An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

July 19, 2015 Jazz Blog 2 Comments

Dave King, Rational Funk

I've been traveling a lot lately (I'm in Copenhagen right now), so it's been hard to find the time to write new blog posts. But then Dave King decided to share his expertise, wisdom, and treasured life-lessons in a series of goofy YouTube videos... and that's how you get a new blog post.

As I'm sure everybody (anybody?) already knows, Dave King is the drummer for Happy Apple and the slightly more popular band, The Bad Plus. I've seen The Bad Plus a few times, and frankly, I feel like I've been cheated. The piano or bass player typically do all of the talking, but now I know that Dave King has been sitting there the entire time with a funny comment that he's dying to share. But he can't share that funny comment, because jazz is serious!

Jazz may be serious, but drumming is hilarious. At least, it's hilarious when Dave King talks about drumming in his Rational Funk YouTube channel.

On one hand, Rational Funk is a silly, geeky, and satirical take on the world of drumming and instructional videos. On the other hand, Rational Funk is a brutally-honest criticism of popular music and the so-called music business. And on the other other hand, it's just a guy having a laugh with his off-camera cohort, Joe Johnson. I'd ask Dave King for his take on the videos, but killing cats like him are too busy shedding so he can shred on the gig.

As of the time of this writing, there are 30 episodes of Rational Funk. The last 5 or so have inexplicably featured jazz trumpeter, Ron Miles, in a buddy crime-fighter intro that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the show. The Ron Miles intro is never explained, but thanks to its awesome 80s-themed soundtrack and hard-hitting action, I've found it to be a pleasant reprieve from all of that drum talk.

So, this is my plug for Rational Funk. If you've got what it takes, I'd recommend that you start with the first episode and work your way through all of them. If you just want a good laugh, though, I'd go straight to the following video on rap rock. It's the best of the best (and it talks about the worst of worst). Like all of the Rational Funk videos, it features lots of censored bad words, so thankfully, it's totally appropriate for children.

September 2, 2013 Jazz Blog 4 Comments

Traveling and trumpet practice

My wife and I both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anyplace with Internet access. With this in mind, we've dreamt of a future where were can pick up and go to a different state (or country!), rent an apartment, and divide our time between working and exploring our new surroundings.

Last year we took the first of these extended trips. The first trip was a five-week visit to Portland, Oregon and the second trip was a month-long journey through Europe. I absolutely loved both of those trips, but they were terrible for my trumpet playing. During the first trip I barely practiced and I didn't practice at all during my month in Europe. I would have hoped to rebuild my chops in a couple of weeks after those trips, but it ended up taking several months of frustrating practice sessions before I was back to my pre-trip level of playing.

Wishing to avoid another lengthy period of chop rebuilding, I promised myself that I'd maintain my daily practice routine on all future trips. After all, I'm already bad enough on the trumpet -- I can't afford to get any worse!


After visiting Europe for the first time last year, both my wife and I couldn't wait to return. We weren't quite sure where we wanted to go, but we ended up picking Amsterdam for its beautiful canals, architecture, arts, and bicycle-friendly culture. We rented a lovely apartment near Prinsengracht and Reguliersgracht, bought a couple of used bikes, and quickly found ourselves falling in love with the city. I have so many wonderful memories from our month in Amsterdam, but one of my favorites was from a bike ride towards Bimhuis, the main jazz venue. As we approached Bimhuis, we saw dozens of people enjoying the afternoon sun, drinking beers, and sitting on the waterfront at Hannekes Boom, an indoor/outdoor bar. We stopped for a few drinks ourselves, and happily lost an hour or two as we dangled our feet over the lapping waves and watched the boats go to and fro.

I know, I know. You're all thinking, "Enough about Amsterdam. Let's get back to trumpet talk!" Ok, you win.


A couple of years ago, I bought a Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet so I could easily put it in my luggage and bring it with me when I travel. Expectations fell short of reality, though, and it hasn't gotten much use, neither at home nor in my travels. I decided to change all of that in Amsterdam, so I made a small wooden case for my pocket trumpet and I packed it into my check-in bag.

Some of you might think it's foolish to put a trumpet in checked baggage. Honestly, I don't think it's a good idea either. I know airlines allow passengers to bring an instrument as an additional carry-on, but I didn't want to juggle three bags while navigating the train stations and trams upon our arrival to Amsterdam. I also didn't want to put the trumpet in my carry-on (a backpack) because it was already full of clothes and other essentials that I'd absolutely need if the airline lost my checked bag. Even though it was a bit risky to put the horn into my checked bag, I was fairly confident that my wooden case would protect it. Thankfully it made it to Amsterdam and back unscathed.

