Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rockwood Park Oldtime Jam

Just got back from the Rockwood Nature Center old time jam, held the 4th Wednesday of the month.  This was my first time attending.  I was feeling pretty good going in, having played well on Saturday at the Station Cafe, but never could really get in sync or let loose and feel comfortable.  I was tense and always felt like my timing was off - like I was always on the verge of getting ahead of or behind the group.  It's funny but I don't have this problem when playing along with recordings. So I wouldn't say I enjoyed it.  I hate to play when my body is tense like that because then your muscles and subliminal mind could begin to associate that feeling with holding/playing your instrument.  I'm much more relaxed when playing around the house or with a smaller group who matches my sense of timing.  I think the next time I go I'll record playing along so I can better determine what I'm actually sounding like, because it always feels like it's sucking to me.

Some of the tunes I played that sounded OK were Girl I Left Behind Me, Barlow Knife, Golden Slippers, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Over the Waterfall, John Ryan's Polka, Soldier's Joy, Arkansas Traveler, Kitchen Girl (kind of), Liberty (kind of), Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (sort of), Sandy Boys (sort of), Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, Mississippi Sawyer, Old Joe Clark, Hop High Ladies (almost), Forked Deer (chords only). Granted, for the majority of these I had to use the tablature.  I'm still a long, long, way off from playing by ear or even hearing when the chords change and/or what chord they change to.  This could be a skill that always eludes me.

I don't mind the people at these jams, and they seem to be very encouraging and complimentary, I'm just not always enjoying it for whatever reason.  I'm constantly critiquing my playing and never relaxing or just grooving.  I need to permit myself to flub or not care at all if it sounds bad.  Chances are it doesn't sound as bad as I think it does. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rhythm and Strumming

I've had an ever increasing interest in rhythm ever since I sort of happened into an every other Saturday coffee shop duo session where I trade off doing lead melodies and chord accompaniment with a mandolin player.  Having to provide the rhythm half the time has really caused me to focus on trying to improve my weaknesses in this area.  Since I had little or no experience in backup prior to this gig, I am having to learn fast.

Here are some videos on rhythm and strumming that I find helpful.

First, a video by mandolin player Don Julin showing three easy rhythms with the tune Whiskey Before Breakfast used as an example.

Next, a couple strum pattern videos by tenor banjoist Steve Caddick. (Steve's tenor banjo is tuned CGDA. If you tune your tenor banjo/mandolin GDAE then just transpose everything by a 5th. So for example a C7 chord on a CGDA tenor banjo would be a G7 chord on a GDAE banjo.)

In the 2nd Steve Caddick video he demonstrates what he calls the "Do Wack-A-Do" strum.

While I'm at it, here's a Steve Caddick video on some hand positions for tenor banjo (applicable to any 4-string "tuned in 5ths" instrument like mandolin, mandola, et cetera). Again, since I tune my banjo GDAE I know that when he refers to a G-seven-five chord that means it's a D-seven-five for me.

And in addition to those videos here are some links you may find helpful on this topic.  Such as this page with with info on basic rhythm  banjo.  (Once on this page you'll find that there are additional accompaniment pages that might be of interest.

Less applicable to chording, but worth noting, is this cool article by Mike Mulready on Irish Tenor Banjo style.  I'm primarily linking to it here so that I don't forget about it and can return to it later when I have time to look at it more in depth. I'm particularly interested in checking out his examples of Straight vs. Irish Style versions of session tunes The Silver Spear and the Irish Washerwoman.

Lastly - this link will take you to a series of videos by tenor banjo player Pat Costello.  You may have to weed through a lot of basics to get to the helpful stuff, but it's well worth it.  Pat has an easy-going, easy to grasp, method of explanation.  He's coming from a folk perspective that a lot of us amateur musicians can relate to.  He's not trying to be a Buddy Wachter, he's just showing you the fundamentals so that you can get more enjoyment out of playing your chosen instrument.  Pat Costello also seems to have lots of videos on You Tube, but I haven't had a chance to look through these yet.  Pat and his son Patrick Costello also maintain a weblog at They update it frequently...hence the name daily I guess.  Perhaps worth checking out from time to time.

Music Interviews: John McGann, Trey Anastasio, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Bill Frisell, Gillian Welch

It's funny but you can learn a lot simply by reading the right interview with a musician.  For example, earlier today I found an interview with John McGann on Mandolin Cafe.  In the interview John mentions a quote by John LaPorta: "You should hear what music looks like, and see what music sounds like."  Meaning there is importance in both being able to read standard notation and play by ear.  This really stuck with me and brought to mind the fact that I need to work on both of these aspects, but really focus on developing my ear.  John also talks about the chord/melody relationship, saying "...knowing what notes are in a chord is a first step. Knowing where the notes are on your instrument, knowing what they look like on paper, knowing the different positions where those notes occur...Hearing the relationships is the crucial component. A true improviser (as opposed to a lick-reciter) really needs this kind of information".  I also found his list of common weaknesses and problems interesting, including "Time. Almost no one has as strong a sense of rhythm and time as they think they do. Work with a metronome is great here, as is playing along with recordings."  And also "A bunch of scales and arpeggios and licks does not create a player, but someone who can play (memorized!) 100 tunes (chords and melodies) well is automatically playing scale and arpeggio material in a musical fashion."  I also want to point out this quote by McGann (on using an Octave Mandolin in jazz):  "I don't think of jazz as being instrument-specific, and try to play the attitude as much as the jazz vocabulary when I am playing in that style."  This is particularly useful to me, as I play an unusual instrument - tenor banjo - but I don't like being mired in the styles or genres typically associated with that instrument.  I see it more as my instrument of choice for playing the folk tunes I enjoy playing.  I don't think of any  music or genre as being instrument specific.  I suggest reading the full interview with John McGann.

Another example of something you can learn from an interview/article is in this recent interview with Trey Anastasio of Phish in The Believer.  Referring to the New York Philharmonic, Trey says "And when the music started playing, I had this idea that the music was coming through this little channel—for lack of a better word—for years and years. Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays—it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their goddamn hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get the hell out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds. I mean, it was the highest level of art in music that I’d ever seen, and it was performed by people who had spent countless hours of work just to be invisible."  I've read quotes like this before by Trey.  I also recently found an decade old interview with Trey from Guitar Player, where he discusses improvisation.  One notable quote from that interview is "In Phish, we’ve dropped the concept of musical style and accepted all music as a global mass of sound. We operate from two opposing philosophies: one is that you should lock yourself in a room from birth, and write music with zero influence from the outside world; the other is that you should listen to everything, to the point of being able to faithfully recreate the Beatles’ White Album, as we did before a show a while back. As odd as it sounds, we try to draw from both philosophies simultaneously."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore was recently interviewed on Fresh Air about his brilliant new album with The Wronglers called Heirloom Music.  There's a good chance that this album will end up on my best of the year list.  I love the folksy, everyman takes on stringband and bluegrass songs on the recording.  In the Fresh Air interview Jimmie Dale quotes Ezra Pound, saying "The poem fails when it strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance."  I had never heard this quote before and found it very meaningful.  A transcription of the interview as well as the audio can be found here

Just the other day I read an archived No Depression interview with Bill Frisell where he stresses the importance of being open minded when it comes to playing music.  The quote that stands out is where guitar player Frisell says " soon as I started to get more into jazz, the people that really influenced me the most were saxophone players and piano players, and later on, maybe orchestral music. It never was really guitar. I just happened to play the guitar, but then I’d listen to a string quartet or something, and I’d be hearing that sound in my head and trying to get it out on guitar somehow."  Frisell also remarks: "...the music that’s really real is something that’s been completely internalized. When you play, it’s not an intellectual thing that happens; it just sort of comes out. And it takes a long time for the stuff to sink down there. "

Finally, I also recently discovered an old Acoustic Guitar profile on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  In that article David Rawlings had some interesting things to say, such as "I can’t really play straight flat-picking. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I drone a lot, I keep stuff ringing a lot, but that’s mostly because there’s just two of us. I sort of cross-pick, and that developed because it seemed to line up with the strum that Gill does. It should sound like one calliope sort of thing."  And also by Dave, "I like to play something inside the key at the same time I play something outside, so it stays grounded. I try to play guitar like Bob Dylan plays harmonica. He picks up the wrong harp and it’s beautiful, because he’s got about three notes in there that are in the key and about five that aren’t. It’s like a big rubber band stretching."  In that same article Gillian said this about the banjo "The banjo songs tend to be more repetitive, because the rhythm is so incessant and also because I’m not really worrying about chord changes as much. It’s more modal, and I use the drone string a lot. I just play the melody and that’s it. It’s a little bit hypnotic."

In each of these interviews there are things to learn, and there are many, many more interviews that I could reference here.  But these are just examples of the ones I've noticed in the last week or so that made an impact. I try to make a mental note of anything like this, and even if it doesn't make a direct impact at least it maybe sticks with me subliminally or subtly.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Chord Notes chart for Irish Tenor Banjo

I created a chart for GDAE tuned tenor banjo (also works for mandolin) showing all(?) the chord notes between frets 5 through 12 for the most common chords in the keys of D, G, A and C, plus the relative minors.  I chose to focus on frets 5 through 12 so that I could experiment with making closed chords up the neck.  Up until now I've been making basic 1st position chords using as many open strings as possible, but by learning the notes up the neck I can maybe make chords more like a jazz tenor banjo player...helpful for strumming folk songs or when providing rhythm or backup.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ashland Midsummer Wine Festival - July 16, 2011

"We knew there would be khakis".

I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to hold a wine tasting in the middle of July on an asphalt plaza, but according to the Ashland Street Parties website there is going to be a wine festival in Ashland,VA this Saturday, July 16th from 7-11pm featuring Virginia Wineries.  The website doesn't indicate how many wineries or which ones will be there, but presumably it will be more than one because of the use of the plural: wineries. The location is behind the Ashland library at 201 S. Railroad Avenue. 

Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the entrance and are available at places in town like Cross Bros. Grocery and The Caboose Wine & Cheese shop.  I saw a flyer about the event in the Cross Bros. window earlier this week and it had more information, but unfortunately I can't find a pdf of the poster online at the time of this writing.

Even though these events take place just a few blocks from where I live, I've never attended one, although I can usually hear the music from my house and have walked by previous parties while walking the dogs.  All I can say is that these things attract an older, boomer crowd ready to "dance the night away" to generic wedding bands playing cheesy covers of oldies, surf and motown hits.  That's Ashland for you.  The band they have this time - King Edward and the BD's - looks to be no different.  Would it kill them to get a decent bluegrass or jamband some time?  Surely the average couple off the street wouldn't know the difference, and at least us music lovers would have something to enjoy.

I should write how I really feel about it!   In actuality I'm one to talk considering the crappy music I put out there.  Nonetheless this event appears to be on my calendar and unless I have a change of heart on the day of, as a Virginia Wine lover, I am going to check it out.  Maybe I'll wear some ear plugs though. But definitely not a Hawaiian shirt.  There will already be plenty of those for sure.

Walking in County Clare Ireland, Walking in France

I came across a website recently called Walking In France, which has a wealth of information on...walking in France!  The Australian couple that maintains the site and does the rambling seems to have the same type of philosophy towards backpacking and travel that my wife and I have (i.e. minimalist), so I will be returning to this website frequently for tips and ideas as I plan similar self-guided walks.  I think I recall reading on the site that the couple has walked about 6,600 kilometers and spent close to 300 nights in France while on entirely self-guided walking trips over the last 9 years.  I guess you learn a few things by trial and error when you do that!

A few of the initial pointers I gained from the Walking in France website were tips on deciding what to take (a flimsy plastic poncho instead of a Goretex jacket, for example - brilliant!), how far to walk per day, where to re-fill water, types of accommodation, and the phrase "you are not a tourist".  It has made me want to do a walk in France, and if I decide to go I'm sure I'll contact Jenny and Keith for further advice and suggestions.

Speaking of similar walks...I have mapped out a tentative plan for walking in County Clare, Ireland.  But, seeing as we are leaving in a month for a walking-friendly holiday in St. John's, Newfoundland, the Ireland trip will have to wait until 2012.  At least 4 friends are interested in going with us this time, which will make it fun but put more of an emphasis on advance preparations.

Green Road in the Burren
My tentative Ireland walking plan is to fly into the Shannon airport and arrange for the owner of a B&B in Broadford to pick us up and transport us to and from our hikes for the first 2 or 3 days.  During this time hopefully we will be able to see the villages of Killaloe and Mountshannon from walking the East Clare Way, while spending an evening or two in nearby Ennis to catch a mighty session at Brogan's Pub on a night when my favorite Clare musicians Quentin Cooper, Eoin O'Neill or Yvonne Casey are playing.  I hope we can also fit in a boat ride on Lough Derg or Doon Lake, courtesy of the B&B owners.  I like the idea of staying in one place the first 2 or 3 days to get acclimated before walking from village to village.  I love Clare and the whole Shannon area, but I have never seen the East Clare region near Lough Derg.  Tourists often overlook this portion of the County, but I am looking forward to visiting it!

After basing ourselves in Broadford for the first 3 nights, we will be dropped off in Corofin so that we can walk the entire Burren Way: Corofin to Ballyvaughan, Ballyvaughan to Doolin, and Doolin to Lahinch, backpacking with all our gear during this section.  These should be doable walks of approx. 12 to 15 miles per day.  We will probably stay in B&B's and hostels rather than camp.  We may plan for multiple nights in both Doolin and Lahinch to fully enjoy those lovely villages.  (While in Doolin maybe we'll catch a session with master tenor banjoist Kevin Griffin or fiddler James Cullinan).  Hopefully we can also work out a side trip and/or overnight on the Aran Islands.  (I have not been to the Aran Islands on my 4 previous trips to Ireland).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Virginia Wineries with Hiking Trails

Virginia has awesome hiking and many excellent wineries, so why not combine both!  Here are three wineries offering tasty wines plus fun hikes.

Mountain Cove Vineyards, located in Nelson County near the town of Lovingston, VA, has a challenging 5.5  mile hike adjacent to it called Fortune's Cove Preserve: a demanding loop that steadily reaches an elevation of 1,500 feet.  That effort is ultimately rewarded by mountain views.  Download a trail map here.

View from Fortune's Cove hike
I recommend hiking the circuit trail first and then stopping by the winery for a tasting, not the other way around!  Mountain Cove is Virginia's oldest active winery, founded in 1973.  The atmosphere in the tasting room is very laid back and rustic, and it is surrounded by beautiful scenery and places to picnic.  Mountain Cove's wines are of the high standard now expected from the Monticello region's vineyards.  My favorite varieties are the Tinto and Harvest Apple.

Just north of Mountain Cove, off of Route 29, is DelFosse Vineyards and Winery.  DelFosse offers French-style wine in a serene setting.  It's a somewhat newer winery, being founded in 2000.  DelFosse has wines ranging from $16 to $29 per bottle, perhaps allowing for a compromise between taste buds and wallet.  You may have a hard time finding a favorite though.

DelFosse Winery and Vineyards
The on-site hiking trail at DelFosse winds for about five miles and was built by Nelson County and the DelFosse Winery.  I believe more trails are planned.  There is also a historic log cabin which you can rent for a reasonable cost. Not far from Mountain Cove and DelFosse is Albemarle Cider Works, suppliers of local VA cider and fresh squeezed apple juice.

View from Devil's Backbone patio
While out that way you could also cut through the mountain and stop by Devil's Backbone Brewery, which has great beer amidst incredible Scandinavian-like vistas.  Multiple rugged hiking options are available at nearby Wintergreen.  Also - many other wineries and two other breweries are a short distance away.

Finally, In the Southern portion of Virginia (Halifax County) I have been wanting to visit Molliver Vineyards.  It is situated on 134 acres with primitive on-site camping (tent or RV) and has extensive trails and 12 different varieties of wine.  It's about a 2.5 hour drive from Ashland, so when I visit Molliver I will definitely camp there for the full experience.

Let me know if I've missed any VA winery/hiking combos!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Playing Music With Others - Demotivating?

I'm currently in an unsure state when it comes to the music I'm trying to learn to play.  I have my own approach, which so far has met my creative needs and interests, although it doesn't seem to mix  well (in my mind at least) with the normal approach that players of traditional music undertake.

It seems like I'm in a de-motivated state right now, constantly on the verge of giving it up entirely, or at the very least taking an extended break.  As weird as it sounds, I think this stems from attempting to play with others.  There are oldtime and Irish jams in the area that, presumably, I should attend, or want to attend, because it's pretty much the same type of music that I play.  However, due to whatever reasons I can't just show up and play tunes at these things and have fun like others do.  For me it's a constant chore and the anxiety and stress leading up to attending one of these jams causes me to just sit around and watch TV instead of practicing or preparing.

Because I can't play a single tune by ear (any tune I play without looking a the tab I've simply memorized; when I play it all I'm doing is going through the motions), in order to participate at one of these jams I have to have all the music in front of me.  Since the nature of sessions and jams is spontaneity, playing music that was historically passed down by ear, then I fundamentally don't fit.  And because I know I have the wrong approach I have all these self conscious things that kick-in at this realization.

However, when I just sit around the house by myself playing tunes simply for fun, without any thought of ever playing them with others or in public or as part of a jam session, I have the most enjoyment from playing music.  Of course I occasionally waver from this outlook and get my hopes up that something will fundamentally change, but then the cold hard reality kicks in keeping me awake at night.

There are two jams looming on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, but now, with only a couple days to go, being less prepared even than I was a month ago, I'm content to remove these obligations from being things I have to do.  What a relief this seems as I type this.  Perhaps without that uncomfortable feeling hanging over me I can then get back to playing what I want to play, doing it the way I want to do, and so on.  Assuming that this still sustains me.  I truly did imagine that I would some day be attending jams and stuff, but since my learning has never gone down the path of picking up tunes by  ear, it really hasn't turned out that way.

My job now is to be content with that and just get back to playing music for fun, for my own enjoyment.  This sounds kinda like a kid not knowing how to play nice with others, and that may be true, but I'm an adult and I can choose to do this however I want.  If I want to march to the beat of a different drummer then so be it.  For some reason people assume that just because you play music that it has to be a social activity, or that you are playing for an audience, or something.  That may be true if I was pursuing it as a career or a more serious hobby.  But the truth is I pretty much suck at it, I'll never make any money at it, so why bother doing anything with it except what makes me happy?  Why does it have to be more than that?  Why can't playing music just be like reading a book?

I also have other interests that I need to pursue, such as focusing on fitness - running, walking, hiking, exercise.  In fact I need to write more on these topics.  Or writing in general.  Or just something.  I feel like I've kinda put myself out there with this whole "I'm learning to play traditional music" profile and I need to reel that in somewhat.

Rather than a group music setting like a jam session, I'd be much better in a small ensemble that gets together on a regular basis and practices its material.  But even that would probably end up being too much.  Who knows?  I can back and forth over this.  This whole act of typing this article has been to combat insomnia more than anything else.  I woke up in the night with bad dreams and couldn't go back to sleep.  Then your mind starts to think of all this stuff and you can't turn it off.  So I got some of this off my chest, hopefully I can go back to sleep for a couple more hours now, and then tomorrow I can start fresh and/or hone in on the best way to continue to pursue this hobby.

This was all written sorta stream of consciousness with no editing...I may go back and revise but for now I'm publishing then trying to get some more sleep.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Grateful Dead - Jack Straw 3/24/93 + Gillian Welch & David Rawlings Albuquerque 9/27/97

No band is more American than the Good Ol' Grateful Dead. In honor of the Independence Day holiday, here's a blistering version of Jack Straw (a song w/ a 4th of July reference) from Chapel Hill, NC 3/24/93.
Also, all week long I've been listening to the brilliant new Gillian Welch album The Harrow and the Harvest via NPR's stream of it.  (Don't know how long that will be active so no link to it).  But here is a great cover of the Neil Young song Albuquerque by Gillian and Dave. I'm pretty sure it's from 9/27/97 in Hickory, NC.