Make time for your art

This pic above showed up in a Facebook meme, and it spoke volumes to me. To sum up my thoughts in only a few words, I’m an artist.

Okay, I suppose some context is in order; after all, I am writing this as a ‘blog article.

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know me, I’m a musician in my spare time. I started playing the piano when I was seven, the clarinet when I was eight, and I taught myself how to play mallet percussion and the saxophone when I was in high school. I grew up learning how to play classical piano, and I picked up a taste for jazz and classic rock along the way. I played well enough that I easily could have been a music major had I chosen to do so; alas, my parents wouldn’t let me.

I also started writing my own music when I was in high school. I started out writing piano compositions (think John Tesh-like new age piano music) without lyrics. One day, I said to myself, “what would happen if I wrote lyrics for my music?” The result was a song called If She Only Knew. I ended up writing more songs; you can hear many of them on my songwriter’s page (you can even purchase my music on the page or on iTunes). I still have more music that I haven’t finished recording (alas, trying to coordinate time with friends who can actually sing is a major blocker, not to mention that life happens), and it’s only within the past few years that I’ve started writing again, after a long layoff of many years (like I said, life happens).

When I first started writing, I was an isolated, naïve, and lonely kid who hadn’t been exposed to a lot in the big wide world. As such, much of what I wrote was stuff that was on my mind that I was unable to express in words. Music was — and still is — the perfect outlet for me; it enabled me to convey what I was otherwise unable to express.

The pandemic over the past few years has stressed me out in many different ways, as I’m sure it has for many people. Under these circumstances, it’s especially important to maintain your mental health; indeed, it was why I ended up in the hospital last year. We are not robots, so it’s important to maintain some kind of relief valve to release the pressure. This is a huge (although not the only) reason why the arts are important. (I could also talk about how art trains us to think critically and creatively, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.) The arts allow us to express ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to in the corporate, business, and high-tech world.

Art can take many forms. For me, it’s in my music. For others, it can involve drawing, sculpture, painting, glass-blowing, creative writing, poetry, sewing, video production, theater, collecting, cooking, and so on. (You could also make the case that sports and athletics are an art.) You don’t necessarily even have to be good at it. I once got into a lengthy argument with a friend who said that a picture created with animal feces was not art. What he didn’t understand was that art doesn’t necessarily have to be good or tasteful; it just has to be something that’s expressed, even if it’s (literally, in this case) a piece of crap.

I think art is critically important (I’ve argued that we should be teaching STEAM, not STEM). It’s important for us to develop as well-rounded individuals. And it provides us with a creative outlet that we desperately need to release stress, especially in our current world that is full of it.

Support your local artists

A little while ago, a friend of mine from high school sent me a message (along with a link) saying that his band was scheduled to perform a gig pretty much in my own backyard. I added his gig date to my calendar, and I will make the effort to attend.

I have to admit that I really haven’t done enough to go out and attend local concerts and gigs, unless it’s one in which I’m actually performing, and that’s a shame on my part. As a part-time musician myself, I can say firsthand that local musicians (and all artists — not just musicians) take their craft seriously, and they put a lot of time, effort, and soul into what they do. As such, these artists deserve to be recognized for their efforts, whether it’s by purchasing their art, sampling their wares, or attending their concerts and gigs.

Often, whenever my wife and I have an evening free, I’ll often ask her, “you want to do anything tonight?” Most of the time, that involves doing something for dinner. As a sports fan, I’ll sometimes look to see if one of the local teams is playing, and if I’m up for it, I’ll look into getting tickets. But as a musician, I don’t often look for any live music performances that interest me.

Whenever I’m performing, I’ll announce that I have a performance coming up — nearly always on Facebook, but sometimes also on Twitter and here on my ‘blog. I would hope that (at least) my friends would come out to support me and what I do. And whenever my friends tell me they’re performing somewhere, it’s only fair that I reciprocate. Part of it is “professional” courtesy, but mostly, my attendance sends a message that “I support what you do!”

As I get older, I’ve noticed that I’m somewhat less inclined to go out. I used to hit some jazz clubs when I was younger (I love listening to live jazz, among other things), but events like that have lessened as I’ve gotten older. Mostly, after a week of working or free days doing things around the house, by the time a Friday or Saturday evening rolls around, I’m “too tired to go out and do anything.” And that’s a cop-out on my end.

