Wednesday, October 31, 2012

UkeFest Virginia: This Weekend Ya'll

It's time to get serious folks.  Serious about ukulele.  To heck with all you haters out there who think it's just a novelty instrument.  It's time to "sheem-ah-byook-uh-roh" yourself to the first annual UkeFest Virginia, this Friday and Saturday, November 2nd and 3rd, at The Cultural Arts Center At Glen Allen, near Richmond, VA.

These ukers they mean business, with workshops, concerts and jamming planned for both days.  Yours truly, along with his Bridie (an accomplished baritone uke player who has about 8 weeks experience on the instrument), will be attending a play by ear workshop taught by Cathy Fink on Saturday afternoon.  Does it matter that I can currently make just 3 chords (C, F and G7 for the record) if I'm lucky on my tenor ukulele?  I hope not, or else I've got some cramming to do! Actually I'm hoping the instruction is universal enough to spill over into the fiddle tunes I grind out on my tenor banjo and tenor guitar.

Even if you don't "play the flea", get yourself there, at least for one of the concerts.  In the meantime, check out this cool UkeFest video:

Traditional Music in Richmond and Ashland, Virginia

Traditional Fiddle Tunes Sound Better Than They Sound!

Richmond, VA seems like a likely place for the nexus of old-time fiddle music and Irish trad.  It's not far from the mountains of Appalachia - a few hours drive to many of the major old-time festivals, such as Clifftop, Galax, Rockbridge and Mt. Airy, where hillbilly music thrives.  Richmond is also a fairly large, urban environment with Washington DC just 2 hours up I-95 North.  Another 40 miles gets you to Baltimore, then beyond that is Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  Celtic traditional music is strong all along this Mid-Atlantic and Northeast region.  Richmond also has its own annual Folk Festival taking place over 3 days each October with attendance around 200,000, making it the biggest folk festival in the country...even bigger than the national one!
Richmond, Virginia
The Richmond Folk Festival certainly hasn't hurt the participation in folk music by regular folks at a local level, and the fiddle music of Appalachia as well as the traditional jigs and reels of Ireland are now very well represented here.  The best examples being the Sunday afternoon old-time jam at Cary St. Cafe near Carytown and the 2nd and 4th Wednesday Irish Session at Rosie Connolly's in the city's Shockoe Bottom district. When combined the music covered between Cary St. and Rosie's is exactly the kind of stuff I want to be playing.  Strangely, (or not surprisingly?), only a couple other folkies besides me attend both of these meetups.  It seems most traditional and roots musicians, while aware of both the Celtic and Appalachian traditions, are either/or.

The reasons a person might voice for not liking Irish or Old-Time music are also the reasons for liking them:  Old-time with its crooked, repetitive, stand-alone tunes, open-tunings, regional quirks, and syncopation.  Irish with its multiple time signatures (4/4, 6/8, 9/8) and tune types (jig, reel, hornpipe, slide), noteyness, tendency toward "unusual" tonal centers like E-dorian, and tune sets of constantly changing keys.  These characteristics are what make each of them great, and what makes them an either/or for the majority of players.

I came to both styles of music at the same time, as a complete outsider, with no family connection, no personal history, and no familiarity with either idiom.  As a result I like both musics almost equally and see more similarities than differences.  I would consider both to be musically complete - containing all the melody and rhythm required when played by a solo instrument, but also conducive to an ensemble format where 20+ players can all play together.
The Blue Ridge Mountains - just west of Charlottesville, VA
Irish and Old-Time each come from aural traditions where you learn by ear and play by heart, forgoing classical training and scales and exercises in favor of simply learning the tunes.  There really aren't any other music communities happening in Richmond where large groups of amateur musicians get together simply for fun to play instrumental folk music in unison without taking "breaks" or solos.  Not blues, not jazz, not bluegrass, not acoustic guitar jams, not ukulele clubs.  Nope - in that respect Old-time and Irish are pretty similar...and valuable.

I cherish both the Cary Street Old-time jam and the Irish session at Rosie's as places to hear each type of music in a pure form from experienced musicians.  Cary St. is like a mini festival jam, where you get to go into a hypnotic, zen-like state for 3+ hours in a Deadhead bar on a Sunday afternoon while the music passes right through you at breakneck speeds.  Meanwhile, the Rosie's session takes place in Richmond's best and most authentic Irish pub, where the craic and the Guinness both flow freely.  Mad amounts of tunes come and go during the course of an evening.  As an ancillary member and newcomer to each of these gatherings, at this point I observe as much as I participate, although with each passing week I hope to understand more.

