Learn How to Use Your Equipment

March 4, 2014

I have written before about the drawbacks from memorizing a song in the sense that if we only know a song by playing it from start to finish, in order, without knowing what we’re really doing – that it can cause problems if something does indeed stray from what we’re used to. In that article I was speaking about playing a song – now I would like to talk a bit about your equipment.

Whether it be simply your uke and an amp, your home stereo system, or any PA you’re using – wouldn’t it be nice to know how it works, in the event that it needs to be moved, unplugged, and re-wired? Now I’m not suggesting that you open up the amps and look inside at the electronics – I am speaking of the simple wiring: uke > cord > amp. That one’s pretty easy, and most of the time, you have to unplug your uke when putting it in its case. There’s a direct connection: uke to amp via the cord.

Most stereos nowadays seem to be all in one units, so there is little connecting to do, but basically, it goes something like: CD Player > Amp > Speakers. Sure there are a lot of wires coming in and out of the back of the amp – receivers, tape players, DVD’s, etc. But it’s all about what goes IN and what goes OUT. However, one doesn’t move their stereo system around much, so that may fall into the category of, “once it’s working – leave it alone.” (I don’t do that. I like to play around with the configurations all the time, much to the annoyance of roommates.)

However – one area that DOES matter would be the case of a PA system. This is the sound system used in shows, club meetings, etc., and can be anything from a simple “plug one mic here” unit, to a multi-mic, monitor, main speakers, lots of cords kinda set up. Often times there is one person who knows how it all works, and that is good – unless that one person can’t make it one night. Then everyone is lost. Completely lost.

Some groups have tried to work around that issue by leaving everything hooked up – wrapping the cords around the mixing board without unplugging anything, and transporting everything that way.

I have heard said, “Don’t touch any of the dials! Leave them as they are – it’s working and we don’t know how to fix it if it doesn’t work.”

I have also experienced bands who set up their system to work and sound good in a practice room, and expect the same sound when they have moved everything to a larger performance area.

Again, the drawback to this mindset, is that this only works if nothing goes wrong. But things go wrong. People get sick, or are late, and things have to be set up anyway. And cords can get damaged when wrapped around things like that – I don’t suggest it.

So I encourage you to take the time to begin to learn how a system works. They aren’t as difficult as they seem, once they are explained and you have some time to practice plugging and unplugging everything. It’s basically a simple “what makes sound gets plugged into the thing that makes it louder, which gets plugged into the speakers” thing.

Of course I have simplified everything here – in reality, one would need the actual experience of playing with this equipment – plugging in the mics, plugging in the mixing board, the amp, the speakers… but it is all very logical and worth learning – even just a little.

I am happy to explain and answer questions as they are presented in this blog the best I can, and if you are in my area, I can help to teach you in person. But if not – try to make a little time now and then to learn how to use your equipment. Knowledge is power, and believe it or not – it will help your performance as well because you will know how everything works and what you need to do onstage at your next open mic!


Take your foot off the brakes!

November 21, 2013

So often I have been asked to help someone learn something about music: new chords, strumming, singing, etc., but almost always the first thing they say to me (and often repeated throughout the lesson) is something to the effect of, “I can’t do this.”

There are countless variations to these negations; sometimes they say, “I am horrible at rhythm,” or they will constantly shake their head at the mere mention of a new term they hadn’t heard before.

Now I understand the tendency to want to “warn” me of one’s problem areas, but c’mon – it’s like asking me to help you push your car and having your foot on the brakes! Not only is it not necessary, but it actually prohibits me from helping you.

If you want to learn something, you have to take your metaphorical foot off the brakes and HELP PUSH! That’s right – aim yourself in the direction you want to go, and push! And just like a car – it’s a little hard at first, but as you gain some momentum, it gets easier and easier.

This is always the first thing I teach people, and it often takes up a good portion of the first (and subsequent) lesson/s, because I have found that once I can get my student to “get their foot off their brakes” – then the actual learning of material proceeds rather easily.

We have all formed some bad habits. I, too, have to always watch what, and how, I phrase things.

Here are some suggestions:

Instead of saying:  “I am no good at….”
Say: “I wasn’t good at…”
Or: “I haven’t been good at…”

Instead of saying: “I can’t……”
Say: “I will try to…..”
Or better yet: “I can…..”

