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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Movin' Over To Wordpress

Well, I finally got with the times and set up one of those Wordpress blogs all the kids have been talking about. I'm going to keep this blog up for anyone who wants to view my old posts, but for the latest and greatest, head over to

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Things To Do When You Have A Creative Block

Here are a list of things that may help "unblock" you if you have a creative block.

1. Actually Take A Minute (or 10) To Think About Your Problem Carefully
When we're in a panic, we want solutions to come right away, and we get anxious when they don't.  We think very quickly, but only going around in circles, getting nowhere. Slow down and actually think the problem through clearly. Clearly define the problem in your head - perhaps write it down. Consider (and perhaps write down) any important details or hunches you may have. Make a list of plausible solutions. If you can't think of any plausible solutions, make a list of implausible solutions. There's always something.

2. Talk It Through With Someone Else
Beyond the fact that a different person will offer a fresh perspective, this is another way of accomplishing (1).

3. Go For A Walk, or Get Some Exercise
Bring a notepad and pen with you.

4. Let Yourself Play
Forget about whatever anxieties you have around this creative act. That's all silliness. Embrace John Cage's sixth rule: "Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail, there's only make." Just make some stuff, and have fun! Have a sense of humor about it. Perhaps allow yourself a designated amount of time to play with any idea that comes to you. Even if what you're creating doesn't end up being used in your final product, it will get you in a creative mode, and it will help you explore your problem and work with the materials involved.

5. Watch This Video Of John Cleese Talking About Creativity
It's great. Or this TED talk. Or, (less so, in my opinion) this TED talk. Actually, here is a list of 10 TED talks about creativity.

6. Have Some Faith In Your Unconscious Mind
When we're stressed, we want to control everything and know all the answers, but our unconscious mind can only start working on a problem when we allow ourselves to relax, and learn to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing.  Keep your mind gently around the problem, but don't push or strain. If you can, sleep on it or allow the problem to mull around in the back of your mind for several days.

7. Leave a Record
As you come up with ideas, record them in some way - perhaps by jotting them down in a notebook - even if they seem like bad or unhelpful ideas.  This helps in a lot of ways: it slows down and helps you work through your thinking process; it makes you feel like you're doing something; and it the ideas may end up being useful at some point down the road, often in unexpected ways.

8. Just Get To Work
I once asked Dave Holland how to overcome composer's block. He told me "Just get to work." If we're honest with ourselves, a creative block is often not actually about not having any ideas - it's about procrastination. If you have an idea that works, and nothing else is coming to you, go with that idea and get 'er done.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Have Your Voice Heard in The Spectrum Concert "What Is Toronto"!

I'm producing a concert for Spectrum Music which will take place April 5th, 2013 at the Al Green Theatre at Bloor and Spadina. Rntitled "What is Toronto?", it will explore Toronto's identity through music.  Check out my post on the Spectrum Music Blog for more info.

But, I need your help!  Here's an excerpt from my post to the Spectrum Music Blog
I need Torontonians to send me recordings of themselves talking about their feelings about Toronto, in their mother tongues.   A few sentences is fine; non-English languages are preferred, but I’ll take English speakers too!  As long as there isn’t too much background noise, it doesn’t have to be super high-quality.  You could record it on your laptop or smartphone.  Or, send me a message, and we can arrange to meet up so that I can record it on my portable recording device. Send your recordings to, and then don’t forget to come to the Al Green Theatre at 7:30pm on April 5th to hear your voice as part of a new work of art!

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gigging With Car2Go

Car2Go is a new kind of car-sharing program that just arrived in Toronto.  The idea is that there are hundreds of SmartCars parked in city-operated parking lots all over Toronto.  Pressing your membership card to a sensor on the windshield of any car will unlock the vehicle, allowing you to rent it for 38 cents/minute, $13.99/hour, or $72.99/day (plus tax) - the longer you drive, the better value you get. The unique thing about Car2Go (as opposed to ZipCar or AutoShare) is that you don't have to return the car to the spot you picked it up from - you can leave it in any municipal parking lot.  This makes it economical for me to take a Car2Go to a gig, park it in a nearby municipal lot, and not be charged for renting the car while I'm playing. (You might think it would be a worry that someone would drive the car away during the gig and I'd have no way of getting home, but in practice there has always be a surplus of nearby Car2Gos to choose from.)

But Can You Actually Fit A Double Bass and An Amp In A SmartCar?

Usually, yes! I think most basses would probably fit in very easily, as in this video.  Unfortunately my bass is a bit bigger then most, so I discovered it was very awkward to fit into a SmartCar - I had to put it in diagonally, with the driver's seat way forward, which made it very uncomfortable and probably unsafe to drive.  But did I let that stop me? Never! I decided that I would have my bass' scroll modified so that it was removable.  I figured that if the bass was just a bit shorter, I wouldn't have to put it diagonally, and everything would fit in much more comfortably and easily.

Off With Its Head!

Inexplicably, when I called some local string-instrument repair shops to ask them how much it would cost to modify my scroll so that it was removable, they seemed to think I was crazy!  One shop in particular actually seemed angry with me that I would even consider chopping up an instrument like that.  Undiscouraged, I found a luthier on the Danforth named Philip Davis who was willing to do the modification. We copied the design of the David Gage Czech-Ease, using a super-strong "rare-earth" magnet and three wooden dowels to connect the scroll to the bass.

Bass side

Scroll side

From even a few feet away, it is almost impossible to notice that the scroll has been modified.

You have to get fairly close before you can notice the cut line.
Crazy Am I? Crazy Like A Fox!!

It took Philip a few days to do the modification and if was fairly inexpensive. It looks great, and I'm happy to say the bass sounds just as good as it did before the scroll was modified. But does the bass now easily fit in to a SmartCar? Why yes, yes it does!

I can now easily fit both my bass and amp into a Car2Go SmartCar.

I even have a reasonably good view of the right side-view mirror while driving.
Shoulder checking might be a bit of a problem... I'll try to be careful!!
Don't forget I still have the option of using the trailer that I made to pull behind my bike.  I feel like I'm really breaking ground in environmentally friendly double-bass transportation! I'll only use Car2Go when there is bad weather, or the gig is really far away and/or uphill.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

How To Convert Two Images Into One PDF

After my Going Paperless - Reading Music Off A Computer post, I've had some request for a more detailed explination of how to create PDFs. This tutorial will assume that you are using Windows 7 and have installed the free Nitro PDF Reader. This example is going to involve combining two image files, but more or less the same approach would work with any program that has the option to print, such as Sibelius or Finale.

Okay, so let's say I have scanned a two-page chart, creating two separate image files. I want to convert these two seperate files into a single two-page PDF file so that I can read the music easily on my computer. Here is how I do it.  For this example, I will be combining two pages of a chart called "Airport Ghost".

Since there are some unnecessarily margins around the images I want to use, I need to crop that out so that the music will be as large as possible on my computer screen.  If your images do not have any unnecessary margins, or if you already cropped out the margins when you scanned them, you can skip these steps.

Steps to crop unnecessary margins:

Step 1. Right click on the first image and select Open with/Paint

Step 2. Hit Ctrl-PgDn until you can see the entire image. (Ctrl-PgDn is the shortkey for zooming out.)
Step 3. Click on select and select only the neccesairy part of the image.

Step 4. Hit Ctrl-Shift-X which will crop the file to only what you selected.
Step 5. Hit Ctrl-S, which will save the file. Exit Paint.
Repeat steps 1-5 for each image with unneccesairy white space around its border.

Steps to make two images into a single PDF:

Step 1. Find the file for the first page. Right click on it and select Open with/Windows Photo Viewer.

Step 2. Hit Ctrl-P. This will bring up the print window. Set the printer to "Nitro PDF Creator 2 (Reader)" and make sure "Fit Picture to frame" is not chceked, but "Full page photo" is selected.  If you are planning on viewing the PDF on a 10.1" screen (such as an Acer Aspire One netbook) then you will want to set the page size to "legal" so that it matches the aspect ratio of the screen better.

Step 3. Click "Print"
Step 4. The "Create PDF" window will appear. Choose a directory and File name for your PDF. In this example I am going to make a PDF called "Airport Ghost - Concert.pdf". Click on "Create".

Step 5. Nitro Reader will automatically open, showing the PDF you just created. Close this window (very important).
Step 6. Repeat steps 1-3 for the next page.
Step 7. When the "Create PDF" window will appears, double click on the file you created in step 4. A dialogue box will appear warning you that the file already exists, and asking you if you want to Append, Overwrite, or Cancel. Choose Append.
Step 8. Nitro PDF will open showing the image files have now been converted into a single PDF file. If you want to add more pages, close Nitro PDF and repeat steps 6 and 7 as needed for additional pages.

