How to Practice the Giant Steps Cycle: Video Tutorial and Supplementary Material

My preoccupation with John Coltrane's tune "Giant Steps" now ebbs, now flows, but always continues. I'm not the most fabulous alto sax man who has ever played the changes, certainly not in the league of Kenny Garrett, but I have my own approach, which I strive to make less digital and more lyrical. I've even had the temerity to write a book of licks and patterns on "Giant Steps" titled The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, available for instruments of every key. In the following video tutorial, I share a couple approaches to practicing the Giant Steps cycle that I have found profitable in my own practice sessions. The video begins with a bit of theory; however, the theory behind "Giant Steps" is more than adequately covered elsewhere in greater depth, as in this excellent article by Dan Adler, and it isn't the thrust of the tutorial. Rather, I address a more pragmatic concern: How do you wrap your fingers around the Giant Steps cycle? The tips I share in the tutorial certainly aren't the only way you can or should tackle the cycle, but I think you'll find them helpful. Briefly, I explain how to run both a one-bar pattern and a more extensive two-bar lick through the cycle. The two patterns used in the video were taken from The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. For your convenience, I'm supplying them for you here. Note that these excerpts are from the Eb edition, suitable for alto and baritone saxophonists; if you play a C, Bb, or bass clef instrument, you'll need to transpose (though editions of my book are available in your key). Click on the images to enlarge them. One-bar pattern: 002     One-bar pattern through the cycle: 003     Two-bar lick: 004     Two-bar lick through all three keys of the cycle: GS 1-Bar Pattern       And now, here is the video. It's obviously a homespun effort, so please bear with its flaws. I haven't figured out how to read from my PowerPoint notes and still look directly at the camera, and as for that stupid deer fly that lands on my forehead while I'm signing off and roams around like an astronaut exploring the lunar surface, I wasn't aware of it till I got home and viewed the clip. You think I'm going to do a redo just for that? It's part of filming outdoors: mosquitoes setting up drilling operations on my nice, pink flesh, deer flies exploring my noggin—I deal with it and you can too. Go ahead and chuckle. But if you're a jazz improviser who's tackling "Giant Steps," then I think you'll nevertheless find this tutorial worth your while.  

Book Review: The Scale Omnibus by Francesco Balena

Francesco Balena operates the website Saxopedia, a tremendous resource for saxophonists and jazz musicians of every stripe. If you play the sax—or, for that matter, any instrument—and you are not familiar with Franco's site, then I highly recommend that once you have finished reading this post, you go directly to Saxopedia and acquaint yourself with it. The exhaustive collection of links to solo transcriptions alone is enough to place Saxopedia in the upper echelon of saxophone resources. But there's much more besides, and that now includes Francesco's new masterpiece, The Scale Omnibus: 392 Scales for Instrumentalists, Composers, Vocalists, and Improvisers. The amount of material covered in this 429-page, downloadable book is simply staggering. And it's free. Did you get that? Free. In the author's words, "The primary objective of this book is making in-depth knowledge about scales available to the largest number of people as possible. For this reason The Scale Omnibus is free. Free as a free lunch. No strings attached." There are a few commonsense stipulations in the use of the material, but the bottom line is that Francesco, in keeping with the spirit of Saxopedia, has created what has got to be the most comprehensive repository of scales ever assembled, and now he is making it available to musicians at no cost whatsoever. It's a fantastic accomplishment on Francesco's part, the fruit of considerable time, research, insight, and plain, solid labor; and it is an equally remarkable gift to jazz musicians in search of fresh ideas for improvisation. Organization The Scale Omnibus is well-organized and easy to use. Following a thoughtfully written, insightful introduction, the book plunges directly into the material, beginning with the common major and minor scales and their modes and then progressing, per the table of contents, through
  • Symmetrical Scales
  • Jazz Scales
  • Pentatonic Scales
  • Modal Scales
  • European Scales
  • Asian Scales
  • Indian Scales
  • Miscellaneous Scales
Every scale is allotted its own separate, full page. Scales are presented in ascending form in all twelve keys—with the exception, for obvious reasons, of the chromatic scale—and in descending form as well for a few of the Indian ragas whose ascending and descending forms differ. Each scale is preceded by brief, helpful notes that cover its alternate names, modes, construction, harmonic applications (i.e., which chords it works well with), and in some cases, its country of origin. Following the presentation of the scales themselves, the book includes four appendices that provide a scale index and scales by name, interval, and chord. The last appendix, Scales by Chord, strikes me as particularly useful, providing a quick match-up of chords with scale options. Many of the options will be familiar to experienced improvisers, but there are surprises. For instance, until a short while ago, I had no idea that the Romanian scale could be used with a minor seventh chord. (For that matter, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Romanian scale.) This particular appendix is by no means exhaustive, given the vast array of possibilities covered by the book, and Franco might consider expanding the list of scale choices in a future edition. However, the amount of time required to do so would no doubt be considerable, and the appendix as it stands is an eminently useful tool, furnishing a greater selection than similar lists such as Jamey Aebersold's chord/scale syllabus. About the Scales The Scales Omnibus gives all scales, both the everyday and the exotic, equal coverage. But while it begins with the major and minor scales all Westerners relate to, whether trained musicians or everyday listeners, it goes far beyond those scales into territory most of us aren't familiar with. For instance, turning to the first page of the section on Asian scales, I come across something called the Honkoshi scale, which, I am informed, originated in Japan; generates, as its modes, the Raga Hamsa Vinodini, the Raga Manavi, and the Insen scale; and works well with a half-diminished chord. Following it is the Ichikotsucho scale, also known as—are you ready?—the Major-Lydian Mixed, Gregorian 5, Genus Diatonicum Veterum Correctum, Kubilai, Raga Bihag, Raga Gaud Sarang, Raga Hamir Kalyani, Raga Kedar, Raga Yaman Kalyan, and Raga Chayanat. Stick that in your horn and play it (preferably over a Cmaj7 or Cma7#11). Does this book cover every possible scale under the sun? No. Francesco has screened out scales of fewer than five notes; such scales exist, but when tones become so sparse, the use of the term scale becomes questionable. Also, significantly, the book covers only scales that fit easily within the twelve-tone, well-tempered system. Francesco writes, "Microtonal scales, scales that use just temperament, and scales that use equal temperament obtained by dividing the octave in a different number of intervals—as is the case of some Arabian scales—are not included." In Summary A book so vast in its scope as this can only provide the basic scales and insights on their use. From there, it's up to you to determine which scales interest you most and develop exercises that will help you master them. No way will you or anyone ever internalize all of them. But even one new scale is a tremendous acquisition for the improvising musician, and to that end, The Scale Omnibus is a treasure trove of possibilities. Franceso could easily ask $25.00 or more for this volume; instead, he's offering it for free, and in so doing, he has added even more value to an already immensely valuable website for jazz instrumentalists, particularly saxophonists. A work of such excellence and heart as Francesco's book, given so generously to others, deserves support, and it is in that spirit that I have written this unpaid and unsolicited review. Bravissimo, Francesco! You've given a gift to musicians everywhere. Thank you.

