Posts Tagged ‘music’

There’s a stud in my wall?

October 19, 2020

In one of the classes I am teaching, we are learning how to write a simple song, chart it out, and share it with others to play. One student remarked that they weren’t particularly interested in song writing, but rather wanted to know how to play songs already written. In thinking of my response, I came up with this analogy:

If you were to want to hang a picture on your wall, and had no idea of how a house was built, you might wonder why sometimes a nail goes right into the wall and falls out when weight is put on it, while at other times, it hits something hard and is quite secure. You might just attribute it to luck.

But if you were to observe a house being built somewhere; if you were to notice how first a foundation is built; then upon that a floor is constructed; and on top of that a framework of studs forms the shape of the walls, over which sheetrock is attached – you would have a better understanding of why you sometimes hit something hard when you were hanging a picture, and why sometimes you didn’t. Observing and learning a little bit about how a house is built certainly doesn’t imply that you are planning on building one yourself – it just means that your future of hanging pictures is going to be less of luck, and more of the awareness that there are studs behind the sheetrock. Knowing that the studs usually run vertically, and are regularly (for the most part) spaced 16″ apart also help you to determine where you can hope to find one when you want to hang something heavy and in need of that support.

So, by learning how a song is laid out; how beats are grouped in to measures; and how by observing when chords change – you are in a better position to know what you’re doing when you play an existing song. Your experience writing a simple song will teach you a lot about playing a simple song.

Rather than guessing when a chord will change, you will be able to anticipate the change. Knowing what chords sound good together will inform you of the likely next chord – even before you get there. Being aware that for many songs, measures are often grouped into fours – you will “feel” changes and new sections as you encounter them.

Music, like a blank wall, may seem like there is no structure behind it, but that is rarely so. Behind the wall – and the music – there is a simple, predictable structure you can depend on when you want to hang your picture… er, I mean change your chord,… er… you know what I mean.

Just tell me where to cut the board.

October 9, 2020

Tim and I were hired to design and install the proper sound treatments to make a new venue worthy of the talent it was to be featuring on its stage. Tim was the sound engineer; the brains of the outfit; the guy who has recorded many of the best musicians in the area in his recording studio high in the mountains of Santa Cruz; the guy who works for high tech sound companies; a guy who reeks of smart.

I, a musician and woodworker among other things, was there to build whatever was needed to take care of all the echoes and noise in this empty building that used to be a dance studio.

Anxious to work on the sound absorbers, I asked Tim what the dimensions were for the first one. I had the board; I had the saw… all I needed was the measurement.

“Well, you see… there are three types of sound treatments to consider…” he said.

“Yeah, yeah… where do I make the cut? I can have it ready in a second.”

“… there are reflectors, absorbers, and diffusers,” he continued. “Each one serves a different purpose. “

Tim wasn’t going to let me do anything without first explaining what it was that we were making, and why and how it was going to work.

“You know the high notes are easy to take care of,” he said. “A little foam or carpet can absorb them – but it’s the low notes that take work to tame. Their wavelengths are longer and travel through material easier. That’s why when someone next door is playing music too loud, all you hear is the bass and drums. Those sound waves cut through…”

He told me how to read his excel spreadsheets that used precise calculations to determine how deep to build a sound absorber that would capture a precise frequency, based on the size and weight of the material we were building it with. He explained how, by alternating the absorbers on opposite walls, we could eliminate the echoes in the room.

Not wanting to make the room too “dead” sounding – Tim told me how we would leave some reflective surfaces to add “shimmer” to the room. He explained how, by pointing the main speakers in a particular way, we could decrease the amount of sound that was bouncing off the walls which added unwanted sound to the listener’s ears.

“Bass traps” – consisting of a stack of used tires filled with insulation and carpet scraps rested in the back corners of the stage, capturing the low notes that tend to accumulate in corners, while the convex covering I made served to both make the stack of tires “disappear” as well as to reflect sound in a wide arc, rather than directly back at the microphones.

When we finished, the room sounded absolutely terrific. In fact, many said it was the best sound in any of the local venues. I knew all about the sound in that room; how Tim’s knowledge and the science of sound directed me to construct the treatments; and how to know what I had actually been doing, and why.

Instead of simply following a set of blueprints, I was taught how to make my own whenever I needed them.

A year or so later, Tim and I were again hired to treat a room for sound – this time it was a recording studio that needed to sound neutral. And this time, I knew the drill. Tim still directed the project, but I knew more of the approach we were to take, and much of the time I anticipated, correctly, the next step and how we were to take it. Some of the time he even left me with the vaguest of instructions, knowing I could figure out the details.

I am a musician, after all. Sound is my life. It’s what I work with. I should know about it. And now I do.

And that’s why I don’t want to tell you what strumming pattern to use for a song 🙂

Treasures Roadhouse
The venue that sounded awesome.

Setting Musical Priorities compared to learning to drive a car.

September 16, 2020

I’ve seen and read about many a performance where the player is focused on what I will refer to as minutiae – details that, though important to a degree, are not a priority. Examples of this might be: exact arrangement of original recording, type of strings used, instrument type, factoids about the original artist, techniques used…

All this is good information to think about – but it’s not the most important. Let’s consider learning to drive a car:

Many of us learned to drive a car in an open space, like a parking lot or rural road where there was little chance of us impacting others when we made a mistake. We learned to change gears, start and stop smoothly, and how to check our mirrors to see what is around us while we drove.

Once on the road, our priorities were to make sure that our tires were in good shape, that our alignment was proper, and that our brakes worked. This was to ensure that we could stop safely, the car would steer properly, and that our tires would grip the road as intended. The make, model, and color of the car; who designed it; who was famous for driving a similar model, and other auto related details were not as important as making sure the driving experience was safe and that the driver was able to take on passengers. We weren’t trying to keep up with other drivers.

