Saturday, November 23, 2019

Making a Fiddle - My Day 4

This was an exciting day because I bent the ribs for the C bouts!  Before doing any actual rib work, there were several steps I had to accomplish first.  I started by putting the metal template in place over the steel pins, and then I used an awl to trace around the template onto my blocks.  I had to do this on both sides of the top and bottom.  Then I used a pencil to go over the awl tracings so it would be easy to see my lines.  These are the lines that I had to cut the blocks up to.

I used a special wooden "corner" of sorts that goes over the edge of the workbench today.  It is actually clamped to the workbench so it doesn't move.  The mold is put either on top of the wooden corner, or on the side of it when cutting the blocks.  I used gouges that are sharp on the inside edges to cut off the areas of the blocks where the ribs will be attached.  I only did the two inside C-bout corners to start with.

Once again, this is very exacting work.  The blocks have to remain perfectly square when you cut the curves for the ribs.  I used a small square over and over again to check for squareness.  Sometimes I worked on top of the wooden corner, and sometimes I worked on the sides of it.  I had to keep flipping the mold over to make sure I was cutting evenly from both sides and didn't go through any of my lines.

The ribs are cut from larger pieces of rib stock.  This is heavily flamed maple.  If you want the fiddle to look really beautiful, then it is important to cut the ribs and back from the same piece of wood.  This makes all the flames match in size and intensity.  Once the ribs have been cut, they have to be measured for correct height and thickness, and then ultimately for correct length based on where they will be placed on the fiddle.  To get the thickness accurate all over, I used a special caliper that I slid the wood through.  When the gauge showed an area that was too thick, I marked that area with a pencil.  Then I used a rough rasp to remove the pencil markings.  I did this over and over again until the ribs were fairly uniform in thickness.  I used sandpaper to smooth out the rasp marks. 

The edges of the ribs were planed so that they would be level, square, and the correct height.  Once again, I used the wooden corner (and Greg) to help.

Next, we measured the area where the rib would be bent and glued, and marked and cut the rib to the correct length.  The rib will be cut slightly long.

Now, it's finally time to bend the ribs!  I used an old piece of rib material to practice with first.  Everything went good, so then it was on to the real thing!  I used a bending iron, bending strap and a small block of wood to help bend the rib to fit the C bout.  This is the toughest one to make because it has the sharpest curves out of all the ribs.  Highly flamed maple is also hard to bend because the wood tends to break at the flaming.  I put the first rib into a bucket of water for a few seconds, and then I used the bending strap and iron to bend it.  I had the mold right beside me so I could fit the rib into the area in which it would be glued to make sure it fit correctly and tightly.

That's an overhead view of the rib, bending iron and bending strap, so you have to look closely to see there's a rib in there!

When the rib looked to be bent correctly, we did a "dry" clamp of the rib to make sure there were no gaps that would require me to keep working at getting the rib bent correctly.  I used a special clamp that Greg made called a step clamp.  It is really neat because it can be resized and used for both violins and violas.  You'll see how it works in the next couple of pictures.

Before gluing the ribs to the blocks, wax is put on the edges of the mold where the ribs will be touching.  This is just to keep the ribs from sticking to the mold in case a little glue gets in between the ribs and the edge of the mold.  The only place the ribs are glued is where they attach to the blocks.  They hold their shape because the step clamp puts pressure on them until the glue dries.  Violin making uses granular hide glue that is melted in a pot because of its superior strength and bonding with wood.  It is actually stronger than wood glues and other specialty glues, and it will release under heat so that repairs can be made later on without damaging the wood of the instrument.  It is not okay to use liquid hide glue that comes in a bottle for construction and repair work because what is added to the glue to keep it in a liquid state in the bottle weakens the glue and it won't hold under pressure.

After sitting overnight, I removed the clamps and here is what it looks like!

Making a Fiddle - My Day 3

Now this day was definitely full!  It took a long time to make all the blocks.  They all have to be perfectly square on all sides, and they have to be exact heights in millimeters and tenths of millimeters.  I used a caliper to help me with the measurements because my rulers only go to millimeters.

