Pop Music and Vocal Range

This morning while walking the kids to school, I had Simon & Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York” running through my head and, since I have no filter between them, out of my mouth. As I reached for the low note at the end of a phrase, it occurred to me that the range of the song’s melody — an octave and a perfect fourth — seemed unusually large. That got me to thinking about vocal range in pop music and wondering whether Paul Simon is more ambitious than most in that regard.

While mulling this over and considering various examples, I decided it would be fun to enlist my musical friends to see what the most extreme examples of melodic range — both large and small — we could think of in popular music are. So, musical friends, let’s play! Here are the rules:

  1. Your entry can include a maximum range song and a minimum range song. (Figuring out the range is helpful, but not strictly required.)
  2. You can’t repeat a song someone else has already mentioned in the comment thread already.
  3. The song must be common enough that most people would have heard it. Thus, either major record labels or something with a comparable degree of exposure.
  4. Note to especially talented friends, and corollary to rule #3: you may not write a song just for this purpose.
  5. Multiple entries are encouraged.

I’ll throw my hat in the ring with an initial entry that should be easy to beat:

  • Large Range: Only Living Boy in New York, Simon & Garfunkel — an octave and a perfect fourth
  • Small Range: Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry — a perfect fifth

In order to make this a bit more interesting, I’ll buy the winner their album of choice in digital format. The winner will be determined entirely by me, and my decision is final. Anyone who disputes it will be beset by my army of trained flying monkeys.

The Man Who Makes Sing…Awesome

A couple weeks ago, Kathy and I went up to Baylor University in Waco for their annual Sing event, a four-hour long song and dance revue. The show was, as always, terrific. The best part for me, however, is the post-performance debrief with my friends Jason Young and Barry Brake, who are integral parts of the event, having long been key figures in selecting, arranging, and performing (in the pit band) the music that makes up the show. This year, the Baylor newspaper published an excellent article on Jason that captures nicely what a labor of love the show is for him. (They did omit the fact that he also builds a number of large-scale props for the various acts.)

It’s great to see these guys doing something they so clearly love, and to be able to so directly enjoy the fruits of their labors.

UPDATE: for those of you wondering about Sing, here’s a good overview of this year’s acts and a nice photo gallery.

New Gig: O’Malarkey

The Patio Boys, the band with which I’ve been playing for several years, has gone on hiatus for the moment, leaving a big eighth-note shaped hole in my life. I have, however, been sitting in on an Irish Session at a nearby coffee shop for a couple of months, which has led to an invitation to join up with O’Malarkey, a local group that I’ve enjoyed listening to for a number of years.

O’Malarkey focuses on Irish music and plays various places around the San Marcos/Austin/Wimberley area. The shows are high-energy and a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to get to be a part of the musical goings-on. In order to make it easy for folks to keep up with the band, I’ve registered www.omalarkey.com and pointed it to a Facebook page I’ve created. (I plan to get something more comprehensive up eventually, but this seemed a good start.)

Here are a few of the upcoming public shows. Stop on by for one (or all)!

  • San Marcos Public Library, March 10, 7:00pm-8:00pm
  • St. Patrick’s Day Concert & Potluck, 7A Resort, Wimberley, March 14, 7:00pm-9:00pm (times tentative)
  • Fiddler’s Hearth, Austin, April 4, 9:00pm-11:00pm (I won’t be able to be at this one, as the family already had plans for that night. I hope we play there again, as it looks like a great venue.)

The African Children’s Choir

Last night, Kathy and I took the kiddos to see a performance of the African Children’s Choir. As a big fan of African choral music, I was really excited to get to hear this group, even though I didn’t know much more about them than their name. I was not disappointed.

The 30-strong choir, made up of kids aged seven to eleven years, charged enthusiastically on to the stage amid drumming, whoops and ululations, tearing right into a number of well-choreographed songs. The musical arrangements were straightforward, but the kids’ enthusiasm, dancing and excellent singing made for an absolutely terrific time.

It turns out the Choir isn’t primarily about these performances, but is in fact a Christian aid organization which uses the musical tours to raise funds for their work back in Africa. Most of the children performing had lost one or both parents to war or disease and were terribly vulnerable before the African Children’s Choir took them in. While the choir we saw was comparatively small, there are hundreds of kids in Uganda,  Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa that the organization supports and cares for.

Midway through the program, each of the children said hello to the crowd and said a little about what he or she wanted to be on reaching adulthood. Aspirations ranged from bus driver to singer to President (a goal that got a predictably warm response from the crowd a day after President Obama’s inauguration). This recitation of dreams was especially poignant given that for most, simply living to adulthood would have been unexpected if it weren’t for the work of the choir. (We compared notes among our group afterward, and there was barely a dry eye during this section of the program.)

The Choir received three standing ovations by the time they wrapped up for the evening with one of the more rousing renderings of “This Little Light of Mine” that I’ve ever heard. So go see them if you can (they’re bouncing between San Antonio and Austin for the next few days), or support them in some other way. You won’t regret it.

Aging Kids on the Block

This morning, the iTunes store brought me the news that New Kids on the Block have a new album coming out. I was surprised to hear that they were still around, so clicked on through. To my horror, I found that while they now look like 37 year old chain smokers, they are still singing the same preadolescent, overengineered bubblegum pop. I mentioned the album to Jimmy, one of my coworkers, and he suggested that we should help them out by coming up with some new song titles better suited to their current station in life. A few moment’s brainstorming yielded the following titles:

  • “Girl, Can I Light Your Cigarette?”
  • “Your Biological Clock is Ticking”
  • “I’ve Got Some Candy in my Pocket”
  • “You Can’t Go Back to Middle School”
  • “(I’ve Got The) Peter Pan Syndrome”
  • “Sugar Daddy”
  • “Let Me Love You ’til My Hip Gives Out”

Want to play along? Post your own in the comments! You could win a copy of our home game just for posting! (Disclaimer: that was a lie.) And New Kids? Feel free to use any of these you like.

What My Friends Are Up To

One of the best things about being me is that I’m blessed with some amazing, creative, interesting friends. Here are a few things that they’ve been up to lately:

  • David Barnard has started an iPhone software company called AppCubby, and has just released their first product, TripCubby, the sine qua non of mileage tracking for the iPhone. David has worked extraordinarily hard to get this venture off the ground, and that effort shows in the quality of the work that AppCubby is doing. (I’m also excited about this because I did some of the copy writing for David — one of my first professional jobs writing prose instead of software.)
  • Misty Jones has released a song called Gasoline on iTunes. Misty’s musicianship has impressed me all the way back to high school, and I really dig this latest effort. You can check out 30 seconds for free, or get the whole thing (DRM-free, even!) for a mere $0.99. She plans to finish out the album on which this song will go soon.
  • Ross Richie continues to helm Boom Studios, an increasingly successful comic book publishing venture. One of their bolder efforts of late has been releasing some of their books for free viewing online. They’ve recently added RSS feeds, which makes it super-easy to follow the books as they’re released page-by-page. There’s some very high-quality work in their stable, so if you’re in to the medium at all, go check their stuff out!


“I’ve been one poor correspondent, I’ve been too too hard to find…”

Sorry about the scant posting of late, my little chickadees. Lots of life going on, and the A Photo A Day project was sucking up a bit of time in February, even though I didn’t manage to totally complete the challenge I set myself.

Here are a few of the things that have been going on:

  • I accidentally found myself at the Barack Obama rally when he was in town. (Was at a recital with friends, and they decided to stop by on the way home.) Excellent speaker, and I like a lot of his policy ideas. I’m not yet sure how he plans to fund all of those potentially expensive ideas, but generally like what I’ve seen of him thus far.
  • Went to Baylor’s All-University Sing, for which Jason Young did the music for 14 of the 16 acts this year and where Barry Brake played in the pit band. It was, as always, a great show, and a wonderful time to hang out at Taco Cabana afterward, talking about the various acts and causing mischief with a liberated chunk of dry ice. (We didn’t manage to get kicked out this year, though.)
  • Played a fun show at Cheatham Street last weekend. My favorite part was when, without warning, a guy who none of us had ever seen before leaped onto the stage with a trumpet in the middle of a song and played a scorching solo. It turned out that his name was Robert Ortiz, and he was so good we had him up for another song! I love the unpredictability of live shows — one gets to see some great stuff at times. (I once saw a 5 foot nothing female bartender chase several inebriated bikers out of a bar because they were being so noisy that other patrons couldn’t hear the music.)
  • Enjoyed a thoroughly delightful birthday lunch with much of the nearby extended family on Saturday. It was great to get to catch up with some of these dear people with whom we don’t get to visit as often as we’d like.

Two Heroes

Two people that I have found myself looking up to lately:

  • There’s an 91 year old woman who volunteers at the Hays County Food Bank. While I will likely consider it a fairly major accomplishment to keep my nose hair well groomed and those darn kids off my lawn when I’m that age, she’s out there mixing it up with college-aged volunteers, schlepping around 30 pound boxes of food with the best of them. I am in awe of this beautiful, leathery lady.
  • Yahoo posted a piece on Jonathan Coulton, who quit his job as a software engineer at age 36 to write and perform music. I already loved his songs, and now I love his story, though I’d best be careful not to read too many articles of this sort lest I be tempted to go do something downright irresponsible. Be sure to catch the video.

Thanks for the inspiration, folks.

Guitar Rising

This is super-cool. The lads at GameTank recently unveiled Guitar Rising, an upcoming game for Mac and PC that’s modeled on Guitar Hero’s gameplay, but which requires you to play actually guitar parts on a real guitar. You’ll be able to use the guitar of your choice, as long as it has a pickup or a microphone that can be plugged in to the audio inputs on your computer.

I’m frankly surprised that someone hasn’t done this for keyboards first, since the MIDI interface most modern keyboards use makes it easy to detect what notes people are actually playing. With guitars, one has to have the computer process the incoming audio signal and figure out what note is being played, a prospect made even dicier when one introduces polyphony and/or the sorts of effects that make a rock guitar sound like a rock guitar.

However, judging by the warm reception Guitar Rising has received, they’ve got a decent handle on the technical challenges, and are working on licensing a bunch of music to have available in the first release of the game later this year. Should be fun, and a great way to improve your guitar chops.

Detroit Barristry City

The Romantics are suing the makers of Guitar Hero for the use of their classic What I Like About You. The game makers properly procured legal rights to do a cover of the song, so what’s the band’s beef?

They’re upset that the cover band that performed the song was too good, and sounded too much like the original. Yep, you read it right. They’re cheesed because the cover band, which was hired to sound like them, did their job well.

To me, this smells like a bunch of opportunists trying to cash in on someone else’s success. Due props to The Romantics and their musical accomplishments, but I hope the judge gives them a smackdown they will not soon forget on this one. Ridiculous.