Thursday, February 6, 2014

Interview with Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive

This is a snippet of an interview I did with Rachael Price from Lake Street Dive. You should buy their music and go see a show. Look for the rest of the interview in my book on how to practice.

Interview with Rachael Price

Put simply Rachael Price, lead vocalist for Lake Street Dive, is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. When I caught a Lake Street Dive show last month I couldn’t believe my ears. The lead singer  could switch her style from soulful singing one second and then suddenly inflect her music with jazzy sophistication. She can outright rock and roll one minute and be a sweet and sensitive balladeer the next. She seems to have no limit to what she can do with her voice.

 I think its safe to say that Rachael was born to sing. As you’ll see in the interview Rachael started at a very young age. You won’t find many 5 years old who were interested in learning how to sing like Ella Fitzgerald the way Rachael Price did. Aside from such natural talents (or perhaps because of them) Rachael Price is completely dedicated to her singing and has clearly worked very hard to get where she is at with her voice.

Rachael was kind enough to grant me an interview on a crazy muddy day at a backstage tent at Floydfest a mere hour before they took the stage for sound check. The interview was very enlightening, and it was a pleasure to hear Rachael’s thoughts on how she developed her amazing voice.

If you haven’t heard Lake Street Dive you need to go out and buy some of their music right now!

BC: So how did you get started with music.

RP: I started singing when I was little. My dad is a choral director and I started singing that way.

BC: You were singing from a very young age I guess. As soon as you could talk?

RP: Yep.

BC: As a choir director, did you dad have a lot of vocal training?

RP: Not really. He’s not a singer but he understood how singing works to a certain extent.

BC: So he was a your first teacher? What sort of stuff were you learning?

RP: I sang in choir and sang a variety of choral music. And I sang gospel too and then I started singing jazz when I was 5 or 6.

BC: Did you have a jazz teacher?

RP: No. I didn’t have a teacher until I was around 15 years old.

BC: How did you go about music as a 5 year old?

RP: I would just copy recordings and listen to people like Ella Fitzgerald. I started with her and just straight up copied it. I would sing along until I could just sing it.

BC: Age 5?

RP: Yeah, I started at 5 and could probably do it by age 8 or 9. There were certain songs I could sing.

BC: And this was all of your own desire?

RP: I don’t know how it happened. I think I got into it and then my father encouraged it. But he played guitar so he would sit and play the songs with me. But pretty much it was just me and recordings. I just sang along with recordings.

BC: And you were going for all the details in the music. You were getting all of Ella Fitzgerald’s inflection?

RP: Exactly, and after Ella Fitzgerald I moved on to Sarah Vaughn. I worked on Doris Day for a while and a lot of the big band singers from the 40’s I was into. This was all at different times. I would focus on a singer and copy them.

BC: Would you work on all this after school?

RP: Every day.

BC: How many hours would you do this?

RP: I didn’t know it was practicing, but I would say when I was little I could do it for 2-3 hours a day without even noticing the time. I don’t really remember how old I was exactly when I was doing that, but I did this a lot.

BC: Did you feel like you were a good singer back then?

RP: I knew I could sing.

BC: Did you have a burning desire to sing?

RP: Yes.

BC: Did your dad push you to do it?

RP: Yeah, he pushed me but I always wanted to as well.

BC: So prior to taking lessons was there any instruction in regard to vocal technique?

RP: I had a fair amount from singing in choirs. I knew how to warm up properly.

BC: What kind of stuff would you do at that point for warming up?

RP: The basic vocal warm ups like singing scales. Warming up parts of your face. Rolling your tongue and warming up your mouth. Singing different vowel sounds with scales. Stuff like that.

BC: Were you performing at that point?

RP: I started performing when I was eleven.

BC: Were you happy about your performing at that point?

RP: I was pretty happy about it. There were vocal things I wanted to do and didn’t have the range for, but I was comfortable working with the range I had at that age.

BC: Would you practice by listening back to your own recordings at that age and try to improve things?

