Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Makes a Fiddle (Violin) Left-handed?

Or maybe the question should be, "Can I just switch the strings around on a fiddle to make it left-handed"?  The answer to that question is no, and there are some very good reasons why:

Interior Construction - Every fiddle has a bass bar that is part of the internal construction of the top of the instrument.  On some cheaper instruments, the bass bar is actually carved into the top of the fiddle.  All good quality instruments (and even most student quality instruments) have a bass bar that is a separate piece of wood that is fitted to the top of the fiddle and glued in place.  The bass bar provides strength to the top of the instrument, and it also helps bring out a good, low end (tone quality) to the instrument.  The bass bar is on the side of the fiddle that has the low strings on it (G & D).  If you switch the strings around, the strength provided to the top of the instrument will be on the wrong side, and this will also negatively affect the tone quality of the instrument.  Both of these things could be ignored and, as a general rule, would not cause the fiddle any physical harm to the instrument.

The sound post is a major factor in how a fiddle sounds when it is played.  This is the little stick of wood that looks like a dowel rod on the E string side of the inside of the fiddle.  It is not glued into place, but is positioned with a special tool to sit right behind the bridge opposite the bass bar.  You can't change the positioning of either the bass bar or the soundpost without changing the positioning of the other, and since the bass bar is glued into place, this would not be an easy (or economical) thing to change.


(Click on the picture to make it larger)

Angle of the Fingerboard - The neck and fingerboard of a fiddle should be tilted slightly towards the E string side of the instrument.  This angle (tilt) creates a better bow arm position and less bow arm fatigue.  Can you get used to it differently? Yes, in theory you could.

In this picture, I actually took two pictures, one of each side of the same fiddle, and then pasted them facing each other so you can see how the E-string side of the neck is slightly smaller (lower) than the G-string side.

(Click on the picture to make it larger.)

The next picture shows how the E-string side of the fingerboard is lower (closer) to the top than the G-string side.

(Click on the picture to make it larger.)

Positioning of the Pegs - A true, left-handed fiddle will have the pegs drilled opposite.  Changing the strings around without refitting the pegs may cause several different issues.  For one, the peg closest to the fingerboard may interfere with hand position.  (This depends upon how large your hands are and the exact positioning of your hand on the neck of the fiddle.)  The second issue is the angle of the strings coming off the pegs and going across the nut.  Strings may rub on other pegs in the pegbox, or the angle could cause premature string breakage at the peg or nut.  Since the pegs are fitted on a taper, you cannot just switch them around.  The peg holes have to be bushed (filled in and redrilled).  




So why am I telling you all this?  Because many unscrupulous sellers (especially on places like E-Bay) will try to sell you a "left-handed" fiddle that is not truly left-handed.  Unless you have the correct knowledge, you will not know any better and will end up with something that is hard to play and doesn't sound good.

If you haven't learned to play yet, let me encourage you to learn to play right-handed.  Please take the time to read my other blog entry about left-handed people learning to play right-handed:  Left-handed or Right-handed?  There is no replacement for a great start!




Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Instructional Jam and Backyard Pickers Play at New Athens Home

One of the things I try to do regularly with my jam groups and family bands is to have them play for the local nursing home.  With the instructional jams, we work on the tunes for several months, and then everyone volunteers for breaks and for singing the lead on the vocals.  At that point, we are just about ready to perform.  We practice for several more sessions, and then I will set the concert date.  You have no idea what this means to the residents at the New Athens Home!  I regularly get song requests and am asked, "When are you coming back"? every time we play there.  I've even been asked for pictures of the performing group!

You may think you are too nervous to perform for anyone, or maybe you think you are not good enough.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  These folks LOVE the music!  They sing along, clap, and banter back and forth with us.  I always have jokes to tell, and they even appreciate my bad jokes!  I've been told that we made their day, that we brightened their day, and that they had been waiting for us all day!  This is such a great opportunity for everyone.

What do my students get from it?  Not only do they get the performance experience, but they have a goal.  They know what to work on, when they are going to perform, and they often have very specific questions about what they are playing and how to play it.  They learn to sing harmony and lead, they learn the chords to the songs they are playing, they learn how to go from backup to lead playing, they learn jam etiquette, and so much more!

We played for the residents of the New Athens Home for the Aged last night, and they had a special treat because one of our family bands performed a song as well, and it included two Irish dancing sisters and tin whistles!

I hope you will consider sharing your talents, and I hope you will enjoy the pictures!


 
 



Friday, March 3, 2017

The Bluegrass Shack 2017 Jam Schedule

Every other Tuesday night we have an acoustic jam session that is free and open to the public. You can come to play, sing, or just listen and it is free. Jam session is from 7:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. There will be players of all levels and we will pass the microphone.

Our public jam is open to all levels of players, but we do ask that you are able to perform certain basic things, like keeping the beat, tuning your instrument, and knowing basic jamming etiquette.  If you are a true beginner and don't have any or much jamming experience, you may want to attend our Beginner's Instructional Jams as an alternative to our Open Jam.   You can get more information by calling or e-mailing The Bluegrass Shack.

Here is a list of the dates we will be having the jam.  If for some reason we need to cancel a jam, we will remove it from this list and post on Facebook.  You are always welcome to call to confirm.  We hope you'll come join us!

Jan. 10, 11
Feb. 7, 21
Mar.  7, 21
Apr. 4, 18
May 2, 16, 30
June 13, 27
July 11, 25
Aug. 8, 22
Sept. 5, 19
Oct. 3, 17, 31
Nov. 14, 28
Dec. 12

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Chris' 2017 Private Lesson Schedule

Chris will not be teaching private lessons on the following dates.  Please note that group lessons WILL be taught unless it specifically mentions no group lessons on the date.

