Monday, November 23, 2009

Basic Music Theory (Scales)

I've been wanting to do a music theory post for a while so here goes. I realize that for most of you music theory is probably not necessary to learn. It's dry, a bit tedious, and not actually music. If you only care to sit and pick away on the couch then you can just skip it. Maybe this prompts some to ask why learn it all? So, here are a few reason to invest the time to learn it.

  • Understanding the The Big Picture:
All western music from The Beatles to Bach, Hank Williams to Iron Maiden, Bill Monroe to Miles Davis is based on one system. Understanding the system as a whole makes it alot easier to learn different styles.

  • Soloing:
If you hope to be a soloist (like playing lead guitar,) getting some basic music theory is pretty important. You could develop your ear and only play that way. I know some folks who do and are great. But if you developed your ear AND knew music theory you'd know so much more and have more options.
  • Communication:
Maybe the most important reason to learn music theory. If you play with other musicians on a regular basis you'll need to speak the language. Basic music theory allows you get the lingo down.

  • Songwriting
If you're a serious songwriter and you don't understand basic music theory you are severely handicapping your creativity. Music theory to the songwriter is like color theory to visual artists. Sure you can just throw all kinds of colors together but that doesn't mean it'll look good. Van gogh, Picasso, Pollock. These dudes knew how to use color.

Dylan, McCartney, and Hank knew how music functions as a system. Maybe they didn't know every detail, but they knew the fundamentals AT LEAST. Songwriting is one part inspiration and one part craft. Learn the craft to go along with your inspiration and your songwriting will start to stand out.

OK so you figure it can't hurt to pick up a few of the basics. Where does it all start? Well back in the day somebody came up with this system of music that we've been using for many, many years. Its a man-made creation. Like mathematics, sometimes you just have to accept things in the system as they and in this system it all starts with the Chromatic scale.

This link is meant to show you the notes of the chromatic scale on a piano. You can find these same notes on the guitar by starting on any OPEN string and play one note after another on that string until you get to the 12th fret. Here's a video demonstrating this idea on guitar:

Here are the notes starting with A:

  1. A
  2. A# or Bb (they're the same thing)
  3. B
  4. C
  5. C# or Db (they're the same thing)
  6. D
  7. D# or Eb (they're the same thing)
  8. E
  9. F
  10. F# or Gb (they're the same thing)
  11. G
  12. G# or Ab (they're the same thing)

That's it, that's all the notes that exist in western music. They can be higher or lower in pitch, but they are the same notes. This scale is the foundation of music theory.

A couple points to consider:

  • The sharps (#) and flats (b) are nothing to get worried about. They're no different than any other note. You can easily identify them as the black keys on the piano diagram from the Chromatic scale link.
  • There are no sharp or flats (i.e. no black keys) between B and C or E and F. I don't why. Just is.
OK, that's pretty dry stuff so I'll try to move on to something more tangible. So try this, play the notes of the chromatic scale one after another. No sense of finality or resolution in there is it? It's like a cat chasing its tail. Round and round. We need more structure. Viola...

The Major Scale

This link shows you how the major scale is formed on the piano. It is an excellent little intro and could help you if you follow it. But, you need to understand this first. There's a little formula that you apply to the chromatic scale that allows you to create the major scale. If you want to skip that info, that's OK. What's important is that you know that the Major Scale is somehow derived from the Chromatic scale. The formula is WWHWWWH. What does that mean? It means you skip notes of the chromatic scale with this formula. W mean skip a whole step (2 frets or keys.) H means skip a 1/2 step (1 fret or key.) The link can help with this. You can apply this formula to any of the 12 notes of the Chromatic scale and the result is the same. That note's Major Scale.

Here's a couple of videos I put together to help you with this stuff.

Let's start our Major Scale study with the C Major Scale. We could have started with any of the 12 Chromatic notes. C is the best place to start since there are no accidentals (sharps or flats, no black keys.) Its a little cleaner that way. So here it is: C, D, E, F, G, A, B

  1. C Maj
  2. d min
  3. e min
  4. F Maj
  5. G Maj
  6. a min
  7. B dim
  8. C Maj (the octive, same as the other C)

These are the only notes in the C Major scale. Seven tones, no more or less. Now for something useful. We can assign a number to each tone of the scale as I have done with the list above. If we think of each of these as a chord we see all the chords that are in the key of C. In other words, the Key of C is just the C Major scale and its related chords.

The 1 chord is C Major
The 2 chord is d minor (lower case to denote minor)
The 3 chord is e minor
The 4 chord is F Major
The 5 chord is G Major
The 6 chord is A minor
The 7 chord is B diminished (don't worry to much about this one unless you play Jazz)

Play each of these chords one after the other and you'll hear that scale in the chords.

Thousands, maybe millions of songs are built on the 1-4-5 chords. Its good to start referring to chords with their number as it relates to a Major scale. Like calling the C chord the 1 chord or the G chord the 5 chord. For practice, look at any song you play C chords over and look and see which of these chords I've listed pop up. Start thinking of them as the 1 chord, or the 6 chord or the 5 chord. You'll start to HEAR the relationship of these chords to one another.

That's plently for today. Let me know how it goes. Hope it helps.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Play what you feel, feel what you play

I recently watched a French movie about a music teacher/student relationship. The movie's title is Tous les matins du monde (All the World's Mornings.) The movie is about a young would be musician looking to study with a great master. The movie is a bit to complicated to relate here but it boils down to the lessons learned that turn the young student into a great musician. One of my favorite scenes involves the master telling the student his fingers work wonderfully, he plays no wrong notes, but he'll never be a musician and no amount of practice will change that. He tells the young student that he'll never reach an audience. Pretty harsh criticism but I see his point. Music is an expression. As the movie beautifully states, "music says words that we are unable to speak." The student had no feeling in his playing. You can't teach that.

One of my favorite musicians is always saying "play what you feel." This is the best advice. We're attracted to the sound of music for all kinds of different reasons but surely it comes down to the way it makes us feel. Hard to define but undeniable. I like to spend extra time working with students technical problems because I feel that they need extra help on that subject. If we're limited technically we'll be unable to get the music out. This is indeed important, but I have some new advice to go along with that. Whatever you play feel it.

A couple of years ago I competed in a guitar competition. A competition based on music is kind of ridiculous. Music is art. Very subjective. However, the competition was a very good learning experience for me and I'm glad I did it. Most of the contestants (me included) tried to play fast and sound impressive with little emotion other than trying to show off. One contestant however played very slow and expressively. She made few mistakes and in my opinion had one of the most musical performances of any of the contestants. Even though she didn't win her performance got her into 5th place and the memory of her playing has stayed with me. I couldn't tell you what anyone else did. She played with great feeling and a minimum of flash but it didn't matter. This was great music.

Work on your technical problems. Practice, practice, practice. By all means go slow, but remember why you're playing. Get into the music. Play what you feel then feel what you play.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Banjo Classes starting this week

I've got a couple of banjo classes starting this week at Dusty Strings. The classes will meet every Wednesday night for the month of November starting at 6:30pm. Here's a link describing the classes and their respective meeting times.

The classes are geared towards someone who is not a total beginner. They're not super advanced, so if you've been picking for a while you'll definitely pick up some great information. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Singing and Playing at the same time

Singing and playing an instrument at the same time presents some unique challenges. I am currently working on playing Scruggs style banjo while singing. It's sort of like juggling and tight rope walking at the same time. The whole thing can quickly fall apart. I've played guitar and sang for years, but I try not to take it for granted that I actually know what I'm doing. When I record myself I find I often don't.

Rhythm is a delicate thing. It's a topic that should be studied with great care on its own. It deserves more time in the spotlight. I've devoted a little time to rhythm guitar in an old post:

The study of rhythm is a great thing to do. Take some lessons with a drummer or percussionist. Listen to lots of different music and try to get a handle on what's going on with the rhythm.

So now you've studied rhythm and want to sing and play your instrument of choice at the same time...Now what?

  • Learn each element separately
Get your rhythm down APART from your singing. If you play guitar you shouldn't have to think to much about your hands while you're singing. Then practice your singing apart from playing. Make sure you know what you're going to sing. Get each and every note down. Then you'll be ready to put them together.

  • Put them together SLOWLY
Once again the answer to most mistakes. Go slow! Make sure you're getting a seamless flow of rhythm and singing by playing at 1/2 speed or slower. You'll be surprised at the mistakes you notice and your sensitivity towards fixing them. If you hit a snag, fix it right there. Maybe you need to just play through a part real slow over and over, gaining a sensitivity to how best connect the two elements.