RP: No I don’t think I ever did that. (Laughs)

BC: When you got to be 15 years old and started taking lessons were you studying with a vocalist?

RP: Yes.

BC: What sort of stuff would you do with that teacher?

RP: That was great in expanding my range. It really taught me how to access certain parts of my range. That was kind of the main thing that came out of my lessons. I learned to sing in a way that I could work on the sound that I wanted.

BC: What sort of technique stuff were you working on?

RP: Very specific sort of warm ups that you could do to expand your range.

BC: Would you work on that everyday?

RP: Probably not everyday, but more like a few days a week.

BC: So you were a sophomore in high school?

RP: Yeah, I would learn things in a lesson and then I would sing a lot too. And I was mostly focused on jazz. I did some soul and pop too, but mostly I was singing jazz. So I would work on things when I was singing whatever songs I was working on. I wouldn’t do a ton of warm ups all the time.

BC: I must say that I don’t know a whole lot of kids who were 6 years old who would dive into singing jazz. Do you have any idea what attracted you to that music at that age?

RP: I think I watched a lot of  musicals around that time. You know, old musicals. I think that had a part in it. There was a theatrical element to it as well that I always enjoyed. I’ve always enjoyed performing, but otherwise I don’t know why I like it so much.

Everybody wants to rule the world

This song is really fun to play on the banjo. Amazingly it lays out really nicely on the 5.

Ciffrose and Pine

The red rock desert of Moab, Utah is a special place for me. I lived and worked at Arches National Park for the better part of year. I roamed the furthest reaches of the park and climbed its rock towers. I saw some amazing things out there in canyon country. I was also in love and lost that love not longer after I left. This song is about that place and time.

This video was recorded at the Bull and Beggar here in Asheville, NC. My lovely and talented wife is singing harmony.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


It seems that in any endeavor there will always be one person who ends up standing apart from the crowd and becomes a singular force. Someone that everybody else chases. Someone everybody else wants to be like. Someone that comes to be the embodiment of whatever it is they are doing.  They change the game. Its their world and the rest of just live in it. If you're in the know then these folks are easy to pick out. They're likely to be famous. How these folks come to achieve such lofty pinnacles of artistry and accomplishment is very interesting to me and after studying music and the paths of musical improvement I feel like I have a bit of a better understanding how these folks get to where they are. But there's something else that's very mysterious about it. Luck plays no small part. Or is it fate? Or is it just plain love?

In the world of bluegrass guitar playing and singing that person is David Anthony Rice, or as he's better known, Tony Rice. I first heard Tony Rice's music about 14 years ago when I was first getting into bluegrass music. A good buddy of mine told me I had to listen to his album, Manzanita. Released in  1979 Mazanita, I think its fair to say, is one of the most important bluegrass records yet recorded. Nothing else in bluegrass really sounds like it. Sonically and creatively its unique. Rice's playing and singing is flawless and sophisticated but still exhibits the best qualities of 1st generation bluegrass music. Drive, emotion, virtuosity (but not at the expense of musicality), and cohesion. The band that plays on the record is an all star cast of bluegrass musicians. It bridges old bluegrass styles with more progressive arrangements and picking and is arguably Rice's best loved record. When I first heard it I didn't know anything about bluegrass, it just sounded good. It was good music. Period. Only now that I've devoted so much of my life to studying bluegrass music do I understand HOW important it is.

At this point Tony Rice is the most important and copied bluegrass guitarist and will likely remain un-eclipsed in that regard. He's like Earl Scruggs on the banjo. You either play like him or you try NOT to play like him. At a certain point I realized that lots of guitarists were trying (often unsuccessfully) to play like Rice and for fear of being a hack (still fearing that!) I stopped paying attention to the details of his guitar style. The truth is that his guitar style is more like his essence. You can no more play like him than you can BE him. Rice's playing is amazingly sophisticated at times. He clearly has an amazing ear and a great technical knowledge of the guitar and music but he doesn't let that get in the way of what feels right to him. And that seems most important anyway. As a friend of mine once said, "I think he's just really smart." There's seems to be no doubt.

Rice's guitar is perhaps the most hallowed acoustic guitar that's yet been made. Clarence White's 1935 Martin D-28. Once owned by Rice's obvious influence and perhaps mentor, Clarence White, its only fitting that Rice would resurrect the guitar after White tragically passed away after being struck by a drunk driver. Rice seems to have a signature tone on any guitar he plays but the sound of that D-28 is nearly unmistakable. Rice has one of the most fluid right hands to ever hold a flat pick. He doesn't pick the strings so much as glide the pick over them. His left hand one of the most economical. As much as I would like to play that guitar just out of curiosity I imagine my inadequacies as a guitarist would only seem all the more apparent.

Tony Rice is equally lauded for his singing. At times mellow and at times soulful but always full of emotion, Rice's singing is just as singular as his guitar playing. His recorded vocal music covers the territory of traditional bluegrass, old folk ballads, as well as unique covers of great songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot and Norman Blake. Tragically Tony Rice lost his ability to sing many years ago and this only seemed to elevate his legend that much more. From the beginning I heard the rumors about the loss of his voice, of which I won't go into here, but no doubt the loss of his voice only helped to contribute to his legend. It seems our heroes often deal with a great deal of tragedy and it makes us love them all the more for being so human. The truth is that we all deal with tragedy but our heroes like Rice have to deal with it while the masses also know about it.

What seems clear is that we won't see another bluegrass musician like Tony Rice anytime soon. Rice carries himself publicly with a style and stage presence that's downright stately. Its as if he has to bring his stage persona up to the level of sophistication of the music being played. Chris Thile and Bela Fleck can play (on camera) Bach partitas in socks and jeans but could you imagine Tony Rice playing Nine Pound Hammer in an T-shirt! Hell no. Nobody else really does that. Rice stands almost like a statute as he plays. He doesn't show off with rock and roll inspired head bobs or movements but yet he's never stoic. He's just, as John Hartford described him, the coolest guy in the room.

Rice was recently inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, an honor that (however predictable and customary) seems somehow backward to me. Rice could induct bluegrass into his hall of fame, know what I mean? During his award speech, which has became the stuff of instant legend, Rice looking very drawn and weary delivered a speech that was truly electric. His raspy and weak voice almost whispering into the microphone as he gave a somewhat standard yet heartfelt thank you. You could imagine the speech ending pretty quickly and Rice bowing out to great applause. But then he did something magical, he asked for a moment to gather himself because whatever he was about to do required a lot of focus. What on earth?

You could hear Rice hum quietly to himself and then he stepped back up to the microphone. When he returned the raspy and hoarse voice from before was gone and he was miraculously speaking a soft and gentle but normal voice. Wow! I can only imagine the mood of the room when Rice started speaking again. Somehow he had managed to speak normally again! This was miraculous even for Rice. It would be quite amazing to hear Tony Rice be able to sing again but that seems to be shooting the moon. For me Rice couldn't have secured his legacy any more resoundingly.  Asking the question of, how did he ever do that with his voice is like asking how he played the guitar or sing like he did. I think Rice described himself best as he did describing music in a guitar instruction video he made several years ago. He said (paraphrasing Wynton Marsalis) that music can only be described in one word, mysterious. Tony Rice is very mysterious indeed. He's also happens to the best.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview with Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive

This is in an excerpt from my forthcoming book on how to practice. Enjoy!

Interview with Bridget Kearney

Often times in rock music the bass player goes unnoticed, both visually and musically. If the bass player is doing a good job you're likely not to notice them. And being in a band with a lead vocalist as amazing as Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, it might be even easier to get overlooked. But if your name is Bridget Kearney, that couldn’t be further from the truth. A glance at comments on YouTube videos and you’re just as likely to see comments praising Kearney’s funky, melodic, and powerful bass lines as you are Price’s vocals. The grooves she creates with bandmate and drummer Michael Calabrese and guitarist Michael “McDuck” Olson are tighter than a froggy’s bottom. And her harmony singing and songwriting help propel an already formidable sound into something special.

