Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review - Dark Star Orchestra at The National, Richmond, VA 12/28/14 (performing 7/14/76)

This past Sunday, December 28 was my first time seeing the Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra since guitarist Jeff Matson came on board. I had seen DSO several times with John Kadlecik in the Jerry Garcia slot until he was called up to the majors to join Furthur in 2009. Part of my hesitation in seeing DSO since then was because I wasn't sure if they would be as good with the new guy as they were with JK. I'm happy to report that there has been no drop off in quality with Jeff Matson at the helm.  It's different, but in a good way.
Dark Star Orchestra
Kadlecik’s vocals and tone are spot-on (close your eyes and it's Jerry), but I found Matson to be an edgier, more adventurous guitarist. Matson also proved to be a confident leader, taking the band down creative, and sometimes dark, paths of improv that went to places beyond just the duties of replicating a setlist and arrangements. Rather than trying to mimic Garcia, Matson's vocal delivery differed in ways that actually worked to his advantage, giving the music an in-the-moment feel.

I’m definitely not as up on my Grateful Dead history and minutia as I used to be - haven't studied it in years - although I still think I am way more aware of song rotations and the sounds of different years than the Deadheads who actually lived it in the 70’s and 80’s!  For example, by looking at the stage setup before they started one could assume it was a post-1974 Keith and Donna era show based on the two drum sets and the keyboards positioned on the left.

The opener Promised Land was sans “Donna” (Lisa Mackey) but when she materialized for the 2nd song Sugaree this confirmed that it was either 70’s show or an original setlist. Matson made a particularly good impression on this Sugaree, building it to an early peak, then letting it settle down and mellow out the last time through.

Minglewood came next. No clues there except for maybe the absence of the “T for Texas, T for Timbuktu” verse(?). The placement of Scarlet Begonias as the 4th song of the 1st set seemed odd to me and the way they were playing it indicated that this was a pre-1977 version that wasn’t going to go into Fire on the Mountain. This made it fairly clear that they were doing a 1976 show. (I usually try and guess the year of a DSO concert by the third song of the 1st set.)

The only thing that sort of threw me off was the absence of Blues for Allah songs. It being 1976 you expect things like Help / Slip / Franklin’s, The Music Never Stopped or Crazy Fingers, or maybe even It Must Have Been the Roses. The whole first set could have been a 1974 set, especially with the sparkling Playin' / Drums / Wheel / Playin’ end to the set, but the presence of two drummers meant that it couldn’t have been 1974 unless there were some ’74 shows with Mickey Hart that I was forgetting.
Jeff Matson - photo by Suzy Barocas Perler
The whole 2nd set was a highlight. The ballads were on point and there were some monstrous jams during Let It Grow into Eyes of the World, and then again leading from Wharf Rat into The Other One. They finally played something from Blues for Allah as the last song of the 2nd set - The Music Never Stopped. We left as soon as the show encore of Johnny B. Goode started, so we missed the announcement of the performance date and the bonus “filler” encore of The Weight, but a quick glance at 1976 setlists when I got home confirmed that we had just seen them do 7/14/76 at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, CA.

I would definitely go see DSO again with Jeff Matson as Jerry. He could really tear into '73 or '74, or even something earlier.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Vangelis Pytharoulis - Cretan Melodies

One of the fun ways of using a music streaming service like Spotify or Rhapsody is to search for random, far out titles. For example, last week I had a hankering to hear more exotic sounding folk music from around the globe, so I created a huge playlist populated by albums that came up via searches for words like "Balkan", "Cretan", "bouzouki", "musette", "balalaika", "Turkish", "Middle Eastern", "Oriental", "Romanian", "Arabic", "pasodoble", "ngoni", "marimba", "choro" and so on. Anything I could think of in that vein.  I put it on random play and one thing I universally liked each time it came up were tracks from this generic looking album called Cretan Melodies - Instrumentals.
It says the album is by Vangelis Pytharoulis.  I have no idea who this is and I haven't been able to find anything out about this album. I just know I like the sound of it. Crete is an island that is part of Greece, but Cretan music is different than Greek music; it has a mixture of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences and probably some African and Oriental influences as well. It's kind of like everything I was looking for in that search all rolled into one.  One of my favorite albums of 2014 was Goats by Xylouris White, which is based on Cretan folk music, but with a more avant-garde flair. The presumably traditional music on this Cretan Melodies album had a lot of similarities to Goats but of course with a more indigenous sound.

These Cretan tunes run together in long, hypnotic medleys. Having never listened to this music until recently, and never having tried to play it before today, I wasn't sure what would happen but within a few minutes of trying to play along with the first tune on the album - called Esvis aeras to keri (sp?) - I was playing along with it! The time signature and rhythm may be different, but it was definitely using the D major scale, although it wanted to resolve to B so maybe it was B-Aeolian?  (see recording above). Looking forward to delving deeper into this album of Cretan music.

My search also uncovered some interesting Bal Musette and Middle Eastern gems, so I hope to cover those in future posts.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Music - Figuring It Out for Yourself

My transcription of a tune I'm learning -
a work in progress
You don’t really learn something until you learn it yourself in your own way. For example, I remember finding other people's instructions on how to play by ear and re-blogging this information long before I had ever tried it myself. That was over three years ago. Now that I am five weeks into attempting to learn tunes by ear I'm developing an inkling of an idea of how to do this based on how I’ve managed to do it thus far.

After a full year of playing by ear I'll have an even better understanding of the process and a more refined way of doing it. Chances are what works for me - my eventual way of understanding it or describing it - may be different than the way it was explained in those instructions written by others.

Another example is the chord player who refers to a chord chart to tell her when to go to the IV chord, the V chord, and so on.  If instead she learned through trial and error by relying on her ear to tell her what’s right and what’s wrong rather than what some guy wrote on some sheet or even what some teacher said to do, then not only is she learning in a more direct, intuitive fashion, but she may also happen upon personal harmonic preferences, such as hearing a minor sounding chord that the chart omitted.

When you figure something out for yourself, you learn what's important and what you can leave out.  My chicken-scratch transcriptions make sense to me and don't need to be any clearer for my use and understanding, but would be confusing for someone else. A lot of people will say when you are learning a new song you figure out what the chords are first and then go from there.  I may be wrong in my approach and this may be an incomplete view, but I don't really even think about or care about chords. I think in terms of melody. That's what's important to me.

I like to learn the melody first and then go from there.  I understand theory well enough to know what chords would be available in the scale being used, but I don't need to know that to play the tune.  I might harmonize a melody note with another note - that's similar to the idea of a chord. It took figuring this out on my own for me to personally decide what's important and what's not.

One impact I hope learning by ear will have is, rather than being so focused on just playing the notes - a "midi" style melody - I can shift my focus to articulating the general feel, rhythm and vibrato of the piece. You don’t need a book telling you where to do a triplet or hammer-on, you just hear the need for it in the music and do so automatically.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Travel Destination: Québec City!

Almost every year my wife and I try and visit some place outside the continental USA, as budget and time permit.  In the last decade we've been to Ireland (multiple times), Scotland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Jamaica and Puerto Rico (twice). Next on the list will be Québec City in 2015. Why Québec? Here are some reasons.
image from Voyages Universitie site
Old World charm – That phrase "Old World charm" looks and sounds so stupid, but what it means is that Québec is reputed to be the most European of all North American cities. You know, narrow, cobblestone, shop-lined streets; outdoor cafes, and stuff like that.

French culture and language – You can experience a French-speaking region for much less cost than going to France or even the French-Caribbean. Plus, it’s in Canada, where the people are just plain friendlier. The French stereotypes don’t apply to the Québecois, do they?

Cost/Convenience – With one-stopover flights from our local RVA airport to Québec for under $400 round trip, it means no flying out of DC. And, you can easily find rental apartments in the Old Québec/Saint Roch area for less than $400 per week.

Music – It’s always a plus for me if the place we’re going has an oldtime jam or Irish session to check out, and it looks like there is an Irish session at Pub Nelligan’s in the city every Tuesday evening.

Waterside – Although it’s neither an island nor directly situated on an open body of water, the mighty Saint-Lawrence River does run through Québec, which keeps our water-themed trend going. The Saint-Lawrence is fairly wide as it passes through. You can take a ferry across to Lévis, where there is the Parcuors des Anses – a 10 mile paved walking/bike path along the water.
image from Corporate Stays site
Size/Layout – Québec looks like it is small enough and condensed enough to be completely walkable, but still sizable enough to have plenty of pubs/breweries, restaurants, coffee shops, museums and other cultural attractions. I have a feeling that it will be similar to Galway Ireland, Reykjavik Iceland, St. John’s Newfoundland and San Juan Puerto Rico – other cities we have visited and really enjoyed.

Other travel destinations in the running this time were New Orleans, Lunenburg Nova Scotia, the French Antilles (Guadeloupe or Martinique) and Michigan.

New Orleans was a strong contender.  It certainly checks the boxes for cost and convenience, plus culture, cuisine and music.  However, New Orleans might be more fun to visit with friends than as a couple, and Québec has a possible advantage in terms of charm as well as the French-speaking characteristic, which may be an incentive to learn some français before going.

Lunenburg, NS appears to be a lovely small town in Canada, similar to previous favorites like Dingle Ireland and Stromness in Orkney, Scotland.  However, flights to the nearest airport Halifax are a little bit more expensive than to Québec and you'd probably want to rent a car since Lunenburg is about 80 minutes away.  I also didn't see any inexpensive lodging options in Lunenburg other than the campground in the middle of the town; an option I seriously considered. But, if you're going to be in Nova Scotia you might as well try and see the Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton while you're up there, which would involve a ton of driving and more expenses.  We weren't up to the challenge.

The francophone islands in the Caribbean looked enticing until I looked into the airfare.  Unlike Puerto Rico, where you can fly for less than $300, it's almost $800 or more to fly/get to Martinique, Guadeloupe or St. Barts, so that will have to wait.  Plus, I think we're ready for another northern, more urban setting and not some place tropical.

The west coast of Michigan made a pretty strong case for itself as well, with its miles and miles of coastline, parks and cool beach towns along Lake Michigan and the density of breweries.  Grand Rapids alone has something like 25 breweries and Traverse City frequently shows up as one of the best places to live and/or visit.  It's also feasible to drive to MI from VA instead of having to fly.  Somehow, though, the idea of Michigan just doesn't seem foreign enough!

Ireland would actually be at the top of the list once again if flights there weren't so expensive now (I remember getting $440 round-trip tickets less than a decade ago).  Nonetheless, I have no doubts that Québec is the place to go next!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Diversity - Accentuating the Similarities

getty images
There’s a research paper entitled Mozart to Metallica: A Comparison of Musical Sequences and Similarities, by Stuart Cunningham, Vic Grout and Harry Bergen. The paper found that “Many musical pieces, though perceived as being greatly different in terms of their style, are often very similarly constructed on a strictly notational basis”.

Now that I’m attempting to play and notate some music by ear, I am noticing this more myself. Genre has its uses and conveniences for categorizing and selling music to the general public, and as a player of music you can delve pretty deep into the nuances of different styles and traditions if that’s your thing, but the more I play and study music, the more I see the similarities.

I personally define traditional music as the act of creating music on your own, for your own enjoyment, using some type of musical instrument. This must have been how people did it back in the days before recordings, mp3s and clicking play. If you’re sitting on your front porch playing guitar, then you’re playing music in a traditional fashion, no matter what sound is coming out. It could be Bach or it could be Mary Had A Little Lamb.  One could also argue that pursuing your own musical interests based on the influences around you is more traditional than going out of your way to preserve an archaic style.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

To me, (tenor banjo) is a music equalizer. I can use it to pluck any instrumental melody that my ears are capable of hearing and my fingers are capable of playing. The universality of this act neutralizes the concepts of musical genre, style, tradition and other perceived differences. In other words, a classical composition, a fiddle tune, a jazz standard, an Eastern European folk song – when envisioned/interpreted as notes on the 4-string banjo – sort of all become the same thing, rather than a bunch of very different things. At this micro-level, the only genre is the genre of making music on your instrument. There’s a lot of freedom in that.

