Happy St. Patrick’s Day (from an appropriate distance)!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody! It has been an excessive absence from this blog. Since I last updated this page, I got a house, got engaged, finished my Ph.D., and got married. It’s been a wild nineteen months, with continued Twitch streams on Thursday nights, a couple of publications, and plenty of gigs and freelance editing and teaching to keep me busy.

Vintage postcard that reads "St. Patrick's Day Greeting," with an illustration of a potato surrounded by shamrocks.
Here’s a fun vintage St. Patrick’s Day card–just a single potato, surrounded by shamrocks. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30405060@N00/343174562/

Potentially the only good thing about the COVID-19 quarantine procedures that have been put in place by various states is a chance to reevaluate personal and professional projects and to reshape our lives as we telecommute and find ways to make up for our lost income as gigging musicians and teachers. I am luckier than most in that my income stream has been pretty diversified for several years. My gigging, though an important component of my career, is not my sole source of income. The balance will have to shift for a while as I teach private lessons via Skype and Facetime and bid on more editing jobs to make up the difference.

In the past few months, several illnesses swept the school where I teach (before Coronavirus had started its rapid spread, we experienced a wave of various flu viruses and stomach bugs that kept many kids out for a week at a time). Some of these bugs got to me from the sheer proximity, and they forced me to slow down. In those moments, I recognized that I still wasn’t in an ideal work/life balance, and that, like most academics and working musicians, I was going to need to constantly re-draw my boundaries for myself. It’s not easy, and it starts with learning to say no–painfully turning down projects and focusing on what’s best for me in the long-run instead of in the short-term.

Now, Coronavirus is forcing all of us to build a new pace, a new mode of working and interacting, while we self-quarantine to slow the spread.


I think we’re all quaran-teeming with ideas of what we’d like to accomplish (too soon for such a terrible pun?). For me, that means several things, but one of them is this blog, and working through my collection of antique sheet music to create arrangements for string quartet for our ever-expanding repertoire.

It began with inheriting the contents of my paternal grandparents’ piano bench (the piano itself lives at my aunt’s house–I’m lucky enough to have possession of my great grandparents’ piano, a gorgeous spinet that saw me through nine years of formal piano lessons, and which I am preparing to move to my house in the next couple of months once we get the living room carpeting replaced). There were sentimental songs from the early 20th century that possibly belonged to my great grandparents as well as popular music that my grandparents owned.

I started arranging many of these pieces for string quartet, since that’s my preferred ensemble, and I’ve been preserving and finding new avenues to perform this music. These pieces have a lush, romantic harmony–even if my brides and their families are too young to know this music (heck, I’m too young for it!), it ends up serving as a gorgeous prelude or backdrop for a cocktail hour at a wedding.

A 1913 illustration of Ross Castle, Killarney Ireland
A 1913 postcard with an illustration of Ross Castle, Killarney, Ireland. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ironrodart/4422359445/

So, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to share a couple of these tracks with you today; and, in the spirit of the holiday, I decided to share some Irish songs. These are from a book I found in an antique store a couple of weeks ago called Echoes from Erin: An Album of Ballads, Novelties, Comics (Old and New), compiled expressly for and dedicated to those who love Irish Songs.

Fun fact: If you are looking intently through a stack of sheet music in an antique store, and it’s apparent that you’re reading through the music instead of picking pretty covers to potentially frame and hang in your home, the owner of the antique shop will usually strike up a conversation about it. I’ve even gotten discounts on more beat-up sheet music before, because the owners are so excited to know that the actual music will be put to good use.

This is also how I got an incredible deal on my toy piano–the antique store owner told me that they would give me $50 off if I could play a piece from the stack of sheet music I had set aside to purchase, so I plinked out the melody of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Sometimes it pays to be a classically-trained musician, y’all!

The first one I wrote out for string quartet is called “You Brought Ireland Right Over To Me” by Ernest R. Ball (lyrics by J. Keirn Brennan) from 1917. I like to include the lyrics on these songs as flavor text for the musicians, even though we wouldn’t be singing them in performance.

