Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Irish Tenor Banjo - Mandolin or Guitar Fingering?

I recently took a tenor banjo class at Augusta Irish Week taught by Pauline Conneely.  She's a brilliant player and the sibling of the well-known fiddler and bouzouki player Mick Conneely of De Danann.  I loved Pauline's fluid, non-technical, and relaxed style with an emphasis on rhythm.  Her banjo playing is featured on the new CD by her band Chicago Reel.

The only thing we disagreed on was tenor banjo fingering.  Pauline was adamant that mandolin fingering was the only way to do it. (Mandolin fingering is where you place your index finger on frets 1 and 2, middle finger on frets 3 and 4, ring finger on frets 5 and 6, and pinky on fret 7).  However, I use what is called guitar style fingering or the four-fingered approach where you place one finger per fret:  index finger fret 2, middle finger fret 3, ring finger fret 4 and pinky fret 5.

Darren Maloney
This guitar/one finger per fret assignment is used by such players as Angelina Carberry, Darren Maloney, Gerry O'Connor and Pio RyanIt's how I was taught by old-time tenor banjo player Josh Bearman of The Hot Seats, and I'm pretty sure this is also how Irish style fiddler Cleek Schrey instructed me when I took a few tenor banjo lessons from him starting out.  I find this fingering to be a more comfortable and natural way of playing tenor banjo. By contrast, a lot of big players do/did use the mandolin fingering that Pauline ascribes to, including Barney McKenna, Mick Moloney and Enda Scahill, to name a few.  (I think people who play mandolin or fiddle first and then take up tenor banjo tend to use the mandolin fingering out of habit.)
Angelina Carberry
If you can make the stretches, mandolin fingering does reduce hand movement since you mostly just move your fingers, arguably making it easier to reach the 7th fret.  However, that appears to be its only benefit.  For me mandolin fingering requires an unnecessary stretch to get the middle finger to the 4th fret and the ring finger to the 5th fret; and all that stretching can lead to fatigue in the fretting hand.  It's easier and more economical to place the ring finger on the 4th fret and the pinky on the 5th fret so that you eliminate those initial stretches and keep your hand in the most productive position, especially considering that at least 80% of the tunes can be played without even having to go beyond the 5th fret.  Another benefit is that when you frequently use all four fingers, your little finger - and entire hand - becomes more agile and strong.
Gerry O'Connor
The main thing I learned from Pauline's class - besides slowing down - is that when the tune does call for the 7th fret B you need to be able to play that smoothly without losing the flow of the tune.  I have to shift from first position to second position to get to the 7th fret and I’m still struggling with making this move cleanly.  So, I know what I need to practice! 

Before I took the class I had no idea there was such debate over fingering.  There will always be exceptions to the rule - certain odd phrases or tunes that dictate alternate fingerings than what you are used to - but I still believe one finger per fret to be superior in most cases.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Augusta Irish Week – There's No Turning Back Now!

Laura and I just returned from our first ever Augusta Irish Week!  Now I am definitely hooked on traditional Irish music.  I took Pauline Conneely's tenor banjo class and Laura took Mairtin de Cogain's bodhran class.  Read on for a synopsis.
Late night outdoor session behind the Icehouse pub.
Small, intimate classes meant the teacher-to-student ratio was very good, sometimes 1:1!  This was a transition year for the event (out with the old, in with the new) and that along with the economy and competition could have contributed to the lower than normal attendance.  While perhaps not what Augusta would have wanted, for students this meant more personal attention. 

Quality of the instructors.  New coordinator Dan Neely did a fine job assembling the team of Patrick Ourceau, Mick Conneely, Pauline Conneely, Cillian Vallely, Ivan Goff, Mairtin de Cogain, Brian Holleran, Dennis Cahill, Dan Gurney, Dylan Foley, Donna Long, Troy MacGillivray, Jimmy Crowley, and Brian O hAirt.  These are not just top notch players but great teachers as well.  All that was missing was a bouzouki class from what I could tell.

Sessions in the Icehouse pub.  The Icehouse is a really cool, three-story dive bar smack dab in the middle of campus.  It was a fun place to hang each evening and socialize with the other students.  On most nights a mighty, advanced-level session would develop there.

