Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

How to Develop Myself Musically

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Old piano in the college dorm at MIT.

I want to become a better musician. Specifically, I want to write better music. I know exactly what I need to do to improve myself, but due to many excuses I make for myself (work takes up a lot of time, social obligations, family obligations, overcommitting myself to non-profit volunteering, enrolling in grad school in chemical engineering, competition with other hobbies such as Matchingfreak, addiction to social media, laziness, food comas), my musical self-development agenda has been pushed aside. That is the first problem I have begun tackling.

My grand plan to develop myself musically (partially implemented so far) involves the following activities:

  • Eliminate all other “unnecessary” activities. My main focus outside of work should be on two things: music and grad school. Anything outside of that realm should be highly scrutinized. Social activities shall be reduced to a sustainable (sane) bare minimum. I will get better at saying “no” to people. I have already leaned down my out-of-work life by withdrawing from two non-profits on whose boards I was volunteering as secretary.
  • Focused listening. Listening assignments were a large part of my undergraduate musical education. When I had a listening assignment, the only thing I would do would be to pay full attention to what I was listening with full silence in the background. That means no internet browsing, no driving, no reading, no thinking about anything else. I haven’t been doing much of that since I graduated. It doesn’t have to be music. It can be a very specific sound or a noise. It doesn’t even have to be a recording. I recently discovered, an audioblog dedicated to binaural recordings from a small town in Russia. Most are 1-minute recordings of a moment at a park, the babbling of a brook, the bumps of techno music heard through a car… The magic isn’t there unless you are paying full attention to it with your headphones. It’s making me realize all the sounds I used to hear around me, and what I’m missing out on by blocking them out mentally. While we’re on the topic of listening…
  • Construct a listening diet. I’ve been brainstorming ways to find new listening opportunities for myself to expand my ear. I flirted with the idea of spending a certain amount of time per week on finding new music, but I’m not exactly sure how I’ll structure that yet. The easiest place to start would be to revisit my listening in college, and branch out from there. And by branch out, I mean in all directions. More jazz, more opera, more ‘experimental’ music, more of Indian classical music and “non-Western” music, as well as more Western classical music, as well as progressive rock, pop, country, electronic, etc. I should create a “listening wishlist.” It would help to have a few websites I could draw guidance/inspiration from.
  • Go to concerts. I already know many places to look. It’s important to keep my personal concert-going calendar constantly updated.
  • Participate in a musical group. I’d been doing this until a few months ago. Work’s been busy, but I plan to get back into choir as soon as possible. It’s a routine that forces me to set aside time for music-making, and I enjoy it immensely.
  • Learn a new instrument. I started learning violin when I was 23, because I wanted to learn an instrument that was technically different than the piano. Now I just have to keep getting better at it.
  • Play the old instrument. Duh. I have a piano sitting right next to me, and I never touch it. Whenever I don’t take regular lessons, my motivation for playing the instrument goes to zero. The main problem is that I don’t know what to play. But we can deal with that with the following next steps.
  • Improvise. I hear all the time that a good composer is also a good improviser. It’s definitely a musical muscle I need to flex. We used to do frequent vocal improvisation exercises in high school jazz choir. It had taken me a while to get over being self-conscious, and the feeling is still there even if I’m in a room all by myself. We’ll have to fix that ridiculousness.
  • Improve piano sightreading. I must say, I’m a pretty good sightreader when it comes to voice and violin, but give me a piece of music that involves use of my ten fingers, and I’m stumped. The solution is to sightread more and more. I have tons of piano books, and there are tons of free sheet music I can download from the Internet.
  • Exercise. I’m not talking about physical exercise (sorry, mom). I have a bunch of theory books I’ve amassed over the past few years – classical Western theory and jazz theory from school, and several books on modern counterpoint or harmonic tools used in the 21st century. I should give myself assignments on writing short exercises that apply the concepts in these books. Maybe set up a certain amount of time each week to dedicate to this activity. I may come up with new musical ideas as a result.
  • Jot down ideas. I already do some of this. I either write a few notes that are stuck in my head, or I have verbal clues of musical concepts I think up during the day. It usually takes me a few years to get to them and flesh them out, but they’re all there, written out in a list!
  • Just sit down and write. I have a few unfinished pieces. It takes a long time to get into them, so I only revisit them once every few months. I’ve been unable to do it in short, consistent chunks of time. I need 4-5 hour periods, if not entire days, to be fruitful. The first step would be to make more of an effort to set aside time for them, no matter how painful. Still working out the time management logistics of this one.
  • Cherish musical friendships. I have musical friends, but I don’t see them very often. I also have a few musical friends online. It’s refreshing to share works and ideas with them.