Score for a string quartet arrangement of "You Brought Ireland Right Over to Me" by Ernest R. Ball and J. Keirn Brennan from 1917; page 1.
Score for a string quartet arrangement of "You Brought Ireland Right Over to Me" by Ernest R. Ball and J. Keirn Brennan from 1917; page 2.
Score for a string quartet arrangement of "You Brought Ireland Right Over to Me" by Ernest R. Ball and J. Keirn Brennan from 1917; page 3.

The other song I wrote up for today is “My Irish Song of Songs” by Daniel J. Sullivan (lyrics by Alfred Dubin), also from 1917.

Score for a string quartet arrangement of "My Irish Song of Songs" by Daniel J. Sullivan and Alfred Dubin from 1917; page 1.
Score for a string quartet arrangement of "My Irish Song of Songs" by Daniel J. Sullivan and Alfred Dubin from 1917; page 2.
Score for a string quartet arrangement of "My Irish Song of Songs" by Daniel J. Sullivan and Alfred Dubin from 1917; page 3.

I should note that these tempo markings are totally arbitrary; they were just bpm markings I used during playback. Neither one had a metronome marking; both are to be played “Moderately, with expression,” and the sheer number of fermatas in each suggests that the singer/first violinist could employ quite a bit of rubato and rhapsodic flair with these, so long as they give clear cues.

Hope your St. Patrick’s Day evening is full of family and fun, even if you can’t go out and celebrate. Erin go bragh!

Favorite Moments in Music History: Red Cape Tango

Metropolis Symphony: Red Cape Tango (Michael Daugherty).

This whole movement is so effortlessly cool to me, because it combines Superman, Tango cello lines/castanets, offstage horn players, and the Dies Irae. It’s pretty difficult to top Symphonie Fantastique’s use of the Dies Irae in an orchestral setting.

This movement is just perfect, but the moment is about halfway through where the strings take the melody and the friggin’ timpani takes the tango bassline for the first time, with the incredible brass commentary punctuating the string statements. Such exciting music. See this version with Toscanini conducting, which starts right before that moment:



Ludomusicologists on Twitch: Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past Part 1

…In which we begin showing our faces on the stream. The more we do it, the more we seem to refine the format and tech side of things. This isn’t my favorite playthrough; Ryan initially wanted to do the whole game in one week. Speedrun + scholarly commentary = not happening. I was definitely off my game in terms of talking about the music, because it was going by so fast and speed running requires doing a lot of things sort of out of order, so I was super thrown by that. Felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.

Live and learn, though. That just tells me I should do a personal run of the game down the line on my Twitch, to get a second chance at talking through it! That said, in listening back, it’s not like it’s completely devoid of musical analysis. And I dug the playing with format–marking objects up top as we got them in the game was a cute touch, and one I’d love to see happen again at some point.

Broken Strings Spring Recital

So I recently shared my high school students’ video game recital from Winter; here was the sequel the next semester. This one served as Mels’s senior project–they coordinated the whole thing, from booking the venue again to organizing the donation to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America to building the powerpoint of gameplay footage and program notes to setting up a livestream! It was really an incredible project to watch come together.

I should emphasize how remarkable it is that these two put together another full recital’s worth of arrangements in a matter of months, with very little re-use of music. We actually had too much music this time around, and so any repeats were purely because we loved them and thought they went well in the set list.

Concert Order:

  1. 1:11 Katamari Damacy intro and Fugue #7777
  2. 4:09 Castle Music from Dragon Warrior 3
  3. 5:43 Super Mario Bros 2 Medley
  4. 8:47 Shadow of the Colossus Medley
  5. 16:25 Mega Man 3 Medley
  6. 22:13 Castlevania Medley
  7. 29:45 Zelda II Medley
  8. 36:51 Chrono Trigger Medley
  9. 41:20 Aerith’s Theme (FFVII)
  10. 44:16 Undertale Medley
  11. 50:45 Brinstar: Jungle Floor (Super Metroid)
  12. 53:42 Rocky Maridia (Super Metroid)
  13. 56:03 Unforgotten (Halo 2)
  14. 59:00 Don’t Give Up/Hopes and Dreams (Undertale)
  15. 1:06:19 Death by Glamour (Undertale)

Broken Strings Winter Recital

So, I had this gig teaching chamber music. I’d go in a few times a week to coach small groups on classical repertoire, preparing them for OMEA Solo & Ensemble contest and school performances.

