Thursday, June 20, 2013

Learning to listen

Learning to listen

          Listening is one of the most important and perhaps least mentioned aspects of music education. It might seem like a really obvious thing but yet again the details of listening are far from obvious, at least that is when you are really listening. So what does it mean to listen?
         Listening can be performed in various ways depending on the context. We might listen to a song we want to learn. We play it over and over trying to pick up the details that really bring a piece of music into focus. This type of listening could be thought of as microscopic. We’re looking for details that might otherwise get missed without a deeper attention to details. We might listen to other musicians we happen to be playing with. If a group or ensemble of some sort hopes to play together they’re hopefully listening to each. You’d be surprised how many groups don’t listen to each other. And then there’s the most obvious but arguably least discussed type of listening. Listening to ourselves.
         As a music teacher I have worked with hundreds of students who, at first, couldn’t play with a metronome. At first. Their problem was not a lack of talent. Nor was it a lack of rhythm. And it wasn’t just because they were not advanced enough to play with a metronome. Their problem was almost exclusively a listening problem. They had not learned to divide their attention between what they were doing and what the metronome was doing. And to be fair, its quite difficult at first. This gets us to the crux of the whole issue. Dividing your attention. The ability to musically focus your attention on two different things at the same time is a crucial skill any musician would do well to develop. Fortunately its not as hard as it might seem if the musician starts slowly.
       A great classical guitarist I know told me a story of a performance he gave in front of a world famous guitarist. After the performance he sought out feedback from the famous guitarist. The guitarist told him he technically played everything right but that he had failed at one thing and his performance was greatly flawed as a result. His one failure? A failure to listen, he said.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Earl Scruggs, the Backward Roll, and good taste

When I first started out learning bluegrass style banjo I had no "method" or direction to learning the instrument and style. And by, "style", I mean the entire list of possibilities that are out there for bluegrass banjo. Melodic style, single string style, jazz style, newgrass style, "Bela" Style, "Reno" Style, and of course the ever popular "Scruggs" Style. When I first started out I had a book of tablature that included a mix of Scruggs, single string, and melodic so my earliest stages of learning had a bit of all that. Looking back I'm not sure that was the best thing for my playing. I would argue that it wasn't but hindsight is 20/20 I guess.

As I slowly improved at banjo playing I started branching out into as much music as I could. I went through a Jazz phase and learned a bunch of standards. I worked up lots of fiddle tunes in the melodic style and wrote my own melodic licks. I learned a few Bela Fleck tunes that I really liked. I even messed around a tiny little bit with a classical piece. Some of those musical ventures were more successful than others and it's obvious to me looking back that I was often trying to play above what I was really capable of. I'm still guilty of this and feel like its my weakest link in my playing. It's great to push yourself but at a certain point you have look at your limitations, accept them, and move on. John Hartford or maybe it was Johnny Cash who said that a style is created as much by limitation of talent as talent itself.

After trying to learn all this high-tech banjo music I realized after a while that I don't even really like to listen to high-tech banjo music. Well that's not exactly true but I didn't like to listen to a lot of the music I was trying to play. I mean I don't love to hear melodic banjo all that much. I don't just LOVE jazz banjo. I appreciate and am amazed by folks like Pat Cloud, Bela Fleck, and any number of great jazz banjo players. It's fun to play but I realized I'd much rather hear Earl Scruggs than any banjo player or banjo music for that matter. Why wasn't I focused on playing that music? So about a year or so ago, after playing banjo for 12 years, I really started to get deeper and deeper into "Scruggs" style and try to understand the finer points of his playing. I realized I should have been doing this from the start.

What is it about Earl Scruggs' playing that is so captivating to so many people? Good question. This has been heavily discussed elsewhere so I won't get to into all that but when it comes to the finer points of his playing I'm starting to see what it is he's doing that's so cool. Here's a quick list that's aside from things like, TONE, SPEED, NOTE ARTICULATION, and SONGWRITING. This is a short list of technical things.