Call me naive, but I enjoy taking the music that I'm hearing at both of these sessions and introducing it to Ashland, the small town about 15 miles north of Richmond where I live, as part of the Ashland Old-Time Jam and Irish Session, 10am-1pm every 1st and 3rd Saturday in the listening room of Ashland Coffee and Tea, which I helped start earlier this year and continue to host.  I wish I had a better name for this friendly hootenanny.  The terms "Irish" and "Old-Time" seem so narrow and cliche.  Maybe Trad Festival Jam is another way of naming it.  It's that sound you hear at 11pm while walking the grounds of the Rockbrige Mountain Music Festival, combined with energy of the Tuesday night session at Brogan's Pub in Ennis (County Clare) Ireland.  That's what we're searching for and hoping to emulate.
Ashland, Virginia
Anyway, you can think of Ashland as an old-time jam that includes tunes in 6/8 time, and/or as an Irish session where individual tunes are played multiple times through.  The way I see it, both styles cover the tonal center/modes/keys of D, G and A pretty well.  It's not that much to ask of musicians from one tradition or another to come together and open their (beginner's) mind all over again.  Old-time might venture into C while Irish might venture into Eminor and other places.  I play tenor banjo/tenor guitar and I don't re-tune out of standard GDAE tuning, so in that way I suppose I lean slightly Celtic although I find old-time to be a little easier to pick up, for some reason.  Half and half.

I also see the Ashland session as kind of like the minor leagues of jamming.  A welcoming training ground, if you will.  While Cary St. and Rosie's are both open jams and excellent places to familiarize yourself with the nuances of the pure drop, there is a certain level of competence that's expected of the participants.  In Ashland I recognize that not all 5-string banjo players are Bela Fleck or Ken Perlman who can churn out jigs with ease, and also that not all flute players are well versed in obscure Kentucky and West Virginia tunes.  Neither am I for that matter.  But we make it work, and do so with a casual, anything goes type atmosphere:  mixing and matching, favoring repertory over style, but still treating these tunes with sensitivity they deserve.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Old-Time Fiddle Tunes on Tenor Banjo: A New Way to an Old Sound

The old-time repertoire primarily consists of Southern fiddle tunes from the late 19th and early 20th century, before recordings and radio.  The two main instruments in old-time are the fiddle and clawhammer banjo, both of which re-tune to suit different modes and keys.   

Fiddle and banjo players soak up a lot of what they know just from being around others who play the same instruments in the same way.  Ancillary instruments at old-time jams may include guitar, mandolin, dulcimer and upright bass. 

One instrument that you don’t see much in old-time circles is the 4-string tenor banjo, which is what I play.  I don’t re-tune to suit the mode or key, but instead use the GDAE tuning for everything.  Depending on how narrowly you define old-time music, it may be fundamentally impossible to play this music (characterized by open-tuned fiddle and clawhammer banjo) on a 4-string banjo tuned in 5ths.  

Frankly, I don't bother too much with semantics and questions of what is or isn't old-time.  It's the repertoire - the simple melodies and sparse structures - and the act of playing these tunes for personal enjoyment and in the company of others that I’m most concerned with. Because there is no history or precedent for tenor banjo, there is no one particular style to emulate, however the process of learning a tune remains basically the same:  you get the bones of the melody from the playing of others and it's up to you to add your own skin.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Medeski Martin and Wood - Free Magic

Medeski Martin and Wood - drawing from Aquarium Drunkard
For a band that celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, the rate at which Medeski, Martin and Wood continues to generate new, exciting content is quite commendable.  In the last 4 years alone, there’s been the three-album Radiolarians project, which, save for an arrangement of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, was all-original newly written material.  Just before Radiolarians was their children’s album Let’s Go Everywhere.  They also found time to record an album of John Zorn compositions entitled Zaebos: Book of Angels, interpreting Zorn's music as if it were their own (highly recommended).  In 2011 Medeski, Martin and Wood celebrated two-decades as a trio by releasing 20 – a batch of 20 new tunes made available digitally throughout the year.  There was also the special limited-release live album The Stone - Issue 4, side projects, an annual summer music camp, and more.

