You Deserve to Know the Truth

February 1, 2018

I often get a bit critical when it comes to discussing play-along groups – specifically ukulele dominant gatherings and their leaders.

While I absolutely love the community that is created by the legions of adventurous and enthusiastic uke players, many of whom are for the first time in their lives discovering the joy and pure pleasure of playing music – I sometimes cringe when I hear a group leader dispense incorrect advice and instruction.

“But what’s the harm,” you might ask, “as long as everyone’s having fun?”

“That is absolutely true,” I say to myself. But something nags at me. An inner voice tells me that it is important to point out when incorrect information is being inserted into the DNA of these minds starting out on the musical trail.

I have solved the dilemma of how to dispense correct information to these groups: I lead workshops at uke events, and I started my own weekly workshop/performance group in my home town – The All In Good Time Orchestra.

But I have been struggling with how to answer the question of why do I feel the need to “put the train back on the track.”

Because the train has fallen off the track. The train that was on its way to a wonderful musical destination fell off the tracks somewhere near the station from where it just departed. No one was hurt, thankfully. In fact, no one even realized that they had stopped. They just started playing where they were – but never moved on.

Again you might ask, “So what’s the problem with that?”

The problem is that some of those people wanted to continue their ride. They were hoping to join others at the other end. They wanted to learn how to play with the native music speakers they admired and hoped someday to be.

Imagine taking a language class in preparation to travel to Mexico city and you find yourself in a classroom of people being taught by someone who simply adds an “o” to every word and calls it Spanish.

“I have to go to the bathroom-o.” “Where-o is the library-o?” “Muchos grass-ias for your help-o.”

I imagine it could be a fun class, but imagine your embarrassment when you actually get to your destination and say that out loud. You would be wishing someone had spoken up in class and pointed you to a better teacher.

You may not be planning a trip to Musicland, but you may change your mind. You may want to “speak” with other musicians in actual musical language – not some localized pidgin concoction that is shared by only a few.

You deserve it. You deserve to be led in the right direction with the best information you can get.

It’s About Time – a story about music notation.

November 4, 2017

One night, while teaching my class, a student was confused about the types of notes I was referring to: quarter notes, whole notes, etc. To answer her questions, I wrote a story – an imaginary story – of how music notation came to be. I hope you enjoy it.

 

It’s About Time
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there lived a man called The Time Keeper, or The Keeper, as he was commonly known. The Keeper noticed the sounds of nature and of the villagers walking to and fro. The rhythms they created fascinated him. A very creative and innovative person, he thought about how he might create a language with which he could notate the various rhythms he observed. Being able to write down and diagram rhythmic patterns and the pulses of nature would enable him to archive, share, and reproduce them.

One day while on a stroll, The Keeper noticed how simple the act of walking was: left, right, left, right… He got out his sketchpad and drew a line that looked like a leg and at the bottom of that line he drew a foot. He would use that symbol each time he took a step, and before long he had filled the entire page with these symbols. The Keeper realized that it would be difficult to keep track of all those steps, as the symbols all looked the same and they went on and on with out any simple way to count them. Perhaps they could be grouped together in some way to make it easier to track them.

“Left, right…” the Keeper said to himself. “There is a grouping I could use.”

So, every two steps the Keeper made a vertical bar to separate the steps. That helped, but still seemed like a lot to keep track of.

“What if I doubled that, and grouped my footsteps into fours?” he wondered. “Left, right, left, right… Yes, that would do quite well.”

So, the Keeper made a vertical mark every four steps. He called it a bar. (He also simplified his foot symbol to being simply a vertical line with a solid oblong oval at the bottom where the foot used to be.)

“What shall I name those four steps grouped together?” he wondered. “I have it! I shall call it a measure.”

As the Keeper went on to think about all this, he realized that he would be noting all types of sounds and rhythms besides footsteps. He decided that he would call those “lines with legs” by a new name: notes. Since there were four of them in each measure; each representing a quarter of that whole measure, he would call them quarter notes.

Soon he realized that other sounds and rhythms he heard often lasted longer than the length of one footstep: often twice the length, while others moved by much faster. So, he created half notes, which were twice the length of a quarter note, and the whole note, which represented the length of four quarter notes. The half note looked just like the quarter note, but he left the oblong oval hollow, instead of filling it in. For the whole note, he decided to leave the hollow oval, but to remove the stem/leg.

