May 29, 2021

Improving Musical Notation

 Invention is a fickle enterprise. The identical thing or idea can be created or discovered independently in different places and at different times. Its first appearance may not be the one that enjoys the most influence. If multiple things are devised for the same purpose, the “best” one may not be the one that is universally adopted. For example, there is general agreement that the Betamax videocassette recorder was, by various measures, better than its VHS rival, yet VHS machines dominated the consumer market.

This is by way of introducing a variation on the conventional way Western music is notated. I don’t expect to change music notation, but I do want to suggest that a slightly different convention might have achieved at least a minor advantage.

Piano and vocal scores are typically represented using two staves, one above the other. Each staff comprises five horizontal, equally spaced lines. The lower (bass) staff serves as an extension of the upper (treble) staff with an imaginary eleventh line between them. Notes lower on the page within this system are lower in pitch.

In this scheme, a note on the bottom line of the treble staff is a fifth above a note on the top line of the bass staff. So-called ledger lines are used to indicate notes on one staff or the other that are above or below that staff. For example, middle C on the upper staff is represented by a note below the staff with a short horizontal line through it (the ledger line). The same C on the lower staff is represented by a note above the staff with a ledger line through it.

Because of the relationship of the staves to one another, notes in identical positions on their respective staves are not only different in pitch but are also different notes. For example, a note on the middle line of the top staff is a B, whereas the same notation on the lower staff is a D in the next lower octave. (The respective pitches are sometimes designated B4 and D3 in the system in which middle C is designated as C4.)

I suspect that beginning piano students learn the notes on the bottom staff as easily as those on the top. As a clarinetist, I learned the notes on the treble staff long ago but had no use for the bass staff. That is, until I began as an adult to sing bass in church choirs. I still have not learned notes on the bass staff cold. I mostly identify them using a cumbersome mental transformation that sees a note and mentally increases its pitch by a third. For example, what looks like an A were it on the treble staff becomes a C on the bass staff. This is slow and error-prone. It is particularly dysfunctional when I’m trying to pick out a part on the piano. (In no way am I a pianist.) Wouldn’t it be easier if a C on one staff were also a C on the other, albeit in a different octave?

Figure 1 shows the location of Cs on the two staves. Figure 2 shows the location of Cs on the two staves were the staves to be separated not be a fifth but by a seventh. Instead of there being one imaginary line between the staves, there would be two. This would make all the notes on the treble staff the same as those on the bass staff, albeit two octaves higher. Seemingly, this would be an easier system to learn and to play from. The only drawback of this hypothetical system is that music would require slightly more vertical space on the page.

Alas, the time for this innovation is past. No one who has learned all the notes already would want to change to the revised scheme, and learning the new system would make use of existing sheet music difficult. I don’t know just how the current notational convention was codified, but I think its designer or designers missed an opportunity.


Figure 1
Figure 1. C notes in conventional notation


Figure 2
Figure 2. C notes in revised notation








May 21, 2021

A Terrible Terrible Book

Being a fan of Stacey Abrams generally and having read an excerpt of her new thriller While Justice Sleeps in Vanity Fair, I will probably buy the book. To help me make a purchase decision, I read the comments offered on the Barnes & Nobel Web site and scanned the comments left by (presumed) readers. The comments left were mostly positive. One writer, however, gave the book a single star (out of five). This reader, self-reported as being from Atlanta, Georgia, left his or her comments anonymously. The review was the following:

One has to doubt that Anonymous actually read While Justice Sleeps. Moreover, Anonymous failed to capitalize “marxist,” lied about spoilers in the review, and offered questionable descriptors.

The review, of course, is not a review at all, but a gratuitous attack by a nasty right-winger eager to display hatred of the author and all she stands for. It is sad that this “review” is a sign of our times. So many people have lost the ability to be objective or even to agree to disagree and only want to demonize and destroy anyone who does not believe as they do.

I had hoped that the end of  Donald Trump’s term in office would decrease the hostility of public discourse that we had recently come to expect (and, reluctantly, endure). How wrong I was!

May 15, 2021

Can’t Eat Just One

Herr Foods Inc. Logo
Herr Foods Inc. Logo

I am excessively fond of potato chips, particularly sour cream and onion potato chips. I try not to buy this snack too often, as I often consume the contents of a 9-ounce bag in a single day, though not necessarily in a single sitting. Sometimes, it takes me a bit more than 24 hours to polish off a bag. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to potato chips, as I can go weeks without eating any. But occasionally, in a moment of weakness, I throw a bag of potato chips into my grocery cart. If a bag of chips is in the house, it is hard for me to resist snacking—a few chips here, a few chips there, and, suddenly, the bag is empty. This is surely not a healthy habit.

Two days ago, I bought a large bag of Herr’s sour cream and onion potato chips. I resolved to summon more than my usual willpower and make this bag last. In magic marker, I wrote the purchase date on the package. I began my snacking eating just two chips at a time. Since then, I have been snacking more expansively, but the bag is still about half-full. (I may be kidding myself, but I think that’s an honest estimate.)

