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.

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....