Daily open sessions:  9:00-9:45am slow sessions at Gribble Hall and 4:30-5:30pm instructor led moderate sessions on the Halliehurst Porch.  It was nice to have these two times each day set aside for open sessions, although it was sometimes tough to make the 9am one when you had been up until 3am the night before!  It was a thrill getting to lead on the tunes Road to Lisdoonvarna and Star Above the Garter on the first day with Dennis Cahill providing the guitar backup!

Accessibility of the instructors.  The majority of the teachers could be found each late evening playing in sessions in the Icehouse pub.  Not only that, but the small, condensed campus size meant that you were bound to run into and interact with the teachers many times throughout the day.  For the most part, these superstars are just regular folks ready to share their expertise or just have a chat.

The lunch-time interviews/discussions between Dan Neely and the instructors on various topics such as the singing tradition, East Galway music, Uillieann Pipes and playing backup were very interesting and informative.  I enjoyed every one.

The evening concerts on Tuesday and Thursday were a good opportunity for the instructors to strut their stuff in front of the general public.

Pickin’ in the Park.  On Wednesdays there are bluegrass and old-time jams in the Elkins City Park adjacent to campus.  I went over there and got in about 5 or 6 “D” tunes during an old-time jam.  I believe the tunes were Mississippi Sawyer, Grasshopper Sitting on a Sweet Potato Vine, St. Anne’s Reel, Arkansas Traveler, Angeline the Baker and Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.  Not too bad for an Irish tenor banjo player!

Setting and Facilities – Davis and Elkins is a beautiful, hilly, walkable campus set in the mountains of West Virginia (one of my favorite states to visit).  The view from the Halliehurst porch is awesome!

Dining – It’s worth mentioning that the campus cafeteria offered fairly decent food.  However, we didn’t purchase the meal plan which gave us the opportunity to explore some off-campus dining in the town itself.  I especially like the Venezuelan restaurant ElGran Sabor, CJ Maggie’s and the Graceland Inn Restaurant.

Student Showcase.  On Friday each class got to demonstrate what they learned by playing a set of tunes or a song.  My banjo class played two reels: Wind that Shakes the Barley > Mountain Road.  We were joined by the bodhran class and the impressive Troy MacGillivray on piano!

Other Comments
The light attendance this year compared to years past, while conducive to small class sizes, meant that some things that should happen naturally – such as impromptu sessions – never really materialized, unless I just missed them.  I was expecting lots of opportunities to jam, but besides the twice daily scheduled open sessions at 9am and 4:30pm there really weren’t any other beginner/intermediate friendly sessions that a student of my ability could participate in.  I really hope they fix this for next year.  If not, I may take it upon myself to organize something.

Contra dances and Ceilis every night.  Dancing is a big part of the tradition at Augusta and it’s a way to engage the dance students and appeal to the local population.  However, I’m not really into step dancing and although I liked listening to the musicians playing for these events it would have been cool to have other options during those points in the evening.  Or maybe I should just learn how to dance next time.  It does look like fun.

I signed up for an evening mini-course on Irish-Appalachian fiddle tunes that I only ended up going to twice out of the four times it met.  The class was pretty advanced for me and I found that I preferred to use the time between 6:30 and 7:45pm for other purposes like decompressing or napping.  I may try the Ceili Band mini-course next year though!

We didn’t stay in the dorms or conference center so I can’t comment on those accommodations.  We brought our two 14 year old dogs for the week so we stayed off campus at the nearby Elkins Motor Lodge since it allowed pets.  I would stay there again if need be.  It was cheap and a good place to stay with dogs.

All in all it was a great week.  It went by like a blink.  The fastest 6 days I’ve ever spent.  I can’t wait to go back!
Afternoon session on the Halliehurst porch
Laura (bodhran) and me (lefty banjo, middle) in the student showcase. Joined by instructors Troy MacGillivray (piano) and Pauline Conneely (banjo), and fellow students Gene Thorn (bodhran), Randy Powell (banjo) and Dave (mandolin/right). Photo by Rosemarie Vincent.

