suppressed the popup. The fix (Cydia Popup Blocker) required me to jailbreak my iPhone, but since my warranty was shot because of the moisture indicator there was no reason not to.