The first thing I did was mark where I would cut out the blocks from the piece of spruce I had.  The grain of the wood has to go a certain direction at an angle.  This makes the blocks stronger.  I used a band saw to cut out the blocks.  The spruce I was working with was very thick, and I got a little too aggressive with a corner turn and popped the band saw blade off right away!  Woops!  At least I didn't break anything.

After I cut out the blocks, I had to plane all the corners to the exact height and make them all perfectly square on all corners.  Because I have bad hands right now, I am unable to use a hand plane for this step.  I leveled the disk on my belt sander using a small square, and then I used the disk sander to sand the blocks to the correct measurements.  That is unbelievably difficult to accomplish because there is not a square side at all when you first cut out the blocks, and once one side is square, you can't tilt the block even a tiny bit or you'll throw off the squareness on a different corner.  I was dealing with measurements of 31.2 mm and 31.8 mm, so I had to be very careful when I got close to the correct measurement.  One block broke when I got it close, so I had to do that one over. 

After all the blocks were cut out, sanded to the correct measurements and squared, I glued them to the mold.  The mold has to be 7 mm above a perfectly flat surface for this step.  I used a piece of thick safety glass with two wooden risers that are exactly 7 mm in height.  I placed the mold on top of the wooden risers.   Here is what it looks like now.  You can see in one of these pictures how the metal template fits on the steel pins and over the top of the mold.

Making a Fiddle - My Day 2

For this work, I needed a drill press...which I didn't have.  So I took a trip over to Greg's Violin Shop to use his drill press.  I marked the eight areas on the mold where I would drill large holes.  These holes are used to help clamp the ribs in the next step.

Making a Fiddle - My Day 1

My newest endeavor is to make my own fiddle!  This is a very special thing to me not just because I play fiddle and I have been repairing fiddles for over 15 years, but also because I consider it a family tradition.  My dad's father made fiddles.  I am very thankful for Gregory Krone, violin maker in New Haven, Missouri, for sharing his time, skill and many other things to make it possible for me to make my own fiddle.

Some things Greg provided me with, such as the mold and template that I am using to build my fiddle.  The metal template is copied from a paper pattern and then cut out with a jeweler's saw.  The mold is also copied from a paper pattern, but it is cut out of plywood.  You need both the mold and the template to build a fiddle.

For me, the first step was to mark on the mold where I would saw out the areas where the blocks would be glued.  I have a booklet of information from Greg's violin making school that I am using to get my measurements.  Everything is very precise!  I also had to mark the center of the mold.  You can see two small holes drilled in the mold in my pictures.  There are steel pins that fit into those holes, and the template fits over those two steel pins to keep it perfectly in the correct place.  (I failed to get a picture of that before I started working on it.)

After I marked the corner block areas, I drilled tiny holes in the corners of the areas I was going to cut out.  Since the mold will not actually be part of the fiddle, but the blocks have to be glued to the mold temporarily, these small holes make it easier to dislocate the blocks from the mold.  The blocks will be glued to ribs and will actually be part of the fiddle.  I used the band saw to cut out the areas I marked for the blocks.

If all of this doesn't make sense yet, it will as I continue to post my progress!  Here is a picture of all the work I completed on my first day. 

Stay tuned for more!

Friday, March 8, 2019

Ukulele - The "Yes You Can" Instrument!

Don't think you can play a musical instrument?  Wanting something that is easy to play, flexible, and capable of many different genres?  You definitely need to check out the ukulele!

As Nikki and I get ready to teach our ukulele class on Saturday, I find myself answering questions about the ukulele on an almost daily basis.  The ukulele is popular right now, but many people don't know anything about it.  I am constantly reminded, each and every time I teach one of these workshops, how the ukulele is made for practically every genre of music and every age of player.  The ukulele is definitely an adaptable and easy to play instrument!

How do I know it is easy to learn?  I have taught group lessons at nursing homes and retirement centers for people who have never played before.  If they can learn in one lesson in a group, you can learn, too!  I'm not saying everyone will be a ukulele prodigy, but if you want to have fun and play a little, the ukulele is a great choice!