Pocket trumpets tend to be an interesting topic among trumpeters, so I thought I'd share my impressions of the horn. As mentioned, it's a Colin Pocket Max. I bought the horn on eBay for about $400. At that time, I had only played one pocket trumpet, a used Carol Brass pocket trumpet that I tried at one of the Atlanta Trumpet Festivals. I didn't care for the tone and intonation of the Carol Brass horn and I felt it was too expensive for a horn that I didn't love -- I think it was about $700. Shortly thereafter, I saw the silver-plated (and now nicely tarnished) Pocket Max on eBay for $400 and figured it was worth the risk, especially since I had read some good reviews for the horn. As I'd learn, the Pocket Max is a decent sounding horn, but it definitely has intonation problems once the notes get below the staff. It might have intonation issues above the staff too, but I don't spend a lot of time up there! Due to the intonation issues, I probably wouldn't want to play the Pocket Max in public, but it served me well enough during my month in Amsterdam.


As I mentioned earlier, we were staying in an apartment building in Amsterdam. Playing the trumpet quietly was foremost in my mind because the apartment walls were thin, and I didn't want to annoy our neighbors who lived there year-round. I brought a Harmon mute to help lower my volume, but even with the mute I still felt that I was too loud. At that point my only option was to try to play more quietly. Note: I own a sshhmute and a Best Brass practice mute, but I don't like either of them. They cause intonation problems, making it difficult to practice ear training.

Over the years, I've heard several people discuss the benefits of practicing the trumpet at low volumes. For example, playing softly was recommended in one of the master classes that I attended at the 2012 International Trumpet Guild conference. And Cat Anderson, Duke Ellington's legendary lead trumpeter, was such a firm believer in playing softly that he recommended playing a single note at a whisper tone for 20 minutes as part of a daily practice routine.

According to the experts, playing softly is supposed to relieve tension and mouthpiece pressure while simultaneously strengthening the embouchure so it's more focused and responsive. For me, reduced mouthpiece pressure is perhaps the most important benefit of playing softly. Most trumpet players at one time or another have used excessive mouthpiece pressure to force out a high note -- or in my case, a "D" in the staff! The extra mouthpiece pressure stretches our lips making it easier to buzz faster, thus increasing our range. And it works wonderfully. That is, until all that pressure cuts off the blood supply to our lips and our embouchure storms out of the room yelling, "I can't do this anymore!" That's basically what happened to my chops back when I had my chop blowout.

I had tried practicing softly in the past, but it wasn't until Amsterdam that I was forced to do it every day for an extended period of time. At first, I could barely get my lips to buzz while playing quietly. Over time, though, I was able to complete more and more of my practice routine while playing at a very low volume. By the end of the four weeks, I could play my entire routine almost as well as I can play it at normal volume levels. My range also seemed to improve, as I was more consistently able to play two-octave scales beyond high "C".


After my Amsterdam trip, I decided to continue practicing softly on a regular basis. I don't use a mute at home, but I do try to match that muted volume while working through my practice routine. I also purchased one of those adjustable Denis Wick cup mutes, which I used to successfully play quietly during a recent six-week visit to Portland, Oregon. The cup mute doesn't distort my sound as much as the Harmon mute, and because it's adjustable, I have more control over the volume and tone.

For me, the true test of any change to my routine is its impact on my jazz playing. I can measure that impact pretty easily by looking at my performance in the jazz combo that I play in each week. With the combo, there's always a point in the night where my chops become fatigued and I resort to excessive pressure in order to keep playing. I'm still reaching that point during the sessions, but it's occurring later in the night. Actually, last week it didn't even happen at all. Granted, that session was a little shorter than normal, but for the first time ever, my embouchure didn't give me the silent treatment on the way home!

October 13, 2012 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Traveling - taking a break

Things have been a little slow on this jazz blog lately. My last blog post was a jazz improvisation recording from August 4th, and I haven't written an actual blog article since June 1st. I'm not a particularly active blogger, but even for me, writing only one article in four months feels like I've been slacking. Even worse than my lack of blogging is the fact that I haven't practiced the trumpet very much during the past four months. In fact, I didn't play the trumpet at all during the month of September.

So what have I been doing lately? I've been slacking. Um, I mean, I've been traveling! I spent the month of July in Portland, Oregon and for the entire month of September, I traveled through Europe. What does this have to do with trumpet playing and jazz improvisation? Frankly, not much. But since I'm long overdue for a new blog article, I'm going to force a connection anyway!

In the first of my "Lessons from Traveling" articles (yes, there will be more than one), I'm going to talk about my attempts to practice while traveling. I'll also discuss some of the pros and cons of taking a break from trumpet playing.


My wife and I have visited Portland several times over the years (my mother lives in a Portland suburb), and each time we visit, we wish we could have stayed longer to experience more of life in the Pacific Northwest. As of this year, we both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anywhere. With that in mind, we decided to spend the month of July working and vacationing in Portland.

I brought my trumpet to Portland so I could maintain my normal practice schedule. But even with the best of intentions, I barely practiced at all. Actually, the first week I was pretty good. I practiced at least every other day and tried to maintain my normal mix of practicing trumpet fundamentals, ear training, and jazz improvisation. As the trip progressed, though, I'd end up skipping more and more days. And during the last couple of weeks, I didn't practice at all.

The lack of practicing was mostly due to our accommodations, a one-bedroom apartment that we rented in Portland's Hawthorne District. Since we were staying in an apartment building, I had to play with a practice mute so as not to irritate our neighbors. Playing with a mute is nothing new to me. I always practiced with a mute back when I was a college student, living in a tiny apartment in Chicago. I had forgotten, though, exactly how much I dislike playing with a mute.

Some trumpet players are impressed by high notes. Others like to hear feats of technical mastery. The quality that's most important to me, however, is a player's tone. My preferred trumpet tone is warm, bold, and expressive. The last thing I want to hear is a pinched, thin, or muffled-sounding trumpet. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I get when I play with a practice mute. I can tolerate this lackluster tone in short doses, but after a couple of weeks in Portland, I didn't want to hear it anymore.

I knew a mute would deaden my tone, but I was surprised by the intonation problems of the sshmute, which I purchased earlier this year at the ITG conference. During my initial tests on the mute, I thought the intonation was pretty good. As I'd learn during my Portland trip, though, the intonation gets quite a bit worse in the lower register. Who knows, it might be bad in the upper register too, but with my terrible range, I don't spend much time up there! While the intonation issue might not hinder the practicing of trumpet fundamentals, it does pose a problem when practicing ear training and jazz improvisation. If a "good" note ends up sounding "bad" because it's out of tune, then it's hard to tell if I'm actually playing the intended pitches.


My employer offers a one-month sabbatical after you've been with the company for seven years. Having recently passed the ten-year mark, I figured it was time for me to finally take them up on their offer. Neither my wife nor I had visited Europe before, so we decided to use the sabbatical to spend the month of September traveling through a few European countries. We started in London, and then made our way through Paris, the Swiss Alps, Milan, Florence, Cinque Terre, Genoa, Nice, Les Baux-de-Provence, Costa Brava, and Barcelona. Not a bad way to spend September, eh?

When we began to plan for our trip to Europe, I thought I'd bring a pocket trumpet in my bag so I could keep up with my normal practice activities. After our Portland trip, however, I knew that I probably wouldn't end up practicing very often, so it would be a mistake to lug a horn from city to city. A pocket trumpet might seem small and portable, but since I was only bringing a single backpack for all of my stuff, every inch (and pound) really mattered.

The day before we left for Europe, I felt guilty about not playing the trumpet for an entire month, so I threw an old mouthpiece into my backpack. Surely a little mouthpiece buzzing would be better than not playing at all, right? I know the answer to that question is "yes," but I don't speak from experience. As it turns out, the mouthpiece never left my bag. After ten years of diligent trumpet practice, I didn't play at all for an entire month.


I've played the trumpet for about eighteen years. Eight of those years were back when I was a kid and the other ten are from my trumpet comeback. Throughout all of that time, I've been painfully aware of two rules of playing the trumpet: First, I won't be a decent trumpet player unless I practice. And second, if I miss more than a few days of practice, I'll pay for it in the practice room.

While all musical instruments require a certain amount of ongoing practice, I do think wind instruments, and especially brass instruments, place a unique demand on our bodies. For starters, there's the awkward coordination of our lungs, fingers, and mouths. If any one of these components gets out of sync with each other, we'll start to sound sloppy as we crack notes, miss articulations, and stumble through difficult passages. And if all of that isn't tricky enough, brass players also have the misfortune of needing to buzz into a mouthpiece. Most of us use our fingers, lungs, and mouths on a daily basis, but there isn't exactly a normal everyday activity that mimics the act of buzzing a mouthpiece. That's why it's so important for us to practice on a regular basis. If we don't use it, we lose it!


Physical Atrophy: After each trip, I immediately resumed my normal trumpet practice routine. During the first couple of days, my tone was pinched and strained, as I had to force my lips to buzz again. And once they did buzz, my accuracy was atrocious. I'd repeatedly over- or under-shoot notes by an entire partial.

I've been able to regain my tone after about a week of practice, but the real challenge is endurance. As of this writing, I'm a couple of weeks into my recovery from the Europe trip, and I can only play for about ten minutes at a time before my chops give out. I know from my Portland trip that it will probably take another week or two before my endurance returns to its normal state.