Rhythm Changes: An Etude to Build Jazz Technique

rhythm changes, jazz improvisation, jazz etude 001Here's a little bop-style etude I created to help build your chops for rhythm changes. No surprises here; I wasn't striving for cutting-edge ideas but for simple building blocks of jazz vocabulary. Me being an alto sax guy, I've written the material in the key of G, which is the alto transposition for the standard "Rhythm" key of Bb. Tenor players, flute players, and so on--sorry for the inconvenience, but you know how to transpose, right? Or just play it as written and hone your facility with the key of G. Click on the image to enlarge it and then have at it. And have fun! I've written in the past about my predilection for rhythm changes as a means of developing a fundamental jazz vocabulary. In their essence, the changes can be construed as simply a succession of turnarounds with a bridge based on the cycle of dominants. You can get as fancy with that as you want to, but the basics are just as simple as the word basic implies. For more on rhythm changes, click here. I also encourage you to read the point-counterpoint between Kurt Ellenberger and me which evolved out of that post. Whether you love rhythm changes or, like Kurt, hate them, you'll find food for thought. If you enjoyed this post, click here for plenty more articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions. Also, a quick plug for my book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. If you'd like a practical, hands-on practice companion to help you master "Giant Steps," well...that's why I wrote it.

How a Late-Season Storm Chase Nearly Ended in Tragedy

With this year's severe weather season ramping up--as I write, Missouri and Arkansas are primed for supercells and tornadoes later today--I want to share the following with my fellow storm chasers. Many of you are people I know and care about, and some of you are quite close to me. I know some of the risks you take because I take them myself; we all do, to varying degrees. To my thinking, tornadoes are usually at the lower end of the risk spectrum. At the top is what happens on the road. That's something over which we have considerable control, and with it, a responsibility for our own safety and the safety of others. In a heartbeat, an exciting chase can turn into a second or two of horrified disbelief followed instantly by noise, violence, injury, and perhaps death. I know because I've lived it, and I hope no one else I know ever has to. That's why I'm sharing the following account, written last December. Perhaps it'll inspire you to exercise greater care and awareness on the road. Please take it to heart. I'd like it to be a long time before the next set of initials gets outlined on the radar by Spotter Network icons—and when that day does arrive, I don't want those initials to be yours. ------------------------------- Saturday, December 7, 2013. A short while ago, I was lying on my side on the living room couch, giving Lisa's cat a full-body rubdown and listening to her purr. Siam is one of the sweetest, best-behaved little creatures you could hope for, affectionate and enormously tactile. Being held and petted are things she takes for granted as her natural due, and she gets plenty of such treatment. So there was nothing remarkable that I should be stroking her soft, cream-and-chocolate fur. And yet, there was everything remarkable about it. When you've nearly had your life suddenly snuffed out just before the holidays, the most commonplace act can strike you as extraordinary. The fact that I am still here to pet this vibrant, blissfully thrumming little motor . . . that I am here to see Lisa smile, and to hear her laugh, and to look into her sparkling eyes as I hold her in my arms . . . that I am here to tell my dear eighty-eight-year-old mother and my sister, Diane, that I love them, and to share more beers with my friends, and to turn the ignition switch in my "new" used Toyota Camry which, as of yesterday evening, has replaced the one I lost three weeks ago . . . these things are remarkable. Never fool yourself into thinking that the simple and the everyday are anything less than a gift and a miracle. Things could have turned out very differently. By now, my body could have been lowered into the cold earth, leaving my loved ones to face this Christmas with broken hearts instead of warmth and gladness. Instead, I am still here and blessed with,  surrounded by, reminders that the simple act of petting the cat, or lifting this mug of hot chocolate that Lisa whipped up for me a little while ago, or watching downy snowflakes dance in the air beyond my balcony slider, or even feeling the diminishing but still-present pain of a cracked sternum, is an extraordinary thing.

The Setup

On November 17, I was chasing storms in eastern Illinois and western Indiana with my friends Tom Oosterbaan, Rob Forry, and Shawn Kellogg. The occasion was an unusual late-season setup featuring a vigorous, negatively tilted trough digging into the Midwest. On its eastern side, a surface low was pulling in moisture-laden southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico as it tracked northeast through the Great Lakes.
SPC Day 1 Convective Outlook, 13Z, November 17, 2013

SPC Day 1 Convective Outlook, 13Z, November 17, 2013

For a good week, I had been following the forecast models with both skepticism and growing excitement as they progressed from the meager CAPE one expects this time of year to unseasonably high instability, mid-60s dewpoints, and some truly rabid wind shear. On November 16, the Storm Prediction Center issued a moderate risk for its day 2 convective outlook, then upgraded it to a high risk on the morning of the 17th. The ingredients were falling into place for the kind of high-shear/low-CAPE tornado outbreak that is typical of the Great Lakes. It would culminate in the deadliest, most violent November outbreak on record. The setup bore some disturbing similarities to the notorious April 11, 1965, Palm Sunday Outbreak. And it wasn't happening in Oklahoma or Texas. For a change, it was all coming together in my backyard, so to speak. Chasers from all over the map had converged on Illinois and Indiana--hardly the heart of Tornado Alley, but the most chaseable terrain in the world when it does produce. Although Rob was willing to drive his Jeep, I volunteered my 2002 Camry. I had acquired it last February, and it was in great shape and was a comfortable ride. At last I had a roadworthy vehicle, and having benefited so often from other chasers driving their vehicles, I was pleased to be able to provide the transportation for a change. We left Grand Rapids around 8:00 a.m. and met briefly for breakfast with Bill Oosterbaan and Kim Howell down at Kim's house in Niles. Kim had prepared a generous spread for us (Kim, you're the swellest!), but we were in a rush and had to just wolf it down, then Rain-X our windshields and hit the road. We did, however, make time to do one last thing before we took off. Joining hands, all six of us prayed, asking the Lord's protection for us and for those in the areas that would be impacted by the storms. I believe that prayer was providential. None of us in my vehicle had an inkling of what lay in store for us a few hours later.

The Chase

November 17 6Z NAM hodograph for NW IN, forecast hour 18Z

November 17 6Z NAM hodograph for NW IN, forecast hour 18Z

Our target was northwest Indiana around Rensselaer, where the 500 mb jet max looked to nose in over substantial low-level instability. With storm motions forecast at 60 knots (see NAMM hodograph--click to enlarge), the storms would be rocketships, and it seemed that our best bet would be to set up east of them, watch the radar, and then jockey into position and hope for the best. I wish we had stuck with that plan. But the big, discrete supercell which proved to be the day's main player showed strong, persistent circulation, dropping a string of strong to violent tornadoes--including the deadly Washington, Illinois, EF-4-- on its journey northeast from Peoria toward Chicago. Bill and Kim decided to go for that one and wound up intercepting a rain-wrapped tornado. On our part, the storm looked mighty tempting, but we chose to let it go, not wanting to chase it in urban territory. That left us with the other storms which were approaching from the southwest, and we made the mistake of heading out to meet them rather than letting them come to us. It was a defensible decision: the storms were beginning to congeal into a line, and we wanted to catch them while they were still reasonably discrete. As it turned out, we'd have done fine had we simply exercised patience. But instead, we headed west into Illinois, then dropped south and ultimately wound up backpedaling east back across the border to intercept an HP supercell that was showing rotation on the radar. Rob was driving and I was sitting in the front passenger seat with my laptop on my lap, monitoring the radar and navigating. I've mentioned that Illinois and Indiana easily comprise some of the best chase territory anywhere. Their flat, wide-open stretches of agricultural land let you see for miles, and their regular grids of paved country roads make for easy driving. Even the wet gravel roads are generally far easier going than the slippery gumbo out west. You just can't ask for a better road network or better topography. Southwest of the town of Oxford, Indiana, our storm appeared to crap out on us on the radar. The echo weakened, and while the storm just to the southwest was tornado-warned, the base reflectivity suggested a comma-head on a small bow echo, not a supercell. That was the last radar scan we got before we lost Internet connection. And storms can reorganize rapidly, and--well, ours did. Shortly after, an inflow jet shot across the road in front of us from the south and then rapidly enveloped us. What the . . . ? Rob rolled down the window, and we could hear a roar to the north. What was causing it? An updraft region had to be over there. But it was wrapped in precipitation, and telltale storm features were utterly lacking. Yet logic told me that somewhere within that bland-looking sky, a mesocyclone was buried, possibly even a tornado. At the very least, some kind of high-wind event had to be taking place nearby. Not only so, but a dark shadow was moving along to our south, heading tangentially in front of us. Tornado? Just a darker cloud in that unremarkable sky? Impossible to tell. I shot some video, hoping that the camera would reveal features that my naked eye couldn't discern, but there was no such luck. All it gave me was my sole record of our chase that day. A look at the reflectivity on Rob's cell phone app a couple minutes later revealed that our storm, which had appeared weak and disorganized in the previous scan, had in fact morphed into an embedded supercell. We had been on the southern end of the hook. As we headed into Oxford, we began to see signs of significant wind damage--nothing tornadic, just straight-line, but still a handful for the residents of that town to have to clean up. We were losing our storm, and once we were on the other side of Oxford, Rob picked up the pace. By then, though, I think our chase was effectively over. The storms were beyond us and moving too fast for us to catch up.

