Archive for December, 2011

My first really good guitar was a Gibson 12-string. Growing up in the 60s, the Byrds were my group of choice and Roger McGuinn‘s Rickenbacker 12-string was the magical sound I associated with the music. So I have always had a real fondness for the sound of a 12-string. I have owned 2 Gibson 12’s – one stolen and one traded in for an Ovation 6-string in the late 80s. I have had always kept one eye out for another 12-string and this week I stumbled across one at my favourite music shop in Edmonton – Acoustic Music. Didn’t hurt that it was also their 20% off after Christmas sale.

I am now the proud owner of a Washburn W240. Rod, the owner of Acoustic, said he figures the guitar dates from around the mid-80s and more importantly was made in Japan. It is a very nice instrument with a nice action (thanks Rod) and a good tone – not too bright but very full.

Washburn W240 12-string

So thanks to my son Dave and Auntie Lori and Uncle Don for helping to make the purchase possible.


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Topping the Tree

For many years in Alberta, every child in Grade 1 was given a tree seedling courtesy of the provincial government. I don’t know if the program is still going but there are a lot of ‘Grade 1’ trees around the province. When we moved into our house in 1989, there was a spruce in the back yard with a ‘Grade 1’ tree that belonged to one of the children of the original owner. Our kids all got trees, but I think only one of them survived – a Colorado blue spruce that David would have got around 1991. We planted it along the fence near the house and it did well in the spot. The only issue was as it grew, it started to compete with the original spruce which I would guess is over 10 meters high now. This year, I realized that poor David’s tree would have to come done as not only was it growing into the spruce, it was also intruding into the neighbour’s yard. The old saying is “if God gives you lemons, you make lemonade”. So, I thought if the tree was coming down anyway, let’s get a Christmas tree out of the deal.

David's 'Grade 1' Tree

Not having a chain saw, I set to work with my trusty bow saw and clippers. It wasn’t hard to remove the branches from a section of the trunk. I didn’t want to mess with ladders (what could possibly go wrong?), so I chose a section about 2 meters above ground and started sawing.

Making the Cut

I enlisted number three son, Andrew, to help. My daughter Kathryn was the official photographer. We finished the lower cut then Andrew started working the upper cut. There wasn’t much left to go, so I took my axe and hooked it around one of the upper branches and pulled … and the tree came down. It happened so fast, Kathryn missed the actual felling.

It's Down

Penny was a big help throughout it all … getting in the way whenever she could. We then measured about seven feet from the top and cut the tree to length.

Andrew working - Penny supervising

After about a half hour, we had our Christmas tree. And aside from the needles being really sharp, it has worked well. A nice touch for a family Christmas.

Finished Product

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Little Things

Christmas afternoon. Presents have been unwrapped. People have retreated to their caves to listen, play, sleep, etc. And I notice it is a little chilly in the house.

I go to the digital thermostat to check the temperature. It reads 18 – but the thermostat is set to 20. This is not good. It is above zero outside so it isn’t that cold but the chilling thought of having to call a repairman on Christmas is frightening enough. All the money we saved by being frugal this holiday would be lost right there. I headed downstairs and checked the furnace filter. It isn’t bad so that isn’t it. I really don’t like the thought of working around gas appliances but let’s see what the label on the front of the furnace says … not too complicated, I think. Turn down thermostat. Turn off power. Pull off inspection panel. Find switch. Turn off switch. Wait five minutes. Turn on switch. Turn on power. Turn up thermostat. Furnace works! Dad is a hero – never mind saving a bunch of money. It is a good day.

The next morning I woke up just after six – and didn’t hear the furnace. We have a programmable thermostat that is supposed to kick in at 5:30 and bring the temperature up from 18 to 20. (Did you know – you shouldn’t lower your thermostat setting more than 4 degrees at night – it will take more energy (gas) to raise the temperature back up in the morning than you saved during the night.) So back downstairs and repeat the procedure. Furnace works and Dad is still a hero.

Mid-afternoon and it is chilly again. So back to the thermostat and sure enough the temperature is below the setting and no furnace. I am starting to feel defeated at this point. Back downstairs and repeat the restart procedure – except this time the furnace doesn’t come back on. Immediately the question is – can we stay warm enough for a day so I don’t have to call the repairman on Boxing Day (Scottish ancestry). On a whim, I go back up to the thermostat and pull the case off. Nothing obviously wrong, so I replace the case … and now there is no display on the thermostat – nothing except for a tiny label that reads ‘low battery’. D’oh! I replace the batteries in the thermostat and Dad is a hero again – however this time, I feel a little less heroic and lot wiser. Next time, I will check the little things first!

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Releasing our three songs on Bandcamp.com has been really exciting.  If nothing else, we had over 200 hits on the first day alone (although Jim was speculating that his wife Wanda was responsible for most of them). Since this is new to us, I am sure there will be changes as we get the hang of all this stuff.