The ukulele is the right size.  It comes in four different sizes, to be exact!  They are, from smallest to largest:  soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.  So, it doesn't matter if you are five years old or 75 years old, there is a size that will fit your hands!

The ukulele is very portable.  You can take it backpacking, play it in the car, put it under the seat or in the overhead bin of an airplane, or hang it on the wall in your apartment!

If you are looking for something affordable, look no further!  As of the time I am writing this, you can get a decent, very playable ukulele of any size for between $40 and $100.

The ukulele only has four strings, so chord shapes are easier to make and you don't have to stretch so far to get them.  And since the strings are nylon and the string spacing is wider, it is easier on the fingers than a guitar.  If your fingers are older and a little stiff, the ukulele is still probably do-able for you.

And ukulele has several chords that can be made with just one finger!  With a one-fingered C chord and a one-fingered F chord, a person can play an unbelievable number of two-chord songs!  Here are just a few:  Skip to My Lou, Jambalaya, Take Me Back to Tulsa, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands, Born in the USA, Achy Breaky Heart, This Old Man, and many more!

Need something quiet?  Don't want to disturb the neighbors or fellow housemates?  The ukulele is a very quiet instrument.  Need to make it louder?  You can get an acoustic/electric ukulele, or fit the one you have with a transducer and plug it into an amplifier!  There are small, portable amplifiers that run on a battery and fit on your belt.  You really can take a ukulele anywhere, acoustic or electric!

You can get a different variety of sounds with a ukulele, too.  If you prefer something very mellow, you would probably prefer the largest of the sizes -- the baritone ukulele.  It is tuned just like the first four strings of a guitar, but the nylon strings give it a softer, warmer tone quality.  If you like twangy, you can get a banjo ukulele!  These come in different sizes as well, and you will get a very different sound out of a banjo ukulele because of the banjo head.

Already know how to play a guitar?  Wanting to learn guitar?  The ukulele is the perfect instrument for you!  The baritone ukulele, since it is tuned like the first four strings of a guitar, has the same chord names and same shapes as the guitar -- just fewer strings.  It is easy to go back and forth between these two instruments, and the learning curve is much less.  The other three sizes -- the soprano, concert and tenor sizes -- have the same chord shapes but different names for the chords due to the different tuning.  This still makes it easy to go back and forth between the guitar and the ukulele because all you have to do is learn the new name for the already know the shape!

So go pick up a ukulele!  Give a ukulele as a gift!  Sign up for lessons or a workshop, or take a look on YouTube!  This is definitely the "Yes, I can" instrument!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Paid Gig

There is certainly a lot of controversy surrounding musicians and bands getting paid for their performances.  Bluegrass music isn't known for its life-supporting income.  And many who would like to have paid, or better paying gigs, aren't really looking for something to solely support their life.

On the pro side of receiving more compensation for play, musicians spend a lot of money on instruments, equipment, travel (including gas money, food, wear and tear on vehicles, campers, etc.), lessons, strings, picks, and the list goes on and on.  They spend hours practicing, honing their skills individually and as a group.

But how many of these musicians and bands spend the same amount of time learning how to properly promote themselves?  They expect great music to give them great pay.  There are hundreds (and probably thousands) of really great musicians in Nashville that never make it.  They play for free or for tips.  For some, that may be all they want.  But for most, they would like more.

Great music does not necessarily equal really great pay.  Really great entertainment is where better pay starts to come into play.  You need something that makes people want to come see your "live" show.  If your audience wanted perfect music, they would pop in a CD or play an mp3.  They want something that puts them on the edge of their seats and makes them laugh, sing along, listen more closely, or simply takes them away from the daily grind.  Take a look at all the shows in places like Branson.  Why do people attend these?  It's not because it's the best music they have ever heard.  It's because they are being entertained!  Sure, the music is good.  Some of it is even outstanding!  But it's way more than that.

