Posted by: laurie689 | October 1, 2014

Playing Right vs. Playing Well

There comes a point in learning any tune when we need to begin practicing it two different ways. Up to a point the learning process has to be about getting all the notes, timing and tempo precise (and the lyrics if it’s a song). After the point when you’re consistently playing it right, it’s time to add the second practice format: playing it well.

What’s the difference? Playing a piece well means making it musical, expressive, flowing, and enjoyable for a listener; no longer concentrating on formulaic and robotic aspects, and just sinking in to the music; letting it become more than just a succession of accurate notes. Assuming your technique is in place, let’s look at how you might approach expression. For example, here’s what I do:

First I assume that the name of the piece is a clue to its intended mood. However, that can sometimes be misleading, as I’ve mentioned in the past. Learning also about the origin of the piece is a good idea.  (i.e. “The Wild Geese” is not about pretty flying geese, but about a sad historical event). Not only will research help you play the piece in an appropriate way, but it will provide interesting verbal introductions.

Next, I choose a tempo. Sometimes tempo is indicated on an arrangement, but when it’s not, it’s up to you to discern. (Remember the time signature has nothing to do with tempo!)These days we have You Tube for reference. I find it helpful if I listen to enough different versions and artists to get a good average. You’ll probably notice that some versions leave you cold and others are quite inspiring. It’s not so much a specific piece of music, but how it’s played that touches a listener. (For instance, I used to hate certain songs until I heard Willy Nelson sing them!)

I find it almost useless to try to learn a piece I have not heard. The page does not speak to me. If I hear it played expressively, I can feel if I want to express it similarly or not. Just copying someone’s playing doesn’t give it any individuality, so I won’t do that. However, copying expression is a good exercise if you’re uncertain of how to create it for yourself. I remember seeing footage of Segovia teaching a student on classical guitar and requiring that the student play the piece exactly as he played it. He’d play a phrase and have the student repeat it back to him, and if it didn’t sound like a recording of himself he would scold. The point was, I’m sure, that the student would in the future develop his own style, but like an art student copying masters’ paintings, copying a master’s musical expression can be an aid in learning.

Expressive playing is not a recitation but a conversation. It has to be animated if you want anyone to listen. Expression involves dynamics, a mood quality (flowing, dancing, strident… depending on the mood of the piece), a feeling of confidence; it means living the music. I put myself in the mood I want to portray, sort of like method acting. But it doesn’t feel like acting; it feels like real life. Music is the purposeful re-living of some feeling or event. I don’t have to force the feeling out of a piece; I just feel it and it flows out.

You may find at first when you begin to add expression, accuracy flies out the window. At first, don’t let that worry you. It’s not an either/or thing forever. It just takes practice. But at first if you try to play accurately while you’re trying to play expressively, expression won’t develop. Just let the goofs slide by and keep going. This might be challenging since the habit trying to play accurately causes the brain to continue to engage with technique rather than make the switch to feeling. Developing a new skill means re-training the brain to function in a new way. Keep trying until you can ignore the mistakes.

After successfully learning to play a piece with feeling, then add the element of accuracy back in. Musicians have to “split the brain” into several different processes at once, and these can be compatibly done.

Some people put the cart before the horse, playing with great expression before there is any development of skill. It’s good if you can develop both at the same time, but expression is not a substitute for skill (or vice versa). Don’t skimp on technical practice.

Once I’m able to play a piece with both accuracy and expression, it’s ready for performance. But keeping it in practice means that sometimes one has to practice for accuracy and at other times for expression, and then for both. If I don’t take the two elements apart occasionally, I am in danger of losing one of them. I choose one day to play for one element and another day for the other.

Happy expressive playing!

Posted by: laurie689 | August 8, 2014

Online Store has been Updated

Several days ago I noticed that all the photos of the products in my online store (see link above) had disappeared. I don’t know how long it had been that way. For those of you who visited  that page and/or wanted to order a book, DVD, or CD, it may have been a bit confusing. In the past week as Iworked on the site there may have been down times as well. I’m happy to report it is fixed, and working better than ever! Please re-visit that page now.

Posted by: laurie689 | August 8, 2014

Secrets of the Professionals

When you hear a performance by a professional whom you admire, it’s likely that part of their allure can’t be described; something about their skills and/or in their demeanor on stage sets them apart from the average musician. Whatever that quality is, it’s not something we can learn as a technical skill, and it’s different for each such performer. (It could be called “charisma”, but there‘s more to it than that.)

Being musically knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make one a good musician. In fact, it avails us little unless we use our knowledge in ways that transcend dry technical skills and data; these must be balanced with the ability to make the music speak. Music that is nothing but one note following another is OK for muzak*, but not for performance.

Although it may not be possible to define exactly what makes certain performers charismatic, there are some definable skills and traits. These have to be in place for both technical skill and undefinable qualities to really shine:

  1. They have total passion and drive. (It’s not very common to find a professional musician who never worked very hard at it and had more important things, like doing the laundry, taking precedence in their life.) Having the passion means being driven to learn and practice music as the primary focus of one’s life; they can’t not do it.
  1. They never let themselves say, “That’s good enough.” They are always improving their skills, always stretching what’s possible, even when they are already at the top of their field.
  1. They strive for a balance between sounding perfect and sounding real.

What does this mean? Notice I said “sounding perfect”, not “playing perfectly”.  Sounding perfect, or close to it, isn’t a matter of actually playing perfectly, though on very rare occasions some musicians do. But no one can play perfectly 100% of the time, and the rest of the time, little imperfections are skillfully hidden. This isn’t cheating  –  it’s necessary.