  1. He plays the melody, and plays it really well.
  2. He can change between any roll, at any speed, any time he wants.
  3. He's a master of subtle phrasing, especially in the 3rd Em position. (could warrant a whole post or more)
  4. He has strong pull offs. (understatement)
  5. He's a master of the backward roll.

Read that last one again. THE BACKWARD ROLL. Yeah that roll, the hardest roll to play. Now I'm sure we could go on and on about Earl Scruggs' technique and find lots of other things but I want to look at the backward roll for a minute. What is so special about it? Here's why I think it's unique and special. For starters, It's really hard to play. The middle finger is the weakest of the 3 and to start your roll on that finger takes a lot more work. The thumb is the strong digit. That's why the forward roll and alternating are so much easier. It does most of the work in those rolls. Not so the backward, the middle does the work and plays most of the melody notes. The backward also breaks up the pulse of the notes and a quick switch from a forward to backward or vice-versa creates cool syncopation. This is most evident in Scruggs' playing in the songs (at least that I know of):

  • Ground Speed (The first two rolls of the song are backward and then switch to forward. Really tough. Call it the Ground Speed roll.)
  • Home Sweet Home (He masterfully plays the roll on the high D string by deftly switching out of a backward roll to a forward. Especially in the 2nd B part right before he plays those quick staccato chord vamps. Very weird!)
  • Shuckin' the Corn (In the first few measures he syncopates his rolls with a lightning quick change from a forward to a backward then back to a forward. Really strange and difficult!)
  • Ballad of Jed Clampet (The last section where he plays C, C# dim, then D is somewhat odd and is a long string of backward rolls even for Scruggs.)

These examples are just a few of the most obvious to me and I'm sure a more detailed look at his playing would find more examples. Of course the "G run" that is possibly the most recognizable lick in Scruggs style includes a quick backward roll. Thinking more about the backward roll in bluegrass banjo I feel like the backward roll is a big aspect of Scruggs' playing that a lot of banjoists' neglect. I know I could stand to work on it more.

Ultimately the thing about Earl Scruggs' playing is that he can consistently surprise you. Just when you think you know what he's up to you'll find some lick or phrase that doesn't fall into any pattern and can only be explained to Scruggs trying to play something that compliments the song at hand. For examples see:

  • Little girl in Tennessee (kick off)
  • Foggy Mountain Rock (those crazy slides)
  • Down the road (just try to play that roll)
  • Bugle Call Rag (his classic chromatic lick over the vamp)
And perhaps that's the ultimate lesson Scruggs has to teach us. Not how to play a great banjo break at lightning speed. Not technical things like rolls or licks and such. But, good taste. Can you find any example where he OVERPLAYS ANYTHING? If it's been recorded I've not heard it. A good buddy of mine who's a heck of a great carpenter dropped this little tidbit of wisdom. He said that the hardest thing to achieve in this world is simplicity. On the surface that might seem like a contradictory statement but the banjo playing of Earl Scruggs would suggest otherwise. Happy picking.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


I've been doing quite a bit of research to help me write this book on practicing. One little manual I've come across is called "On Practicing" by Ricardo Iznaola. His bio claims that he is "one of the most seminal players, teachers, and thinkers of the guitar (classical) today." Judging by his pocket guide to practicing it looks like he knows an awful lot about practicing. In fact several of his tips and methods are often identical to what you might have read on this blog. Here are a few examples.

A. Building time-in which purely technical concerns are addressed. (This is the same thing as "knowing where the fingers go" that I've often preached.)

B.Interpretive time-in which musicianly elements of expression are tried out and incorporated into the piece (This stage is similar to my "Phrase by phrase" and "becoming musical" stage.)

C. Performing time-in which the integration of technique and musicianship occurs, playing through complete pieces, paying attention to imagined circumstances of a real performance, stage fright, etc. (This is the essentially the same thing as my "shaping" stage of practicing.)

This was another great quote that almost sounds exactly like something I wrote the other day. "When one wants to just 'fool around' with the instrument, one should do so by all means. Be aware, however, that this is not practicing." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Metronomes, John Hartford, and doing things right.