Don wrote Ernest & Lucy. He said the first line, Ernest Hemingway and Lucy Maud Montgomery danced on a Saturday night”, came to him in a dream and he wrote the song from there. Don originally sang the song, but the piano playing and many syllables per line created some issues, so I started to sing it. On stage, my bass line is as simple as it gets because I have troubles combining a more complex bass line with all the lyrics. But I am getting the hang of it and feel more comfortable every time we do it. When we were recording the song, I found it much easier to only have to sing during the recording (since we do the bass line separately) and I think it shows in the finished product.

It was interesting (sad, actually) that when I played the song for some folks at work, all but one did not know who Lucy Maud Montgomery was – Canadian sacrilige! A few people had never even heard of Hemingway. Makes me feel old.

Still, I like the song and while I cursed Don the first few times we played it on stage, I think it is pretty damn good. Enjoy!

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I have been holding off writing about our change of identity, but now we have made the name change official. The Magpies are no more – The Big Sky Gliders is now the name of the group. Why not Magpies? I don’t think we were ever comfortable with the name, as it was bestowed in a moment when we needed a name a couple of years ago. There is also a folk group in England named the Magpies and there was a very famous folk ensemble in the 1950’s with the same name. So we have been trying out different names for about the last six months. It was not an easy task – with list after list passing among us. Nothing stood out until Don came up with Big Sky Gliders. For whatever reason, the name resonated with Jim and I and we decided after very little discussion, to go with the Gliders. Something about Big Sky, the prairies and the essence of freedom that a glider represents … it all added up for us.

We debuted the name last Saturday when we played the Pacific Cafe in the McCauley neighbourhood of Edmonton. I think our host called us everything except the Big Sky Gliders in the first part of the show but he got it right in the end. The other reason for holding off on the name is we wanted to finish our recording. Last week we finally got the third song (almost) done and last night, on the recommendation of my second son, I set up a page on bandcamp.com that showcased our first recording effort.

Big Sky Gliders - Our first recording

Bandcamp.com has a very interesting business model. They host your site and allow you to set a price (if you care to) for your songs. If someone decides to download, they pay Bandcamp and then the revenue is passed on to us. Every 10th sale, they take the money. I think it is a very reasonable way to do business. Our website is www.bigskygliders.bandcamp.com.

The recordings and the web presence now gives up a chance for people to learn about us without having to be in Edmonton. We are going to apply to play a few festivals in the new year and this is a great promotional vehicle for us. So have a look and listen and watch for more music to be uploaded to the site over the next little while.

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One of the things we learned when recording was how precise the process is. And precise means it takes far longer than we ever imagined. The last three times we have been in the studio there was precious little recording happening. Mostly we were going over the songs again and again – picking up imperfections, mistimed notes and variations in the sound levels. Rick, our sound guru, is amazing at picking up these little issues and as he works he is continually asking what we want and how we like the sound. And this is the right thing to do but it illustrates a very interesting phenomena.

Less of this ...

and more of this

It was a couple of nights ago and nearing the end of a 3-hour session mixing a 2 minute song when Rick asked our opinion on something relatively trivial. My brain just said “whatever” – I just wanted to get it over. Thankfully someone else had the right answer (which I knew was correct but I was so tired of things at that moment I just didn’t care). At the end of the night, Rick told us about “ego depletion” – a theory that it the more decisions you make, the harder it becomes to make them. He used the example of car salesman – they ask the easy and trivial questions first and then hit you with the expensive decisions near the end of the negotiations – when your brain is tired and the “I don’t give a rat’s ass” malaise sets in. Ego depletion is based on the work of Ray Baumeister in the United States.

This is fascinating stuff with lots of real world implications. Recording is just one small example. When we read more, some of the research talks about the possible role that blood sugar levels may play in this situation. As a diabetic, this caught my interest. I think the next time we go in, I am going to bring along some form of sugar to see if it makes a difference in how I approach the tasks associated with recording. Playing is one thing – putting it all together is another.

And the New York Times’ columnist John Tierney had a real interesting article on the subject earlier this year. It is a good article and gives an insight into how this phenomena can be used in your everyday life.

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Last weekend the New York Times ran an opinion piece called The Art of Listening by Henning Mankell. It was a very poignent column about the author’s experiences in Africa and how the culture promotes story-telling and the art of listening. I was taught active listening in my first year communication class but it would appear that listening is fast becoming a dying art in Western civilization. We just don’t seem to want to make the time to really listen to someone, rather than just try and think of what we are going to say next. In my latter years I have come to realize the power of story telling and the joy that comes with listening to a well told tale. The New York Times article is a piece that should be widely read.

(I should add the New York Times is behind a pay-wall however you get 20 free reads a month so take advantage of this wonderful piece of writing. The Times is the only web-based subscription I have and coming from Scottish ancestory, it is very good value for money.)

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