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January 3, 2005



"I thought about writing [a book], until I realized that students, especially teens, don't read them. But they're always online. So I thought, rather than a book, why not a Web site?"

And just like that, violinmasterclass.com was born.

It took Kurt Sassmannshaus, chairman of the string department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music three years of intensive work to bring it online this past September.

The site uses video to show rather than tell.

Barrymore Laurence Scherer (what a great name), who studied the violin briefly in his youth, raved about the site in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal, noting that among the wonderful things about it is the fact that you can repeat a lesson ad infinitum.

Just try that with your teacher.

Each facet of violin technique forms a separate lesson on the website.

Exercises are provided for beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, as well as master-class demonstrations.

Amazingly, the site is free to all visitors.

Sassmannhaus said this was extremely important, "because a 12-year-old in China or Eastern Europe doesn't have a Visa card in his pocket sign up for a subscription."

The site's going to be translated into as many languages as possible.

It's been a smash hit: over four million hits since its September launch.

Here's the article.

    Bowing to Technology: Fiddling in Cyberspace

    Of all string instruments in classical music, the violin is king.

    Such great composers as Bach, Mozart and Johann Strauss II were violinists, and numerous great violinists were also accomplished composers, from Baroque master Giuseppe Tartini to Nicolo Paganini, Pablo Sarasate and Fritz Kriesler.

    In every era, leading violinists wrote instructional treatises that codified the most advanced playing technique of their time - Mozart's father, Leopold, wrote a standard one, and major 20th-century works include volumes by Karl Flesch and Ivan Galamian.

    Kurt Sassmannshaus, chairman of the string department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, knows them all.

    An internationally revered teacher, he was flying to judge a Texas competition in 2001 when he conceived of launching the venerable art of violin instruction into cyberspace.

    "Because progress in the field since Flesch's and Galamian's time warranted a new book, I thought about writing one, until I realized that students, especially teens, don't read them. But they're always online. So I thought, rather than a book, why not a Web site?"

    After three years of intensive work - funded by a substantial grant from the Dorothy & Richard Starling Foundation of Houston - www.violinmasterclass.com was launched in September.

    This is a compelling application of modern Web technology to a fundamental aspect of music, one that presses that educational hot button, "distance learning." Prof. Sassmannshaus observes that "physical motions involved in violin playing are always difficult to describe in print.

    But with film, the motions can be demonstrated visually to students."

    These motions include everything from correct hand positions for a good vibrato to the subtle right-arm and hand positions necessary for bow up and down in order to trill continuously on a note.

    Those familiar with the intimacy of the teacher-student relationship in music may wonder how the nuances of violin technique can be taught at long distance.

    Prof. Sassmannshaus responds that "the site is intended to supplement a student's actual teacher, not as a teacher substitute."

    Having studied the violin briefly in my youth - albeit with little hope of rivaling a Jack Benny let alone a Jascha Heifetz - I was particularly eager to put Prof. Sassmannshaus's invention through its paces.

    Melissa Godoy, the site's producer, and the director of each video segment, says that: "We designed it to be very appealing to young people, with elegant warm colors, and visual shapes, so that your eyes don't get tired using it."

    While download times for the streaming videos depend upon the speed of your computer and Internet connection, the site is very easy to navigate.

    And with a click of the mouse you can repeat instructional demonstrations infinitely.

    Every facet of violin technique forms a separate lesson, starting with the basics: how to stand, and how to hold the violin and the bow; how to determine the proper size violin for a student, and how to determine whether to use a chin rest or shoulder rest.

    The lessons are presented on an easily navigable menu, covering techniques for the right and left hands, from bowing and vibrato to tasty virtuosic effects such as double stops (playing two notes at once) and harmonics (high, flute-like tones made by partially stopping a string with light finger pressure).

    The lessons involve students of all levels - those who log on are not only shown highly accomplished musicians in the advanced stages, but also relatively inexperienced peers working under Prof. Sassmannshaus's encouraging eye.

    Each technique is defined, with exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, as well as master-class demonstrations.

    Prof. Sassmannshaus has devised this lesson plan with exceptional care and logic, placing each lesson into the context of a finished performance.

    For instance, the section on bowing includes lessons on bow speed across the strings and pressure, as well as the varying sounding point - where the bow actually touches the string between the fingerboard and bridge of the violin - all crucial to achieving varied and expressive tone.

    Then, to put it all together, there is a performance by Prof. Sassmannshaus's own students of Schubert's Duo in A, which employs these specific techniques.


    Not only invaluable to actual violin students, this Web site can be tremendously useful to anyone with an interest in the mechanics of violin technique.

    Parents of student violinists can intimately examine what goes into the training of their budding players.

    Non-violinist composers have a visual lexicon of violin technique that can help them to write more idiomatically for the instrument.

    Even the nonplaying music lover can visit this site to see up close and personal just how the violin is played to produce the sounds familiar in concert repertoire.

    The Web site also offers lists of graded repertoire for practice and advice on how to set up your practice routine.

    There's a forum for discussion with "Prof. S," as well as facilities for e-mailing him directly with private queries.

    As no music exists in a vacuum, there's a continually updated list of competitions and auditions world-wide.

    In the final section of the master classes, "Putting it all together," Prof. Sassmannshaus offers concise and trenchant pointers on how to apply technique to learning repertoire.

    He emphasizes the importance of finding out about the life of a composer to gain psychological and personal insight into his music.

    Thanks to Starling Foundation funding and to support from a developing group of sponsors, the site is free to all visitors.

    "This was very important to us," he says, "because a 12-year-old in China or Eastern Europe doesn't have a Visa card in his pocket to sign up for a subscription."

    Continuing sponsorship will ensure that the site remains online with any and all necessary upgrades.

    Moreover, in a global market, sponsorship will pay for German and Chinese translations of the site.

    "Then I want Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish - as many languages as we can possibly afford."

    Languages aside, even at the startup the response has been overwhelming, with over four million hits since the September launch, according to Dr. Nina Perlove, Executive Director of the Stirling Project Foundation, Inc. in Cincinnati.

    That's enough to make any webmaster trill with satisfaction.

January 3, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Whistling Microwave Teakettle


Whoa, Nelly.

If you won't buy me a Mercedes-Benz, then at least get me this Whistling Microwave Teakettle for my birthday.

I mean, look at it.

From the catalog (the website for some reason has no descriptive text):

    Safely boil water in the microwave

    Cool-touch soft-grip handle for safety and comfort.

    2-cup capacity with measurements in ounces, cups, and milliliters.

    Listen for the whistle and you'll know immediately when water is boiling for tea, hot cocoa or instant soup.

I really am about six years old at heart; I mean, this thing just looks like Christmas to me, with that cool red funnel-shaped whistle and all.

One feature I really like is that without the top, it looks like any old plain vanilla measuring cup.

It only acquires its superpowers when you put on the lid.

I can't wait to try this baby out.

$9.95 here.

January 3, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Corporate secrets unmasked


Ever wish you could get in touch with a company, but then decide not to bother because it's impossible to figure out whom to call or email?

Well, guess what?

You've already paid to have this information compiled for your personal use.

You just never knew it till now.

The General Services Administration of the United States government's Federal Citizen Information Center has gone and published a consumer resource handbook to put all this until-now elusive material right there at your fingertips, ready for you to use.

They've even gone a step further and placed the handbook online, right here.

More than 650 corporate headquarters are listed, with mailing addresses, email addresses, toll-free phone numbers, TDD (Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf) numbers and, in many cases, the actual name of the person to contact.

After reading this past Thursday's New York Times piece about the near impossibility of actually getting a human being to deal with when you try to interact with a company, this website comes as a welcome counterweight.

But wait -there's more.

In case you don't find exactly what you need, the site provides a number of references that might be useful for further searching.

In addition, there are lists of resources under the following headings:

• Automobile

• Attorneys General

• Banking

• Insurance

• Securities

• Utilities

• Weights and Measures

• Federal

• BBBs

• Consumer Organizations

• Associations

• Military

Something for just about everyone.

January 3, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Hey, what's with the grass in your bathtub?


Ha, fooled ya.

It's actually a rubbery mat you put in your tub; it's got a photographic image of grass, or stones if you prefer, on top.

Called the Widget, the mat measures 27" x 16"; suction cups underneath hold it in place.

$39.95 at Mxyplyzyk in New York (125 Greenwich Avenue at 13th Street; tel: 212-989-4300).

No, I couldn't find it anywhere else, and even more annoying, the store doesn't allow you to order from its website.

[via Marianne Rohrlich and the New York Times]

January 3, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen's home page


Don't ask me how I happened on it, 'cause I don't know.

But it is the virtual home of the master (above).

His page is chock-full of links to interesting stuff, including his blog, his resume, serious writing, musings (the one entitled "The Measure of Success in Life" I found particularly interesting), software he's written, and random things.

Learn from the master.

