Thursday, July 10, 2014

What A Difference An Ergonomic Office Chair Makes

As I think I have mentioned before, I spend a lot of hours sitting at my desk in front of the computer every day.  We all know that this is not the healthiest thing we should be doing...but it is what it is, and most of us simply have no choice in the matter.  But where I screwed up was, being a cheapskate and thinking that I could get away with sitting in any old office chair while toiling away at the office for hours.  For some people, this might not be a problem.  But for me, I do not exactly have the best posture naturally, so using a chair which provided no real lower back support ended up proving disastrous.

About two years ago, I suffered the worst lower back pain I have ever experienced in my life.  It came on suddenly while I was playing a show at a local coffee shop with some friends.  There was really no immediate reason for it. I just suddenly felt the worst pain jolt straight through the lower right side of my back, all the way down into my right leg.  I would later find out that this pain is known as "sciatica," which is caused by the sciatic nerve that runs all the way from your lower back into the back of both legs.  It was pretty embarrassing having this happen in the middle of a show, as I could barely stand it, and had to stop playing right then and there in front of everybody.

My doctor wanted to do an MRI...and let me tell you that that is no fun at all if you happen to be even slightly claustrophobic!  They put me deep into the MRI machine, where I completely inside of a tunnel with no hope of getting out easily. The tech working there even provided me with a little panic button that I could press if I wanted them to end the procedure and get me the heck out of there.  Once inside, I did indeed start to panic a little bit, but how embarrassing would it be to hit that panic button and admit defeat?  Instead, I just thought of all the other thousands of people who have gone through this procedure before (people much weaker and older than me) and were perfectly fine.  'If they can do it, then I can do it,' I thought, and that thought really helped me to relax.

Anyway, the doctor said he saw what appeared to be some inflammation which was likely pressing on the sciatic nerve and causing my pain.  After talking with him about the amount of hours I spend sitting in a desk chair all day, he suggested that I might want to invest in a more ergonomic chair that provides better lower back support.  I really had no idea what to buy, as there are so many choices out there and it was pretty overwhelming.  There are some great sites with ergonomic office chair reviews like which really lay it all out for you on which products are the best. Of course, each chair may be better suited to each person, and you have to decide what features you are looking for.

I read of some people who swear by the basic kneeling chairs for example, which are quite a simple design. I am sure they are nice, but for me, I figure if I'm going to be dropping money on a fancy desk chair, then I might as well get one that has all the bells and whistles to it. Though I was originally thinking of going with a mesh chair design, I ended up deciding on the Embody chair which is made by Herman Miller instead.

Sitting in this chair, compared to the hunk of junk I was previously using, was like going from riding in a Pinto, to cruising in a Ferrari.  It just felt amazing, and while my sciatica did not vanish completely overnight, it slowly faded away over the months, and has not troubled me since (knock on wood).  The whole scenario really opened my eyes up to the importance of ergonomics not only in the work place, but in your hobbies as well.  As I mentioned in a previous post, there are even ergonomic guitars being made that can not only improve your comfort while playing, but also lower the risk of possible injuries. I have yet to buy one, but have my eyes on a couple of different models which I may talk about on this blog at a later time.

You could say that I have become a bit of an ergo fanatic, but once you sit at my office desk space, and lay your hands on that nice smooth ergonomic keyboard and trackball mouse, while relaxing in my comfy chair, you will never want to get up! ;)

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Brief History of Country Music in America Pt.2

This is Part 2 in a series on the Brief History of Country Music in America which I am writing. You can read Part 1 here.

Radio Makes an Appearance

The emergence of radio allowed Country Music to arrive en masse. At the beginning, records were not very common, so artists roamed the radio stations playing their songs live. One of the most popular shows was the Grand Ole Opry, the Nashville station WSM, presented by the legendary George D. Hay. Among the stars of this era we can find Vernon Dalhart, DeFord Bailey, Uncle Dave Macon, The Skillet Lickers and other groups.

Something characteristic of this era that was to take advantage of the radio microphones were vocal harmonies. At this time the Monroe Brothers, The Delmore Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys (Bill and Earl Bolick) made successful use of the new technology.

