Friday, August 5, 2011

Working double time

I've recently been doing 2 banjo lessons a week with one of my students who has been extra motivated to learn. Despite teaching for the last 7 years I had yet to come across anyone who had both the motivation (and money) to take 2 lessons a week. After a month of this I've been very impressed with this students progress.

It might sound like this student is an eager young kid with wealthy parents and nimble fingers. Not so. This student is past middle age and after the first few lessons I was wondering if he should maybe find another way to pass the time. To my surprise he's made leaps and bound and is playing several songs virtually mistake free. For sure this guy is motivated and working hard but I had yet to see for myself how much a student who started off so poorly and seemingly lacking in natural ability could progress so much so fast.

I think this is worth considering if you're struggling with a musical instrument yourself.

  • Double up your practice time for one month.  
  • Double up your lessons for one month.
I recently drove across country and to pass the time I started practicing the harmonica.  After only 5 days of practice I can play several basic songs.  Of course I played a lot of harmonica on that drive.  At least and hour a day.  Maybe more.  If you're having trouble getting over the dreaded "hump" that so many beginner music students deal with try doubling up your practice time for a week.  You'll be surprised how much faster you'll progress.

Hope it helps.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Andrew Bird on Songwriting

I came across an excellent article written by Andrew Bird, multi-instrumentalist and champion whistler, whose music I've been listening to more of lately.  Here's a sample of his talents.

The article is part of a series from The New York Times blog called Measure to Measure.  The articles are written by accomplished songwriters on the art and craft of songwriting.  I haven't had a chance to read all of the post but the first couple by Andrew Bird were great.  He breezes through several different topics in this particular article.  The article reads more as an afterthought on the process of songwriting but given Bird's unique style and skill it makes for an enlightening read.  Here's a link to the Bird's post.  You can find the other songwriters' pieces there as well.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Habits of excellence

Here's is an excellent checklist that outlines good practice habits.  It's not unlike what you might have read on this blog.

Notice the very 1st habit listed is "ease."  Where have we heard that before?  My very first post 4 years ago touched on playing with ease and I've written a chapter on this subject on the book I'm working on.  Remember to play as free of tension as possible.

Here's a link to my old post.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Are you ready?

I've been slacking off with writing trying to get ready for our gig last week.  I'm going to try to get back to writing a bit more.  Here's an excerpt from my practice book.   It's about getting a song ready for performance.
The success a musician will have when making music is directly proportional to the amount of work they put in before they play.  How well do they know their fingerings?  How many times have they rehearsed those fingerings?  Have they focused extra attention on their trouble spots?
         Sure there are a few musical savants out there who may be able to play flawlessly through some kind of different mental wiring than most folks.  But there aren’t many.   It is also a misconception that musical savants don’t practice.  They do practice, often with fervent dedication.  “All savants spend years honing their skills, sometimes obsessively…”(Musicophilia, Sacks.  Page 159)    
         The question of whether you’re ready to start practicing a piece or song with the intent of becoming musical is an important one to ask yourself.  So often the wanna-be musician goes right to this stage and bypasses the work of learning/improving fingerings and training muscle memory in a thoughtful way.  It’s understandable.  This is the fun stuff.  Playing a song is the whole point.  Believe me, nobody is more guilty of this than me.
         This used to be the only way I practiced.  I was hasty in learning fingerings and paid little or no attention to training muscle memory properly.  It should have been no surprise that I couldn’t play anything with a real solid musicality. 
         I imagine there many people that fall into this category.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  If someone is perfectly happy with how they play and how they sound, then why should they worry about doing anything any differently?  They shouldn’t.  I spent years and years in this category.  I dabbled in music.  I knew  a hundred or more songs that I couldn’t play start to finish, and I was fine with that.  Eventually though I decided I wanted to improve.  I wanted to play well.
         The point at which a musician begins to practice a song as a whole piece of music (with the hope of playing well) is when a musician should ask themselves how well they’ve done their homework.  Otherwise they’ll just keep running up against the wall the same way every time they play.
         If you’re ready for your music to begin taking shape this chapter will help to serve to put on the final touches.  If not, take a few steps back and work through the stages a little bit more. 
         The process of building technique without muscle tension, learning fingerings, and developing good muscle memory is very much the “basic” foundation of playing music.  Just as a house needs a solid foundation, and the walls and roof are the skeleton that supports everything else.  These “basics” support how well your efforts at playing music will be.  If your foundation is shaky it’s quite possible (and most likely) that everything will fall apart.
         Is your foundation strong?  Are you ready?
Record yourself

         If you want to know what needs fixing (or doesn’t) with your music there is no other way but to record yourself.  Feedback from friends might seem like a good way to know how you sound and I wouldn’t rule that out as a great performance practice tool.  However, you won’t know how you sound until you hear it played back to you own ears.  The recording won’t lie.  Your friends might.
         Ultimately you need to be satisfied with how you sound, not with how others think you sound.  That’s all that really matters anyway.  If you think you sound good others will too.  If you don’t like what you hear I doubt anyone else will either. 
         My first attempts at recording myself playing music were both exhilarating and terrifying.  It was so cool to listen back to what I had just played.  It felt so good to have some kind of record of what I had played but there were (and still are) so many cringe worthy moments of embarrassing music it’s enough to make you want to hide.  I’ve been recording myself for so long now though I realize that sounding bad is all part of the process.  I’m still surprised to hear how things DON’T sound the way I think they sound.    Both good and bad.
         I’m quite sure I never would have improved if I didn’t insist on recording myself.  Here’s what 5-string banjo master Pat Cloud had to say about using a recording to practice.  “The use of a recording is not only wise, it is mandatory…You can never go wrong with sound.  When you get down to it, that’s all there really is.”  (Key to 5-string banjo, Cloud, pg. 12)
         These days recording software is incredibly inexpensive and easy to use.  Everything from our phones, computers, and small hand held digital recorders are available.  After your initial terror of hearing yourself play wears off you’ll have a tremendous practice tool. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Interview with Cahalen Morrison Part 2

BC:  Do you try to get through a whole song in a day when you write.