Instead of saying:  “I have no rhythm.”
Say:  “I’d like to improve my rhythm.”
Or: “I am improving on my rhythm.”

These are subtle changes, and you might not think them that important, but they make a HUGE difference in how we learn. By simply stating our intentions in the positive, we have effectively taken off the brake and are free to move in the desired direction.

Now, what was it you wanted help with?

Put It Into Orbit

October 10, 2013

For those of you who may not know it – I teach music classes to a lot of beginning/intermediate ukers and guitar players, percussionists and singers.

One of the things I used to say was that when some new information was too advanced to comprehend, let it go over your head and instead focus on some other aspect of the information that is easier to grasp. There will always be something to be learned in any situation.

I have changed by advice lately – changing my statement to be: put it into orbit!

Instead of imagining to have something go over your head and away and then having to find it somewhere, somehow later, or even have it be lost forever –  imagine that same information stored close at hand so when you’re ready to understand it, it’s right there – in a metaphorical orbit around your head.

It’s nearby, ready to access.

For instance, I have often mentioned to my class a particular chord – the minor 7th flat 5 chord. I see the scared reactions from people.

“Oh my GOD that is a horrible chord!” they seem to think.

So I say, “Don’t worry about it – just be aware of that chord, put it into orbit, and it will make sense later.”

Then later I go about to explain this “other” simple to play chord that only uses two fingers over two frets. Everyone gets it. When I tell them that this chord is in fact a m7b5 chord (minor 7th flat 5), they all get this amazed look on their face. They got it!

And this technique has worked on me as well, though I didn’t know it at the time. Many years ago, I was working with a very skilled jazz musician who was explaining chord scales to me. I understood a little of what he was saying, but much of it went wayyyyy over my head. Somehow, I managed to file that information somewhere in my head (in orbit) and a few weeks later under a different circumstance – it all came back to me and made perfect sense.

So now, when you are faced with something that is a bit “over your head” – let it stay up there, but instead of imagining it zipping on past and away – imagine it floating around above you – ready to be understood and incorporated into your knowledge banks!

So here’s a question for you all – has anything seemed too difficult for you at a particular time, yet later under a different circumstance – made sense? It doesn’t have to be about music; it could be about cooking, assembling an appliance, gardening, work, money… anything.

I’d like to hear about it.

Rhan Wilson

Playing with others.

August 6, 2013

Playing with others: we do it often, joining play-alongs and jams,  yet we often jump in blind with no one to guide us through the basics. I offer here a way to think about the social act of playing music together, by way of describing a typical, healthy conversation. Then, I compare it to playing music together.

If I were talking to myself, I could ramble on and on, switch topics any time I wanted, and start and stop at will. (And I do that often.) However, if I wanted to have a healthy conversation with someone else or a group of people, the rules change a little. Let’s examine some of the things we do when conversing:

Have an idea of what is being discussed before jumping into the conversation. What is the topic? At what level are people talking – both in volume and in intellect? That way, when you join in, you are able to do so without causing a distraction.

It’s a great conversation when someone can make a statement and then allow someone else to comment. (We’ve all experienced the constant talker who never pauses to let anyone say anything.) You may be an expert at a given topic, but unless you’re teaching or giving a lecture – don’t hog the conversation.

I’ll say it again – listen. Has anything changed? Are we now talking about something else? If so, update! And if you want to get back to an earlier thought, you might say, “I’d like to say something else about ______ before moving on.” This let’s others know you have been paying attention.

One needn’t be absolutely silent when someone else is talking. A quick “right on!” and nod of the head signals your agreement without hijacking the conversation. It lets the speaker know you are listening and can build enthusiasm.

LISTEN. (Have you noticed that I keep coming back to this?)
Be interested even if you’re not the one talking. Ever notice how some people get frustrated and impatient when someone else is talking? It seems they are not really listening at all but rather only waiting for a break so they can get back to what they were saying.

Know when the conversation is ending. I like a long conversation myself, but when people have stood up, put on their coats, and are headed for the door, it might be prudent to hold off on starting up the conversation again. I can wait till the next time you all get together.

