"A Blog a day" started a year ago today ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 7/05/2007 02:37:00 PM

and looking over the entries, I've fallen a bit short of making at least one a day.


Also, I think I need to work on the content of this blog site.

I see that most of my entries are related to humor. Maybe things just aren't that funny?

Anyone have better ideas for the direction this blog should take? Let me know in the comments!

The future ain't what it used to be, part 2 ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 5/12/2007 08:58:00 PM

This link shows what the kitchen of tomorrow (if you consider 1999 "tomorrow") would be like, based on what Philco thought it would be in 1967.

Some of the ideas in the kitchen (such as creating meals based on computer assistance with dietary factors included) sound like good ideas. I also like the flat screens, but the idea of the cameras in every room to feed the flat screens seems a bit "Big Brother-ish".

And avocado coloring in 1967 - what was up with that? The whole clip - and the very air that the seems to have an avocado tint. And the kitchen reminded me of the Star Trek food replicators, with food just magically being dispensed somewhere.

I also agree with one of the commentors - I think Dad was Wink Martindale.

Hope nothing breaks in the kitchen of the future, or maybe everyone will starve ...

Hat Tip (again): Cory Doctorow/Boing Boing and Paleo-future

Back from Elvis-land ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 5/11/2007 08:31:00 PM

... not that I even saw Graceland, or anything Elvis-like...

I had too much catching up to do with my brother and sister, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

And when I came back, I had 3 days worth of console ops, with some interesting replanning going on.

Congratulations again Mike and Halle!

Blogging will be light for the next few days ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 5/02/2007 11:40:00 PM

... as I will be headed up to Memphis for a family wedding!

Happy Trails!

- Bob

The old Band Annex ain't what it used to be ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 5/01/2007 10:07:00 PM

This past year, when I typically was on the right side of the UH campus, I'd look back at the annex with sadness. All I could see was the main structure (the I-beam) left from the building.

But today, I had the opportunity to swing by UH again. I drove past the old Band Annex structure, and saw that a few changes have been made.

Many a late night after-game party and "road trip" to away games started at the Band Annex, so it was one of the most memorable places at UH while I was a student there. It was an old 1940's-vintage structure, which (I thought at the time) was where World War II Tanks were built. At least, that was what it looked like, given the size of it. It was where we practiced the Marching Band arrangements.

It was in sad shape in the early 80's. It had a leaky roof that leaked onto the ceiling, causing the ceiling tiles to fall. It was not (initially) carpeted - so having a 200+ piece Marching Band in it made for "interesting" acoustics. Still, it housed the KKY and TBS fraternity "rooms" - and it was the home for the band. (Maybe we were operating under a "Hawthorne effect"?) The current Marching Band practices in the much better-equipped Moores School of Music facility.

In any event, I was much happier after I drove past the old band annex site today. Apparently, UH decided to at least reuse the foundation - the new structure will be used by the College of Architecture. You can read more about it in this UH press release.

Here's what it looks like today:

Of course, I remember it when that loading dock door was painted red, with "The Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band" on the front of it. I even remember who did the painting (thanks Doug Allison!) and who did the touchup on it (thanks Arman Prescott!)

Here's a side view of the annex. You can't see it from this photo, but the upper side of the building also has windows. The doorway you see (to the right of the big tree in the center) used to be an extension to the building, where the KKY room was.

It's good to see that parcel of land being put to good use.

Alec Baldwin contacts Dora the Explorer

Written by Bob McCormick on 5/01/2007 12:40:00 AM

Hat tip: John Sibley/ http://foryourentertainment.blogspot.com/

(And apologies to Ms. minimiles!)

Another silly personality test ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/28/2007 02:07:00 PM

In addition to being Daniel Jackson, I'm apparently also the Green Lantern.

Is there such a thing as Daniel "Green Lantern" Jackson? Or would it be Green "Daniel Jackson" Lantern?

When do I get to go back to being Bob "Bob" McCormick?

I think I'm having an identity crisis ... ;*)

Your results:
You are Green Lantern

Green Lantern
Iron Man
The Flash
Wonder Woman
Hot-headed. You have strong
will power and a good imagination.

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Another bizarre use of food ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/27/2007 08:38:00 PM

Similar to my previous post on green pea soda ...

Now we have ... coffee soap! Not what it might look like otherwise ... <:^\

It's part of a never-ending quest for efficiency in our lives. We can now clean ourselves in the morning while getting the necessary caffeine buzz to wake up in the first place.

Your morning shower and morning cup o' joe can be the same event! And, from lifehacker, we find that if you are into kidnapping people, you can generate your ransom notes quickly via this Internet mashup.

Soooooo ... On a really efficient day, you can kidnap the people over the Internet while showering & getting the caffeine buzz.

Even better (since I'm not a coffee drinker) ... I can go for the optional Mountain Dew shower gel!

Isn't technology great?

Hat tip: http://flanerie.org

My recommendation for Robertson Stadium

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/25/2007 10:45:00 AM

As a loyal UH fan (and alum), one of the websites I frequent is Coogfans.com. Coogfans.com covers every major athletic sport that the University of Houston participates in.

One of the major sports is American football. This time of year is always a goofy time for football discussions at coogfans.com, because very little is really happening in college football this time of the year. As a result, the topic threads turn to the perennial oddball topics, such as the football uniform design, logo design, and football attendance.

Actually, of those three topics, football attendance is the most pressing. UH currently competes in Robertson Stadium, which is an older facility (originally built during the depression years) which seats approximately 31000. Note: It is also the home to Houston's professional soccer team, the Houston Dynamo, who only moved to Houston last year. The Dynamo won the Major League Soccer championship this past year, but are on record as desiring their own stadium - to be built with taxpayer help.)

The coogfans.com current football attendance debate revolves around how much to expand Robertson Stadium. All would like seating increases and better amenities at the stadium. Some have called for a doubling of capacity to near 65,000.

I also think Robertson Stadium amenities should be built and seating should increase, but only to 45,000 - and probably increased to that amount only in phases.

Here's why I think what I think:

1. UH has reached that level of interest in the past.

UH's detractors like to point out that UH can't attain a 45k average attendance. However, these detractors don't know UH history. UH had at or near as many people attending during the mid '60's and late '70's.

There two major differences between then and now are:

a) Venue

UH moved their games to the Astrodome in the mid 60's. A domed stadium was a novel idea during that time - nobody else in America played in one! The venue itself (and the ability to play games regardless of weather) helped to draw crowds. Although UH was an independent then, the team's record was also a good one, which also helped its draw.

b) Conference

Although the novelty of playing in the Astrodome fell off, UH drew very well in the mid-late 70's because they had a good record and were in the Southwest Conference. As a result, thelarger regional teams (mainly Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas) assured that UH would have good crowds. Of course, the kicker was that the football team's record was good - UH represented the SWC the first 3 out of 4 possible years it was in the SWC. The SWC split up in the early 90's.

Unfortunately, UH did not keep its attendance up, and as a result, it got snubbed by the larger schools, who chose Baylor (which had kept its attendance up) and formed the Big 12 conference. UH was left to scramble to join a conference (independent status was not feasible since most bowl games and television packages are negotiated by conference now, not by the NCAA as a whole). UH ultimately joined Conference USA, which initially aligned itself with some similar schools (Memphis, Louisville, Tulane, UAB, Cincinnatti), but the teams were too far away and thus, there was no rivalry as there had been with the more regional large schools.

1. The University of Houston is not like other campuses.

UH is located in the heart of the 4th largest city in the nation. It is unlike many other Universiites in the United States - which is why it is misunderstood by its benefactors and detractors.

Unlike Univ of Texas, Texas Tech, Florida State, LSU, Louisville, and other such schools, it is not in a smaller city or suburb, so it can't count on Houston city media attention, since it is not "the only game in town".

Unlike Texas A&M, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Southern Mississippi, it is not in the country, and is not a Morrill Land Grant school. So it doesn't have a "captive" fan base in the town that it's in.

It is unlike private schools that are associated with a particular religion, such as Baylor, TCU, SMU, Notre Dame, Boston College, Pittsburgh, and BYU are. It is an urban, public school whose mission was originally designed for the "working man". This makes it unlike Rice (Houston), Miami, Harvard (Boston), Tulane (New Orleans), Southern Cal(LA), Northwestern(Chicago), George Washington (DC), St. Louis, and other similar schools. As a result, it should draw larger crowds from an Alumni bas that's larger than a typical private school or other urban schools that happen to be private.