The tenor banjo is one of the core instruments in Irish traditional music. It’s loud, it cuts through the din and it uses the same fingerings as the fiddle. It made sense for it to be adopted into the fold. But, when I play an Irish tune on tenor banjo, I try and view it as more of a coincidence than an association with an established style. Irish tunes are just one of many things I might want to play on this instrument. Hopefully, I’d still be playing Irish tunes on the tenor banjo even if there wasn’t already a precedent for it (although it is nice to have that roadmap).

Everything is malleable. For example, I’m pretty sure the Phish song Guyute is in 6/8 time like a jig (if it’s not it could be). When stripped of its album version, its arena-rock context, and its jamband distinction, and with no one to please but yourself, playing Guyute on your instrument should be fundamentally no different than playing something like Irish Washerwoman on it. Conversely, when stripped of its clichéd “Irishness”, playing Irish Washerwoman on the tenor banjo should be no different than playing an arrangement of Guyute on it. It works both ways. One is no more or less an aberration than the other.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of 2014

This year’s Best Of list is marked by the inclusion of several debut and one-off recordings from recently formed ensembles, as well as small-bands featuring just two or three members; although a few old favorites did once again make the cut.  Also notable this time around is a turn toward the noisier, freer, more avant-garde side of the musical spectrum, alongside groups representing traditional Appalachian and Irish music.  

Rhyton - Kykeon
Rhyton is a Brooklyn-based instrumental trio with a jammy, Mediterranean sound.  They take simple, exotic scales and motifs, and build them into full-blown psychedelic compositions.  For about the first minute of Kykeon, their newest release for Thrill Jockey Records, it sounds as if Rhyton are adjusting the dial, re-calibrating their connection to the faucet from which music springs, until they are synced up with the live stream, where they remain tuned for the next 40 minutes of mellifluous elevated prime, until being pulled back down the sonic wormhole from whence they came.  These improvisational meditations are bolstered by Dave Shuford's use of unique instruments such as the Egyptian doumbek, the Turkish electro-saz and the Greek bouzouki...and his bandmates' bass and drums.  Rhyton falls somewhere between jamband, post-rock and indie-world music.  At times it sounds like they are channeling the same spirit that would have infused the Grateful Dead at one of the late 60’s Acid Tests.

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara - Thumbscrew
This album of free improv avant-garde jazz rocks with a heavy metal attitude.  Mary Halvorson is one of the most exciting guitarists/musicians/composers to come along in any genre right now, and on Thumbscrew she's matched up with the equally skillful Michael Formanek, bass and Tomas Fujiwara, drums.  Constantly shifting, this music is too cohesive to be fully improvised, yet too feral to be entirely composed. But, that's just the magic of three great listeners working in tandem.  If you find it hard to jive with Thumbscrew's inverted groove just give it time.  Soon you'll be addicted.

The Alt - The Alt
The Alt is the debut album by a newly formed Irish-folk trio featuring John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O'Leary; a super-group of sorts, that, not surprisingly, excels at upcycling songs.  Each member takes a turn at lead vocals, giving the album a nice flow, interspersed with a couple strong sets of tunes, because they can.  Nuala Kennedy has a voice that is reminiscent of Nanci Griffith, Eamon O'Leary (one half of the Murphy Beds) is a master of the ballad, and John Doyle is an exceptional interpreter of story songs. Instrumentally, Doyle and O'Leary are stringed-instrument whizzes; the perfect accompaniment to Nuala's expressive flute playing.  The Alt takes its name from a mystical glen, or chasm, on the slopes of Knocknarea in County Sligo.

Greg Cohen - Golden State
Greg Cohen is the long-time bassist for John Zorn's Masada. On this straight-ahead jazz outing, he teams with guitarist Bill Frisell to present 9 tracks inspired by the nature and landscape of California - 6 Cohen originals and 3 standards. This is a stripped down, minimalist album - just Cohen's acoustic upright bass and Frisell's unusually clean, non-distorted electric guitar. Recorded in one studio session on December 3, 2012 in Brooklyn, NY. An instant classic.  If you like this kind of music.