He also realized that many sounds happened more often; sometimes twice as often as a single quarter note. To notate those sounds, The Keeper  divided each quarter into two parts: one for the initial downstep of his quarter note (that initially represented his footsteps) and another for the upstep. Since there would be eight  of these in a measure, he called them eighth notes.  Rather than creating a new symbol for these faster notes, he simply added a little flag at the top of the stem of the note. If needed, he could even divide those farther, creating sixteenth notes (two flags,) and even thirty-second notes (three flags.)

“Wow,” he exclaimed. “I have now created a system where I can notate the durations of any rhythmic pattern I encounter.”

And then he rested.

He sat down by the side of the path he had been walking on, and listened; hoping to hear something exciting he could notate with his new set of musical symbols.

Amid the chattering of the birds, and the footsteps of passersby, he observed that there were often times when there was no sound at all.

“Hmmmm,” he thought. “It seems that certain sounds are resting, much like I am. I will need to create some symbols that can represent these empty spaces. I shall call them rests.”

For the quarter note rest, he drew a squiggly line that looked somewhat like a broken leg. For the eighth note rest, he made a vertical line with a flag, (somewhat like the eighth note,) but left the oval off. For the sixteenth note rest, he did similarly; leaving the oval off, but adding two flags. For some unknown reason, he made the half note rest look a little like a hat: a line with a rectangle on top, and for the whole note rest, he turned that hat upside down.

Now he could resume his work: to observe, listen, and notate all the interesting rhythms he wanted to remember.


Well, that’s odd…

The Keeper continued his work of listening and notating the various sounds and rhythms he heard. The sounds of certain machines and the clip-clop of passing horses all seemed to easily fit into the system he created that was based on a measure of four quarter notes. But occasionally he would hear patterns of sounds that felt more natural to count them in groups of five, as the patterns just didn’t line up as well in groups of four.

“This presents a problem,” he thought to himself. “Will counting in ‘five’ mean that I have to create all new notes and rests? That could be quite cumbersome having two sets of fractional divisions, and as I discovered this new grouping of five, I would suspect that there are other odd groupings yet to be found as well.”

The Keeper paced to and fro, pondering this dilemma. As he walked, he realized that even as he walked left, right, left, right – he could still use his footsteps as units of measurement – he would simply be counting “in five” instead of “in four.” He could continue to use all the same names and values as before, after all – four quarter notes would still equal a whole note. The math was still applicable as long as he indicated how each measure was to be counted: a signature of sorts that would direct the reader.

“I will write one number that will indicate how many beats I am grouping into each measure, and then another number to remind myself of which value I am using to count with,” he said.

So, the Keeper invented the time signature and put it at the beginning of each rhythmic pattern he notated. It looked like a fraction; one number on top of the other, with a slash between the two. The upper number notated the number of beats, and the lower represented the note value used to count.

Soon his notebook was filled with rhythms of all sorts. As predicted, he discovered that some patterns were best counted in other time signatures. Some worked best in “seven,” while others were in “nine.” Some patterns seemed to repeat between steps, causing The Keeper to think of using the “eighth notes” as the unit of measurement.

Soon he invented the triplet, which was a way of counting three notes in one beat, and all sorts of shorthand symbols he could use when wanting to communicate repeated measures, or entire passages.

He began creating his own rhythms and compositions; writing page after page of notes and rests. Changing time signatures midway wouldn’t be a problem as long as he made note of the change, and soon others in the land learned to read and write this new language. To see many villagers gathering together to perform these rhythmic pieces was not uncommon.

A new way to communicate was created and all was good.

The End.

Or is it?

Stay tuned for the next chapter when The Keeper met meets his new wife to be: Melody.


The Sheepherder Band Leader

August 16, 2017

I am often asked if I can help a “play along” group sound better and how the leader can be more effective. I came up with this way of explaining the leader’s role:

Think of a sheepherder and his herder dogs. The role of the herder and his/her dogs is to keep the herd together. When a couple of sheep wander off, the herder’s job is to bring them back to the others. Without that control, soon the herd would split into smaller herds and become unmanageable. Their job is to have an overview of what’s going on, notice these things happening, and correct the problem before it becomes too big.

The herder knows which direction to take the herd, so he/she pays attention to their location so that the herd can be lead in the proper direction. He/she looks ahead and anticipates what is needed. As beautiful as the surrounding landscape may be – the sheepherder can’t kick back and enjoy the scenery as much as they’d like to, as their job is to keep a watchful eye on the herd.

So to the leaders of play along groups – remember that your job is to lead the group.

