Is playing simply getting too personal?

March 3, 2015

I have a theory I’d like to share with you – a theory I suspect that many of you will disagree with – but one that a select few may consider helpful in their artistic pursuit.

In the Pakistani style of music called Qawwali, there was an artist called Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – an amazing singer I very much admire, and in the liner notes of one of his CDs, there was this description of the music style: “… In this style, the singers chant and repeat the word ‘Allah’ over and over until all possible interpretations have been exhausted.”

My goodness, I thought – what a wonderful explanation of the art of repetition. What many may superficially hear as boring and monotonous – these superb artists use chanting as a means to dig in deep and explore their most personal connection with God.

And that got me thinking. We often use busy-ness to mask and conceal our emotions. When a conversation gets too serious, don’t we sometimes laugh, or change the subject to avoid facing our true feelings?

Well, I think that sometimes musicians do the same when it comes to dealing with simple songs. Many players get bored easily and want to add more chords, move quickly to another section, or play faster.

But I have found that a simple chord played slowly and repeatedly offers me the opportunity to explore a deeper meaning – a chance to let go of ego and instead, get in touch with my emotions.

And I understand that this, for some people, may put them in a position of having to get personal and even risk sharing too much of themselves.

But isn’t this what singing and playing is all about? To express ourselves and emote?

Sure, that’s scary sometimes. We may share too much about ourselves. We may cry. We may laugh.

We may truly experience life in its deepest form.

When we learn a new language – pronunciation is always the first thing to learn. How is that similar to learning music?

February 19, 2015

I remember taking my first official Spanish class.

I say “official” because I grew up with a Spanish speaking mother and had a familiarity with the language from a young age, but back in High School, I took beginning Spanish to try to really learn the language and be a fluent speaker.

One of the very first things we learn in learning a new language is how to properly pronounce the words we are learning. The vowels, consonants, and accents are almost as important as the actual word – the inflection is key to the delivery and understanding of a word.

With a proper idea of how to pronounce and deliver a word or sentence, we continue our learning; adding new vocabulary and sentence structure as we continue.

Yet often in music – I see the accumulation of data being the priority. New instruments, chords, song sheets, meetings, clubs, festivals….. with one thing apparently missing: pronunciation – or in a musical sense – delivery.

And there’s nothing wrong with all that. It’s fun and engaging and has, and is, bringing so many people together.

But if it’s music we are trying to play – let’s go back to the beginning for a minute and look at how we pronounce our musical words – how we express ourselves with however many, or few, chords we know.

Can we strum a simple C chord with feeling? Can we gently pluck an Am – listening to each and every beautiful resonant string? How about a G – can we play it strong with confidence and power? Can we simply play C, F, and G over and over with patience and consistency – not rushing and not lagging, but merely enjoying the wonderful sound we are creating?

This could be thought of as our “musical pronunciation” – the very basic part of music that once learned, can be applied to all new chords and songs as we learn them. This expression allows us to be musicians and artists, even if we only know three chords which, by the way, is all you need to know to play hundreds of songs.

 

I am not yet fluent in Spanish, but I speak the words and phrases that I have learned with such authenticity, that most often a Spanish speaking person will take me for a fluent speaker and engage me in conversation beyond my full comprehension. But that’s a good thing, as it values what I have learned and encourages me to learn more.

And so I believe that if we all took the time to learn to play what few chords or songs we know with feeling and artistic authenticity, then we in turn would be taken more seriously by those who know more than we do; and their willingness to engage us in conversation, albeit at times possibly above our comprehension, would encourage us to learn even more about the language of music.

I may know a lot of chords and songs –  but the most challenging and rewarding thing I do every time I pick up an instrument, is to deliver whatever chord I may be playing in the most authentic and musical accent I can muster.

¿Comprende?

 

What have I been doing and where have I been?

November 3, 2014

As you must surely have noticed – I haven’t posted a new article on this site for some time now.

There are two good reasons why:

One, I have been incredibly busy with performing and teaching the many topics I discuss here on this blog. My student group, The All In Good Time Orchestra, is opening this week for The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra – quite a prestigious gig, I must say.

But the other reason I had taken a break has been to put all this material I have been writing about into a book. A book about music, rhythm, and the mindset I have found to be helpful in achieving those things.

If you have any questions about playing music – I would love to hear them as they, hopefully, can be added to the book.

Of course, you can ask me about ukulele specific things, but I am really looking for general questions about playing together – how it works, how the musician dynamic works, etc. It’s easy to look up a way to play a chord, but it’s harder to look up how one musician looks at another to convey a chord change…

All that being said – stay tuned for more posts about music, rhythm, and musical life here on All In Good Time.

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?


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