Friday, May 5, 2017

Dissertation IV

It took a long time to get a full committee together—apparently I set a record for most external examiners contacted—but I've finally defended my dissertation. Many thanks to the examining committee members:

Alan Henderson
Rob Simms
Louise Wrazen
Sherry Johnson
Pablo Idahosa, and
Ricardo Trimillos

Now, I originally had it in mind to simply add a direct download link on (and I may still do that), but for now, if you would like a copy of the dissertation, please write to:

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dissertation III

Well, I've finished. . . . Actually, I've been finished for a month or two now—I submitted a completed draft to my supervisor (who gave me prompt feedback), and it's currently in the hands of the other committee members. They assure me that they'll be done within a week or two. Thereupon, two external examiners will be contacted. After a few weeks a defense is scheduled, I defend, and then there'll be some period of administrative processing . . . AND THEN I should be able to make it available through I'm looking forward to that. I address a lot of the pedagogical questions that have been considered in this blog. (I also address those that have come up through contact with people I've met through the site.) I'm hopeful it will be a useful document for bala students. Other people too, but bala students especially.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dissertation II

Blammo. Chapter 5 . . . in the can.

Ha ha . . . Je progresse.

Tomorrow Chapter 6 begins in earnest, although again, a good chunk of that work is already done. I anticipate Chapter 6 having around five subsections, two of which are all but finished. After tomorrow I should have a much clearer sense of how much work still lies before me. But I'm already walking a little bit lighter.

May the fourth be with you.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Dissertation I

Hey, what happened here? I missed 2015 entirely. Hm, I'm sorry about that. It's just . . . I've been putting priority on dissertation work and the progress there has been frustratingly inchmeal. But there are new signs of hope. I've just completed Chapter 4 (of 7.) Yaaay! In an effort to further motivate the completion of subsequent chapters, I've decided that as each of the remaining three chapters is finished, I'll blog about it.

Now, at one point in its history, this blog was "co-opted" for several months by website updates. If I now use the blog as a forum for making dissertation progress reports, am I not repeating that "co-opting," and isn't that a no-no? I don't think so; I think this is different. The stated purpose of this blog has always been to "document my observations, insights, and progress as I attempt to troubleshoot my practice approach and hopefully, learn to play the Mande bala." Well, the thing is, the dissertation is one part of that process (1), albeit a massive, protracted, and not surprisingly, a time-consuming one. So, dissertation progress reports are, I would argue, very different from website updates (2), and indeed, appropriate fodder for blog posts.

One thing that I've learned in preparing this dissertation is that I am terrible, horrible, no good, very bad at estimating the time that it will take to complete sections and/or chapters. So at this point I dare not even venture to say how long it might be until I can blog about a completed Chapter 5, but I can let readers know that as I was clawing through Chapter 4, I would occasionally side-step to fill in bits of the remaining three chapters. As such, several of the sections for those chapters are already finished. Also, I'm in a good work rhythm now, spending at least five, but usually more than six hours a day in the graduate study room at the Scott library, plus time at home working on multimedia elements and transcribing. What's more, the main stumbling block to progress has (I think) been a lack of clarity of just what I am trying to say in the dissertation, or at least, a lack of understanding of how to frame everything that I'm aiming to say in the context of a dissertation. But the more work that gets done now, the clearer it all becomes. I may still not be at 100% clarity, but I think the days of "I don't even know what the hell I'm trying to say!" are over.

So, fingers crossed, and with a little bit of luck, I'll write again soon.

1. Just how the dissertation is part of the process will become clear to readers once it is finished and has been published on Until such time, you'll just have to take my word that it is.

2. Website updates, by the way, are still being done and are still found under the updates tab on

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monthly Practice Report (November, 2014)

Recalling one post from 2009 (The Third "M"), and another from 2012 (One Twenty-Minute Interval at a Time), here is my November (2014) practice report:

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to clarify a few things about the way that I record my twenty-minute intervals. First, I keep a countdown timer beside my bala. (I picked this one up for around $8 at a local electronics store.)

I set the timer for 20 minutes and when I’m ready to begin practicing, I press the start button. Then I do my best to "tune it out" entirely. Now, practicing for me means that I need to be at my instrument. I can be playing, working things out, experimenting with technique, doing exercises, learning a new phrase, etc., but if I have to get up for any reason, I pause the timer. This means that I do not count transcription-making, video-watching, studying transcriptions that others have made, checking audio recordings, nor focused listening as "practice." All of these activities are of course necessary and they certainly contribute to my growth and development as a musician and as a bala player, but the only practice time I record is when I am physically at the instrument, tapping keys.