Lunchtime Uillieann Pipes Extravaganza with Cillian Vallely (L) and Ivan Goff. Photo by Dan Neely.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On The Eve of Elkins

There is a clear musical place beyond thought
Where the mind is quiet and focused
And conscious distractions are minimal
What the masters have to teach you
Makes the music sound better
Simple ways 
Avoid cleverness
Stay in that place permanently
Bring it to everyday life
Listen to every sound
All the time

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Seattle Art Museum: Northwest Mystics and Aboriginal Art

I have cool book at home called Sounds of the Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey, Morris GravesIt explores the artistic and biographical connection among the three Pacific Northwest artists.  Known as the Northwest Mystics, Cage, Tobey and Graves were influenced by Eastern philosophies and the natural beauty of the Pacific Rim.  About 7 or 8 years ago, before I started to learn how to play music, I took up an interest in abstract art and Eastern philosophies which led to my discovery of these artists and my purchase of this book, which I think was originally published in relation to a 2002 exhibit in Tacoma, WA.

That Sounds of the Inner Eye book has been on the shelf for a few years now (I need to get it out again!), but when I was in Seattle recently for a conference it occurred to me that I was at the center of where this mystical art was made in the 30's, 40's and 50's.  A quick check on my smart phone verified that the Seattle Art Museum was only 4 or 5 blocks away, so I snuck over there during a break.  I was hoping they would have some of this visionary art.

Out of the three artists profiled in Sounds of the Inner Eye, Mark Tobey is my favorite.  To give you an example, while standing on a street corner waiting for a bus after visiting an exhibit of Tobey's white-writing paintings, John Cage "noticed that the experience of looking at the pavement was the same as the experience as looking at the Tobey.  Exactly the same.  The aesthetic enjoyment was just as high".  Tobey's paintings have opened my eyes in a similar way, causing me to look for art in unexpected places, so I was excited at the prospect of seeing some of his work.

As I approached the Seattle Art Museum I was surprised to see a banner for its current Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art exhibit.  I had no idea this was going on but I immediately wondered if the exhibit included anything by Emily Kngwarreye?  That interest I developed in abstract art 7 or 8 years ago led me to Australian Aboriginal art, particularly the work of Emily Kngwarreye whose "dreaming" paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to (and are the artistic equivalent of) the great New York school of abstract expressionists like Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning.   

Kngwarreye did not take up painting until she was 78, but once she started she was incredibly prolific, producing more than 3,000 paintings by the time she died at age 86.  A lot more can be said about Kngwarreye in a future post, but the good news is that the museum did have works by Tobey, Graves and Kngwarreye on display! (I didn't notice any John Cage visual art, but I did get to see some of his "smoked" works at the University of Richmond a couple years ago).  Enough are some selected visual images of the art by Tobey, Graves, Kngwarreye and Cage. 
Mark Tobey

Mark Tobey
Mark Tobey
Mark Tobey
Emily Kngwarreye
Emily Kngwarreye
Emily Kngwarreye
Emily Kngwarreye
John Cage
John Cage

John Cage
John Cage

Morris Graves
Morris Graves
Morris Graves
Morris Graves
This experience may have rekindled my interest in art as well as Eastern philosophies.  Expect more on those topics in the future.  Please take a moment to comment on these images - similarities, differences, what you like/dislike about them.  Thanks!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Phish's Round Room - Ten Years Later

This week I re-listened to Phish’s 2002 album “Round Room” a couple times and was reminded of how genuine it is.  There’s an intimate vibe and feeling present that is unmatched on any other Phish studio album or live recording.  The listener is like a fly on the wall as Phish explores these unfamiliar songs.
Round Room album cover
Unfamiliar?  Prior to Round Room’s release in December 2002, Phish had been on a 2-year hiatus.  They planned on returning to the stage on 12/31/02, so they got together a couple months prior for a brief rehearsal and to write material for a new studio album to come out some time in 2003.  They ended up with about 20 new songs and instead of waiting, they chose to record these pieces close to the moment of conception during an intense 4-day jam session.  These early takes were then quickly released that December prior to the comeback show with very little editing, production or overdubbing.  The result is the 12 song, 78 minute album that is Round Room.

What some people hear as tossed-off or haphazardly thrown together, I hear as a group of four friends enjoying each others' company and learning how to play together again, using the new songs as a canvas.  There was some dust and cobwebs to shake off, but the flaws and looseness are what make this album work in such a special way.  This was a band that, for once, wasn’t playing for an audience (present or imagined) and didn’t care if they botched a few notes, sang a little off-key, missed a cue or had the levels a little too hot.  The purity of the intent comes through loud and clear, as does the band’s spontaneity and energy.  It’s Phish at their most honest and most raw.

The Phish of 2002 had nothing left to prove.  Looking back even farther - they had already been through the transformative year of 1995, which peaked with a perfect three-set New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, validating all their hard work to that point.  That success was soon followed by the transcendent year of 1997 and its legendary Fall Tour.  Then in late 1999 Phish found one more plateau of enlightenment during their massive midnight ‘til daylight set on Y2K at Big Cypress Indian Reservation in Florida. 

Phish Round Room press shot
After all those accomplishments the summer 2000 tour seemed like an afterthought and Phish the band needed a break.  The individual band members, however, remained busy during those two years “off”.  Trey focused on his many side projects including Oysterhead, Mike worked with Leo Kottke and on the film Rising Low, Page formed the Latin-funk band Vida Blue, and Fishman gigged with Pork Tornado and the Jazz Mandolin Project.  They had each grown as musicians and brought back new skills when they re-convened in Fall 2002 for this rehearsal/recording session.  So while what you hear on Round Room may not be a polished version of Phish playing at their absolute tightest, you’re offered four soloists displaying new strengths and finding ways for these strengths to work as part of the ensemble.

The lyrics found on Round Room also add a lot of value.  Like many Phish songs, what at first might seem childish and repetitive is later revealed to contain meaning and wisdom.  A decade ago when I first heard this CD I picked up on an unusual Eastern bent that recalled Zen koans.  I still feel that now.  Consider such phrases as:

Clinging still, against my will, to promises of clearer days (Anything But Me)

I went to the lighthouse and I liked the view (Round Room)

Why is the sun hot?
Why does it rain?
Why is there danger and
Why is there pain?
Why can't the burden
We carry go away?
And why isn't it Friday today?

Blue, splinter and grow
New crystals of snow
Seen several kinds
Through seven below
(Seven Below)

If you keep your eyes open, you may find yourself there
If you keep your heart open
(All of these Dreams)

The mountain here is now a hill (Walls of the Cave)

Listen to the silent trees (Walls of the Cave)

One other point: I find it interesting that the songs from Round Room – with the possible exception of 46 Days(?) – never really became live staples in the years and tours since.  Like a child you don’t want to see grow up, perhaps Phish prefers to keep these songs in their infant state.  These aren't well worn paths.  By playing these tracks infrequently they retain a certain mystique when heard live.  Nonetheless, I still wish they would get to these more often!

Round Room offers a rare glimpse into the musical minds of the four members of Phish without the ecstatic roar of 10,000 fans in the background or the over-thinking that can result from months of studio time with a heavy-handed producer.  You’re right there in the “room” with them, up close and personal.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Learning Irish Music by Ear class with Aaron Olwell

This past winter/spring the Blue Ridge Irish Music School (BRIMS) in Charlottesville offered an 8-week class called Learning Irish Music By Ear, taught by Aaron Olwell.  It was one of many classes BRIMS offers each semester.  I live about 70 miles from Charlottesville so I wasn't ready to make the commitment to this class which met every other Tuesday from January through April, although the idea of such instruction really intrigues me.  Here is the description of the class:

What aspiring musician wouldn't want to be able to pick up melodies on the spot after only hearing them a few times? I believe this is one of the most useful and pertinent skills in any kind of music, and it's practically the foundation that Irish and many other folk musics are based on. Musicians with little or no theoretical understanding of music (often not even knowing a single note by name) have for centuries relied only on their ears to learn hundreds of tunes! 

In this class, which will be open to all instruments and ages, we will surprise ourselves with latent talent and accomplish feats of "learning on the fly" that we previously thought were beyond us. Skill level is not important, although the class will be geared towards students who are already somewhat familiar with their instrument. So, if you have been playing for years but still feel like you struggle with this aspect of music, this class is for you. If you are comfortable as long as you have a page in front of you, but get anxious as soon as it's taken away, this class is for you. If you are musically illiterate and maybe never even touched an instrument until some time within the last year, then you guessed it; this class is for you.

That's exactly the kind of help I need(!), so despite missing his class I recently drove out to paradise-like Nelson County, VA to meet with Aaron Olwell in person and find out more about his approach to teaching this topic - something that he admitted is actually starting to obsess him!

Aaron Olwell
Aaron Olwell is a multi-instrumentalist (flute, whistle, left-handed fiddle, concertina, banjo...) and the son of world-renowned Irish flute-maker Patrick Olwell. He plays both traditional Irish and Old-Time music, which he learned through numerous trips to Ireland and summer camps in North Carolina and West Virginia.  Aaron can be heard on recordings by Hell On The Nine Mile, Light and Hitch, and The Magic Square. In addition to playing and teaching music, he is a Staff Musician at Augusta Heritage's Dance Week and he works with his father making flutes.  I was excited to get his take on this elusive subject.  At the time I wasn't thinking of writing a blog post about it, but for the purposes of gathering my thoughts, and with apologies to Aaron for possibly jumbling or misunderstanding some of the instruction he attempted to give me, here are some of the main points I took away from my 90 minute visit/lesson:

Lilt a tune's melody before trying to play it.  I wasn't exactly familiar with lilting (or why banshees do it!) and had definitely not tried it before, but basically lilting is nonverbally "singing" a tune's melody - similar to humming or whistling.  By doing so not only do you learn how the tune sounds (they say "if you can hum it you can play it"), but when you lilt you automatically go to the right pitches and intervals without even thinking.  As opposed to struggling to play those notes on your instrument, where you're likely to make incorrect assumptions based on whatever limited knowledge you may have regarding scales and arpeggios.  After drilling the tune into your head by lilting, it should be a little easier to find those notes on your instrument.

Call out the names of the notes as you play them.  I had read this same thing in a book regarding scales, but Aaron advised me to play a melody slowly and call out the notes as I play them. Presumably this helps you associate the sound with the note you are playing.

Tap your foot while playing.  While not directly related to learning by ear, concentrating on tapping your foot can have many benefits - improved timing, getting a better sense of a tune's rhythm and structure, helping those playing with you know where you are in the tune, and more.

Transpose a melody to other keys.  Once you have learned a melody in one key, transpose it by ear to all the other keys you play in.  As we all know, a melody can start on any note before ascending or descending on its tuneful path.  Starting a melody on a different note and figuring out how to play it from there is really good ear practice.  I haven't tried this yet, but I think it's something I could do.

Feel where the chord changes.  Aaron says that for years he played without really thinking about chords due to the fact that he primarily plays flute, concertina and fiddle.  But recently he's been trying to associate shifts in the melody with chord changes (or is that chord changes with shifts in the melody?) and it's the basis for his increased interest in aural skills.  Once you determine what key a tune is in (a difficult thing to do in its own right) just drone on the I chord throughout the tune and try to hear where it sounds like you should change to something else - most likely the IV, V or possibly II minor or VI minor.  Thinking about the chords this way will give you clues to help hone in on the melody.  I've never in my life been sure of when a chord should change or what it should change to, so this is going to take a lot of work for me to figure out.

Get in tune with yourself, not with an electronic tuner.  Aaron is a pretty vocal critic of exclusively using electronic tuners to keep your instrument in tune.  They can be helpful in some group situations, but by relying on a tuner all the time you miss out on developing a skill that musicians from previous generations had to learn:  the ability to be in tune with yourself and others.  I must say that up until this day I had never, ever tried to tune my instrument without the help of an electronic tuner.  However, after this lesson I am going to start practicing this a little bit by getting one string in tune and then trying to tune the other strings to it.  I can always use a tuner to check my accuracy.  I tried this last night and got really messed up - when I finally checked by D string was up to Eb - not in harmony with my A string at all!  I guess I'll keep trying.  In truth, tuners actually lie to a certain degree.  Those who are good at tuning by ear can actually get their instrument more in tune by doing it themselves, due to the one-size-fits-all nature of tuners and the way some scales and instruments want to push and pull certain pitches.

