Thursday, October 3, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview with Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive

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

Interview with Bridget Kearney

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

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

BC: How did you get started with music?

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

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

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

BC: Was this electric bass?

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

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

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

BC: Was this all classical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: Sounds like you were constantly playing music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: So they weren’t just boring exercises.

BK: Yeah.

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

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

BC: You would do technique during your warm up?

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

BC: Were you using the metronome for all that?

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

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

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

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

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

BC: What jazz bass players were you studying?

BK: Paul Chambers. Charles Mingus. Charlie Hayden.

BC: Were you learning their lines note for note?

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

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

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

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

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

BC: How important do you think it is?

BK: I think it’s really important.

BC: Even for pop music?

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

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

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

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

BC: What’s the feeling of the song…

BK: Yeah.

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

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stepping out and dialing things in

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 9, 2013

Learning where the fingers go Part 2.

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

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"On Practicing" by Ricardo Iznaola

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

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

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

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

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

I especially like this little bit of wisdom.

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


Thursday, August 1, 2013

How much should I practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 22, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to practice/ Learning where the fingers go

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

Interview with Jon Stickley Part 1

Interview with Jon Stickley (Part of a series that will be in my book on how to practice)

Asheville, North Carolina has no shortage of great flat pickers. If you show up to a bluegrass jam you can expect to find at least 3 or more guitar players who will blow you mind with feats of dazzling runs and hot licks. Perhaps its being so close to the home place of the grandfather of flatpicking, Doc Watson. Its hard to stand out in such a crowd but Jon Stickley has managed to stand out not just in Asheville but on a national level.

There’s a lot of people who have copied the style of guitar legend Tony Rice but very few who have moved beyond it into a style all their own. Stickley’s guitar playing has so fully absorbed the style of Rice that he’s not trying to speak a new language. It is his language now and he’s learned to speak that language in an entirely new way. Stickley’s compositions are on one hand firmly rooted in the traditions of bluegrass but incorporate elements of rock, jazz, and at times even far out genres such as ambient or electronic music. The sound is something entirely new. Jon Stickley is helping to move bluegrass into the future while respecting and understanding its traditions.

You should go buy some of his music right now.

BC: How did you get started playing music?

JS: I started playing really early on. I was always involved with singing and choir in church in Durham, NC. I started out in children’s choir and I was always pretty into it. Most of my friends weren’t but I liked reading the music of pop songs and all the stuff we sang. We did Rocky Top and some Christian stuff and some gospel. That’s when I learned about harmony and reading a part and singing with other people.

BC: What age was that?

JS: I probably started doing it when I was 6 or something like that. And so that was probably the first place I learned or experienced music. You know we would do church performances or things like that.

BC: Did you have a good teacher at that point?

JS: Yeah just the choir director. I did that all the way through high school when we had youth group and I was always in the church plays and stuff like that. It was regular. Wednesday night we would have music practice and that’s how I first started with music and then I was in a boys choir. The North Carolina boys choir and we toured and things like that. We went on a tour all the way to Toronto and back. That’s when I was in 5th or 6th, 7th grade. That was pretty intense and serious. Straight up boys choir playing some classical. Bach and stuff like that.

BC: How did your choir director teach people to sing parts?

JS: He’d look at each group. You’d have alto, tenor, bass. Each one in their own group and he would go along to each group and he would demonstrate the melody and then we would sing it back. Kind of repetition and stuff like that. This is early on for kids and we had no formal musical education, just learning in a church environment.

BC: At that point you would practice your parts by singing the separate part and you would come back and sing it all together?

JS: Yeah and he’d say let’s hear the sopranos, let’s hear the tenors and make sure it’s right.

BC: Was there any music theory involved?

JS: Not a lot. I didn’t put much of that together until later on.

BC: He didn’t talk about that?

JS: No, he would say this is the lead, this is the harmony. It came naturally when you’d learn how to stack a harmony. You’d hear it and see how it works and when it was written you’d see the notes and you see them move together. You’d follow your note. Later on when I got into bluegrass it came really naturally. I could understand harmony.

BC: It was probably pretty easy for you.

JS: Yep.

BC: At what point did you go from singing to playing guitar?