Right now I'm working on singing and playing banjo at the same time. I know the singing part but I'm having trouble pairing it with the picking. I'm finding that if I put the metronome on slow and work through the parts very slowly,] I can smooth it out with not too much trouble.
Bring the tempo up slow and with ease and eventually it'll be up to the tempo you want.

  • Record yourself
This is the hardest pill to take for a lot of folks but arguably the most helpful. You won't find a faster way to see how you're doing. The recording will not lie. However, I need to state right here and now that friends and relatives are NOT a reliable source for feedback. Finding an honest voice for feedback is a rare and difficult thing. With a potentially fragile ego at stake most people will say nice things and not really speak the truth. I'm sure there are plenty of folks who can't or won't want to hear the truth. Fair enough. But, if you want to improve you need to look at your weaknesses and go after those. Recording yourself will tell you that. And hey, it'll tell you what's going right as well. Nice work.

  • Be open to change/Less could be more or maybe not...
I've often found that I would get stuck playing something one particular way for a long time and then when I recorded it I found that it didn't work. Sometimes less is more - especially when it comes to singing and playing. The vocal is usually the most important element, so maybe simplifying your instrument part is the answer. The opposite could be true though. Maybe you need a little strum here or a nice lick after a vocal line. Experiment and be open to change. What does the song need?

The challenge of singing while playing is a fine art. It offers limitless opportunity for musical creativity. Get good at your instrument. Get good at singing. Listen to the great ones. How did they do it? Steal from them, eventually you'll find your own style through the process.

Hope it helps.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Getting over the "hump"

This post is for all those musicians out there who see how tall and hard the musical mountain is to climb and they just feel like turning around. Indeed, the mountain is hard to climb and for every summit you reach there are thousands more all around you. (Sorry, I'm a rock climber I can't stop these cliche mountain metaphors. Just stick with me.)

If you're a beginner know this, playing a musical instrument is DIFFICULT. I'm sorry but you can't escape that. How bad do you want to play? How much do you need to get those sounds out of your head and get it through your instrument of choice? How much patience do you have? Our society is constantly trying to sell stuff (cars, clothes, beer, pizza, vacations, shoes, whatever) that makes you think you deserve whatever it is you want right now with no delay. Its rare that I hear about the value of learning things that take lots of time and need to be developed with patience and a longer term vision. The TV or internet isn't going to sell those kinds of things to be sure. Things like playing an instrument.
I think most folks know this too but our country is a busy one for better or worse and its difficult to find time to devote to something like the guitar. I've had many students that came to music once their careers slowed down. If this sounds like you maybe ask what's important.
You may be way busier than I can imagine with responsibilities that would make me turn and run. Fair enough. But consider all the diversions society throws our way. Television, movies, and internet to name a few obvious ones. What if you cut some of that out of your day?
One of the first really amazing musicians I ever met could play Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo, Piano, and was a killer singer too. Those were his secondary instruments. The fiddle/violin was his first instrument and he was just unreal on that. How did this guy get so good at all these tough instruments? It turns out his family wouldn't allow television in the house when he was growing up. Wow. That knocked me out. I watched so much TV as a kid. Way to much. What if I had put some time into music? Too late to wonder, I'll never get that time back.
This brings me to my point. Getting over the "hump." If you feel like you can't make progress with music try this...

  • Make time
That should be obvious I guess but try to look at it this way. You need to play ALL THE TIME. Let me outline a few habits that'll get you nowhere with an instrument.
  1. practicing once a week
  2. expecting it to be easier than it is
  3. not taking a few lesson from a pro to put you on the right path
  4. not getting a playable instrument
  5. not listening to the type of music you want to play (all the time)

If any of those things sound like you, you're gonna have a tough time.
Instead do this.

  1. Try to practice at least 4 days a week for 15 minutes at a time.
  2. Realize its hard and it takes as long as it takes.
  3. Take a few lessons from a great teacher. Shop around, make sure they're what you want in a teacher.
  4. Save your money and get a good instrument.
  5. Listen to the music you want to play, all the time!

The mountain of music is a tough climb but like anything else the more you put into the more you'll get out of it. There are some songs that I still struggle to play and have to keep on top of all the time to get them where I want them. But when I finally hear those notes flow out like I want them to I realize all the hard work is worth it. As a beginner the "hump" may seem impossible but a mountain is climbed one step at a time (excuse the metaphor). Keep taking the steps and eventually you'll get there.

