Thursday, October 20, 2011

Programming for the Web

As a graduate student in the late 80s, I became one of the first beta test users of the Northwestern University email/Internet system.  (my email address was:   Things were different then.  The Internet consisted of just a few locations, delivered as plain text to terminals with a connection.  The only half-way interesting thing (the only thing, really) I can remember from those times were the newsgroups—forums where topics from sports, computers—especially computers-- and many other interests could be discussed.  Over the next few years, some of my friends at universities around the country obtained email and long-distance, almost instantaneous, email communication became possible.   Before long, the Internet went graphical.  It was quickly populated with thousands of commercial sites.  In fact, there was so little content of interest online, I dismissed it as just a big advertising venture.  It was easy to ignore.   A few yeas later, in the early 90s, I began a hobby of writing web sites using the HTML programming language.  I never did anything serious with this until 2005 when I created the University of Florida Saxophone Studio web site.  This site is based on a template provided by the university that I highly customized by editing the HTML code.  I continue to maintain this site by editing the HTML.
Since then, I’ve read a lot more on HTML, XHML, CSS, web design, information architecture, etc., and I've created a few more web sites:

► An individual account at UF which serves as an index to my various professional pursuits, and hosts some documents for the Executive Committee of the North American Saxophone Alliance.

► A site for my duo,  This site has proven very useful for marketing the duo for concerts and tours worldwide.  I created this site from a generic template for a two-column page layout. This took a bit more work than my earlier sites since this template was very basic and included no content or placeholders.

► The Onyx Saxophone Quartet site:  This was the first site I composed entirely from scratch.   I now see a lot of room for improvement here, but am not sure when I'll find the time to get back to it.  I spent a lot of time making the graphic buttons and header image.

► Recently, I created  This site was created on the Blogger Blog site using their content management system.  It is easy to set up, customize and run a blog at, but it took a lot of work to edit it so it looks and acts like a “normal” web site.

► I’ve also created a new site for the Duo at:  Another adapted blog site.

Original duo site.
New duo site.
Last week’s project was to re-create my personal site ( for use on another web server.  The blogger-based site is rather complicated.  It has all the code in one file and uses a number of convoluted if/then statements, javascript, etc. to display the different “pages.”  Plus, there’s all that blog code that I don’t need for my site.  The design is pretty straightforward, so I thought I could clone it by writing code from scratch.  After a bit more research and several hours of trial and error, I think I’ve succeeded.  Take a look at my clone site at:
The tricky parts were:
► The navigation buttons.  Emulating the look and function of those on the blogger site took some work.  I knew the basic CSS technique of creating navigation buttons from an unordered list, but getting everything to line up, getting the entire “button” to change colors when you hover the mouse over it, making the entire box clickable, hiding the dotted outline that appears around the link when you return to a page, making the borders look good, matching, colors, etc. all took some time.

►Aligning the CD images on the discography page with the associated text also took a few minutes to figure out. The text and the images all wanted to behave their own way.  A few CSS class designations later, and now it works great!

The rest of the design was pretty straightforward.  It was a good XHTML/CSS project.  I gained a much better understanding of how to position and format things with CSS, creating a clean, useful, and standards-based, web site.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why I love to practice

The other day I was anticipating my first practice session of the morning and contemplating the act of practicing.  How many times have you put off your practice?  “I’ll write just one more email” or “I’ll read one more chapter” or "Let's check Facebook one more time"….  We’ve probably all made excuses at one time or another. Now, however, I find that I really like to practice.  This transformation of attitude has come for me, I think, because I have become a very effective practicer.  I really can see improvement happen from day to day and I find this to be very exciting.

Some things I do:
- Slow, accurate practice.  I often tell my students to “never miss a note.”  If we are alwaysplaying the right notes, mistakes are much less prone to happen.
- Many, many repetitions.  I had a piano teacher once who told me that he never practiced anything up to tempo, because what we really need to do is to teach our fingers where to go; the speed will come naturally. I find that after a zillion repetitions my fingers just play the notes all by themselves.
- Stay relaxed. Tension is like static for the brain.  If we play with tension then the brain is busy sending signals all over the place when all you really need is to just move one finger down 37/100ths of an inch.  Relaxed practice really helps my fingers to remember what they've done so I need fewer repetitions to actually learn something.
- Practice small bits.  I always break difficult passages into small pieces, often as small as two- or three-notes long.  Smaller groups are easier to learn.  I often boast that I can play any two-note lick.  (And, of course, this is probably true for most anyone.)  Isn’t everything we play made up entirely of two-note fragments?  And practicing small bits helps me stay relaxed.

“There is nothing more precious to an instrumentalist than the ability to work efficiently -- to know how to accomplish the maximum in beneficial results while using the minimum of time to do so.”
–Ivan Galamian

Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) taught violin at the Curtis Institute and at the Julliard School during an American teaching career that spanned more than 40 years.  He was a teacher and mentor to many of the world's most celebrated violinists including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jamie Laredo, Dorothy Delay, and Glenn Dicterow (concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic). In his 1962 book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, Mr. Galamian describes three different kinds of practice:
1. Learning notes.  An essential, and rather self-evident, step with which we are all well acquainted. For many, this takes up the bulk of the practice day.  Great performing artists need to do more than just this type of practice.
2. Shaping the music.  This is a separate way of working on a piece where musical concerns take priority.  Maybe you miss a note, or have bad hand position at times, but during this type of practice the focus should be on shaping the phrases, refining the vibrato, working to be sure the music sings through your instrument. To some extent, this is a part of all of our practice.  However, consecrating more time solely to this pursuit may make the difference between becoming a good player or becoming a great player.
3. Practice performing.  Performing on stage in front of hundreds of people is quite a different experience from the woodshedding most of us do in the practice room. Regular time spent visualizing the concert experience and playing sections without stopping and with great energy and concentration helps to make the concert experience a bit less foreign.

Someone recently remarked that many young players put down their instruments because they are not happy with how they play. They went on to say that many of these people should really be the ones continuing in music because they have a critical ear and can tell that something needs work.  I would add that the trick is finding the way to improve. Good teachers, a discerning ear, and excellent practice habits are essential keys to making significant musical progress.