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Go Forth & Amplify!

After months of editing, I finally finished the 2nd Edition of the “Gurl’s Guide to Amplification.”

Gurls Guide to Amplification - book

Yippeee!!!

If you’re wondering what a “Gurl” is, it’s is that part of your brain that sticks fingers in its ears and sings “La-la-la-la!” whenever things get too technical.

It’s the part of us – everyone, regardless of gender or age – that says: “OK, I see how you get from Point A to Point B. But … how do you get to Point A??

The “Gurl’s Guide” is a travel guide to Point A.

So, why write this book? Yup, I asked myself that a lot in the last few months, torn between thinking “well, who really cares about this stuff, anyway” and “but there’s got to be a way to explain this so it makes sense” and “man I wish I’d known all this twenty years ago!”

So this is the book I wish I’d had when I first started experimenting with amplification a few decades ago. And even though I now play a state-of-the art electric instrument invented specifically for me,  I still think about the basic principles in this book every time I play.

When I asked myself what makes me most qualified to write this book, I realized it’s  that I’m NOT am amplification ‘expert.’ I’m a working musician, and maybe more importantly, I’m a performer.  I’ve contended with my own ignorance and my lack of natural technical aptitude.   So I’ve written this to try to give other performers enough knowledge to experiment, to know the general terms to ask questions and  become more equal partners — rather than  helpless ‘clients’ or ‘patients’ — of the sound engineers and salespeople they’ll collaborate with to build their own unique sound.

Harp of the Bride of Frankenstein from "Gurl's Guide to Amplification"If your goal is to become an expert yourself, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you want to know how to use basic sound equipment well enough to amplify your instrument in various situations, and enjoy experimenting with effects like reverb, distortion, loopers and so on, then this book is a great tool.  I’ve also tried to include some of the stories about my own experience with amplification and a lot of drawings because, as you know, they’re worth 1,000 words – though, actually, now with inflation, that’s down to about 984.

I personally grew up acoustic. I mean completely.  Recorded music, tape recorders, radio – were all exotic foreign experiences that ‘other people’ had – but not me.  In my family, everyone sang, and they all sang LOUD.  Amplification was not only superfluous but might have been dangerous.  I never touched a microphone before I began playing professionally in my early 20’s  What’s so great about that?  I remember my own ignorance very well – and that helped me write the book.

I went from stuffing a microphone into the soundhole of a harp, to learning how to retrofit acoustic harps from one of the geniuses of transducer technology, to having my own signature model solid-body, fully electric, strap-it-on-and-dance-around-the-stage signature model instrument.  It’s been a long road but …

The ability to amplify my instrument has given me a whole new career: writing ensemble and orchestral music that features the harp – an amplified harp that can soar over an orchestral brass section, or hold its own with electric bass and percussion.   I finally have the instrument I always dreamed of … but I’m still the same “Gurl” who feels dumb when the talk turns to tech.  So this book is for everyone else who thinks like me: dimly.

This book is geared towards harp players, because I’m a harp player, but the basic principles are true for any acoustic instrument — and especially those made of wood and strings.  You can read more and download pages of the book at www.gurlsguide.com.

So now, my friends … Go forth and amplify!

In-Out-Goofy Guy

Signal flow

I don’t like deception, but I love being someone different than who I am. The problem is that it’s hard to tell the difference between that and deception, except on stage, where the boundary is clear and so the freedom to experiment is much greater.  But it took me awhile to figure that out.

When I was in my mid-20’s, my friend Rami and I decided to take a bike trip down the coast of California from Berkeley, where we lived, to L.A. We agreed that if we had serious problems on the road, we’d ask for help with English accents, since people generally seemed more tolerant of confused foreigners.

The first day on the road we had a few breakdowns, so it was almost dark by the time we stopped a local who told us about a campground a mile off the main road.  We’d been riding since early that morning, so we happily coasted a mile, then two, then three down a huge hill – surprised it was further than he’d said, but grateful it was all downhill.  At the bottom we found a trailer park, where we knocked on the door of the main trailer.

A tall man in his 60’s opened the door, crouching a little to look out.

“Can I help you?” he asked,  and in our British accents, asked where the camping ground was.

“Oh, the camp ground.  Gee,” he said, “that’s all the way up the other side of the highway.”

“The other side?” I asked.

“Long way back this time of night,” he shook his head.

“Well, is there a – I mean, could we – is there any place down here?”