Among other skills, how we handle  –  even use  –  imperfection determines our ability to perform well. Learning happens as a result of imperfection; imperfections are touchstones to correct our path. It’s like autopilot on an aircraft  –  a function that continually corrects the path of the plane to keep it going in the right direction.

Striving to always play perfectly is a good policy, as long as you’re realistic and accept that it’s an imaginary goal. If we aim for something bigger than life, we are more likely to attain more in reality than we would if we aim for a lower goal. But that means we have to keep our heads on straight and not get discouraged that reality is always what we get. I’m not saying don’t aim for the best possible goal; I’m saying aim beyond that, and you will achieve real skill.

As for the other part of the equation  –  sounding real  –  what does that mean? IMHO, sounding real is being genuine, both in stage demeanor and in musical expression.  Being genuine in musical expression means letting the music sing its own song without forcing anything into it. Being genuine in stage demeanor means not acting differently on stage than you would off stage (unless of course you have a tendency to say or do socially unacceptable things off stage, or your conversational grammar is less than stellar). Talking to an audience can be done with a feeling of intimacy if you simply speak as you would to friends, no matter how large your audience is. Being an announcer or a declarer isn’t necessary.

  1. They are usually not condescending in their personal interactions. I’ve known a few who were, but invariably these were not the folks at the top. They were on their way up, and those who kept that attitude never got all the way to where they wanted to be. There is probably a correlation there.
  1. They are good business people. I know many excellent musicians who’ve never had much success because they hate doing the necessary business work that backs up a career. Being exclusively right-brained does you no favors. Your art alone will not carry you. Even though a good musician may deserve to succeed on their musical merits alone, anyone who has lived long enough knows that life doesn’t usually just hand you what you deserve. You have to work for it in all the ways that our society requires, and for musicians, half of the work is taking care of business.

What does that mean? It means developing a website, having an online presence in social media, recording your music and making it available to the public and to promoters, locating performance venues, sending promo packets, making phone calls, applying to music convention showcases, showing up on time for every gig and every rehearsal, being 100% reliable, and so on. At the very least, for a local part-time career, it means business cards, demo CDs, and brochures distributed where people come in contact with them.

There are a very few good musicians who are in demand even though they have done little or none of the above; these are usually back-up musicians who enhance the performances of front-people. They become well known among their peers by being present at as many jams and sessions as they can, and developing a reputation for being really, really good. It takes exceptional skill to be someone who makes it on informal personal contact alone.

  1. They let the music say what cannot be said in spoken word.
  1. They have multi-faceted musical presentations encompassing many moods, rhythms, and tempos.
  1. They’re willing to do the hard work of focused, honest practice.

9.  They share (“Music is wonderful”) rather than show off (“I am wonderful”)

None of this means that if you don’t choose to make music the prime focus of your life and develop these skills, that there’s anything wrong with doing music the way you choose.  Music is your birthright, and you can do it any way that feels good to you. But if you decide to take it as far as you can, hopefully this information will be helpful in that quest.

*(Muzak was a company name that became a generic term for “elevator music”. Essentially what the company did was compress, to an extreme, the dynamic/frequency range of instrumental recordings of popular tunes, rendering them annoyingly inexpressive, and market them to be played over public address systems in stores, restaurants, and yes, elevators. This music was assumed by most people to be provided as a courtesy for the purpose of pleasant ambience, but in fact it was  –  and still is  –  used where loitering is discouraged; it works on a subliminal level in such places as restaurants where faster patron turnover increases profits, and in parking lots where store owners don’t want people hanging out.)

How often have you watched someone play an instrument you play, and wondered how they are doing something that’s beyond your present ability? It’s to be expected that beginners and intermediate players will have this experience, but it happens to advanced players and professionals as well!

That’s because almost no one masters all the skills that are possible on any given instrument. Advanced skills often develop selectively, rather than in a broad-spectrum way. When we listen to an advanced or professional player, we get the impression that since the skills we are hearing are obviously in place, so must be all the rest. But if you asked any musician to do well every skill he or she “should” have for his instrument at his or her level, many would prove to have only the skills you’ve already heard.

Some folks automatically assume that whatever skills an advanced musician does not have aren’t necessary. After all, we might think, they haven’t needed them thus far. But the truth is that we just find niches where we don’t have to use the skills we don’t have. (One obvious example is sight-reading vs. ear-learning; those who sight read often believe they have no reason to need ear-learning skills and vice versa, but in fact each of those skills is only half of a full glass.) There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve met very few. It’s only fair to acknowledge that this kind of limitation is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes so much work, time, and effort to become good at the skills we do have that our ability to perform well would be compromised if we also had to work at perfecting the whole range of advanced skills we “should” have.

However, for those at beginner and intermediate levels, such limitations are, well… limiting. Not learning and practicing well everything that should be in your skill set will negatively affect your musical development.

Before you think I’m letting advanced players off the hook, I’ll explain that few would ever get to advanced levels if they had allowed themselves limitations at their previous levels. You can tell who has been lazy and who has not; those with “selective skills” from early on have a very limited style of playing – all their music sounds pretty much the same.

So, being honest with yourself, how do you assess where your skills are? Some of us are acutely aware of our shortcomings. But aside from what we’re aware of, if you missed something along the way, how would you know? After all, you, uh, missed it.