                  What is it about the metronome that can cause distress in music students? So often I’ve brought the metronome to start working on a musical passage and you can immediately sense the discomfort. The worry and perhaps even fear that creeps up on the musician new to the metronome is unnecessary. Maybe its just a fear of the unknown. When I first started working with the metronome I was excited. This is what real musicians do I thought, they practice with a metronome. Its to bad I had no idea what I was doing back then but, at least I was trying I guess.
         Its been so long I can scarcely remember what I did when I used a metronome when I was first starting out. I’m pretty sure I was playing too fast. Most folks do. This is one of the most common mistakes of metronome practice. If there’s nobody around who knows to tell you to slow down chances are you are going to play to fast. And too fast equals what? That’s right, poor muscle memory and sloppy music. I know I like to belabor this point. You’ll thank me one day.
         I’ve become so accustomed to practicing with a metronome I can hardly live without a steady beat. During solo performances I often find myself tapping my foot to help lock in the groove. One of my newest musical pursuits has been learning to play old time fiddle, as if I didn’t have enough to work on already! I’m finally starting to perform with the fiddle on a few tunes I can play pretty well. Learning the fiddle has been a dream of mine for years and years. If you’ve ever picked up a fiddle and tried to coax a few sounds out of one you know how difficult it is to make a fiddle sound like anything other than a dying cat, much less sound like music. But as if learning to play fiddle wasn’t difficult enough I decided I wanted to learn to dance while I played fiddle.
          I never felt like I had the time to get serious about practicing fiddle but a few years ago something happened and I resolved that I couldn’t wait any longer. I found myself traveling alone and listening to lots of John Hartford’s music. A bootleg of John Hartford’s from 1988 had ended up on my mp3 player and I hardly listened to anything else for about 2 months. Hartford often performed solo and switched off playing banjo, guitar, and fiddle during his performances. Hartford’s ability as a entertainer and performer are legendary and listening back to this bootleg its easy to see why he was such a beloved figure in the Bluegrass/Old time music community. The music I heard on this bootleg absolutely knocked me over. Hartford’s virtuosity was astounding.
         He danced a shuffle rhythm on a piece of plywood while he played jaw dropping fiddle and banjo music of the highest caliber. And that shuffle rhythm was locked in and just as tight as a bolt holding up the Golden Gate bridge. I couldn’t believe something like that was even possible. I had read an article in the Fretboard journal where Jamie Hartford, John’s son, had mentioned that after a show his father would get the metronome out and work on his timing some more (Fretboard Journal). AFTER a performance. This was a person who knew how to use a metronome. After listening to that music constantly for 2 months I resolved that I had to at least try to learn how to play fiddle and dance. I loved it so much I had to get closer to it. Now if I hoped to do all that I’d better be sure I knew how to work with a metronome.
         As you might expect, it would prove even more difficult than I imagined. I purchased a video where Hartford explains how he danced while he played. He slowly broke his moves down literally step by step. I poured over the video time and time again but it still made no sense to me. And that was just the dancing, the fiddle seemed equally impossible. Dragging the bow across the strings produced sounds only the deaf could appreciate and getting my fingers to find the right place to play notes in tune was like trying to nail a small tack with a sledgehammer. I’d miss every time. This was going to be much harder than I thought.
         I was going to have to accept that I was a complete and total beginner, despite getting accomplished on the guitar and banjo. The fiddle/dance thing was a whole ‘nother beast. I was going to have to learn to really slow down, not just musically speaking but in terms of how fast I was going to learn to play. If I hoped to have any chance of pulling off this fiddle/dancing thing and not embarrassing myself I needed to not make the same mistakes I had made with the guitar and banjo. I realized that instead of feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, instead, I had a golden opportunity. Here was an opportunity to really do things right. This was a chance to really put to work all that I knew about how to practice. I would have to really walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I also knew that the metronome could help me if I would be patient enough to slow it down and really listen to it. The wise man’s words came back to me once more but this time I felt no fear in the words, “It will be very difficult for you, the ego always gets in the way.” Not this time I decided, not this time.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What is muscle memory?

Muscle Memory, Friend or Foe.

