Thursday, August 30, 2012

Old-Time Fun at the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival

The 26th Annual Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival is next weekend, September 7-8, 2012.  This will be my first time going but I’ve heard nothing but good things.   Here’s what I know or have been able to surmise about the festival:

-Started by Mike Seeger in 1986 as a festival for musicians by musicians.
-Always the weekend after Labor Day.
-Impromptu old-time music jams all over the grounds until the wee hours every night.
-No contests.
-Picturesque setting alongside the Maury River.
-On-site camping on level grass and available hook-ups.
-Indoor toilets and showers with additional port-a-potties.
-Food available - Friday supper, three meals Saturday and breakfast Sunday.
-Fiddle, old-time guitar, old-time banjo, flatfooting and clogging workshops.
-Dances each night under a giant tent.
-Dogs allowed.

Takes place in Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista, Virginia.  In the Shenandoah Valley, Rockbridge County.  Beside the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Five miles east of Lexington.

Admission:  $14 per person per day or $25 per person for the weekend (Kids under 15 free).
Camping Fee:  $13 per site per day, or $25 per site for the weekend.

Below are some Rockbridge pictures by a Flickr user named tackyjulie.

Glen Maury Park 2011

Rockbridge old-tme jam 2011
See you there!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutors - Invaluable Instruction Books

Music instruction books for fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass and ukulele may well outnumber those for Irish tenor banjo, but with the publication of his Irish Banjo Tutor Books I and II, Enda Scahill has provided us 4-string banjo flat-pickers with two instant classics that rank among the best manuals written for any stringed/folk instrument.
Enda Scahill at the 2012 Milwaukee Irish Fest
Scahill emphasizes the importance of basic technique, relaxation and reducing tension as the building blocks to advanced playing.  These are concepts that all musicians could benefit from learning (mandolin players especially should take note of these tutors).  Enda’s teaching methods and philosophy seem consistent with the latest research into “deep” practice and will help you learn how to learn.

There are loads of standout tunes in each book (even some old-time Appalachian ones!) and Scahill uses these tunes as the context to teach correct plucking, fingering, triplets, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, chords, variations and more.  Taught in this way, these methods become more than just drills.  Enda also selects a couple tunes in each tutor and keeps returning to them to demonstrate how each new skill or technique would apply.

Volume I of the Tutor does not include tab, just notation, but you can purchase a separate tab booklet as an addendum.  Volume II includes notation and tab for all of the tunes and exercises.  Each tutor comes with 2 CDs containing the audio for all of the exercises and tunes.  At first I thought the tunes in Volume I were way too slow, but I’ve learned that it’s best to play a tune VERY slowly and methodically to begin with - building speed only after you can play it perfectly.   

By working with Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutors I feel like I am finally gaining greater ease, improved rhythm, and cleaner and more varied ornamentation.  Somehow, Scahill has taken the complexity out of triplets and I've even started to find myself throwing triplets or trebles into all sorts of tunes - at slower speeds of course!

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Little Book of Talent - Little Book, Lots of Ideas

Lately I’ve been looking for ways to make my practice time more effective.  This led me to The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle. 

When you want to work hard at a task sometimes little bits of advice from a coach or mentor can nudge you slightly one way or another and end up having a dramatic impact on your abilities.  The Little Book of Talent contains many such tips - simple, concise notions that can change your way of thinking for the better.  Like cliff notes for developing talent, each tip is limited to a couple pages so you don’t have to cut through a bunch of fat to get to the meat.  The point is right there.  You can immediately reconcile it to your needs and put it into action.

Coyle has a way of explaining things in a straight-forward manner which allows you to visualize the directive, making it easier to understand and remember.  Nothing he mentions is very complex or hard to grasp, but it’s often explained in a way you may not have thought of on your own.  His concepts are designed to be general so they can be applied to persons of all ages, skill levels, and areas of study (sports, business, the arts, et cetera).  I view the tips from the perspective of a novice/intermediate musician.  A golfer could read the same instructions and take something else away.  So could a salesman, doctor, and so on.