“Nope, sorry about that,” he said.  “But good luck to you girls.”

So we trudged out. “Forget that hill,” I said to Rami. “We’re going to hitchhike.”

“With bikes??”

“Someone will come by with a truck,” I said.

We stuck our thumbs out and sure enough, in less than three minutes, a truck stopped.

“Hi!” I yelled.

Rami poked me hard in the ribs. “Oh, Cheerio there!” she said in her British accent.

That’s when I realized the guy in the truck was the man from the trailer park.

“Now, you two girls just come on back,” he said. “Me and my wife thought it was a shame two nice girls like you should have to ride back over to the campground.  Look here, we have an empty Winnebago in the driveway.  You come on to our trailer, we’ll make you some home-cooked dinner and then you two can stay in the Winnebago over night.”

So Rami and I spent the evening in the trailer park, pretending to be nice English girls and telling our fascinated hosts how we were childhood friends from London and how much we were enjoying America.  We avoided using the bathroom because any moment apart meant we might miss an essential episode of our personal history and contradict it later.

Half-way through the spaghetti dinner, our host asked if we’d flown over the ocean or over the Pole getting to the US.  I’d never been to England, I’d never been on a transcontinental flight.  So, after a split second of panic,  I said I had come by boat – and because that suddenly sounded implausible to me, I added that it was a luxury liner and I’d paid my way by playing the harp.

They were enchanted.  So enchanted that I continued. “Not only that,” I said, “but I’m heading back to France soon, to see my fiancé, who’s a composer in Paris. He’s hoping to win the Pris de Rome and I, myself, am writing an Opera.”

By the time Rami and I got into their Winnebago, I had an aunt who was a German opera star, a dog that thought it was a kangaroo and I was a child prodigy.  When we finally lay down in the dark our mouths were sore, and lazy ‘r’s and flat vowels never felt so good.

Sure, everyone thinks it’s fun to toss off a Monty Pythonism with a British accent for a few sentences, but try doing it for an entire evening – it’s exhausting.  And I was terrified our  hosts would find out we’d been lying.  I wouldn’t mind so much if they just confronted us, but what if they found out after the fact and felt they’d been deceived?  The memory of these charming girls would dissolve into hurt, and their kindness as strangers would harden. They’d never trust another person with a  British accent. (Actually that idea was kind of interesting – thinking they’d wonder – as I always do – if people really come from where they say they do.)

We felt such remorse that we sent them postcards for weeks afterwards. But my mind still tried to undo the wrong. I kept thinking  they knew all along and that they were fooling us, egging us on to see how far we could go.

But that’s one reason I love being a performer – we all enter willingly and together into that place of flexible reality.  The audience does egg the performer on.  As an audience, I want to believe what can’t be true.  But I want to enter that place willingly.

So now I think that maybe all the world isn’t a stage, and we’re not merely players.  There are times and places when the wall of illusion needs to disappear.  Sometimes that place is between a performer and audience, and sometimes it’s with strangers.

And if you happen to come across those people in the trailer park, could you tell them the last time I went to England, I flew over the ocean.

When I was in school – college – about the time I started playing the harp, I had an English class in which we studied poetry, including translation.  The teacher described the difference between a literal translation of a poem and a poetic translation:  a literal translation is the specific words translated literally word for word; a poetic translation seeks to translate the sense and character of the poem – the poetry, rather than the literal meaning.

At the time – and this was a time when I only read non-fiction, on the principle of commitment to knowing the truth above all – I decided that the only true translation of poetry was a literal one.

Years later, I was playing harp professionally and struggling to find my own voice with an instrument that had such a strong stereotype and such a limited published repertoire.  After a few years of frustration, I gravitated to jazz,  exchanging one kind of structure for another – and finding a kind of freedom that way.

But I still felt confined by the instrument itself. I felt like I was just copying, trying to produce a literal version of other instruments on mine –  and I was missing the sense of character that I longed for in the music.

One night a guitarist friend from college stayed over.  In the morning I found him sitting at my harp, pushing the pedals in a way that was distinctly non-harpistic.  “Hey, check this out,” he said, “you said you couldn’t play a chromatic line here – but look, if you move these three pedals on this side and two on the other, you can do it.”

“But you can’t move three pedals on one side and two on the other,” I said.  “It’s not possible on the harp.”

He looked at me for few seconds. “But I just did.”