I hope it helps.

Friday, October 9, 2009

How to hold a pick

The plectrum. The little device we use to coax sounds out of strings can present quite a few problems to the aspiring picker. I know it presents several to me. Solving those problems is largely a matter of mindfulness of muscle tension (sound familiar), a good deal of time, and a careful approach to practice. Over the last 7 years I've spent many an hour just figuring out how to hold the thing and I'm sure I'll spend many more trying to further refine my technique. Here's what I've learned.

  • There's no right way

I've researched all the best players I could think of and they all hold the pick differently. Tony Rice, Eddie Van Halen, Chris Thile, Robben Ford. All a little different. For example, Eddie Van Halen holds the pick with his middle finger and thumb. Not many players do that. Les Paul would glue some kind of velcro to his pick to help with grip. Not many do that.

  • Strive for a relaxed grip

This could be the most important thing I can tell you. Chris Thile has described his grip on the pick as being so loose as almost to the point of dropping it. That's good advice when you consider what he can do with a mandolin. Watch him at work:

Now watch Tony Rice who has a totally different technique:

Each player is trying to achieve a different feel and sound and therefore has a little bit different way to hold the pick. Thile is going for a smooth Legato run of notes. Rice is going for an almost strumming kind of style and is very syncopated with his picking style. He uses his thumb in an unusual ways to grab those notes.

However, they both are relaxed.

  • Experiment with different picks
There's so many picks to choose from these days it can be overwhelming. In your search for good tone you'll need to try out a lot of different shapes and sizes. For years I played a dunlop .75. Then I switched and I went through a .5 phase. Then I started trying to play with big heavy mandolin picks. Now I'm playing custom made picks crafted by Gary Wagner in Seattle and they're perfect for me. As my technique has evolved so has my pick choice. Be open to experimenting and trying new picks.

  • Practice
Well yeah! But practice what? Really what's not to practice. Practice scales and really focus on a smooth right hand picking motion. Practice strumming and focus on a smooth even motion with the right hand. Just pick one string with no left hand and try to develop a fluid economical motion with your pick. Every time you pick up the instrument think about your picking style and refine it. Eventually it will become natural.

Hope it helps.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Recommended Listening for Banjoists

Where to begin? There's so much great banjo music out there its hard to remember it all. I definitely have my favorites so I'll be leaning towards those of course. I can't stress the importance of listening to the music you would like to play. Its got to get into your ears FIRST, then it'll be easier to get it through your hands. Here goes...

  • Bluegrass
Earl Scruggs

One of the most imitated and influential musicians in the history of the world. An overstatement? I don't think so. Listen to Earl at his peak (Ground Speed, Dear Ol Dixie, Flint Hill Special for starters) and then listen to everyone else you'll know why. Check these out.

Foggy Mountain Jamboree (Many great songs)
Foggy Mountain Banjo (The classic and recently rereleased, A MUST HAVE!!!)
The Essential Earl Scruggs (The Best all around intro to Earl)
Any Flatt and Scruggs "best of"

JD Crowe

Maybe the best "Scruggs" style player beside Scruggs, but still has a distinct style.

The Bluegrass Album Band vol. 1-2 (Classic Bluegrass with lots of great singing and backup banjo)

Bela Fleck

Bela has completely redefined what a banjo can do musically. His recorded output is a bit overwhelming so I'll list a few of my favorites.

Drive (I think these are his best bluegrass tunes)
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (the first and my favorite flecktones recordings)
Music for Two (Duet CD with Bassist Edgar Meyer. One of my favorite CD's ever.)
Perpetual Motion (Classical Banjo)

There's so many more. Here's a list of other great Bluegrass banjoists to listen to.
Ralph Stanley
Don Reno
Alan Munde
Tony Trischka
John Hartford (Steam Powered AereoPlane)
Pete Wernick
Tom Adams
Noam Pikelny
Chris Pandolfini

  • Old Time

Dirk Powell
By far my favorite old time banjo player. Amazing tone and drive.

Hand me down (Amazing music regardless of genre)
If I go ten thousand miles ( more great tunes)

Tommy Jarrell

A very important figure in old time music. Known more for his fiddling but was a great banjoist too.

