I came back from my business trip having kept up the ol’ blog, but dropping pretty much everything else. That’s okay, it’s hard to follow a schedule when you’ve got that whole ‘job’ thing going on, so I’m not going to be too hard on myself.

It’s time for a shift-up, anyway. There’s about twice as much maths in the schedule as there should be, and probably too much streaming too. For now, I’ll change one of the maths slots to music! Because music is cool, and the weekend slots are nearly never fulfilled because of various obligations. Thursday 9pm will become Music, and Tumbling will be bumped to 10pm.

So what am I going to do with Music? Well, my first thought was to pick up another instrument. I’ve had my eye on a violin for a while now, but the combination of price and general likelihood of it going unused adds up to a non-purchase (I’m looking at you, harmonica and melodica!). I really should work on my piano.. So, why not work on piano?

Piano practice has always been something I’ve had a rocky relationship with. Like everything else that doesn’t provide instant gratification, piano can become quickly demoralising if you haven’t got the right mindset or approach. I’ve spent quite a long time trying to find a method of practising that doesn’t bore me to tears. I was working quite hard at piano last year until I.. wasn’t. Piano has to be practiced fairly early on in the evening, because once it gets late you don’t want to cause a ruckus. While it’s possible to wear a headset, it’s a cumbersome experience and distracts from the learning. This limitation often meant if I got home late because of work, I wouldn’t be able to practice for the day. That was another thing: Practice was daily, but unstructured. I’d start with random scales or exercises, and then move on to working on a piece. The piece practice was equally bad: I would focus on the bits I’d already done rather than pushing through to the more difficult parts. The end result were pieces that sounded great to start with that quickly fell apart as they went on.

So right now, I’ve put aside one hour for practice on Thursdays. This isn’t even remotely enough to get good at any sort of speed. But we’re playing the long game with these things, putting more time as I want. The plan is to have more structured practice sessions to make up for the reduced time: Ten to twenty minutes of Hanon, playing the previously practised exercises at a slightly higher tempo than last time, provided I was happy with the original practice session. Eventually, I hope to have the first twenty exercises down at full speed within ten minutes. Next up will be the scales of some type (major, minor, chromatic) for another ten minutes, followed by either more scales or arpeggios for ten minutes, ending with twenty to thirty minutes of piece practice.

Scale practice is particularly hard to structure, because there’s twelve major scales, twelve minor scales, scales in thirds, chromatic scales, chromatic scales in thirds… The list goes on. If you only give yourself an hour a week to practice, you won’t be able to cover everything at a reasonable rate. But again, maybe that’s okay, because if piano gets the chop I won’t have burned myself on extraneous practice. The plan is to take a similar approach as in Hanon. Four octaves, starting at 60bpm and slowly ramping up higher and higher if the previous practice goes well. Eventually, the ones that are simple will be dropped and the more challenging scales will remain. Again, this will be repeated for the arpeggios and their multiple versions (major, minor, dominant sevenths…).

The piece practice will involve learning a piece hands separately to the point of being able to write it back down on to a manuscript from memory, or at least a very reasonable facsimile! Then, I will learn the piece hands together, and it will all work out and be wonderful, maybe. There’s a vast amount of disagreement out there on whether you should take on a piece ‘hands together’ to start with, or if you should learn each hand separately. Indeed, over-reliance on muscle memory is also argued to be bad, given that if you can’t ‘see’ the music and you suffer a muscle memory lapse, you’re stuck and have to start back at an earlier point where your memory hasn’t faded and hope it falls together the next time around. Memorisation and gradual practice will (theoretically) let you pick up from a mistake from the bar before the mistake was made.

So what’s the first piece? Well, I wanted to ease myself back in with something I could actually see myself being able to play, so I’ve gone with ‘Linus and Lucy’ from The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. It’s so good, and everyone knows it. Afterwards, it’ll be probably a dive back into the classical once I find some exciting pieces that I have to learn. If you haven’t heard ‘Linus and Lucy’, I present it now as a musical ending to this post:

The Rodeo

Last week, I had the unique opportunity to visit an indoor rodeo. It was surreal. I’ll just sum up what happened, maybe talk a bit about how insane it felt.

The arena was probably the size of your average circus, and it was packed. Like, full. This is an event that happens every Friday and Saturday, and they still fill to near capacity every week. That had to be a vote of confidence, right? After what felt like an eternity of sitting around, the MC started his spiel about the importance of rodeo and how it’s a Texas institution and everything. It was interesting, but it took forever. At the end of it, he asked for everyone to stand for the national anthem. Okay, that’s not so weird, right? The strange part came immediately after.

Spotlights lit up the arena as a horse-mounted man carrying the American flag entered. He started to circle the ring, trotting slowly at first. As the anthem progressed, the trot sped up until man and horse were full-on galloping. This was working up the crowd like crazy. I hadn’t seen anything like it: All he was doing was going in a circle, big smile on his face… Red, white, and blue clothes to go with the flag. And the crowd loved it! I got carried away in the atmosphere as well, of course. The same guy would later carry a flag in-between the various acts to come. The only difference the following times was that the flag wore an advert rather than the stars-and-stripes. They sure love flags in Texas.

