What I Learned About the Coolest Mashup Ever: The Stroh Violin

During my many years as a musician, I spent all my time at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t hidden behind the other players for lack of talent, but because I’m a trombonist. Trombone players, and all brass instrumentalists, play tucked away behind the strings. Not only that, for every one trombonist in the orchestra, there are about five times that many violins. The reason? Brass instruments are much louder than strings. Despite my very visceral knowledge of the sonic strength difference between brass and stringed instruments, I was still floored when I heard 99% Invisible tell the story of the Stroh violin.

99% Invisible is one of the best podcasts I’ve found for evoking a sense of wonder while exploring everyday technology, old and new. The most recent episode I enjoyed, Mini-Stories, was especially fun since it covered so many cool topics: sack cloth sewing culture, the diaspora of fauna via the Colosseum, and then the tidbit that totally tickled me, the Stroh violin.

Imagine a violin in which the traditional wooden body is replaced by a brass horn. Like a griffin or a hippogriff, the Stroh violin seems almost mythic as an unlikely mashup. A violin and a trumpet.

Why does such a weird and wonderful invention exist? We already have a tried and true way to make violins heard over trombones: hire a slew of violinists!

99% Invisible did a beautiful job recounting the origin of the Stroh violin. In short, during the very early days of the recording industry, primitive recording equipment detected sound via a big brass bell (think of an old-fashioned Victrola, only recording sound instead of playing it). Turns out these brass bell recorders did a spectacular job detecting brass instruments. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba were recorded with ease. Unfortunately brass bell recording technology wasn’t so great at picking up stringed instruments. Early innovators attempted all kinds of creative ways to solve this problem, one of which was the griffinesque Stroh violin.

The Stroh violin recorded so well that the technology spread to a variety of stringed instruments. There were Stroh cellos and violas, Stroh guitars, Stroh ukuleles and mandolins. I’m dying to explore an instrument museum and see them all!

Of course advances in recording technology rendered the Stroh violin mostly a museum curiosity. But as I surf YouTube to satisfy my new Stroh obsession, it’s clear that the unique sound of the Stroh hasn’t been entirely forgotten, and a few eclectic musicians still put the unique timber and tone of  these vintage wonders to interesting use today.

What I Learned About the Etymology of the Dollar

I’ve been reading a fascinating analysis in Joseph Campbell’s Creative Mythology that juxtaposes Christian and Gnostic interpretations of the snake. I always love the striking images Campbell uses to illustrate his points. So far the art in Creative Mythology has been the usual: pottery, bowls, and statuettes. But this cool coin came up in the images Campbell used to illustrate snake iconography.

“The Serpent Lifted Up” depicts a serpent wound around a cross. The symbol was stamped onto a 16th century, German coin. This isn’t any random German coin, it has a very specific name: the thaler.

Although I was supposed to be focusing on snakes and mythology, the etymology geek in me went wild when I saw the word thaler. Thaler sounds an awful lot like dollar, doesn’t it?

A little digging in Merriam Webster proved my instinct was correct. The thaler was an early currency minted in Bohemia. The thaler (written thaler in German and tolar in Czech) debuted as joachimstaler, which translates to the Valley of Joachim, where silver for the thaler was mined.

With its fairly standard weight and value the thaler became important to international trade throughout Europe. In 1566 the Holy Roman Empire established the Reichstaller as its coin of account. Around the same time in the English speaking world, the thaler became known as the daler. Daler referred to European coins of many types. It’s not hard to see the leap from the English daler to the U.S. dollar.

Back in Germany the thaler went on to dwindle to a less practical, though more artistic life. Huge coins, sometimes made from gold, were prized collectors items. Many of these works of art survive to this day, including the fascinating “Serpent Lifted Up” golden thaler.

What I Learned About Our Cat, the Ballet Dancer

I’m a cat fanatic. My favorite YouTube station: Kitten Academy. My most recent purchase: two pairs of cute cat earrings. Best of all, I wake each morning with genuine delight because I get to share my life with this handsome fellow.