JS: Well I did the boys choir thing and that was a conscious decision. It was like you can do this choir or you can do the “Select Soccer” League. The more intense competitive soccer team and I consciously choose music. I really liked music. I’ve always liked it a lot. That was my decision and it was one of the earliest decisions I remember making. Most people my age would have done the opposite. They weren’t into being in a choir. They wanted to play soccer. That was one of the earliest periods that I knew music was going to be an important part of my life.

BC: Did you start playing guitar in high school?

JS: When I stopped boys choir, around 7th grade, I got my first guitar. I remember sitting in 7th grade in math class and I had got my guitar for Christmas. My dad had showed me the A, D, and E chords for Twist and Shout. That was the first chords I ever learned and I remember sitting in school doing those chord motions with my hand. Imagining playing and how cool it felt.

BC: That’s the real deal right there.

JS: A D E. A D E. Yes! And I would go home and play A D E.

BC: And your brother plays too. Did he start at the same time?

JS: Yeah, by default. He’s two years younger. So he ended up doing everything I did. We didn’t actually become friends until he got to high school.

BC: So you weren’t picking together until high school?

JS: Yeah were into separate things. We didn’t even like each other till then. Now we’re best friends. He’s my favorite in the world. So because of that reason we grew up playing all the stuff together. We had the same musical upbringing.

BC: When you started playing guitar? Was it basic book stuff or was it anything specific you were into?

JS: Nirvana. Rock. Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

BC: Did you learn all that stuff by ear? Did you have lessons? Tab?

JS: I started taking lessons during sophomore year of high school. So between 7th grade and 10th there was a 4 year period where we were just messing around. And in my neighborhood I was lucky again because I had 4 or 5 neighborhood friends and were into making movies and having bands. So in 7th grade we made a band. I played drums just cause I was the only kid that had a drum set. My parents got me a drum set. We started the band Bistro Illegal. And we had the band Strunken White and I played drums. You can actually find that band’s music on ITunes or Spotify. I had that band all the way through high school. All the way through my freshman year of college I was in a pretty decent indie rock band.

BC: Drums? Did you take lessons for drums?

JS: I never took any lessons for drums at all. I played sax in band in middle school. All sorts of stuff.

BC: Well let’s take a step back. Did you ever at any point have anybody tell you, you should practice like this? Or maybe you should do that? Or did you seek out that information or did anybody say, when you practice you should do this?

JS: When I started taking guitar lessons I had a really good guitar teacher. And I liked rock and all that but I didn’t really have anything real specific things I needed to learn. I wasn’t trying to learn bluegrass. I didn’t even know what bluegrass was until senior year of high school. My teacher was good. He was kind of like a Mr. Miyagi. A pretty disciplinarian type teacher. I took lessons with him once a week after school.

BC: What kind of stuff would he teach you?

JS: I some learned fingerstyle folk guitar. Kind of like Mississippi John Hurt kind of things. Some classical fingerstyle. Bouree in Em. Romanza, all these beginner classical tunes.

BC: That’s pretty high tech. Was he teaching how to break things down?

JS: Yeah. We mainly worked with tab but he taught me how to learn songs. Start with a phrase. The 1st phrase and get it down. Learn the 2nd phrase get that down. Add those 2 phrases together. Work through the whole song like that.

BC: That’s it.

JS: And he made me count and say different words for different beats.  Quarter notes were cat, cat, cat. Pelican for triplets. So we worked through that stuff really slow. That was huge as far as learning an instrument, that’s where I first learned how to learn a song.

BC: That’s a fantastic teacher right there.

JS: I already had a lot of it on my own since I was playing in bands. I knew power chords. I was really good with rhythm and harmony from growing up. His name was Hawkseye Pope. He was a blues musician/teacher. Folk musician kind of guy in Durham. He was an awesome teacher. Strict, but a really great teacher.

BC: How many years did you take lessons?

JS: I took for 3 years. Sophomore year till senior year in high school. Once a week. 30 minutes.

BC: That’s great. That sounds like he really laid down a good foundation in terms of basic guitar knowledge.

JS: Yeah, that was cool. My brother took lessons from him and so did our friend Andy Thorn who is a really great banjo player now. We learned from Hawkseye and one of the things he was big on was getting you out in front of people performing. My brother was actually playing with Andy and they were backing each other up. He got them together and out to an open mic in Chapel Hill and performed. So they did that once without me and then Andy was like we need mandolin. They were going with guitar and banjo. And it was like Jon you need to play this mandolin with us next time we go. Here’s 3 chords. Here’s the chords for Minor Swing. And some other really easy songs and they gave me the David Grisman album. Andy’s dad had showed him bluegrass music and that’s when I was like Oh my God! I had never heard bluegrass but I was like this is so cool. I had the Grisman book and started learning all this mandolin. Picked it up really fast.

BC: You had some chops.

JS: Yeah I had some dexterity and I could read tab. And I could hear on mandolin what he was doing and I could copy it. And then from learning that music on mandolin I started hearing a guitar player, Tony Rice on the album. I’m like, I think I even like this more than the mandolin part.

BC: When you first started taking lessons did he have any kind of technique exercises? Did he have you do scales or work with a metronome, drilling you with that stuff?

JS: We did a lot of that. One thing I remember him doing was chromatic stuff on the guitar. You know you have 4 fingers and you can do combinations like 1 2 3 4, chromatic. He had me write out every combination of that  so it’d be like. 1 2 3 4. 1 2 4 3. 1 3 4 2. And I’d go through the whole thing on each different string. And it wasn’t even musical. It was just every combination your fingers could play. I would go through the whole thing with him sitting there counting, Even, even, even, even. There were times when he was pretty critical and I remember getting teary eyed a couple of times. I was sensitive and he was like. Wrong! Wrong, you know. He was pretty tough. I had a whole bunch of exercises like that.

BC: That sounds like an amazing teacher.

JS: Yep, he really was. And if you didn’t do your work for the week you knew he was going to get on you. Sometimes I didn’t look forward to going.

BC: So even at that age you were driven enough to take those lessons and practice. Your parents did not tell you to do this?

JS: No, I found it exciting to be able to learn songs. Like when I learned Bouree in Em. To be able to play that and hear myself do it was enough to keep going.

BC: So back to bluegrass. That was senior year of high school?

JS: Yep. They needed a mandolin player in the band we started doing open mic. I remember being nervous as shit and we had a setlist and went and played and people liked it. Having someone like your music when you do it on stage is pretty big buzz at a young age.

BC: That was just a trio with your brother and Andy Thorn.

JS: We got a bass player and started a band called Crawdad PA and we made a CD. That was senior year of high school with those guys and bass player named Ian Thompson.

BC: Were you writing music at that point?

JS: Not a lot. Not really.

BC: Was that CD all original?

JS: It was a lot of Andy’s songs. He’s always been great songwriter. But then we played minor swing on there and foggy mountain breakdown. Maybe one or two punk songs. A Dead Milkmen cover.

BC: You were blending genre’s right from the beginning?

JS: Right. I wasn’t raised with bluegrass at all. I had my own taste in music that blended things right from the get go. But then around senior year I started being like, bluegrass! We went to Merlefest. We went to a couple of bluegrass jams called Banjo in the Hollow. It’s the Durham area picking scene. Kind of like the bluegrass association of Durham and that’s when I went to my first jam. A real jam. I was like this is awesome! It blew me away. Ok I’ve got a new goal. My new goal is to be able to play at this jam and play songs I don’t know and to be able to take a solo when it comes to me. I couldn’t do it. I could only play the songs I knew. That was 1999 and I was a senior in High School. That’s when I really started working on bluegrass.

BC: So were you focused on guitar or mandolin?

JS: I was focused on mandolin at first but as soon as I got to college I got interested in flatpicking more. The band Big Fat Gap that I ended up joining in Chapel Hill through Andy. He went to Chapel Hill and I went to NC State. He instantly started with this band Big Fat Gap and they had all the instruments already but they figured they could add a lead guitar. They had a rhythm guitar so I was like I’m IN! I can do it! That’s when I became a guitarist. I started playing gigs and working on guitar.

BC: What year was that?

JS: That was 2001.

BC: Were you working out of a book or anything?

JS: Mainly listening and playing along. I’ve always played along with recordings for playing bluegrass. That’s kind of my main thing.

BC: Was it Tony Rice mainly you were listening to or were you listening to other people too.