I am determined to make my potato chip stash last for a while, though without becoming monkish about it. There is something comforting simply knowing that a bag of chips remains atop my refrigerator. The text of my willpower continues.

May 14, 2021

Who You Gonna Believe, Me or Your Lyin’ Eyes

 Initially, Republicans denied that Donald Trump instigated the insurrection of January 6. Lately, some Republicans are denying that anything of consequence happened on that date. Citizens simply entered the Capitol as though they were tourists, according to this latest GOP story. This assertion, of course, is ludicrous. The strategy, however, is distressingly familiar.

Just as, in his trial, Derek Chauvin’s attorney tried to convince the jury that what they saw was not what they thought they saw, the Republicans are now trying to convince us that what we saw on January 6 was not what we thought we saw.

Just as Derek Chauvin was convicted, so should be the revisionist Republicans. Although we do not actually know first-hand that Biden was legitimately elected—we have no rational reason to believe otherwise, of course—we saw first-hand what happened at the Capitol on January 6. Do not let the GOP tell you that you didn’t see what you certainly saw.

May 6, 2021

Defending Benjamin Franklin, Round Four

It now seems inevitable that the building housing Benjamin Franklin High School, from which I graduated in 1964, will be renamed by the Orleans Parish School Board. (See my posts about the NOLA Public Schools Facility Renaming Initiative here, here, and here.) My classmates and I have been trying to head off the name change and discourage altering the name of the charter school itself. (Franklin was once a public school housed in the old Carrolton Courthouse. It is now a charter school in a modern building designed as a high school.) We have been making the case that Benjamin Franklin, despite having once owned slaves, is nonetheless someone whose name can proudly be attached to a college prep high school.

I have not addressed the nature of the NOLA Public Schools Facility Renaming Initiative itself. A classmate, Thomas J. Wagner, has done so, and, with his permission, I am reproducing his letter to the editor of The Advocate that he titled “New Orleans Public School Board Flawed Standard for Facility Naming.” Although this letter addresses the situation in New Orleans, its principles are sound and should be applied in other circumstances where the names of public assets are being reconsidered. (Note that I added a link to the Isaacson essay referred to in the first line.)

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Two weeks ago, the Advocate published Walter Isaacson’s clear and compelling defense for retaining Benjamin Franklin as the name of two New Orleans public schools. Mr. Isaacson forcefully argues that this decision should be based upon the “moral arc of [Franklin’s] life and his [lifelong] quest for improvement.” No one can credibly gainsay Mr. Isaacson’s defense of Franklin nor justify the removal of Franklin’s name in light of his overwhelming accomplishments and contributions to our country and to mankind at large. 

The Board’s misjudgment in calling for the removal of Franklin’s name stems from its flawed negative standard: “The School Board is fundamentally opposed to retaining names of school facilities for persons who were slave owners, Confederate officials, and segregation supporters.”

This negative standard dispositively eliminates naming facilities for numerous honorable and worthy persons whose lives and careers have contributed immensely to our community, city, state, nation, and beyond. This flawed standard requires a myopic focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive. It limits decisions regarding naming and renaming as a choice among a list of “who is left?’ after disposing of the names of many greater and more honorable persons.

Ever worse, this negative standard is extremely divisive. The current standard focuses on racial issues, and nothing else. Others can rightfully argue for eliminating persons on the basis of other failures, flaws, and faults, such as issues involving gender, sexuality, abortion, anti-abortion, spousal and child abuse, non-support, perjury for profit, and so forth. 

Instead of this negative approach, Mr. Isaacson’s comments should guide the School Board to set a positive standard, focusing upon a person’s entire life while allowing consideration of those negative aspects that are relevant to the institution, community, country, and beyond. Such a focus is most appropriate for the School Board as it is better grounded in the truths and realities of human imperfection while recognizing the betterment of individuals and mankind through education, experience, and understanding. 

Thomas J. Wagner
Franklin alum, 1964

May 4, 2021

Defending Benjamin Franklin, Round Three

Benjamin Franklin High School
Benjamin Franklin High School, New Orlenas, Louisiana

 As I explained in earlier posts, the Orleans Parish School Board is engaged in a process of renaming school buildings bearing the names of people who owned slaves, were officials of the Confederate States of America, or who promoted segregation. I earlier wrote to the school board and composed a letter to the editor of The Tiimes-Picayune about this process. It now appears that the renaming of the building in which Benjamin Franklin High School is housed is inevitable. What I hope is not inevitable is the renaming of the charter school itself, something that the governing board is contemplating, perhaps even advocating. In the hope of derailing any change of the name of the school, I wrote the letter below to the Head of School, Dr. Patrick Widhalm. (I have no idea why Dr. Widhalm is not called a principal.) I wanted also to address the President of the Board of Directors, Ms. Alea M. Cott, but I did not have an e-mail address for her.

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Dear Dr. Widhalm,

I attended the April 15 AAEE board meeting via Zoom. It was not a comforting experience. Parliamentary procedure was lax, allowing vague motions and unstructured and prolonged debate. But it was the board’s apparent indifference to the name “Benjamin Franklin” that was most upsetting.