The Legend of Tommy Jarrell (A great recording of his banjo playing)

Riley Baugus

A great singers and banjo player with great feeling for the music. He's been a sideman on various projects. Check out his website for a complete list.

Long Steel Rail (lots of great banjo playing)

More old time banjoists:
Brad Leftwich
Ken Perlman
Dwight Diller
Charlie Beck (local player with the Tallboys)
Dan Levinson
Molly Tennenbaum (another local)
The Canote Brothers (more local music)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Strategies for practicing effectively

I think one of the most neglected aspects of music education deals with how and what you should practice. So often you'll hear, "...well it takes lots of practice." or "You should practice every day..." or some other such statement declaring the importance of practice. I don't disagree that practice is important. It certainly is. However, if you've got no idea how to practice your efforts won't be nearly as effective and your gains won't happen as quickly. Learning to be a better musician is learning to practice better. They're pretty much the same thing. So, what do you do? Try this.

  • Goal Setting
If you're not setting a goal you're not really practicing. To me, practice is working to improve your playing. Just noodling with tunes you already know is fine but don't call it practice. This is the first step in any practice session.

I've already devoted an entire post to just goal setting. You can link to it here:

  • Learn where the fingers go
Perhaps this is stating the obvious but consider this, when you look at a page of sheet music you need to learn all the notes on that page not once, not twice, but three different ways. One for the left hand, one for the right, and one for both hands together. When you consider all those movements you'll soon realize that's a lot to memorize! If the hands don't work seamlessly in unison the music will fall apart. Don't underestimate how much time it takes to learn where your fingers go.

Go slow. Don't try to learn to much at one time. Take it in small chunks and learn them individually before you move on to the next section. Make sure you've mastered each section before moving on.

Do your homework. Make sure your finger positions are efficient and make the most sense. You need to think several "moves" ahead and choose movements that allow for the smoothest movement.

  • Phrase by Phrase
Once you start to memorize your fingerings you should play short phrases over and over, SLOWLY, trying to develop good muscle memory. Try to make your movements flow and feel effortless. Repeat these phrases several times. Repetition is the key. I've written another blog just on this subject. Link to it here:

Go slow! You can only develop muscle memory through slow patient movements. Speed is attained through control.

It's important to focus on individual phrases and not start at the beginning. Build the music up piece by piece. Once you can play phrases well try connecting them in longer sections.

  • Ask why
If you make a mistake don't just plow ahead, ASK WHY. This is very important. Something went wrong. Perhaps it was a bad fingering. Maybe you lost concentration. Maybe you haven't played a section over enough times. It could be anything, but you won't know how to fix it if you don't ask why.

These are just a few tips to help you on your musical journey. Practicing is a very personal and subjective thing. Your personal goals will dictate the amount of time you practice and the quality spent during that time. I hope that you'll take a deeper look at your own practice time and find ways to improve it. When in doubt consider this old nugget of wisdom, "Amateurs practice till they get it right once. Professionals practice till they can't get it wrong."

Hope it helps.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Overcoming stage fright

I've come across several students who have an obvious ability and love of playing music.  Their technique and timing was good and they practiced often.  Like so many others they ran into trouble as soon as somebody else noticed their playing.  It mattered little who the person was.  A stranger or family member would trigger the same crippling respone.  Stage Fright.  Music that would flow freely would suddenly be hobbled by a hyper sensitive ego more worried about messing up than becoming musical.

I know this state well.  For years my playing would suffer from a nervous ego.  It would happen just as quickly picking with friends as it would in a live performance situation.  But why?  Where does this anxiety come from?  ("Tell me about your fahzer...") Clearly that answer is subjective and each person brings their own baggage, but if I might boil it down a bit I'd say that most folks want to feel special.  They want to feel like what they are doing is great and they don't want to mess up and that fear becomes the focus of the performance instead of the music.

An oversimplification?  Perhaps.  I'm sure there are several books on the subject but whatever the reasons stage fright can quickly wreck your playing.  Its not to hard to  overcome it if you're motivated enough.  If you find you're having trouble with stage fright/performance anxiety try this...

  • Realize most people want you to do well.
Most folks are on your side.  They want to hear you play well.  They're probably not going to point and laugh (children are another story) and ridicule you if you mess up.  If somebody listening is secretly hoping you screw up congratulate yourself.  You've probably got to a really high level (or higher than them at least) and they're just jealous.