The latest from MMW is Free Magic, a live compilation from their 2007 acoustic tour.  Featuring 5 voluminous tracks spanning 65 minutes, Free Magic covers the gamut of their (acoustic) sound.  From gamelan and South American inspired interludes, to tightly-knit melodies, to free-form improvisations and mind-melding musical conversations, Free Magic is another highlight in a long, extensive career.  I’ve had these tracks on repeat this week and am about to click "play" again now.  I suggest you do the same if you want to hear music free of borders, inhibitions and other limitations.  Free Magic is an apt title for the sounds conjured up by an ensemble in direct contact with the free flowing artistic muse.

Free Magic track listing:
1. Doppler
2. Blues For Another Day
3. Free Magic/Ballade In C Minor
4. Where's Sly?
5. Nostalgia In Times Square/Angel Race

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Puerto Rico Travel: Old San Juan and Culebra Island

I like the model we adopted for our last couple trips outside the continental USA:  picking a cool location that's relatively easy to fly to, where we could stay in one place for an entire week and not have to rent a car.  This worked for the urban/outdoorsy environment of St. John's, Newfoundland and for the relaxing atmosphere of Boston Beach in Portland Parish, Jamaica.  

In St. John's, NL we rented a lovely one-bedroom ground floor suite in a bed and breakfast, walking distance to all the bars, restaurants, hiking paths and other attractions.  In Jamaica we stayed in a cliff-side hut at a small rustic eco-resort in a remote location with beautiful beaches right outside its gates.  For our next vacation of this sort, I think we've found the best of both worlds:  Puerto Rico.  For starters, Puerto Rico is one of the cheapest places to fly to in all of the Caribbean.  Round trip air fare can be as low as $228 per person from Washington, DC to San Juan.  Because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, they use U.S. currency and Americans don't need a passport to enter.  Puerto Rico's water quality is held to the same standards we enjoy here in the States, so you don't have to worry about drinking the water while there.
Old San Juan
From the airport, Old San Juan is a only a short $20 taxi ride away.  The city is visually stunning with a historic district, Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, oceanfront fortresses and plazas dating back hundreds of years.  A cultural vibe also runs through Old San Juan, bolstered by its many foodie-oriented restaurants, hip galleries and contemporary shops.  It has a very cosmopolitan feel and even has a brewery - Old Harbor Brewery - the only one on the island.  We'll be looking for an apartment or hotel with balcony in the heart of downtown for a 3 or 4 night stay.  During our time in San Juan we hope to go on a guided tour/hike in El Yunque rainforest, about 25 miles to the east.
Culebra Island
Quite the contrast to Old San Juan, Culebra is a small (7 miles long by 3 miles wide) island about 17 miles east of the Puerto Rico mainland and 12 miles west of St. Thomas.  From 1901 to 1975 the U.S. Navy used Culebra as a gunnery range and as a practice bomb site during World War II.  Unlike other Caribbean  destinations, development and commercialism has not found its way to Culebra.  Today the island has about 2,000 permanent residents and not one single traffic light or high-rise hotel.  Portions of Culebra have been designated a National Wildlife Refuge the island contains beaches that have been ranked among the best in the world.  You can get there by flying or by ferry.  I think we've found an awesome small cottage on the island's northeastern edge near Zoni Beach.  I'm hoping we can get by on Culebra without renting a car, but we'll see.  

Sure there are other attractions and destinations worth considering:  bioluminescent bays, caves, the surf town Rincón, the charms of Cabo Rojo and Boquerón and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music in Ponce come to mind.  But studies show that relaxing, stress-free vacations are the most happiness-boosting so I don't want to go through the hassle and frustrations of renting a car and managing all the logistics that come with that.  Not when we can experience pretty much everything we want through a combination of Old San Juan and Culebra!

Peptalk to Self: Thought I Heard That Train Whistle Melody Weavin’ Through the Trees

How many times have you heard the expression “if you can hum it/sing it/whistle it, you can play it”?  I’ve only recently started to believe that the concept behind this phrase could actually apply to me.

To whistle an Irish traditional tune all you need to know is how it sounds.  You don’t need to know the tune’s name, what key it’s in, or even whether it’s a jig, a reel, or some other type of tune.  All you have to do to is match the rhythm, phrasing and pitch changes – in that order of importance.  There’s no need for notation and no need for an intellectual understanding of music.  You do it all by ear, letting visceral intuition, not logic or theory, inform note selection.

Children learn how to speak a language fluently before they even know how to read it.  As an adult learning to play music - essentially a second language - the same notion applies.  You don’t learn a language by studying it, you learn it by speaking and listening – slowly grasping the peculiarities of communication without needing to know the grammar rules behind it.  Being able to read doesn’t help you speak the language and it certainly won’t help you understand it when it's spoken to you. 

It will be hard at first.  You won’t know how to do it, it will be embarrassing; you’ll feel frustrated.  But eventually you’ll be able to express yourself by making the finger movements necessary to create the sound you want to come out.  Keep at it.  Don’t worry about putting yourself out there, hitting a wrong note, or failing.  Those thoughts and fears don’t enter your mind when whistling a tune so why let them dictate the way you play your instrument?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How to Teach Yourself a Tune: A Music Tip from Chris Smith's 'Celtic Back-Up' book

If you want to learn the secrets behind the glamorous world of Irish trad rhythm accompaniment, Chris Smith’s book on that subject - Celtic Back-Up for all Instrumentalists – is the place to go.  Not surprisingly, the book also contains information germane to melody players and for those with a general interest in accompaniment for any genre of music.  It was in Celtic Back-Up that I came across a music tip that I’d like to share here.  This tip is for people who can read notation/tab but aren’t yet comfortable with playing by ear. 

What you do is find good, reliable notation for a tune you want to learn.  Play through the notation to make sure it sounds the way you want the tune to sound, or have heard others at your local session play it.  Once you’re confident you’ve got a good version, break the tune down into 2-measure phrases.  Assuming that your tune is an 8-measure A-part (repeated) and an 8-measure B-part (repeated), that means that each part will have four phrases.

Get out your preferred recording device (most likely your smart phone’s recording App), and record yourself playing Phrase 1.  Then leave enough silence for Phrase 1 to be played later when you are listening to the recording.  Play Phrase 1 again if you like, again leaving room after the audio.  Then move on to Phrase 2, Phrase 3 and Phrase 4…leaving enough silent space after each phrase for it to be repeated once or twice.  After that, move on to the B-part and do the same thing. 

Once you’ve made your way through the whole tune, broken down into 2-measure phrases with space after each phrase, you may want to record yourself playing the tune in-full, with both parts repeated as you would normally play it, to reinforce the overall sound of the tune.  As soon as you are done recording put away the notation (forever!) and listen to the recording with instrument in hand.  Try and duplicate the phrases you are hearing by playing them in real time over the dead-air you left on the recording between each phrase.

Phrase-by-phrase teaching of a tune like this is traditionally how this music is passed on.  By recording yourself playing it and then listening back, you are essentially teaching the tune to yourself!  There are some risks involved – your playing of the phrases will more than likely not contain all the nuances that a master player’s would.  But at this point you’re just trying to nurture your ability to recreate sounds on your instrument.  You definitely want to continue to listen to recordings of the masters so that all the other ornamentation and characteristics that make the music so special sink in as well.

Besides good ear training, when you break a tune down into phrases you start to notice patterns.  Such as:  Phrase 3 being the same as Phrase 1; Phrase 2 asking a question that is later answered by Phrase 4; sections from Part A that are duplicated in Part B, and so on.  When you grasp a tune this way you also retain it better, because you realize that there isn't as much to "memorize" as you first thought.  For the record, Chris Smith emphasizes that the best way to learn a tune is entirely by ear without notation ever entering the equation, but for those of us with a notation addiction, quitting cold turkey is kinda hard.  This tip offers one pathway in that direction.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Playing Music Is Like Typing Part 2

In Febuary, 2011, one of the first posts I wrote on this blog was a fairly naive homily titled Playing Music is Like Typing.  In it I compared playing a tune from written notation to...
"....transcribing a hand-written letter into a typed one. Although imagine that the letter I'm typing is in a foreign language that I don't understand. I have a pretty good attention to detail, so I can almost get the letter word for word without any spelling errors, but I still have no idea what the letter that I'm typing says. That's what playing music is like for me. Any variations I do are more like type-O's than different ways of saying the same sentence."
I go on to say that memorizing a tune is...
" an actor reciting his lines, but more like the actors in Avatar who had no idea what they were saying because their lines were in the Na'vi language they made up for that film."
Pretty depressing stuff.  I've been trying to get away from this whole concept that playing music is like typing, the way I originally envisioned it.  Today I realized this concept could still be true, if taken from a different angle.