Some people won’t go to a concert unless it’s a big name. Hey, even I’ll admit that whenever my favorite band comes to town, I have to attend. That’s okay. But there’s also likely a number of local artists who also deserve your attention, and a lot of them happen to be pretty good! Not only that, but chances are the price of admission is likely to be a lot less than a ticket to see your favorite nationally-known artist.

Think of it this way — if you like to travel, you’ll likely buy souvenirs that are unique to that area. Sometimes, the wares are pieces of art that are indigenous to wherever you’re visiting. In doing so, you’re supporting lesser-known local artists. So why not do the same in your own hometown?

So whenever I ask my wife (or any friends) if they’re interested in doing something, I’ll make sure I check the local arts calendar to see who’s performing or exhibiting. It makes for good, inexpensive local entertainment, not to mention that you’ll be supporting your local artists, you’ll get a taste of your own local culture, and you’ll likely have a great time in doing so!

(P.S. I put my friend’s gig date in my calendar, and I’ll try to bring some friends along with me!)

Getting my music heard

As some of you may know, when I’m not coming up with ideas for professional development ‘blogs, I’m a musician on the side. I’m a classically-trained pianist, and I also play the clarinet, saxophone, and mallet percussion instruments as well. I perform in a large symphonic concert band, I accompany a local church choir, I play in a wind quintet, and earlier this year, I joined a local classic rock band.

In addition to all that, I’m also a songwriter. I started writing when I was in high school, wrote for several years, recorded a few things (and had a few friends help me with the vocals — singing is one of the musical tasks that I don’t pretend I can do), stopped writing for several more years (life happened), and only relatively recently started getting back into it again.

If you’re interested in hearing my music, you can go to my artist’s page here.

During the past year of the COVID pandemic, I reworked my recordings. I had my MIDI sequences that I had stowed away and recorded all the instrumental tracks. I had to get somewhat creative with the vocals (like I said, I can’t sing worth a damn), so I poked around some online sites where you can upload songs and extract vocals from them (here are a few that I tried: Splitter.AI, Vocali.se, Vocal Remover and Isolation, Acapella Extractor). I took my “crappy” demos that I’d created years ago and used these sites to extract the vocal parts from them. The extracted vocals weren’t great — there was still a lot of noise on them that I couldn’t clear — but for my purposes (at the time), they did the job, and I was happy with the results. When I applied the extracted vocals to my instrumentals, I thought they sounded pretty good. I’m sure music professionals who are better at mixing and mastering than I am can hear the lousy quality, but to those who don’t have discerning ears, you hardly notice them.

I took my computer recording studio and went to work polishing my recordings. I kept remixing and editing them, and with each subsequent edit, I felt that I was getting better and better at it — to the point that I told other music friends that if they ever wanted to do any multitrack work, let me know.

What I’m not good at doing is mastering. Mastering music recordings is an art and a skill in which I don’t have the expertise. After all, I don’t do this for a living, and I consider myself merely a hobbyist. Nevertheless, I did the best I could given my limited skill set and what I learned from doing this on my own. While my recordings aren’t mastered (and likely won’t be, unless I can re-record the vocal parts), I created the best-quality music recordings I could on my own.

I managed to get them to the point where I was happy with the results. Granted, they’re not commercial-grade recordings, but I gladly and happily listen to them.

I decided to take the next step and distribute my recordings (even though they’re not mastered). I figured, I’m sure there are other hobbyists in the same boat who likely do the same thing, so I had nothing to lose. I came across a couple of articles about creating my own album (including this and that), and came across a music distribution service called DistroKid, which was highly recommended by several articles that I read. Once I got my recordings to the point that I was happy with distributing them, I signed up for a DistroKid account and uploaded my album.

That was about a week ago. Last I checked, my album is now available on iTunes/Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon Music! And there are more to come, I’m sure; these are only the first ones! (And, of course, you can always listen to my stuff on my Soundclick site!)

Let me say this again. I consider myself a hobbyist, not a professional. Yes, I know my recordings are not mastered and probably not professional-quality. I work hard at what I do, and while I’m not the best at it, I’ve gotten considerably better. For all the trolls out there, save me your diatribe about how these don’t sound professional and are not the best quality recordings.