As an unabashed cat lover, learning a new feline fact is very exciting.

While listening to a recent episode of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, my ears perked during the “What’s the Word” segment of the podcast. The word was “digitigrade.” From my Italian language study it was no surprise that “digit” refers to fingers and toes. But then things got interesting.

Have you ever wondered why a cat’s knee bends in the opposite direction that a human’s knee bends?

The answer to this question is simple: a cat’s knee bends exactly the same way as a human’s. In all the years I’ve been ogling cats, I’d confused kitty’s ankle with kitty’s knee.

The anatomy of the feline leg clicked for me when I understood that cats (and their canine pals) are digitigrade animals. They walk on their toes, not on their feet like us plantigrade humans.

Kitty’s foot is perpendicular to the ground and he stands on his toes, not on his feet. It should have been obvious, but I was so deeply rooted in my experience as a human who stands on her feet that I was blind to the possibility of toe walking. It took a real shake up in perspective to realize that not all beings walk like me!

My handsome Siamese buddy trots around the house all day on his tiptoes. No wonder he moves with such swiftness and grace–he’s the ultimate ballet dancer! Thank goodness he’s willing to tolerate life with this plodding plantigrade, who loves him with all her heart.

What I Learned about Learning and Happiness

It’s the start of a new year, a time when beginnings and endings encourage us to step back and check out where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’d like to be. Today I’d like to kick off a new section of my blog called What I Learned.

Since 2014 I’ve kept a personal happiness journal (similar to a gratitude journal), modeled on my experience with the social media app, Happier. Back when I used it, Happier encouraged users to share three happy moments every day. Users could include a photo with their daily happy moments, tag each with a category, and, of course, participate with other members by appreciating what had made them happier.

When the social aspect of Happier became too heavy, I translated the practice to my private journal. Once I eliminated the strain of entertaining an audience and could just be myself, I found that journal jotting three things that made me happy each day paid huge mood boosting dividends for such a tiny amount of effort spent.

I also kept the practice of tagging my happy moments. Tags help me spot trends of what brings a smile to my face—and it’s not always what I expect. No surprise that my kitty, my hubby, friends, good food, and reading top my list. But I’m surprised how often watching a video makes my day (I used to consider myself a reluctant video watcher). Nor did I expect (as someone who patterns herself after a Hobbit) that going out would rank so high on my happiness list. Another enlightening entry in the top quarter of my happy categories is learning something new.

Throughout 2017 I searched for other daily journal jotting practices with effectiveness as potent as my happy moments. I wrote affirmations, collected quotes from philosophers, tried noting the successes and failures of the day, and typed out my values. But of all the daily practices I auditioned, only one stood out above the others in bringing more joy and meaning to my life. This practice happens to correlate with that last entry in the top quarter of my happiness charts. The only of the  2017 journal jotting experiments that survived as a regular part of my practice is: What I learned today.

What I learned about learning in 2017 is that learning something new every day truly does make me feel more positive about life. If I’m super excited to tell my journal a juicy nugget of knowledge learned that day, I believe it was a good day. Evenings when I struggle to dredge up something I can qualify as “learned” follow down days where I perceive myself as drug out, burned out, and more than a little defeated. Learning something every day is becoming critical to my sense of wellbeing, purpose, and joy. It makes me feel more alive. If I added up all the What I learned today entries and tagged them as HappierLearning, this category would make an epic climb up the happiness list.

Sometimes What I learned today is a cool fact gleaned from reading or a podcast. It can be a life lesson learned the hard way by making a mistake and falling on my face, or a truth I’ve recognized about myself. I love when What I learned today is an insight, a new perspective or experience. Or when a new connection sparks, and I have a mini breakthrough that lets me understand, just a little more deeply, the world around me.

I learned from my Happier experience that daily posting is not for me. But when I do learn something new that I’m excited to share, it would be great to have a place to write about it. So I’m starting a new section of my blog called What I learned. I hope a few of the things that have tickled me to discover may bring one or two fun aha moments to others, as well.