The Crash

Not quite two miles east of Oxford, the road we were on, eastbound SR 352, intersects northbound US 52. We were traveling at a good clip--too fast for conditions, as I know Rob will agree. Ahead of us lay a hillock where a railroad track crossed the road. It was a blind rise that blocked our view of the other side. Rob slowed down for the tracks, but we were still probably doing 40 mph when we crested them and got our first glimpse of what lay beyond. To our horror, a stop sign and a divided highway were situated downslope no more than 200 feet away and probably closer. And to make matters worse, a vehicle was pulling out of a service road on the right into our lane. Rob swerved and braked instantly, but the pavement was wet, we were heading downhill, my nearly new all-weather tires failed to grab, and we skidded into and across the southbound lane on a collision course with a northbound van. I remember watching the grill of the other vehicle looming toward me. The next instant, there was a bang, and our vehicle careened across the rest of the lane and came to a stop on the far side of the highway. I don't remember the airbags deploying, but they did, and no doubt they saved Rob and me from serious injury. For a second, the four of us sat there, stunned. Then we piled out of the vehicle. As I stood up, I could tell that something was wrong with my chest. While I don't recall its happening, presumably the airbag had driven my laptop into my ribcage. At the moment, I was experiencing only discomfort, but I knew that I had been injured, and it was only a matter of time before the pain would set in. In that expectation, I was not disappointed.
My Camry after the Crash

My Camry after the Crash

The point of impact for the two vehicles had been headlight-to-headlight at right angles, my Camry's right headlight connecting with the van's left headlight. I won't go into all the details from here. I will just say that we and the people in the van were very, very blessed. God preserved us, sparing us any real harm, and Shawn pointed out that the prayer we had prayed before we left had been no mistake. What went wrong was obvious, but there was also much that went right, more than we had any reason to expect. It was amazing that we had made it unscathed across the southbound lane in the first place. And the angle of collision couldn't have been more merciful. Just a second faster or slower for either vehicle would have resulted in a T-bone and almost certainly in serious injuries or fatalities. It was a busy highway; had a semi been coming . . . I don't even want to think of it. Huge thanks to fellow chaser Eric Treece, who gave Shawn, Rob, and me a ride back up to I-94, where Rob's wife picked us up; to Bill Oosterbaan, who came to help and to retrieve his brother, Tom; and to Holly Forry for dropping what she was doing in order to make the long trip out and then drive her husband, Shawn, and me all back to my apartment. Above all, thank you, Father, for sparing us. Thank you for protecting the innocents in that other vehicle, and thank you for protecting us. Thank you that this Thanksgiving, we have all had much to be thankful for, and that this Christmas, we all will celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus, once again with our families, as we have done for so many years and hopefully will do for many more.

Accident Corner

About the intersection where our accident occurred: If you go there, you will see that the setup is an accident waiting to happen, and many accidents have in fact occurred there. At least, that is what we were told by both the sheriff and one of the ambulance drivers. I don't recall seeing a "Stop Ahead" sign, and the other guys maintain there was no warning. Logic tells me that surely there had to have been one, but all I remember seeing was a yellow RR crossing sign as we approached the tracks. That was it. The tracks were at the top of a rise, and only upon crossing them do you see the stop sign, the side road, and the highway down below. The proximity of the intersection to the tracks comes as a shock (unless, of course, you live in the area), and you've got little room to respond. In other words, it's a horrible setup that is perfectly engineered to catch motorists off-guard. It's lethal in wet weather and has got to be a terror in the winter. According to one of the guys, the sheriff had mentioned that his department had been after the county to improve the intersection because of the danger it posed, but so far the county had done nothing about it. So I can't be too hard on us. But I can't be too easy, either. We were going too fast for conditions, and I wish I had told Rob to slow down; it was my car and my responsibility to say something. I'm so glad everyone came out of it okay. Banged up and hurting, definitely, but  no one in our vehicle or the other one sustained serious injuries or went away in an ambulance. I thank God, most sincerely, that all of us experienced the very best possible outcome of a very bad scenario.

A Word to the Wise (and the Not-So-Wise)

Now, here is what I want to say to all of my fellow chasers: It could have been worse, and it could have been you. Watch your driving. My main fear in storm chasing has never been the storms. It has been hydroplaning or otherwise losing control of the vehicle on wet pavement. It is the thing that happens to people who think it won't happen to them. I consider myself a cautious driver. Next to some of you, I come across as the little old guy wearing the brown suit and hat who putters along at 45 miles an hour down the Interstate. However, most of the time, I've been a passenger, not the one who has driven on chases, and over the years, I have witnessed driving habits that frankly have scared the crap out of me: Chasers rocketing along at 80 miles an hour down wet, curvy, hilly, unfamiliar backroads. Drivers multitasking with cell phones, laptops, and so forth. I can say something about these things to the guy behind the wheel, but that's the extent of it. I can't control another person's behavior. The only thing I can control is whom I  get into a vehicle with. And that decision is one I will be taking very seriously in the future, because the attitude that person has toward safety can have huge implications for me, those who love me, other passengers, and other motorists who share the same road. Sitting in the passenger seat three weeks ago, I took the main force of the collision, and never again do I want to go through the pain I've experienced these last few weeks as a result. And never again do I want to put Lisa through the shock and fear of that awful afternoon, let alone something far worse. Some of you take huge risks both with the storms and with your driving. And yes, I know: You're big boys and girls and it's your decision. It's a matter of personal choice. Rah, rah and a fist bump for rugged individualism. We've all heard it. It's like a mantra among today's chasers. But when something serious happens to you, trust me, you'll be singing another tune. Because you don't really know the the implications of your choices until one of them blasts past your bulletproof attitude and inserts itself into your life with jarring and possibly irrevocable immediacy. There goes the storm you were chasing, receding to the east. But what has just happened to you--that may never go away. Most of you are in your twenties and early thirties. Lots of life still ahead of you. Many chases still in store for you. Don't blow it. Because if you wind up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, the best of your chases will leave you with just a handful of memories and decades of wishing you'd been wiser in the way you went about doing things. Am I saying you shouldn't take risks? Of course not. Everything worth doing involves some kind of risk. You can't truly live without risking. But there is a difference between taking judicious and necessary risks versus taking irresponsible, selfish, and totally avoidable risks. Risks that could get you killed. Risks that could get your chase partner killed and leave you haunted with guilt the rest of your life. Risks that could leave you or someone else paralyzed. Risks that could devastate those you've left behind--your spouse or significant other, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends. The people you say you love and care about. Other people and their families. It ain't all about you. When I arrived home at 11:30 that night, Lisa greeted me at the door. I'd never seen her act the way she did--one minute laughing, the next minute crying. Gently, she helped me remove my shirt, a painful operation. We stood in the bathroom in front of the mirror. I was pretty banged up. She kept touching me and kissing my shoulders. She laid her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes, and smiled, and I looked in the mirror and smiled back at her from the glass. My woman. "You're here with me now," she said. "That's all that matters. You're here with me now." I knew then just how much she really loves me, how much I mean to her. I can say, in all truthfulness, that it was worth the loss of my car to experience how much closer the accident has drawn us since that awful day. We almost lost each other. But we didn't. And during the course of my healing, she has taken care of me beautifully. We have laughed (Ouch! It hurts to laugh!), and had deep, heartfelt conversations, and walked with each other through yet one more stretch of deep water. God has brought us through, and as I emerge on the other side, it is with the certainty that he has given me a truly wonderful, beautiful woman who loves me with all her heart. I have much to be grateful for. To sum it up for you, my fellow chasers: Chase with passion. But also chase responsibly, with wisdom and an awareness of just how vulnerable you are. Because you are vulnerable. And I think that many of you don't understand what that means. You say that you do, but do you really? Your life truly is a vapor, as passing as those towers of convection which seem so indomitable in the moment but vanish within hours. Today's chase will be only a memory tomorrow. Chase in a way that does not become a lifetime of regret, whether for you or those who love you.      