CM:  It depends, a lot of times I do because if I don't.  If I fall off the track it's hard to get back on and get back into the place where I was.  It won't feel linear or the verse I write 3 days later doesn't fit that well.  Like the content fits well but it doesn't have the same feel or way it rolls.  As far as the main structure or lyrics, I'll work on them for a month or whenever.  Every time I play it I work on subtitles.

BC:  You fine tune it?

CM:  By no means it's done after a day.

BC: I remember Paul McCartney saying that when him and Lennon were writing in the early days they would meet at noon and try to have a song done by the end of the afternoon.  That was just it.  It didn't matter if they were inspired or not.  It was, we're meeting at noon and we're writing to 5.  It was very set up.

CM:  I think that's great.  You know Matt Flinner (Mulit-instrumentalist) he does the tune du-jour.  We just did a few shows with him in Colorado.  They each write a tune on the day of the show and play it that night.  And this is not like, Angeline the Baker style, the verses are in 9/8 and the chorus' are crazy.  They're all totally crazy.  It's all written out.  It's insane.  So they do this every day they have a show.   The rule is you have to start it that day and finish it and rehearse it.  Then they play all three during the show.

Some of them kind of flop according to them but most of them are pretty cool.  And then by the end of the tour they have 3 times the material and they can say hey this one was awesome we should work that one up. 

BC:  Wow.  Inspiring.

CM:  I think that works really well in it's own way.  You know by process of elimination you can say I have so much stuff to work on now.

BC:  Do you keep a list of ideas?

CM:  I do.  A pretty scrappy list that's all over the place.  I should have a pen and paper in my pocket at all times.   That would be good, but I never ever do.  So I leave myself messages on my phone.

BC:  Bela Fleck does that, he'll hum some tune into his phone and then he'll go work it out.

CM:  Yeah, I'm just like Bela!  (laughs) I'll write it down on the back of something and then it's in my car for 6 months.  Then I'll find it.

BC:  Do you need to record with something when you're writing?

CM:  Definitely, I lose stuff.  I don't think there's a more frustrating thing in the world than playing a melody.  You have an idea and you think I can work on this.  Then you go eat and sit  down and you remember the fingerings you know, or what it was like kind of, but you just can't get it.  Something is missing and it just falls off the earth forever unless maybe later it comes back.  So, I always record every step of the process.  I'll record the first lick or write down the line and go record it.  So in that case you can turn back and look at ones you've done along the way of playing the whole song through.  With different approaches to the chorus or verse and see when you have good ideas and when they evolved.  You retrace your steps and see what you like.

BC:  Who are you favorite songwriters?

CM:  Paul Simon is my favorite, definitely.  I've never wanted to write like him that much.  But, he has been an inspiration to me.  I love the way he tells stories is a lot different than a lot of people.  He writes these vague story lines with really bright bursts of imagery.   I get frustrated when music is laid out completely for you and you don't have to interpret or think about what it might be about.  He's really good at that.  Drawing 2 lines instead of one line.  So you stay in between the two.  I love music like that.

I listen to a lot of Kelly Joe Phelps writing.  I don't like some of it as much but what I like, I love.  And also because I play fingerstyle, that was my main thing for a while, I kind of follow in his footsteps.  Tim O' Brien is another one clearly.
 I don't like all of his tunes, but the mark of a good songwriter is that even the songs you don't like you can say well that's a good song.  I might not like whatever about it but that's a good song.

BC:  I think it's important to have that approach when listening to music and not just say well that song sucks and discount it.  Maybe it's not your taste but maybe it's well written.

CM: Yeah.

BC:  As far as instrumentalism goes how do you practice?  You said that you don't play scales?

CM: In the past year I've started to try and learn scales.  I have trouble with patterns.

BC:  What is you #1 instrument?

CM:  I'm best on fingerstyle guitar.  I'm not good at improvising if I'm a jam.  I don't think of myself as a very good improviser.  I'm ok at improvising at stuff I'm really comfortable with but if somebody throws out some tune I don't know the changes to I don't know what to do.   I'm shaky.  I don't have very good ideas in that sense.  I'm sneaking up on clawhammer.  For some reason, I've been playing for 2 years and it's like, in my brain.  It's comfortable.  For some reason.

BC:  Did you take lessons with clawhammer?

CM: No.

BC:  Who were your main guys to follow?

CM:  I didn't really have to much of trying to sound like anyone.  I listened to Dirk Powell.  That was probably my main thing but it was more subconscious rather than I love the style of whoever.

BC: So you just started going for it.  Clawhammer is such a picky little thing, there's so many different ways to do.  Did you feel like you were influenced by any distinctive style?

CM: Not so much.  In the general sense of I like the plunky the over the head style instead of slapping the head style.  It has it's place but I generally went for the over scoop style.  It's hard to do with Eli cause when we're playing he's so loud.  The volume of his guitar is insane.  When we're playing live on some fast song I have to go way back and twang on it.  Which is good since that's what it calls for.  That's a challenging thing to do that live cause it's so quiet.  You've got to have a quiet listening audience.

BC:  Do you play anything else?  Mandolin?

CM:  Yeah Mandolin, same thing, self taught.  I've kind of plateaued on everything a few times.  I just kind of walk up the ladder of getting better at certain things.

BC:  Did you start with fiddle tunes on the mandolin?

CM:  Yeah and I can kind of play scales on the mandolin.  I have a mandolin student now so I was like, uggh, I guess I'd better learn some scales.  So I learned them and taught them to her.  And that's been really helpful.  Knowing your way around the instrument is swell.

BC:  How much music theory do you apply?

CM:  A good bit.  I'm OK with theory.  I did pretty well with theory.  I took theory in college and it was all classical.  I had a really hard time with it at first cause I had never read a note on the page or thought about 1-4-5 type stuff, but then it clicked and that door just opened.  It was like, all of this stuff is true.  It's great now.  If I'm stuck on a tune it's fun to be able to say, OK where can I go to?  With a progression that's not cool, I can say how can I make this cooler.  You know put the 5 of 5 in there or whatever.

BC: Do you get crazy with what keys you write in or change keys or go to strange parallel keys?  I guess it's not real folky to do that.