Playing music with others is very much like having a conversation.

In the same way you assess a verbal conversation before jumping in, listen for musical cues as to what is already going on. What is the tempo? At what volume are the other people playing? Are you playing with beginners or with more advanced players.?

This doesn’t have to take long  – just a moment – long enough to be aware of what you are joining.

Listen – play – listen – play…. Here’s one way to think of it: if you are playing by yourself, you can pretty much play as much as you want (100%), but as soon as there’s someone else, I’d like to think that the sound space be split 50-50.
Be careful not to hog the musical conversation. Leave room for others to add to the sound and be part of the dialogue. Sometimes, the rate of “taking turns” can happen very quickly. Other times, it occurs over several measures.

We are not machines. Our tempos change slightly. We all may start together, but we have to monitor the tempo constantly, just as we correct our steering when driving down a long straight highway.

Throwing in a brief 3 or 4 note response (lead) now and then after a notable lyric can be cool. It says, “I’m listening” and “I agree” much like a spirited “Amen” during a sermon.

We might compare soloing (playing lead) with talking. You might have something interesting to play/say, but if you dominate the conversation, interrupt while others are playing/talking, solo too long, etc. – you might as well be playing by yourself.

Great music is all about the space in between the notes. Be interested in what others are saying and playing and comment/play when it is called for.
(LEAD PLAYERS: Even if you are the only lead player in a group – try to make what you say/play count. Leave some space now and then so other nuances in the music can be heard. Sometimes playing music means NOT playing music.)

Watch the leader (or anyone and everyone) for cues as to what to play, when. Pay attention to when the song is about to end and try to finish with the others. Even though you may want to add that extra verse or chorus; if everyone has all stopped together – please don’t be that one or two players who insist on ending it “their” way, even though everyone else has already done so. You might as well be playing by yourself.

Remember – you are part of a group. Do your best to make everyone sound good. To quote Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”

Finally, I acknowledge that this post represents only my opinion, though that is based on 45+ of playing music in both casual and professional settings. There are many types of jams, just as there are many types of conversations.

Your turn – what are your thoughts?


The Forgotten Contract – Legal Business

July 25, 2013

Before we can begin to learn, there is a bit of legal business we need to take care of: the forgotten contract.

How many of you at some point in your lives have ever been told that “perhaps music isn’t your thing”, or the e-music-ulating statement, “don’t give up your day job”?

Or worse yet, how many of you have actually started a music lesson or musical conversation the the words, “I’m no good at…” or “I have terrible rhythm.”?

These types of statements may seem benign and harmless, or merely conversational, but sub-consciously they are huge; the equivalent of signing in ink, a legally binding contract. You see, our subconscious won’t let us be liars – if we say we are bad at something, then we are. (On the other hand, if we say we are good at something, then our subconscious tries its hardest to make that true, as well.)

It is this contract that we need to render invalid before we can move on to learn things.

Fortunately, this is easily done.

First, let’s see if we can locate some of those old forgotten contracts. Did one of your teachers tell you that you were untalented or shouldn’t play an instrument? Now imagine a document that represents that scene; a parchment paper complete with fancy writing, plenty of legal mumbo jumbo and your signature down at the bottom that signifies your willingness, conscious or not, to go along with the agreement.

See it?

Now tear it up. Destroy it. Wad it up, stomp on it, light it on imaginary fire! It’s the only copy – no one will ever know it’s missing.

Go through this process with as many negative incidents as you can remember, and just for extra measure, imagine one giant all-inclusive contract that covers any ones  you forgot.

Destroy it!

Now that you are free of any contractual obligations that will hinder you from learning – be careful not to inadvertently create any new ones.

Avoid statements such as: “I am not good at…..”

Instead you could say: “I wasn’t good at…….”  or “I am working on my….”.

These statement acknowledge that fact that you may not be up to speed and as good as you want to be, yet leave the door open for improvement.

(It’s hard to break the habit of making these negative statements about yourself and your abilities, but just being aware of these statements is the first step to learning how to re-phrase your self limiting comments.)

Okay… now that we have taken care of those unsettled, unhelpful contracts, we can proceed.

What do you want to learn?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 327 other followers