Have I missed any? Let me know what you think!

Hierarchy of Creativity on the Internet

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

The Internet is the perfect place for creative productivity and the exchange of ideas. Creatives attain more satisfaction as they move up on the creative hierarchy in their day-to-day doings. When I evaluate myself occasionally, I often envision this simplified diagram and ask myself where I am in the hierarchy. If I’ve been slipping into disseminator/lurker modes, I make a note to shake myself out of it.

MIT Energy Conference Nuggets

Monday, April 4th, 2011

I went to the 6th annual MIT Energy Conference this past month, partly because I had missed Boston, and partly because MIT alumni had a registration discount. Similar to my sustainability conference blog post last year, here’s a smattering of takeaway messages I got out of it.

But first, an image. This was the only picture I snapped all weekend, during the Friday Night Showcase of hundreds of new energy technologies. Naturally, I was drawn to the oil and biofuels panels, but I made my rounds through all the exhibits. The big round thing was some sort of floating wind turbine.

The conference had quite a military focus, which brought in a different perspective for the motivation for innovations in energy. The keynote speaker Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’s speech was particularly striking with the main idea, “Energy is fundamentally an issue of national security.” The most staggering factoid: Every time oil prices increase by $1, the Navy spends an extra $31 million due to the steep cost of transporting and guarding fuel to remote areas like Afghanistan. Therefore, the Navy’s goal is to obtain 50% of its energy from alternative sources by 2020. 17% of the energy is already obtained from nuclear power. Since energy diversity leads to energy security, the military is taking leadership in energy innovation.

One panel discussed the impacts of Obama’s goal of having one million electric vehicles in the U.S. fleet by 2010. The speakers mentioned considerations for Seattle’s electric vehicle infrastructure (70% of charging stations will be residential, there will be 1.4 charging stations per electric vehicle, software integration for finding and/or reserving chargers, etc.). The message that stuck with me from this one was that the increase in electric vehicles is not large enough to require a new power plant until 2/3 of the fleet is electric. The greater concern is around upgrading the local circuits (transformers, etc.).

Another panel that caught my attention was one around upcoming renewable fuels technologies. One company, called Joule Unlimited, is developing energy obtained from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, utilizing alternative metabolic pathways with genetic engineering – the speaker threw out the term “industrial photosynthesis.” Their goal is to derive a closed carbon cycle like how nature intended it to be. Sun Catalytix also sounded confident in displacing fossil fuels with the promise of harnessing energy from water. ARPA-E also funds non-photosynthetic technology for biofuels. All piqued my interest.

The conference itself was very well organized and executed by a team of around a hundred current MIT students. They had even prepared fact sheets for various energy sources and handed them out to each conference attendant, along with a tote bag and a mug. I also ran into two MIT alum friends that work in energy, whom I didn’t know were in Boston, which was a plus!

This blog entry doesn’t really do the conference justice, but the conference did enable me to explore the cutting edge research and development taking place in energy by participating in awesome discussions I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. For instance, I met several people who had worked in oil companies for 20 years before transferring into these interesting start-ups to help develop and scale up the technology. Sounds pretty awesome; I’d be down for that sometime in the future!

So Jealous.

Monday, April 4th, 2011

During my intense marathon of reading through and tagging all 10 years of my blog posts a few months ago, I noticed that I did not mention MIT once here since graduating almost four years ago. This came as a shock to me, because I’m still quite involved with the Institvte by serving as a volunteer (secretary, specifically) in our local alumni club. I’ve also visited MIT three times since graduation.

2011 is a special year for MIT, as it is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Institute. The sesquicentennial is being celebrated over several months with festivals, symposia, and various events, collectively called MIT150. And here I am, sitting in Los Angeles, drooling over all the events and cursing my life for not being in Boston right now.

The event that is making me salivate the most is FAST: Festival of Art, Science, and Technology, which spans three months. Yes, MIT does have arts, and even music majors, of which I was one. The item of most interest is the New Music Marathon on April 15th, which, regrettably, I can’t make. Guys, this concert is THE CONCERT OF MY DREAMS. It is a five-hour marathon of new music, with Kronos Quartet, Bang-on-a-Can, Wu Man, Gamelan Galak Tika, and MIT Chamber Chorus! When else in life is the world going to be blessed with such a lineup?! I seriously considered buying plane tickets to Boston just to make that concert and fly back the following morning, but, alas, it is on the same day as a special person’s birthday, and I have to perform in a choir concert that weekend. I also just visited Boston not even a month ago, so I thought it might be a bit of a waste. After weeks of suffering through the painful decision process, I’ve managed to let it go. Could they have it as a webcast?! My, that would be lovely.

I mentioned that I was in Boston recently. While there, I did catch one FAST concert, the Language of Music concert on March 5th. This concert was a special treat, because the program was comprised of compositions entirely by MIT music professors I had studied under. Justin and I enjoyed ourselves immensely as we explored the beautifully distinct styles of each of our ex-professors. I was glad to find out that they still remember me, too. I’d like to think of it as a consolation prize for not being able to make the April 15th concert. Please excuse me while I go into my corner and sulk some more.


Monday, January 10th, 2011

Last Friday, my friend Etha and I went to a MOCA exhibition called Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary. Etha and I hadn’t seen each other since high school, or 7.5 years ago, and would not have reunited so soon had it not been for our common interest in the composer.

Xenakis was a 20th century composer whose original profession was architecture. He is known for constructing his pieces from mathematical calculations, like the sweeping glissandi mimicking paraboloids in Metastaseis (my personal favorite, pictured below). He also plays around with “stochastic,” or probability-based, music, as well as many other ideas derived from math and sciences. His calculations are then notated into a score for the orchestra to perform.

The exhibit was excellent, because we could look at his preliminary sketches for some of his most notable pieces while listening to them on the iPods that they lent us. We both noted his fascination with graph paper and colored pencils, as he used them liberally in the calculations and illustrations of his ideas. We left the exhibit in renewed awe for Xenakis, and the real world seemed duller in comparison when we stepped out of the gallery.

The exhibit inspired me to think about writing music not centered around a pretty melody, but around an effective musical gesture created by a certain process (mathematical, visual, philosophical, etc.). Yes, it seems obvious, and yes, we learned about all that in school, but being separated from the academic musical setting and immersed in the world of popular music may have dulled my intuitions.

If you are in the Los Angeles area, I’d highly recommend any musician, engineer, mathematician, and architect to see the exhibit before it closes on February 4th.

Carol of the Bells – v.0

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

This year I decided to arrange a Christmas carol. My main inspiration was Bill Cutter, our choir director back at MIT, who had his own tradition of arranging a Christmas carol each year. So I rolled up my sleeves and messed around with Carol of the Bells! To spice things up, I wrote it in (mainly) a 19/8 meter, for two voices and piano.

Carol of the Bells (1:51)

Don’t be freaked out by the 19/8 time signature. It’s just 10/8+9/8 put together (with some other meters thrown in occasionally). I’d been meaning to write something in an unconventional meter, but hadn’t really put in the effort. In addition, I hadn’t written a “fast” piece in forever, so this piece presented me with the opportunity to explore both ideas.

