Sunday, June 25, 2006

Good Practice

Last night, I had one of the best practice sessions I've had in a long time. Practice sessions like these are few and far between for me, but every so often, perhaps once every 3 or 4 months, everything comes together just right. I had good tone, (imagine that, good tone from a banjo) good timing, and my fingers were very comfortable for a change. Oh, how I wish I could have more days like this. I was working on two tunes, when all of this good fortune occurred - Amanda Jewel by Ricky Skaggs and Banjo Boy Chimes by Bill Keith.

I had probably been practising for at least one and a half hours before I was politely asked if I would stop. It was after all, midnight, and the rest of my family was retiring for the evening. So, I stopped, but I didn't want to - I was on a roll! I really can't complain - my family is very supportive of my musical endeavours, especially my wife, Helen. So supportive is she, that every time I say I'd like to have a new Jim Mills model Huber banjo, (approximately $5400.00 CAD right now, with our dollar equal to .89 USD) she says "you should order one." And she is serious, she's not just saying it to make me feel good. If only I had $5400.00!

Amanda Jewel is primarily a mandolin tune that Ricky Skaggs wrote for his daughter on the occasion of her high school graduation. My son is working on the guitar breaks, and of course, I am working on the banjo parts. That leaves room for a mandolin player who likes a challenge and a fiddle player to complete the tune. Any takers?

Banjo Boy Chimes is a banjo instrumental written by Bill Keith, the mastermind behind the Keith banjo tuners with adjustable stops. Bill is a great banjo player, mostly known for his melodic style. Banjo Boy Chimes doesn't use the adjustable tuners, it's just one of those catchy tunes that makes you want to learn it, so I'm giving it a whirl.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Less is More, More or Less

When music becomes noise, I can get discouraged in a hurry. This statement holds true whether I'm playing with thirty people at a jam session or with just four or five people in a private setting. Excessive volume, and sounds that don't blend in a harmonious way really gets to me; so much so, that I frequently ask myself "Why am I doing this?" I find it particularly annoying when the worst offenders turn out to be musicians whom I think should know better. Sometimes I'd rather just play along with my computer instead of with other people, and that doesn't seem right!

When playing music, there are two types of noise to consider. The first type of noise relates to the overall volume of the music, that is, how loud is it? The second type of noise is what I like to call noise pollution; it occurs when someone is playing the wrong notes or is a little out of sync with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, I am frequently guilty of contributing to noise pollution; it's an inescapable side effect of being an inexperienced musician.

Obviously, when playing music neither type of noise is desireable, but the noise that bothers me most is the excessive volume. Now, you might think this type of noise only occurs in a large group setting. Well, think again buddy! Actually, it's bewildering how much noise 3 or 4 people can make; unbelievable really.

I don't have all the answers to the noise problem, but, I've been observing musicians I play with and I believe I've gained some insight. To reduce the noise at your next jam session or practice, consider the following list I compiled as a result of my observations:

Know The Difference
In his book, So What's The Difference?, Fritz Ridenour states "To make a difference, you must know the difference." This statement is so true, and it applies to everything in life. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge there is a problem, because you can't fix a problem that you don't think exists.

I have often said of music that is being played from a CD, "that's what we should be striving for," to which I have received replies like "if we could do that, we'd all be in Nashville." Well, that may be true, but it's not an excuse for beating on your guitar haphazardly just to make a noise. I surely know that I am no pro musician - I've got a long, long way to go, and plenty to learn, but I know when something sounds bad and I realize some work is in order. The point is, to make a difference, you must know the difference. Only when you know the difference between confused clattering noise and music, can you take steps to improve.

Sit down and analyze what you are doing. Ask yourself, "what can I do to improve?"

Star of the Show Syndrome
It seems to me, one of the causes of excessive volume is that everyone wants to be the star of the show. We all want to hear ourselves front and center. A new mindset is needed here. Instead of everyone pounding on their instruments with all they've got, we should be thinking of how much better the music would sound if we laid back a bit, when appropriate, which happens to be much of the time.

Think synergy, where the interaction or cooperation of two or more musicians is combined to produce an effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. When playing in a group, it's not about you, it's about making the entire group sound good, and that means blending your instrument appropriately. Don't worry, there will be plenty of opportunities for you to shine when the time comes.

Lack of Dynamics
Dynamics refers to the difference between the softest and loudest sounds played. Sometimes an emphasized lick here and there is all it takes to "pretty up" a song and give it the required dynamics. There may be tunes where your instrument will play a very small part - there is nothing wrong with that.

Dynamics are lost when everyone is playing as loud as they can - there can be no "pretty." If you can barely hear the vocalist or your own instrument, someone, or everyone in the group is probably playing way too loud. Think about it. If you're practising with just four or five people in a circle, should the vocalist really need a microphone?