CM:  Yeah I'm not trying to stay all traditional sounding.  But I don't change keys very often.  I'm working on a fiddle tune now.  It's weird.  It started off as a reel then turned old timey is kind of in between an Irish and Old time tune but with a weird twist.  It kind of does change keys for a second.  It's in A and then it modulates to D and then back to A.

BC:  Do you practice modes at all or just the major scale?

CM: Never.  I know what they are but I couldn't just play them.  I know what a C Lydian scale is but to apply it is insane.

BC: Do you work on more complex chords?

CM:  A bit, I'm comfortable in first position.  Not because it's easier, but I just like the sound.  I'm much more of a Norman Blake fan than a Tony Rice fan you know.  I just go with that.  I don't work on to many chords really.  More so in fingerstyle I do more complex stuff.

BC: Could you name all the notes or just know how it sounds?

CM:  I could figure it out but I just know how they feel and what they sound like.

BC:  When you practice instrumental stuff do you set goals or just think you know today I'll practice this?

CM:  I didn't used to but this year I'm trying to learn a tune a week.  I have trouble learning tunes cause I've just worked on my own stuff.  But I decided I need to know a large catalog of songs cause it'll help my writing, playing, and jamming, everything.    I've learned like 4 tunes in the past 2 weeks.  It's like OK that was easy.  I've just started doing goal setting with learning tunes and getting licks down.

Double thumb tricks on clawhammer.  Just things like that.  I'm becoming more goal oriented which is working really well.

BC:  How do you approach a new tune?  How do you set off to learn it?

CM:  Well I just learned twin sisters.  It's an old fiddle tune.  I started the first phrase and it's this cool double thumb trick that makes it sound really linear.  Any clawhammer player that plays 16th note runs you're like how do you make it do that?  How is that possible?

BC:  Melodic clawhammer?

CM:  Yeah.  If you get the right fingering you can play very linearly and it sounds so cool.

BC:  That stuff is hard.

CM:  Very.  I'm trying to play the fiddle melody as close as I can.  And I have a recording of that which is helpful.  I just got these field recording which is Edna and Sydney Fuller.  I was listening to those and thought, awesome tune.  And one just had banjo.  That was great.  It made it easier to learn.

BC: Do you play it note for note?

CM:  In the beginning.  Then I stray a little bit and do what I like.  Which I think is how traditional music should be.  You shouldn't play just like you heard it on the field recording cause it's not them anymore.  You're not that guy.  You should play it like you want to play it.  I see no harm in changing things up.  If you like a certain note over another note, music has been evolving for how many years?  I do that with no shame.

BC: I guess with a tune like that you're very methodical.

CM: I worked on that first phrase for an hour and a half.  You drop your thumb for a couple of notes bring it back up for a couple.  It's a three dimensional space when you start double thumbing.  When you have a melody note on your first string, it's a bit warping at first till you get the muscle memory.  It's counter-intuitive.  It's not going to be my main thing but it's fun to work out a tune.

BC: Do you get stage fright?

CM:  Yeah, not very often but if it's over 200 people that are silent, that get's pretty scary for a second.  But, it's just at the beginning.  As soon as I play the first tune then I shake it off.

BC:  Did you have some gigs like that on this tour?

CM: Yeah gigs in quiet silent big rooms, which is a beautiful thing.  Everything is better about it, but that first tune is a little tingly.

BC: Do you ever get the shakes?

CM:  Yeah, and that's difficult to deal with.  I remember the first time that happened to me in front of a big audience in Colorado.  I open with this intricate fingerstyle song and it just did not work.  I was jittery and I just could not do it.  I dive bombed.  I'm sure a lot of people noticed and some people didn't.  I was still doing finger picky stuff and they didn't know how clean I was trying to be.  If you get shaky that's hard to deal with.

BC:  Do you warm up before a performance?

CM:  I just go for it.  I think it comes from practicing.  I never learned anything formal really so I just go for it.  Occasionally I'll warm up my voice a little bit.  I feel like you'll sound better in the middle of a gig than the first song.

BC:  Do you practice singing at all?

CM: No.  I never do that.  I never work on doing little twirls or stair stepping down.

BC: Do you work on your voice through recording?

CM: Not on purpose.  I'll hear myself and but I haven't ever sat down to work on my voice.  But if I hear myself and do something at gig I don't like I'll say I won't do that again.  Or I'll do things that I think, Oh that was cool.   In the beginning my singing was really rough.  It was pitchy and weird and my phrasing was weird.  I just feel like singing is a thing of subtlety.  It doesn't really matter if you can hit the notes all the time.  It's not the point as much as your phrasing and inflection.  I've worked on phrasing and inflection more than anything else.

BC:  Do you feel like your songs have developed your vocal style or the other way around?

CM: Probably.  I let the song tell me what to do.  There are certain things I'll do.  I like a lot of space.  I like to have space to move things around in a phrase.  If it's a 4 bar phrase that I have a few words in I don't like repetitive words to sing.  I like to have long open phrases with a short vocal phrase in it that you change the length of words.  You can shorten them.  Jealous sea is a good example of that.  Sometimes I'll finish the whole phrase 5 bars before the phrase ends musically.  I feel like that is a fun way to change how songs feel.  If people have heard this song before it's going to catch them off guard.  It's fun to play with.  To put a lot of room in songs.

BC:  How did you develop your harmonies with Eli West?

CM:  That was pretty natural.  Most of them are pretty standard harmonies and I think Eli and I have voices that blend really well just by chance.  Sometimes we'll hold a note for a long time and I can't tell which one I am until we diverge.  That's pretty crazy.  That's a fun thing.  Some songs have a crooked melody, like Lost Loving Gal, a weird melody, it's pretty funky.  We worked that out cause it would be cooler to do something different than some standard harmony.

BC:  Eli is a tremendous harmony singer.

CM: He has a great ear.  I'm not a fast learner.  I can't learn songs quickly but I can write songs.  And he doesn't write much but can learn quickly.  So we have an easy musical relationship.  I'll bring in some weird tune and he'll put some harmony on it and it works.

BC: What's next?  A full band.