The Day Before Groundhog Day: Yet Another Winter Storm–and More on the Way

Today is February 1, and let's just say it: This winter is getting reeeaaaally old. Incursion after incursion of Arctic air. Snow, snow, snow. Cold, cold, cold--and I do mean cold. After Monday and Tuesday's bitter, subzero bite, these mid-twenties temperatures that have moved in feel practically tropical. Winter_Storm_02012014We're presently under a winter weather advisory, with 3 to 5 inches of snow forecast through 10:00 p.m. around here and an inch more to the south and southeast along the I-94 corridor. And it's wet snow--not as bad as initially expected, according to the latest KGRR forecast discussion, but still watery enough--and therefore heavy enough--to put added stress on flat roofs. Here's a radar image from a few scans back. Look at all that gray! I hardly ever see returns that hit 40 dBZ with a winter storm, but a bit of interrogation revealed 49.5 dBZ over US-131 with this particular scan. And it appears to be all snow too, not a wintry mix. So yeah, I'd call that wet snow. Snow Depth Feb 1 2014The thing is, this stuff just keeps coming. We all know that by now. I haven't seen a winter this snowy since 2009, maybe even before that, since . . . since . . . well, I don't know when. As you can see from today's snow depth map, there's a strip running through my area along the western side of Michigan where the snow depth reportedly exceeds 20 inches. We're not talking about how much snow has actually fallen this winter, just how much of it is presently sitting on the ground. Twenty inches. I can testify that around here, it's not hard to find places where it's nearly up to my knees. Heck, just along the sidewalk outside my apartment, the snowblower has neatly carved a minor canyon along the edge of the featureless white expanse which, if my memory is accurate, used to be what is called a "lawn." Feb 1 GFS 132-hr fcstHow about one more image? Look and groan, because all this glorious wintry nastiness doesn't look to be retreating anytime soon. You're looking at the 132-hour forecast for the surface temperature. Doesn't that look inviting, so full of hope and promise? Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and I'm telling you right now, that little cretin had better not show his face anywhere in my vicinity or I will send him into permanent hibernation. If there's one good thing about this winter from a personal perspective, it's that it has inspired me to learn about winter forecasting. There's certainly every opportunity to do so, and plenty of incentive. So I've learned a few new terms. Try this one on for size: heterogeneous nucleation. I like that one. Or how about this: DGZ, which stands for dendritic growth zone, the temperature range between -12 and -18 degrees Celsius wherein a saturated layer produces snowflakes. Got that? I'm starting to, along with a deeper appreciation for my RAOB software program. But I'd still be glad to see all this snow and cold go bye-bye, and I'll bet I'm not the only one. Well, well . . . buck up, ladies and gentlemen: meteorological spring is on the way. I just have a hunch it won't be here March 1. It's arrival time may be delayed by snow. What about you? Are you a winter lover or a winter Grinch--or has this winter turned you from one into the other? How do you think this crazy-cold, uber-snowy weather might affect the spring storm season? Drop a comment and share your thoughts.