Mental Atrophy: A recent goal of mine has been to learn jazz tunes. I've made some progress toward that goal, but with each break, I end up undoing a lot of that effort. Various sections of the tunes have become hazy in my memory, so rather than learn new tunes, I've been relearning tunes that I had already knew. I had hoped to learn forty tunes by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely at this point.

I know I could offset the physical and mental atrophy simply by buzzing and reviewing tunes in my mind. That definitely was my intention prior to these trips. But once I got away, I lost the motivation to practice as my mindset shifted into "vacation mode." As I travel more, I'll definitely have to work on this. These extended trips have been wonderful, but I'd really like to avoid the subsequent month-long rebuilding periods.


No doubt about it, I won't improve as a trumpet player unless I practice regularly. There are, however, some benefits to taking a break.

Fresh approach: When I'm practicing regularly and working on the same routine every day, there's a potential for getting into a rut. For me, this occurs mostly in my jazz improvisation studies. A musical phrase cements itself in my mind and I'll end up playing some variation thereof over and over again. The next thing I know, I'm playing the same lick every day, just because it's familiar. By taking a break, I can forget some of these licks and patterns. And with any luck, when I return to the instrument, I might have some new ideas that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: I love jazz and I truly enjoy playing the trumpet (most of the time). Unfortunately, though, music and trumpet playing don't come very easily to me. It takes a lot of work for me to improve as a trumpet player, and sometimes it feels like a chore to pick up the horn and practice every day. I won't say that I ever feel burnt out, but I do occasionally feel a lack of motivation.

I'll admit that I didn't exactly miss the trumpet while I was sipping wine on the bank of the Seine in Paris, nor did I think about the trumpet while I swam in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. But, as my Europe trip woefully wound to a close, I did take consolation in the fact that I'd soon get to play the trumpet again. Now that I'm back on the horn and my chops are nearly back to their old form, I definitely feel a renewed sense of motivation to practice and improve as a trumpet player.

Of course, I could reap these benefits without taking an actual break from the horn. For example, if I spend a few weeks practicing classical etudes instead of jazz improvisation, it will be like taking a break, but I won't suffer the downsides of not playing. I don't know, though. A few weeks of nothing but classical etudes doesn't sound like much of a vacation to me.

April 28, 2012 Jazz Blog 0 Comments

Dave Douglas - master class

dave douglas master classIn 2008, Dave Douglas and I traded a few emails regarding his thoughts about ear training. That correspondence eventually led Dave Douglas to write an article about the practice of ear training, which he published on his blog. Since that time, I haven't communicated with Dave Douglas directly, but I have continued to read his blog and listen to his music. And he remains one of my favorite modern-day jazz musicians.

When I heard that Dave Douglas was going to be in town for a concert with the Georgia State University big band, I knew it would be an ideal opportunity for me to finally meet him in person. After asking around, I learned that he was going to be teaching a few master classes prior to the concert. I would have loved to attend his class on improvisation or his class on the music business, but due to previous commitments the only class I could attend was about composition.


Over the years, I've written about twenty original tunes. Almost all of those compositions were written during a period of a few years, back when I lived in Chicago. The first few tunes were for a funk group that I played in during my second year of college. Once the funk group disbanded, I joined a jazz combo and I wrote a few more tunes for that group to play. The jazz combo lasted for about a year, and when it ended, I quit playing the trumpet and took up the guitar as my primary instrument. I also began playing the drums in a rock group.

The rock group inspired me to write a dozen more tunes. I never did anything with those tunes, but in my youthful imagination, I was quite positive they'd someday make their way onto my debut singer-songwriter album; an album which critics would inevitably compare to David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars." If not for its similar stroke of genius, then perhaps because it shares the same number of tracks.

Anyway, while sitting in Dave Douglas' composition master class, it dawned on me that I haven't composed any new music since I started playing the trumpet again, back in 2002. Why haven't I written any new music in ten years? I guess the best response I have is, "Why should I write something new?" I mean, what's the point? I'm not playing in public anymore. I'm not in a band. And I'm not going to record an album. And if I did record an album, I'd probably just rip off a bunch of Mace Hibbard's tunes (that guy can write!). My point is, if I wrote music today, nobody would ever hear it, so why bother?

To be clear, when I talk about "composition" I'm referring to the act of creating and writing down a new piece of music. While the act of improvisation also includes the creation of new music, there is a big difference: Improvisation is instantaneous. When you're improvising, you don't have the luxury of editing, nor can you think something through for a few days. In composition, however, you can take your time, changing your mind as often as you like until you're satisfied with the final product. Given this significant difference, composition uses a unique set of skills that don't really apply to my goals as a jazz improviser. At least, that's what I thought before the master class!