JS: I was a total Tony Rice clone. For a long time. Pretty much all through college even after. After I graduated college I went to Colorado and started a band, Broke Mountain, and did that for two years in Durango and that was when I was still a Tony Rice clone. I had my own style but I mostly played Tony licks in that style. That’s what I loved. I know lots of Tony solo’s note for note. And because of the way I grew up it was always easy for me to hear.
I had the Tone Poems tab book. And as soon as I learned one of his solos I could figure out every single other one. My ear was always good.

BC: How would you work to figure out some of those solos. Would you slow it down?

JS: I could do it usually full speed. I never used a slow down machine. I couldn’t always play it up to speed. But I could hear it. Work it up and eventually do it. Pretty quick.

BC: That’s impressive.

JS: That’s something I knew I had a natural ability for. I know that comes easier to me than a lot people I know.

BC: Tony Rice’s breaks are weird too. They don’t fall under your fingers real naturally. 

JS: It’s funny because now I would not tell someone to emulate Tony Rice first. I would start with more George Shuffler if you want to learn bluegrass guitar, learn his solos and get a really good handle on basic melody. You know learn Scruggs style banjo first before you learn Bela Fleck. But at the same time because I dove into Tony Rice first you learn the most advanced thing first it gave me kind of a leg up on understanding it all. I didn’t learn how to play a basic bluegrass break until a few years ago. I always played a Tony Rice style solo over any chord change. That was based on the chords and the licks for those chords.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Music Practice Tips Video

A few pointers on the basics.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Stop Thinking!

Stop Thinking!

         Charlie Parker said that to play music you need to learn as much as you can, practice it, then get up on the bandstand and forget everything and just play. But what does he mean just play? How do you forget everything? Its an excellent question. Piano virtuoso and educator Hal Galper said that if you think you’re dead! Strong words to be sure but truer words were never spoken about music.
         Galper relates a great story about Dizzy Gillespie that applies to this topic. A bunch of children are backstage at a High School concert and one of them asks Dizzy what he’s thinking about while he’s playing music. Now that’s a good question! What would a virtuoso like Dizzy Gillespie be thinking while he’s playing? Gillespie said, “Well most people thinks it bee bop buh do bee bop buh do. But its not its BEE BOP BUH DO BEE BOP BUH DO!!!” Wow, now there’s a great description of what’s going on in your head while you play music.
         The lesson here? You’re going to play exactly as you hear. If you hear something loud and clear in your mind you’ll play it loud and clear with your hands. I guess we could call this type of mental process “thinking” but really what we’re doing is listening. And we know that listening is one of the most important things a musician can be doing. That goes for when they’re playing, practicing, enjoying music, or heck just about anywhere else in life.
         To improve your head games you need to stop thinking and start listening. Music goes by to fast for us to be thinking about anything at all. That's what Galper means when he said that if you think you’re dead. By the time you’ve thought about whatever it is you want to do the moment has passed and your hands will be one (or maybe several) steps behind.
         When I’m playing banjo I like to hear music in terms of whole phrases. If its my job to start a song with a banjo kick-off I try to take just a moment and hum the melody to myself just to get it cycling in my brain. I may not have even played this song before but maybe I know how the melody goes. Bluegrass tunes especially have a lot of the same melodies or they borrow phrases from other songs. Even if I don’t have a break that I’ve played a thousand times I can play the melody that I hear in my head and I’ll be able to improvise a satisfactory banjo solo and sometimes it’ll be awesome if I hit things just right.
         BUT, if I think about anything I’ll just mess up! It happens every time. This goes back to what Charlie Parker was talking about. Practice, Practice, Practice. Then get on the stage and just play. If you’re playing music in a style where improvisation is an element or maybe even a key ingredient, learning to just play is important beyond measure. Even if you go out there intent on playing something exactly as practiced. Be it classical, rock, country, folk, hip-hop, whatever, you need to learn to turn off your internal voice and learn to listen to your intuitive voice.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Interview with Hal Galper part 1

Interview with Hal Galper

Hal Galper may not be a household name outside of the Jazz world but the list of people that he has played music with reads like a who’s who of Jazz greatness. Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, John Scofield, Phil Woods, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and the list goes on. Galper is a jazz piano and improvisational virtuoso fluent and comfortable with just about anything Jazz you could think of. His talents can maneuver around BeBop, Modal jazz, Classic American songbook tunes, and Swing Jazz.