I started asking other musicians to play my instrument — people who had no idea how to play a harp.  Usually they approached it like they would their own instrument: bass players played it like a bass, standing up at the wrong end and thumping the thick bass notes; guitarists played it like a guitar, strumming the mid-range gut strings.  None of them played it like a harp.

And I started putting my vocabulary together from what they did.  I began to understand that what we think is there – in anything – is only part of what’s really there — that to see the rest you have to deconstruct your idea of what ‘is’ and what it ‘isn’t’ – and once you’ve decided you know what something is, the rest of it, no matter how huge, becomes invisible to you.  You sometimes need to trick yourself into seeing it.

So that was my trick:  I copied people who didn’t know what they’re doing.

Later, I got better at disconnecting from what I thought the harp was and what it could do.  I’d ask my bass player to play a lick I wanted to learn, and rather than copying the notes, I would copy the ‘sense’ of it, the movement, the gesture. I discovered that specific notes that create a fluid gesture on one instrument, can be awkward and stilted on another – but if you let go of the literal notes, and focus on the sense and feeling of the gesture, you can find a way to bring the character alive.   You just have to make a poetic translation.

"Strings of Passion - A Concert of Music, Ideas & Humor"

I’m working on a new project – or, I should say that I’m working newly on an ongoing project – called “Strings of Passion.”

“Strings of Passion” is a concert of music, ideas and humor, and the Sept. 25th performance at Boston Conservatory is its first Boston preview. The project was originally suggested to me by Vinnie Sestito, who books motivational speakers. After seeing my music special on PBS he wrote and suggested I take the combination of ideas, stories and music that characterize my shows and build a performance that lets the audience deeper into my process as an artist, letting them engage both musically and physically with it. So “Strings of Passion” is a both concert and lecture, both listening and interactive for the audience.

“Strings of Passion” plays out 7 principles, string by string, using the unusual instrument that was invented for me – a 32-strings electric harness harp – to show how they resonate and harmonize with each other: These principles include invention, collaboration, leadership, structure, character, exploration — and lift-off, as an idea becomes reality.

In this performance, the harp – with its 32 strings – represents the resonance of different ideas in our lives – with the understanding that we don’t play every string in every song – but it is the resonance of the strings we don’t play that gives the strings we do play their richness.

I’ve spent the past 2 decades reinventing my instrument, developing new shows, even writing full orchestra scores so I could explore how this new instrument interacts with symphonies. While I was focused on exploring this new instrument, and what it could do — what I learned was not only how to play it, how to write orchestra scores, how to film a PBS music special — but how ideas resonate through people, how groups collaborate, how leadership takes many different shapes. These understandings is what “Strings of Passion” is all about – expressed in words and music.

As I work on the piece, thinking through the ideas, watching video from other  performances, the strings change — like pulling a new instrument into tune.

It’s fascinating to watch previous performances, watching myself suddenly see a new idea or new expression take shape in the moment – based on how the audience responds — or if I sense they’re confused, finding a new metaphor, a new way to phrase the music — and, needing it in the moment, it appears suddenly – simultaneously to the audience and to me.

I love to watch that process, to be reminded that the audience and the performance itself can mold the composition if it’s structured in a way to capture ideas, to respond to them — a great compositional structure makes each performance an idea-catcher.

So now, in the days before the performance I’m like a fisherman, rebuilding the net, the structure of this piece.  Rediscovering and retwining the strings.

So, heck — I guess I’m inviting you to come out fishing with me.  Bring your pole – I’ll bring my net. I  can’t wait to see what we catch – but I sure do have an idea what it’s going to be like.  “Strings of Passion”- Boston preview Sept. 25, 2010 at the Boston Conservatory. Click here for tickets and more information.

Pouring soymilk on my cereal this morning, I slid down a wormhole back to my grandparent’s farm.

The wormhole went like this: Soymilk container with fields of green soybean plants depicted on the front –> I like cows, but I suspect that manure (quick sidetrip to a particular cowpaddy I admired) creates more greenhouse gas than soybeans —> Does this affect dairy farmers, which many of my grandparent’s friends were (quick flash of Grandpa Dewey squirting milk from udder into cat’s mouth —> hint of anxiety: did this actually happened to me or did I see it in a movie?) —> now I am 5 and walking down the dirt path from the house to the barn.

On the right is a wooden-slat fence.  The wood is moist and the sunlight is curved – early morning or near twilight, sunlight resonant with dusk or shadow.  I’m walking towards the barn, and the ranks of calves poke their heads over the fence – random milling movement, smell of cow.  I approach them, and they clobber off in their soft scattery way, animals ten times bigger than me behind a fence.  But one stays.

One .. stays.

Big brown eyes. The same big cliched cow eyes every cow has – but different.  No, not different – the same thing responding differently.  Every other calves’ eye shifts quickly, rushed milling away from the hand I stretch out — but one.  One looks straight at me, no scattering, no shifting.  It seems we look at each other.  Lean towards each other.  I reach out and I touch its nose.  That’s all.

But …

Why is one calf unafraid?  Or simply acts unafraid?  What is missing – or present – that makes this connection possible?  Though it’s impossible in every other instance of the same thing?

One cow stays with me.  The others scatter.

And now, the wormhole closes, and my cereal’s ready to eat.

But later, writing this, I felt nervous to lose the memory.  At first, the sense of image and atmosphere was so strong, but tenuous – like the smell of perfume – like it could dissipate or burst-and-disappear if I described it.

Do I risk losing the unique dimension of experience by molding it into words?  I’ve noticed that before – that words leech the particularness from experience, at least for awhile – remold the experiential thumbprint, like making a logo out of a signature.

But as I wrote, I moved back towards the moment again, and in the end, I could touch it.  My one cow.

Celebration Barn 2010 - Ginger Kids at Show

Celebration Barn 2010 - Meeting the kids after the show

Up at the Barn last weekend my show was sold out early and there was a waiting list of nearly 50 people by noon on the day of the show.  The Barn (Celebration Barn) is kind of in the middle of nowhere – unless you’re there, in which case it’s the center of the Universe – and I didn’t like thinking that people might drive a long way and then be stuck outside with the mosquitos.  So I reminded Mandy Huotari, who runs the Barn, that I didn’t really need the whole stage, and told her that when I used to tour Germany and shows sold out, we’d often seat people right on the stage itself.

So when I entered the Barn for a final line-check before the show, I wasn’t surprised to see four extra rows of seats right on the stage, creating a kind of “Theater in the Round.”

What I WASN’T expecting was the two adorable little red-headed  kids sitting nearly center stage, the lights glinting off their hair.  They were wiggling.  And hands-down, they out-adorabled me.

Great. I thought. How could I have forgotten the “No cute wiggly kids on stage” rule??

I moaned about it to Mandy, and she said, “Do you want me to tell them to move?”  Oh, argh, I thought … “No,” I said, “Let’s just wait and see how it goes in the first set.  If it’s a problem, we can ask them to move after intermission.”

So I started my set.  Around the third song, I decided to do “Under the Bed,”a kind of musical scary-story — but not really scary, more like funny-scary —  about all the things that live under your bed, and what they do to keep you awake at night.  It includes a lot of strange sounds and special effects you can get from a harp – the kinds you never hear in Tchaikovsky.

It didn’t occur to me that, to a 4- or 5-year-old, the idea of dancing dust-bunnies at midnight with creaky voices might not be funny.  About half-way through the piece, Little Red was out of the front row and in his father’s lap.

That was gratifying.  Nice to know the song was convincing.

A few songs later, I was moving towards intermission via some childhood songs, including a gruesome old upbeat English ballad about a serial killer who gets his comeuppance.  Little Red was back in the front row.  I looked over and he poked his sister in the chest and lifted up her dress.

I want to point out that I’d just spent a very intense week teaching about 12-hours a day.  Without thinking much about it, I kept vamping on the tune, looked at Big Red and said,  “Just whack him.”

She giggled.  The audience laughed.  Little Red giggled too, and pulled up his sister’s dress again.  And I said, “No, I really mean it.”

Little Red was back on row two.

So far, so good, but I knew that the last song in the set would be “The Nightingale,” a lullaby about my mother’s voice as she sang me to sleep.  I love the song.  I love to lose myself in it, and somewhere in unvoiced dreams I believe that if I can enter the experience of that song enough, I’ll really be there again. The idea of a disruption in that song is painful.  So what made me do this, I don’t know, but I walked over to Big-Red,  knelt down on the floor and sang it right to her.  She watched, completely unself-consciously – enough to take me there myself, and when the song was over, her mother was in tears behind her.  Me, too.

Nobody asked them to move after intermission.

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