As I'd learn in Dave Douglas' master class, there are several ways in which composition can improve my skills as a jazz improviser. My favorites include:

Finding my sound

Most great jazz musicians have a unique sound or style of playing that sets them apart from everyone else. I'm definitely not a great jazz musician, but I'd still like to have an original quality to my playing that I can call my own. At least, I'd like for my sound to be characterized by something other than my inability to play above the staff. For the time being, that seems to be my trademark!

Due to the fact that improvisation is instantaneous, it can be difficult to develop a unique sound entirely while improvising. If I have an idea in my head that I'd like to play while improvising, I have a split second to think about it before it comes out of my horn. And if the idea is beyond my ability to play accurately by ear, I'll probably just ignore it and play something simpler. But what if something about that idea might help me develop as a musician and get me closer to my sound? This is where composition comes in handy.

By composing on a regular basis, we're more likely to have original ideas at a time when we can work them through and figure out all the notes. Those original ideas could very well be the building blocks for our original sound; a sound that might go undiscovered through improvisation alone.

Learning about other compositions

Since I don't write my own original music, I spend most of the time improvising to somebody else's compositions. Sure, I can read music and I can play along with chord changes, but that's all on the surface. Will I notice how the composer develops a simple motif from the first two measures through to the end of the piece? Will I understand how the chord progression supports the melody during the bridge? Subtle compositional nuances become more obvious when you're in the practice of composing yourself. Or to put it differently, it takes a composer to know one.

Familiarity with the art of composition will help us to more fully understand the intentions of other composers. As a result, our improvised solos might mesh better with the music and sound more like part of the composition and less like we're just blowin' through the changes.


When I wrote songs in the past, I'd typically noodle around on a piano, trumpet, or guitar to find ideas. Or, I'd sing something and then try to figure out the notes on an instrument before writing anything down. Regardless of where the ideas came from, I'd always rely on an instrument to help me find the notes. In the master class, however, Dave Douglas asked us to compose entirely by ear. This isn't something I would have tried before, but it turns out to be a fantastic exercise for both composition and ear training. And based on what I've said above, that means it's also useful for improvisation!

Here's the exercise: Compose a few measures of music, using a single octave of a piano's white notes from C to C. That gives you eight notes to work with (C D E F G A B C). Write everything down entirely by ear, without using an instrument to sound out any of the notes. When you're done, sing the composition aloud.

Let me just say, I love this exercise! The mix of ear training, transcription, and sight-singing really challenges your aural skills and your imagination. And, it has an infinite number of variations. If your aural skills aren't strong enough to use all of the white notes, you could begin by composing with just two or three notes (e.g. C D F). For extra variety, you could base your note selection on one of the scale modes, or you could pick a random group of notes from a chromatic scale. Similarly, you can add rhythmic restrictions, like using nothing but quarter notes. Or, you could force yourself to change meters every bar. See, the possibilities really are endless!


With about forty recordings as a leader, and even more as a sideman, Dave Douglas has a large and varied body of work that spans a number of genres. For better or worse, though, he's often classified as an "avant-garde" musician. In truth, very little of his music actually fits into that genre. There's nothing wrong with avant-garde music, but there are definitely those who see it as a haphazard, random, and perhaps unsophisticated art form. And by association, those same people tend to think Dave Douglas isn't as serious of a musician as his more traditional contemporaries. But that most definitely isn't true.

After the composition master class, there was another master class that was really more of a listening session. Dave Douglas played a variety of music, some jazz, some 20th century classical, and some world music. At the end of the session, he played one of his compositions for the 2009 SFJazz Collective. While the tune played, he wrote the entire form of the tune on a whiteboard, showing how one section built upon another, with the soloists weaving in and out. In total, the tune had about twenty different sections that seamlessly fit together to form a fully composed and carefully crafted piece of music. It was beautiful, too.

As I contemplated all that I had learned in the composition master class and as I watched the form unfold on the whiteboard, I couldn't help but think, if Dave Douglas isn't a serious musician, I don't know who is.

October 6, 2011 Jazz Blog 5 Comments

Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

steve jobs

In 1980, I used a personal computer for the very first time. The computer was an Apple II Plus and it was one of two computers at my elementary school. At the time, nobody aside from hobbyists and engineers knew anything about computers. So even though I was only in second grade, I was experiencing personal computing for the first time along with everyone else.

I'll never forget that feeling I had when I ran my first program. After typing a few lines of BASIC code, the computer screen flickered and lit up with text racing infinitely before my eyes. The program was just a simple GOTO loop that I had copied from a book, but it still felt incredible to know that I had made the computer do something. It was even more exciting when I realized that I could change the text, and the number of loops. So not only could I make the computer do stuff, but I could make it do anything I wanted! Before long, I was totally hooked and the teacher would have to beg me to get off the computer.

