Monday, March 15, 2010

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Winter Touring Tips



I recently returned from a three-week tour through northern Ontario and Manitoba. I do a lot of traveling, but most of my tours are short weekend hops. I don't often hit the road for two weeks straight, hardly ever in February, and I've certainly never spent much time driving in rural Canada in February. Winter driving in the Canadian north presents some special challenges that I knew I had to be prepared for. So before I left southern Ontario, I made sure to consult with some experts, and I took their advice. It occurred to me that other musicians might find my experience helpful. Here are some things I did to keep safe and warm:

  • Cellphone
    I usually travel alone, so I've always considered my cellphone an absolute necessity for safety on tour. It allows me to call for help if I get stuck on the road, something that's extra important when traveling the Trans-Canada Highway in the dead of winter.

    I knew cellphone coverage could be very spotty once I got out of urban populated areas. On this trip, I found I was out of range for several days through northern Ontario. One day the highway ahead was closed because of a snowstorm and I needed to make phone calls. What to do?

    Skype to the rescue! Skype is a free program that allows you to make phone calls over the internet. I happened to have Skype loaded on my iPhone, and although there was no cellphone signal, the place I pulled off did have wireless internet signal. I was able to add money to my Skype account on the spot and proceeded to make several important phone calls-- notably, "I am stuck on the highway and I won't be able to make the gig tonight." (For what it's worth, Skype is worth having in any case because you can make free long distance calls to other people who have Skype.)



  • Emergency Kit
    I had an emergency kit already, but I checked it before I left and replaced items that were old or didn't work anymore. I also added a few items of my own. My emergency kit included a flashlight, one of those cool foil blankets, candles, matches, a small cooking pot and some instant soups, a snow blindness suit (!), a "HELP" sign, nuts, candies, and energy cookies. I even had a little book with winter survival tips.

  • Snow Tires
    Snow tires make a huge difference to your car's ability to stay safe in winter conditions, and I wouldn't want to be without them for long winter drives in Canada. You pay a small premium, but when you account for the fact that winter tires help prolong the life of your other tires, and that they may save your life someday, they don't seem all that expensive.

  • Block Heater
    Everyone I talked to in Manitoba prior to my trip recommended a block heater, which you plug in at night in very cold conditions to keep your car engine warm. The temperatures in rural Manitoba and northern Ontario can be brutally cold (down to -30 degrees C), and if the engine gets too cold, you can have trouble starting your car. As it turned out, most of the time the weather wasn't quite cold enough to warrant it, and my little Honda Fit did just fine. But I was glad to have the peace of mind in case the temperature turned extra frosty. I carried an outdoor extension cord to plug the block heater in.




  • Winter Clothing
    I made sure to stock up on long underwear and wool socks before I left, and it was worth it. southern Ontario does not get nearly as cold as Manitoba in the winter, and I am sure I would have suffered mightily without my long underwear and wool socks. It was nice not to have to crank the heat up in the car too much when I was driving.

    I also made sure to bring a good parka (I looked like the Michelin Man but I didn't care -- I was warm!), boots, and several pairs of gloves/mittens, some scarves, and hats. I probably overdid in the winter wear department, but I had room in my car and if I was stuck in a situation where I was getting wet, I figured it would be nice to have extras.

  • Don't Drive Too Far; Drive Early in the Day
    I tried to keep my driving distances relatively short. This is a good idea any time you are touring, but especially in the winter. Combine short distances with driving earlier in the day, and you take a lot of pressure off. In most cases I was able to get where I was going in very good time. In one or two cases where I was driving in a little bit of weather, I knew I had time to drive slowly and that I could stop and rest anytime I wanted. It kept me safe and got me to the gigs with plenty of time to spare.



  • Call Your Destination When You Are Leaving
    I usually just jump in the car and aim to get there at the previously agreed upon time. But this trip, since I was driving through pretty isolated areas in winter conditions, I tried to get in the habit of calling my next stop as I was leaving, so they would have some idea when to expect me. That way if I didn't show up they could send out the search party!

  • Drive With a Full Tank of Gas
    I'm not used to driving in rural areas and I'm always surprised at how far you can drive in some parts of Canada without encountering a town, any services, or even another car on the road. I made sure not to let my tank get below half full; had I been driving longer distances I might have even filled up at three quarters of a tank. A full gas tank adds weight to your car, which helps you in bad driving conditions, and if your tank gets too low the gas lines can freeze, which would be a very bad thing.
A final note: although I had to be careful and make extra preparations, my winter touring experience was incredible. It's hard to beat seeing a sundog on the highway between Rossport and Thunder Bay, snowshoeing in Riding Mountain National Park, or gazing out over a frozen Lake Superior on a cold February morning. Not to mention the wonderful generous people I met on my tour. Just a few more reasons I still feel lucky to be a touring musician.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ukuleles for Peace


This week Ralph Shaw's weekly ukulele newsletter has a story about a really great organization that promotes peace between Israeli and Arab kids through the ukulele. Here's what Ralph has to say:
The lyric goes Happy Christmas (War is Over). Well how about it? I think it's safe to say that most of us want peace in the world but how many of us really do something to make it happen?