But it is as a teacher that Galper seems to have really forged new ground. His ideas about teaching are like nothing I’ve ever come across, yet they are immediately accessible and understandable. His research is deep and far reaching and his conclusions about music highly intelligent but immediately pragmatic. Simply put his ideas on music and especially improvisation are some of the most sophisticated yet easily understood I’ve ever heard. It was an honor and a real treat to get to sit down and talk music with such a hugely influential musician. Look for the remainder of the interview in my practicing book.

You should rush over to his website right now and buy some music or at the very least read some of his excellent articles on music. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

BC: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

HG: Yeah, no problem man. I’m interested to hear what you’re doing. You’re writing a book on practicing? You know nobody knows how to do that! (laughs)

BC: Yeah, I’m still figuring it out.

HG: I think there are as many ways to practice as there are people practicing.

BC: Right! My whole trip is that I didn’t start playing music with any dedication till I was 30 and that’s pretty late. But at that point I knew I wanted to play as well as I could. I took lessons with folks and nobody ever told me how to practice. You know they would show me a lick or a song. But things never got better because I was doing it wrong. So eventually I started to research why I wasn’t getting better. What was I doing wrong? How do you practice better? So the book is what I wish I had when I started. The information I wish that I had.

HG: Let me caution you that I don’t know much about what goes on in the beginners area. I’m more of an advanced teacher so it will be interesting to see what I have to say and if it applies to the lower levels of practicing.

BC: I’ll do my best to steer things in a direction that will be fruitful.

HG: My first question to you is do you think there is a universal ideology for practicing? I’m not so sure there is.

BC: That’s a good question and I think for the advanced student there is not. They are going to have to figure out what they want and they’re going to guide their practice in their own direction. But if you’re a beginner, I think there is something of a universal methodology.

HG: Yeah, its repetition.

BC: Yes, and you need to know where your fingers go first. And then repetition comes into play.

HG: Yeah.

BC: So your musical background online mentioned that you started with classical music?

HG: Yeah, I started piano when I was 5 or 6 years old and I hated every minute of it. The last thing I thought I would be was a piano player.

BC: When you started, were you forced to practice?

HG: Yeah.

BC: Did your classical teachers tell you how to practice in any way?

HG: Just repeat it. Play it over and over. They wanted me to read but it turns out that my ears were so good that I could memorize quickly and the teacher could tell when I was playing from memory because I was interpreting it too much or something.

BC: Improvising?

HG: No, but my mom would yell from the kitchen when I had a lesson. “Harold, I can hear you’re not reading!” She could tell I was playing by ear. I felt the quality of playing was better of course by ear. But, she wanted me to have the discipline of reading, which is something else completely and which I never really mastered.

BC: At what point did you decide that Jazz was your thing?

HG: Well, I was such a poor student in high school that the only thing I seemed to excel at was one year they put me in tech class and I was really good at learning how to be an electrician. They said, “OH, my son is going to be a scientist!” So sophomore year they sent me to a prep school for engineering in Boston. I lived in Salem, Massachusetts about 20 miles north. And that was the mistake they made because I was an absolute failure at the whole thing. And when it came to lunch hour I would leave and go to the Jazz club across the street and have my lunch there and listen to these guys rehearse. And that is where I got hooked. I took bongo lessons from the janitor, you know, for a while.

BC: What Jazz were you listening to?

HG: Bebop! Then when I got back to Salem High where I was from and the state has this thing called vocational rehabilitation. And they go around to all the high schools to see if anybody is disabled and they offer all kinds of financial aid to disabled students. Well I only have one eye. And they said I qualified for full tuition any place I wanted to go. And my parents were not going to pay for me to go to music school. And they wanted me to work at the grocery store you know. Basically I said hey folks, screw you, I’ve got tuition free to Berklee school of music. And you know they took anybody in those days. And that was it. That was how I started.

BC: Wow. Were you playing jazz before you went to Berklee?

HG: I knew the key of C a little bit and even less in the key of C minor. So I was fooling around with it. There were two alto players and a trumpet player in the Boston area. Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Moser on alto and they were THE, eventually the guys in town. And they came over to my house once and they played. They totally wowed me and they sounded like all the really hip stuff. And Jimmy and I became good friends. It was about 30 years later I mentioned that day to Jimmy. Do you remember that day you came by the house? I said, Man you guys sounded great. He said, Man we just memorized 3 Bird solos and played it on everything! (Laughs)

So I went to Berklee for about 2 ½ years and the studies were getting in the way of my practicing and I quit. So I just jumped off the cliff. You know of trying to survive while I was practicing. First to get good enough to work because that’s where school is. It's on the bandstand. It's not sitting in a room practicing. And that should be the goal of any musician to get you up to par. So you can at least perform in public no matter what kind of music it is. Whatever. You get to play your instrument to work on time, chords, listening. And all those things are going forward when things are on the bandstand.

