Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Want to Go Back to Ireland

I want to go back to Ireland.  Laura and I have been four times but not since 2009.  Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of our first visit so it seems like reason enough to return.
During our visits we saw a lot of the West coast – Clare, Kerry, Galway and Connemara.  Stayed in Dingle, Doolin, Lahinch, Ennis, Kenmare, Clifden, Roundstone, Galway city and more.  My favorite area was County Clare, although like most visitors we hung around the Burren area and didn't spend much time in the less touristy East Clare villages.
I hadn't yet started to play Irish music on my initial visits, but I did come back home with recordings featuring Clare musicians Yvonne Casey, Eoin O’Neill, Quentin Cooper, Kevin Griffin and James Cullinan.  That is the sound that I fell in love with.
The Clare style of playing has been described as rhythm-focused and uncomplicated - perhaps an influence of the many Ceili bands that hail from the area.  Triplets are used sparingly (at least compared to some other regions) and the music can be a bit slower and more contemplative.
The famous East Clare fiddler Martin Hayes uses the words "lonesome touch" to describe the Clare sound, which he defines as "the intangible aspect of music that is both elusive and essential".  I would also say that North West Clare music specifically is quite progressive...I saw upright bass and even Australian didgeridoo being played at local sessions there. 
Now that I'm playing a little bit of Irish trad here in Virginia, I'd like to sit in on some sessions when I go back.  Maybe not the paid sessions put on for tourists in Doolin, Lahinch or Ennis - those don't seem like they would be open to a blow-in of my intermediate abilities.  Although I might try that in Ennis.  But, according to the listings at and there are also regular sessions in more out of the way Clare towns such as Feakle, Corofin, Sixmilebridge, Quin and others.
Laura near Oughterard
I suspect that at these smaller villages which are off the regular tourist's map, locals gather to play music for music's sake, and they might be more amenable to a stranger who wants to join in.  The goal of playing in these sessions is enough to motivate me keep up my practice regimen in preparation.  However, how you act is as big of a part of being welcomed or accepted at a session as how you play. 

Above and below are some pictures from our trips to Ireland in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Ladies View

yours truly in natural habitat

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Keeping an Oldtime Jam Oldtimey

One of Richmond VA's great musical treasures is a long running oldtime jam that meets at a Deadhead bar in the Fan every Sunday afternoon.  Even though the musicianship and BPMs are at advanced levels, the regulars are friendly toward newbies who "get it" and want to try their hand at sitting in with the ensemble and playing this music at breakneck speeds. 

Besides being so welcoming, this jam is great because it is 100% festival style oldtime all the time.  Everyone in the group plays in unison and tunes are taken around several times.  No bluegrass songs, slow waltzes or other deviations are given a chance to infiltrate.  Plus, weird, crooked, seemingly obscure fiddle tunes are favored over the somewhat cliche Fiddler's Fakebook standards.  Additional tunes are always being added to the repertoire, so the more you attend, the more great numbers you are exposed to if you are up to the challenge.

I don't think anyone even blinked when I first  showed up with my openback 1920's style tenor banjo last year.  For one they realize that tenor banjo does have a bit of history in stringband music, and two I didn't barge in and immediately suggest we play Kesh Jig or Friend of the Devil.  I quietly sat in the outer ring of the circle and tried not to look too confused as I noodled away on tunes I had never heard before.  The endorphin release I experienced on that first day, the first time I had ever really heard oldtime music in that way, is something I've been trying to recreate ever since!

There are other jams around town where one can play and sing a folk song, trading solos over chord changes, but the reason most people attend this specific oldtime jam is because playing traditional tunes in the keys of D, G, C, A and A-modal, with folks who are at a high level of proficiency in this specialized style of music, is exactly what they want to experience.  Even if repetitive fiddle tunes aren't your favorite thing, it can be great ear training and other practice.

The other day a woman showed up with a guitar and played for at least 30 minutes with us while we were in the key of A.  Then she suggested that we play and sing Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms and began to play it (in D?).  Nobody joined in and the jam leader kindly explained to her that that wasn't exactly the kind of music we were here to play.  I was really, really happy he handled it this way, rather than bending the makeup of the jam to appease her request...and ignorance.  You've  got to uphold the standards of the jam.