Just as musicians began combining the sounds of guitar, violin and banjo, the emergence of so-called "string bands" creating music first called "hillbilly" music, and then mountain (mountain music), began. The musicians stopped repeating the old tunes brought from their homelands, and started to create new music. These bands often performed at dances in barns, which began to be broadcast live, interspersed with mini-concerts that artists gave on the radio. This is where they began to make their appearance on record labels interested in the growing popularity of the genre, and stars began to record albums, such as Eck Roberts, Fiddlin 'John Carson, The Skillet Lickers and others.

During these years, recording artists such as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers would come to fame due to the Bristol sessions by producer Ralph Peer. This is often considered as the real beginning of Country music as we know it today.

The Carter Family

The Carter Family were one of the most influential groups in Country Music, with the original group formed by Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, Delaney and Virginia. A.P. began singing in church with his uncle and two older sisters. Then he met Sara Dougherty, whom he married on June 18, 1915. She played the guitar and banjo. The third member of the group, Maybelle Addington, then married A.P.'s brother, Ezra Carter who also joined. He played guitar and banjo as well.

The Carter Family first recorded six songs for Victor Records on August 1, 1927 including "Single Girl, Married Girl." After recording about 20 songs here, in December 11, 1934 they moved to the ARC label, where they recorded 40 titles. Sara and A. P. divorced but continued to work together and then went to Texas. In this period, other members joined the group: Anita, June and Helen, daughters of Maybelle and Ezra. After more recordings for Columbia Records, the group disbanded in 1943, having left 250 classics like "Wabash Cannonball," "Lonesome Valley" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes." They were huge stars during the time of the Great Depression.

Jimmie Rodgers

One of the first superstars of Country Music was Jimmie Rodgers, a former train engineer who introduced country-blues to a mass audience, and decorated the vocals with the classic yodel or yodeling.

Known as the Father of Country Music, Rodgers, born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897, worked on the railroad tracks while he was young, but health problems forced him to find another way to earn a living. He began touring the United States with guitarist Ernest Helton, and then they were joined by Jack Pierce on guitar, Jack Grant on mandolin and banjo and Claude Grant also playing banjo. Rodgers continued as a soloist, recording for the label for Bristol. Due to the success of his first recordings, "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep," more songs followed including his big hit "T For Texas."

By 1928 he was a superstar and sold thousands of records, but the years touring and recording affected his health, something which was reflected in his composition of "TB Blues" (TB = tuberculosis). Still, he continued recording, gigging for farmers affected by drought and working in radio, until May 24, 1933, when he finished recording "Fifteen Years Ago Today." The day began with bleeding, and he soon fell into a coma and died on May 26, 1933. Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams were first elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ergonomics for Musicians: Why It's Important For You

As musicians, we often spend quite a few hours of each day practicing with our instruments.  During this time, we might forget, or not even realize, that we are not maintaining the correct body posture which could help prevent injury.  For me personally, when I get into the groove of what I am playing on the guitar, I don't have a care in the world other than the music.  I've picked up some bad habits over the years, including holding my wrists in an awkward position, and hunching over while I play.  And I ended up paying the price for such laziness.

A couple of years ago, I began to experience serious wrist pain in my left hand region, and as I also spend a lot of time working in front of the computer, I originally blamed the computer keyboard I was using at work.  But as I thought more about it, and paid more attention to the way in which I was using my keyboard at the office, I noticed that both of my hands were in the right position.  This, along with the fact that my right hand wrist felt perfectly fine, let me to believe that something else must be the cause of the pain which I was experiencing in my left wrist.

The pain was at its most severe whenever I was playing the guitar, so it didn't take long to put two and two together, and realize that it was the way in which I was holding the instrument that was the cause of my suffering.  So I began to read up more on ergonomics for musicians, and was amazed that there is so much which has been written on the subject.  Not only that, but there are some great Youtube videos out there about it as well.  For example, here is a great one of the owner of Peekamoose Custom Guitars talking about how you don't want to be pressing your fingers too hard on the guitar strings all the time.  Instead, you want a guitar with a nice fret board where you barely have to press down at all to get the sound that you want.