CM:  Yeah, it's be really fun.  I'd love to get another multi instrumentalist.  Like guitar/banjo/fiddle/mandolin.  Any combination of those.  Bass player.  That would be really fun.  I'd like to keep playing my stuff you know.  But I'd love to play more with the guy who plays fiddle on the new record.  It'd be fun.  He plays so many styles.  I would like to do a crossroads of bluegrass/old-time/celtic record.  With more of a celtic influence.  A bit like Tim O' Brien's The Crossing.  Those records are IT for me.  It all fits so well together.  I don't why more people don't do that.  It makes so much sense.  Historically, musically.  I'd like to do something in that direction.  With a bigger sound.  Maybe a piper?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Goal Setting checklist//Classes starting next week

I've got new classes starting next week at Dusty Strings.  There's a beginning banjo class that meets at 12pm and 6:30pm and beginning Bluegrass rhythm guitar that meets at 7:45pm every Wednesday.  Here's a link to the class descriptions.

Feel free to give me a shout if you have any questions.

Here's a checklist from my book about practicing.
Checklist for goal setting

  1. If you’re not setting a goal you’re not practicing.  Set goals every practice session and you’ll always improve.
  2. Be very specific about what you’re trying to accomplish in a given practice session.
  3. Focus on aspects of your playing that need the most work.  These are spots where you’re most likely to mess up.  Go after those spots.
  4. You might practice only a couple of notes or you might practice an entire piece of music.  Be aware of where you’re at in your musical development. 
  5. Set small manageable goals.  You should start to see improvement in 5 minutes or so depending on the goal.
  6. You may have several “5 minute” goals in a given practice session.
  7. Build your goals on each other.  Try to build on what you did the day before.  Be aware of where you are and where you need to go.
  8. Be realistic.  You may need to get serious about only a couple of especially difficult notes before you’re ready to play them in the context of the larger piece of music.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interview with Cahalen Morrison

Cahalen Morrison is establishing himself as a songwriter of great skill and depth.  His newest CD with musical partner Eli West is drawing praise from roots music veterans such as Dirk Powell and Tim O' Brien.  Cahalen is a multi instrumentalist who's comfortable on everything from guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and drums.  Much has been written about his style and skill so there's not much I could add to that.

However, I was fortunate to get to sit down and ask Cahalen about his musical roots, his approach to songwriting and practicing.  Songwriters should take special note as Cahalen is writing excellent songs that sound old and new at the same time.  That means they're timeless.  No small feat.  This is the first of two parts and the first of many interviews that I hope to do with musicians I like.  Enjoy.

If you haven't heard his music you should go to his website and check it.

BC: So how did you get started with music?

CM: My dad started me on guitar or let me start on guitar when I was 9, probably.  Pretty young, but I played as much as any nine year old does.  I just knew C and G and D.  First position chords and basically backed him up.  He plays fiddle so I basically just played rhythm for him.

BC:  Was he an old-time fiddler?

CM:  He plays old-time and Irish stuff.

BC:  So there was music in the house all the time?

CM:  Oh yeah.  Yeah.  Definitely.  I grew up around it constantly.  Everything too.  Old-time, Irish, Bluegrass, The Beatles, Classical, Everything.  When I started and he tried to teach me, he'd try to teach me little rags and I learned Under the Double Eagle.

BC:  That was my first Flatpick tune.

CM:  That was my first flatpick tune also.  I feel like that was a lot of peoples first flatpick tune.
Yeah, It's kind of a weird tune.  So we'd play a duet.  We'd play it in harmony.

BC:  So that was the first couple of years when you started?

CM:  Yeah. 

BC:  Did you play all the time?

CM:  I probably played a few times a week.  I just struggled a lot with doing things, like trying to push myself in any way.  I would get so frustrated when dad would be like "that one thing you're doing, try to do it this way."  And I'd say I know how to do it this other way.  Forget you, I'm sticking to this and it's easy.  So for a long time I was bad.  And that stuck with me for longer than I'd like to admit.

BC:  So your dad was you main mentor and teacher?

CM:  Yeah.  And I lived in the middle of nowhere so there was nobody else around I could have learned from.

BC:  Where did you grow up?

CM:  Northern New Mexico.  There wasn't any music or anything that I was around.

BC:  You had a radio? 

CM:  Yes.

BC:  Wow.  So, did you ever take formal lessons or was it all with your dad?

CM:  No I never had formal lessons.  I took one summer semester of Jazz guitar in college.  That was like the hardest class I took in all my years of college.  Saying it was jazz lessons is shaky.  To this day if you told me to play an E minor scale I would have to think about it.  I can't play scales really.  If you were like hey play it I could.  I had no formal lessons before hand.  I just learned tunes and songs.

 BC:  You were always learning new songs from your dad.  Mostly traditional tunes?

CM:  Yeah, mostly that until middle school or high school and I started playing rock or whatever and I started liking that. 

BC:   You also play drums too right?

CM:  Yeah and that's what I did from middle school on was play drums.  Even into college.  That's what I studied in college.  I did actually study music in college, but it was a weird program.  In the beginning it was a make your own major.  That didn't have a music major only a music minor.  I was trying to somehow do that as a major, of course then by the time I graduated they had a music major.  So I was kind of grandfathered in.

BC:  What school did you go to?

CM:  University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.  It's a smaller branch of the big school. 

BC:  What kind of drums did you study?

CM:  Jazz?

BC:  Do you still play drums?

CM:  Well, I would like to (laughs) there's not really opportunity right now.  I don't have a kit set up.  I have what I was playing on in college.  16 inch floor tom, snare, high hat, and ride.  That's what I have now.  It's not set up anymore.

BC:  Did you ever get any formal or any kind of guideline to practicing?

CM:  Nope.  My dad would encourage me to practice because he knew it would be good for me.

BC:  Did he ever say "well you should practice like this."

CM:  He would give small suggestions.  But mainly it was cause he was the same way.  He was all self taught so he didn't play scales either.

BC:  Not so much scales but what would you do when you practice.

CM:  He would give me guidelines on practice.  To break tunes into you know, fragments, little melodic fragments that you would be able to play over and over and try to nail the one part your doing.
The one little run or one little walk up.