2. UH's real peers

As a result of realizing what UH is not, it's important make sure to carefully figure out which Universities are most in common with it, so as to get the most realistic comparisons. I did this several months ago, looking at several Universities which were similar to UH, then mapping their attendance against the number of wins per season (since everybody loves a winner, attendance goes up everywhere a winner is and goes down when they're a loser).

a) Metropolitan areas

Based on census statistics (Metropolitan Statistical Areas - "MSAs")- here's the schools that in the top 19 MSAs that are the best to measure UH against:

Metropolitan statistical areas Population Schools in that MSA
1 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 18,747,320 Rutgers
2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 12,923,547 USC, UCLA
USC is private
3 Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 9,443,356 Northwestern
Northwestern is private
4 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 5,823,233 Temple
5 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 5,819,475 SMU, N.Texas, TCU
SMU and TCU are private
6 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach, FL 5,422,200 Miami (Fla.)
Miami is private
7 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 5,280,077 Houston, Rice
Rice is private
8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 5,214,666 Maryland, Navy
Navy is a military institution
9 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 4,917,717 Georgia Tech
10 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 4,488,335
11 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 4,411,835 Boston College
Boston College is private
12 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 4,152,688 California
13 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 3,909,954
14 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 3,865,077 Arizona St.
15 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 3,203,314 Washington
16 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 3,142,779 Minnesota
17 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 2,933,462 San Diego St.
18 St. Louis, MO-IL 2,778,518
19 Baltimore-Towson, MD 2,655,675

Based on this list, UH's real peers are Rutgers, UCLA, San Diego State, Minnesota, Washington, Arizona St., California, Georgia Tech, and Maryland. Except for San Diego State, all of these peers have two things in common, which UH does not have:

1) They are flagship schools of their particular states

2) They compete in BCS (Bowl Championship Series) football conferences, which entitles them for a greater possibility of playing in the football national championship, and having a greater payout in end-of-season bowl games.

b) Attendance records

Of these schools, I have been able to obtain attendance records from UCLA, Washington, Georgia Tech, and Maryland. What I found was:

1) All school records fluctuate with wins. Many people at coogfans.com simply recommend that the attendance problems go away if the team "just wins". While winning certainly helps, it doesn't keep the fan base there. If it did, UH would have maintained a 45k fan base during the mid-late '80s, when it was routinely competing in the top 20 rankings.
2) UCLA and Washington's average attendance have been in the 50-60k range (UCLA) or in 50-60k and trending to 70k (Washington). However, those schools are state "flagship" schools.
3) Georgia Tech's attendance has fluctuated mostly in the 40's. It peaked over 50k only twice in the last 40 years: once in 1967 and again in 2003. Georgia Tech's record was mostly in the mid 30's from approximately 1978 through 1990, which coincided with poor on-field performance (except for 1985, and the attendance did not get much over 40k in 84-85).
4) Maryland's attendance has fluctuated between low 30k and mid 40k from 1975 through 2000!

In summary, I think UH's attendance is most like the University of Maryland's.

Although Maryland is a Land Grant school and is in a BCS conference (the ACC), the ACC's football records are usually considered weaker (it is more known for basketball). In addition, both schools face stiff local competition for Division 1 athletics attention (Houston: Rice, Texas A&M, Texas; Maryland: Navy, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgetown). Both schools face professional football competition as well. Both schools are also in metropolitan areas with large percentages of the population which are essentially transient (Houston, Washington DC).

Most importantly, with all these similarities, Maryland's stadium is approximately 45k. This is why I think UH cannot justify a staduim larger than that - no school of a similar size or environment could.

This is actually good news for UH!
It shows that there is a sizable university in a similar environment that can be justified to be in a BCS conference. However, it also shows that even being in a BCS conference would not justify a stadium larger than 45k. For this reason, I recommend UH expand Robertson stadium amenities, with shower/locker rooms, press boxes, luxury boxes, and refreshment areas coming first. Then, I would expand seating in a staged approach, gradually getting to 45k. Given that Maryland already gets this, this should be of sufficient size (assuming attendance comes along) to justify UH belonging in a BCS conference. It may be possible to develop an architecture which could be added on to the 45k size, but given UH's attendance history (even in the best years UH did not average 45k) and the environment UH is in, I would not count on expanding beyond 45k.

Dang! Just missed Stephen Hawking at Mission Control!

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/23/2007 09:25:00 AM

I headed to work this week (actually, at the very tail end of this weekend - 11PM Sunday) to support 5 consecutive days of overnight ISS Flight Control Team console operations.

One of my shift coworkers, Mike Allyn, was apparently in Mission Control earlier, and was privledged to meet Dr. Stephen Hawking, who was being given a tour by Dr. Bob Dempsey, LEad Increment Flight Director for Increment 15.

I just missed meeting Dr. Hawking by just a few hours!


Sign of a bad work day: Multiple news helicopters hovering over your work place

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/21/2007 08:58:00 PM

The last time I saw multiple news helicopters over my workplace, Lisa Nowak was apparently returning to work (like some of my co-workers noticed).