Unfortunately for her, she reacted negatively, made some rude comments and immediately left.  I suspect that most people, having so broadly misjudged the nature and etiquette of a jam like that, would've at least stuck it out for a while.  We just continued doing what we doing - bringing to life Old Bunch of Keys, Saddle Old Kate, Road to Malvern, Bull at the Wagon, or whatever else it was that came next that day!  In another time and another place sure, I may have wanted to try out that song, but not there during this jam where the focus is on sounding out the main melodies to fiddle tunes together as a group.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Ornamentation for the Irish Mandolin and Tenor Banjo

My big focus last year was on committing to memory as many basic versions of tunes as possible so I could fake my way through sessions and not have to rely on a tablature in a public setting.  In the process I got a little better at playing by ear and more comfortable with winging it in those situations.  I still have a long, long way to go with ear training and that remains my number one area of focus, but I feel like it's time to also start working on ornamentation and melodic variation.  In a way they go hand in hand, I suppose.  Rather than trying to personally write about a topic of which I have little experience, I thought it would be best to link to some other people's articles on Celtic ornamentation, articulation and phrasing.  See below.

Here's a piece entitled Ornamentation for the Irish Tenor Banjo by Chris Smith.  Smith is the author of Celtic Backup for All Instrumentalists, and has a great CD of Irish traditional music called Coyote Banjo that I've been listening to.
Chris Smith

Here's an article on Celtic Mandornaments by instructor and bouzouki master Roger Landes
Roger Landes

And here's a feature on Triplets from tenor banjo enthusiast and Banjo Sessions contributor Mike Keyes, where he uses an unusual song - Stephen Foster's Camptown Races - to demonstrate this technique.
Mike Keyes

In a future post I may write about a triplets and variation exercise from Enda Scahill's Banjo Tutor that I am finding to be very helpful.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Olafur and Gellivor the Troll, an Icelandic Folktale

Old Female Troll, by Sofia Trollkind Sundin
This story of Gellivor the Troll happened on Blaskogar Mountain in the south of Iceland.  For two years she haunted the passes, becoming so mischievous that few people even attempted to cross the mountain.

This particular year, the inhabitants of Thingeyarsysla discovered that their calculation of dates was incorrect and they didn't know the exact day for Christmas.  In an attempt to fix the error, the villagers decided to send a message to the bishop in the village of Skalholt, asking him for help.  They agreed to send a bold and youthful man named Olafur across the mountain to deliver their request.

Olafur set off on his journey and late in the day was passing over Blaskogar Mountain.  Not wanting to face the troll, he hurried along as quickly as possible.  At twilight, Gellivor appeared in his path and said, "Are you going south, Olafur? I gladly warn you to go home. Return with shame to your own place".

Olafur replied, "Oh, troll on the mountain, greetings!  I hope you are well."  Surprised by his words, she said, "Over the years, few have greeted me so kindly.  You are a dear man, pass safely."  And she let him continue on his way without eating him.

Troll turned to stone
Olafur arrived in Skalholt and contacted the bishop.  He delivered his message and in return received the exact day for Christmas.  On his way home, he again passed over the mountain.  He encountered Gellivor, but this time she seemed far  less threatening.  When he approached her, she offered him a book.  It was a troll-almanac or calendar.

As she handed it to him, she said, "If the Christ, son of Mary, had done as much for trolls as he did for humans, we would never be so ungrateful as to forget the date of his birth."  Olafur, who was not a very gracious man, said to her, "Look!  To the east.  Who is it that rides on a white horse?"  The troll turned to look and at that moment, dawn broke over the mountain and she was turned to stone.

Based on Jon Arnason, from Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and  Other Icelandic Legends.

Connection Between Folk Tunes and Folk Tales

I've mentioned on this site before about how I hadn't listened to much Irish or oldtime before I started trying to play it.  My obsession with instrumental trad and fiddle tunes began only (simultaneously) with my getting a tenor banjo.  In a search for satisfying forms of music to play on the 4-string banjo, I was led to traditional music of Ireland and Appalachia, where I could make a tune complete by simply plucking the basic single-note melody without the need for complex harmony and structure.
Icelandic folktale
This discovery of an earlier form of music, before the days of radio, TV and recorded audio, has now found a literal/literate parallel in folktales of Celtic, Scandinavian and other origin....legends and stories of elves, trolls, giants, ghosts, witches and elemental beings from the other world that stretch the imagination and were born out of a similar need for self-made entertainment.

The malleable, un-complex, and easily digestible format of a traditional tale allows each storyteller to make it his or her own, adding or subtracting as each retelling is remembered a little differently, the same way that a fiddle player might bring to life his own version of a fiddle tune he's heard others around him play.  I had never played any music or instruments prior to learning instrumental folk tunes.  However, I have been reading and writing most of my life, so incorporating variations, embellishments and ornamentation with the written word seems natural. Soon, I will begin sharing some folktales here.