Kearney’s bandmates in Lake Street Dive are a team of all star musicians with a lot of tricks up their sleeves. Their music pulls in a variety of styles and creates a sound much bigger than the sum of its parts. The music is retro on one hand and completely of  the here and now. I imagine big things could be in store for this band.  Bridget was kind enough to grant me an interview on a crazy muddy day at a backstage tent at Floydfest a mere hour before they took the stage for sound check. The interview was very enlightening and it was a pleasure to hear Bridget’s thoughts on how she developed her powerful bass playing.

BC: How did you get started with music?

BK: I started in my church choir when I was about 5 and did that through high school. And then I started playing piano in kindergarten. I was taking piano lessons once a week. And then I started playing bass, which is my full time instrument, in 4th grade in school orchestra.

BC: So that whole time from elementary school onward you were taking lots of music lessons?

BK: Yeah, starting in kindergarten I had a piano lesson once a week. Then I’d go to choir rehearsal once a week and then in 4th grade I added in the bass lessons once a week.

BC: Was this electric bass?

BK: I started on upright in school orchestra and then I briefly took some electric bass lessons but mostly upright bass.

BC: When you were taking bass lessons, how were they structured?

BK: The first lessons that I took were just technique based. I learned the A string. I learned the E string. I think we started with pizzicato and gradually added in bow technique.

BC: Was this all classical?

BK: Yeah, 4th, 5th, 6th grade I was just playing orchestra classical music. I had private lessons and orchestra lessons once a week. At some point I took private lessons outside of the school. The orchestra teachers are taught to teach beginners on all the instruments and that only takes you so far. So I wanted to get more instruction.

BC: When you first started on the upright were you playing solos or was it all for the orchestra?

BK: We played some songs in lessons that were pretty simple songs. So as a bass player often times you’re accompanying but for the sake of getting to know your instrument and learning your way around it you’re better off learning the roles of other instruments as well. So you can gain that facility.

BC: In the very beginning can you recall how your teacher would structure the lessons? And specifically would they tell you how you should practice away from the lesson? Was there any instruction in that regard?

BK: I guess my earliest lessons were where I worked out of a book. A bass book that we were using. My teacher would give me a couple pages that we would go over in the lesson. This is how the song goes. And I had been taking piano lessons since I was very young. I don’t really remember what it felt like to read music cause I was pretty young. So when I started bass I had a bit of a head start with seeing notes on the page and sight reading stuff.

The songs that I was learning would get progressively harder and incorporate new notes that I had learned so maybe the first songs would only have like 3 notes in it. You know someone came up with some terrible 3 note song.

BC: Did your teachers tell you to break things down into phrases or anything like that?

BK: Yeah! Definitely. All the time. I sort of think of that as being something I used later on when things got more complex. I would take things in bits and pieces. But that didn’t happen in the beginning when I was learning my instrument.

BC: Did you sing choir, play in the orchestra, and play piano all the way through high school?

BK: Yeah I played in the orchestra all the way through high school. And then around junior high I started playing jazz in school jazz band. And I had a rock band that I played electric bass in.

BC: Sounds like you were constantly playing music.

BK: Yeah I started playing music from a very young age. I was always drawn to music and constantly seeking it out.

BC: When you were in high school were you focused strictly on bass or were you still playing piano?

BK: I focused strictly on the bass. I stopped taking piano lessons in junior high. And I was pretty serious about it. Especially sophomore, junior, and senior year. That was the time that I was probably practicing the most in my life. And then after college I was practicing a lot then too. During college I was practicing, and doing music all day. I went to a music college but I was very busy playing shows and playing in ensembles. I played a lot but solo practice time was rare.

BC: So when you were in high school what kind stuff would you do for practice? Would you practice everyday?