Yesterday was a much more tragic event. And of course, the image doesn't really tell the tale.

During mid-afternoon, my mom called me on my cell phone and asked me how I was doing. "Fine" I said, curiously wondering what was benind the question (and amazing myself with the fact that the signal reached me in the middle of the building). She then asked me if I was anywhere near Building 44. No - I work in Building 4, essentially on the other side of the JSC campus. She then told me that someone had a gun in Building 44, and that this was being reported on the local news networks. I thanked her for the info, and started checking my immediate contractor and NASA managers. Apparently the word was starting to filter to them too, but they were learning it the same way I was - concerned outsiders contacting individuals on the inside.

Just this past Monday, my company helped me celebrate my 20th anniversary with them (I've actually been working with them for 21 years, but who's quibbling?). In my 20 years at JSC, I think I've been to Building 44 twice. I was now looking at the view from one of those circling news helicopters at Building 44. But of course, all the tension was in the Building, not on the outside.

Sop after checking with the immediate management, I went back to my PC and arranged for streaming video from one of the local news networks. Sure enough, the news was broadcasting aerial views of Building 44. I sent an e-mail to my immediate family telling them I was in no danger, but expected a "shelter in place" order, which did come about 20 minutes or so later. I even joked that I could hold out a long time - there was plenty of food in the vending machines!

But, despite my jokes, in retrospect, this was a dangerous situation. Someone had obviously smuggled a gun on site, and had a very bad day. I did not know the principals in yesterday's situation, but my thoughts and prayers go out to them (just as they do to the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings).

After I went home, I saw the extensive news coverage I had expected to see, and finally heard about the deaths involved (after next of kin notification, I surmised). But what I saw after the coverage was worse. The inevitable attempts at connection between this event and the Virginia Tech shootings were made. Also, the insinuation that JSC Security had fallen down - without the countervailing analysis required of what it would have taken to implement the suggestions being made and/or the operational practicality of these suggestions - reminded me of why it's called msm and why I'm getting more and more turned off of it.

Chuck Norris jokes ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/19/2007 08:59:00 PM

... found over here. The Chuck Norris internet experience is described on wikipedia.

Ok, some of these are a little too "colorful". Still, here's some I like -

Chuck Norris' calendar goes straight from March 31st to April 2nd; no one fools Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried.

Chuck Norris once finished "The Song that Never Ends".

The chief export of Chuck Norris is pain.

Chuck Norris once punched a man in the soul.

Hat Tip:

Happy Birthday to me ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/13/2007 07:00:00 AM


And it's a Friday this year. Friday, April 13th.

But then again, I was actually born on a Friday the 13th.

Times (and luck) are what you make of them.

Musical Experiences: College

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/08/2007 03:07:00 PM

More from the music (band) experience. I already discussed High School , Junior High, and pre-Junior High. this time, it's college!

As I entered my final year at Alief Hastings High School, I faced some final decisions. Musically, as a saxophonist, I was OK - better than some - particularly from smaller states to the direct north east:*), not as good as others. But I also knew that being a musician or a music teacher was not what I wanted as a career (there was no money in it unless you were at the very top in your profession, and the competition was too intense). I decided to cave in and take some private lessons, with the idea that I might make the "All State" band - and if I didn't, I would pursue another profession.

I wound up pursuing another profession.

I already had a backup plan. I had been applying to several different colleges/universities, and was able to score high enough on my SATs such that the University of Houston would take me unconditionally. I had attended an engineering seminar for High School students at UH the previous summer and was already sufficiently impressed with Engineering that I knew that I would major in it, if the saxophone stuff didn't pan out.

Just prior to graduating High School, I had heard about a series of grants that UH's School of Music was releasing. All I had to do was play an introductory piece (something sufficiently technically hard, like the all-state tryout music), not flub it up, and then agree to take marching band in the fall and concert band in the spring. The grant would pay for $100 worth of my tuition - tuition only ran ~$200-250 for a 12 hour course load back then (those were the days!) so the grant actually went a pretty long way. So I tried out, and I was able to score a Band grant!

I joined up with the UH Marching Band that summer (for summer practice - only 2 weeks long). Band was fun, and not difficult to do if you were a decent player in High School. I enjoyed Marching band, and formed many friendships that I keep with me to this day. I even wound up joining the local UH chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi (Band fraternity) my freshman year.