Earlier this evening I wrote a post called 2 things I love about playing Irish traditional music and old-time Appalachian tunes.  One of those two things was the melodic nature of the music.  I've been doing research on how other people learned to play melodies by ear.  It was during this research that I came across the concept of relying on kinesthetic memory to know where the notes are on the instrument, but not to memorize tunes and not necessarily to know where to go next in a particular tune. This is exactly what my fingers are doing as I type this.  The words are in my head.  My fingers know where the letters on the keyboard are, but my brain is controlling what words I type.

Playing a tune is exactly the same!  First you have to listen to the tune enough so that you can hear it in your head...or can't get it out of your head.  You may have to listen a different way than you're used to, so you can internalize the contour of the melody.  Once you know how the tune goes, it's just a matter of plucking a string and simultaneously placing a finger on the fret of the note that needs to be played, same as the way you unconsciously place a finger down on the computer keyboard for the letter you want to type.

I didn't have this entire post memorized word for word when I began typing it, but I had the gist of it mapped out.  Same as when you start a tune.  If you know the contour of a tune all you sometimes need are the first couple notes and then the whole tune will follow.  You just play what you hear in your head.  This is totally different than memorizing a whole sequence of notes and involves only having to remember how the tune goes.  So, in that way, the older, wiser, more experienced me can still say that Playing Music is Like Typing!

2 things I love about playing Irish traditional music and old-time Appalachian tunes

Number 1:  It provides nearly all the musical satisfaction I crave.  Although I had never tried to play any sort of music until I was in my 30’s, I did develop a music listening obsession during my college years and beyond that led me to artists such as Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, The Grateful Dead, Ween, The Flaming Lips, Dr. Dog, Camper Van Beethoven, The Meat Puppets and more.  I was way more into listening to music than the average person, I suppose.  I was never driven to attempt to play any of it though.

It wasn’t until a series of successive trips to Ireland in 2004, 2005 and 2006 that I discovered and gradually began to appreciate the melodic, instrumental music they call trad – with its jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, slides, slip jigs, slow airs, and so on.  I eventually made the connection from this more ancient Celtic music to our less ancient old-time fiddle music, which still thrives in the Southern Appalachians and beyond.

So, after a while I got a tenor banjo and after a few unsuccessful attempts to transfer the music by the above-mentioned contemporary artists to that half-barbaric instrument, I began to investigate what it might be like to play these more simplistic yet more musically satisfying tunes from Celtic and old-time traditions.  Having not listened to much trad or fiddle music before starting to play it, a lofty learning curve was in order, and will remain so for years to come. 

I may never master these traditions, but it is a type of music that a person can almost immediately begin receiving enjoyment and fulfillment from, without the need for years of training.  I have now effectively channeled that obsession (or void) which was previously sated by listening to music, and have transferred that to a music playing obsession.  The option of continuously improving is right there in front of you.  All you have to do is pursue it. logo - Los Angeles
Number 2:  They are both melodic, primarily instrumental styles of music.  Individual notes in sequence.  No harmonies required.  No strumming.  No singing.  No complex arrangements.  No need for theory.  That might be why some folks don’t find it interesting, but it’s precisely what entices me about it.  It’s the same as whistling, except you’re playing the notes with your fingers on your instrument.

At first I was most concerned with playing the tunes by any means possible, so I taught myself how to read tab and notation without developing my ear.  Now, I am at the point where I want move from associating the act of playing the instrument with reading off a page to associating the action of playing with hearing the sound.  It is much easier to do this with melodic music.  Trial and error eventually gets you there…I hope!

For a while I was also bogged down with music theory and scales.  Lately, I’ve realized that this intellectual pursuit is not that useful for traditional music, and can even cause you to hear what you think should be there rather than what is actually there.  Your ears tell you whether you're playing the right note, not the tab, dots or theory behind it.

I don’t want to be the guy who can’t even play Brother John unless I have the sheet music.  Rather, I want to be the guy who, when a new tune comes up, listens to it a couple times through and then plays along without knowing the name of it, what key it might be in, or even whether I had previously learned it or not.   

They say if you learn any random 10 tunes by ear, without the intervention of notation at any point in the process, then you will have acquired an understanding of intervals and a stock pile of phrases that will allow you to construct almost any other tune there is.