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.