I recall being at the Rogersville Homecoming Bluegrass Festival 4 years ago when the group Lost Highway was performing. As I was walking around the festival grounds, I happened upon their camp site; they were practising under the awning of their trailer. I couldn't believe how amazing these guys sounded - five musicians in a circle, no microphones, no electronics of any sort. The vocal harmonies and the instrumentation was out of this world. It literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I don't think I'll ever forget it. Every instrument was at the exact right volume, no one was competing to be the star. The tonal quality of the instruments was outstanding. The dynamics were incredible, better than what they could capture in the studio with the best electronics and technology around. They really were that good!

The point I'm trying to make is that if you work at it, you should be able to achieve similar results, but you must recognize the problem first. Maybe you and I will never get to the level of excellence Lost Highway had shown, but we can try to achieve it by analyzing what we are doing when we play.

Not Listening To Musicians Around You
Learn to listen to the other musicians around you, you're not the only one in the group. I know, this can be difficult at times, especially when the noise is already out of control. When the noise gets out of control, you have to implement measures to fix the problem - it's not going to get better by itself.

The general rule is, if you can't hear the vocalist or jam leader, you're probably playing too loud. If everyone decreased their volume instead of increasing it, the overall volume would be decreased and you'd be closer to making music, rather than noise.

Harvey Arbo once pointed out the compensation effect to me, which I hadn't given much thought about until he shared it with me, but it makes sense if you think about it. I did a little experiment around this idea and discovered Harvey was 100% correct. It goes something like this: someone starts a tune, I'll call this person the jam leader. Everyone else at the jam joins in, and they want to hear themselves, which means everyone plays at a volume to suit themselves. Now the jam leader can't hear himself, so he steps it up a notch. In turn, this leads to all of the jam participants increasing their volume again - because they can't hear themselves. This vicious cycle continues until you've turned a piece of music into pure noise.

The compenasation effect applies not only to jam sessions, but also when playing with a group on stage or in your home. Everyone wants to hear themselves, which is understandable, but you can't let the noise get out of control.

Get on The Same Page
Everyone involved needs to be on the same page. The idea here is to have open and honest communication among all of the musicians. Do you really want to make the best sounding music you are capable of? If so, you should be able to take a suggestion or two without being offended. If you've got a suggestion for someone else, offer it in a tactful way, but, on the other hand, you shouldn't have to dance around on your tip-toes because you are afraid of hurting someone's feelings. That's where the open and honest communication comes in. Everyone should be in agreement as to the expectations.

If the bass player is continuosly playing a wrong note, it should be pointed out. That's not criticism, it's pointing out a fact. If I were the bass player, I'd want to know what I was doing wrong. If the rhythm guitar player is pushing too hard, speeding up, slowing down or playing too loud, shouldn't that be pointed out? Remember, the goal is to make music, not noise.

In my opinion, if you, or the members you are playing with can't take a suggestion without being offended or arguing about it, you have two choices:
  1. get on the same page about what it is you are trying to accomplish as a group so that you'll be better able to deal with the suggestions
  2. find a different group of people to play with, preferably with some members that think more along your line of reasoning. Don't be afraid to bend a little yourself, either.


I play a 5-string banjo, a pretty loud one at that. More often than not, when I'm playing with a group of musicians, I can barely hear the banjo. When I listen to the experiences of other musicians, I find it ironic how they always complain about how loud the banjo is at their jam sessions. My experience has been the exact opposite. I can't believe all of the other instruments can drown out the banjo. Could it be the other instruments are too loud?

At your next get-together, practice or jam session, try to keep some of the things I've talked about in the back of your mind. Better yet, put a few of the ideas into practice. I think you will find that less is more, more or less. Try it, and see if you agree.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Good Things In Life

Last Sunday, two friends and I visited at another friend’s home to learn and play some music. The whole experience was terrific. Two things I really enjoy about these small get-togethers is the cozy atmosphere they foster and the closeness you feel as friendships are strengthened.

We played a few good old standard bluegrass tunes along with a healthy measure of gospel tunes, which have always been a favourite of mine. As the day went on, I began to feel more and more at ease with myself and the friends I was with. I was thinking it’s just the four of us, and I don’t have to be perfect, so just before supper I did something I normally wouldn’t do - I decided to sing along with What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul? I’m not a great singer by any stretch of the imagination, but I had a lot of fun.

We were called for supper. We joined hands around the supper table as we thanked God for the food we were about to receive, and for the companionship we were enjoying. I could feel the closeness of our relationships building. Yes, this time we were spending together was definitely to be considered one of the good things in life.

After a delicious meal, we had another 45 minutes or so to play before we had to leave, as I had another commitment at 7:00 PM. We tried What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul? a few more times, and a couple other gospel tunes.

The next Bluegrass Friends jam session was the next day, and I was asked if I would sing along with the song we had practised quite a bit the day before. I was a little hesitant to do so in front of such a large group of people, but I was reassured I wouldn’t be making a fool of myself and I didn’t want to let my friends down, so I agreed to sing. Regardless of how it turned out, it was a good experience, and I’m glad I did it, I think.

This was a great learning experience for me, and I can only hope it was as much fun for the others as it was for me. I feel I'm making a good investment in the friendships of those involved. Indeed, it was time well spent!