But Marching Band did take a lot of time. It was 6 clock hours in practice over a week (2 hours M/W/F) for a class that was only a 1 hour course credit. This also does not count the football game performances - some of which (TCU, SMU, UT, A&M) were out of town trips - and also did not count summer band and special performances (such as parades). It was a substitute for PE, but most degree programs only needed 2 hours worth of PE, so the other two hours really didn't apply towards getting a degree (and none of the concert band hours applied at all).

It also took quite a bit of "psychological investment". Any time 150-200 18-22 year olds are kept together like that, there are the inevitable gossips of who is dating who, etc. In addition, we lost our Marching Band director between my freshman and sophomore years, and the tension of that loss was not overcome until the incoming band director resigned three years later (some might say it still has not been lost to this day!).

While it was negative in the sense that it ultimately was a distraction from my more serious Engineering studies, it also ultimately allowed me to go to places I probably wouldn't have had the experience to otherwise - it alllowed me to all home games and many of the away games, and bowl games in New York, Tokyo, and El Paso. (Although we did not go to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl while I was in band, the band went the following year while I was still in college - although the football team did not pull off the win.) And as I said before, I met people through tthe marching band experience who remain some of my best friends decades later.

Now, I find myself the father of two sons, neither of which seem to want to pick up horns and play in a band. That's OK - they have to experience their life, not mine. But if they asked me if I would recommend band, I'd say "yes" - but you have to keep your priorities straight. Unless you're the second coming of Stan Getz or John Phillip Sousa, don't take high school or college band too seriously.

OK, one more set of funny videos (pardon me, Buckeyes ...)

Written by Bob McCormick on 4/04/2007 07:44:00 PM

These two are inspired by the Florida - Ohio State games.

If you were watching NCAA sports a few weeks ago and felt a sense of deja vu, it was probably because the NCAA men's basketball championship came down to the Florida Gators vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes ... just like the NCAA football championship had done just 3 months earlier.

As part of the runup for the football championship, Nike sponsored a commercial where the Ohio State Buckeyes challenged the Florida Gators to see who could run more miles before the game (you can see it in the first clip below).

Ohio State lost.

You can see the results in the second clip below.

(BTW, I have no loyalty, pro or con, to Ohio State or Florida. I suspect most colleges would treat a statue of a mascot they just lost a national championship to the same way.)

Just when I thought all the humor had been milked from Star Trek and Monty Python ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/26/2007 11:03:00 PM

... along comes this ...

Go SpaceX!

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/26/2007 10:50:00 PM

Last week, while I was supporting ISS operations from the console, I had the good fortune to see (via the web) the first semi-successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon I rocket from Kwajalein atoll in the South Pacific.

I call the the launch "semi-successful" because the payload failed to achieve orbit. The rocket, however, did manage to reach second stage and was about 1 minute away from achieving orbit when SpaceX lost telemetry. (You can see a replay of the entire ~5:30 of rocket ascent here). SpaceX is looking into the reasons why it failed to achieve orbit. Some folks are speculating that it is related to the first stage bumping the second stage bell after separation - you can see this more clearly from the images here.) Regardless of the failure, SpaceX's CEO, Elon Musk (developer of Paypal), has declared the launch a "90% success" and is confident that he can get his next two launches (with paying satellite customers) to orbit.

Why do I bother blogging about this? Why is this important?

Because ...

1. Falcon 1 launches are being touted as costing a fraction of what similar launches would cost
2. SpaceX is planning on developing a larger rocket (the Falcon 9) with similar cost-cutting approaches, and
3. NASA is attempting to procure SpaceX (and Rocketplane Kistler) unmanned launches to supply logistics (spare parts, water, food, etc.) to the ISS in the next several years.

If SpaceX and/or Rocketplane Kistler ultimately become successful, space launches may become significantly less expensive - and space operations costs will come down. The net result may be a significant increase in space operations.

I'd be a fool if I were against that!

Go SpaceX!

After this, I don't think I can watch Monty Python or Star Trek the same way again ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/21/2007 12:43:00 AM

See for yourself ...

(Hat Tip: Brian Dunbar)

Musical experiences - High School

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/18/2007 03:08:00 PM

This is part 3 of a series. The first two parts, "Pre-Junior High", and "Junior High" are here and here, respectively.

After all of my moving across country, I was fortunate enough to be in only one High School - Alief Hastings High School, in Houston, Texas. Alief Hastings was known as the "Fighting Bears" - not sure why they had to put the "Fighting" adjective in front ... whatever.

Actually, I call it as being in Houston, although it's in "Alief". Alief is actually a part of southwest Houston. It was an unincorporated area in Harris County, but was annexed by Houston in 1978 (I believe). The annexation of Alief by Houston is a blog entry to be developed later.