BK: Yeah, I’d practice everyday. In the early years I was taking mostly classical lessons and I was working from repertoire. I’d have a piece that I was working on and I would get as far with it on my own. And then bring it in to my teacher and my teacher would say, “I think you should change your fingering for this part. It will be easier. And pay attention to this about your bow stroke. And we need to make the fortes more forte.” You know making everything more musical. And my teacher would know pieces that would include a certain technique that I needed to work on. If I was struggling with a certain zone on the bass. Thumb position or something my teacher could say here’s a song you should learn because it will force you to learn that.

BC: My wife plays stand up bass and started playing it about 4 or 5 years ago. And I know that she has a hard time with the physical side of upright bass. She gets cramps in her left hand sometimes. How much technique building did you incorporate into your practicing?

BK: I did a lot. My teacher was a university professor of the bass.  That was her profession, teaching the bass. She has taught a bunch of people who are at an advanced level to get better at the bass. So she had a bunch of etudes and daily practice things that she gave to me that were good to hone in on technical aspects but were still musical.

BC: So they weren’t just boring exercises.

BK: Yeah.

BC: How would you incorporate that into your practice? 10 minutes. 20 minutes?

BK: I think depending how much time I had, I would spend a half hour to an hour to warming up.

BC: You would do technique during your warm up?

BK: Yeah, and then I would move on to the repertoire that I was working on.

BC: Were you using the metronome for all that?

BK: I would use it for some of it but not all of it. I find the metronome useful now for the sake of slowing things down so that you know that you’re getting every note and nuance right. And then gradually working it up to speed. And that’s the main thing that I was using it for then. And since then, after college, I’ve kind of gotten into using it to focus on different placement of the time with the beat. Ahead of the beat, behind the beat. And zoning in on certain 8th and 16th notes. You know putting the metronome on different 16th notes.

BC: At what point did you really get into jazz and what style were you playing?

BK: I started in junior high and around my freshman year of college that became sort of my main focus. And I started out by playing in big bands with 15 other people that were playing the song and I would just play the bass line. And as I wanted to get better at it I started learning more of what the sax and trumpet did.

BC: When you say big band you mean Glenn Miller type stuff?

BK: Yeah, and freshman year in high school I started playing in smaller groups where your role in the ensemble is a little more flexible with regard to taking solos and stuff. And that time my main mode of practice became transcription and playing stuff mostly by ear.

BC: What jazz bass players were you studying?

BK: Paul Chambers. Charles Mingus. Charlie Hayden.

BC: Were you learning their lines note for note?

BK: I’d learn their lines. Sometimes I’d write them all out and transcribe them for the sake of analysis. And sometimes I’d just learn them to have them in my ears and under my fingers and not write them down.

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BC: This kind of goes back a little bit but how many hours a day would you practice? Say in high school.

BK: In high school maybe 2 hours a day but sometimes it would be a half hour and sometimes it would be 4 hours but on average I’d say 2 hours. And if it was a long session, I’d take breaks.

BC: So back to jazz. How much music theory have you studied?

BK: Well I went to school for jazz bass. We took other classes not related to jazz. But I guess I’ve studied theory a fair amount.

BC: How important do you think it is?

BK: I think it’s really important.

BC: Even for pop music?

BK: If you’re writing pop music, I think it’s important. If you’re just playing, I don’t think it’s important. But if you want to write it, I think it’s really important to understand how stuff works. It’s going to be a lot if you’re just using trail and error. And I don’t really put a lot of stock in conventional music theory, but I think analyzing the foundational elements of music is super important especially if you’re going to be composing.

BC: I’m a bluegrass musician, but I play some jazz. But it’s how a bluegrasser would play jazz, so I understand the basics but I realize how crazy jazz theory can get. I would imagine especially so if you’ve studied a lot of Mingus. But in bluegrass, the bass player’s job is to be the bass drum. They are often just playing the 1 and 3 and 5 with some walks here and there but it seems like jazz bass is a lot more wide open harmonically and my question is how do you get to where you understand how to navigate a chord progression that’s a little more complex. As a bass player you have all these options harmonically.