One day, my violin/viola duo admitted that they were working together on a heck of a lot more than Mozart. When they told me that they were arranging and learning music from video games, I couldn’t believe it. “Do you know what my dissertation is about?!?” I asked them. The group immediately shifted focus. They got their 1 ranking at OMEA on the Mozart, then we threw ourselves into the task of building up a repertoire of video game music in the hopes of putting on a full recital. Initially, the music directors were a little skeptical about the rigor of the work–until I showed them the score for our Castlevania arrangement. These two were performing such wickedly difficult material, and they were excelling at it because they were passionate about learning the music.

They were insistent on trying to learn pieces in the original keys, as close to the original tempo as possible (while acknowledging that some of the tempos in, say, Mega Man, are almost impossible to execute on our instruments). This entire process taught them–and me–a great deal about arranging, texture, rhythm, and what is idiomatic for keyboards vs. string instruments.

We finally put on a full recital here in town, taking a donation at the door for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. We raised $150 for the cause, and shared some wonderful music with our audience. Several of my friends who came were floored to learn that these two were in high school–they assumed based on the final product that these two were college students! Their dedication, passion, and musical maturity really came together to create something truly special, and I am still so proud of what they accomplished.

Concert Order:

  1. 0:00 Donkey Kong Intro
  2. 0:34 The Legend of Zelda Medley
  3. 7:45 Underworld (Kid Icarus)
  4. 8:42 Brinstar (Metroid)
  5. 11:05 Tetris Medley
  6. 15:50 Child of Light Medley
  7. 20:26 For River (To the Moon)
  8. 22:47 Ori and the Blind Forest Medley
  9. 30:40 Pokemon FireRed Medley
  10. 35:56 Ms. Pac-Man Interlude
  11. 37:00 Zelda II Medley
  12. 44:07 Asgore (Undertale)
  13. 48:10 Unforgotten (Halo 2)
  14. 50:42 Rocky Maridia (Super Metroid)
  15. 53:34 Hopes and Dreams (Undertale)
  16. 1:00:13 Ghost Battle (Undertale)
  17. 1:02:21 Still Alive (Portal 2)

Home Canning Adventures: Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple Cider Vinegar is a perfect project for fall. Perhaps you’ve gone apple picking (as I do every year in October for my birthday) and BOMBARDED friends and family with pies and applesauce and tarts and whatever else you can come up with. This is the way to get even more use out of the scraps.

I find that my vinegar has more cider-y sweetness and a little less tang (and it’s super delicious in everything!), but your flavor will vary based on what kind of apples you have and how long you want to let it go for. Like sauerkraut, the flavor will intensify with more time, so you can stop it once you like the taste.

You will Need:

  • Apple peelings or cores (or other fruit scraps, like peaches–but then it’s Peach Cider Vinegar)
  • Sugar (1 tablespoon per one cup of water)
  • Water
  • Glass jar (a quart is a great place to start, but you can definitely make larger quantities, too.)

Fill the glass jar ¾ of the way with apple peels and cores.

Stir the sugar into the water (I like lukewarm water to help the sugar dissolve), and pour to cover the scraps. Leave some headspace at the top of the jar so it’s not too full.

Cover loosely (I like a coffee filter secured around the rim with a rubber band). Set in a warm, dark place for around two weeks (pantries are great for this–my pantry is more of a shallow closet in this smallish apartment, but it worked just as well). Stir every few days, and skim the top. After about two weeks, strain the liquid back into the jars to get rid of the scraps. It should smell cider-y but won’t have a lot of tang yet. So, let the liquid continue to go for another 2-4 weeks. You’ll have apple cider vinegar when you say so: when it smells and tastes like vinegar and has the flavor you’re looking for. You can can it (everybody can-can!), or just store it in the fridge.

Now here’s the scary/cool part: you might get a creepy blob on the top of the vinegar. Believe it or not, this is a good thing, and not a 1950s b-movie. It’s called a vinegar “mother” (not really helping the creepiness with the name there). If you make vinegar in the future, just plop this gelatinous lady in there and she’ll help things along. You can keep it in the existing batch of vinegar and just work around it, or you can always discard it if it’s too terrifying. I won’t judge you for that.