The Corn Potato String Band - The Corn Potato String Band
This fun record finds Aaron Jonah Lewis, Ben Belcher and Lindsay McCaw playing a variety of instruments exhibiting twin fiddling, double banjo tunes, Southwestern stringband music, country rags and oldtime. There's a light-hearted, vaudvillian nature to their square dance hootenanny. The Corn Potato Stringband is not afraid to mix n' match styles and influences into a smorgasbord of entertainment. Recorded live with no overdubs.

Crag Road - Crag Road
Crag Road hails from County Clare, Ireland and features Ennis seisiún veterans Eoin O'Neill and Quentin Cooper, newcomer Aoibheann 'Yvonne' Queally on concertina, and Noirin Lynch on bodhrán and vocals. Noirin's sparsely accompanied songs are well chosen, but it’s the tunes that shine the most here. Aoibheann's home grown concertina leads the way, supported by musicians who have spent their lives gathered around pub tables conjuring jigs and reels.

Medeski, Martin and Wood + Nels Cline - The Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2
Nels Cline's affinity for noise and MMW's proclivity for groove are a match made in, well, a highly hip heaven.  The famed trio that merged jazz with jam has shifted their personality slightly on this release to match Cline's frenzied energy.  While MMW with guitarist John Scofield (as heard on this year's excellent Juice) may be like chocolate and more chocolate, MMW with Cline is like chocolate and cheese - a curious meeting of tastes.  Every listen to this highly improvised album reveals more than before.  Recorded live on August 27, 2013 at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY.

The Hot Seats - Grandad's Favorite
The same breakneck speed, wittiness, and slightly blue attitude we've come to expect from these RVA lads is well showcased on Grandad’s Favorite, but this time the balance of songs and tunes might be the best they've ever assembled. Play this one for your granddad. It’s sure to be his favorite.

Xylouris White - Goats
Xylouris White is the unusual collaboration between Cretan lute player Giorgis Xylouris and rock/free jazz drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). On Goats, their debut album, they use Greek folk music as the foundation for rock-minded improvisations. Goats was produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, who describes the recording process like this: “Rather than trying to capture a perfect ‘version’ of a tune, they listened to each other playing and that real-time, in-the-moment communication and shaping is what made each take distinct”. The result is much more than just Cretan melodies and rhythms combined with rock drumming and a rock aesthetic.  Simply put, it’s two virtuosos coming together to fluidly create something entirely new.

The Two Man Gentlemen Band - Enthusiastic Attempts at Hot Swing and String Band Favorites
Andy Bean and Fuller Condon have become increasingly better instrumentalists, now able to solo with the best of them. So, instead of the usual (humorous, original songs that sound like they could be from yesteryear), The Gentlemen tackled a selection of classics from the hot jazz and string band era. They receive some help from Brian Kantor on drumkit as well as members of the California Feetwarmers, adding clarinet, accordion, guitar and plectrum banjo to these cuts, which were recorded around one microphone.

Honorable Mention
Phish - Fuego
Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather
Mary Halvorson - Reverse Blue
Sam Amidon - Lily-O
Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood - Juice

Monday, December 8, 2014

Daniel Hales' Tempo Maps and Top Ten Prose Poetry Books

Musician and writer Daniel Hales' short, jagged prose poems feel like the offspring of a jazz improviser and a cold November day.  His cryptic wordplay works best not when the reader finds something to identify with, but when it implants images and associations that wouldn't have come to mind otherwise.

Daniel's new book of poetry is called Tempo Maps, from ixnay press.  You can start at the front or the other has two alternate beginnings that both end in the middle, or something like that.  The book comes with a CD of Hales reading the poems, interspersed with short instrumental interludes.  Here's a selection from the book.
The little league field seen from the top of Tuckerman's tower is a removed wedge, a pale green sheath (like a sacred grove in a fantasy novel's centerfold map).  The hometown bench is a silver bar where six boys tasted High Lifes one night dotted with fireflies.  Later, two of these boys are men that buy their wives the exact same set of lavender-cedarwood candles.  Another one worries that his cassettes are dying a little more each winter out in the garage.  Another wonders why he can't find the post office's number in the phone book.