BC:  And that happened for you pretty early on?

CM:  The suggestion happened pretty early.  I don't know how much I did it.  As soon as I would figure something out that would work OK.  Like something ascending and descending, a melody and baseline on the guitar.  A basic G to C walk up.  Ragtime style.  As soon as I found anything that worked OK that wasn't exactly what he showed me or heard.  I would be like OK got it.  But, he would encourage me to break things up and try to really get them before moving on.  Instead of just blowing through a whole tune.  And being like "that was OK."

BC:  When you started drums was it very structured?

CM:  I was self taught on drums from the beginning.  Until college my last semester of college I had lessons with a drummer.

BC:  Was it a process of listening to your favorite music and trying to copy what they're doing?

CM:  Yeah,  I would sit in my room and listen to Paul Simon and play along to it.

BC:  Would this be an hour or hours a day?

CM:  That was hours a day for sure?  That was really addicting.  Way more so than guitar or strings were when I was young.  It was easier to get gratification of playing a solid groove and being like "this feels good I can do it."  That's why jam bands go on for so long cause it feels good.  Once you settle into something you just keep going.   And that made me get better at the drums faster than anything else cause I liked the way it felt.

BC:  And did you work with a metronome?

CM:  Never.  I don't own a metronome still.

BC:  So in a way playing drums to records which probably used a click track you kind of were practicing with a metronome.

CM:  Oh yeah.  Whenever I was playing along it was probably with a click track.

BC:  So when did you decide I want to play and perform on stringed instruments?

CM:  When I was a junior in high school I was working in New Mexico and I met a guy who played and sang and wrote his own stuff.  And it was folky, early Ben Harper type music.  Folky pop.  And he had a great voice.  And I never sang till was junior or senior in high school.  And I heard him playing and singing his stuff and I thought, that is cool.  But, I had never considered to sing and to write but I thought hey if this kid can do it.  He was 2 years older than I was.  He had a bunch of songs that were cool.  And he was from Tucson and we're still good friends.  His name is Juan Holliday.  That's why I started singing and writing.

BC:  Juan Holliday.  Sounds like a movie star.

CM:  He is like a movie star.

BC:  What were you writing at that point.

CM:  It's embarrassing.  My housemate has my first first record which I did.  I made 100 copies when I was a senior in high school of this thing my friend and I did.  And it was the first 11 songs that I wrote.  I was like yeah I have an albums worth I'm gonna record!  It is so unbearable (laughs.)  It is so embarrassing.  I realize now that you have to come from there.

BC: I'd like to hear it and hear the progression.

CM:  I have some in New Mexico as long as you don't show it to anybody?  (laughs)

BC:  I wouldn't show it to anybody.  (laughs)

CM:  It was like no style.  Guitar, voice.  It wasn't folk at all.  I guess I was listening to Ben Harper then too.  That's kind of the direction it went sort of.  That was senior year of high school.

BC:  It was good enough that you were like "well I must be sort of good at this and kept working with songwriting."

CM:  Yeah,  It was satisfying to write more.  And then I was hooked and it just kind of happened.

BC:  Was it at that point you said "I'm a musician this is what I want to do."

CM:  I was still debating about that cause I didn't have a style or a place I fit in, in any scene.  I grew up going to bluegrass festivals since I was in elementary school.  But I never played.

BC:  You never thought of yourself as a bluegrass musician?

CM:  It was part of my stumbling block with practicing.  It was like that seems hard.  I'm going to do something that's easier.

BC:  It is hard.

CM:  Oh it's wicked hard.  It's still everyday I get a headache thinking about things.  In a good way though.  I like it now.

BC:  Did you gravitate to a certain style after that point?

CM:  In college after high school I started chemistry or something.  I decided not to go to school for music.  First of all I couldn't read so it would be pretty hard to get into any music school.   So I went to this school for chemistry or something.  I didn't want to ruin music.  Oh it would be my job and that would be terrible.  Then it wouldn't be fun anymore.  Then you realize, that sounds awesome.  That sounds great.

I didn't want to do chemistry.  I was playing in bands in college so I switched to music.

BC:  What kinds of bands were you playing with?

CM:  I played drums in a kind of indie folk rock band.  There was a fiddle and a guy who played mandolin and banjo.  Electric guitar, electric bass and drums.  A bunch of harmony.  Fuzz pedal guitar. It was cool.  The girl who led the band she had a distinct writing style.  It was fun.  Interesting music.

BC:  Was that part time and kind of casual?

CM:  Yeah, we played around town a lot.

BC:  During that time were you writing your own music?

CM:  Yeah I was recording in my dorm room.

BC: Did you feel like you were pushing yourself to write or would you write when you felt like it.

CM:  I wrote when I felt like it but that was most of the time.  I had my new found excitement that I thought was cool.  Creating something that you like is a pretty exciting thing.  Being pleased hearing something you did and say I would listen to that.

BC: You were doing that in college?

CM:  I don't play those songs anymore.  I occasionally would maybe.  I've chipped away at that a lot and have the form down of how I create things in a much more refined fashion now.

BC:  At that stage were the songs the same or similar to the styles that you're working in now?

CM:  I was going in a more acoustic music direction so not really bluegrass or old time but maybe a combination.  I wrote some Motown songs and I was working on my falsetto.  I wasn't going in that direction but I was feeling around in all of these crazy different styles.

BC:  You were experimenting with styles?

CM:  Definitely.

BC:  So how has your process of songwriting evolved.

CM:  I still kind of straddle bluegrass, old time, and folk and a little celtic.  I kind of sit in the middle of that.  I don't know if it's cheating but I draw from everything and not go full in one direction.

BC:  I'm curious of what your process is.  Do you have a schedule for yourself or do you just decide to write?  How do you motivate to write a tune?

CM:  It changes a little bit.  Occasionally I'll sit down to write and say I'm going to write a song.  Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.  Sometimes I'll write a tune when inspiration strikes and that doesn't work too.  But, generally when inspiration strikes and I sit down and write one, but not on purpose.  I hear something and I sit down.  Usually those work out a lot better for me.  Just cause it's a more natural process than trying to decide what kind of song you're going to write.  You sit down with that blank page and say alright. A! It's gonna be in A.  So unless there's something backing that I have trouble.

