Posts Tagged ‘rhythm’

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.

Playing with others.

August 6, 2013

(An expanded and edited version of this post appears in Rhan’s new book, All In Good Time – a Book About Playing Music for the Aspiring Ukulele Player. It is available at: )


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 Merry Go Round

March 27, 2013

(An expanded and edited version of this post appears in Rhan’s new book, All In Good Time – a Book About Playing Music for the Aspiring Ukulele Player. It is available at: )


I had this thought the other day while teaching a group of beginner ukulele players.

Often, when a new player is learning a song, they feel the need to play every chord every time, and if they miss one, they want to stop the song and start over. This works if you are practicing by yourself (though I don’t suggest that way to practice) but if you are playing with anyone else, then you are stopping the song for no reason.

The best thing to do is to just stop playing, listen to the other players, get your bearings, and wait for the next opportunity to jump back in.

Like a merry go round at the playground.

Once you get that thing going around and around – let it go. If you miss jumping on where you wanted to – just watch it go, and get ready to jump on the next time your place comes around again. There is no need to stop it and make everyone start over – just watch it and get your timing right. Then you will be able to jump right on with little effort, right?

Music is like this at times. The beat goes on, as they say, and if you are learning about rhythm, and know where the “one” is, you can just take your time, hear where that “one” is, and get right back into the song with little of no effort.

At first – it may take awhile to jump right back on – don’t let that discourage you. It’s much like when you were a little kid on the merry go round. The more you practice jumping on and off, the easier it gets. And it’s fun, too. Sometimes the real fun isn’t going round and round all the time – sometimes the real fun is jumping off and getting back on again.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave a comment.

Rub your Belly and Pat your Head

March 21, 2013

Is there a better way to describe the difficulty of doing two things at once than to use the example of rubbing one’s belly and patting one’s head at the same time?

As difficult as that can be – now imagine if you didn’t even know how to either rub your belly, or pat your head.

This is what learning a new song can be like: you are learning new chords, rhythms, AND trying to sing – all at the same time. No wonder you are having trouble!

Here’s my suggestion: take a look at the song. Look for odd chords you aren’t familiar with and spend a little time learning how to change to them from the previous chord, and from them to the one that follows.

Then try playing through the song without singing – just sort of hum the tune, or not sing at all and get the music to sound comfortable.

Then do the same with the lyrics. Sing it without the music, or along with a recording, so that you get familiar with the rhythm of the words.

Now, after you are good at doing both of those separately – try them together. Slowly. You might even choose to just hum the lyrics at first, so that you can concentrate on the chords and rhythm.

Allow yourself to go over it a few times – at first somewhat loosely and rough, and then with each passing attempt – refine the areas that need work.

Trying to do it perfectly the first time may be fun to try, but to really get it in your head – have patience and do it step by step.
And by the way, – can you rub your belly and pat your head at the same time?

I need a new strum! – Part 1

August 30, 2011

“I need to learn some new strums! Can you teach me?”

This is one of the most common requests I hear from uke players who feel they have become stagnant and are not moving ahead with their playing.

And my answer is always the same: WORK ON YOUR RHYTHM!

That’s all “strumming” is – rhythm. So many people want to teach down-down-up-down… that sort of thing, but that simply teaches you to memorize a pattern. If you take the time to learn how to play with rhythm, I guarantee that you will have so many “strumming” options, you won’t know what to do with them all.

I have attached a video to demonstrate, but allow me to write out a little instruction to get you started:

Start by playing just ONE chord. Let’s make it a Bb. I choose a Bb because it uses all strings and because of that, you can dampen the sound as we go. (see video)

Strum  “one – two – three – four” over and over, slowly, keeping a real even beat and knowing where ONE is at all times. Tap your foot with each count. Each time you strum the chord, lift up on your left hand just a little to stop the ringing of the chord.

This should sound like short little jabs at the chord.

Now accent on JUST THE ONE. (an accent means that you play it a little louder).

ONE – two – three – four – ONE – two – three – four – ONE – two – three – four – … and so forth. Do this evenly and cleanly. Do it until you can think of something else while doing it, like look around the room and notice what’s outside the window, yet still be completely aware of the accent and where the “one” is. (And continue to tap your foot right on the beat!)

Now without stopping, accent ONE – TWO – three – four – ONE – TWO – three – four – ONE – TWO – three – four – …

Can you guess what’s next? ONE – TWO – THREE – four – ONE – TWO – THREE – four – ONE – TWO – THREE – four – …

and finally, accent ALL FOUR BEATS.

Then, accent just the “two” and “four”: one – TWO – three – FOUR – one – TWO – three – FOUR – one – TWO – three – FOUR – …

Again, do this over and over until you can do it effortlessly. And if you’re one of those who get bored easily – DON’T! If you want to develop your sense of rhythm and learn to “strum”, then you need to pay attention to the details: listen for each stroke, are all the strings sounding nice and clean? Are you keeping an even rhythm? Can you do these exercises and keep your foot going while gazing out the window and imagining you are the best “strummer” in the world?

Until you can do all that, don’t you even think about being bored!

Have fun.

Here’s the video: