Dr. Chuck Sings the Blues in Geneva

So the week started out great with a wonderful time in Spain at the LaSalle Conference (post) and meeting with the campus project. The second half of the week was in Geneva and leading up to my debut singing with a live band for the first time. The singing was Friday (below) – lets start with Thursday.

Thursday – CERN Tour

If you are in a hurry to just see the video of me singing with the Canettes Blues Band click here on YouTube. Otherwise read on to get all the detail – and the inside story about what really happened during my visit to CERN and at Mr. Pickwick Pub that Friday evening…

I woke Thursday morning at 7AM after about 2.5 hours of sleep – I did not want to risk missing my flight and Barcelona traffic is really bad. It took nearly 30 minutes to get a cab but one finally arrived and I made it to the airport in plenty of time.

I slept for most of the flight from Barcelona to
to Geneva. When I arrived, Steve was waiting for me at the exit to customs to whisk me to CERN. Of course we drove in his 1969 Plymouth Valiant. It is the perfect Bluesmobile for Blues Man like Steve. We went straight back to CERN to get a tour of the pit.

The LHC beam will be turning on in a few weeks and then the public will never be allowed back down because of radiation levels. Steve has been a long-time tour guide for the Atlas detector pit and this would be his “farewell tour” – I was honored to be on his last tour – I was also excited to be able to see the completed detector. My family had taken a detector tour in 2004 as part of a family vacation to Geneva when the detector was about 10% done – so for me it was like a trip back home.

After we had some coffee and caught up it was time to go for the tour – it turned out that about 10 more people had heard about the “farewell tour” and we met them in the CERN welcome Center. We ended up with several Physicists and one brought their family. Jeremy Herr was also in town doing some lecture taping so we met him for a tour as well. I bought a bunch of CERN logoware – I am a sucker for science stuff.

Steve took us down the tour – doing a super job as usual – Steve has a wonderful way to be able to explain something complex to a non-technical audience in a way they can understand. We started in the control room – it was pretty basic – for the Angels and Demons film they made their own control room because the real one was just too boring. Angels and Demons is a thriller similar to “Davinci Code” but this time it is set set in the Vatican and CERN.

The coolest part of the control room was that the detectors were already working and data was coming out. Gamma rays come down from the sky and you can see them as the rays shoot through the detectors. You can see background noise and then when a ray comes through – it computes a track – right there on the screen. The Sun is running diagnostics on the detectors all the time. Sweet.

Once the tour started we found out that Sony Pictures was filming in the pit – they were filming the “making of Angels and Demons”. This was not the movie – it was the “making of”. They had a camera hung on a crane going down in the pit. We walked around the film crew as we made our way through the tour.

They have pieces of the various detectors on display for us to touch – it is all so amazing that they basically invent all this high tech stuff and make it work the first time it is invented. And since they have been ding this physics detector thing so long – they even know how stuff wears out under intense radiation and how to build stuff to be repaired. Yikes – wicked cool.

The detector was Awesome – so many intricate widgets – and Steve explained each one – my favorite bit is the cameras that are used to check to see if things are in the right place or if they have moved out of place. It is important to know physically where things are so when the detectors produce data – it will be accurate. Because of the filming – the normally closed stuff had been pulled open so we could see the intricate detail of the five-story end cap and the detectors that go around the barrel.

At one point we stopped at a gantry and we noticed that the Sony movie camera was pointing right at us. Like a bunch of tourists we all whipped out our cameras and started taking pictures of the movie camera. After we had our fill of taking pictures of the camera – Steve went on answering questions – and gesturing at the detector – I noticed that the camera was moving ever so slightly and then following Steve as he described things – I think after about five minutes the whole group realized we were being filmed and everyone got really actor-like – we intently listened to Steve’s questions and looked where he pointed. The camera followed us for about 10 minutes. I figured – we had a chance of being in the film (more later).

When the tour finished, we thanked everyone and I went to Steve’s home for dinner. Jeremy was going to join us. My favourite Raclette restaurant in Freney was now closed due to some village politics with the mayor – so instead we had a delightful Raclette prepared by Steven and Valerie.

I had come to visit Steve with my family in 2004 and had met Steve’s children – they had grown so much since 2004 and it was nice to visit again. I hoped that I might bring my family to Paris at the Sakai conference and come back to Geneva with my family to visit again.

That night I slept in the “princess suite” – Steve’s daughter’s room. Valerie has it decorated a really cool bedspread with tiny bells on it – each time you move – there is a tiny tinkling noise – not so loud as to wake you up – just loud enough to gently remind me that I was indeed a princess for at least one night.

Friday – Sing the Blues

Knowing that I had had about 6 hours sleep in the past four days, Steve let me sleep in Friday morning – he worked form home while I got a good night’s sleep. By the time I got up and about it was time to go to CERN to have lunch.

I took the opportunity of lunch at CERN cafeteria 1 to make my re-acquaintence with the delightful “Steak Entrecote with Frites” – my absolute favorite meal at CERN. We had lunch with Jeremy and worked out the details for the filming for the evening.

After lunch we had a coffee and while we drinking the coffee, Mick Storr comes by and sits and talks – we catch up on lecture recording, teaching and learning, I show him my fancy Rails lecture taped at Polytechnic University of Valencia – and we discuss the pedagogy that it enables and encourages. We also talk about me learning cricket (thanks to the 2006 family vacation to Lancaster and Adrian, Miguel, and Rob taking us on a picnic and teaching us cricket). Since Mick is a British ex-pat it is always fun to talk cricket with him. We also talked about the Rugby match I went to when I was in Cambridge visited John Norman and his family.