BC: When you dropped out and started performing did you join some bands right away? Were you trying to get yourself ready for improvising in those situations?

HG: Well these were rent gigs. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances. They were rent gigs. They weren’t jazz gigs. The repertoire was the great American song book, which were the songs that were played at the jam sessions. So you learned the songs on the gigs. I’d have all the books with me and I’d go to the job and they would do 5 or 6 songs in a row and I would never have a chance to even open up the book. So eventually I was learning the songs by ear and then going home and reading and making sure I improved what I didn’t know. 

Basically I started out faking it. Which is basically the process involved to get good.

BC: I read your article on faking it. That was great stuff. But before we get that far ahead I want to ask you, when you were in that stage of the game did you have any sort of system? Did you have any discipline or structure to it?

HG: Yeah. Well what happened was after a certain amount of time in school you achieve information overload and you’re forced to find a way to deal with all the information in a systematic manner. And that’s when I think everybody deals with that in their own way. But what was common about all the students back then that I just don’t see any more is practice books. Now you can buy practice books that tell people to practice this or that way. But in those days you had to make up your own system just to survive the massive information overload. So yes I developed a system and I might even have some exercises here.

So basically I had two books. And one book you collected good ideas in. You have a good idea you’d write it down. And the other book you wrote them out in all 12 keys and the fingerings and you analyzed them and then you tried to find as many ways to use them as you could. Basically that was it. Nowadays you don’t see practice books because of the published material and people don’t even know you can do that. And I tell my students that this is a good idea to deal with the information overload.

BC: How many hours a day were you practicing at that point?

HG: I don’t really remember. Everybody tells me I was practicing all the time. It wasn’t until after I left school that I ran into technical problems because my early classical training was not sufficient for what I was going for. I had the good fortune to study with Madame Chaloff.

BC: I read a bit about her and she sounds like an amazing piano teacher.

HG: She was. I was very lucky and in that period it was 6 hours a day 6 days a week for 3 years. Lessons every week and then another 3 years of going back for tune ups and double checks.

BC: It sounds like lessons with her were very good at teaching a relaxed technique. It sounds like she really had a way of improving a person's general technique I guess.

HG: She was part of that group of immigrants who came over from Russia. Joseph Schillinger and others. They left Russia and came to the U.S. about the same time. And Russia was more advanced musically than the U.S. and she taught a technique called the Russian shoulder technique. It was totally unique. It was so unique that they fired her from Boston college because other students were going to her. She was also a pedant and I had a hard time taking that from a woman at the time (laughs). But I did go back and I talked with her years later to make sure I was doing the right thing.

I was lucky. What she gave me was marvelous technique and it wasn’t until many, many years later I realized that was just the beginning because no matter what technique you have you have to personalize it to your own physicality.

Look for the rest of the interview in my forthcoming book on how to practice.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Interview with Amanda Platt of The Honeycutters pt. 1

Americana (whatever that is) singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen these days. There is no shortage of acoustic guitar strummed, down on your luck lyrics, supported by pretty harmonies. To stand out in that crowd is as hard as it ever was, maybe more so these days. But that is exactly what Amanda Platt does with quiet ease.

All it takes is to hear her sing a few notes and you are immediately stuck by her voice. Pretty to be sure, but with just enough twang, grit, and depth that you might not notice the cliché free songwriting style she’s developed. As Nashville continues to churn out “country music” sung by women who would be just as likely to end up as models as singers, written by professional songwriters as interested in marketability as expression, Amanda Platt’s music reminds you that country music is alive and well.

Go buy some of their music!

BC: How did you start playing music?

AP: I really started writing songs, doing what I do now when I was 18 or 19. My dad is a musician. He’s a lawyer now but he’s still a musician. He always encouraged me to take guitar lessons and always wanted me and my brother to be musical. Guitar never caught with me for some reason. I played flute for a while when I was in middle school.

