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Engineering and music share common threads

-December 06, 2011

In 2009, Glen Watkins of ETS-Lindgren organized a live music session at the IEEE EMC Symposium in Austin, TX. He hired a house band to accompany anyone who needed it and he arranged to rent instruments. See "EMC engineers pull off a good gig" for photos and videos from the 2009 Symposium. Glen started a tradition that moved to Ft. Lauderdale in 2010, Long Beach in 2011, and will move to Pittsburgh in 2012. From those music sessions, EMC engineers have formed "The EMC Society Band," a camaraderie that should last for a long time. Three members of the band spoke with me at the 2011 Symposium. Here are their stories.

 Mike Violette of Washington Labs plays guitar with the EMC Society Band

Mike Violette plays guitar annually at the EMC Symposium.

Mike Violette is the president of Washington Labs, an EMC test facility in the Baltimore-Washington area started by his father. Mike started playing guitar at age 10 or 11. "I always wanted to be in the music business and be a rock star," he said, "but my father told me to have something to fall back on." So, Violette studied engineering and entered the family business. "Several of my musical friends also went into technical fields," he said.

Violette's engineering background helps him understand his music. "There's a strong connection between music, audio, and sound. There's certainly a technical part to music, in understanding chord progressions and key signatures. It helps to have a technical mind. Sound pressure levels and harmonics, things that you run into in a lab are part of music, but music definitely sits in a different part of your brain. You get a different sense of satisfaction from solving a technical problem than from making a nice riff, but they're both satisfying."

Drummer Kenneth Wyatt at the 2011 EMC Symposium

Kenneth Wyatt keeps the rhythm of the EMC Society Band.

Drummer Kenneth Wyatt has always had rhythm. "I'm always tapping out a song, whether it's on the drums or with my thumbs on a steering wheel, said Wyatt. "Music has always been a favorite pastime." Wyatt, worked as an EMC engineer for HP and then Agilent Technologies and is now an EMC consultant. He started playing clarinet in elementary school, whch switched to trumpet, then to drums where he started playing at religious services. "One day, the music pastor told me I was playing in three days so I had to learn quickly." Wyatt then took lessons and continued playing at services for about five years before being "consumed" by engineering. Besides music, Wyatt has a passion for photography. His work is online at wyattphoto.com.

Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Silberberg has become the leader of the EMC Society Band where he's played guitar, bass, keyboards, and soprano sax. An EMC engineer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1972, Silberberg drove his own stage equipment-at his own expense and without air conditioning-from Maryland to Florida in July 2010. He expects to drive his equipment to Pittsburgh in 2012, which is a much shorter drive.

Silberberg started with clarinet in the fourth grade. The cathedral ceilings in his home let the music resonate as he played for his relatives. In Sixth grade, his friend convinced him to play clarinet in the school talent show and he's been performing ever since, moving up to first chair, first clarinet in middle school.

 

Jeff Silberberg leads the EMC Society BandJeff Silberberg leads the EMC Society Band playing guitar, bass, keyboards, and sax.

When another friend discarded a broken ukelele, Silberberg fixed it and learn to play it. That worked for a while until his mother complained that the ukelele sounded tinny, so at age 14 he convinced her to buy him an acoustic guitar. He was soon ready to give up because his guitar, with its six steel strings and high action, was more difficult to play than a ukelele, but he kept at it.

In high school, Silberberg had to audition for the school band. He made the band, but was now second chair, second clarinet and wasn't playing the melodies anymore. "When the school bought a bassoon, I was first in line to get it and because there was the only one," he said. "I played with the school band and the school orchestra. The transition from clarinet was easy."

Silberberg started a rock band with friends in high school. He played guitar, which he had never really stopped. "I started playing folk songs like Peter, Paul, and Mary, but when Bob Dylan went electric, so did I." His band played teen dances and played on the local UHF TV station. He kept playing through college, going home on weekends to practice.

Like so many part-time musicians, Silberberg gave up music upon getting married, selling his guitar. But, he missed music too much and eventually bought another one and started playing rhythm guitar in a band. When the band members decided to look for gigs, they had to give up playing southern rock and blues in favor of top 40 to get bookings. One week before the first audition, the lead guitarist left the band because he didn't like top 40. Jeff had to learn all the lead parts in a week. The band played weddings after that and did so for 26 years despite many personnel changes.

Silberberg learned keyboard and sax out of necessity. Playing top 40 songs at weddings means you have to sound like the record. When a song called for a keyboard, he learned enough to play the song. The same applied to his learning the sax. Now he plays "G-Bop" by Kenny G every year at the EMC Symposium.

Silberberg considered studying music in college but decided that he could not only make a living as an electrical engineer, he could also learn how the boxes he used for music actually worked. His engineering background helped him understand audio and harmonics. "There's a definite connection between math, engineering, and music," he noted.

My musical journey began in high school when some friends needed a bass player so I learned to play and continued with bands through college. Here's a newspaper clipping of my band taken in July 1979. I'm second fron the left, playing a Gibson Ripper bass. After college, I switched to guitar and took lessons for a year, but then didn't play for about 15 years. I started again in 2001 and continue today. In 2006, I started writing songs about life as an engineer. You can find them at here where I've played "The Measurement Blues" and Watkins' favorite, "The Lab in the Corner."

Wyatt's experience playing for a religious service certainly "struck a chord" with me. After playing guitar for just a few months, someone asked me to play the music for a lay-led service that was ten days away. I knew most of the melodies and lyrics, but not the chords. Fortunately, I had an experienced song leader to coach me and I played from sheet music. "Everyone knows the songs," she said. "You just have to get them started. Most of the songs are in minor keys so if you get lost, just play an A-minor chord. Sooner or later, you'll be back in sync." She was right.
Martin Rowe's band in 1979

T&MW Senior Technical Editor Martin Rowe (second from left) played a Gibson Ripper bass with his band in 1979.

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