This past November he was a featured speaker at a Los Angeles awards show and conference organized by Billboard, the music business weekly.

After hanging around the record and movie industry crowd there, he told Wired magazine, he realized "the content people have no clue. I mean, no clue. The cost of bandwidth is going down to nothing. The content distribution industry is going to evaporate."

Cohen said as much at the conference's panel discussion on file-sharing, and the audience sat in stunned silence.

[via Wired magazine]

January 3, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bluetooth Motorcycle Helmet


This reminds me of LG's microwave mashups, where they combine a microwave oven with a toaster or coffee maker.

Motorola suggests you clip their HS830 Bluetooth headset onto a motorcycle helmet (that's the Fighter Prestige from MOMO in the picture) and then chat while you're roaring along on your Harley.


The side-mounted microphone is supposedly wind and weather resistant.

Sure hope it's got built-in noise suppression technology; otherwise it's gonna be a one-way conversation.


The headset comes off and attaches to a neck strap (?) so you can walk around with it if you like.

[via Wired magazine]

January 3, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

MorphWorld: Patricia Arquette into Jennifer Garner


It's been awhile since I ran this once-regular feature; I don't really know why that is.


A few readers asked about it, where it went and all.

It was just resting.

Kind of a "time-out."

A feature is never ever gone: it just appears less often.

Sort of like Paul Valéry's memorable epigram, to wit:

"A poem is never finished, only abandoned."

Patricia Arquette appears to be on Sophie Dahl's banana diet, she's gotten so thin.

Jennifer Garner, meanwhile, continues to pursue the Lara Flynn Boyle beauty ideal, taking it down to bone, tendon, and collagen-inflated lips.

You know that old saying, "Insanity is contagious - you catch it from your kids?"

I think she's caught something from Ben Affleck that's made her get so weird.

Of course, it could be just the usual fine grind produced by the "star-making machinery."

January 3, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Swiss Army Gloves, Groomba, MiVo, and Beau-toxe - essentials for the year 2020?


David Borgenicht, co-author of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook," wrote a great piece for yesterday's Washington Post Opinion section about things we'll need in the year 2020.

It was so funny, I thought whoever syndicates Dave Barry should consider signing Borgenicht to replace Barry, who's taking a leave from his column.

Here's the story.

    We'll Need a Threatometer...

    If you believe the sci-fi films of the 20th century, life in the year 2020 will indeed be much simpler - either because we'll all be wearing spandex jumpsuits all the time, or because we'll all be living underground like cockroaches. But despite my natural tendency to think about the Worst-Case Scenarios (™ and © Quirk Productions), I consider myself a realistic optimist.

    As a result, I think the future in store for us 15 years from now is unlikely to be dramatically different from the present - just dirtier, multifunctional and miniaturized.

    So here's my short list of the essential gear for surviving in 2020:

    • EyePod Sunglasses. From AppleApparel, these special spectacles will not only screen out those increasingly nasty UV rays but will also filter out the visual and aural messages that will be assaulting us from all directions, via electronic billboards on everything from street signs to urinals. These glasses will be essential for maintaining sanity, focus and safe driving skills. They will also, however, allow the wearer to download music, videos and the latest episode of Dr. Phil.

    • Nasal filters. These will be standard issue due to air pollution, the ever-increasing threat of bioterrorism and the continued ubiquity of stick-on air fresheners.

    • Swiss Army Gloves. Repackaging the basics for human survival in the ultimately handy format. The 2020 model will include a compass, scissors, pocketknife, sewing kit, flint, magnifying glass, gas mask, water purifier, GPS-enabled satellite phone, web browser and, of course, a toothpick.

    • George Foreman Low-Fat Grill with Meat Thermometer/Terrorist Threatometer. The latest version will not only remove all the fat from a hamburger, but also monitor the color-coded alerts from the Homeland Security Advisory System, allowing you to decide in an instant if you need to eat and run.

    • Groomba. Indispensable in a time-challenged society: A tiny, spiderlike robotic grooming device that will trim your hair, shave you and give you a facial while you are sleeping.

    • MiVo. This microscopic camera implant will record your life onto a small hard drive in 30-minute segments. Via remote control, Homeland Security can use it to watch you packing your suitcase for a flight; or you can set it yourself to record a "season pass" of all family events, skipping the boring parts.

    • Beau-toxe. A new Botox-infused cologne that will simultaneously eliminate your wrinkles and attract the opposite sex. Essential? You be the judge.

    • Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. Still good for sooooo many things.

    January 3, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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