BK: Yeah. There’s a whole world to that and everybody has their own style. I think the way that I learned to do it was transcribing other bass players lines and then trying to analyze what they are doing at any given moment. Let’s say you sit down with a 6 minute song. You can start to hear the form of the song pretty quickly.  You play the tune and then you solo over the tune and then you play the tune again. So you hear the same form maybe 20 – 25 times in 6 minutes. So you can just line up the bars. You can say well the first bar you played this the first time and then this the 2nd time and this the 3rd time. And from that you’ve just gained a bunch of different approaches as to how you want to do it yourself.  And then music theory comes in really handy.

I always thought of it like this. You have 4 beats to get from point A to point B. This chord is the first one. You almost have to play the root on the downbeat. You don’t always have to but in general you need to. And then you have 3 beats to make your way to the next one. So you have a million options. You want to build some themes. You want it to be sing able. There’s certain things that you can be technical about. But the most important thing is to be musical about it. Make it something that sounds good to you.

BC: What’s the feeling of the song…

BK: Yeah.

Look for the rest of the interview in my upcoming book.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stepping out and dialing things in

I played my first solo gig in Asheville this past Friday at The Altamont Brewing Co. It was a lot of fun for me and lots of my friends came out to support me and that was really nice. Nothing is worse for a musician than to play for an empty room. This was my third gig with the whole variety show concept. My current solo gig is something I have been specifically cultivating for about a year and a half. Its is pretty amazing to see it start to come together but I'm realizing how much more ambitious it is than I first realized.

During the show I mix up my instrumentation between guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Just trying to get the sound right on all 3 of these instruments is enough of a challenge by itself but to make things even more difficult I also shuffle rhythm on a piece of plywood AND I change tunings on every instrument at least once during the set. Its a lot to manage for one person during a performance. I'm even more in awe of John Hartford (my inspiration for the solo thing) who pulled off his one man show with such style and effortlessness I can only wonder how he did. Of course, sadly, he's not around to ask.

None of this even touches on practicing all this material. I've got about 1 set that I feel I've got at about 90% right now, maybe more depending on the sound. I've still got some work to do to get it closer to 95% or better. How do I get my material dialed in even better? Its a great question and one I'm not quite sure how to answer myself. I've never done anything like this before. So I reckon this blog post is me trying to tell myself how to practice. I mean I'm always going on about how YOU should practice I guess I should take my own advice, huh? So here's my checklist to help me get more dialed in with this crazy solo show I'm putting together.

  • Continue to dial in the sound. Managing all the cables and mics and amps is a bitch.  Things need to be simpler if possible.
  • Practice at home with live sound as much as possible.
  • Eliminate as many tuning changes as possible.
  • Play live as much as possible. It just ain't the same unless you're in front of a crowd.
Hope it helps. (yes I do!)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Learning where the fingers go Part 2.

Here's a companion video to Learning where the fingers go.

Give it a watch and let me know what you think. I plan on putting more videos together about how you practice music. If you have any topics you'd like to see let me know.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"On Practicing" by Ricardo Iznaola

At this point I've researched close to 20 books on music and about 6 specifically on how to practice. All of these books have been helpful in some way but one book I go to more than any other for advice is "On Practicing" by Ricardo Iznaola. This humble little manual is a mere 24 pages.  It's about the size of a christmas card and could easily fit in about any music case.

Small the book may be but the advice inside is the most concise and well thought out of any of my practice books. The book is described as a "manual for students of guitar performance" but there is nothing in the book that is specific to guitar and the information could be applied to any instrument. There is a section that deals with sight reading which is something not every musicians would necessarily need but the info is still useful. I thought I would post a few choice passages from the book. I promise you'll find these bits of wisdom invaluable in your practice. Good practicing.