That said, I’m a hobbyist who takes his hobby seriously, and is highly passionate about it — enough that I am willing to spend time and money on it. That said, I believe that my music is good music, and it deserves to be heard, which is why I did what I did. Honestly, I really don’t give a crap if I never sell a single album. The entire point of this exercise is to get my material out there and heard, and earn some measure of respect for myself as a musician and songwriter who is extremely passionate about his craft.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 24: Coping with the stress #COVID19

I’m not going to lie. The mental stress of being out of a job (ten months, and counting) is affecting me in many ways. I’ll talk about the mental stress (which is what this article is mostly about) in a minute, but before I get into that, let me talk about something that has been affecting me physically.

Last year, gyms were closed down due to the pandemic. As a result, I wasn’t able to attend CrossFit classes. For me, one of the biggest benefits of CrossFit classes was that it created a routine. I tend to be a creature of habit, and as long as I stick to a routine, I’m generally okay. With the gyms closed due to the pandemic, that routine was broken. I didn’t stay active at home as I would’ve liked (although I did attempt a Couch to 5K program). I started developing issues with my back and my shoulder (which continue even as I write this), enough to require physical therapy. Now, the gyms are back open, but I’ve been dealing with physical issues that prevent me from working out as I’d like. Thankfully, PT seems to be alleviating these issues, and I’m hoping to become active again soon.

That said, the past year has affected me mentally and psychologically, and I’ve fallen into some bad habits. I haven’t been as active with my business as I should be. I’ve been moody, and I seem to have mood swings easily. The constant battle of looking for employment has been extremely taxing and frustrating. A lot of activities that I normally enjoy haven’t been giving me much pleasure as of late.

I could keep going, but the last thing I want to do is write a woe-is-me article where I feel like I’m trying to solicit sympathy. I’m not (at least I don’t think I am, anyway — maybe some of you might disagree, but I digress). Rather, I’m laying out the scenario so that I can write about coping strategies (and I’m writing this for myself as much as any of you who might be in the same boat). In my job hunt presentation, I talk about making sure that you take care of yourself. This article is about practicing what I preach.

Before I started this article, I sat in my home office, thinking about “what should I do to get back on track.” I thought about a number of things, and I’d like to share them with you.

First of all, I revisited one of my hobbies: songwriting. I’ve been working on an idea for a new song, and I opened my notation app to revisit it. I’m finding that doing so is pleasantly distracting; it gets my brain working on something productive. Doing this makes an adjustment to my mental activity which, I believe, will improve my mental and psychological state over the long run.

I was also fortunate enough to be contacted by a friend of mine who said he might have a project for me. We spoke, and I told him I’d look at it. It’s not gainful employment per se, but it’s another productive distraction to get me going again. On that same topic, I also have other projects for my clients that I need to revisit as well.

Other friends have other coping ideas as well. I highly recommend Steve Jones‘ series of articles about daily coping. His suggestions make a lot of sense, and I find that they improve my mood (I’ve even told him as such).

I need to do something physical as well. My doctor recommended that I do a minimum of five minutes of physical activity per day. At the time of the recommendation, I was in serious pain (directly related to the conditions I mentioned at the top of this article) so I wasn’t able to do this right away, but now that they’re somewhat better, I feel like I can partake. I do have an exercise bike; I will be making use of it. Additionally, I will be investing in some resistance bands and PVC pipes (to do pass-throughs).

And, if nothing else, I’m also trying to come up with ideas for ‘blog articles.

You need to take care of yourself before you can take on your responsibilities. These might sound like small moves, but small moves add up. Things like this can reinvigorate yourself and get you back on track. And once they do, you can be productive again.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 23: Learning songs in a new language #COVID19

Before I get into this article, I need to direct you to a few other articles that I wrote, all of which are directly relevant to what I’m about to write. You will likely not understand some of the references in this article unless you read these other ones first (or are friends with me on Facebook, in which case you can skip these). Give them a read (or at the very least, skim through them), then come back to this one. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back yet? Okay…

This morning, a friend of mine PM’ed me with this: “it would be epic to see LOTD in Korean.”

I sent him back this reply: “challenge accepted!”

So, I looked up K-Pop songs, and I came across this video. I will freely admit that what caught my eye was the artist’s name (take a look!). I listened to the song, and as it turned out, it’s a really pretty ballad that’s relatively close to my own writing style. I might end up buying some CDs (yes, I still prefer buying CDs, even if I do rip everything to iTunes) from this artist.

I ended up using the first four lines for my Lyric Of The Day (and I’m posting this mostly for my own reference and learning purposes).