High School was definitely a musical step up. The musical environment is quite different in at least three different ways, and I could develop whole blogs about each way.

Marching Band

High School is the first level at which I was in a Marching Band, which we had developed to support the (American) football games our High School played in. Our Marching Band numbered anywhere from 100-150 people. We practiced during the summer, both indoors and outdoors. Most of the practice was for halftime performances, but we practiced songs for both halftime, performances in the stands, and parade performances. Marching band practice in Texas in the summer is no easy undertaking - because of the work, our school gave us Physical Education credit for it! I continued to play Bari Sax for the Alief Hastings Band - the "Goin' Band from Bear Country" - in Marching Band, Concert/Symphonic Band, and Stage Band.

My freshman (9th) grade year, we had to march in the Alief Chamber of Commerce Parade. In July. In our marching band uniforms (black & yellow wool outfits). In Texas. In the afternoon. Over seven miles. To this day, I have no idea how I did not have a heat stroke. Other memorable performances included the annual Foley's Thanksgiving parades, various UIL (University Interscholastic League - the organizing body for interschool competitions in Texas) Marching Band competitions, and a couple of NFL football halftime performances (one during a preseason game, another during a Monday Night Football game) at the Astrodome.

Marching band was "interesting". The High School football team was generally not that good, only managing .500 ball my last year (their best level), so high school playoff games didn't happen, but it didn't matter that much - a social event was guaranteed almost every Friday night football game.

Marching Band, as a musical venue, was not "natural" (as my high school buddy told me back then). And he's right - most High School (and College) Marching Bands have their inspiration in looking like Army infantry (complete with matching uniforms, straight rows & lines, etc.). The idea is to look "big" and "numerous". The musicianship, while important, is hard to keep completely clean outdoors and really isn't meant to be 100% "entertainment".

To make matters worse, woodwind instruments (due to physics) tend not to project as much out on the open field. Although Saxophones can get a bit more projection due to the instrument being mostly metal and tapering out to the bell, they're still significantly outnumbered by brass instrumentalists. As a result, most marching band formations tend to put the brass and percussion instruments front and center (near the 50 yard line) while the woodwind instrumentalists march somewhere around the 25 yard line.

Woo hoo. Good times.

Concert Band

At Hastings, we had two "Concert" Bands, which consisted of about 60 wind instruments (woodwind and brass) and percussion players. (We did not have a large enough music department to offer string players). The "Concert" Bands tended to play symphonic-style music (everything from baroque to classical to pops), without the violin/cello/bass sections. Our "Concert" bands were a "Symphonic" Band, made up of upperclassmen and those who earned the right to one of the Symphonic Band "chairs". The "Concert" Band was composed of everyone else (usually freshmen and sophomores who were not as proficient as the Symphonic Band players). As a result, the concert music was more difficult, as was the competition, which was no longer limited to people in my grade (in fact, almost all the competition was initially older).

I still was playing Baritone Saxophone as I had in Middle School, so the competition wasn't that numerous. However, there was a girl in the band who was two years my senior, and we competed for the one Bari Sax "seat" in Symphonic Band. She was admittedly a little bit better than I was, although the gap narrowed over time. As a result, I spent my freshman and sophomore year in Concert Band.

Much like Marching Band, Concert Band arrangements tend not to be written with a distinct Saxophone line in mind. Most Saxophone parts tend to "double" other parts (such as French Horn, Trombone, or Bass), so as a result, there's nothing very distinctive about Saxophone Concert Band arrangements.

Woo-hoo. More good times.

Stage Band

High School Stage Band was really modeled after Jazz "Big Bands" of the 30's/40's such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, etc. A typical High School Stage Band consisted of about 20 people total - 5 Trumpets, 5 Trombones (wit at least one as a Bass Trombone), 5 Saxophones (2 Altos, 2 Tenors, and 1 Bari), and maybe 4 "others" (Drummer on a Drum Set, Piano/Organist, Bass Guitar, Lead Guitar, and Secondary Percussion - Bongos/Congas etc).

The net result was a musical blast, particularly for Saxophonists (and particularly relative to Marching and Concert bands). However, because it was 20 instrumentalists drawn from about 150 or so, there was more competition for the "chairs" - and I lost out to the more senior Bari player my first two years in High School. ( I was so bored with the progression that I even tried out for Track and Field my freshman year - anything to fill the time better!)