One more note: a lot of pickling recipes call for apple cider vinegar (including my grandmother’s beet recipe!). Homemade vinegar may not reach the right level of acidity for proper canning–you need at least 5% to make it safe. Commercial vinegars are guaranteed to be safe for this application, but you should save your own for other uses. Don’t want to botulism yourself to death–self-botulism is *probably* not the way you want to go.

The best soup ever?

It’s an annoying heat wave here after teasing Autumn for several weeks. It’s always hard on me to have the hint of crisp air followed by such a reversal–I’m built for sweaters, not swelter.

I purchased ingredients for this soup before the weather changed, and I’m going ahead with it anyway for tonight, after a fit of productivity with work and at home (I gave my kitchen countertops a much-needed cleaning, so naturally I should make a mess in the kitchen to celebrate!). This soup has so many wonderful vegetables in it, that I can almost call it a summer soup–it’s really good any time.

This is a very slight adaptation of a recipe from the Down Home with the Neelys cookbook. Whenever I’ve tried to google the recipe online, I have found a different version available through the food network and other food blogs. This one is so, so much better. I promise you. It’s one of the best soup recipes in my arsenal, gets a lot of vegetables in my system, and is so incredibly fragrant with the smoked paprika and fresh thyme (I’m sure I am scenting the keyboard with the herb right now–I slide the thyme leaves off the stalk right into the soup by hand, instead of chopping them up first, and the scent clings to my fingertips).

I have a lot of favorite soup recipes–some categories just end up a lot larger than others in my recipe file. While it’s hard to top Smitten Kitchen’s chicken pho, this is definitely my favorite vegetable soup recipe. What’s also important to mention is that it’s wonderful left over–you know how some things are just so “meh” the second day? This soup intensifies in flavor and might even be a little better the second and third time. It makes a good amount, so you can absolutely cut this recipe in half, esp. if you’re just feeding yourself, like I am.

The nice thing about this recipe is that it’s not exact, so you can easily make a smaller amount without worrying too much about the proportions of the vegetables. I usually make sure I have all of the elements, but the exact amounts of each may vary. Since I have to buy a bag of carrots or a whole stalk of celery anyway, I can adjust how much I chop up and throw in based on how big my potatoes and red peppers are. So these amounts are approximate. The main thing is the combination of flavors from the ingredients, but this ain’t baking. It doesn’t need to be down to a science.

4 strips bacon

1 large onion, diced

2-3 carrots, diced

2-3 celery stalks, diced

1 or 2 red bell peppers (depending on size), diced

1/2 pound yellow fleshed potatoes (such as Yukon Gold) or a bunch of those little gemstone potatoes, chopped into small bite-size chunks

1 sweet potato, cut into bite-sized chunks

6 cups chicken stock

1 Tablespoon smoked paprika (or more–I’ve been known to more than double this, because I love paprika)

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (or more, if you want more kick!)

4 cups frozen corn (I especially like the fire-roasted kinds when I can find them)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon (or more to taste–measurements don’t actually matter here) fresh thyme

Fry up the bacon (I like to do all of this in my dutch oven–so it’s only one real dish to worry about at the end), drain on paper towels for topping the soup later. Remove bacon fat from your pan until there’s just enough left in the pan to cook the vegetables in. Toss the diced onion in with the bacon fat, and cook into beautifully, truly golden brown. We want a little hint of the sweetness that would come from caramelizing, but don’t let them go on forever.

Then–and this is how I depart from the Neelys’ recipe–add the chicken stock, salt, pepper, smoked paprika, and cayenne, and immersion blend the onion into the broth. This distributes the flavor of the aromatic, and gets rid of the texture issue of cooked onions, in case you hate that too! We all have our food aversions, and since I adore onion, I’m inclined to blitz them into things to incorporate the taste. That said, this isn’t a hard and fast rule for me–I tend to eat cooked onion in and on things elsewhere, esp. if I’m out. But at home I just love the way it enriches and thickens up the broth a bit to blend it in.

Next, add in the vegetables and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 30-40 minutes or so depending on the size of the chunks. Add in cream at the end of the process, and stir to combine, cooking about 5-10 minutes more. Top with more fresh thyme (if desired) and the reserved bacon.