Therefore, use your learning opportunities. I notice that after a certain level is reached (in the estimation of the player), they tend to stop going to classes, workshops, and lessons. But every musician can benefit from further education. Getting a fresh point of view is tremendously helpful at any level. Besides studying at your own general skill level, also take advantage of how much help it can be to study at a level that is lower than you perceive your skills to be. Letting someone take you back to a more basic level and show you what you missed is a really good idea. It’s likely that some of the information will be new or at least remedial.

In such cases, it’s considerate to refrain from trying to show the class or the teacher that you’re a better player than everyone else. Doing so intimidates the other students, and puts the teacher in a compromised position; usually they’ll assume they need to teach to your level to keep you interested and challenged. Teaching to disparate levels in a group is not beneficial to anyone. You can keep your skill level to yourself and just be a really good student. Don’t be insulted when you’re treated like everyone else.

The opposite also applies; you can sign up for a workshop or class that is beyond your skill level, and if nothing else, you can get a great deal of inspiration from it. If you remind yourself not to become discouraged, such an experience can propel you forward by light years. (It’s a good idea to inform the teacher that your skills are not up to the class standard, and tell them not to hold the class back just for you.)

After a workshop or class you might remember only a few, or maybe even just one, thing that was presented there. If that happens, it may seem like you’ve wasted money and time, but in actuality that one thing or few things do make it worthwhile. It takes time to master even one new skill. If you don’t consciously remember everything you hear in a workshop or class, rest assured that it’s in your brain somewhere, and next time you hear it you’ll be closer to being able to remember and use it. The brain works behind the scenes when we’re not aware that it’s doing so. It’s amazing how much we learn without knowing we have.

Although it may be nearly impossible to master every skill that your instrument is capable of expressing, it can’t hurt to keep learning no matter how good you get. There is no “there” to get to   – it’s an endless road, and that’s one reason playing music is so satisfying.

 

 

Posted by: laurie689 | June 3, 2014

So You Think You Can’t Memorize?

Consider what would happen in a dramatic theatre production if all the actors read their lines from a script, instead of memorizing them. It wouldn’t make much of a play. Learning their lines allows them to express and emote, to live the play. Likewise, memorizing your music allows you to live the music.

Memorization seems daunting to those who assume that memorizing is a talent some people have and others don’t. But in fact it’s a skill that can and should be learned like any other skill: through instruction and practice. It should be taught to every music student, because it’s an essential part of musicianship.

Memorizing is actually easy and natural. People do it naturally with everything else – like tying your shoes or remembering your birthday – so why approach it in music as though it were so difficult? If it is hard for you, it’s only because you haven’t been shown an effective way. Before you say, “But I’m different – I just can’t do it; I can only play by reading music from paper,” consider that paper-training is not ear training. In other words, if you’ve not been taught how to memorize, how can you expect to do it as easily as someone who has?

Before there was musical notation, everything was either memorized or improvised. The bards of Europe and the Griots of Africa could memorize songs and poems that were up to several hours long, word for word and/or note for note. The human brain is capable of great feats of memory. But what we don’t practice and experience, we don’t realize can be valuable. And if we don’t use it we don’t know it’s there.

Obviously, orchestral players, those who play in restaurants, and those who do studio work need a repertoire so vast that referring to notation and/or charts is necessary. But for solo or small-ensemble concerts, folk bands, therapeutic music, sessions, jams and social music-making, dependence on notation is a hindrance.

Do you carry your repertoire in a tote bag? Can you truly say that you know the music you play? For every gig, carrying around a bag of music books, setting up the music stand, finding the pieces you plan to play or sing, referring to the notation every few seconds, turning pages, and so on, is a bit like building a house that has to be reconstructed each time you come home. Why not just build it permanently?

When playing in group situations, constantly reading notation prevents you from listening and analyzing what you hear (not what you see – music is sound, not paper), and also prevents you from fully participating in the incredible fun and elation that come from having your focus on the blend of the group and adding to it rather than just “playing a part”. It’s not just a mental/intellectual exercise – it’s visceral and emotional. The real fun of playing the music isn’t just to get all the “right” notes in, it’s the musical conversation with other musicians, and the conversation that occurs between you and your instrument. (Traditional and folk music, by the way, are all about absorbing, integrating, and feeling the music, and that is BY NO MEANS inferior to playing specified arrangements.)

When repertoire is memorized, not only do you have it forever, but it is easily accessed, and you are much more free to put all your creative energy into your playing. With no third party (notation) between you and your instrument, your attention can be more focused.

When someone tells me they can’t memorize, I ask them how they are trying to go about it. Most often, they say they look at the page and try to remember what’s on it. No wonder there’s a problem! Memorizing music does not mean “seeing the page in your head”. That’s not the music; it’s just paper! If you memorize the way the notes look on a page, you still have to “read” them in your head to play them, so the actual notation may as well be used.

Nor is it practical to try to memorize a piece by reading it through in its entirety and expecting to remember it. Memorizing is more easily done a bit at a time. You wouldn’t take a meal on a plate, dump it down your throat in one enormous lump, and hope to digest it.