Update: A friend has informed me that this whole process is simpler on a Mac:
To join two or more pdf files together using Preview (the standard pdf viewer in OS X) simply open the first pdf file in preview, open the thumbnail view (Shift-⌘-D), and then drag a second pdf file ON TOP OF an existing page  thumbnail. The two documents will merge into one. A little grey double border appears indicating the documents will be merged. Then save the new combined file. Read on for step-by-step instructions. 

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going Paperless - Reading Music Off A Computer

You may have read my earlier post where I detailed how I constructed a trailer to transport my double bass and amp via bicycle.  Now I'm continuing this geeky green revolution by moving away from printed music, towards reading music off of my laptop. In this post I'm going to explain some of the technical side of how to do that, and discuss the pros and cons of going paperless.


The first question is what you are going to read off of.  I was originally considering purchasing a tablet computer such as an Android tablet, a tablet PC, or an iPad (probably the most desirable option).  The lure of a tablet computer would be that they lie flat, they have touch-sensitive screens (making it easy to make notes during rehearsals), and they are generally very portable.  However, once I realized that I could just turn my little "notebook" computer that I already owned sideways, I decided that worked fine and it wasn't worth it to me to purchase a tablet computer. (Incidentally, these "notebooks" are really cheap. Mine is an Acer "Aspire One" which is currently selling at FutureShop for $269.)

One important tip: be sure to modify your power settings so that your computer doesn't go to "sleep" during your performances. While I was at it, I also edited some of the advanced power settings to make my computer work better as a music reader.  This screenshot shows how to do that on my netbook with Windows 7 Starter (sorry Mac people, everything that follows about software is going to be pretty Windows-centered):

The next piece of hardware I needed was a foot-pedal to allow me to turn pages.  I found three on the market: the AirTurn ($129), the PageFlip ($79.95), and the Foot Page Turner ($59).  They all seem like they would work fine.  The Foot Page Turner works via USB and I'm unsure if it would work with iPads or Android tablets. The AirTurn and the PageFlip both work via Bluetooth. The Pageflip comes with a USB Bluetooth antenna in case you want to use it with a computer that does not have Bluetooth (such as my Aspire One). I decided to go with the PageFlip. It is working fine so far. It seems a little on the flimsy side; I'm concerned that it could break after a year or so if I'm not careful with it. Also, it isn't 100% silent; in extremely quiet passages in very intimate settings, the audience might hear it (the AirTurn advertises that it is totally silent). The bluetooth takes a bit of fiddling around with at first to get it working, but I think it is worth it to avoid having unsightly wires going from the pedal to the computer. I haven't had any problems with the connection since I got it working. All in all, I'm pretty happy with my purchase. All these pedals are available from Kelly's Music, which has a Canadian shipping center in Mississauga. My pedal arrived in two days. Here is what my whole set up looks like:

Software - Viewing The Music

The next question was what software I was going to use to view the music with.  There is a program specifically designed for reading music on your computer - MusicReader ($59). It has some cool features, but I didn't go for it. My main complaint is that MusicReader wouldn't allow me to rotate the screen (this wouldn't be a problem on tablet-style computers that have screen rotation built in). Instead I found a free solution the: Nitro PDF Reader.  One tip with it: if you are going to load a full set of music at a time, it is good to use shorter file names, so that they can all fit in Nitro's sidebar while in full screen mode, making it easy to switch from one song to the next.  Here's a screen shot from my recent gig with Circles:

Nitro reader allows me not only to view PDF files, but also to easily make notes on them if I need to, for example in a rehearsal. Nitro also has "QuickSign" feature designed to allow you to stamp an image of your signature on to legal documents. I hijacked this feature to allow me to easily add musical symbols if need be. All I did was import a collection of images of musical symbols as "signatures".  Click here to download a zip file containing the images I used.

Software - Formatting the Music For Reading On Computer

Finally, I had to think about how to prepare some music to be read on computer.  How this is done depends on what the source of the music is - a program such as Sibelius, an existing PDF on my computer, or a physical piece of sheet music I need to scan.