"나를 사랑하는 법은 어렵지 않아요
지금 모습 그대로 나를 꼭 안아주세요
우리 나중에는 어떻게 될진 몰라도
정해지지 않아서 그게 나는 좋아요..."
-- Roy Kim, "Only Then"

(If you’re dying to know what this says, here it is in Google Translate. And if you want to hear it, check out the video.)

I was never a fan of pop dance songs. When I first heard K-Pop songs and saw related videos, my initial impression was that K-Pop songs were primarily pop dance songs, so I haven’t given the genre a lot of thought. This video that I found changed my mind.

It got me thinking: what would it take to write a song that’s not in my native English? There is some precedent for this; probably the most famous example is Ritchie Valens singing “La Bamba.” It would be a challenge for me; I’m still learning Korean (although I’ll admit that I haven’t been pursuing it as aggressively lately), and I’m far from being able to read it quickly or being able to carry on a conversation. Nevertheless, the idea is intriguing, and one that I’m considering.

This idea is making me consider several things. First, it’s encouraging me to get back into my Korean language lessons. Second, it’s making me want to revisit my songwriting and MIDI recording endeavors. Third, it’s inspiring me to break many bad habits directly related to pandemic fatigue.

And, if nothing else, it’s sparked an interest in K-Pop with me. I guess I’m going to have to go buy some K-Pop CDs.

#TheBestOf… Bringing the world together by telling us about your special world

A wandering mind can be a dangerous thing. 🙂

If you’re a ‘blogger who’s looking for something to write about, read on. Perhaps this will give you an idea.

This afternoon, I was doing a mundane, household chore (specifically, I was washing dishes and doing some cleaning in the kitchen), and whenever I do mundane chores like that, of course, my mind tends to wander. So today, I decided to write about what my mind was wandering about.

I don’t know what sparked this idea — maybe it was because I had Andrew Zimmern’s Delicious Destinations on the TV in the background. First, a little background. As a first (or maybe it’s second — I never know how these things work) generation Korean-American, I tend to appreciate cultural diversity. I love experiencing cultures and traditions that are not my own. I enjoy traveling, and I wish I could do more of it (only the lack of time or money — usually both — and these days, the COVID-19 pandemic — keeps me from doing so). I have friends and family around the world — maybe not as many as other people who’ve traveled more than I have, but nevertheless, I have friends I’ve made either by friends I already knew who have relocated to other countries, people whom I’ve met through my association with SQL Saturday or other PASS-related endeavors, or through work or school.

I also thought about things to bring the world together. I don’t need to tell you how divisive the world is these days. A while back, I wrote an article about bringing the world together. I started thinking of a way to do that.

So with all that said, here’s the idea that my wandering mind cooked up.

Let’s say that you have a friend from a foreign country or culture — one that is not your own — over to your home area for a visit. You want to show him or her the best of what your culture or your home turf has to offer. What do you show or tell him or her?

Personally, I would like to show my friend everything that my home state of New York has to offer — New York City, Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes, apple picking, the Adirondack wilderness, Buffalo chicken wings, the Baseball Hall of Fame, music, county fairs, festivals, historic sites, etc. There’s a lot here to show off.

So, I’ll write an article now and then (usually whenever the mood strikes me) in which I talk about something — whether it’s a place, an art, a sport, a food, whatever — that is significant to me, and I’d like to show off to a visiting guest. I’ll precede these articles using the hashtag #TheBestOf followed by whatever I’ll write about (e.g. “#TheBestOf… Baseball” or whatever).

Here are some ground rules for this project. The topic — whatever it is — is something special or unique to me that I think a visitor would appreciate. It can not be divisive, disrespectful, or disparaging — partisan politics, for example, is verboten — unless it’s within the context of something historically or culturally significant (e.g. Benedict Arnold’s role in the American Revolution, etc.).

And if you’re a ‘blogger and would like to take part, knock yourself out. The best way to think about this little project is to pretend you’re a travel writer describing your home turf or culture. I would enjoy reading about what makes your world special, and what you’d show off if I came over to visit. If you’d like, feel free to refer to this article for reference or context.

Let’s see how this goes. If you’d like to take part, great. If not, no worries. For all I know, this might be the only article in which you’ll see this hashtag.

Have fun!