I have taught many students and many young bands.  I even help form young bands from my students so that they can learn to play with others.  In my opinion, that is even better than a jam because students meet with the same people regularly.  This allows them to play with others that are close to them in skill and age.  They develop friendship and a sense of responsibility.   I can teach them non-verbal skills and music etiquette, in addition to harmony, lead, backup, kickoffs, tags, and so on.  Who will I agree to teach as a band?  First of all, it has to be students that practice and are reliable.  (Notice I didn't say my "best" playing or most talented students; however, practice and reliability many times does make them the best or better than average.)

What is the next most important thing to me?  It is everyone's consent to play locally for charitable causes.  That means playing at churches, nursing homes, and local events.  Why do I require that?  Because it teaches young musicians how important it is to support those in their own communities.  It gives them valuable gigs where they can learn to connect with their audience.  It shows them that playing music is not just about being "good."  They begin to realize that mistakes happen no matter how well prepared they are.  They understand that there will always be someone better, but that they have to be the best they can be each time they go out.  It's not important to be the best.  It is more important to be prepared and give your personal best.  It shows commitment.  It teaches serving others with the talent that God gave you.

As I teach these young bands, most of them, regardless of how "good" they become, don't really want to take it to the next level.  Most probably wouldn't be looking to make this a lifetime career.  That's okay.  Over the years, I have taught several groups that were exceptional.  This is what I've learned...

To get good paying gigs, you have to be good at promoting.  That means getting the word out about your gigs.  People can't come to gigs that they don't know about.  If you are hired by a festival or event, don't just expect the festival or event to promote you.  They don't know your specific audience.  They may be promoting you through the musical genre, such as "bluegrass," but they don't know who your local followers are.  Do you even have local followers?  If not, you have missed out on the first important point of playing locally!  If you can't connect to your local audience, you won't have a cost effective way of playing all those free gigs that all musicians must play.

A subpoint on all of this is that your free gigs need to be your local gigs if you don't want to go broke "getting good experience."  They don't require you to spend lots of money on travel.  No excessive mileage on the car.  No expensive hotel rooms.  I'm not saying never play for free unless it's local.  I'm just saying that's where the majority of your free gigs should be.  If you are not drawing an audience, you are not doing something right.

Another thing I've learned in all of this is that the bands that get the following have parents and members that get the word out.  They all work together to help the band get gigs.  They work together to post on the Facebook page.  That means pictures as well.  They network.  Each family has the potential to bring all their family and friends together to help support the group.  They get business cards and t-shirts.  They make flyers for their gigs.  They make out set lists and practice them before gigs.  This list literally goes on and on, but the most important part of this is that they make their audience feel good!  It boils down to connecting with those they are playing for.  Period.

And while I am on that topic, I will also say this about fundraising electronically for band recordings or CDs.  I don't support Go Fund Me for recordings.  Why?  Because if you can't pay for your recording, you aren't connecting with your audience.  You don't have the amount of support needed to sell a recording.  I don't agree with the idea that you need the recording first to promote yourself.  Maybe you need that for professional promotion or larger gigs, but I still believe local support comes first and foremost.  Am I saying a group shouldn't record if they don't have a certain amount of followers?  No!  I am just saying asking for free money for that endeavor is like saying you don't think you are good enough to recoup your money.  Or that you don't want to work hard enough to figure out what you need for dedicated followers.  Record all you want, but let that be part of your learning experience.  Book local gigs that pay a little and save that money for that purpose.  Learn to connect with your audience.  Learn to promote yourself.  Don't expect handouts.  You may get them from time to time, but don't count on them.

What else does a band need?  They need to have smooth presentations.  The show needs to flow.  Musicians need to be able to tune quickly in between songs.  They need to play songs appropriate for their venue and audience.  Jokes need to be appropriate for the venue and audience.  Talk to your audience.  Look at them when you play.  Look like you are having fun!  You don't have to plaster a smile on your face for an hour while you play, but you do need to look pleasant and "into" what you are doing.  You do need to include your audience in your concert.  (And smiling does help!)

I know I have only skimmed the surface of this controversial subject.  I don't purport to know it all or have all the solutions.  I just want to share with you some of what I've learned over the years in working with young groups.  I understand all of this doesn't apply to every musician or every group, as specific genres, areas where people live, and individual sets of circumstances may make some or all of what I've said void.