To memorize from notation:

  1. Make a point of noticing the time signature and rhythm, and count the first phrase aloud.
  2. Notice the key and, of course, the clefs.
  3. Now you’re ready to scan the notation, not to read it in detail but to notice the visual patterns formed by the notes of the melody and of the accompaniment.
  4. A melody is like a spoken sentence with phrases separated by commas; decide where your musical “commas” should be (not necessarily ending at bar lines!) – each section is a musical phrase.
  5. Look now at the first phrase and read it in detail.
  6. Play or hum that phrase and only that phrase. At this point, tempo is not important; playing should be very slow no matter what tempo you will eventually work up to.)
  7. Close your eyes and play or hum it again. If you didn’t remember it, read it again and repeat.
  8. When you can remember and play that phrase easily, go on to the next one. Don’t do the whole tune yet, just a few phrases.
  9. Observe your hand placements and fingerings on the instrument and remember those visual patterns as well. Listen to and remember the music’s patterns and “shapes”.
  10. Play the phrases you’ve done enough times for muscle memory to begin to take effect, so you can do it without thinking.
  11. When you go on to learn more phrases, don’t play the ones you already know before each playing of the ones you’re learning. You need to play all the phrases the same approximate number of times in order to memorize them all equally.
  12. Repetition is important. It sets muscle memory as well as conscious memory. Make each phrase an exercise and play it over and over.
  13. Then put them all together.
  14. When you know all the phrases and can play the tune in its entirety without referring to a written page, play it every day for at least 21 days. Neurologically, that’s the number of days required to permanently set new information.

Some musicians prefer to memorize the last phrase first and work forward, instead of starting from the beginning. That’s fine. Whichever you do, be sure to memorize all the parts equally well.

When a piece is truly memorized, if you make a mistake you won’t have to go back to the beginning and start over; you will be able to pick it up anywhere or to simply play through the “unexpected notes”. Also, you should be able to play it at any tempo – from very slow to much too fast – equally well. (Of course, you’ll perform it in the correct tempo.)

One of the most common mistakes we musicians make is to try to make a piece we’re learning sound musical right away. This shortcuts all the precise attention to detail that is needed to give it character and accuracy. Keep the tempo slow and let it be a work in progress for as long as it takes. Don’t force it.

Everyone has the ability to memorize. The musician who can play or sing well from notation and from memory has a definite advantage, and our musical training should include both.

When you decide to learn a tune, it may be because it’s been assigned by a teacher, or because you’re in an ensemble or band that’s playing it, or because you have it in a book and it looks interesting, or because you’ve heard it and liked it. All those reasons are valid. Ideally, you’ll enjoy all the music you learn. But unless you’re very, very adept at “hearing” in your head what you see on paper (think Salieri in the movie Amadeus), how would you know whether or not you like a tune if you haven’t heard it played? On the other hand, if you weren’t impressed, how would you know if the way you’ve heard it could have been done in a way you like better?

This goes for instruments as well as tunes and pieces. I used to think French vielles were horrible, screechy things when the only person I’d heard play one was terribly inept, and I didn’t know she was. Later when I heard them played well, they became one of my favorite instruments. But let’s talk about tunes –  the ones you’ve heard which have touched you deeply enough to want to learn them so you can recreate that magic yourself.

When you hear a tune, it may or may not be on the same kind of instrument you play (or if it’s a song it may not be sung by someone with the same voice range as yours or with the accompaniment you have available). Nevertheless, if you like it  –  hopefully love it  –  there’s some special element that produces that response in you. It could be the melody, the arrangement, the tone of the instrument or voice, the player’s individual style or expression, the rhythm, mode, or any number of indefinable elements. When played, a tune is never just a tune, and what you like about it can’t be described as simply as “I like that tune”.

One of the ways to identify the elements you love is to find more than one recorded version of it. For instance, I fell in love with harpist Nicanor Zabaleta’s recording of Enrique Granados’ Orientale, but when I heard it on classical guitar by the Romero brothers it wasn’t compelling. (Just my personal feeling; they were very good, of course). What were the elements that grabbed me in Zabaleta’s recording? I can definitively say it was the tone of the harp and the resonance of the room in which it was recorded  –  probably a cathedral or other resonant place,  which was enhanced by the recording engineer’s choice of microphone placement  –   plus the delicacy with which he played it. I liked the composition of course; the movement of the left hand part, the trills in the melody, the Moorish sound of the mode used, and the use of certain accidentals. It had a mysterious quality that was missing when played more forcefully on two guitars that were recorded with the microphones closer to the instruments (the usual placement when in a recording studio).

The truth is that we don’t really stop hearing a piece in our heads the way we heard it originally  –  even if our own playing or singing doesn’t resemble that.  The music in our head actually disguises our own awareness of what is really coming out of our fingers or our voices. We often blithely play or sing a piece without ever realizing that it sounds nothing like what’s in our head. (Hence the phenomenon I call “Karaoke syndrome”.) You aren’t the other musician, and though you can put some of their mojo in it if you’ve identified what that is, you also have to add your own magic. So how does one do that?

Every individual has a personality that comes through in their music if the skills are there to support it.Without adequate skills, the effort of just playing the right notes will override most of the expression that could be there. I’m not saying you have to be an advanced player to be expressive. You just have to play well at your skill level. If you’re a beginner, allow yourself to be one, and be the best beginner you can be by practicing as much as you possibly can. If you’re an intermediate player, the same applies.  If you’re advanced, be sure you’re not glossing over unclear notes, ignoring proper and consistent tempos, or otherwise doing what I call “pretending to play better than you actually are”. (The least effective way to gain skill is to push. The most effective way is to focus. Pushing only makes messes. It takes patience to advance to a higher level, so do it with focus, integrity and purpose, and let it take time.)

I once saw a quote by Henry Van Dyke that says: “Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be a silent place if no bird sang except the best.” So… do play your music with joy, and also know that focused, purposeful practice will increase that joy. The ideas presented below are meant to be incorporated into your practice; in other words, merely reading about them won’t help your playing become more expressive; but if you actually practice them in the same way as any other technical skill, your music can be truly expressive.

In really good music there is much more going on than just the notes and the rhythm; the musician creates an image through music, letting it tell a story that affects the emotions of the listener. This is musical expression. Expression isn’t a measurable thing; it can’t be defined in numbers or captured in one definition. Yet it is the crowning glory of good performance. How to play expressively isn’t often taught, because it’s so elusive and personal, yet we’re expected to learn how to do it.

Endorphins, Resonance, and Intention:

We respond physically as well as emotionally to specific resonances, tones, pitches, and harmonies. Different people respond differently, but there are certain things that are fairly universal  –   for instance, low tones at soft amplitudes are usually relaxing while high pitches and/or loud volumes are enervating; slow pieces in minor keys tend to be moody, and faster pieces in major keys are usually considered happier.

Intention, which has been studied using controlled scientific research methods, is the purposeful directing of your will. If you consciously intend that your music will portray a specific mood, evoke a special feeling or have a certain effect, that intention goes a long way toward making it so. Intention is not a substitute for skill. It is a discipline used in addition to skill. 

Tone Manipulation:

Tone quality is dependent on how you play and how your instrument is made. Within the capabilities of your specific instrument, aspects of tone that you can control when playing are: volume, clarity, sustain, and certain string sounds. These elements are dependent upon the following:

  • How you hold the instrument: If you’re not comfortable, you can’t play well. Learn good ergonomics for your particular instrument so you can relax and play with ease.
  • How you pluck: Experiment with volume and tone by trying a variety of plucking techniques. 

Dynamics:

We’ve all occasionally heard speakers who recite monotonously (mono = one; tone = sound). It’s annoying; after all, we don’t speak that way in conversation. Likewise, we certainly don’t want to play our music that way. Yet too often we hear musicians playing in a monotonous way; in other words, with no dynamics. Remember, music is a language. Use the interplay of loud and soft, crescendo and decrescendo, as you would when speaking expressively.

There is a common tendency to play faster when playing louder, and slower when playing softer. This can negate the intended effects of dynamics. Practice with a metronome to keep your beat steady as you purposely change volume.

Don’t be afraid to use the entire dynamic range of your instrument, from the merest whisper to the loudest note you can possibly play. Only by experimenting with the full potential of your instrument will you know what it is capable of. 

Melding Technique and Expression:

Accuracy without expression is just organized sound, and expression without accuracy is just disorganized sound. Notes are just notes, and feeling is just feeling; neither by itself is sufficient. But when you put the two together, you get music. A musician must be both a technician and an artist.

Those who have an easier time learning technical skills and thinking logically may be said to be “left-brained”. Those who relate better to the less technical aspects of playing, such as expression, may be said to be “right-brained”. I find students to be about equally divided into these two groups. Often, left-brained people find it challenging to play expressively, and right-brained people would rather not bother with technique.

An exclusive inclination toward one or the other can limit one’s chances of becoming a good musician. As a teacher, it’s my job to see that every student learns in the way that works best for them, and then to also give special attention to the aspects of playing they would ignore if they didn’t have a teacher who cared about their musical future. We must purposely develop the side of the brain that is less dominant. In this way, one can become “cerebrally ambidextrous”  –  equally capable of using technical skills and expressive skills to create a complete package of excellent musicianship.

Tempo, Beat and Rhythm:

Three basic elements in music are tempo, beat and rhythm. These are intimately related. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece of music is played; beat is the pulse of the piece, and rhythm is how the lengths of notes create patterns within the beat. In most music those factors must be easily discerned in order for it to be appreciated on any level, conscious or subconscious.

I’ve occasionally heard someone say they don’t want to play with a steady tempo because they think it will make the music sound metronomish or unexpressive. They don’t clearly understand what tempo and rhythm are for, how to hear and feel them, and how to be expressive within the parameters of these very essential elements.

If you feel rhythmically challenged, take classes in ballroom dancing, bellydancing, jazz dancing, or drumming. Take them seriously and consistently. When you have been taught how to feel a beat and a rhythm, and you have moved your whole body to it, you will have created new neural pathways that will re-wire your brain rhythmically. It will make a huge difference in your ability to hear, integrate and play all your music well.

Expressive Imagery:

Instrumental music is storytelling without words. A piece of music can evoke visual images for the player and for the listener, which are often suggested by its title. Holding an image in your mind will automatically affect how you play the piece, and even though your listeners may not “see” the same image you do, it’s likely they will hear more in your music than if you have no image in your mind.

Conscious Breathing:

What we do with our breath, both knowingly and unknowingly, expresses our state of mind. Therefore, the breath affects, is affected by, and communicates how we feel about the music we play. Additionally, our brains and muscles need a constant supply of oxygen in order to function adequately, and unconsciously holding the breath actually deprives us of it.

Many musicians gasp, pant, or hold their breath while playing; that is unconscious breathing. I heard a famous fiddle player who used a clip-on microphone on his fiddle, which picked up his gasping breath as loudly as it did his fiddling. It distracted from his music. But you don’t have to be amplified to have unnatural breathing affect both your playing and the enjoyment level of your audience. Even if your breathing is quiet, if it isn’t natural it will effect your playing.

When you breathe fully and consciously, you will find that your music “breathes” with you, and this creates expression in the music. Musicians benefit from actually practicing conscious breathing into each piece we play. That means we must practice being aware of the breath as we play, keeping it even, deep and regular. Eventually this will become habitual.

Also, whenever you’re concerned about accuracy, or when a difficult passage is coming up, concentrate on your breath. The extra oxygen will help, as will the distraction, allowing your hands to do what they know how to do without added stress.

To reiterate: identify what elements you specifically like in the music you hear. Decide which ones you can personally recreate, and then add your own touches. Pay attention to skill and to the suggestions above. Your music will grow in the special ways, both definable and ineffable, that make it compelling.

Posted by: laurie689 | February 21, 2014

Part 2 – Traveling with your Instrument

 

In Part 1, I wrote about air travel with your instrument. But of course we must take equally good care of our instruments when we travel by car, bus or train, when camping, or when shipping an instrument to your destination.

By Car

It doesn’t matter where you live or even what time of year it is; even in winter if the sun is out it can get hot in a parked car. And everyone knows that parked cars get hot in the summer, but do you know that happens even if the sun isn’t out (same reason we can get sunburned on a cloudy day).

On the other hand, in cold weather it could get very cold in a car, and that’s not the best thing for an instrument either.

It’s always a good idea to refrain from leaving an instrument in a parked car at all. But if you must do so, in summer be sure to leave a window open at least an inch. That, of course, can invite theft, so balancing the possibility of losing your instrument to damage vs. losing it to a thief is the consideration here.

In any season, have the instrument in a well-padded case so it’s less affected by ambient temperature. Remember that no matter how well padded the case is, eventually the temperature will get to it, so limit the amount of time it is left in a parked vehicle.

When packing a car for a trip, don’t put anything on top of your instrument except whatever you might use to disguise its presence, like crumpled blankets or a stack of newspapers. If you have a trunk, that’s a better spot to keep it out of sight of prying eyes. It’s best to put it in the trunk before you leave home rather than when you park at your destination, because transferring it from the passenger area of the car into the trunk in a public place invites unwanted notice from anyone lurking. Also notice that I mentioned “crumpled blankets”  –  if you neatly place a blanket over your instrument, it makes a fairly obvious statement that you are hiding something underneath. But items that look carelessly strewn disguise it better.

Thefts can happen quickly and in unlikely locations, even when your car is locked, so don’t ever assume it’s totally safe even if it’s well disguised. Of course if you have your instrument in an aluminum or hard wooden case, you can stack other luggage and such on top of it, but luggage itself is a magnet for thieves.

Protect the instrument from bumping around in the car when you’re driving. A foam pad under it can preserve its life-span. If it’s inside the car with you rather than in the trunk, use a seatbelt to strap it in; otherwise during even a small accident it can become a projectile.

The best policy is to treat your musical instrument as you would a pet or a child, for its safety and yours.

By Bus

Here’s some info from Greyhound: Be sure that all items have a Greyhound Baggage Tag with the passenger’s name and destination clearly printed. One piece of baggage will be free for each adult and child. One additional piece of baggage can be accepted for a charge of $15.00 for adults only. One small bag, up to 25 pounds, plus one personal item (purse, handbag, etc.) can be taken aboard for each adult or child. Carry-on bags must fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Baggage must not exceed 158 centimeters (62 inches) when adding the total exterior dimensions of the (length + height + width). Any Bags exceeding the 158 cm. (62 inch) limit will be assessed oversized baggage charges. The “no charge” allowance for baggage is restricted to 23 kilograms (50 pounds) per bag. Baggage exceeding fifty (50) pounds per bag will be subject to overweight baggage charges. Baggage over 32 kilograms (70 pounds) per bag will not be accepted. Acceptable baggage includes suitcases, duffel bags, toolboxes, trunks, backpacks and securely tied cardboard boxes.

Geryhound’s website says NOTHING about musical instruments. They make allowances for medical equipment, skis, golf equipment….  but musicians are not considered, apparently.

By Train

Here are Amtrak’s regulations for musical instruments: Carry-on 50 lbs., 28″ x 22″ x 14″. Instruments that do not fit in luggage racks will be considered oversize. Checked 50 lbs./100 Linear Inches. Some medium-sized instruments may be transported free of charge in lieu of a piece of baggage. A $10.00 service fee will apply. Oversize instruments may only be carried onboard with the purchase of an additional full revenue seat – no larger than 72”/1829 mm in height.

Camping

Tent camping and backpacking: There are instruments made especially for taking with you into the back country. The McNally Strum Stick and the Martin Backpacker Guitar are good examples. Jere Canote makes lovely mini 5-string banjos that are very playable  –  some are made with flat wooden bodies and others with 9” traditional rims and fiberskin heads.

There are very small harps as well, made by several different companies, but be sure to play the harp before you buy, because some are not playable at all. IMHO your best bet for a camping harp is a 19×2 double-strung harp if it’s well made, because you get 38 strings to play on a very small harp, and the spacing is normal! (If you’re wondering how this is possible, email me.)

If you’re camping in a tent, it can absorb damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun (which can crack an instrument), even on cloudy days and even if it doesn’t feel hot inside the tent. It’s best to pitch your tent in a safe, shady spot so your instruments will be happy. (But check overhead for dead branches that can fall on your tent  –  no kidding.)

RV camping: An RV may as well be home, when you’re parked and if you’re plugged into electricity and/or have heat or air conditioning. But if you’re boondocking, you should take the same precautions you would with a parked car.  When moving, protect the instrument as you would in any moving vehicle. And do keep your doors locked when you’re away from the RV.