Rob Dale on Free Learning Resources for the Prerequisites of Meteorology

I owe the following content to meteorologist and Ingham County, Michigan, emergency manager Rob Dale. With his permission, I'm duplicating it here from Rob's Facebook post, as I think some of my weatherhead readers may find it relevant and useful. That has been my experience; thanks to Rob, I've actually begun to look into tackling high school algebra--a subject I did horribly at back in my teen years--with an eye on laying the groundwork for calculus, and thence, meteorology. One is never too old to learn, right? Perhaps the free resources Rob has listed below will inspire you too to expand your learning horizons. In any case, the legwork Rob has done is too valuable to be buried beneath the Facebook landslide. Here's Rob. -------------------------- Let's say you're interested in REALLY learning about meteorology? You have NO idea how many resources are available today compared to just 5-10 years ago! You can take most of the core courses that currently cost thousands of dollars at a university for free at your own pace... For example, a met degree requires Calculus, Physics, and Chemisty off the top. Once you have that background, you can start reading intermediate (and maybe advanced) textbooks and actually learn how to forecast. You still won't be a full fledged met, but I guarantee you will make better forecasts than now and you will feel better knowing your knowledge is the reason why. You can find them elsewhere, but many of these from MIT have full video lectures which makes the process easier. http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/mathematics/ 18.01, 18.02, 18.03 http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/physics/ 8.01, 8.02 http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/chemistry/ 5.04, 5.60 Now you've got the basics! You can get meteorology books, will understand what you're reading, and actually start to make sense of the "why" behind the process. http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Dynamic-Meteorology-Fifth-Edition/dp/0123848660/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_z http://www.amazon.com/Mesoscale-Meteorology-Midlatitudes-Advancing-Weather/dp/0470742135 https://secure.ametsoc.org/amsbookstore/viewProductInfo.cfm?productID=81 http://www.amazon.com/Synoptic-Dynamic-Meteorology-Midlatitudes-Principles-Kinematics/dp/0195062671 http://www.amazon.com/Synoptic-Dynamic-Meteorology-Midlatitudes-Observations-Weather/dp/019506268X/ref=pd_sim_b_1 https://secure.ametsoc.org/amsbookstore/viewProductInfo.cfm?productID=5 https://secure.ametsoc.org/amsbookstore/viewProductInfo.cfm?productID=6 Some of those books can be expensive, but buy one at a time and you'll be able to sell them for about 80% of what you paid (if not more.) Does this sound hard? Yup. Necessary if you want to really know meteorology? Yup. Impossible? Nope. Just think how much time you are wasting drawing lines on Microsoft Paint and how those hours could actually help you learn! If you really wanted to be a guitar player would you be better off spending time on Guitar Hero or learning chords on a real guitar? One of them is fun in the short term but offers no advantage towards your goal. Same story here. So there you go. If this is REALLY your passion, make it something valuable. If you end up going to college, think of how much easier those classes will be since you've already invested ahead of time! If you don't go to school, imagine how much more interactive your conversations can be with meteorologists and how much of a service your posts will be to followers. -------------------------- Now, if you, like me, totally sucked at any form of math back in your high school daze (daze being a fully appropriate word for a child of the 1970s), Rob has also provided a link to KhanAcademy, which provides a blizzard of tutorials on the prerequisites for college-level courses. And yes, they too are free, free, free. Considering the education you can get online today without paying a dime, the only thing that can cost a person is to remain ignorant. Learn at your own pace for your own enrichment and satisfaction. What's to stop you? Hey, Rob--thanks! You rock, Pilgrim.  

Winter Solstice 2013: Tornadoes (or Not) in Dixie Alley and Ice Storms North and West

It has finally arrived: Winter. Astronomical winter, that is. Meteorological winter has already been with us for three weeks, beginning December 1, and in my book, that is the more climatologically accurate date. Particularly this year. For the first time since 2009, we in Michigan have been experiencing a good, old-fashioned Great Lakes winter. Here in Caledonia, the snowfall has exceeded a foot, and Lisa, who arrived here from Missouri five years ago hating winter and now loves it, dotes on it, rejoices in it, has been having a high good time during her two daily walks, equipped with brand-new winter hiking boots and a warm, warm, waaarm and dry, dry, dry waterproof down coat. I am not so enthusiastic about all this white stuff as Lis is. My interaction with winter consists largely of sitting indoors at my work station, gazing out through the sliding door, watching the finches argue at the feeders and the woodpeckers whack away at the suet, and watching snowflakes pirouette gracefully out of the sky, and thinking, "Can we get this over with?" Yes we can, in a few more months. Because today at last we tip the scale, and from here on, daylight will be on the upswing. Two weeks ago, on December 8, the sun set in my town at 5:08 p.m. EST, just as it had been doing for the preceding four days, hovering within the eight-minutes-past-the-hour range but setting just a few seconds earlier each day. The 8th was the earliest sunset date of the year. From then on, sunset time would arrive incrementally later. For the next five days, through December 13, it would remain at 5:08, but instead of losing seconds, now it would begin to add them back until, on December 9, the sun would set at 5:09. The converse does not, however, hold true for the day's first light. The sun will continue to rise later and later until January 3 of the new year. By then, the sun will have been rising at 8:14 a.m. for five days until finally, on that date, the sunrise will, like the sunset, hit its own tipping point. From thenceforth, losing a few seconds each day, it will begin its slow march toward an earlier and earlier hour. On January 8, it will rise at 8:13 a.m.; on January 12, at 8:12; on the 14th, at 8:11; and so it will go, until on the 31st, it will rise at 7:59. By then, the sun will be rising approximately a minute earlier each day, and we will have gained fifteen minutes of sunrise time. Why, then,  is today, winter solstice, so special? Because today marks our shortest period of overall daylight, the narrowest space between sunrise and sunset. From tomorrow on, even though the sun will continue to rise later and later for a while, the sunset time will begin to outpace it and the gap between sunrise and sunset will broaden--slowly at first, then with increasing swiftness. By the end of December, we Grand Rapidians will have gained 41 seconds of daylight for a total of 9 hours, 14 minutes, and 16 seconds on December 31. By March 18, we'll be adding daylight at 2 minutes and 15 second per day, at which point we'll have maxed out and the gains, while still continuing up to the summer solstice, will become gradually less. You now know more about the winter solstice than you probably ever cared to. What makes this particular solstice even more interesting is the weather that's shaping up for it, which shows promise of making it a headliner with tornadoes in the deep South and ice storms to the north and west. Day 1 Winter Solstice 1630 Mod Risk 2013Here is the 1630Z convective outlook for today, depicting a moderate risk stretching from western Kentucky and Tennessee southwestward into Louisiana, with a 15 percent hatched area for tornadoes. Given the brevity of daylight, I find this situation interesting but not particularly appealing.  A look at forecast soundings suggests a crapload of rain, low CAPE, and high helicity, all driven by massive shear and Jackson MS 19Z RAP_Skew-Trocketing along through formidable terrain. A lot of chasers are out there, and I'm sure that if I lived in that area, I'd be among them, but looking at the Shreveport radar, I don't feel like I'm missing out on something. I got my fill of chasing fast-moving, rain-wrapped storms last November in optimal territory, and considering how that chase turned out, I think I'll be a lot more selective about such scenarios in the future. That said, I wish those who are out there good success. And safety. Drive carefully, mates and matesses. No storm is worth jeopardizing your safety over. As for me, I'm sitting well on the other side of the cold front, and freezing rain is in the forecast, though my local WFO has backed off on it in their forecast discussion. Lots of areas in the Midwest are getting hit with icy conditions, making for hazardous driving, power outages, downed tree limbs, and the like. The day grows later, and so far, glancing at the radar down south, I just don't see anything very exciting--just a messy-looking MCS with one cell south of Memphis showing a hint of rotation. Only wind reports so far, and I suspect that's how this thing will continue to play out. Tough for anyone who drove down there hoping for more; good for denizens of the region. And so enters the winter of 2013–14. Time to wrap up this post and get on with the rest of this afternoon.