Book Review: Play Tunes on the Irish Tenor Banjo by Brian Connolly

Over the last several decades, the 4-string tenor banjo has become accepted as a viable instrument for Irish traditional music.  Despite increasing popularity, there are still very few Irish tenor banjo instruction books available.  Brian Connolly, of the trad group Craobh Rua, is helping to remedy that with the release of the spiral-bound Play Tunes On The Irish Tenor Banjo: Introductory Repertoire.  In the tutor Connolly, who is from Belfast, employs simple, user-friendly directives to teach the basic techniques required to get that Irish sound.

The book starts with the banjo beginner in mind, going over the parts of a banjo, the fingerboard, how to hold the banjo and the pick, what strings to use, how to position the fingers on the frets, tuning, and how to read music.  Many pictures are used to give the reader a visual image to accompany the text.  Even a seasoned player could do well by reviewing this material.  

Connolly then jumps into playing exercises, scales and arpeggios to help get your fingers moving. The beginner often wonders if playing scales and arpeggios is worth it, but down the road you realize that having this knowledge can help you pick up and better understand how a tune comes together.  

The book includes two CDs and practically every exercise, song and tune is accompanied by an audio recording on one of the CDs - essential for making the aural connection that is at the heart of this tradition.  There is a progress check at the end of each chapter to help you make sure you're ready to move on to the next section.

Then the book gets into the meat and potatoes - playing songs and tunes!  Connolly goes over 7 songs, 10 Irish polkas, 8 double jigs, 2 single jigs, a couple slip jigs, a couple slides, 4 reels, 2 hornpipes and 2 mazurkas (a full list of titles is below).  Along the way he covers ornamentation and triplets, arranging sets of tunes, and suggestions for further practice.  I should note that notation and tablature is shown for the songs, but there is only notation for the tunes - no tab.

The audio for pub songs like Wild Rover are played almost too slow for my taste, but I found the medium-tempo used for the tunes to be just right for playing along with and learning by ear.  In fact, getting to clearly hear the melody line of these tunes being played on tenor banjo, and having the notation to go along with it if needed, is one of the best overall features of the book. By just playing along by ear to the the audio tracks of tunes like The Eavesdropper, Tobin's Favorite and Paddy Has Gone To France, I've noticed an improvement in my abilities over the last few weeks.  

Brian Connolly
Throughout the book there are color photographs of current Irish tenor banjo players playing or holding their banjo. Not only is this great because you get to see how others may hold the instrument, but it will also provide you with some new names of players to check out.  

It says in the preface of the book that when not on the road with Craobh Rua Brian is kept very busy giving lessons to would be Irish banjoliers.  It is surely through this experience with teaching that he has been able to devise a book that feels like a series of lessons that you might get from Brian in person.  The book alone is not going to make you a great banjo player, but it can give you the confidence and motivation to put in the hard work and focused practice required to get there.  

Here's a list of the tunes and  songs in the book.  Along with some session standards, there may be a few titles on the list that are unfamiliar to you, as they were to me.  This is good because in addition to learning the auld favorites that everyone is supposed to know, it's nice to have a few obscure tunes up your sleeve so that you can pull them out at your local session.  

Songs: Down by the Sally Gardens, The Wild Rover, Whiskey in the Jar, Spancil Hill, The Irish Rover, The Star of the County Down, I'll Tell Me Ma.
Polkas: The Mist on the Glen, The Britches Full of Stitches, The Little Diamond, The Munster Bank, Dalaigh's, Egan's, Maggie in the Wood, Denis Doody's, The Ballydesomond No. 2, Matt Hayes' No. 1.
Double Jigs: The Leg of the Duck, The Blackthorn Stick, Slieve Russell, My Darling Asleep, Maho Snaps, Bill Harte's, The Eavesdropper, Tobin's Favourite.
Single Jigs: Sergeant Cahill's Favorite, Smash the Windows.
Slip Jigs: Deirdre's Fancy, The Fisherman.
Slides: Going to the Well for Water, Dan O'Keefe's.
Reels: Paddy Has Gone to France, The Glentaun, The Road to Lisdoonvarna, Sword in Hand.
Hornpipes:  The Humours of Tullycrine, The Fairies'.
Mazurkas: Prionsias O'Maonaigh's, Rachel on the Rock.