And so with music, there are priorities that should be addressed first, before focus is put on the details.

Are you able to play the required chords for the song?
Can you transition from chord to chord smoothly?
Can you maintain a steady pace with the most basic rhythmic pattern?

I compare playing music to driving this way: your chords are like the tires on a car. There are many types of tires; tires made for different purposes, like: city driving, off-road, and racing. Depending on the type of driving you are doing, you might select a certain type of tire.

Simple songs require the most basic knowledge of only a few chords: C,F,G,Am… these will get you through many simple songs. Learning a few more chords: Bm7b5, Ebmaj7, and perhaps C#dim will let you go “off-road” and play some jazz. Learning even more types of chords and a bit of theory will allow you race with the best. But you have to learn to drive slowly and safely before you head to the racetrack.

Switching cords smoothly and with steady rhythm might be your “alignment” without which your chords and song will wobble and wear unevenly. If you’ve ever ridden in a car without good alignment, you know how uncomfortable that can be, not to mention dangerous.

And finally – how do you start and stop your playing? Is it rough and jerky, like using power brakes for the first time, or can you ease in and out of a song with grace?

Like learning to drive in an empty parking lot, we practice our songs in a safe manner, often by ourselves and not in “performance” mode. That’s when we can learn to steer our song this way and that, stop and start, and experiment with the controls.

But when we take on a listener and hit the musical streets – that’s when we pay attention and make sure our focus is on a smooth and safe musical ride. I know as a passenger in a car with a new driver, that I would prefer a slow and safe ride vs. a fast, jerky, stop-and-go ride that leaves me gripping the dashboard and turning prematurely grey.

Of course – playing a song at an open mic or with friends isn’t going to harm anyone or dent anyone’s fenders. And one might even compare the casual musical gathering to the empty parking lot – a place where it’s safe to experiment and feel safe doing so.

So please continue to play, experiment, and have the most fun doing so. There are no exams to pass; no minimum height requirements to reach, and no one else on the road to compete with.

But do consider your priorities when learning: keep it slow and steady; make sure you’re tuned up and ready to roll; check your rhythmic mirrors, and have a nice musical ride.

Don’t you think you ought to learn how to take off and land the plane first?

August 15, 2018

Perhaps you’ve admired those stunt pilots who turn and spin in the sky, leaving behind a trail of colorful smoke. Now suppose you decide you want to pursue that skill and take some stunt-flying lessons.

It would be a pretty good idea to learn now to take off, fly level, and land the plane first, right?

So who do so many beginning ukulele players (and players of other instruments, as well) want to start learning fancy “strums*” and fingerpicking patterns when they haven’t yet learned some of the very basics of rhythm and melody?

Like venturing into the woods without a basic knowledge of the terrain – memorizing a step-by-step set of moves is okay as long as you don’t get lost.  But take one step off the beaten path and you can suddenly find yourself lost, both in the woods, and in the music.

Think of how much more satisfying your playing experience would be if you knew a little of what you were doing. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice all other musical exercises until you know all about theory and rhythm. There are plenty of things to learn, and as long as you are learning something – you are doing good.

Fortunately, if you get lost and don’t know that to do while playing the uke, you won’t find yourself plummeting  toward the earth in a death spiral.

But take the time and effort to learn the basics. It’s worth it.

 

* Strums… let’s say “strumming patterns” instead.

 

Take a Hard Class

July 3, 2018

Wouldn’t it be fun and informative to be a fly on the wall at a top level meeting where they are discussing a topic that is of interest to you?

Perhaps you have an interest in marketing and would like to know how the big decisions are made about logo placement and audience targeting – wouldn’t it be an eye opener to sit in on a meeting on a top floor executive meeting? Or imagine another “inner working” you’d like to be privy to… like music.

I teach a lot of music in both private and group settings and something I have observed is, that in many cases, students just want to review what they already know, or they are there just to have fun.

I often start a workshop by asking the attendees why they chose my particular workshop – in this case, a workshop on leading and following during play-alongs. One lady responded, “I just wanted to play some songs.” When I informed her that though we might be playing some songs in the class, we were really there to learn how to be a song leader and how to follow others who were leading. She got up, packed her uke, and left.

That was both a good thing and a not so good thing. One one hand, it’s good to be clear on what you want – on both our parts. She just wanted to have some fun, and I made it clear that I was going to teach some useful information. We both were better off. (By the way, we did have fun while learning.)

But it got me thinking about how much one could learn by challenging oneself. It’s true that reviewing information is helpful – taking an easy class to confirm your existing knowledge, but there are so many opportunities to do that without paying money to attend a festival or workshop series. Think of how much that woman would have learned about playing together – which was actually what she said she wanted to do!

And that brings me to my first paragraph’s statement: wouldn’t it be fun to be in a group where they are discussing top level information?

Why not take a class that is hard once in a while? Challenge yourself! Sit there politely and let the “know-it-alls” talk, but rather than look frustrated and let things “go over your head”, you simply listen and absorb the information discussed. Sure, you won’t know everything they are talking about but take notes and imagine yourself in that league. Make it a goal to someday soon, know what they are talking about. Put it in orbit! 

I remember as a young man, sitting in on rehearsals with a bunch of older musicians who were in a salsa band. I was so eager to learn and so honored to be allowed to sit there and listen to them discuss rhythms and how to improvise. Once in a while, they would let me play a simple part, but mostly I would just sit there and observe. I didn’t interrupt nor try to divert the conversation to something I could understand – I just listened. Wow, what a difference it made in my musical learning.

So I ask you: what do you think about what I’ve said?