After years of looking for shortcuts to learning music, I’ve realized that there are no shortcuts.  (In fact, time spent looking for shortcuts can actually take you away from your ultimate goal, which is progress).  That still applies here.  The ideas in The Little Book of Talent are not meant to be shortcuts to success, but simple tools that can shift your perception ever so slightly to put you on the path toward success, if you are willing to work for it!  Get this book if you want to get better.

The Little Book of Talent is available on Amazon.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Picking Tunes (out of a Fishbowl!)

A co-worker gave me this idea.  Write the name of every tune or song you can play on a separate slip of paper and put all the pieces of paper in a fish bowl.  Then periodically select from the bowl to come up with a random tune to play.  This will keep your repertoire fresh and varied.  If you draw a tune that you've temporarily forgotten how to play then you know it is one you need to work on. Add more tune titles to the fish bowl as you learn them.
I can think of about 35 tunes I currently (supposedly) know.  Lately I've been trying to improve the effectiveness of my practice methods, so I hope to at least double that number in the next year and expand it exponentially beyond that.

My Fish Bowl Tunes:

Angeline the Baker
Arkansas Traveler
Banish Misfortune
Clouds Thicken (by Paul Rosen - Floorplay)
Cluck Old Hen
Cooley's Reel
Fair Jenny’s Jig
Flop-Eared Mule
Geese in the Bog
Girl I Left Behind Me
Horace Hanesworth (from Portland Collection)
Jerry’s Beaver Hat
John Ryan’s Polka
Kesh Jig
Kitchen Girl
Lilting Banshee
Little Dutch Girl
Maid Behind the Bar
Minnesota 6/8 Two Step (from Mandolin Uff Da!)
Miss Monaghan’s Reel
Off to California
Old Bunch of Keys
Old Mother Flanagan
Out on the Ocean
Over the Waterfall
Rakes of Mallow
Red Haired Boy
Road to Lisdoonvarna
Soldiers Joy
Star Above the Garter
Staten Island Hornpipe
Sugar Candy Schottische (from Mandolin Uff Da!)
Swallowtail Jig
The Butterfly
Tralee Jail (Irish polka)
Twin Sisters
Whalen’s Breakdown (Canadian tune)

The Amazing Slow Downer App for iOS devices

I finally downloaded the Amazing Slow Downer app from Roni Music.  The Amazing Slow Downer allows you to practice more attentively by slowing down or speeding up tracks on your iPad or iPhone without changing the pitch.  It’s great for learning tunes.  You can isolate and loop certain sections.  In addition, the app gives you the option of changing the key up to 6 half-steps in either direction. 

I'm finding the Amazing Slow Downer to be stable (it hasn’t crashed), easy to navigate and compatible with my all of my music except some older files I had purchased a few years ago from the iTunes store when they were putting DRM protection on the files*.

Why It’s a Good Practice Device
Slowing down and looping parts of a tune allows you to learn it bit-by-bit through deliberate repetition.  It forces you to play the tune correctly by calling attention to mistakes in need of correction and gaps in your skills worth improving.  It reinforces proper technique that will help you play the tune faster and more accurately down the road.  
Each tune has its own identity and feeling.  Slowing it down is like looking through a microscope - you reveal certain characteristics and meaning in the notes and rhythm that can enhance your playing and be applied to other tunes.  You see the nuts and bolts of the melody – what it’s doing and where it’s going.  At slower speeds you can also try working in things like triplets that may test the edges of your abilities.  Eventually you link the phrases together until you have the whole piece.

Examples of Usage
Banish Misfortune is a three-part Irish jig in D-mixolydian that I have been after for a while but can never quite remember.  The version I had been working with with was a YouTube video by Ian Walsh that was quite fast.   I downloaded the audio from this video and imported it into the slow downer, where I was able to slow it down to about 70% of the actual speed and play along until I had the tune memorized.  In another case, by using the slow downer I was able to isolate the pesky A-part to the crooked old-time hoedown Indian Ate the Woodchuck and play it repeatedly for an hour until I was cleanly maneuvering through phrases that had previously seemed impossible.  Now that I’ve worked on the part of the tune that was giving me the most trouble, I’m well on my way to learning the whole thing since the B and C parts have pretty easy fingerings.

The app is available for $14.99 in the App Store.
*The iTunes store used to put DRM protection on downloaded files.  They’ve stopped doing that I think, but some older music files may not play on Amazing Slow Downer because of this.