  • Even more folks DON'T CARE either way
A real turning point for me occurred when I realized most people aren't listening anyway.  I mean really, how many shows have you been to where folks are not even paying attention.  Even a quiet sit down type show.  Look around at folks.  What must be going on in all those heads.  I bet at least 1/4 are thinking about going to the bathroom.  Another 1/4 is hungry, another 1/4 is worried about how they look or they're thinking about a boy or girl.  That leaves 1/4 who may actually be hanging on every note.  Doubt it though.  Most folks aren't paying that close of attention.  

  • Perform more often
The best way to get over stage fright is to get on the stage.  You won't learn to swim if you don't get in the water.  Play for people and do it often.  Play for family or friends but do it every day.  Will you mess up?  Probably.  But remember that you are no different than anybody else.  Every performer is nervous at some point.  The pros get out there on stage and they're willing to mess up.  I've seen all of the best players mess up.  NOBODY'S perfect.  Don't let that stop you from playing your music as good as you can. 

  • "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice."
Practice, Practice, Practice.  Then practice some more.  (See previous posts on how to practice or take a lesson and I'll show you how.)   If you hope to play well in front of other people your fingers must have the movements absolutely memorized.  By the time you've decided to play in front of people its a good idea to have the muscle memory stone cold solid.  There's another old saying that kind of sums it up.  "Amateurs practice till they get it right once.  Professionals practice till they can't get it wrong."  You probably don't want to be a pro but keep this bit of wisdom in mind the next time you get mad at yourself for making a mistake.  

  • If all else fails slam a few shots of whiskey
This seems to work for my wife.

I hope it helps... 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Workshops at Dusty Strings this Weekend

Greetings, I wanted to let interested folks know about a couple of workshops I'm teaching at Dusty Strings this weekend.  The workshops will happen this Saturday the 16th at Dusty Strings in Fremont.

The first workshop at 10:30am is entitled  Playing Guitar With Ease: Troubleshooting Technique Issues.  You can link to Dusty String's description of the workshop here:

The second workshop entitled How to Practice: Strategies for Constant Improvement is at 1:30pm the same day.  Here's a link to the class:

Classes are  $35 or $60 if you decide you can't get enough and would like to take both classes.

Would love to see you there.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Playing well with others

One of the best ways to improve your musicianship is to get out there and play with other musicians.  Playing music with other people can do several things to help you improve.  Especially if said musicians are (hopefully) better you than are.

Here's how it can help:

  • Learning new tunes, they'll open your ears to new stuff
  • If they've got good time, they'll help yours.  But, you've got to pay attention.  Listen Well!
  • New ideas.  Hearing how better musicians play, will give you new ideas to pull from.
  • Motivation.  I get way more motivated to play music with others than solo.
So you're convinced.  What do you do?  Well, if you're a bluegrass or old time musician it couldn't be easier.  These musical styles thrive on getting folks together and jamming.  All you need to do is ask around.  Search the web for local jams.  Ask local music stores.  

Seattle has both Bluegrass and Old Time music classes designed for getting people together and playing music.  Shoreline Community College offers a Bluegrass Class during the evenings that's perfect for beginners.  The Canote Brothers offer an Old Time class that teaches folks how to play Old time music with a group.   Now if you're a rock musician it could be a little more difficult but searching the web I'm sure would yield lots musicians just like you.  

So you're ready to go out and jam here a few tips that will help you make friends:

  • Play quitely, don't blast at full volume.   
  • Listen well to the other musicians.  Try to make their playing stand out.
  • If you come up against a tune you feel you can't manage, just lay out.  Don't muddy up the sound as you search for the right notes/chords.
  • Remember to be nice.  Playing music is a perfect opportunity for people to throw their egos around.  Don't be that guy.  

I hope that helps.  See you out there.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Ego always gets in the way...

The best music lesson I've had in my whole life was a 5 minute conversation with a Dutch Flamenco Guitarist I met in the Caribbean.  That's a long story there so I'll try to get to the point. During a 6 month stay on on St. Thomas I was lucky enough to play with and listen to some amazing musicians.  I was constantly checking out live music and was surprised by the levels of musicianship I heard down there.  One of the most incredible performances I caught was this Flamenco Guitar player.  