Play Tunes On The Irish Tenor Banjo is available from Claddagh Records,, Matchetts Music, and Clareen Banjos maker Tom Cussen's site.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Very Slow Sessions: Irish Music from France

In my never ending search for Irish session tunes on the web, I came across a French site called Very Slow Sessions Paris Musique Irelandaise.  I don't read French, so I don't know what all the content is, but there are several tunes with notation and mp3 audio files on the site.

It might not be cool to get your blarney second hand from French sources, but it doesn't bother me.  Check it out!  Plus, if you understand French then there appears to be a lot of additional information that might be of interest.

Black Prairie Tiny Desk Concert

This week NPR posted an excellent Tiny Desk Concert that I'd like to share (video below).  It was by a band called Black Prairie, who are probably more well known than most new acoustic stringbands due to the fact that three of the five members are from The Decemberists.  That would be Chris Funk - dobro and banjo, Nate Query - bass, and Jenny Conlee - piano accordion.  Portlandia!
Black Prairie
However, Black Prairie's musical notoriety doesn't stop there.  Lead singer Annalisa Tornfelt was formerly in a band called Bearfoot.  I recall seeing her with Bearfoot at Ashland Coffee and Tea 4 or 5 years ago.  In addition, guitarist Jon Neufeld is a founder of the Portland based bluegrass band Jackstraw.  I got to see Jackstraw a couple times between 1999 to 2001 - once in Nederland, CO and also multiple sets at the High Sierra Music Festival in California.
I had heard of Black Prairie, but they didn't really catch my attention until this Tiny Desk Concert.  I really like how piano accordion fits into their sound, plus Annalisa is a great singer.  Their most recent album A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart was on multiple best of 2012 lists.  It may be time to give it a listen!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Left-Handed Fletcher Tenor Guitar

Fletcher Tenor Guitar in Blue Heron case
In late summer 2012 I became the owner of a Fletcher Tenor Guitar.  Fletcher instruments are hand-crafted by Jamie Dugan in Ithaca, NY.  I had seen and heard a Fletcher guitar in the hands of Jamie's mom, Jody Platt, a well known oldtime musician and Clifftop veteran who plays with the likes of Riley Baugus and the Lonesome Sisters, and I immediately knew I wanted one.  The quality (and price tag) of these instruments meant that if  I was going to get one I was making the jump from someone who dabbles in music as a hobby, to someone who better be pretty damn serious about dabbling in music as a hobby!

Fletcher JD1 Mahogany
Fletcher guitar with The Bailey strap
I already play short scale (21", 17-fret) GDAE-tuned tenor banjo.  Most tenor guitars have a bigger body and longer scale length than I'm comfortable with, and I don't like the feel of double course strings so an octave mandolin wasn't something I was interested in.  Fletcher instruments, on the other hand, are designed to use the same GDAE tuning (one octave lower than a mandolin) and have basically the same scale length, specs and feel that I am used to from playing tenor banjo.  Add in the fact that Jamie could make it left-handed, and it seemed like the standard Fletcher model was custom made for me!

Blue Heron case
John Carty's traditional Irish album I Will If I Can - where he plays some tunes on tenor guitar - and Norman Blake's classic flatpicking guitar album Whiskey Before Breakfast are two huge influences on the playing style I'm aspiring to adopt, and the Fletcher tenor guitar gives me the perfect means to attempt these forms of music on a 4-string guitar-sounding instrument that I greatly enjoy playing.

The Fletcher came with a hard shell case and one strap button -- if I'd have thought about it I would have had Jamie install a 2nd strap button on the other side of the body.  I found that I don't like lugging around a heavy case, so I ordered a custom fit, high-quality soft case/gig bag from Ken Jorgenson at Blue Heron Cases, who is super friendly and easy to work with.  I had a local luthier install a 2nd strap button, and ordered a hand-braided leather strap from Bill Bailey ("The Bailey").  Now I'm all set.  Some hastily recorded sound demos are below.  I recorded them using a basic iPad recording app.  My limited playing abilities combined with the limitations of the amateur recording device may not properly convey the tones this instrument can produce, but it will give you some idea.