Paul Moore does. Let me tell you about him. He's a British ex-pat in his late 50s or thereabouts. A professional entertainer, he made Israel his home many years ago.

One day, frustrated at the ongoing strife that seems to have always been a part of that region, Paul came to a decision. He finally figured that Peace, if there is such a thing, will not soon come about by political means. It has to begin with people. So 6 years ago he approached a Jewish school and an Arab school in his area and proposed the idea of a ukulele orchestra.

The musicians in the orchestra would be Arab and Jewish kids. The schools agreed and Paul's "Friendly Monster" was born. Paul had no idea what an all-consuming task he was taking on.

Practices and rehearsals were set up. Paul had to find playable ukuleles. He gave up his free time to travel and organize. Evenings and weekends were all given up towards getting these keen, bright-eyed young children their first musical education. The kids loved it. Not wanting money issues to hinder participation Paul began raising funds to pay for things such as instruments, strings, travel to shows etc.

Pot-luck picnics in public parks were organized. Trips and holiday celebrations were set up. Of course the parents had to come along too, so did siblings. Age old prejudices and fears were laid aside. So began the rituals of Arab and Jewish families sharing food while their children played games and made joyful music together.

If you have any doubt about the power of music take a look at this video of 2 of Paul's students and then tell me you don't believe in Paul's vision! (note: Ralph didn't link to it, but here's the second half of the Ukuleles for Peace video.)

As much fun and benefit as this is on a local scale Paul Moore has kept his eye on a greater goal. He wants the world to see what can be done. Paul has long said that he wants the Ukuleles For Peace Orchestra to play before the United Nations.

As a step towards this goal I am helping him with something that could potentially place his Orchestra before a world-wide audience.

The Winter Olympics will be here in Vancouver in February (only 2 months away). Hundreds of Thousands of people including athletes, spectators, politicians, royalty, the media and performers will descend on this city for a vibrant and colourful celebration of winter sports and culture.

Just over 1 year ago I helped arrange a meeting between Paul and an Olympic organizer. The upshot is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the 2010 Winter Olympics have agreed to allow Ukuleles for Peace to come and perform during that time. The bad news is that the Olympics are unable to allocate any budget for either their performance or travel.

Coming to the Winter Olympics could be remarkable in many ways. Not only would it go a long way toward Paul's dream of showing the world how unity, friendship and peace are there for the taking. It would also be a life-changing experience for these children of whom some have never been outside their native land.

Help so far has come from several sources. Accomodation will be with the families of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. Think of that! Arab and Jewish kids from Israel being able to hang out with Canadian kids who are also in a ukulele orchestra.

A Vancouver Rabbi, known for his work in bringing Arabs and Jews together has offered time and fund-raising to help bring Ukes for Peace to Vancouver. Other organizations here (like the Jewish Federation) are also raising money. Oh, and don't forget the families who are over in Israel running around trying to gather money for this project so dear to their hearts.

The financial mountain is a large one however. The costs of flying 15 to 20 kids plus a few parents could be as much as $50,000.

I promised Paul that I would support him in this. Which is why I am reaching out to you now. The Ukuleles for Peace Project has always been run on a shoestring. Every year Paul wonders if he can continue. Then he looks into the faces of young children eager to join their older brothers and sisters in the Ukulele band and he cannot say no. Paul calls U.f P. his "Friendly Monster". It has taken over not only his life but also that of his wife Daphna who runs the necessary administration. Often it gets in the way of him making a living for himself. Basically he needs some help!

Financial Donations: You can donate to Ukuleles for Peace at their website. There is a donation button at the top left of the page.

Air Travel: Some help is coming from El Al Airline for flights between Israel & Toronto but the portion from Toronto to Vancouver needs to be dealt with. If you know of some way of obtaining cheap or free flights between Toronto and Vancouver that could be most useful.
I'll just leave you with one final thought. Peace doesn't just come from governments making new laws or signing international treaties. It's not something that descends from on high. It comes from the actions of ordinary people like you and me. Ukuleles for Peace is an example of a simple, small project that is building bridges between kids, families and communities in a very difficult environment. And that's something I want to support. How about you?

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