It was an engaging performance complete with a beautiful dark haired dancer.  I sat there awestruck listening to such a virtuoso performance at a cozy little oceanside bar.  This man was certainly the best, most accomplished guitarist I'd ever seen.  His fingers flew with incredible speed, accuracy, and passion.  

At the time I was just beginning my study of the guitar and banjo and I was practicing and playing obsessively.  Hours and hours a day with no guidance or real understanding of how to practice.  Better than nothing but far from effective.  In fact I was developing an intense pain in my left wrist.  The road to hell paved with good intentions.

I decided during the show to ask this guy for advice about the pain in my wrist.  I was thrilled/terrified to meet and talk to such a master.  After the show I approached him and sheepishly inquired, "Hi, I'm a guitarist too (yeah right) and I've got this pain in my left wrist.  I was wondering if you have any advice."

Without a word he immediately snapped up my wrist and grabbed my fingers with his other hand.  He shook my hand for a few seconds and then threw my arm back to me.  He then cooly and directly stated, "It will be very difficult for you.  The ego always gets in the way."

Huhhh.  Terror.  What did he mean?  I've been working so hard and wanted to play so bad.  He then proceeded to show me how lightly he pressed down the strings and how you could slip a piece of paper under the strings and between the fretboard as he played.  He reapeated it again.  "It will be very difficult for you.  The ego always gets in the way."  Crushed.

That was it.  That was the best music lesson I ever had.  Why?  Well, he was exactly right of course.  I was playing well beyond my means.  I wasn't ready to practice hours a day.  I wasn't practicing with the correct attention to muscle memory and muscle tension.  I was going about it all wrong.  In short, my ego was in the way.  He hit the nail on the head after one simple question.  In fact, it was years before I recovered from those practice habits I was developing some of which I'm still fighting against (like unwanted muscle tension.)  

I don't think I fully grasped the importance of his words until years later.  I had to undo all the bad habits I had developed and accept my level of playing and accept that it would take years to get to where I wanted to be.  Ego, I had to control my ego.  As a teacher I can immediately tell the students that have control over their ego when comes to practice and its no surprise that these students progress faster.  They are not any more physically gifted than any other student, but they've got a good handle on the more difficult piece to master.  The ego.  

The ego always gets in the way.  But we can work with it.

  • Go slow!  Muscle memory can only be learned slowly
  • Practice things in small chunks, don't bite off to much to soon
  • Be diligent, avoid obsession,  15 minutes of solid practice is better than hours of bad practice
  • It take time, lots of time, be patient
  • Master one thing at a time and don't get bogged down and end up playing several things poorly, Play one thing REALLY well.  
Hope it helps.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rhythm Guitar Playing

"Get a rock n' roll feelin' in your bones
put taps on your tones and get gone
Get rhythm when you get the blues."  
Johnny Cash
Several of my current students are getting into playing rhythm guitar, mostly in a folkly, acoustic rock kind of style.  This is the classic strumming sing-a-long type stuff that uses a pick.  One of the biggest challenges of playing rhythm guitar is that whole rhythm thing.  In fact rhythm is very often overlooked in most music pedagogy.  This is unfortunate.  Rhythm is the foundation of all western music.  If a person hopes to play any instrument or sing, they've got to "get rhythm."  But how?
Well, I think anyone can get rhythm if they try to develop it.  I think listening often to music is pretty important.  I can't think of a time in my life when I didn't listen to all kinds of music.  Some of my oldest memories are of listening to records on my little kiddie record player.  Listen to all kinds of music and focus on the rhythm not the melody.  How do they do it?
Listen to Mozart, Chopin, Bach.  They get into all kinds of interesting rhythms.  Listen to Zepplin, The Who, The Beatles.  All these bands had the best rhythm sections in rock n' roll.  Listen to the drums and bass.  What are they on about?  Listen to the singer songwriter types.  Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Elliot Smith.  All great guitar players.  Listen to Big Band jazz, Gypsy Jazz, Bebop.  Try tapping along to all that rhythm.  How could you not?  Of course I'm only scratching the surface.  Hopefully you get the idea.  Actively listen to this music and try to understand the rhythm and you'll find its much more complicated than you might have imagined.