After the coffee was done, we went to Steve’s office. He had some work to do so I took the opportunity to go and practice my song. I took my iPhone and walked to a desolate corner of a CERN parking lot so no one would hear me sing with my iPhone earphones in my ear.

Steve sends a note around to the Canettes fan club mailing list hinting at me singing. One astute fan quickly googles me and finds my earlier blog post (post) about being nervous about singing – and so the cat is out of the bag that I am a Karaoke singer and not a blues singer. A bit of nervousness amongst the band ensues.

At 3PM – the gig preparation starts – we meet up with Simon Baird (lead guitar) to load up the stuff at the CERN music club building. Then we get into the Plymouth Valiant to go down to the Gig at Mr. Pickwick Pub in downtown Geneva. On the drive down inthe Valiant Bluesmobile, Steven and I sing the song together several times listening to my iPod. Steve coaches me to relax a bit, stop singing like Frank Sinatra, and feel the words more like Muddy Waters. I try – singing in the car with Steve does help. At least I am less embarassed singing in front of Steve.

The band sets up for a while – I focus on getting ready to videotape and waiting for Jeremy to arrive – I do a stop motion of the setup – we will see how well it turns out. I meet the other band members I mostly talk to Connie Potter (Vocals) and David Boys (Percussion) and Chris Thomas (Connie’s boyfriend) who also works at CERN.

It turns out that Chris was working at the CERN pit during the filming of Angels and Demons and he was working with the film crew while they were filming us. Chris said we were not going to be in the film and that the the only reason that they had filmed us was that they wanted to get the right size for humans as they had made a computer model for that area of the detector and a set for the gantry on which we were standing and wanted to see human-sized people in context to calibrates their models. So instead of being a star – we are just calibration – ah well it was still fun.

At this point a little history is necessary – I met Steve in 1999 when I came to CERN to help with some lecture recording software I had written (Sync-O-Matic). Steven is a University of Michigan Physicist that worked at CERN on the Atlas project. He loves softball and singing the blues. He knew I was a serious Karaoke nut. Over the years I got to CERN about once per year. One time I even interviewed Robert Cailiau – the co-inventor of the world-wide web – at one point in the video Robert talks to Steve who is also in the room with me.

I have been on the Canettes mailing list for years. When it became clear that I could be in Geneva during the Mr. Pickwick concert – Steve suggested I sing a song. I did a intersection between his set list and Karaoke tracks I could get and came up with seven songs – we finally narrowed it down to “I got my Mojo Working”. I took a recording of the band doing Mojo Working – and since Mojo is exactly 12-bar blues – I took one of the bridge sections and pasted it in enough times to make a lyrics free “Karaoke” track. I practiced this for about three months daily during my two hours communting from Lansing to Ann Arbor. I got pretty comfortable with the song – at least for Karaoke.

Back at Mr. Pickwick Pub, Connie had to take off to get dressed so I got to do the singing for Connie’s mic check – the band played Mojo Working and I sang – but apparently I sang like a tiny bird – with no strength at all. When I sang it sounded tiny – when Steve came up and sang into the same microphone it sounded really big. This made the already nervous band more nervous. It made me a bit nervous – but mostly it really clarified for me – that I needed to punch out my song when the time came – don’t sit back – kick it out.

After mic check – Simon Baird (who is very talented and concerned about quality and seems to be the second-in-command) pulled Steve into the green room to express his concerns about me singing (I am guessing). Afterwards the agreement was that Steve would sing the first verse to get me into the song and I would pick up after the first verse and that if I sucked – Steve would just come take the microphone back and I would sing chorus with Connie. This would limit any damage to the band’s reputation that I might do.

So we came up with the ruse of getting me on stage as the cameraman. It worked and I realized that I had to kick out some sound or get the hook – thankfully I had practiced singing loud in my car so I survived – after 2 verses I actually enjoyed it and went out into the crowd for a chorus.

I think I did OK for never singing with a band before. It is so different than singing with Karaoke. The band wraps you with sound – it is like a wave and you are a surfer – you have to sing to find your place in the sound. In Karaoke – your place in the sound is there for you to easy step in to – with a band – you need to assert your place and hold it.

It is so addictive and such an amazing experience. My legs shook for about 30 minutes afterwards – but I was busy filming for the rest of the gig.

And after the concern about my singing, the band really took care of me wonderfully during the song – for the chorus parts they figured I was singing it a little differently and just adapted to my way of singing. Also I mistakenly added a measure when I said “one more time” and the band just took it right in stride – it is an amazingly dynamic and collaborative and fun.

I was so happy at the end – particularly that I survived and did not shame the band. And I want to thank the band for being so nice to me and helping me along as I was learning everything for the first time.
In the final analysis – all the stress and gentle pressure from the band and constant coaching
from Steve resulted in giving me
just enough feedback to do a good job –
each little experience (watching Marc Alier sing on Monday (post) singing in the car, doing mic check, etc) was enough of
a success to keep my confidence up and enough of a failure to motivate me
to be better. I peaked at the time that I actually sang the song – whew!

I got to the hotel at about 3:30 AM and got up at 6:00 AM – yet another day
in a week with virtually no sleep – but it did not matter – it was a heck of a week and
I was on the way back home..

Here is the URL for the video: