Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

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.

Iron out that wrinkle – a way to practice.

May 4, 2017

Let’s imagine you are getting ready for an important meeting, and you need your suit or dress needs pressing.

You pull it out of the closet, lay it down on the ironing board and begin. You do all the easy parts first, and then notice a significant wrinkle.

Question: Do you take the time to iron out that wrinkle, or work around it and pretend no one will notice?

If you want to look good, you would be wise to spend a bit of time ironing out that specific wrinkle before moving on the the rest of the garment. It’s not going to go away by itself.

So why do I so often notice, that many uke (and guitar) players practice songs by starting and going full throttle until they hit a rough spot, then chuckling about how “that is a hard chord”, then moving on, pretending that the problem will fix itself somehow?

If you really want to learn and get better – you’d be wise to stop at the “wrinkle” in the song, and work on it. Iron it out. Forget the rest of the song for the time being and work just on the problem area, over and over, until you’ve smoothed it out and you no longer notice any difficulty.

Then, go back and practice the whole song again, and glide right through that former rough spot, making your entire song sound as wonderful as it should.

 

The other way to practice.

October 27, 2016

There are many ways to practice, and I am guessing that many of you are very good at sitting down with the new song you’ve been handed, looking at those unfamiliar chords, and playing (and singing) the entire song from top to bottom. This is just fine, as it helps you to learn those new chords, and it familiarizes you with the song. But if you’re not careful, it will also teach you to reply solely on that piece of paper (or iPad) and you will have a harder time breaking free.

I lead a class every Wednesday called “The All In Good Time Orchestra,” and for the last two weeks I have been celebrating our recent concert by starting our  rehearsals with no stands – no music! When I announced this via email, I received some concerned replies – students were worried that it was going to be too hard. But something wonderful happened.

I asked them what the chords were for a particular song, and after a few minutes, we had remembered all the chords in the right order and timing. What information some people didn’t know, others did, and together we were playing the song – without the music!

Because we weren’t tethered to that paper, we were now able to look up and really play. We worked on “hearing” areas that needed attention, and everyone could better “see” my visual cues. I noticed the quality of our playing increased dramatically. Sure, we will probably use the written music occasionally, but now it will be to refer to, instead of to hold to for dear life.

And now you too, can take this “other way to practice” and apply it to your musical routine. Take one of your favorite songs and see if you can remember the first couple of lines. Look at the music if you have to, and then try to play just a bit from memory. Play that little part over and over… and over, until it gets to be automatic. Then work on the next part the same way. Then add the two together. Continue through the song. Piece by piece. Patiently.

In this way, you are studying the parts of the song – all the little pieces that make up the larger piece. And by doing so, you are developing the muscle memory needed to play the song without thinking about it. When your fingers go to the right chords before you even know it.

That’s when the magic happens.