What's next.  The METRONOME of course.  Have you ever been to a concert and the crowd started clapping along with the band but they were out of time?  Don't be that guy.  If you can't clap in time without fail you've got some work to do.  If you didn't realize the crowd was out of time at that show you've got work to do.  Practice clapping along with the metronome at all kinds of speeds.  Slow 50-70 beats per minute (bpm).  Fast 80-120 bpm.  Really fast 120-180 bpm.  Try it.  Its harder than you think.  Learn to stay right with the metronome.  Solid.  Unshakeable.  If you can do that you're on you're way to getting rhythm.  

Of course, this is just scratching the surface.  Its a big world of rhythm out there.  Start tapping along.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Power of Repetition

I've recently been reading  (and rereading)  Shinichi Suzuki's (of the well know Suzuki Method) book Nurtured by Love.  The book describes Suzuki's path that led him to develop his method of music education.  Incidentally Suzuki never called this his "Method".  He always referred to his style as "Talent Education."  His goal was never to produce virtuoso's of the violin but virtuoso people.  Here's a quote of his from the book, "I want to make good citizens.  If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline, and endurance.  He gets a beautiful heart."

I couldn't agree more.  I gain a great deal of fulfillment from the study of music.  In essence the study of playing a musical instrument is also the study of self-control.  It requires a massive amount of patience, hard work, and discipline to play a musical instrument well.  It's amazingly difficult to get your fingers to do what you want them to do.  You have to learn what your hands can and can't do well and learn to work with them.  Everyone is different.  It takes time.  It take REPETITION.

This is important.  Suzuki mentions it several times in his book.  The power of repetition can not be underestimated when it comes to playing a musical instrument.  Here's a personal example.  Whenever, I perform or go to jams where I improvise a lot I find myself falling back into these familiar patterns of playing.  I've practiced other licks, songs, and passages but I can't seem to play them out.  Why?  It's simple really.  I've haven't practiced them enough.  The songs and licks I play best are the ones I've played the longest.  The ones I've played the most times.  

Now that might seem like a no brainer but it's important to remember this when practicing.  If I hope to get these new musical ideas and songs into my fingers I have to play them that much more.  Repetition.  I  can't expect to practice a song once or twice a week and expect to play it up to speed.  It needs to be constantly nurtured and worked on.  Muscle memory take time to develop.

If you find yourself frustrated with your playing remember the power of repetition.  Focus yourself on one small problem and keep working on it till it improves.  How long will that take?  Hard to say.  But I can tell you with absolute certainty that you will see results if you start small.  If you're working on a song.  Play the first 1/2 of that song 100 times and see how much better you are at it afterward.  Play it 200 times.  Experiment and see how long it takes to see improvement.  

Devote yourself to one song for a month and see how well you play the song at the end of the month.  Let me know how it goes.  

Hope it helps.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Workshops and classes at Dusty Strings

I have several upcoming classes and workshops at Dusty Strings.  Starting Monday the 12th and meeting every two weeks are my Beginning and Intermediate Banjo classes.  The beginner class meets at 6:30pm and the intermediate at 7:45.  You can link to a description of the classes and get more info below:

I am also teaching a couple of workshops in January and February.  The January workshop will focus on Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar.  The class will meet Sunday January 18th at 12:15pm.  There will be two seperate classes of 2 hours each.  The first class will focus on the basics and the second on the fancier stuff.  You can check the details at this link:

The second set of workshops will take place February 28th.  The first class will look at Bluegrass banjo back up techniques:

The second class will look at practice techniques.  This class is applicable to any instrument of any genre.  A great class if you feel like you can't improve.

You can feel free to send me an email if you have any other questions.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Music as expression

What is music?  Try to answer that one.  Is it art?  At its best a high art for sure.  In our society its also product even from some of our most beloved artists.  In America virtually all music has some sort of cultural and societal stereotype attached to it.  We identify ourselves with certain types of music and this helps us define who we are as people.  Maybe its always been this way in all societies.  Is this a good thing?  Hard to say.

As a music teacher I often focus on the technical side of playing.  And this is important.  There is a right way to practice and a wrong way.  But why practice?  What are we getting at?  What is the need we have?  The challenge of just executing difficult maneuvers with our hands is not necessarily music.  I think aspiring musicians (myself) would do well to ask what they are really trying to achieve with practice.  What do the notes of the song say to you?  

As musicians we can improve our music by discovering more about the expression.  Can you say more with less?  Perhaps if we always consider what our music expresses we can improve our practice and interpretation of the music.  

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....