I would have liked the board to have voiced opposition to the renaming of the building, but circumstances suggest that it would have been to no avail. Perhaps silence was the wiser course.

But the suggestion that the name of the program should be revisited if the building is renamed, as it seemingly will be, seems a cowardly response to the foolishly inflexible policy of the OPSB. This craven notion was in evidence in the letter sent to school stakeholders on April 26: “Moving forward, Benjamin Franklin High School will implement a plan for engaging our community in a robust, meaningful dialogue about our charter school’s name, independent of OPSB’s process.” I cannot imagine what constituency such a plan is intended to placate. Such a “dialogue” can only increase the anger and anxiety of legitimate school stakeholders, who have overwhelmingly expressed their support for the school’s traditional name.

I admit that I never thought deeply about my high school’s name while I was a student. Reluctantly, I must thank the OPSB for motivating me to investigate the life of Benjamin Franklin. What I discovered is that Franklin, surely an imperfect human being, as are we all, accomplished more in one lifetime than most “famous” or even admirable” people. One can hardly find a better rôle model for curious and motivated New Orleanian adolescents than Benjamin Franklin, who was equally interested in personal self-improvement and in that of the body politic.

Although I would prefer that the school’s building not be renamed, I care less about that than I do about the name of the charter school itself. If the only criteria for an appropriate eponym for the building are that the person so chosen not have owned slaves, helped run the Confederacy, or promoted segregation, many of history’s greatest scoundrels will qualify. Let the school board pick one of these or, better still, name the building without reference to any person at all. Call it, for example, the Lakefront Academy Building.

Irrespective of the actions of the OPSB, there is no reason to rename Benjamin Franklin High School. Its name is ideal, and I am disappointed that the board of AAEE cannot see that this is so. No public dialogue on the matter is called for. Instead, the board should acknowledge the school board’s right to choose the building name, while concurrently reasserting the propriety of the charter’s present designation.

Best regards,
Lionel E. Deimel, Ph.D.
Class of ’64

May 2, 2021

Defending Benjamin Franklin, Round Two

I recently wrote about the proposed renaming of my high school by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), one element of what is officially called the NOLA Public Schools Facility Renaming Initiative. The objective of the project is to rename facilities bearing the names of slaveholders, Confederate States of America officials, or segregation proponents. It was never clear how absolute were the board’s criteria, but the involvement of professional historians suggested that other considerations might be taken into account. Additionally, public comments were solicited on the project,

Because Benjamin Franklin once owned slaves, the OPSB had put the name Benjamin Franklin High School on the chopping block. In my own citizen comment on this matter, I defended Franklin, arguing that he was much more than what is now seen as his one unforgivable sin. (That contribution may be read in the blog post referenced above.)

What had not been clear when the renaming process began was that the school board was not proposing to rename the school, a charter school with its own governing board, but the building in which the school is housed. That building is owned by the school system. Only the governing board of the charter, Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education, Inc. (AAEE), can rename the school itself. There is no bar to a school’s having a name different from that of its building. It has become obvious that even the members of AAEE did not originally recognize the limits of the OPSB initiative. In any case, renaming the building honoring a well-known patriot and ideal rôle model for New Orleans adolescents seemed gratuitously stupid.

The public comment period was scheduled to end on April 30. However, the OPSB voted tentatively on April 20 to rename 20 school facilities, including Benjamin Franklin’s. The board took a final vote to move forward with the renaming on April 22. Both votes were 6–1. Remarkably, the board argued that the name changes were obligatory, given the policy adopted in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Apparently, modifying an inflexible policy that demands outrageous acts by the very body that adopted the policy was not considered an option.

On April 27, in response to the OPSB action, I wrote the letter below to the editor of The Times-Picayune. To date, it has not been published.

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The Orleans Parish School Board’s desire to purge the names of known racists from its school buildings is commendable. That it has chosen to do so in the case of Benjamin Franklin High School and to make that decision before the end of its own declared public comment period, however, illustrates that the board is operating in bad faith and using bad logic. It clearly does not care what the public has to say in this matter.

Benjamin Franklin, a scientist, diplomat, philosopher, founding father, and civic activist, could hardly be a better inspiration to New Orleans students aspiring to both academic and personal excellence. But according to the board’s inflexible criteria, Franklin’s having once owned slaves justifies the excision of his name from any Orleans Parish school building. That Franklin repudiated slavery and worked to eliminate it, eventually becoming president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, apparently is irrelevant to the board. As I wrote in my own public comment, “[t]o deny Franklin’s value as a rôle model because he once held views we today find odious, despite his eventually repudiating those ideas, is to deny the value of repentance and rehabilitation, perhaps even the value of education itself.”

It is to be hoped that the Orleans Parish School Board will review its ill-considered decision regarding Benjamin Franklin High School. And, should Franklin’s building be renamed, the board of the charter school housed there should proudly retain the school’s name.