BC:  Do you always start from like "oh I have a notion for a song." then you go grab the instrument.  Would you already have words?

CM:  Between that and sitting and mindlessly playing banjo or guitar and I"ll literally accidentally do something I've not done before and I'll be like Oh what was that?  I didn't mean to do that.  I think that sparks creativity and I go off in a different direction that wasn't in the song I wrote last time.  Accidents are pretty key.

BC:  Do you have to keep yourself open?

CM:  Yeah.  But then it's between that and if I get an idea for a song based on another song.  Like you hear a song on a new record that you really like. You might try to write the same type of song.  And occasionally I'll start one and go no that sounds just like that other song.  But sometime I'll finish and I don't think anyone would realize that's where the song came from.  Because it's me.  Even if it has the same type of backbone it's coming through me now.  

BC:  When you were working on songwriting after you recorded your first album did you say I want to be good at this?  Did you struggle with feeling like oh I don't sound good enough or my songs don't stand up to the artists that I like.  Or compare yourself to your favorite music?

CM:  I definitely struggled with that but instead of deterring me it spurred me to practice more.  It's like I'm not that good but I don't practice and I don't work that hard so if I did maybe it could work.  So I would buckle down and I started practicing more in college and then after college, now I practice on all instruments.  I sit down and work stuff out slowly.  It definitely changed somewhere in the middle of college I decided I wanted that to happen.  I was like right, I've got to take this more seriously if you're going to try and do it.

BC:  When you write songs do your start with a title or does it change every time?

CM:  It changes every time subtly.  I guess my process is usually either starting with a melodic fragment from an accident or idea or whatever.  Have a little riff and go cool that's a good enough building block to start from.  Or it's a line I come up with.  You come up with some line and say that's killer.  If you come up with a good enough line it'll spark off in so many different directions you can see immediately 4 or 5 verses that are possible from it.  From one line.

BC:  When you come up with those lines are you thinking about it?  Or does it just happen?

CM: Usually I'm thinking about it.

BC:  Is there a specific setting that you might be in when you come up with something like that?

CM:  Most of my writing in the past couple of years that I really like or that I really feel has some meat to it,  I've been writing a lot while reading a good book with rich language and rich imagery.  I'll be in a place.  So it's more about my mental state than where I am in a cool setting.  It's more about where I am in my head.  So if I'm reading a cool book about a cool subject with good language and meat in the book it helps.  I'm reading Ahab's Wife.  It's about Capt. Ahab.  Moby Dick.  It's from his wife's perspective. 

BC:  That is cool.

CM:  It's a super cool book.  It's about whaling.  Massachusetts in the whaling days.  It's dripping with imagery and cool language and ideas.

BC:  So a lot of your songs are fiction?  Fantasy in a way.

CM:  A lot of them are.  If you take a song as a whole it's definitely fiction and composed or whatever.  But I could tell you what a lot of lines mean outside of that context.  Or what they mean to me so they're not fictional to me.  They're things that probably happened.

BC:  But not totally autobiographical. 

CM: Yes.

BC:  I can't do that so that's really cool to hear.  You do have great language in your songwriting.  Like Jealous Sea.  Where did you have the inspiration for that song?

CM:  That's the interesting thing about music.  A year later I'm like I don't have any idea where that song came from.

BC: Incredible.  Maybe that's as it should be.

CM:  It becomes less a song I wrote than a song I play.  I don't feel like I trudged through it and really hammered things out.  It just kind of exists.  It feels like it existed for a long time.  I like it when that happens.  A lot of times it doesn't happen.  And I remember while playing them they become they're own entity after a while.  You get so comfortable with them, they become this little bundle you have somewhere in your brain.  You're not thinking through all the words as you sing them they just spill out of your head.   I do have some autobiographical ones too that probably no one would realize that they were.  I keep that pretty...

BC: You cover your tracks?

CM:  Yeah I like to do that.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Do you know where the fingers go?

Bach's Partita in E Major played by John Williams.

         The first time I heard Bach’s Prelude for Solo Violin in E Major BWV 1006a (even the name is long) I fell in love with it and wanted to play it.   It was like saying "Hey I think I'd like to play basketball on Michael Jordan's team!"  I was way out of my league, delusional even.
         The Prelude in E Major is, aside from being incredibly beautiful music, incredibly difficult to play.  If it’s not the highest summit around it’s at least a satellite peak.  The sheet music reveals six pages of continuous 16th notes with no respite.  Played fast it’s about 4 and a half minutes long.  Endless streams of notes flowing from Bach’s mind to the page like raindrops flowing down a pane of glass.  Apparently Bach just couldn’t be satisfied until he had wrung out every possible variation on a phrase and created a challenge to the player with all manner of contortions, stretches, and quick fingered movements he could think of.  
         For the longest time I could play the first two or three measures which are mostly just a subtle variation on the E Major scale.  Playing those phrases was like looking into the forested hillside at the start of a huge mountain range.  The forest is dark and forbidding but you can see the high peaks off in the distance.  You know that to get to the other side you’re going to have to enter that forest and start making your way uphill.  There’s probably going to be a great deal of suffering and risk involved but the sublime could be waiting as a reward.  It took years of practice before I would be ready to enter the forest.
         When I finally couldn’t wait any longer I got a copy of the sheet music and set to work.  No matter that my sight reading skills were extremely novice and I had never played any classical music.   No matter that I wasn’t even a classical guitarist.  I’m a bluegrass guitarist.  I’m a flatpicker.  Meaning that I play with a pick.  Classical guitarists play this piece using classical guitar technique which uses the thumb and three fingers of the right hand. A classical guitarist will always have a finger at the ready.  I have only the one pick.  I might have a hard time getting my pick across the strings.
         The combined challenge of sight reading in a key with 4 sharps and the need to develop left and right hand techniques I had never used before made for slow progress.  Some days I would only get through two or three measures at a time.  And that might take a couple of hours to work out all the fingerings.  I would beat my head against the wall working out complicated fingerings only to realize they would lead to a dead end.   I would need this or that finger for a note coming around the bend and it wouldn’t be available.  Sometimes I would need to rework several measures to make it all fit together. 
             About three months later I reached the end of the piece.  I had crossed the mountain range.  It was incredibly satisfying and truly felt like a journey.  I had spent 3 months just learning the fingerings.  Just the fingers! I couldn’t play the piece.  I only knew where my fingers needed to go to play it.  A classical guitarist and teacher told me that it would probably be another 2 years till I really had the piece down, ready to be performed.
         Needless to say this piece was the ultimate lesson in learning where the fingers go.  I used everything I knew about the guitar and picked up several tricks in the process.  If I had better sight reading skills when I started maybe I could have shaved some time off that three months.  It doesn’t really matter.          
           The process improved my learning skills and technique tremendously.  Sometimes you need to take on a big challenge to move forward with music.  Learning fingerings takes patience and critical thinking.  It’s a puzzle the musician needs to solve to get to the music.   