Back in September, Daniel Hales shared his list of the Top Ten Prose Poetry Books on; a list that included works by Russell Edson, Francis Ponge, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Louis Jenkins, as well as some equally talented but lesser known writers.  This list has proven to be invaluable in my discovery of poets in this style.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Q&A with Nick DiSebastian, Music Transcriber

Last year I worked with professional music transcriber Nick DiSebastian to have him notate all 18 tracks on The Etcetera String Band's out of print Bonne Humeur album of early Caribbean dance music. Nick is a Berklee College of Music grad and is currently on tour as the bassist for the band Town Mountain.  I have also taken a couple Skype lessons from him and one impromptu in-person lesson when his band came into town.  I thought it might be fun to do a QandA with Nick on the topic of transcribing music.   

Describe your musical background and any current music projects.

I started playing the guitar when I was 10. I loved to play rock and soon got into jazz. In high school I played guitar in the jazz band, started playing the bass in the orchestra and sang in the choir. I also played in a jam band. I went to college for Music Education. While in my late teens I attended a bluegrass festival and fell in love with the sound and culture. I soon picked up the mandolin and started playing guitar in a local band. Seeing young people playing on stage at festivals made me decide to transfer to studying performance as opposed to education. I began studying at Berklee College of Music where I learned much more about theory and ear training and was surrounded by inspiration. After graduating I continued to work as a guitarist accompanying vocal classes at Berklee and gigging around Boston. From Boston I moved to Nashville where I began playing with various local and touring bands. In 2013 I started my transcription business. I currently tour full time with the band Town Mountain as the bassist along with teaching private lessons and staying very active with transcribing. Guitar is still my main instrument and the quest of learning will never end. When I have time off from touring and transcribing I like to play bluegrass and jazz on the guitar.

How did you get started transcribing? What skills do you possess that make you especially suited to this task?

I always had a knack for hearing and figuring out music. In college I realized the value of notating music. I also learned more in depth ear training skills and how to use notation software. My mentor named John McGann had a transcription business very similar to mine. I admired what he had created with his business. When John passed away I decided to start my business. Since transcribing professionally my ability to hear and quickly analyze music along with my notation software chops have gone through the roof.

Why would someone want to have music transcribed? Isn’t there value, in the long run, to trying to work it out on your own?

Along with learning to play the notes and use the techniques of your heroes there is a world of music theory knowledge within transcriptions. The key to gaining this deep knowledge of theory is by knowing how to analyze music and notation. Learning directly from the masters aids everyone’s musicianship. As a transcriber I’m functioning as a time saver (by keeping you playing rather than deciphering) as well as an educator.

There is a lot of value in figuring out music for yourself but many musicians don’t yet possess the skills to hear and understand music theory enough to figure out what is going on in a recording. Along with transcriptions I offer lessons on analyzing music as a means to get the most out of learning to play a piece of music.

What are the most common types of transcription requests you get? Is there a style or type of music that you wish you received more requests for?

The most common music that I receive to be transcribed is bluegrass and fiddle tunes for the guitar and mandolin. I am on a big Gypsy jazz kick these days. I would love to get more work transcribing that style for guitar. The challenge with transcribing professionally is creating business. There are always more outlets for advertising. Touring full time restricts the amount of time I can spend transcribing but I would like to take my business to a Gypsy jazz advertising outlet within the next few months.
What is the strangest piece of music you’ve ever transcribed?

A fella named Lanny Fields had a big collection of music by the Etcetera String Band transcribed ;-). That was a bit out of the norm but I’m rarely surprised. I often receive messages via my website by first time customers for all different styles. Just this past month I transcribed Bryan Sutton, Jimmy Page, Dan Fogelberg, Sandy Denny and Django Reinhardt. I love the diversity. It keeps me on my toes and is constantly exposing my ears to new music.

Has transcribing other people’s songs or solos helped you with your own compositions and improvisation, and understanding of how music works?

Transcribing has helped my musicianship in many ways. The most obvious is that it has made my ability to hear and analyze music much stronger. It has also opened my eyes to compositional and improvisational techniques. There is a bit of neutralizing that happens when turning all different types of music into spots of ink on paper. The subtle differences in feel and embellishments from piece to piece interest me. For example transcribing the same tune by two different players (ex. David Grier vs Norman Blake) exposes me to different approaches to tone and interpretation. I like that!

You also give lessons via Skype. What is your approach to teaching using this medium?

Teaching on Skype has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are being able to teach from anywhere, any time WIFI is available, and staying connected with transcription customers, just to list a few. The disadvantages are not being able to play at the same time with a student and possible bad internet connection.

Each student is unique. I’ll always ask a new student what they are interested in learning and then move on to accessing their knowledge of music and ability on their instrument. Building a strong foundation in technique is the first skill I like to focus on. From there I like to work on a bit of theory. Once the more technical (sometimes “dry”) topics are covered I will get into a piece of music with the student. Analyzing what is going on in the music, how to play it and the emotions it conveys are what I really like to teach. That’s what learning and making music is all about: playing, feeling and expressing. Throughout all of the topics that are covered in a lesson I reiterate practice techniques to ensure that the student will be working on their material in the most efficient, effective and enjoyable way.

If you could only teach one thing to all students, what would that be?

If there was one thing I could teach students it would be for them have a strong sense of what they like and why they like it. Once the intention is set the path becomes clear.

More information about Nick DiSebastian's music transcription services can be found at  Nick's debut CD is called Window View; avalable here:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sound Advice from Clyde Curley, Co-Author of the Portland Collection Books

When I first got an instrument and discovered fiddle tunes, I felt like I needed some kind of written music - tab or notation - in order to play these melodies.  Even though I had no prior music experience, I remember somehow being able to understand and read mandolin tab from, literally, day one, but it's taken me years to come around to trying to play anything by ear.
One of my primary sources for written music is/was The Portland Collection tunebooks, volumes 1 and 2, by Susan Songer and Clyde Curley.  I preferred these books over, say the ubiquitous Fiddler's Fakebook, because of Susan and Clyde's clean arrangements and excellent variety of tunes. Thankfully, I would always listen to various different recordings to get the feel of whatever tune I was learning from those books, but the written page was primarily where I got the notes themselves.

In hindsight, I wish that I had focused more on aural skills early on rather than just rely on tab reading because I feel like I would be a lot farther along now if I had persevered through those initial stages of frustration.  I always avoided deciphering by ear because A) it seemed impossible, and B) you could instantly start to play a tune by reading the tab, and eventually memorize the notes through repetition.
Due to a sprinkle of ear training and a major paradigm shift, I'm now trying to learn some tunes completely by ear without ever looking at the music, if I can help it.  So, it's a little ironic that I turned to some comments that Clyde Curley had written in the introduction to The Portland Collection Volume 2, and in the liner notes of the A Portland Play Along Selection CDs, for inspiration.
If you want to feel the living pulse of traditional music, you need to learn to play these tunes out of your memory as the first priority.  This allows you to interact directly with the other musicians in the session or at the party.  It helps you pay more attention to the technical challenges of playing your instrument.  Essentially, learning the music removes what I believe is an artificial wall between you and what's going on around you and within you.  The roots of folk music are in the aural domain, person to person.  These roots must be honored and strengthened, I believe, if the spirit of folk music is to survive. The music in this book comes from the people who passed it directly to us, not from other books.  It was selected largely because of the pleasure it gives in the playing.  I urge you to pass it on by scraping it out on your fiddle or squeezing it through your bellows.  Make some noise!  This tune book will have served its best purposes if it encourages you to embark on wider, more personal searches that will result in connecting with the vibrating heart of the real thing. (Clyde Curley, from "About this Music" in the Introduction to The Portland Collection Volume 2).  
Our goal here is to encourage learning this music by ear.  Learning from a printed page may seem quick and easy, but it's not necessarily a fast track to mastering a tune.  It may provide instant gratification, but less long-term satisfaction.  That comes from storing these beguiling, pleasing arrangements of sounds in your memory banks via the appropriate avenue for sound, namely, the ear.  This involves an investment of time and effort, but the rewards will be deep and enduring.  (Clyde Curley, from the liner notes to A Portland Play Along Selection).