However, by my junior year, I was more than ready to make up for lost time. Unlike Marching or Concert Band music, Stage Band music is MOST DEFINITELY written with Saxes in mind. However, sometimes the music is not written for Saxes at all! Instead, the Sax section is really the woodwind section. The woodwind players have to know how to play Flute or Clarinet (or other woodwind instruments) if the music calls for it. This was a challenge for me, but I was able to pick up a little bit of the Flute playing, as the note fingerings are very similar. Of course, sometimes, the music itself is not written at all! Instead, the soloist has to improvise based on the chords being played.

The net result is that playing in a Stage Band is much more challenging - but also much more rewarding. Looking back on it all, I'd have to say that my time in Stage Band was probably the most musical "fun" I've ever had. I only wish I had been able to devote more time to learning the other instruments, and to being able to work in smaller groups.

Inter-school (state-wide) competitions

Just as with entire bands, UIL sponsored two types of individual (or mostly individual) instrumental competitions: Solo and Ensemble music, usually based on individual arrangements with piano accompaniement (for Solos) or Ensemble (Duet, Trio, Quartets) arrangements. The Solo and Ensemble "competitions" weren't competitions as much as they were graded performances of the arrangements on their own, with a "1" being the highest grade and a "5" being the lowest.

UIL also sponsored "All State" competitions where individual instrumentalists were pitted against each other in playing a particular piece or exercise, with judges grading their performance against each other. There were four levels of competition (for us): District, Region, Area, and State, with each level of competition identifying the top percentage of "chairs" to compete on into the next level of competition.

In these competitions, I would typically wind up with a "1" or "2" in Solo+Ensemble competition. The furthest I got in the All State competitions was to the Region level (which was the deciding factor in my lack of pursuing a music degree in college).

In my final year, Texas started an All State competition in Stage Band performances. Again, I did not advance further than District level.


Being in High School Band was a worthwhile experience. Socially, I have made friends in my High School Band that have lasted me over the last two decades & will continue onwards. The musical experience was interesting - it could have been better in some spots. I'll blog about what I mean by that when I summarize my musical experiences at the end of this series of "musical experience" blogs.

How not to rob a liquor store

Written by Bob McCormick on 1/14/2007 11:27:00 PM

This thing reminds me of the old Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons. The only thing missing is an Acme product.

How not to rob a liquor store...

(Hat Tip: Brian Dunbar)

My Musical experiences - the Junior High School years

Written by Bob McCormick on 1/14/2007 11:13:00 PM

Continuing on ... from my previous post ...

I first started going to Junior High School while I was in Florida. So, as I "graduated" from Elementary School, I was given a choice in 6th grade - play in the band, or take other electives. If I was to play in the band, I would have to be in the 6th grade band. But since most other 6th graders had not played an instrument yet, this would have meant that I would have to be in beginners band ... for the 3rd year in a row! Needless to say, I wanted to play sax, but not re-learn everything I'd already learned twice. So, I opted to take other electives (which actually turned out to be interesting).

During all this time, my family and I really wanted to move back to Texas. Dallas was our first choice, but my father was only able to manage a transfer to Houston, which he accepted. We moved to Houston, but only moved into an apartment so that we could get to the city but allow my parents more time to find a permanent home. We found a small two-bedroom apartment (which with my parents in one bedroom and my 2 year old sister and I sharing the other bedroom, living space was tight.) So 7th grade saw me start the year in Houston, riding a series of overcrowded buses 15 miles in heavy traffic to the nearest Junior High School (T.H. Rogers Junior High).

That's where I was in for a shock.

All of the students at T.H. Rogers had already been through 1 solid year of instrumental playing. As a result, they all had good knowledge of their horns. On Sax, I understood the basic note fingerings, but I did not understand how to play a basic scale or how to transpose "concert" pitches to the right note for my Alto Sax.

Furthermore, students were already divided into playing for "chairs" - the "first chair" being the most accomplished player (in the mind of the director, based on the limited playing she made the students do in front of the entire band), the "second chair" being second best, and so on. In essence, the odds were stacked against me - the open competition and lack of advancing (in fact, stagnating) at the first year level had taken its toll. I wound up near the bottom of the Alto Sax players list (about next to last chair). In spite of all this, I wasn't discouraged. My playing was obviously tentative at first but was slowly getting better as I mastered the horn, the music, and the scales/music theory - even in the crowded practice conditions back at the apartment.

Then, in midyear, things changed yet again. My parents found a house in Alief (in southwest Houston), and I found myself changing schools once again, this time, to Olle Middle School. The Band director there was more sarcastic than my previous Band Director, but not as harsh. He asked me if I wanted to play Baritone. When he asked me that, I literally did not know what he meant - but I found out.

I was to play Baritone Saxophone throughout the rest of my time at Olle and through high School.