For the remainder of my elementary school years, I spent as much time on the Apple II Plus as I could. By the end of my fifth grade year, I had written the better part of a Zork-like text-based adventure game, complete with animated cut-screen graphics. At the time I thought it was an impressive accomplishment, but in reality it was terrible. I mean, you can't really have any fun when typing E(ast) instead of W(est) results in "You were killed by a wolf." Little did I know it, but those early years on that Apple II Plus ended up paving the way for my eventual career as a software engineer, which I've been doing full-time since 1995.

While Steve Jobs and the Apple II are responsible for getting me interested in computers as a kid, their influence was initially isolated to just those first few years. Steve Jobs had left Apple in 1985, and when he returned in 1996, Apple was a floundering underdog in the computer industry. I didn't even know a single person who owned an Apple computer back then. So when Apple began the "Think different" ad campaign a year later, with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jim Henson, I remember thinking it was pretty arrogant. "How could Apple (and Steve Jobs) possibly compare to the greatness of these icons? Apple will never be relevant again..." Boy was I wrong. In the next fourteen years, Steve Jobs led the rise of Pixar, and along with his stellar team at Apple, he brought us the iPod, iTunes, MacBook, iPad and iPhone, forever changing the way we experience movies, music, computers, and phones. Apple became the wealthiest public company in the world, and almost everyone I know (including myself) owns a Mac or some other Apple device.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been a full-time software engineer since 1995. To many people, computer programming is a geeky activity performed by introverted guys, in dimly-lit rooms (yes, it's just like jazz). While there definitely are some geeky people who program, I don't see programming as a geeky endeavor at all. Instead, I view programming as an art form. It's a magical way to create something out of nothing. I can start with a rough idea in my head and before long I've got something interactive that actually works. And as Steve Jobs and the past decade of Apple products have shown us, the final product has the potential to enrich and forever change our lives.

No, I'm not a brilliant programmer, nor are my applications life-changing. But, like so many other computer programmers and user interface designers, I constantly strive for the elegance and refinement that Steve Jobs cultivated in Apple products. For example, when I worked on my iPhone ear training app, I kept thinking about Steve Jobs and all of the changes he'd want to make. I knew I didn't have the time or skills to make it as good as he would have wanted, but I had to try -- I hope he never actually used it! And I know many of my peers feel the same way about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs raised the bar for all of us, making us want to design the best software possible.

It saddens me to think of a world without Steve Jobs, but I know he'll be a constant source of inspiration in my life. Anytime I think it's too late to do something great, or that I have to accept the status quo, I'll think of Steve Jobs. And I'll think different.

Thank you Steve, for everything. Sorry I ever doubted you.

February 20, 2011 Jazz Blog 7 Comments

Grandfather's funeral - Woodlawn

Last week, my grandfather passed away at the age of ninety-two. An orphan, my grandfather traveled from Puerto Rico to the United States when he was only fourteen years old. Once in the United States, he joined other immigrants in government work projects that had him enduring the harsh winters of Montana and Idaho. A few years later, he enlisted in the armed services and fought honorably in World War II, where he was wounded in battle. Although his injury caused him to walk with a limp, he still managed to spend the next thirty-seven years delivering mail for the US Postal Service in Manhattan. And after that, when most people would have happily retired, he got a job as a courier on Wall Street, where he worked until he was eighty years old. In fact, he probably would have held that job even longer but his family begged his employer to force him into retirement!

I grew up in Florida, and since my grandfather lived in Bronx, NY, I only saw him a few times during my childhood. And sadly, it wasn't until the past ten years or so that I really began to learn about his life. I can honestly say, though, that with each visit I'd return home more humbled by his accomplishments. While it's sad to see him go, he certainly led a long full life, and I couldn't be more proud to have him as my grandfather.


I spent the night before my grandfather's funeral at his apartment in Bronx, NY (photo of his apartment building is shown below). My aunt and my grandfather's wife of sixty-two years were also there (my father was the product of my grandfather's brief first marriage). While discussing the funeral arrangements, my aunt asked if I knew anything about Woodlawn Cemetery, the location of my grandfather's burial. I didn't know anything about the cemetery at that point so my aunt said, "Oh, you'll really like it. There are a lot of famous jazz musicians buried there."

apartment building

Before I continue, let me set the stage. My aunt is a truly wonderful person who has dedicated her life to her family and to her church, where she serves as a minister. I think the world of her, but I also know that she and the rest of my family don't exactly have a lot of expertise when it comes jazz. So, I simply nodded and gave little thought to her description of Woodlawn Cemetery as a major jazz destination. That is, until she said, "Miles Davis is buried just down the hill from your grandfather's plot." I couldn't believe it. Miles Davis, the person most responsible for my love of jazz, is buried in the same cemetery as my grandfather?!