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 19: Revisiting MIDI sequencing and songwriting #COVID19

Years ago — another lifetime ago, it seems — I was a songwriter. I actually had several demos that I put together (you can listen to them here), and I had a few friends who helped me put them together (mostly because I don’t play the guitar, and I can’t sing worth a damn). My idea was to put together songs in my own living room under the guise of a “band,” similar to what Tom Scholz does with Boston. I attended songwriting workshops, and I even entered a songwriting contest in which I received Honorable Mention recognition.

Had I pursued this endeavor more vigorously, it’s entirely possible that I could be making a living off my music, rather than pursuing a career in IT and writing professional development ‘blogs. Alas, as John Lennon once famously sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” My “band” lost touch with each other and went on with their own separate lives (one of them actually died tragically). I went to grad school, got my Masters degree (in a field unrelated to music), got married, and went down the technical career path on which I continue to this day.

Although it’s not the main reason why I stopped making my own music, one of my big deterrents was the tools at my disposal. I had a MIDI sequencing setup that utilized a Kurzweil Ensemble Grande piano (the original model), a Kawai G-Mega sound module, and a Macintosh SE running Trax. It was a setup that worked very well. It was very easy to use, and it did what I wanted it to do.

Unfortunately, it also started showing its age (when was the last time you saw a Mac SE?). I still have the Kurzweil piano and the Kawai module, and even though they’re about thirty years old (maybe more), they still work. The computer, however, was another story. The screen built into it was starting to fade, and it was clear that it would eventually get to the point where it would become unusable. So I pulled as many MIDI files off of it as I could and transferred them to my PC.

I also managed to get a copy of Trax for the PC, but as I upgraded my PCs, my version of Trax became incompatible. I looked into getting another MIDI sequencer — and that’s where my problems began.

I had purchased a copy of ACID Music Studio (at the time that I bought it, it was a Sony product). I liked (and still like) using it for mixing and mastering, but I still preferred using Trax for creating my MIDI sequencing data and importing them into ACID.

When I tried recording MIDI data, I kept running into problems, neither of which I was able to resolve. Either…

  1. my computer kept blue-screening, or…
  2. I kept having massive (and very nasty) latency issues.

Unfortunately, these issues (especially the latency) became so bad that it discouraged me from working on them. I set them aside and never got back to them…

…that is, until last night. Last November, I bought a new laptop, much better than any machine I’ve previously owned (although I did need to install a new hard drive in it). Additionally, I bought a new MIDI interface a few months ago; it turned out that my old one was not compatible and no longer supported. And I upgraded my copy of ACID a while back; even though I had originally bought it 20+ years ago, when I went to the vendor‘s web site, I was happy to see that my software license was still valid, which allowed me to download an updated version.

So now, my setup consists of the following.

  • HP Pavilion x360 laptop running ACID Music Studio v.10.0 on Windows 10 Home
  • Roland UM-ONE MIDI interface
  • My thirty-year-old Kurzweil Ensemble Grande piano (hey, don’t knock it — it still works, and I love that I can use a full-sized piano as a MIDI controller)
  • My nearly-as-old Kawai G-Mega MIDI sound module

I spent last night (I was up until 1:30 am!) experimenting with my setup. The computer remained stable, and I did not experience any serious latency issues. After being away from it for several years, it looks like I have a working MIDI setup once again!

However, the setup wasn’t without its problems.

  • As I mentioned above, I created my MIDI sequences in Trax and imported them into ACID. I’d forgotten about this when I tried creating and editing MIDI sequences directly in ACID, and couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to (easily) do what I used to be able to do. It turned out that I was accustomed to creating them in Trax. I should be able to do them in ACID, but I’m finding out that there is a steep learning curve involved. I might look into getting another easy-to-use sequencer; the thought of investing in a new version of Trax has crossed my mind.
  • One thing missing from my setup: a good audio interface. As anyone involved in recording can tell you, you don’t want use the default input to record audio directly into your computer; it makes for poor sound quality. I have a Lexicon Alpha which has served me well, but while tinkering with it last night, it suddenly stopped working. I reinstalled the driver and rebooted the computer (several times), all to no avail. The website says the Alpha has been discontinued, and although the driver is supposedly Windows 10-compatible, my machine would not recognize it after several restart attempts. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may need to invest in a new one. If anyone has any suggestions for a good audio interface, feel free to comment below.
  • I still can’t sing or play the guitar to save my life! Anyone who can do either (or both) want to help me make demos?

It’s been several years since I worked on my own original music. Now that I have a working (albeit clunky) MIDI sequencing setup once again, I can return to a hobby that I once loved but abandoned years ago.