BC: So when you were in elementary/middle school you didn’t play music to speak of?

AP: No. I played flute in band class. That’s about it. I wouldn’t call it a creative outlet. It was just reading classical music.

BC: It was just another class?

AP: Yeah. I like being musical in that sense but I wasn’t expressing myself. It was more like a hobby. A technical exercise. So I never got really good at it. I never got that into it or pursued it.

BC: So when you were 19 what switched?

AP: When I was 19 I was at college in upstate New York at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, NY. I was pretty miserable. I was a freshman and I was very sad (laughs) and I bought a banjo on a whim because I used to walk a lot. You know I didn’t really want to go to college but that’s what all my friends were doing and I had the opportunity so I thought well I should go to college. And I applied to all these college and got rejected. And Skidmore rejected me the first time but then they accepted me the 2nd time around. It was in the London Programs, which was kind of their surplus of Freshman and they sent them to London for their first semester. So like 30 some odd freshman are going to drop out and then there’ll be room for them and then they’ll go back. It’s a weird concept.

But I found out I got accepted so I thought, “Yeah I’ll go to London!” But when you come back you don’t get to live in the dorm on campus they put you in this dorm that’s like 2 miles away from campus across downtown. So I was miserable there. So I decided I’m going to walk to school. And this is Saratoga Springs in a January/ February. I’m gonna walk every damn day through downtown. There and back! So there was a guitar shop in downtown Saratoga and they had a banjo in the window. A resonator banjo and I had never seen a banjo before I don’t think. But my dad is into Bluegrass and so I had certainly heard banjo music but there wasn’t a big folk/bluegrass scene.

So it was  a very novel experience. This was before the Avett Brothers hit it big. Or Mumford and Sons. Banjo wasn’t in the forefront of my imagination. It was like here’s a weird instrument. And I had this idea, I just want to play that banjo. That will make me feel better. Kind of a random thing. I bought it for like $150. They gave me a little book with some chords in it. So I sort of started learning a bastardization of clawhammer.

BC: Did you take lessons?

AP: I did end up taking a few lesson with a lady named Trish Miller and she was very much married to old time clawhammer style. And I wanted to just write songs. And that’s when I stared writing songs. The first 20 or 30 songs I wrote were on the banjo. I remember going to my first open mic. It was at the college that I was going to. There was nobody there. It was me and 3 other people that were running the open mic. I was super nervous. I couldn’t even breath let alone remember the words to the songs, let alone play the banjo!

BC: Did you sing at all before this?

AP: I did some community theatre when I was in middle school. I was in chorus in high school. But mainly because my two best buddies were in chorus and wanted to goof around with them.

BC: When you were in chorus and theatre did you ever have vocal instruction?

AP: Very general. Actually not really. In chorus I feel like maybe he said “sing from your diaphragm” or something but there was never any one on one instruction. And I did take some jazz voice lessons my senior year of high school. I always felt like I could sing but no one had ever told me that I could sing so I also had this feeling that I was terrible and if I sang in front of people they would make fun of me.

BC: Did you always have the feeling of wanting to sing?

AP: I think I always had it. I fantasized about being on Broadway. I wanted to be in CATS!

BC: So the singing thing was always there?

AP: Yes.

BC: So with the singing, even back before you started banjo, did you ever listen to yourself sing with a recording?

AP: I don’t think so.

BC: So when you started writing songs on the banjo, was it like a dam bursting?

AP: A little bit. A little bit. The first couple of songs I wrote quickly became an escape for me. It made a lot of sense. Even though I had never written a song before I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. In high school I would write poetry and prose and so I always had words in my head. I always had phrases in my head and when I started putting them to music something clicked and that became the easiest way to express myself.

It was kind of like the dam burst. It was like OK! Here we go, this is what I’m doing now.

BC: In the beginning did you write in any particular style?

AP: No. I think I wanted to be a punk rocker. But, all of the songs I wrote early on were pretty folky and they still are. I’m not a punk rocker. I remember I had a friend who played fiddle and formed a little band and I remember taking her a new song I had written and trying to like speed it up and make it poppy. She said, “This sounds like a country song.” I was like, “NO!”

BC: There’s still time. You know Ryan Adams did his metal album.

AP: What? I had no idea.