With the required patriotism dealt with, it was time for the first event. Six or seven young men had decided to take on the bull. The task? Stay mounted on the bucking bull for eight seconds. Just eight seconds. This is impossible, it’s not like those mechanical bulls which slowly reach an unreasonable speed. An actual bull goes from zero to sixty in the time it takes to open the gate. These guys were flying every which way. The moment they fell off, they’d roll, get up, and run the hell away while the rodeo clowns attract the bull’s attention and stop it from kicking the fallen rider’s head off. Amazingly, only one guy managed to hurt himself. He ended up banging his head hard against the gate as he fell off the bull. He could barely walk, and he had blood pouring from a wound on his temple. He tried to wave to the crowd to show he was okay, which ended with him in a pile on the floor. It was genuinely scary.

I heard later on that they do some pretty terrible things to the bulls to get them worked up so much.. It’s not good, and not surprising. It’s enough to make you want to not go again, you know?

Anyway, after the riding there came another event. This time, they let a young cow loose from one end of the arena while a horse-mounted cowboy attempted to lasso the cow’s head before leaping from the horse, throwing the cow to the ground, and binding its legs. This is weird to describe and even weirder to watch. The scary thing here is that the fastest one guy did all this was nine seconds. It looked like a scene from a western, which I imagine may be the point. The strength these guys had to throw the cows down must have been huge. It did not look very comfortable for the cow nor the cowboy.

Then, after a few failed attempts, a few successful ties, it was time to move on to the intermission. And this was when the night got bizarre.. bizarrer, rather. The MC asked for all children aged between 7 and 12 to enter the arena. I was already getting a huge Battle Royale/Hunger Games vibe, but no. The actual event was even more questionable. Once the kids were in the ring, they were lined up along the centre. There must have been about fifty children in total. The objective was then described by the MC: A single calf was to be let loose in the arena with a sticker on it. The kid who managed to get the sticker won a prize. Yes, that’s right. Fifty children versus one calf. It was like watching ’28 Days Later’. There was strategy involved, some of the children running towards where they expected the calf to be, rather than where it was at the time. Once the calf was cornered, you couldn’t see what was happening to it. That’s how the dense the child-cloud was around the calf. At the end of the ordeal, the calf seemeed fine, if stressed. One kid nearly got trampled by all the others.

Post-intermission, it was time for more of the same. There were variations on the previous themes: More bull-riding, more cattle-rustling.. And the return of the popular ‘children chase animals for prizes’ game, this time with a lamb and children aged under seven.

I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing, in the end. It was definitely entertaining, if morally objectionable at times. It’s probably a see-once-never-again sort of thing. If you like animals, I wouldn’t recommend it. I have a few pictures, I’ll update this post when I get a chance.

On Pretending To Write

Just a short one today, I’m in Dallas and it’s really nice! Very warm.

Let’s talk about writing. Writing is pretty fun, I recommend it if you have the time (and everyone has time). But what’s the point? And what should you write about?

I’m not a very good writer, at all. It’s difficult to be a great writer when you’re so good at being concise, or when other people have already written what you wanted to write, but a hundred times better. Being a mediocre writer is not an excuse for slacking off and giving up, however. Virtually everyone starts off at the same level of awful, so it’s often just a case of showing up and putting in the effort. This is true of everything, so we’re not really exploring writing specifically right now.

So with writing, what’s the step-by-step to becoming better? Of course, it depends on what your goal is. If you want to be a fiction author, you need to spend time learning the fundamentals of story telling. If you want to write a successful blog, you need to have a clear vision for the content you want to provide. Both require practice, but sometimes it’s harder to write one style over the other.

For instance, right now it’s easier to write a blog than it is to write fiction, because right now most of my energy is spent on work things. I get home, and the last thing I want to do is try and construct a worthwhile narrative. Rather, I’d like to whine and moan and vent. What better medium than that of the humble blog? But alas, moaning is not the order of the day.

I want to become a better writer. To that end, I have TWO writing based activities in my timetable. One: I write a blog post every week. Sure, they’re not great, but every post is a step in the right direction. Two: I try and plan out stories. Proper fiction. I’ve read more than my fair share of fiction writing guides, so it was high time I actually tried to push out a real piece of work. Both activities have their own challenges: Writing a blog post needs a subject, writing fiction requires an imagination. I lack both, but my eleventh hour superpower is finding something to write or muse about, so that’s handy.

Writing non-literary fiction isn’t ‘hard’ in the sense that you have to brave the dark, cold world of authorship alone. It’s a well-trod path. There’s theories of story-craft already devised and waiting for you to apply them to your writing. Let’s go through, very quickly (because it’s far too late), the first three key structure points that your story has to hit before it can be considered sound:

1) The Opening, and Hook – In the first twenty or so pages of your novel, your protagonist must appear, and something exciting that entices the reader to keep reading. For instance, the introduction of a compelling setting that demands further attention (think The Fifth Element, Final Fantasy 7).
2) The Inciting Incident – The event that pushes the whole plot into motion. In The Lego Movie, this is when Emmet finds the Piece of Resistance, shifting his whole life from the usual ‘follow orders, tow the line’ ordinary to the dangerous, thrilling adventure that is the quest to keep the Piece from falling into the wrong hands.
3) The First Plot Point – The moment that everything changes, and that change defines the goal of the main characters. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo steps up and declares that he will bring the Ring to Mordor. Note that he had only previously agreed to take the ring to Rivendell. His resolve to continue the quest defines the First Plot Point, and drives the remainder of the story.

And then.. Well, that’s for another time. Indeed, the significance of each milestone is also currently a mystery to you, my reader. I recommend checking out Larry Brooks’ Storyfix website for more information while you wait!