Learn By Ear Sound Files from Canote Stringband Class

Greg Canote, Jere Canote and Candy Goldman teach a stringband class in Seattle that meets over an 8-week period every Fall, Winter and Spring.  Participants learn to play old-time fiddle tunes in the keys of D, G or A.  Since 2003 they’ve covered over 200 tunes and counting.  One of the students Maya Whitmont has put together a site archiving sound files and banjo tab for all of the tunes.
Greg Canote - fiddle, Jere Canote - guittar
I’d attend the class if I could, but I live 2,800 miles away.  Still, I find the learn-by-ear audio tracks to be very helpful, as the tunes are played multiple times through at a medium-slow tempo.  I’ve played along with such tunes as Old Aunt Jenny With Her Night Cap On, Seneca Square Dance, Magpie, Pretty Little Shoes, Double File, Tater Patch, Sadie at the Back Door, Spotted Pony, Johnny Don't Get Drunk, Sara Armstrong's and more.  Check it out here!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A New Crop of Female Singers Has Emerged

I've been listening to a lot of female singers as of late.

It used to be, when I wasn't jamming out to Phish, I would switch gears and take in female singers like Nanci Griffith, Margo Timmins (of the Cowboy Junkies), Iris Dement, Gillian Welch and Abigail Washburn.  Then, for some reason there was a long dry spell where I didn't really listen to many female musicians.  I don't think my tastes changed, because I was always on the lookout for female singers to check out, I just wasn't finding any that spoke to me.  Here lately, however, a whole new crop of emerging female artists are making some of the best music to be found, and this is causing me to once again bend my ear toward feminine vocals.

These women include:
Elizabeth LaPrelle
Mountain ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle, whose vocals really cut through.  She is a Southern Appalachian treasure.

Lisa Hannigan
The lovely Irish lass Lisa Hannigan - who has great songs and a unique way of playing stringed instruments.  Here's a link to her NPR Tiny Desk Concert.

Hilary Hawke
Hilary Hawke, a 5-string banjo player and music teacher from Brooklyn, NY.  She is one-half of the neo-oldtime duo Dubl Handi.  Their Up Like the Clouds album was one of my favorites of 2012.

Zoe Muth
Country crooner Zoe Muth.  This Seattle girl and her band The Lost High Rollers make country music the way it was meant to be made.  It's back to the barrooms again.

Maya de Vitry (with Charles Muench L and Oliver Craven R)
Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds, a tremendously gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.  Her contributions to the Stray Birds CD are the best original songs I heard in all of 2012.

Carla Morrison
And Carla Morrison, who mesmerizes while singing in Spanish.  I discovered her via this NPR Field Recording video.

As great as these ladies are, there's still a wide open void to be filled by the all female jamband that kicks some serious improvisational ass.  The Pheminine Phish, you might say.  Now, that would be something, that really would be something.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Old Time Country Duo Sweet Fern to Play Ashland Coffee and Tea

Sweet Fern
Old time country duo Sweet Fern, featuring multi-instrumentalist Josh Bearman of The Hot Seats and ukulele songstress Alison Self, will be performing on Thursday, January 10th, 7pm at Ashland Coffee and Tea.   Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door.

In Sweet Fern you have the pairing of Alison’s strong vocals and demure stage presence with Josh’s impressive skills on old time guitar and clawhammer banjo.  "Stripped down, no frills, and rough around the edges" (their words).  For fans of the Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, Marty Robbins, and awkward stage banter.  Sure to be a good time!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mental Practice: Visualization, Away from the Instrument

Most of us don't have the luxury of practicing 8 hours a day with instrument in hand.  Luckily, there's a lot of practice you can do away from the instrument - while doing mundane tasks, while walking, while trying to fall asleep, et cetera.  
Learning music is more aural than physical and mental preparation is a rewarding form of practice.  Tunes are not just sequences of finger motions.  Listen repeatedly to the tunes you want to learn.  Get it out of the fingers and into the ears.  You need to be able to recall a tune in your mind before you play it with your muscles. 

Run a tune through your head and imagine the fingerings required to play it.  Work through variations mentally.  Envision yourself playing it in an optimal state of total relaxation - fluidly, efficiently, effortlessly. Do your thoughts become fuzzy at a certain point or do you notice any physical tension arising while imagining?

Other things you can do include thinking about the notes in a chord or about different modes and scales and the relationship of the notes in that scale.  Name all the notes in a melody.  Give the notes numbers, based on their relation to the tonic/root.  Sing the names of the notes in pitch.  Picture the fretboard and where each note is.  When you pick up your instrument to play the body will follow suit.  The mind teaches the body.

Finally, when music is playing around you, even crap music, listen intently all the time.  Focus and be an active listener. Never turn your ears off.  Try and analyze any music you hear.  Mental sharpness and aural recognition will pay off more in the long run than mindlessly churning out scales and exercises.