As you guide your players through the song, you need to be able to detect when one or two players stray from the beat or the arrangement of the song, and bring them back to the rest of the group. Sometimes a gentle reminder of “We’re at the chorus” will do, or some other indication of where they should be. Sometimes you need to indicate that everyone should vamp – repeat the main chord over and over – until order can be restored. Bring those stray sheep back to the herd so the larger group can continue on the right path.

Like the sheepherder that has to choose which valley to guide the herd to, your job is to anticipate the upcoming change from verse to chorus, and let everyone know what to expect. Sometimes it happens by itself, but at other times, everyone needs a cue. That’s your job.

As much as you’d like to get everyone started and then pick up your instrument and sing along – as leader, you need to stay on guard all the time. If you want a break to play and have fun – ask for someone else to lead.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun and participate – it just means that your primary role is to lead.

Your herd depends on you.

Thoughts?

Clean your windows. (Why the little stuff matters while performing.)

May 10, 2017

When you look out of your home through a clean window, you see the trees, the yard, the street, or whatever it is that lies beyond.

But when your windows are dirty, you can’t help but notice how much better it would look if they were only streak-free. Of perhaps they have a thin film of dust on them, hardly noticeable –  until you wipe them clean and then wonder why you hadn’t done that long ago. Everything is so much better now.

And so it is with performing a song at an open mic or concert – clean up that stuff that is keeping the audience from “seeing” you clearly.

Is your instrument in tune? Even if you tuned it last week, tune it again. (People actually say “Well, I tuned it last week.” That’s crazy.) If you use a capo, make sure it is seated properly and not making your strings buzz. Failure to do either of these things is like purposely hobbling your horse before running a race. Why would you do that?

Be prepared, look as confident as you can (I know it’s hard), and do your best. Be aware of where your mic is, and sing into it. If you have to look down at your music stand, then place the mic where you can both sing into it, and see your music.

Make a mistake? If you think everyone heard it, then apologizing and drawing attention to it only makes it more noticeable. Better yet – if you make a mistake – keep going and pretend no one noticed it. Your clever recovery will make a good impression on everyone and soon, their attention will move on the rest of your song.

When you’re finished with your song, let that last note receive its due credit. Don’t run off the stage while people are still clapping for you. (Sure, you may want to run and hide, but a few more seconds only feels like an eternity. Take a bow and soak in the love.) 

Playing and performing is hard enough. Even when it isn’t obvious what the problem may be, the audience feels something isn’t quite right, so make sure you aren’t accidentally making it harder on yourself.

Do you have thoughts on this idea? Have you noticed little things you could have “fixed” before performing? When watching someone else play – do you “see” things you think they might have done better?

Remember – this isn’t about judging, or shaming yourself or others – it’s about learning and improving.

 

Perfectly Imperfect

May 5, 2017

I teach music to a lot of people these days, and the most useful tip I can give them is to learn how to be imperfect.

We all stumble. We all make mistakes. But it is in how we handle those mistakes that shows our true character – and experience.

For example: I have seen many an open mic performance, where the singer/player makes one little goof, then makes a horrible face, and then apologizes for that mistake. We all heard it – but now we are remembering it. Had the player just skated on past it, minimizing its impact – chances are we would have moved on to the rest of the performance and forgotten all about it.

Forget a lyric? Make one up. Improvise.
Sure, we want to “tell the correct story” in our lyrics, but what’s more important: start, stumble, stop –  or keeping a nice musical flow? Chances are – if someone does notice that you made up a word here and there, they would also notice the skill and cleverness you demonstrated in a tight spot.

Forget where you are in the song? Vamp!
Vamping (playing a chord or chords over and over) is a very useful tool. It keeps the music and the performance going, while you gather your thoughts. (It’s also a great way to start songs, as it gets everyone’s attention and sets the mood.)

The point I am trying to make, is that all but the very most experienced musical geniuses make a mistake here and there, (and even then, I think they do, too.) But the reason you don’t notice those mistakes so much is because attention isn’t drawn to them. They have practiced being imperfect.

Here’s a practice tip I find useful:
Practice a song you like, but don’t refer to the lyrics. Start with the words you know, and when you forget something – make something up that fits in with the chords you are playing. Keep trying – sometimes it will be silly and nonsensical, but you will be amazed at how at times, it will actually be pretty clever. You can even try singing complete nonsense, and see how musical you can make it.

Practice being perfectly imperfect.