I do count practice time with others, however, but because I have much less control over tempo and because I can’t readily stop the music to isolate a part and then error-correct, I only count it at half of it’s actual value. (So, for instance, if Stan comes over and we go through material for two hours, I’ll fill in only three little boxes. Same goes for rehearsals with Katenen’s group.)

As best I can, I try to prepare myself to stay at the bala for at least twenty minutes at a time. I feel that my practicing is more effective this way than if I were to, for instance, record two minutes, pause, go do some cooking, record two more minutes, pause, go to the washroom, etc. (I will do it that way if I have to—I do feel that "a couple of minutes here, a couple of minutes there" is helpful—but I prefer to work in more substantial blocks.)

Every month I print a new practice sheet. (And these days, I post it on the door of my apartment so that anyone who comes over can, at a glance, see how consistent I’ve been.) But I allow myself to "backfill" up to the beginning of the month. This means that if don’t manage to practice very much on a given day, I can catch up at some later date—up to the end of the month. My current goal (even though there are three hours on the sheet) is to practice for at least two hours every day. If I practice for more than two hours (i.e., more than six boxes) on a given day, then I can fill any box that I had previously left empty—again, up to the beginning of the month. However, I can’t fill "forward." If I have filled in all nine boxes for all the days from the beginning of the month, then if one day I practice for more than three hours, I simply stop recording. It's rare, but it has happened.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Low Arc

This is my current keyword list. It's a 3x5 card that I have taped to the wall across from where I practice. In this post, I'd like to address the first keyword: low arc.

Any one mallet-head, moving between any two keys, makes an "arc" through space. And the height of that arc is important.

In the image above (and you can click on it to see a larger version), I have moved my left hand "down" (1) a sixth; that is, first I struck A2 and then I struck C1. (Play example.) The arc of my mallet-head could have followed the red, yellow, or green lines (or some other path through space.) As any of my friends will tell you (since I all too frequently whine to them about it), my left hand has been a thorn in my side for years. Well, lately I've been letting my focus drift more frequently to my LH's arc. And I've been noticing that by simply paying the arc some attention, other aspects of my LH's deficiencies are beginning to fall into place (cf. Feldenkrais; awareness.)

Sory Diabate has superlative technique. Just look at how low he keeps his LH. The height of the arc, of course, relates inextricably to the height of the . . . whatever that's called: the lift, the recoil, the upstroke, and I've heard of snare drum teachers having students play under tables, so that they are forced to control their upstroke—and in so doing, they learn to generate power in their attack, without needing to lift their sticks up above their heads. I described this to Sory once and he thought it was a great idea; we even implemented it for a while. In fact, come to think of it, I've found that in high-tempo music, for movements of a sixth or greater, trying to follow a yellow or a red arc can be downright impossible. If one of the goals in instrument technique generally, is economy of motion, obviously the green arc is the way to go. Anyway, all I'm saying is, insofar as technique is concerned, lately I've been aiming for a low arc. It's something I'm paying attention to, and that attention is doing some good.

1. In the conception of some—though not all—bala- (and other West African xylophone-) players, A2-C1 would actually be an "upward" movement since for those players, the terms "low" and "high," and "up" and "down" refer not to pitch, but to the physical characteristics of the instrument. On that conception, the lower-pitched notes are called "high" notes because they are physically higher up on the trapezoidal keyboard. Here, I am referring to a movement from the higher-pitched A2 to the lower-pitched C1, so for me, that's a "downward" movement.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Back on Track

This blog was always meant to be "an interactive, public document of my developing thoughts on skills acquisition, pedagogy, and practice," but for the past year and a half, its only purpose has been to record updates. Well, it's time for the blog to become a blog again. No, I don't have a new post ready. But I have added a new section to the site that will replace the blog as an update announcement tool. Henceforth, the blog will be for blogging, and site development will be documented in the update log. (I've already migrated all of the " Update" blog posts to that section and deleted the posts from here.)

So . . . anytime you'd like to see "what's new" on, you can just pop in to the updates section. And with the blog space opened up again, hopefully—dissertation priorities notwithstanding—I'll get back to making the occasional post.