Friday, February 11, 2011

Another book excerpt (Goal Setting)

       Rock climbing is often about goal setting.  Eavesdrop on a conversation between a couple of rock climbers and you’ll likely hear about their latest “project.”   Rock climbing projects are objectives that climbers set for themselves as a new challenge.  These are often individual climbing “routes” that a climber must ascend without falling.  Success on these “projects” often takes months or years of training, preparation, rehearsal, and lots of failure. 
         Success, when it comes, is short lived.  Once you’re on the mountaintop there’s nowhere to go but down do so to speak.  Time to move on to the next project.  This process of “projecting” is all part of the normal lifestyle of the “serious” rock climber.  It’s a lifestyle that I’ve spent a large portion of my life following and still do to a certain degree.  I love the lifestyle despite it’s flaws.
         One of those flaws is that climbing often focuses (or climbers indulge in) an emphasis on success over process.  Ego over spirit.  The summit over the journey.  In the beginning my climbing was focused almost solely on success.  I had a strong desire to succeed.  I had always been an athlete in middle school and high school.  Not surprisingly I had always been unsuccessful.  Perhaps it’s our culture’s focus on winning, or perhaps it was just my desire to win and always losing that fueled my desire to be a good at climbing. 
         For most of my twenties I pursued rock climbing with little interest in anything else.  My first several years were rife with failure and desire to improve.  By the time I was 26 I started to achieve some long sought after climbing goals.  When I turned 27 I started to get good.  I had finally become the climber I had hoped to be.  I was pushing myself hard.  By the time I was 28 I developed injuries that put me out of hard climbing for 2 years.  My emphasis on success ultimately led me to failure.  When I returned to hard climbing 2 years later I had developed a new found respect for process and a resolve to not injure myself if possible.
         I guess it’s not surprising that my musical path mirrored my path in climbing in much the same way.  When I started practicing and performing I was always pushing to play at levels of musicianship that I wasn’t quite ready for.  Just like my climbing.  The only difference is that this approach to practice does not make good music or a good musician.  It might have been good for me to push myself but I was going about things the wrong way.  As evidenced by my early hand injuries.  My ego was in the way.
         My early practice goals were always lofty.  I was always jumping in way over my head.  I’ve kept few of the musical ideas I thought were important at the time.  I realized that goal setting for the practicing musician is much different than for that of the rock climber.  That realization of process over success improved my playing by leaps and bounds.
         Rock climbing did have a few positive influences on my music.  Rock climbing taught me to see goals through to completion.  It taught me to deal with failure and keep working until I could find a solution that would solve a critical piece of the puzzle and plant the seed that success could be possible.  Ultimately it helped teach me about process.
         When I injured myself and was forced to take a 2 year break from climbing I returned with a new found respect and love of process.  The building up of skills and steady improvement that could lead to harder and harder objectives.  As a result the climbing successes I achieved in my thirties were more difficult than what I did in my twenties despite being past my athletic prime.  I had learned to maximize my skills.
         I think that learning to improve at anything is about learning to love the process of improving.  It’s about looking carefully at where you are compared with where you want to be.  The distance between those two points is often a long way apart.  You can’t cross that distance without taking many small steps.  Each step gets you closer to your goal.  The difficult part is deciding what steps to take.  To improve you need to decide what to improve.  And when.
         Goal setting for the musician is crucial if they hope to make constant improvement in their playing.  As we’ll see, it’s not the big goals that matter.   It’s all the little ones.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Technique checklist

Here's a technique checklist from my upcoming book on how to practice.
Technique Checklist

1.    SLOW DOWN! 

         If you’re having trouble chances are you’re playing to fast.  Play at a speed that feels totally comfortable. 

2.    Check your posture.

         Are you slouching?  Are you relaxed?  Experiment with different positions.  Find the one that is best for you.

3.    Do you have unnecessary muscle tension?

         Chances are good that you do.  Always monitor your muscle tension and work to eliminate it EVERY time you practice or play guitar.

4.    Use a mirror

         Checking your posture with a mirror is a great practice device.  Watch for tensions and places you could improve your fluidity.

5.    Pay closer attention on difficult passages.

         During a difficult section (which are all of the sections for beginners) your chances of tensing up increase big time.   Focus your attention even more during those passages and stay as loose as possible.

6.    Play all the time

         You can’t improve if you don’t play.  Strive to play 5 days a week even if its only for ten minutes.  That’s ten minutes you can work to improve your playing.  It all adds up!

7.    Check your ego

A musical instrument is HARD to play.  Don’t sabotage your efforts by rushing through things.  All the best players have played for many years, play all the time, and they pay the closest attention to these details.  Do you?

8.    Study with a good music teacher

I’ve had several music lessons ranging from guitar, banjo, piano, trumpet, and voice lessons.  Some of those lessons were incredible and have helped me tremendously.  Others not so much.  Do some research on teachers in your area.  Find one that looks like a good fit.  If they’re not,  keep looking for one that is and don’t feel bad about moving on. 

9.    Remember Muscle Memory. 

This is dealt with in detail in chapter 4.  Constantly remind yourself that you are “programming” muscle memory into your playing.  If you are practicing with lots of muscle tension and sloppy practice you will “remember” it that way.  Strive for good muscle memory.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Another book excerpt

Here's a section on knowing where the fingers go.  Mucho importante.


