Monday, June 25, 2012

Annual Daniel re-cap and Hammer No More the Fingers interview

The weekend before last I had the pleasure of attending a party where my two favorite bands played - The Hot Seats and Hammer No More the Fingers - and the majority of my closest friends were there.  I'm talking about the Annual Daniel.  This is a late 30's age dude's perspective, but for me this is bigger and more fun than any Phish show or huge Bonnaroo type festival is gonna be in this day and age - with  zero of the hassle.  Years from now we're going to look back on these parties in amazement at not just the incredible quality of the music a small number of us were lucky enough to be exposed to, but also at the the degree of bacchanalia we continued to maintain.

Hammer No More the Fingers played Friday and Saturday, June 15 and 16 and absolutely crushed it, especially on Friday the 15th when they played two sets.  On a good night - and these A.D. shows were good nights - I'd say Hammer rivals just about any other up and coming rock act.  They channel the chubacabraj, but after summoning the goat sucker they chase it down the wormhole with its tail between its legs.

The Hot Seats showed up nice and fresh on Saturday afternoon, relatively speaking, and proceeded to deliver two sets of professional level string band music of a quality they only hinted at during the previous year's Special Ed and the Shortbus style reunion show.  These guys weren't the darlings of the Shetland Folk Festival for nothing!  Not only are they great musicians and showmen, but their quick wits and cynical optimism meshes well with the personalities who patron this party.  On and off the stage, these guys are great folks to be around and I think they truly have just as much fun as anyone else!  They brought out singer Alison Self for a naughty encore number which put a fitting "ending" on the evening.

On Sunday morning, despite an all encompassing grogginess and what you might call a hangover, I was able to interview Duncan Webster and Jeff Stickley of Hammer as we took a mid-morning walk along a gravel road by the river.  A transcription of that interview has been published here.

Hammer on Fri 6/15/12. Photo by Laura Fields

Hot Seats w/ Alison  Self. 6/16/12. Photo by Vickey Goff
Every year threatens to be the last, but as long as we can corral both of these bands I think there's a good chance that there will be yet another Annual Daniel.  And, oh yeah, Daniel turned 30 this year!  (Yes, there really is a Daniel).

Irish/Celtic Week at Augusta Heritage Center, Elkins, WV

Before I was even trying to learn the music I loved visiting Ireland.  Now that I have become obsessed with playing tenor banjo, if I was to go back I would likely base myself in or around Ennis, County Clare where there's lots of opportunities to hear traditional music and perhaps even get in a tune or two at an open session.  But, with current airfares being more than twice what it cost to fly to Shannon in the mid-2000’s, there’s no chance I’m going this year. 

So, I figured why not do the next best thing and attend one of the Irish music summer schools that are offered right here in the United States?  They basically bring Ireland to you for a week.  As a relative newbie to sessions and trad music in general, the promise of a week of total immersion under the tutelage of master musicians seems invaluable. 

I chose Augusta Heritage Center's Irish/Celtic Week in Elkins, WV for a number of reasons, including:
- Proximity.  It’s only a 4 hour drive from my house in Virginia.
- Curriculum.  They offer instruction in both Irish tenor banjo and bodhrán so my wife and I can attend together.
- Setting.  It takes place on the hilly, tree-lined campus of a small liberal arts college with views of the Appalachian Mountains.
- Reputation.  Founded by Mick Moloney and modeled after the famed Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay, Ireland, Elkins Irish Week is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and is regarded as the granddaddy of all domestic Irish music schools.  Augusta also offers an old-time week with a mandolin course open to players of tenor banjo, so I’m also scouting it out for the possibility of attending the old-time week at some point in the future.
- Coordinator Dr. Daniel T. Neely.  I’m familiar with Dan through his writings and music and am confident that he will do a great job in this role.  Plus, having another gifted tenor banjo player there to learn from can’t hurt!
- Craic.  In addition to the class time, I’ll be looking forward to the after-hours sessions in the 110 year old ice house pub.

The tenor banjo instructor is Pauline Conneely, who studied under Brendan Mulkere and plays in the group Chicago Reel
Tenor Banjo instructor Pauline Coneely
Bodhrán is being taught by Máirtín de Cógáin, a storyteller, playwright, actor and musician from Cork.
Bodhrán instructor Máirtín de Cógáin

Valley view of Elkins, West Virginia. Credit: Jennifer Haney USFWS
Augusta Heritage Center’s Irish/Celtic week takes place July 22-27 in Elkins, West Virginia.  In addition to Pauline Connely and Máirtín de Cógáin, the staff consists of Patrick Ourceau (fiddle), Dennis Cahill (guitar), Cillian Vallely (uillean pipes), Ivan Goff (flute), Donna Long (piano), Marla Fibish (mandolin), Joey Abarta (whistle), and more.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Music Practice - What To Work On?

In the beginning of 2012 I vowed to immerse myself in traditional Irish and Appalachian music as it occurs in and around Richmond, VA by attending as many local jams and sessions as possible.  By doing so, not only have I gained a deeper appreciation and devotion to the music, but I think it has caused me to get over some humps and beyond the semi-beginner’s plateau that I had hit.  Furthering this immersion, later this summer I will attend Irish Week at Augusta Heritage in Elkins, WV, and hopefully make it to some old-time campout festivals like Clifftop and Rockbridge.
However, this participation in the traditional music community has also made me painfully aware of my biggest musical shortcoming – an inability, or rather unwillingness, to play by ear.  I’ve now realized that playing by ear is crucial to the complete participation and understanding of this aural form of music that has been passed along from person to person for generations. 

Beyond simply attending jams and learning by experience I’m not really sure how a person learns to play by ear – especially someone who started playing at age 32 like I did.  But I at least want to start putting forth a concentrated effort during my at home practice to focus on becoming a better ear player.  Below are some specific areas I’ve identified as needing the most improvement, and below that is a practice checklist that I hope will help me make those improvements!

Areas Most In Need of Improvement
- Ear Training.  I should be able to learn tunes by ear instead of needing to use sheet music/tab.
- Ornamentation.  Because I’ve learned mostly skeletal/tune book arrangements my versions tend to lack the essential variation and ornamentation that adds interest to a person’s playing.
- Backup/Accompaniment.  Every once in a while I’m in a “jamming” situation where I have to alternate lead and backup/harmony with another soloist.  When it’s my turn to provide this backup I have no idea what to do, how to do it well, or what chords to use unless I am reading from a chart.
- Hearing chord changes.  See above.  I’m not convinced that a melody player in Irish or even old-time music needs to be aware of the (implied) chord changes/harmony to play the tunes effectively – but such knowledge definitely can’t hurt.
 Practice Ideas
- Start each practice session with a series of exercises – scales, arpeggios, et cetera – as a warm up, always keeping in mind how these exercises apply to and function in an actual musical context.  If done right this warm up exercise can also become a meditation.
- Try figuring out simple, familiar melodies by ear, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Little Star, and Happy Birthday...eventually applying this to a fairly simple traditional tune and beyond.
- Take another look at some of the instructional videos I’ve accumulated but not utilized much (DVDs by Norman Blake, Brad Leftwich, Zan McLeod).
- Technique work:  the trebles, triplets and other ornamentation covered in Enda Scahill’s Irish Banjo Tutors would be a good place to start.
- Compare the chord changes in a play along book/recording like the Portland Collection with shifts in the melody that necessitated the chord change.  Then play through the tune and add double-stops whenever the chord is changing to bring attention to what's happening musically.  Then, try to hear chord changes on my own in a different tune just by listening and discern if the change was to the IV or the V, et cetera.
- Examine the “shapes” of tunes to look for patterns or assumptions that can be made about what a tune is doing.
- Learn double stop options for the keys/modes associated with old-time and Irish music and try and implement these as a form of harmonizing the melody.
- Improvise arpeggios over common chord changes.  Duh.
- Play a tune very slowly and focus on getting the technique exactly right.  Isolate the part of a tune causing trouble and play it over and over at a slow, controlled pace until you can do it several times in a row without messing up.
- Finish each practice with a “flow” exercise where you play/improvise a tune with a who-cares, non-critical attitude.  Fill in the blanks of the melody - should they happen - with whatever notes flow out of you at the time.

At the end of the day relax and savor your accomplishments..

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio review

My review of Across the Imaginary Divide, a new collaboration between Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio, has been posted to the Community Idea Stations website.  Here's the opening paragraph:
It’s rare to hear banjo in a straight-ahead jazz setting these days, which makes the new collaboration between banjoist Béla Fleck and jazz masters the Marcus Roberts Trio all the more interesting.  What started as an impromptu jam session at the Savannah Music Festival in 2009 has turned into an hour long album entitled Across The Imaginary Divide, released June 10 on Rounder Records.
 You can read the full review by clicking here
Béla Fleck (left) and Marcus Roberts

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Golf and Music: Applying the way I played golf to the way I play music

It's been a couple years since I've held a club, but I grew up playing and working at a rural public golf course. I always had a fairly unconventional approach to the game. For one thing, I questioned the concept of “par”. Some courses the pros play on that are par 70 during the tournament actually contain two par fives that are being called par fours that week to make them “harder”. If I was designing a golf course, I wouldn’t assign par to any of the holes. I would just let them be whatever the person playing them thought they were. For example, a 250 yard hole could either be considered an easy par four or a difficult par three. It’s the same hole either way, so why define it by assigning par?

I also never took any formal lessons. My dad always played and I started fairly young. I just went out and played by feel and didn't worry about the technicalities. Not that I was all that great, but I feel like I played in a very pure manner. I wasn't that competitive and didn't really enjoy playing in tournaments. I just liked playing for the sake of playing. I would go out and walk with an ultra-light carry bag, carrying only 6 clubs instead of the normal 14: a 3-wood, hybrid, 6-iron, 9-iron, sand wedge and putter. That’s all you really need. You just eyeball it and make whatever club you have in your hands work as best as possible for the shot required. Some of the best times I had playing were when the course was deserted after a rain storm or tournament, when you could make up your own holes by playing them backwards or to the green of another nearby hole.

What does this have to do with music? Well, a couple things. As I mentioned above, I never really took golf lessons and rarely if ever read any instructional materials. I just played without thinking about it that way. Compare that to music where I've taken lessons and purchased dozens of instructional books and tunebooks. Not that that's bad, but why can't I just play music in a non-intellectual manner completely by feel? Why does it have to be defined as a jig or waltz; hornpipe or reel? Can't you just play it the way you want it to sound?

Golf is an ancient game. It’s easy to forget that with golf carts, super-size drivers, satellite range finders, dress codes, and monstrous homes lining the fairways. Likewise, traditional music is an ancient form of music. Unlike golf, however, there's a preservationist streak running through traditional music with players using vintage instruments and mimicking the style of source musicians from generations earlier. With golf, it's always about the latest technology. I wonder if there are traditional golf subcultures out there that use vintage clubs and other equipment?

I scoff at golfers who use range finders or satellite GPS to find out how far away they are, instead of just judging it naturally. Who cares if you're off by a little bit here or there? But with music I rely on an electric tuner to tell me if I’m in tune or not. Because of this dependency I don’t know how to tune by ear. I would like to change that by adopting the more casual method of judging whether or not I'm in tune - with myself or others - by ear. This would really help at traditional Irish sessions where no one seems to use a tuner.

Golf is a very popular game with lots of amateur participation. The level that your average duffer plays at is miles away from the touring players on TV. But that doesn't stop them from playing and enjoying it. With music I think people fall short from pursuing it as a legitimate hobby because they know they can't sound like their musical heroes. So I say play music for the same reason you would be playing golf...for the sheer fun of it and don't worry too much if you can't play like Jerry, same a as a golfer who can't play like Jack doesn't let that stop him.

I always preferred playing to practice. That applies to music too. But one thing I did with golf was to invent little games to make practice more interesting. Like on a putting green I'd have mini competitions between two different brands of golf balls, seeing which one could have the lowest score. This lead to many hours on the practice green as a youth. If I could come up with a similar musical concept involving scales, exercises, ornamentations, technique, ear training - the stuff I need to work on more - then that might make me want to practice these things more.

With golf I respected the etiquette and rules of the game, within reason. When it comes to music, I’d like to think that I share that same respect for etiquette and (unspoken) rules when it comes to music sessions. In this way golf and music are similar. Finally, with golf I didn’t always enjoy playing with complete beginners, AKA duffers. With music I have more empathy for beginners, being that I am pretty much one myself. At least it's rare that I encounter anyone that I perceive as having more novice musical skills than my own. I feel like I'm the most beginner person in most situations. So that's one thing I can take from music back to golf should I ever decide to play again.

Music Performance Tips

If you play music, chances are you're going to be asked to perform from time to time.  This can be nerve-racking no matter what your level of ability.  Here are some pointers for those situations.
drawing by Katy Ellis O'Brien
  • Engage the audience by smiling and making eye contact. 
  • Start out strong with a number you can play well and really enjoy playing.  
  • Focus on material that is well within your capability. 
  • Look like you are having a good time even if you are scared to death!
  • Audiences tend to be very forgiving of nerves and a few missed notes. They are on your side and want you to succeed.

Music is about the heart and soul, not perfection.

  • Don’t call attention to mistakes and don't dwell on them.  Just keep going.  Often folks don’t even know that you screwed up.  
  • Be proud of yourself for even being in this position and having the opportunity to share the fruits of your labor with others. 
  • Performing is like acting.  Act like this is the most important time you’ll ever play this song.
  • Play what you think will sound good and/or what you would like someone to play for you.
Performer by Katy Ellis O'Brien
  • Be in the moment. Avoid inner dialogue that can make you feel distracted and flustered. Self-criticism will only cause you to lose focus.
  • Do not speculate over what others might be thinking about your performance while it is happening. Wait until after the performance, when you have heard other people's reactions, to reserve judgement - if at all.
  • Motion creates emotion. If you engage in body language or facial expressions that your body associates with being nervous or apprehensive, then your body will assume that you are in that mood.  Instead, try to exude relaxation and confidence in the way that you carry yourself.
Most of all - forget about what others might think and just have fun!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Irish Tenor Banjo Top Ten

What everyone has been waiting for!  A list of the top ten Irish Tenor Banjo CDs!  At least these are the ones I like the best and/or found out about first.

John Carty - I Will If I Can
This 2005 CD features John Carty on tenor banjo and tenor guitar and is probably my favorite tenor banjo album.  Carty is tasteful, mellow and varied...not too notey.  I also love the sound of the bodhran, and Carty is backed up on some tracks by Johnny McDonagh.  Alec Finn (bouzouki) and Brian McGrath (piano) help lift these inspired interpretations of tunes.

Angelina Carberry – An Traidisiún Beo
Tasteful, understated plucking that swings.  Angelina Carberry is a good person for aspiring tenor banjo players to listen to and this is a good one to start with! 

John Carty and Brian McGrath - The Cat That Ate the Candle
This earlier John Carty CD is minimalist trad at its best:  Irish tenor banjo with piano accompaniment.  A nice selection of fairly common tunes and old school playing. 

Éamonn Coyne - Through the Round Window
Eamonn Coyne has a more modern style, bringing more influences to the table.  Like all of the albums on this list, this one is mostly instrumental although there are two vocal tracks.  He dusts off some traditional tunes while also venturing into a little jazzy/country territory as well.  Very dynamic.

Liam Farrell and Joe Whelan - They Sailed Away from Dublin Bay
When it comes to straight-up Irish tenor banjo / accordion duos, it doesn't get much better than Liam Farrell (banjo) and Joe Whelan (accordion).  This relatively obscure CD is the most recent acquisition to my list, but it's also my current favorite.  I just really like the old style, melodic playing and how the banjo and accordion interact.  Piano and flute add some color to the tunes, but this lively set of tunes is dominated by the chemistry between Farrell and Whelan.

(Kevin Griffin) – Across the Pond
Get this album if you want to hear an ensemble play cheerful, casual session music.  Kevin Griffin's banjo doesn't steal the show, but rather it's part of the ensemble that includes Roger Burridge (fiddle), Quentin Cooper (mandolin, guitar, bass) and Michael Shorrock (bouzouki).  Griffin is from Doolin in West Clare.

Kieran Hanrahan - Plays the Irish Tenor Banjo
Many consider this CD to be the standard among all other Irish tenor banjo recordings.  Kieran has the uncanny ability of taking something very complex and make it sound effortless and simple.  He's a good one to emulate. 
Brian McGrath and Johnny Óg Connolly - Dreaming Up the Tunes
Brian McGrath plays piano backup on the two John Carty CDs on this list, but on Dreaming Up the Tunes he gets a chance to shine on banjo and play with the great accordionist Johnny Óg Connolly. Brilliant.

Enda Scahill – Pick It Up
This debut album from the innovative tenor banjoist demonstrates his propensity to play fast and with flair.  Enda has the chops to pull it off.  I recommend combining this CD with a purchase of his Irish Banjo Tutor volume I and II.  There is indispensible knowledge in those tutors, and when listening to this CD you can hear that expertise being implemented "up to speed".

Darren Maloney – Who?
This is the least traditional album on the list. Imagine what Bela Fleck would sound like if he played tenor banjo, and you'd have some idea of where Darren Maloney may be coming from.  Who? contains 15 original compositions by this virtuoso who has obviously put in countless hours of devotion to get this level of creativity and comfort with the style.  Purists sometimes write off things that are too forward-thinking, but this is not a CD to be discounted.  

Those are the ten best out of the ones I've heard.  There's a few more I'd like to get, such as the following banjo albums from my wish list:

Christy Dunne - Pluckin' Good
Banjo solo CD by a member of the prominent Limerick musical family.  Features De Dannan fiddler Frankie Gavin.

Seán O'Driscoll and Larry Egan - The Kitchen Recordings
Literally recorded around a kitchen table, this CD is reputed to have a homey, relaxed vibe.  Can't wait to hear it!

Mick O'Connor & Antoin MacGabhann - Doorways and Windowsills
I've checked out some videos of Mick O'Connor playing and I really like what he's doing.  He may not be as well known as some of the others, but he appears to be on par with the best.  

Chris Smith – Coyote Banjo
I'm looking forward to getting this album.  I believe Chris Smith is an American musician now residing in Texas.  Coyote Banjo also features Roger Landes on bouzouki and Randal Bays on fiddle.

Then of course there's Mick Moloney, Gerry O'Connor, Barney McKenna...the list goes on!