If you have a canopy or tarp outside your RV, it can absorb ultraviolet rays just as a nylon tent can, and anything underneath it can be affected. I was once helping at an outdoor show where the vendor used the ubiquitous easy-to-erect type nylon canopy. It was a hot summer day, slightly overcast, but shady under the canopy. However, several instruments in cases were ruined that day because the canopy didn’t filter out ultraviolet radiation, and since they were in cases there was no air circulation to cool them. So be careful if you leave an instrument under a canopy! Even if I have a canopy I always camp in complete shade under trees whenever possible.

Insurance

Whether you travel or not, having your instruments insured is wise. If you have a good homeowner’s insurance policy that covers your belongings wherever you are, be sure to photograph all your instruments and keep the photos in a safe place, in case you have to prove you owned them. Anderson Group (https://www.anderson-group.com) also insures instruments and their rates are reasonable.

Shipping to your destination:

I’ve written about shipping in a previous post, but it’s worth a mention that you can ship your instrument to yourself wherever you’re going. Check on the cost of shipping vs. airline or extra baggage by bus or train.  You’ll need the flight case or heavy box anyway, and chances are insurance is better that way.  If they can guarantee it will arrive before or when you do, this can be a great option.

Posted by: laurie689 | February 3, 2014

Traveling with Your Instrument – Part 1

There comes a time when almost every musician  must decide how to handle traveling with an instrument. Whether it’s a road trip, a music camp, a backpacking trip, a weekend at the beach house, or a performance tour, there are considerations for your instrument’s safety and the logistics of transport. Let’s look at various scenarios:

Flying:

Airlines are notorious for changing their regulations and pricing regularly. There has never been a reliable way to advise musicians about air travel with an instrument because by the time you get to the airport, the FAA will probably have changed the rules again. I once took a small harp to a conference, stowing it in the on-board coat closet for the outward bound flight; by the time I went home three days later, the regulations had changed and instruments were not allowed in the cabin at all  –  and this was years before 9/11. (I was forced to check my harp, which was in a soft case, as baggage. The predictable thing happened: it got smashed. It took two years to get the airline to pay up, but persistence brought results.)

The last I heard, the FAA said you may now check an instrument at no extra baggage charge, or bring it on board if it fits in an overhead, or buy a seat for it. At times in the past, none of these options were available, so if  the flight personnel make good on one of these options you’re in luck.

Whatever the current regulations, the big challenge is to get the personnel to actually make good on the them. They are as confused as we are, what with all the changing that goes on. You can call ahead for information, but the info you’re given will not necessarily be applied once you’re actually at the airport. Therefore, before you go, it’s a good idea to access the FAA regulations on musical instruments and print a copy to bring with you.

If your instrument is small enough for the overhead (go with the smallest dimension for the shortest flight of your trip), you’ll have it easy. If they try to charge you for the extra carry-on, you can cite the regulation that says they may not do so for musical instruments. But it would be safer for it to be your ONLY carry-on. Be sure your instrument is in a very protective case, because you can;t prevent other passengers from putting things on top of it or jamming their own stuff against it.

If you have bought a seat for a large instrument (this is by far the safest option), you can’t use a flight case, but a soft case will do anyway. If it’s very large, you can ask for a seat-belt extension to strap it in. They keep extensions handy for large people.

If you must check your instrument, I highly recommend it be checked as oversize baggage even if it’s not oversize. The reason is that regular baggage goes on conveyors, gets stacked on carts, and gets handled roughly. Oversize baggage is hand-carried and is treated much more carefully.

Be sure to use a good flight case. Aluminum ones are available, as are hard-foam ones, and some folks have made wooden or fiberglass ones. I have owned several hard foam cases by Colorado Case Company, and find them quite satisfactory. Hard foam cases are covered with nylon and they zip closed. They are lightweight, which really keeps the price down at airline check-in.

Your instrument in its soft case should fit inside the hard case. You can pack clothing in there as well, so you won’t need a suitcase if you’re a conservative packer. Naturally, don’t pack any liquids in the case with your instrument.

If you must pack your instrument in a cardboard box, be prepared to have it opened for inspection. Bring lots of packing tape to reclose it. When it’s in a box, be sure to use plenty of bubble wrap, not packing peanuts!

Procedure: Take the instrument in its case with you to the ticket counter and tell them it must go as oversize baggage. Be SURE they do NOT put it on a conveyor. No oversize baggage should EVER go on a conveyor. The correct procedure is for them to summon a skycap with a cart to come and get it at the ticket counter and wheel it by hand to the plane. Therefore, you must stay and watch them do that so they won’t bypass regulations. If you see them trying to do it differently, be forthright and outspoken, and insist that they do it correctly.

When you are getting close to your destination, before the plane begins to descend and before pilot tells the crew to take a seat for landing, hail a flight attendant and tell him or her to call ahead to see that your oversize baggage is hand-carried off the plane. Otherwise they might not read the tag and it will go on the conveyor. (I’ve had that happen. Imagine my shock when, while watching for my regular luggage on the carousel, along comes my instrument!) You should have to go to a special oversize retrieval area to have it handed directly to you in person.

Be prepared to pay for oversize baggage. Also be prepared for the personnel to arbitrarily make up some price that may not be what you were told on the phone, because they really have no idea what they are supposed to charge, and I think their computer access to such information is probably confusing. If you can find the oversize price formula online in advance, print it out and bring it with you!

