Some Trinkets From The What-Not Shop

Do you know how it feels to possess a few valuable trinkets, but with no ready-made place to put them? I’d like to relieve myself of some of these, related on point to no particular larger topic, but much too useful to leave in a drawer somewhere. For the moment, let’s look at three:

A number of years ago, I found myself killing time late one night in the lounge of the Four Queens in Las Vegas. It was my night off from my showroom gig at the Tropicana (remember live music in the showrooms back then?) and I was there to hear Carl Fontana and his band playing some real music, after hours. When the gig was over, out of boredom I got involved watching the sound man tear down the stage, as he seemed to have a too-elaborate method for coiling up mike cables. Then it hit me. By going back and forth with the orientation and twist of each loop, he was managing to create a large coil which, when extended, would have no accumulated twist of the cable at all. We’ve all seen coiled garden hoses which, when pulled across the yard, became kinked from all the accumulated twisting. This is a result of repetitively (and instinctively) looping the hose in the same direction when being coiled.

When it comes to delicate and expensive quality studio cables, any excess twisting isn’t just annoying; it’s damaging. Therefore, enlightened assistant engineers get in the habit of gathering and coiling them so as to eliminate any accumulated kink. You know the simple thumb-and-forefinger twist you use to make a loop? Unconsciously, that simple maneuver, when repeated down the entire length of cable is what yields a “Slinky”-toy-esque twisted monster the next time you stretch it out, and its avoidance is simple: use the same finger/thumb twist, but go in the opposite direction on every other loop. Try it. Logically, every twist you use to make successive loops adds to the overall kink, and each opposite-direction twist attenuates it. Next time you stretch out your cable, extension cord, rope, wire, or string, you will have a straight, unkinked, and unstressed (read longer-lasting) line.

The second tip involves counting measures, either of rests (for a player) or music (for a score-follower.) Out of sheer programming, we all count in the decimal system, or base-10 (you know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, … 9, 10, 11…) As a backup, we use our fingers to allow our conscious minds to process other things while we are counting (visual cues, checking key signatures, looking ahead in the music for significant events, etc.) However, our natural shortage of digits limits us to 10 measures and then we start over. Wouldn’t it be nice to triple that capacity and without surgery?

Have we ever considered counting in base-five? Thinking outside the box, it’s simple. You still use your fingers, and still think in base-ten, but your fingers work in base-five. Place your hands over the table in front of you (or your lap, or on portions of your cradled instrument, etc.) palms down with fingers spread and labeled as: left hand thumb (L1), left hand forefinger (L2), left hand middle finger (L3), etc., all the way through right hand pinky (R5.) Using your right hand for increments of one and your left for increments of five, you can turn your two hands into a base-five abacus, counting to thirty by various combinations of fingers up or down. For 1-5, you would count 1 (RT), 2 (R1R2), 3 (R1R2R3), 4 (R1R2R3R4), and 5 (R1R2R3R4R5.) For 6-10, hold down your left thumb (L1) while going through the previous sequence L1R1, L1R1R2, L1R1R2R3, L1R1R2R3R4, and L1R1R2R3R4R5. Do you see the pattern? Using this method of counting digitally (pun intended) you can count all the way to 30 without involving your conscious mind. With practice, you can instantly tell by feel what the count is at any moment. When you hit 30 (all digits down), you can start over again for higher counts, and keeping stock of groups of thirty is much easier than groups of ten…

The final tip involves pulling rough tempos out of thin air, on the spot, and even while distracted by other music, a godsend for accompanists, players, and conductors (especially so for the latter when jumping between cues and parts of cues on the fly during a hectic session without resetting the click.)

While learning to read words, you probably moved your lips. Though discouraged at the time, it’s what makes this technique work. To purely mechanically pull 120 beats per minute (BPM) out of thin air, simply count silently (but with your lips moving) to four, repetitively and as fast as you can. Each “one” is a beat. Enunciate clearly, as mumbling may let you go artificially too fast and throw off your tempo. For 105 BPM, count to five. For 90 BPM, count to six. For 75, seven and for 60, eight. If your target tempo falls outside of these benchmark numbers, shave your execution a little faster or slower from the closest one. If you know the music at all, this can serve as a useful mnemonic and, if you don’t, it should still let you hit the ground running. This technique helped me learn relatively quickly and conduct performances of one of Mozart’s most challenging operas, “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Seemingly trivial bits of utility? You bet, but put ’em to use and they bloom like roses.


  • casperjarrett
    April 24, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    Thanks. One of the most useful columns in this “magazine.” If only all articles were as useful.

  • Michael
    May 11, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Good article. But in reference to the counting of empty bars, I’ve done a fair bit of orchestral playing and I think it’s best to just know the music and to play when you are supposed to come in. That way, you don’t have to count, and you can just enjoy the music (and your burger and fries if you are a trombone player).

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