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)