This indeed makes a lot of sense, so when you are picking out a guitar to buy, you ought to keep that in mind.  Choosing a guitar that is very easy on your fingertips can make a world of difference in preventing wrist pain further on down the road.  In my case, I realized that I didn't even need to press down as hard as I was on my strings, and that I have just developed the habit of doing so.  Just easing up a bit, I realized that I could still get just as good of a sound, and noticed a gradual improvement in the wrist pain I'd been experiencing.

So it is indeed very important to learn about ergonomics in relation to your musical instrument.  I will be talking about this more another time, as I would like to go into more detail on the proper posture to have while playing the guitar, or other instruments out there.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Brief History of Country Music in America Pt.1

Being a fan of County Music, I thought I would begin writing up a brief history of the development of Country in the USA. Writing up something totally complete would take too much space, and in fact, many encyclopedias of text could be written about this. So I will just write a little bit about what I have picked up over the years. Many may tell me that some names, dates and/or times are missing. I  know this, but if I choose to include every single minute detail, I would run the risk of boring those just looking for a brief account of the Country music genre.

I have also tried to follow a story line in the development of the genre and its variants, but many times, it has become difficult, as many movements and subgenres are emerging almost parallel to it to as well. With this in mind, I invite you to enjoy the following material and, of course, hope that someone will get something useful out of it.

Coming to America

The tradition of storytelling in songs is something that dates back to the Middle Ages, when there was no mass media to reach the public through television or the written word. It was then the music helped to spread stories, often real, and sometimes invented, which were transformed into songs.

In medieval Europe, bards could be considered as oral historians in an illiterate society, and were responsible for collecting the stories of people and narrating them to a musical backdrop. The bards were responsible for the collective memory of the people and were often more respected than the king himself. Later, the "minstrel" was in charge of passing these stories, using popular tunes and adapting their stories in rhyme to use the music he chose.

From Celtic to medieval Scotland, these musical traditions came with European settlers to the New World and settled in the west of what is now the United States.

For 1776, more than 250,000 people had come to America from the British Isles, of which over 50% were of Scottish descent, bringing their stories, ballads, tunes and instruments, more specifically, the fiddle. The musical accompaniment was performed with bagpipes and harps, but it was not until the arrival of the violin from Italy in the sixteenth century that the music of the British Isles was definitely instilled in the new world.

The French immigrants who settled in what is now Canada, would be displaced by the British colonizers and end up moving to what is now the state of Louisiana. They brought with them all of their French tradition, their lifestyle, its cuisine and music, all of which, merging with the local lifestyle, would result in a subgenre called Cajun country.

With the arrival of the train tracks and rail, new influences such as the banjo also arrived. Then came the guitar, much more practical for accompaniment. When mass production of guitars became possible at the beginning of the twentieth century, this instrument came into the hands of the common man more easily, and was first used as an accompaniment, but slowly, was introduced more and more to decorate the songs.

The Wreck of the Old '97
The arduous work days were reflected in songs that were transmitted orally, working long hours, often to improvising lyrics over old familiar tunes. After the day's work, family gatherings with neighbors included real "guitar playing" that made the acoustic-based music preferably on guitar, banjo, mandolin or fiddle-with this style becoming increasingly popular.

The themes of these songs, even sometimes sung acapella, were not far from the themes in Country Music today: death, love, abandonment, deception, crime and punishment.

In the southern United States, emerged a type of song which was basically like a newscast. One example is "The Wreck of the Old '97," based on a disaster on the railroad tracks in 1903 in the state of Virginia.

In the late nineteenth century, there also arose the tradition of vaudeville, as well as the rise of "traveling shows" where storytellers provided a mix of comedy and music, while offering miraculous medicines of dubious quality yield. By this means, songs such as "Buffalo Gals," and "Turkey in the Straw" came to be. Add to this, religious music, or Gospel, which came out of the Deep South of the United States and has continued to influence country until today with their vocal harmonies, especially in the Bluegrass genre. Also the Blues, first originating in Africa and brought to America in turn by slaves, became a strong country music influence, which began to grow more and more.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Blackhawk Blogger Here

Hello folks. I am a musician by night and an office worker by day. This is my blog for letting off some steam after work, talking about music and any other topics which come to mind. Hope you will not mind my ramblings, and may even find some things I post here interesting. ;)