I immediately went online and learned that Woodlawn Cemetery is the burial site of many of New York's famous entertainers, politicians, and business people. For example, Woodlawn is the final resting site for Fierello La Guardia, Rowland Macy, Franklin Woolworth, James Cash Penney, Augustus Juilliard, Herman Melville, Joseph Pulitzer, Celia Cruz, and Irving Berlin. And in the list of jazz musicians we have Miles Davis, Max Roach, Joseph "King" Oliver, Jean Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet, Charles "Cootie" Williams, W.C. Handy, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean, and Duke Ellington... just to name a few!


My grandfather had requested a simple military funeral, which took place in a small chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery. The ceremony ended with the playing of "Taps" (by an actual trumpeter, not a recording) and the folding of an American flag. This was the first funeral I've ever attended, and while I'm sure they are all emotional, the presentation of the flag to my grandfather's wife, and the brief but powerful dedication spoken by the serviceman, was perhaps the most moving event I've ever experienced.

After the ceremony, we drove from the chapel to the burial site, which was located about a mile away. As we twisted through the narrow cemetery roads, I looked around hoping to see Miles Davis' tombstone or that of any of the other legendary jazz musicians. We passed by La Guardia's tombstone and the large Juilliard mausoleum, but I didn't see any jazz musicians. Oh well. Obviously I wasn't here to sight see. I was here for my grandfather, and I figured I'd just have to wait until my next visit to see some of the jazz musicians.

When we finally reached my grandfather's burial site, I stepped out of the car and stood with the rest of the family as we waited for everyone to arrive. I looked at the casket, perched above the freshly dug grave, and then slowly turned my head to towards the neighboring tombstones. And that's when I saw a thick slab of black granite with light gray letters that read "MAX ROACH." Max Roach, one of the most important and influential jazz drummers of all time, a man who has played and recorded with virtually every legendary jazz musician including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and EVERYONE ELSE, was buried directly to the right of my grandfather's casket.

Max Roach grave site

After the final prayers were read, I looked around a bit more and noticed what had to be the back of Miles Davis' tombstone, which I recognized from a photo I saw online the previous night. I walked down to the large tombstone and was pleasantly surprised to pass the grave of legendary jazz saxophonist, Illinois Jacquet, on my way down. The following photo shows Miles Davis on the left, Illinois Jacquet on the right, and my grandfather's burial site just up the street.

Miles Davis grave site

After taking a picture of Miles Davis' tombstone, I looked around again and saw two crosses inscribed with the word "ELLINGTON" about twenty feet away. Sure enough, I had stumbled upon the burial site of one of the greatest American musicians and composers of all time... Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington grave site


I know it's pure coincidence that my grandfather is buried next to so many of my jazz heroes, but I can't help but feel like it's somehow his final gift to me. Each time I visit his grave site, I'll also be visiting the grave sites of so many others who have impacted my life, making me the person I am today. It's something I'll always treasure.

I thought I'd end with a funny story that my aunt told me about my grandfather. I should first mention that while my grandfather was a kind and generous man, he also had a unique ability to find fault in just about any situation. He's the kind of guy who would complain that the music is too loud at his own party. Anyway, this character trait revealed itself in its full glory a few years ago, when my Aunt first told him about the cemetery plots that she had purchased at Woodlawn. She thought her father would be pleased to hear about his distinguished final resting place, but naturally he felt differently. Without further ado, here's their exchange (note that at the time of this story, my aunt thought Tito Puente was buried at Woodlawn, but he's actually buried someplace else):

My aunt, speaking to my grandfather: "Dad, this is a very famous cemetery that you'll be buried in. Macy, Woolworth, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Miles Davis are all buried there!"

My grandfather: "So what. Macy's is too expensive, Woolworth's is cheap, Tito Puente was a womanizer, Celia Cruz was too loud, and I hate jazz."

Sorry to tell you grandfather, but if you thought Celia Cruz was too loud, just wait until you hear Max Roach...

August 25, 2010 Jazz Blog 12 Comments

Play By Ear - six months later

About six months ago, I released my first iPhone application, a free ear training application called Play By Ear. Like my free online ear trainer, Play By Ear allows you to listen to intervals, chords, and random melodies as you attempt to play them back by ear. And while it lacks several of the features of my online ear trainer, Play By Ear does have one significant difference: it uses pitch detection to tell whether or not you played the correct note back on your instrument.

iphone appstore ratings

As I was creating Play By Ear, I thought pitch detection was a compelling feature that truly set the ear trainer apart from other AppStore ear training tools. But frankly, I wasn't sure anyone would care. After all, there were already a few iPhone ear trainers and none of them seemed to have a lot of reviews. Some didn't even have any.

In this blog entry, I'll share the AppStore totals for my iPhone application, I'll answer some frequently asked questions, and I'll also give you a preview of what's coming next.