Using a program such as Sibelius

One of the drawbacks of using my particular notebook was that the aspect ratio of the screen (my notbook has a 10.1" screen) doesn't match closely with a standard 8.5x11 sheet of paper (I think the iPad screen dimensions would be better in this way). So, to take best advantage of my screen, in Sibelius I go to "Document Setup" (under the Layout menu) and change the paper size to "Legal (8.5x14")". While I'm there I also set all the margins to 3, except for the left margin, which can be zero. I also make sure the staff size is at least 7. Here is a screen shot showing this:

Before I print it, I also set the chord symbols to at least size 15. (Easy to do by simply clicking Edit->Filter->Chord Symbols.)  Sometimes I may also check for repeats that cross pages and reformat the layout accordingly. When you are reading music off of a computer, page turns stop being a problem, but repeats across pages become a drag, because then you have to keep flipping back and then forward again.

Then, I just click print and set the printer to "Nitro PDF Creator 2 (Reader)". This "PDF printer" came along automatically with the Nitro PDF Reader when I installed it (see above under "Software - viewing the music"). Be sure to click on the "Properties..." box next to the printer name and then click on the "Pages" tab, and set the "Page size" to "Legal".

Formatting a file that is already a PDF

I can read any old PDF file on my notebook, but I sometimes want to remove the margins, which makes the music bigger and thus easier to read on my screen. I found a handy free app to do this with called PDFill Free PDF Tools. Just use the crop function to remove the margins. This tool also allows me to rotate the PDFs, which saves me having to do that each time I load them into Nitro PDF to read them.

Scanning music into the computer

When I'm scanning the files, I'm careful to crop out all the margins. I also may change the settings to increase the contrast a bit to make it easier to read. Then, take each resulting image file, and print it using the Nitro PDF Creator 2 PDF printer using the process mentioned above for Sibelius (again, in my case, I'm sure to set the paper size to legal to match my screen dimensions). In order to incorporate several image files in to one PDF (such as with a multi-page chart), just "print" to the same file name again for each additional page. You will be prompted to append, overwrite, or cancel. Select "append" to make the image you are currently printing the next page of that PDF file. (Note: some scanners come with software that allows you to scan multiple pages into a single PDF file all it one step.)

Pros and Cons

So! After that is all done, was it worth it? Well, there are pros and cons. Here is how I see it:

  • Page turns are no longer a problem - never again miss a bar because you had to stop playing to turn the page.
  • Easily keep charts organized - no more sorting through a stack of messy paper to find the chart you need, only to realize it is an old version in the wrong key. It is easy to keep stuff organized inside a computer.
  • Have a library of all your charts on your laptop at all times. Easily send any chart using e-mail - along with any notations you may have made at the rehearsal.
  • You can have a library of PDF fakebooks at your finger tips at all times, in case you get requests. (Be sure to buy hardcopies as well to support those music publishers!)
  • Notes on charts are more neat, in full color, and you can easily delete re-edit them, rather then having charts covered in scrawl from different versions and arrangements. Easily create multiple copies of a chart to record notes about different arrangements. 
  • Extremely easy to read in the dark - with no need to bring a stand light.
  • Never worry about the wind, vibrations, people, etc. knocking your music off the stand.
  • Uses no paper - better for the environment.

  • You have to scan and/or format all your music for the computer- time consuming.
  • Music is smaller (on my screen anyway) and therefore harder to read.
  • Adds more potential technical problems to your gig - e.g. laptop running out of battery power.
  • My screen sometimes reflects glare from lights, requiring me to adjust the angle.
  • Screen may be difficult to read in direct sunlight.
  • If you had to sub out to someone who didn't have a set up to read music electronically, you would have to make a paper copy of all the charts (or loan them your set up?).

Final Assessment

Making page turns easier is a huge advantage. I recently did a big band recording of Cherokee that was eight pages long with virtually no breaks.  I'm not sure how I would have done it without my new set up - I guess I just would have had to memorize the whole chart. Having my charts organized is also a huge plus. It saves me from being the guy at the rehearsal with his charts all mixed up, crumpled, and/or lost.  The biggest con is just the time investment of processing and formatting all the music.  However, printing and taping music can also be a hassle. The music being smaller on the screen vs. paper is a slight concern, but it hasn't really been a problem. Overall I'm extremely happy I made the switch and I think it is a improvement.

Let me know if you try going paperless as well, or if you have any questions about anything mentioned here!

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