On a trip to Ireland, I flew American Airlines to Boston and hooked up with Aer Lingus there. For the first flight on American (which was partnered with Aer Lingus) I asked at the check-in counter about the oversize price for the full trip, and was quoted $500 one way. That would have taken care of my tour income right there. So I said, “I’ll just pay for this flight and then pay Aer Lingus when I get to Boston.” I paid the $100 or so for the domestic flight. When I got to Boston I went to the Aer Lingus counter and asked their price. They said “No charge for instruments.” Woo Hoo! So if something seems ridiculous, it probably is, and you should take issue with it.

Whatever your instrument is packed in, affix a very large red and white label on each side that says “MUSICAL INSTRUMENT  – FRAGILE  – HAND LOAD ONLY”.  Take photos of your case with the label on it and keep them with you.

The info presented here is meant as suggestion and opinion. I am not liable for your experience. However, if your flight case is a good one and you check it as oversize and pay the fee, and keep a close eye on things, 99% of the time everything will be fine.

Next time: car, bus, and train travel

 

 

Posted by: laurie689 | January 4, 2014

Upcoming Retreats and Workshops

Please click on the UPCOMING WORKSHOPS button (at the top of this page) for a list of workshops and retreats I’m offering in Washington State and Arizona in 2014.

Posted by: laurie689 | January 3, 2014

Rhythm Challenges, Part 3: Wandering Tempos

Although this post may seem quite basic, there are musicians at every level of skill  – even some professionals  –  who really need this information. Wandering tempos are a real problem for many. We may or may not be aware when we’re wandering, we may think we can’t do anything about it, or we may think it doesn’t matter. But it does. Not keeping a steady tempo or rhythm is a concern because it becomes everyone else’s problem; your listeners will be annoyed, and those who play with you will be challenged. It’s unfair to put people through that.

There are so many musicians who could be really good if only they would learn the skill of keeping a consistent beat. I ask you to read on, even though I’m about to mention the dreaded word: metronome. When someone mentions metronomes, many musicians cringe. “Mine speeds up and slows down,” is a common comment. (Of course, it’s really the player doing that.) Rather than wondering if you’re one of those players, get a metronome and put some focus on this skill. You can’t know what you’re missing if you’re missing it!

If you already have a good sense of rhythm, playing in time with a metronome will be no sweat. If your rhythm/beat/tempo sense is not developed, you’ll find the process challenging, and that’s your indication that you need work. Important work. It will be well worth the effort, and you’ll thank yourself a million times in the future. Learning to play with a metronome can feel annoying at first, but keeping time with it will come if you’re patient, and it will become one of the best tools you have for enhancing your music.

Three basic rules for metronome use:

  1. the best metronomes are those that click, not beep. If it beeps you can have a hard time hearing it over your own music.
  2. if you have a mechanical (rather than an electronic) one, be sure to set it on a level surface or it will sound more like “lub-dub” than an even beat, and won’t be at all helpful.
  3. when you first use a metronome, be sure to set it on a constant beat rather than a rhythm or time signature setting where certain beats are accented.

What’s the difference between a beat, a tempo and a rhythm? (I’ve written about this in the past, but it’s worth repeating.) The beat is the count, as in an even “one-two-three-four” (unaccented 4/4 time). The rhythm is which beats are accentuated, and whether it’s syncopated, and so on.  Such as the typical “one-two-THREE-four” of rock music, or “one-TWO-three-FOUR” of a Scottish Strathspey. With some rhythms you play only certain beats while other beats are silent, i.e : “one (and two) and three (and four)”). Tempo is how fast or slow a beat or a rhythm is. Being able to keep a steady beat, a consistent tempo, and recognizable a rhythm are skills that go hand in hand.

By the way, contrary to popular opinion, a metronome won’t make your music sound stilted. That only happens if you don’t count properly, or if you put no feeling into your music  –  either of which can be done without a metronome just as easily. Once you get accustomed to keeping a steady beat and consistent tempo, you’ll find it actually enhances the possibility of musical expression. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking expression comes from making the tempo fluid; although that occasionally is an effective option, “occasional” is an important concept here!)

Many musicians who learn from music notation, if they’ve never listened to the piece on a recording or live by an expressive player, never develop the ability to play the piece musically or expressively.  Have a version of each tune you learn in your head (be able to hum it and “hear” the arrangement) before you become drawn into just playing the rote notes. Keep in mind that in many notated pieces, and subtle nuances of timing are expected to be added by the player.

To use a metronome well, start by setting it to a very slow tempo, and learn to play your piece at that speed. When you master it, bring up the tempo a few bpm’s (beats per minute). Be sure to really master the piece at each new tempo before making it faster. Eventually you’ll get it up to the tempo you’re aiming for. This exercise will feel awfully elementary to advanced musicians, but I assure you it is immensely valuable.

Our aim is to play well, right? Playing well is so much more important than playing fast, or even playing “up to tempo”. Playing fast isn’t an indication of good musicianship.  A good musician who plays fast also plays accurately. No music is fun to hear when it’s sloppy. Always playing up to tempo is not the best way to learn a piece well. Given the choice between having your listeners able to appreciate every note, or having them wonder what you meant to play, which would you rather do?

Once you know a tune well, also beware of habitually playing it faster than it was composed to be. One of the most common phrases in your vocabulary should be “Slow down!” You’ll find, when you play a bit slower, that you actually know the tune better than you think, and can play it more accurately.  In fact, “too fast” is any tempo at which you can’t play with total accuracy and finesse, no matter what the intended tempo may be.

A little focus and a little patience will go a long way and make you a better musician. It will also make your listeners and music partners much happier!

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