Since it was released six months ago, Play By Ear has been installed a total of 5,041 times. In addition to that, the various updates have also been installed a total of 3,669 times.

Let's take a closer look at those numbers. The application is free, but had I charged for the application, I would have made 5,041 x SomePrice x 70%. The 70% is how much Apple pays developers. Apple keeps the rest. So, using real numbers, if I had charged $1.99, I would have made $7,022.13 over the past six months. Not bad, I guess, but it's pretty safe to assume that I wouldn't have sold 5,041 units if people actually had to pay for the application. You could use common sense to arrive at that conclusion, or you could just look at the 3,669 total updates statistic. At least 1,372 of the original users deleted the application and/or decided it wasn't worth updating. With such an obvious lack of interest, they probably wouldn't have paid for the application in the first place. Never mind the fact that the update total spans three versions. In actuality, there might be as few as 1,200 people who have continued to use the application.

iphone appstore ratings

Another interesting statistic is the overall rating for the application. Currently, there have been 63 ratings across all three versions of Play By Ear. The average rating is three stars, which I guess isn't too bad considering how common it is for people to use an application and instantly decide "this sucks!" Or maybe that's just common to me because I work with so many hypercritical tech people. To them, everything sucks unless A) they made it, or B) it's World Of Warcraft. Anyway, I think that probably explains why I have so many one-star reviews.

While I can live with all those one-star reviews, I do wish I knew more about those negative reviews. For example, the application is apparently crashing for some people. With each consecutive version, I've tried to improve the stability (it crashed a lot at first). I've never even seen it crash on my new iPhone 4.0. But apparently it's crashing for at least one person based on their AppStore review. Lots of iPhone apps crash, including Apple's own Mail application, so I don't expect my application to be flawless. But if there are problems, I'd like to reproduce and fix them. The only way that will happen is if people contact me and let me know exactly when and how things go wrong. To date, only one person has ever written me an email to say the application is crashing. That was soon after the initial release, and I'm pleased to say that I did fix that specific problem.

If you've used and enjoyed Play By Ear, please take a moment to rate and/or review the application. Positive ratings are greatly appreciated ;-)


I had intended to do at least some external promotion for my iPhone ear training application, but somehow I never found the time. To date, the only promotion I have done for the application is the original announcement and the redesign of this site, which now features all of my ear training applications more prominently on the right-hand side. I was, however, fortunate to have Dave Douglas mention my iPhone ear training application in his blog. I didn't even tell him about it, so it's especially cool that he found it and thought it was blog-worthy on his own. But even with Dave Douglas' help, I know my iPhone application's distribution numbers have suffered due to my lack of external promotion. Perhaps had I actually done any such promotion, I could have doubled or tripled the installation and update numbers.


When I first released Play By Ear, a surprising number of people asked me why I didn't charge any money for the application. As I've written previously, I believe that the importance of ear training is often ignored or marginalized in music education. My free ear training tools are an attempt to expose more people to ear training in a way that makes it easy for them to get started. So that's the main reason I released my iPhone application free of charge. Just to get it out there.

There's another reason for not charging, though, which isn't quite so altruistic. Having no real knowledge about the market for iPhone ear training applications, I wanted to use my first application to get some benchmarks. By offering it for free, I can see exactly how many people are even remotely interested in an iPhone ear training application. That gives me a basis from which to decide how much time I want to spend on new features and new iPhone ear training applications.


As of now, I probably won't add too many new features to Play By Ear. One feature that I will definitely add, though, is microphone calibration. Once completed, the microphone calibration feature will allow you to customize how sensitively the application should listen when determining your pitch. By accurately matching that value to your playing conditions (e.g. room noise, instrument volume, distance from microphone, etc) the pitch detection should be noticeably more accurate.


Yes. Time permitting, I will definitely build another iPhone application and once again it will focus on ear training. This time around, though, it will probably be geared toward sight singing. Rather than playing the notes for you to mimic on your instrument, the sight singing application will show you notes on the staff and you'll have to sing them back at the correct pitch. I'll probably charge for this application, but it won't be a lot of money. More than anything, I'm just curious to see how many people will actually pay for an iPhone ear training application. That, coupled with my free Play By Ear statistics, should give me a good representation of the overall iPhone ear training application market. However small it happens to be!


Several people have requested an Android version of my ear training application. It would probably be easier for me to build an Android application since I can use familiar tools like Eclipse and Java. The only hitch is that I don't actually own an Android phone! I might buy one just for development purposes, but I think I'll wait to see how my next fee-based iPhone application does first. It's bad enough that I already have to test my existing iPhone ear trainer on 4 devices all the time (iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS w/ iOS4, iPhone 4G, iPad). I don't want to introduce another device until I know that a decent number of people will actually use it.

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