Fingerings require vast amounts of memorization.

         The amount of memorization involved in learning fingerings is tremendous.  Do not underestimate it.  In fact I believe that you need to develop a profound respect for the amount of information needed to be stored and recalled to play music.  Even at the beginner level.   Perhaps especially at the beginner level when everything is so completely new.  
         Here is a version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Figure 3.1).  Arranged for a beginning piano student.  Let’s take a look at the details of what it means to memorize all the details of where your fingers go so we could get to where we could play this little piece of music.
         Let’s start by analyzing the song’s structure.  The song has a phrase that repeats three times over the course of this arrangement’s 12 measures.  With two of those phrases repeating in exactly the same way.  This cuts down on the amount of memorizing we need to do.  But there’s still the challenge of memorizing everything in order and remembering when each phrase is played. 
         Even taking into account the repeating phrases that’s still quite a bit of information to recall.  For measures 1-3, 5-8 and 13-16 (which are the same) that’s a total number of 22 movements including both hands.  Measures 9-12 also happen to have 22 movements total.  Add in measure 4 with its 4 moves and we’ve got a total number of 48 movements.  They all need to be memorized in sequence and coordinated perfectly between both hands or the music won’t sound right.  
         48 movements in sequence might not seems so bad with so much repetition going on in Ode to Joy.  But, you also need to account for which finger is playing which note.  We’re not playing each note with only one finger.  We’ve got (presumably) 5 choices on each hand.  This helps to add to the confusion.  Let’s assume that the thumb plays only and all the C notes in this song.   Ok, one less thing to remember.  This helps to cut down on the confusion but this isn’t always the case.  
         Let’s look at a song with a few more notes in it to help illustrate this point.  Old Joe Clark (figure 3.2) is an old folk tune that’s been around longer than anyone can remember.  It’s often taught as a beginner song to beginning fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin students.  This arrangement for guitar consists of an A part which is played twice and a B part which is played twice.  Each part contains approximately 46 individual movements.  That makes 184 movements total since each part is played twice.  Both the A and B parts have several measures that if not identical are closely related.  This will make the song a bit easier to remember.
         However even taking into account the repetition in the song we need to memorize everything in sequence and pay attention to the subtle differences between the phrases.  They may be similar but each phrase contains important differences that bring out the song. 
         Look at it this way.  What if I asked you to repeat a series of numbers that followed the sequence 345676543345676555534?  It makes my head hurt just to look at it.  Even worse, what if you had to recall each number (in sequence of course) with a specific combination of movements that required both hands (as required of guitarists) to work in unison to recall the number?  That sequence of numbers I wrote happens to be the first four measures of Old Joe Clark written numerically. Only the first 4 measures.  21 moves out of 184 we need to recall.  And this is a beginners tune.
         That might seem kind of difficult to remember all that especially when both hands (or feet, or mouth) is needed to remember each number.  That basically doubles the amount we need to memorize.  So really instead of 184 the number of moves is more like 368.  See what I’m getting at?  BOTH hands together.  Mess up a combination of hand movements even slightly and the music is botched.  I like to belabor this point because I feel that it’s an often overlooked aspect of music education.
         Of course memorization does not take into account the physical side of playing a music instrument.  Getting an instrument like a violin, guitar, or saxophone to sound good can take years of effort. Tone production is an entirely different but equally important aspect of practicing.  And what about emotion and feeling in your playing?  That’s a whole other aspect of practice.  And sight reading, and tab, and music theory. 
         Whew!  Feeling a bit overwhelmed?  It’s easy to feel that way.  Try not to.  Practice can encompass so many things so let’s focus on one thing at a time.  (As you always should with music practice.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy New Year

I'm working away at this book about practicing.  Here's another sample.  This is about the importance of learning where the fingers go.


How well do you know where they go?

       Knowing where the fingers go seems like a simple concept.  Of course you have to know where your fingers go.  You’re stating the obvious again, let’s move on to something more useful.
         But wait.  Hold on a second.  I have a question.  How slow can you play that instrument of yours?  I’m not interested how fast you can play.  Show me how well you know where your fingers go.  Take your time.  I’ll wait patiently for you to get ready.
         Ready.  Go ahead.  Oops you made a mistake there.  Sure you can start over.  Whoops.  Another botched note.  I know it’s never wracking to play in front of somebody.  No big deal.  Play something easier.  Play the easiest thing you know, and play it slowly.
         Yes I know it’s hard. Can’t do it huh?  You know why?  Because you don’t really know where your fingers go.  When I say know where your fingers go I mean every little itsy bitsy tiny nit-picky detail.  If you hope to play any piece of music you’ve got to know what you’re going to play before hand.  I mean know it stone cold solid.
         Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh yeah.  Well what about people who improvise?  They don’t know what they’re going to play.  They make it up as they go along.”  Ok, fair question.  I’ll answer that question with a question.  Do people who can type, type the same sentences over and over exactly the same way?  Every single time?  No.  Instead, they know their way around the keyboard well enough that they can just type their thoughts as soon as they come to them. 
         A computer keyboard is quite a bit smaller than say a grand piano but the mechanisms are the same.  A jazz pianist has spent years getting to know their instrument well enough that they can communicate with the piano in the same way a typist can.  They have a thought, and their fingers react.  Instead of using words, our pianist is thinking sounds. 
         Don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck has to say about improvisation.  “Just because they’re improvising doesn’t mean they’re making it all up out of nowhere.  It’s based on everything they know how to play, and the sounds that they like…interspersed with coming up with good guesses of things that might sound good because of how well they knew the (banjo) neck and learning how to recover from a new idea with style.”  (Masters of the 5 String Banjo.  Trischka, Wernick)
         Jazz Guitar master Joe Pass described improvisation as “like a language.  You have a whole collection of musical ideas that you’ve accumulated through your musical history.”  (The Genius of Joe Pass.  Video)  Music is not unlike words you know in your vocabulary.  How well you know those “words” is based on how well you’ve practiced.