Inner poise:
"Emotional detachment from the material being practiced. We are dispassionate and therefore, emotionally unaffected by the natural ups and downs which happen in the course of practicing. We do not condemn ourselves for the mistakes, although we realistically take notice of them. We behave, and feel, like scientists in a lab. We observe, dispassionately, the results of our experiments."

Negative practice factors:
"Difficulty level-the tendency to tackle material that is too difficult for our present level of development. The difficulty may be technical, musical, or a combination of both."

"-If one is practicing one does not continue playing the piece until one has achieved the pre-set goals for that particular fragment. Practicing is , fundamentally, a goal oriented, detail oriented focused process of correction and experimentation to improve what has been done before. Although one practices performing, this is the culminating stage of practicing and can never substitute for the preliminary, detailed work which is the true core of good practice."

I especially like this little bit of wisdom.

"Inner motivation: Discipline
No practice approach can be effective if one doesn't work regularly and consistently. One must want to practice on a regular and consistent basis. Discipline is the consequence of a desire to act in a goal oriented way, prompted by internal circumstances (non material, or spiritual, needs.) Those needs have to do with important values, like love, ambition, self respect, etc."


Thursday, August 1, 2013

How much should I practice?

A question I get asked a lot is how much should one practice to get better? This is an excellent question and is something anyone who hopes to improve at music should be thinking about. Unfortunately it is not an easy question to answer. Everybody is different and has different goals for their music and needs to approach practice with those goals specifically in mind. If you want to play guitar or banjo around the campfire with friends you don't need to practice as much as a classical pianist who's preparing to play the Metropolitan Opera House. Or do you? Surprisingly our beginner campfire picker will need to work equally as hard and in some ways even harder.

Time and again I've found several common threads in my research of books on how to practice as well as my interviews with great musicians and one fact about improvement is clear. You've got to practice if you want to get better. I've read (as well as conducted my own)  interviews  with professional musicians and a pattern emerges for nearly all touring musicians. They start young and practice everyday for at least 2 hours a day on average. And they do that for several years just to get over the beginner hump. THEN, they really start studying music more deeply and start the education necessary to become professionals. So what's the difference between our campfire guitarist and our professional? The campfire guitarist doesn't go any deeper once they can play some songs, but they still need to put in that time to get over the hump.

In fact, its my opinion that beginners have it the roughest. Everything is hard when you're a beginner. You're hands don't work well, your ears need to develop, and it just seems like your goals are far off. And maybe they are! That's a legitimate feeling to have. When I started playing music I think I knew how far off my goals were but somehow I didn't let it stop me. Actually I think I might have been in denial about it. I mean I started performing right off the bat and I can't imagine how bad I must have been. Well, I can imagine. I would write a song and take it down to the open mic and play it the next week. Sometimes I did OK and sometimes I made dogs howl. I played bluegrass gigs when I barely knew the songs and often couldn't keep up with the speed. In other words I was faking it. I wouldn't recommend going about developing like I did but I wouldn't discourage it either. Looking back it seems maybe I thought I could get there faster if I tried hard. I couldn't. It takes a long time.

So you see even for our modest campfire guitar picker, they need to put in the time to get to that point. Just like a concert pianist did. The difference is that our amateur guitar player doesn't go any farther. They just coast along after they get to where they can play. OK,  I digress. So how much do you have to practice? Well let's see. Maybe try this, you'll improve guaranteed or your money back!

  • Strive to practice 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day. AT LEAST! I would say this is the minimum you need to practice to get better. 
  • After years of practicing for hours and hours a day I think that you can't really do to much more after 3-4 hours a day. This is if you are PRACTICING. Practicing is slow, and its often tedious. If you are really practicing you'll be to tired to do more after this much practice.
  • A better goal to shoot for would be 1.5-2 hours a day.
  • Playing for fun should be a big part of your development but don't confuse it with practice.
           A big part of getting better with a musical instrument is just getting your body adjusted and strong enough to play. Focused practice can certainly help and is necessary but just getting your instrument out and having fun can help too. Especially for the beginner. If you're a beginner guitar player, get your guitar out and goof off while you watch TV. Leave it out so you can just pick it up and make some noise. When I was a kid I loved to pick up the guitar and just make sound with it. I wasn't practicing but I was learning and figuring out how my hands connected to the guitar. I'm sure that helped me later on.