Grab onto what you can.  Hopefully you get to take part in jams and sessions where people are OK with noodling around until you start to pick up a tune.  (Or in my case, noodle around until the tune is over and not learn anything about it!)  When you think you've figured out a measure or section, you can refine your understanding by playing along to that part each time it comes around and adding to what you know.  Even if completely baffled by the rest of the tune you may still be able to find a way for your instrument to make a decent contribution.  This could mean just playing a drone or double stop until the part you're comfortable with comes around again.  Find a way for your instrument to still make a contribution to the ensemble sound even while learning the tune.

That's the majority of what we covered.  A lot of this information is still starting to sink in after a couple days and there's probably lots of points I'm forgetting or explaining incorrectly.  Oh yeah - Aaron also played a hop jig in G for me called Cucanandy.  I was unable to pick it up on the spot but I made a recording of it and will try to learn it from that. 

If there's enough interest Aaron plans on teaching the course at BRIMS again later this year or next.  I'm sure you can learn a lot more over 8 weeks than I did in 90 minutes, although I hope to have a follow up meeting with him before too long!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

100 Irish Session Tunes

My friend Jeff Brown recently compiled a list of 100 tunes that he has heard played a lot in the last year or so - at our local sessions in Richmond or Petersburg, Virginia, and/or are common to other sessions he has attended around the country and in Ireland.  Sessions are typically heavy on reels, but around here (Central VA) we also play a lot of jigs.  Jeff restricted the list to 40 Reels, 35 Jigs, 15 "Slips and Slides", and 10 Polkas.  I have actually added a few more to the list, including Hornpipes, so it's a bit more than 100.  My additions are marked with a *.

If you're looking for a list of Irish session tunes to learn, this is a good place to start!

Boil the Breakfast Early
Brenda Stubbert’s
Bucks of Oranmore
Christmas Eve
Drowsey Maggie
Earl’s Chair
Father Kelly’s
Fermoy Lassies
Flogging Reel
George White’s Favorite
Heathery Cruach
High Reel
Julia Delaney’s
Kitty’s Wedding
Lad O’Beirne’s
Lady Anne Montgomery
Maid Behind the Bar
Man of the House
Mason’s Apron
Merry Blacksmith
Miss McLeod’s
Miss Monaghan’s
Morning Dew
Mountain Road
Musical Priest
Nine Points of Roguery
Ornette’s Trip to Belfast
Otter’s Holt
Paddy Fahy’s
Pigeon on the Gate
Saint Anne’s
Sally Gardens
The Scholar
Silver Spear
Silver Spire
Sporting Paddy
Star of Munster
Woman of the House

Banish Misfortune
Black Rogue
Blarney Pilgrim
Calliope House
Connaughtman’s Rambles
Contentment is Wealth
Donneybrook Fair
Frieze Britches
Hag at the Churn
I Buried My Wife and Danced on Top of Her
Jerry’s Beaver Hat
Jig of Slurs
Jug of Brown Ale
Lark in the Morning
Langstrom’s Pony
Lietrim Fancy
Lilting Banshee*
Maid on the Green
The Monaghan
Mug of Brown Ale*
My Darling Asleep
Old Hag You Have Killed Me
Out on the Ocean
Tobin’s Favourite
Tom Billy’s
Rambling Pitchfork
Scatter the Mud
Smash the Windows
Strayaway Child
Tatter Jack Walsh
Tenpenny Bit
Will You Come Home with Me?
A Fig for a Kiss
Another Jig Will Do
Boys of Ballisodare
Brosna Slide
The Butterfly
Comb Your Hair and Curl It
Dan O’Keefe’s Slide
Denis Murphy’s Slide
Drops of Brandy
Farewell to Whalley Range
John Kelly’s Slide
Kid on the Mountain
Snowy Path
Star Above the Garter*
Road to Lisdoonvarna*
Turf Footer

Balleydesmond Polka
Breeches Full of Stitches
Denis Murphy’s
Farewell to Whiskey
John Ryan’s
Kelly’s Cow
Maggie in the Woods
Rakes of Mallow
Top of Maol

Boys of Bluehill*
Harvest Home*
Off to California*
Rights of Man*
Staten Island*