Bari Sax is an interesting horn. It produces a much lower sound than an Alto. But it can be quite a bit louder- there's quite a bit more metal to that horn (as you can see from the pictures - the Alto is on the left in the back stand and the Bari is on the right in the back stand). But it's size is a big drawback. Of all the wind instruments, I can't think of a heavier horn (other than a Tuba). Just lugging the horn back and forth between School and home can give your arms and back a HUGE workout. (You can also sweep people off their feet with the horn in its case!) It's rare to see a petite Bari Sax player just like it's rare to see a petite Tuba player.

The other major difference between Bari Sax and Alto Sax is the type of music that is typically played. Altos normally don't play the melody, but they might play a harmonic third or fifth below the melody (or sometimes just as difficult, a counterpoint to the melody). Sometimes Altos may carry the melody briefly - oftentimes with French Horns. Baris typically play the bass line, which is much easier. (Even odder is the fact that Bari Sax players can usually easily transpose Tuba/Bass parts, because the Bari is an Eb horn which is close to the difference between the normal Treble Clef Sax notation and the normal Tuba Bass Clef notation.) This means the Bari parts are nowhere near as challenging - or as interesting - as the Alto parts.

But this can work for the Bari player in school. It means that the normal concert band arrangements are much easier to master, allowing a concert school band Bari player more time to devote to working up Solo/Ensemble parts or (in the US) other All-State instrumentalist competitions.

So by the time I'd "graduated" Olle Middle School, things seemed to be well-set. Bari Sax parts were easy to play, and because I didn't have a lot of "chair" competition (most bands have only 1 Bari player at most while 2 Tenor players and 4-6 Alto players get to get into "chair" competition), I was able to concentrate more on mastering the horn and getting beyond what the immediate concert pieces had.

NEXT WEEK: High School Band "Daze" - competition and discovery

BLOG SERIES - My Musical experiences - the pre-Middle School years

Written by Bob McCormick on 1/02/2007 09:10:00 PM

I've been meaning to start blogging about my experiences playing in school bands. Encouraged by an old High School buddy of mine, I've decided to write a series about my experiences. Mostly, my experiences mirror what a lot of other people have had - the typical (and in some cases, not so typical) school band experience.

I was fortunate enough to be born into a musical family. My mother had majored in drama in college and was constantly participating in plays and musicals (and still does!). My father participated in some of these musicals (at least, when I was relatively young). My younger sister would later continue on to obtain a Masters degree in Vocal Performance at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

But back in the early 70's, we lived in Dallas, TX. My older sister (two years my senior) started to learn to play the flute in fourth grade (we were enrolled in a parochial school which taught instrument playing that early). When I made it to fourth grade, I decided to learn to play the saxophone. I just liked the instrument's shape (after all, what instrument is shaped like the first letter of its name?!?), and for some reason or other, I liked the fact that something as complicated-looking as a saxophone could make sounds and music like that. So my parents and I went to a local music store in downtown Dallas, started "rent-to-own" payments on a used beginner's King Cleveland Alto Saxophone, and off I went to early morning music lessons.

Saxophone playing, like other woodwind instruments, is kind of like learning to read music as if it were braille. Unlike some instruments (piano, guitar), you can't look at where your hands or fingers need to be in order to play the note - the instrument's design prevents you from seeing them. You simply have to know that a particular note has a particular fingering. The result is that when you learn to play saxophone, musical tones are converted into finger positions. (The symptom is so prevalent that, to this day, as I read choir music, I find myself "fingering" the notes I'm trying to sing as if I were playing them on my sax!)

During fourth grade, I was able to learn enough of Alto Saxophone playing that was able to advance from the beginners group up to our school's concert band. It wasn't much - a group of about 50 or so wind and percussion instrumentalists all the way up to the eighth grade - but it was good progress for me.

Unfortunately, my family moved to Florida after that first year. I enrolled in a public school, but that meant going to a new Elementary school, where there was no musical instrument training. For the first half of the year, I was out of luck. But in the second half of the year, the school district sent a music teacher to the Elementary school to offer kids the chance to start to learn to play instruments. So for the second year in a row, learned how to play Saxophone all over again. Of course, it was not difficult - I'd already learned how to read and play the music. I even played a solo from the beginner's Saxophone book at the fifth grade musical production at the end of the year.

All in all, my saxophone playing had been a little bit frustrating, but I felt that I was pretty good at it and certainly wanted to continue on.

NEXT WEEK: I'll blog about my Junior High experiences ... and a "rude awakening" for my sax playing.