         Can you tie your shoes? Do you type? Can you type even moderately fast say, 35 words per minute or more? Can you write? Draw or paint? Can you ride a bike? Drive a car? Play a video game? Can eat your dinner with a knife and fork? These are examples of tasks that require muscle memory. Muscle memory is the ability to remember a task after it is repeated several times. Eventually that task becomes “automatic”, meaning that you don’t have to think about the actual physical details of the task. 
         For example, when was the last time you had to think about tying your shoelaces? I challenge you to try and dissect all the movements necessary to tie your shoes.  It’s quite complicated and yet most likely a completely involuntary process for you.  Chances are that you were taught the movements at a very young age and you can’t even remember when or how you learned to tie your shoes. But every day you tie your shoes without fail. That’s muscle memory at work.
         Muscle memory is kind of miraculous thing. It allows us to perform complicated tasks without much thought. If all is going well the movements seem to be on autopilot. The great songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Hartford said that if he was playing well he was just two eyeballs floating up above his hands and he might even be thinking about something else. And John Hartford could play fast. This could only happen with muscle memory.
         The thing about muscle memory is that it doesn’t care much about your good intentions. It only remembers what you tell it. If you tell it do something poorly over and over then you’ll “remember” it that way. A great example of this is sloppy handwriting. My penmanship is terrible. Even if I try and write nice and smooth I can’t. Muscle memory controls how well and how clean your handwriting is. I paid little or no attention to my handwriting when I was in my early years of school. I had no patience to sit there and trace those lines over and over again getting it perfect every time. Now with the advent of computers I hardly ever write. My muscle memory for handwriting is back to the elementary school level.   
         Tracing the letter A over and over is how you were trained to write. First upper case A then the lower case a. You probably started out with printing then eventually you were trained to write in cursive. I gave up on cursive long ago. My cursive is illegible at this point. I made a half-hearted attempt to improve my handwriting a few years ago but gave up when I realized how much work I had to do. It’s to bad I didn’t do it right the first time maybe my hand writing wouldn’t like a total doofus’.
         Muscle memory might seem like a mysterious thing but in reality its fairly straightforward. Any time we think, or move, or perform any action our nerves fire an electrical impulse and hopefully, if we’re healthy, our body responds to that electrical impulse, like tying our shoes for example. If we perform an action enough times our nerves get wrapped with an insulation called Myelin. It literally grows around the nerve.
         Myelin is like taking a single strand of wire and reinforcing it with extra layers. Scientists have actually been able to photograph it and you can see the layers wrapped around the nerves like tree rings. On some nerve fibers scientists have seen the myelin wrapped as many as fifty times. That’s muscle memory!
         When you were taught to tie your shoes the nerves that send the signal to your hands get wrapped with Myelin which speeds the firing and improves the accuracy of the electrical impulse. By the time you’re twenty years old you’ve accumulated a lot of myelin around your shoe tying nerves. You can likely do it with your eyes closed. That’s the myelin speeding up the signals through your nervous system. The thing is, if you stop tying your shoes, let say for years, you might have trouble tying your shoes. You would have to relearn the skill just like with my handwriting. I never write by hand anymore so my handwriting has gotten very sloppy. There’s no myelin reinforcing it.
          Myelin only grows when you repeatedly send a signal through your nervous system. In other words, it won’t grow unless you practice! By practicing what we’re really doing is reinforcing a movement or skill with this myelin stuff. Its like building up our nervous system muscles for heavy lifting. But as soon as we stop practicing it stops growing just like our muscles would stop growing if we stopped lifting weights.
         So what we’ve been calling muscle memory could be called “myelin memory.” It is allowing us to perform the complicated task of playing a musical instrument. And therein is the beautiful and perhaps brutal truth about muscle memory. You have to practice to develop muscle memory and it would behoove you to get it right the first time because myelin will remember all the mistakes you make. Get things right the first time and you won’t have to relearn anything. Get it wrong the first time and you’re stuck with a bad habit unless you start over from scratch and totally relearn (or re-myelinate everything), the right way.

Interview with Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive

This is a snippet of an interview I did with Rachael Price from Lake Street Dive. You should buy their music and go see a show. http://www....