  • Finally don't underestimate the benefit of going through a really focused "hardcore" period of learning your instrument. Almost everyone I know has done this.  You get serious for 5-6 months (or more) at time and really buckle down and practice everyday. Work on your weak spots. Struggle. Get Frustrated. Overcome. This is how getting over the beginner hump works. You just can't really avoid it. Get serious for a while and your playing will really improve and stay with you for a long time to come.

Monday, July 22, 2013


I can remember the first time I heard Bela Fleck's seminal progressive bluegrass recording (CD, album, record? What do we call it these days?) "Drive." It was roughly 2005 and I was driving (ha) back from Leavenworth, WA after having climbed in Icicle Creek Canyon. Cresting over Stevens Pass in early fall when the larches are just turning, the air is crisp, and the winter clouds haven't yet returned is a pretty damn good time to be in the Pacific Northwest. "Drive" is a perfect soundtrack for such dramatic scenery.

Descending back to the Puget Sound and my home in Seattle, I was immediately taken with this music. I was already deep into bluegrass music, but this was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was traditional but sounded completely fresh. It was virtuosic but singable. High level picking but with feeling man! Each song painted a different vibe. Something awfully lacking in a lot of bluegrass music. And it was already 15 years old having been released in 1987, but it sounded completely modern. The influences were all there. Earl Scruggs, Celtic music, a bit of classical, a bit of rock, and for sure some old time fiddle music too. The album would be something of a pinnacle and turning point for Fleck. After this recording, he would turn his attention away from Bluegrass, both traditional and progressive, to form the Flecktones, play classical, neo-classical, African music, write a banjo concerto and who knows what else. And there you have it. He's been nominated for more Grammys than any other musician in the history of the award. Bamm!! Take that banjo jokers.

One track in particular stands out, and I think it's safe to say it's THE track on the CD. That would be Slipstream. A weird tune indeed. A simple melody but with all these weird starts and stops and time signature shifts. It's like nothing else, and I still think it's cool. But I've found it tends to divide pickers. Traditionalists seem to hate it since it's kind of a progressive anthem of sorts. Newgrassers love it and in my opinion, it is something of a rite of passage for the aspiring progressive grass picker. It's hard to play on any instrument and requires great time and solid chops.

My journey with the tune has been long and kind of funny. It has tracked my growth as a picker and still kind of defines what I like about bluegrass banjo. I remember riding in the car many years ago with my friend Ethan and I suggested that it would be cool to play Slipstream. And he shot me a glance and said, "yeah but the cool thing about it is all the little stuff that they do." End of conversation. He meant that I or anyone we knew was not up to the task. Fair enough. Drive features the BEST pickers in progressive bluegrass music. But you can't win if you don't play. I had to at least start learning the tune.

Fast forward another 7 years and I have Slipstream just about where I want it. It wasn't easy and I'm still working out a couple kinks, but its getting close! It employs a lot of trickery and like I said, you need great time to play it right. There are a lot of details or, like Ethan said, "little stuff" that you have to get right. Bela probably wrote it in an afternoon back then I'm sure. Although I'm not sure he plays it anymore himself. At a Sparrow Quartet concert I saw, someone shouted out "Play Slipstream!" when Bela took over for a solo number. He quickly grabbed the mic and bluntly said, "That ain't gonna happen!" Let's face it, Slipstream is hard to play even for Bela Fleck.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to practice/ Learning where the fingers go

Here's my second instructional video that introduces the basic of learning where your fingers go.

Interview with Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive

This is a snippet of an interview I did with Rachael Price from Lake Street Dive. You should buy their music and go see a show. http://www....