September Gilds the Fenlands

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Three miles south of Middleville, Michigan, lies Upton Road Fen. That is the name I have given the place for convenience to provide some sense of location. In reality, the fen is nameless. Rarely do wetlands in Michigan have an actual place name, and in the case of this wetland, that is just as well, because the name "Upton Road" hardly does justice to either the magnificent sweep and diversity of the fen or the loveliness of the sandy forest trail that winds through archways of hardwood past the fen's northern border.
A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

Prairie fens are a rare and unusual kind of alkaline wetland, rich in plant life, and Barry County is a bastion for these beautiful and fascinating ecosystems. Upton Road Fen may well be the largest of its kind in this part of the state. If not, it is certainly one of the larger ones, stretching three-quarters of a mile from corner to corner and encompassing a wide palette of fen habitats, from drier cinquefoil fields, to sedge meadows, to a wet, reedy seep, to a floating mat on the lowest, southeast end.  Pitcher plants grow here, and wild orchids, and blazing star, and deep blue fringed and bottle gentians. Tamaracks rub shoulders with red cedars, and here at the end of September, poison sumac shrubs dot the periphery of the fen, glowing incandescently like fiery rubies strung across a vast necklace where the wetland meets the woods.
Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

I have come here on this bright, late afternoon in search of gentians, and I am not disappointed. They are here, fully open, batting their fetching blue lashes at the slanting September sun. Little coquettes! Gentle, sweet wildflowers, flirty yet shy, like teenage girls just discovering their charms. I have intended to get photographs, but my camera's battery is lower than I realized, and it dies on me after just a few landscape shots plus some odds-and-ends closeups. The latter include this old seed pod with one tufted seed still clinging gallantly to it. I don't know what the plant is--it's actually a shrub of some kind, and far be it from me to venture a guess as to its identity. I'm just not much of a shrub man. I walk cautiously, keeping an eye out for massasaugas. In the many times I have visited this fen, I have never seen one, but I am told they are here and actually plentiful. I would love to see one, but not today--I left my heavy boots at home, and I wouldn't care to have my first encounter with Michigan's only rattlesnake result from my stepping on one with these old, threadbare athletic shoes I'm wearing.
Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Fortunately, my snakeless record remains pristine as I head back to the car. It has been an all-too-short visit on this radiant afternoon, but I have things to do and it is time to go. I am grateful, though, for these few minutes here, beyond the grasp of the frenzied world, where time slows down and invites me to do likewise long enough to see the smile of my Father. He is a loving Creator who has much reason to look upon these works of his hands--these golden fields, this sun-gilded fen stretching luminously beneath the September sky--and call all of it good. Yes, very good indeed.

May 28, 2013, Tornadic Supercell by Grand Ledge, Michigan

Tornado season is now long past, and the sting of missing great storms either through bad targeting or having to head home one and two days before two major events has eased. Maybe next year will be better. Besides, the show's not over till the snows fly. Meanwhile, I'm looking back to my most interesting chase of the year, documented by the video at the bottom of this post. Ironically, I logged around 6,000 miles to and from Oklahoma and Kansas with little to show for it, while my humble backyard of Michigan gave me an enjoyable and productive bit of action. On May 28, a warm front lifted up through lower Michigan, ushering in decent moisture and instability along with a good boundary for them to work their mojo with. The thing that seemed to be missing was adequate shear for storm organization--but I ignored conditions farther east of me. I just didn't take the setup seriously enough, and when Kyle Underwood, the WOOD TV8 meteorologist, inquired which of the TV8 chasers planned to head out, I said that I didn't see much potential. If something came my way, I would grab it, but otherwise, I didn't want to waste gas. That was understandable: money was tight, and I planned to chase in Kansas the next day. Still, geeze, what an idiot (me, not Kyle). Let us pause momentarily while I give myself a retroactive dope slap. I have come to a conclusion: in Michigan, when a warm front shows up with good CAPE present and any kind of bulk shear to speak of, even anemic bulk shear, chase the front. Never mind what the models have to say about storm-relative helicity; helicity will take care of itself if a storm manages to organize in the vicinity of the frontal boundary. Just get out there and chase the stupid front. Particularly farther to the east. Storms in Michigan often have a way of intensifying and organizing near and east of I-69 and, north of Lansing, US-127. That was the case on this day. My first clue was when I glanced at the radar later and noticed that Kurt Hulst was on a storm off to the southeast. Kurt knows what he's doing, and the storm looked decent--in fact, it was tornado-warned. Okay, I thought, I missed that one. Probably it'll be the only one. So I sat tight and watched the radar as other storms formed. They looked like a convective mess to my west, but they clearly were moving into a better environment as they progressed east. Finally, I'd had enough. I grabbed my laptop and cameras and headed out. I locked onto the most intense-looking cell in my vicinity and tracked with it toward Portland. But another was following on its heels, and given the way that the storms were behaving, I thought I'd be better off dropping the one I was on and letting the new one come to me. Presumably, it would get its crap together on the way, and that is what happened. As it approached Grand Ledge just west of Lansing, this storm developed a most amazing streamer of scud sucking into its updraft base from the east. It appeared to originate near ground level--hard to tell with trees constantly interrupting the view--and rocketed toward the storm, leaving no doubt that this storm had impressive inflow. Driving into Grand Ledge, I found myself under the area of rotation, with crazy, low cloud motions. Turning around, I headed back north and parked by the airport, then watched and filmed as the storm headed east into Lansing. It looked very close to spinning up a tornado; in the video, you can see it trying hard, and eventually it succeeded. But I had to drop the chase. My friend Steve Barclift and I planned to chase the next day in Kansas, and I had to meet him so we could hit the road for the long drive west. As it turned out, the storm I was on provided a better show than anything we saw along the dryline. My buddy Rob Forry managed to catch this storm at its tornadic phase and got some nice video. My original hi-def shows the motion of the inflow streamer nicely as I enter Grand Ledge. Regrettable, this YouTube clip doesn't render the details as well, but you'll at least get a feel for the motion. The storm was an interesting one and fun to chase. It would be nice to get another one like it. It's only August, so the door is far from closed.

Remember When . . . ?

Remember when tornado photos were all black-and-white, and you only saw them in the newspapers? Remember how rare it was  to see them? Remember newspapers? Remember watching The Wizard of Oz every time it played on TV, and never missing a showing, just so you could watch the tornado scene? ("It's a twister! It's a twister!") Remember how fascinated and delighted you were when they showed those grainy old movies of tornadoes in school, or sometimes on TV, and how you wished they'd replay them and then replay them again so you could watch them over and over and over? Remember when you first saw that incredible photo of twin funnels south of Elkhart, Indiana, taken by photographer Paul Huffman during the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak? And that dramatic image of the Xenia, Ohio, tornado shot at just a quarter-mile away from Greene Memorial Hospital during the 1974 Super Outbreak? Remember your first successful chase? (As if you could ever forget.) I remember mine. It was in August 1996 across central Michigan, roughly along the M-21 corridor. North of Saint Johns, Michigan, I watched as a beautiful tube dropped from a classic supercell that was as sweetly structured as anything I've seen on the Plains. Both the tornado and its parent storm were gorgeous--and I was elated. Remember when there were no laptops, no Android phones, no mobile data, no GR3--just your car, your weather radio, maybe a tiny portable TV, and a ton of hopefulness and excitement as you drove happily down the highway toward a sky full of rising towers? Remember when seeing a tornado was rare and busting was something you simply expected and took in stride as part of paying your dues? Remember before the movie Twister came out? Remember before the Stormchasers series? Remember when storm chasing wasn't "extreme"? Remember when storm chasing barely was at all? Remember when Storm Track was a print newsletter published by pioneer chaser David Hoadley? I regret that I never subscribed, because I could have learned much from it. Remember when the online version was a resource everyone welcomed and loved, not a point of contention among some chasers? I'm so glad the worst of that scuffle is a few years behind us now. Remember when there was no live stream to fuss with, no competing with a league of other chasers all getting similar footage of the same storm, and no rush to process your video and get it to the networks first? (Not that I would know about that last point personally. I've never gotten the hang of it and don't particularly care.) Remember when there was nothing to prove, no reputation to make or uphold, and no stripes to earn? Remember when it was just about the storms, period? Don't you wish it still could be? Why can't it? Remember how excited you were when you first got hooked up with a laptop, GR3, and mobile data? Remember how, before then, you used to stop at airports and small-town libraries just to get a glimpse of the radar? Remember when there was no TwisterData, no HRRR, no SPC mesoanalysis graphics, no easy way to obtain forecast soundings, no abundance of forecasting resources available at just the click of a mouse button? Remember when you weren't even aware that there were forecasting resources available to you? Remember your first exposure to the SPC forecast discussions, reading through all that arcane gobbledegook and thinking, "These people speak Martian"? And then thinking, "Maybe if I just head for the center of where it says 'Moderate Risk' . . ."? Remember discovering COD and looking over their forecast maps and not having a clue what they meant or how to use them? You pulled up the 500 mb heights/wind map and admired the pretty colors and thought, "This looks like it could mean something." Remember not knowing the difference between GFS and ETA and RUC? Remember ETA and RUC? Remember knowing absolutely nothing about forecasting, and how you struggled to learn, and how thrilled you felt when you finally pieced things together and successfully picked a target, or at least had your forecast verify? Remember all that? Never forget. Many of you are too young to have experienced some of the things I've mentioned. You missed out on something good. It doesn't all sound good, I'll grant you--no in-car radar, no access to a bazillion free online weather resources--but it had its virtues. Not that I'd care to go back to caveman days, but I'd love to reclaim their spirit. The beat goes on, and those of you who boarded the bus farther down the road are building your own list of remember-whens. But we who are in our mid-forties and older can recall simpler times. They were far less technically advanced, but they were also infinitely less frantic and driven overall. I guess you have to reach at least fifty years of age before you get to say stuff like that. It's the province and privilege of duffers. I qualify, and I'm okay with that. I wish I could claim something akin to the number and quality of tornadic encounters, and the knowledge gained thereby, and the photos to show and the stories to tell, possessed by some of the luminaries who are my age or not all that terribly much older. Those guys have got a lot to remember! But what's mine is mine, and it's enough to reminisce upon. If you got your start when storm chasing was of a different character than it is today, you know that you were privileged to come up in a special time, a time that can never be reclaimed. And memories of those days are well worth treasuring and reflecting on and feeling grateful for the experiences that created them.