So in summing this all up, I DO believe musicians should be paid for what they do, but I also believe that they need to do the work required to get them to that point.  If you can't draw a crowd, the venue can't afford to hire you.  It's that simple.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Memorization - Inspiration and How-To's

For many, just hearing the words "memorize" makes the brain grow fuzzy,  and all the past failures come into mind.  You immediately remind yourself that you can't.  You are too old.  Your memory is too bad.  You tried it before and you failed.  Before you go into the mode where everything "goes in one ear and out the other," let me tell you about a former student of mine.  I will preface his story with this...

I don't believe that everyone with certain types of dementia or Alzheimer's can overcome memory issues, but this particular student of mine was an Alzheimer's patient that started to play banjo because of his diagnosis.  He told me in the very beginning.  He also told me how he had failed at clarinet and piano as a child.  His music teacher told him he would never play any musical instrument.  At the time, he was my oldest student at 76 years old.  He told me he did not believe he could memorize anything because of his diagnosis.  I asked him to try anyway.  He memorized 18 songs over the course of two years.  He could play all of his songs with accompaniment.  What that did for him no doctor could ever do for him.  It didn't cure him, but it gave him such confidence that he could do something despite the overwhelming odds against him.  And on one of the hardest instruments he could ever have chosen.

So how was he able to do this?  How does anyone that has trouble with memorization overcome this problem?  To start with, you really need to quiet those inner voices telling you that you can't.  Just keep telling yourself you will try.  Every day.  Every time you practice.

As a teacher, when I get a student that comes in week after week with their tab or music on the stand, I start by helping them memorize the song during their lesson with me.  I don't allow them to use the tab or music.  They hate this and resist!  But I have them do it anyway.  I start by having them play as much as they can without the music.  If they can't even get started, I help them get started.  If they still can't play any of the song, I will teach them note for note whatever they have been working on.  We might do four notes, eight notes, or even the first line.  It really depends on the student and what they are able to remember.  What I am doing is showing them HOW to do this at home.

Start with just a few notes, one measure, or one line.  Remembering the first note is a start!  Can you remember the first four notes?  Great!  Can you remember the first four notes 10 minutes from now?  If not, look at them again.  Can you remember the first four notes tomorrow?  If not, look at them again.

Break old habits.  What I mean by this is if you have been using tabs or music for a while to play all your songs, it will be difficult for you to give this up because you might be able to play 10 or 20 songs as long as you have music.  And memorizing 10-20 songs is overwhelming if you think you can't memorize even one!  Plus, you CAN play with the music.  So what habit is there to break?  The habit of using the tab or music for a crutch.  You have two option at this point.  The first is to immediately stop learning new songs until you can memorize all the ones you are currently working on.  The second option is to only learn new songs with a new method.  This new method is...

Learn only as much of the song as you can memorize.  If you can only memorize the first four notes, stop there!  Don't throw the piece of tab or music up on your stand and read all the way through it over and over.  That has already proven unsuccessful for you!  Why would you keep doing that?

Keep coming back to whatever it is that you are memorizing.  If you are working on part of a song, whether it is the beginning or some spot in the middle or end that you can't seem to get in your head, keep going back to it during your practice session.  Let's say you have four songs you are working on.  Start on the one you are working towards memorizing.  After you get part of it memorized, even if it's just four notes, go on to something else.  Work on that for 5-10 minutes or whatever time you deem necessary, then to back to the first song and see if you can remember those four notes without looking.  If you can't, look at them again.  Memorize them again.  Now go on to your second song.  Work on it for a while and return to those four notes you previously memorized.  Can you remember them?  If not, look at them again and memorize them again.  Do this over and over.  Every practice session.

Keep your practice sessions short, but frequent.  Many people don't have an hour or two at a stretch to devote to practice.  You have laundry to do, car repairs, children to attend to, phone calls to make, emails to answer, dinner, a spouse or friend that needs attention, etc.  That's okay.  In fact, that's best when you are memorizing!  Maybe you only have five minutes at a time to devote, but you can do that three times during the day.  Each time, try for those four notes without looking!  Eventually, you will get them down.