BC: Oh yeah. So you were writing songs, you didn’t know where you fit in but you were gravitating to county?

AP: Yeah, and I was playing a banjo so people would look and think, Folk Music.

BC: At what time did something say, “I want to get deeper into this?”

AP: I think oddly enough as shy about it as I was and as little confidence that I had even after that first open mic, which was horrible, if I had seen myself I would have said, “please don’t let her do that again.” I remember leaving there with a sense of like, I had set up a challenge for myself. I thought, “No that’s not going to be the last. You’re not going to crawl under a rock and die. This is something that you can do. You can do this.”
And so I just knew it was already a feeling of being in this for something. It wasn’t just oh I wrote a song and I’ll let it drop. No this was a higher thing for me. You know over the next 2 years I met a couple of other girls who were playing music and we started performing more regularly. Caffé Lena is a great folk club in Saratoga Springs. Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan played there and they have an open mic on Thursday nights and I started being a regular at that and started to get more confident.

BC: Did you consider it a band?

AP: Yeah we had a guitar. I played banjo. Another girl played fiddle.

BC: A friend band.

AP: Yeah we all lived together. Yeah we could all kind of play something. The girls could kind of sing.

BC: During that time did you gain more confidence by playing with them?

AP: Definitely. Yeah even before that I got confidence by going to the open mic at Caffé Lena. It felt like every time I performed, even if I was shaky or the song was rough, it felt like people noticed me and people were like, "oh, you know you can turn a phrase." Or, "that’s an interesting melody there."

BC: So you got some good feedback right away?

AP: Yeah, pretty immediately. And that pushed me to keep going and I still didn’t feel like I could sing. I was like yeah I play banjo and write songs but I’m not a singer. I don’t know when it was that I started feeling like people said oh I really like your voice but somewhere in there playing with these girls, going to the open mic. That was a very formative experience for me. Confidence is everything in terms of technique, honing my craft or whatever. I’ve never studied voice, guitar, or banjo, or songwriting. I don’t really practice. The way that I practice is that I write songs and I play them in front of people. So that whole process and getting more into that, and getting positive feedback, that was really where I felt like I started actually getting to be proficient at what I was doing.

BC: Sounds like you really put yourself through performance school right away. Immediately you were performing and putting yourself out there. Seeing what worked and what didn’t work.

AP: Yeah. I had a need to. I was very shy and introverted. I’m getting a lot better about that but even if I could pretend that I was extroverted I was still very buttoned up about my emotions. I think playing my songs for people was my way of venting that a little bit. So there was a need for that. Even if it was less of a conscious thing. Regardless of getting better at performing, that was why I was doing it.

BC: Did you ever study guitar?

AP: I had 3 or 4 lessons with this beautiful man. Chris Morolla. I wonder what he is doing now. He taught my brother and all his friends and they all play music. They all took lessons with Chris and he was a pretty laid back dude. I think we stopped having lessons because he would just stop coming. I think he just forgot about the lessons. It never stuck with me. I think I didn’t want to play other peoples' songs or learn chords. There was a sense in me that I wanted to do my own stuff. But I wasn’t there yet.

But I learned how to play tangled up in blue.

BC: Well there you go. That got you going.

AP: I wish I could remember how to play it. (laughs) I like that song.

BC: There’s a lot of words. So you had a little guitar instruction.

AP: Yeah and I’m not a lead player or picker.

BC: As far as songwriting goes, what were some of the things you used to  develop your songs? Did you have a point where you thought, “I really like my songs,” but then did you write a song and say, “I really like that song!”? Did you get to a point where you thought, oh wow I am good at this?

AP: I wish I could say I knew when I wrote a good one. But I think I would have been doing it anyway. But because of positive feedback early on it was very much “Ok, this is a good song because these people at the open mic said it was a good song.” All these people responded to it.

BC: Did you ever think I want to make my living doing this?

AP: I think I wanted to but I didn’t even believe it was a possibility enough to entertain it. It was in my quietest hope of hopes, I was like maybe I could actually do this. But you can’t do this. You have to go to college and become an English teacher or something. I didn’t know what to do. I never had a plan B. It took me a while to acknowledge that this is plan A.

BC: I still don’t have a plan B.

AP: Yeah, I think those are the ones who do it. They don’t have a fall back plan.

Look for the rest of this interview in my forthcoming book on how to practice music.