It’s my second time arranging a carol – the last time was in 2007, when I arranged Joy to the World in Dorian mode (which I would love to hear performed someday).

I need your help, though; I couldn’t find a good name for it! Should I keep the name as Carol of the Bells or call it something clever?

Taken from a journal

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

We went to visit my great uncle’s today. Their apartment is on the top floor and is flanked by wide balconies along the entire front and back. They keep a small paper bag of birdseeds in the front balcony with which they feed the mourning doves. I sat there for a while and watched the mourning doves, pigeons, and crows flying back and forth among the trees. I looked down at people walking up and down the street. Suddenly a dog leapt into sight and barked right and left at the birds and passerby, leaning against the windowsill with its elbows. The dog disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. It drizzled once or twice. There was a crow walking to and fro on the roof; I could see the silhouette of its feet through the translucent section of the roofing.
I then went out to the back balcony, startling two sparrows by doing so, and saw one or two green trees that had grown taller than the buildings whose backs surrounded them. The sparrows watched me cautiously from the rooftop they had flown to. Sights like these make me feel content.

Self-regulatory dreams

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Earlier this week, I dreamt that I chose to ditch a field trip at work to visit a compressor repair facility (which actually existed in real life) to attend a composition seminar (which my dream world made up for me). I felt a bit guilty about the whole ordeal, because I neglected to notify the organizer of the compressor facility visit, and I didn’t have his cell phone number. The seminar itself was mildly intriguing, but I was yawning and mildly distracted. I felt a pang of guilt and regret that I chose it over the compressor shop, and felt that the compressor shop would have been more educational and satisfying.

This is an interesting dream following a frustrating weekend where I mourned my lack of time to focus more on music. The frustration was so intense that the other part of me said, “You care about engineering, too — ADMIT IT.” The dream was nicely timed, as it was quite a busy week at work this week, and the dream provided an inspirational boost.

A poll for the audience…

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

I’ve been blogging for almost ten years with almost no knowledge of what my audience expects to read from me. Do you care to entertain me by checking the boxes for which topics seem most interesting to you, which ones will keep you coming back? I, in return, will entertain you by focusing more on the topics that seem to draw the most attention.

Of course, feel free to submit any other ideas in the comments section.

Discouragement or challenge?

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

This past weekend, the things that usually inspire me had a somewhat discouraging effect on me. I went to a Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Professional Development conference and heard some amazing and inspiring engineering professionals talk about their careers. The takeaway message I got from the conference was that the professionals who have excelled at their careers have no work-life balance. The panelists stated that they barely had time for their kids (if they even had any), let alone any hobbies outside of work. Is this the ideal role model? Certainly not! I, who had based my whole life on the duality between the arts and the sciences, felt for the first time that it was not possible to be a successful engineer, a modestly accomplished artist, and a good mother in the same lifetime.

The discouragement strangely fueled me to go on to lead quite a productive weekend. In the past three days, I:

  • Went to an all-day SWE Professional Development conference
  • Prepared five Powerpoint presentations for work, for a total of 3.5 hours presentation time
  • Went to two concerts
  • Practiced violin and went to my violin lesson
  • Spent some quality family time
  • Bought a present for and went to a coworker’s daugher’s 13th birthday party
  • Updated Matchingfreak at the usual time, Sunday evening

It was as if I was trying to prove the world wrong; you can have your cake and eat it, too. I like living like this, to push myself to nearly a breaking point. Not one minute is wasted. I know I’m not utilizing my full capacity. I think there is more to be gained from operating closer to that breaking point, to cut down on the slack one allows oneself.

Some worry about burnout. I’m at a point in my life where I can afford to take the risk. If I burn out, all I have to do is simply vegetate for a weekend or two and I will be ready to rock and roll again.