Practice more days.  This goes with the one above about keeping your practice sessions short.  You will get much more accomplished by practicing five days a week for 15 minutes than you will by practicing two hours in one day once a week.  Once again, it's not about a huge block of time devoted to practice.  It's about how often you practice.

Keep your instrument handy.  This is a BIG one.  If you have to go get your instrument, take it out of the gigbag or case, get your picks, your tuner, your strap, your bow, or whatever else you need, that takes time.  If you don't have much time, you won't do it.  If you don't have much motivation, you won't do it!  Keep your instrument out on a stand.  It can be in the living room, the kitchen, your bedroom, or where ever it is most handy.  If you can't keep it on a floor stand, get a wall hanger.  This allows you to play for a few minutes at a time on a moment's notice.  On hold on the telephone?  Put it on speaker mode and pick up your instrument!  Waiting for the biscuits to brown or water to boil?  Pick up your instrument and play a few notes!

What moments can you "cash in" on?  Besides being on hold or taking advantage of wait times while cooking, you can also use these moments:
* Mute the television during commercials and pick while you are waiting.
* Listen to the tunes you are working on while in the car or doing things that DON'T allow you to stop and pick a few minutes.
* Waiting for someone to finish getting ready?  Use those few minutes (or more) to pick a little.
* Have you been working on homework for a long time?  A report?  Just finished making lots of phone calls? Stop for five minutes and pick a tune.

Don't stop.  Once you get those first four notes or that first line memorized, don't stop there.  Add to it.  Add the next four notes, or the next line to what you already have memorized.

Got a good ear? Here's an interesting one.  Maybe your problem isn't that you can't memorize, but that you can't memorize once you have the music.  Record yourself playing the piece from music.  Those of you that have a good ear may now use that recording to learn the piece without looking at the music.

Practice with a recording.  This is a very important part of practice regardless of whether you have issues with memorization!  Playing with a good recording, especially one that includes accompaniment, will make and keep your rhythm accurate.  It will also remind you that you have forgotten something if you skip notes or make other mistakes in the music.  Part of memorizing is the inevitable changing something as you go along.  You think you have it memorized, but you change something without even knowing you did!  If you are playing with a recording, it will be obvious.  This will allow you to go back and fix whatever it is before too much time passes.  It also forces you to stay at one speed.  You won't be able to stop when your memory fails.  You will learn how to recover and keep going.

Listen.  Often.  I mentioned this above very briefly in the "cash in" moments, but this is so important, it deserves a paragraph of its own!  If you don't know what the song sounds like, how can you possibly memorize it?  How would you even know you had it memorized?  This is particularly true if you are playing your song very slowly.  It doesn't sound like the song.  Listen to a recording of the song played very slowly so you know what you are supposed to sound like when you play it very slowly.  Put the song on your phone or on a CD and listen to it in the car, while you are waiting in the doctor's office (with your earbuds, of course), while you are changing the oil in your car, while you are getting ready in the morning...or evening, etc.

Recognize repeating sections of repeating licks.  This is also a very important one.  You may look at a song and it seems overwhelming because it is LONG.  Look more closely at the song.  You will probably start to see parts of the song that are the same.  Or parts of the song that you already know from memorizing another song!  Maybe you recognize a certain lick or pattern of notes.  Great!  These are the parts that you won't have to memorize again!

Celebrate your victories and don't compare yourself to others.  Some people memorize quickly.  Some don't.  No matter how you start, it will get easier and you will get faster and better at it. You will also notice that you start to remember other things better, too.  It will improve every aspect of your life.  You won't lose your car keys as much.  You will remember what you had for dinner last night.  Maybe you will even remember your anniversary!  But seriously, don't compare your ability or lack of ability to memorize with someone else's.  You are an individual with your own set of struggles, life issues, health issues, job issues, and so forth.  To compare yourself to someone else is setting yourself up for failure or false hope.  It doesn't matter how long it takes you.  It matters that you are trying.

I know this has been long, but I think it is important.  I hope that you will be inspired to memorize.  I hope you won't give up.  I hope you will speak words of encouragement to yourself that you CAN do it.  I hope you remember that I believe in you!