January - Only teaching Jan. 4&5 - No lessons until February
February Teaching all days
March 6, 7, 8, 9
April 10, 11, 12, 13
May 15, 16, 17, 18
June 19, 20, 21, 22
July 10, 11, 12, 13
August 14, 15, 16, 17
September 18, 19, 20, 21
October 23, 24, 25, 26
November 22, 23, 27, 28
December 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28 (No group lessons)
January (2018) 1, 2 (No group lessons)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Teaching the Very Young Banjo Player

I've been teaching banjo for about 35 years now.  Hard to believe...  I've learned some things in this time that I think are worth sharing.  I want to talk about teaching the very young banjo player today.  Who do I mean?  I mean the 9 year olds and younger.  Here are some things to consider:

1) Size of banjo - A full size banjo is going to be hard, if not impossible, for a very young banjo player to play.  The right hand needs two fingers planted on the banjo head, while the left hand needs to be able to reach all the way to the end of the banjo to do the fretting.  Girls have a slight advantage only in the sense that they tend to grow taller faster, so they *may* have longer arms at this age.

If you can avoid the tiny banjos and use something mid-size, it will make things much easier.  Gold Tone has great quality tiny banjos and mid-size banjos.  You can view them here:  https://goldtonemusicgroup.com/goldtone/catalog.php?cat=travel-banjo.  They are all listed as travel banjos, but they are great for kids!  The smallest banjos (like the Plucky) can be hard to tune, and even Gold Tone suggests they be tuned to a C rather than a G.  You can still tune them to a G, but the strings tend to be "floppy" and it is hard to keep them in tune.  If you don't tune them to a G, all the songs will be in the "wrong" keys when you try to play with others.

Savannah also makes a mid-size travel banjo.  You can view it here:  http://www.savannahacoustic.com/sb060.html. This is another good instrument for the younger banjo student.

2)  Right hand placement - The right hand of the banjo player should have the pinky and/or ring finger planted on the banjo head near the bridge.  Planting these two fingers gives stability to the right hand, and it also teaches muscle memory and allows the picker to know where all the strings are without looking.  One of the problems that I've seen in young pickers is that the fingers are so short, when they try to plant finger(s), they are unable to actually pick the strings because the ring and/or pinky is not tall enough for the rest of the fingers to actually be higher than the strings to facilitate picking the strings. 

There are a couple of things that can be done to allow finger planting.  One is to try switching to a 1/2" bridge.  The banjo will need a complete setup for this work if it is not already set up with a 1/2" bridge.  (5/8" is the standard.)

Another option is to allow finger planting directly on the top edge bridge with one finger (either the ring or pinky).  This will have to be changed later, because finger planting on the bridge mutes the sound of the banjo. 

The third option is to play from the "back up" position.  This means that the right hand is placed near the neck of the banjo.  The strings are lower here.  They is also less tension in the strings here, so a young player will need to be aware of not picking too hard.  This will distort the sound.

3)  Picks:  To use them or not - I was always a die-hard believer in always using banjo picks.  No matter what.  Now, I have changed my opinion about this in the very young players.  First of all, there are no really good options for very small fingers.  I have used a grinder to make the Dunlop mini picks smaller, and also the Pro-pik finger picks smaller.  Recording King has the smallest plastic thumbpick that I know of.

Secondly, I have seen that the very young pickers do all kinds of strange things with their right hand position when they start with finger picks.  When I remove the picks, they seem to play much more naturally.  I have found that starting without the picks produces a much better right hand position, and it transfers over when they go to the finger picks.  There is an adjustment, but when the finger picks are presented as a "reward," the young players really WANT to use them and learn to use them quickly.  It also allows them to play faster, cleaner, and louder.

4)  Banjo strap - This is really a must for most small pickers!  A properly attached strap keeps the banjo neck up.  It also keeps the picker from laying the banjo in their lap (with the banjo head facing the ceiling instead of the wall).

5)  A Great Teacher with lots of parental involvement - I can't emphasize this enough!  The parent is the one that is going to be helping the very young picker.  Practice is an absolute must, and it really has to be done on an almost daily basis to be successful.  Banjo picking takes very fine motor skills -- not the kind used in most sports.  Young children don't really start to develop this until around 12 years of age unless they are taught to play musical instruments.  There has to be a parent or some other person involved that can help supervise and answer questions.  You don't have to be musically inclined or know how to play to do this.  You just need to be willing and available.  It is important that you get instructions after each lesson from a (really great) teacher.  This teacher will tell you what to look for.  It is also very helpful to have a recording and/or a video.  Videos work GREAT for this age because the student and the parent can watch them together.  The very young student should strive to play along with the recording so that rhythm is learned correctly.

6)  Short, but frequent practice times - A small child is simply not capable of long practice sessions.  Their fingers get sore, their attention span wavers, and they can quickly go from loving the banjo to hating it.  Practice sessions can be as short as 5 minutes, as long as you do them several times a day.  They can even be done during the commercials of a favorite television show!  I suggest 15 minutes, five days a week.  If the student practices more, they will learn faster. 

7)  Lots of praise!  This goes without saying.  They really need encouragement.  Don't push them to stardom.  Let them be little kids learning to play a banjo...not prodigies in training.  There is such a thing as Little League parents in music...  Have them play "concerts" for you.  Watch them when they play.  Don't just sort of listen while you do something else.  Their songs are short.  You can do this!

8)  Expose them to other pickers and music.  Let them hear what they are aiming for.  Let them talk to and/or play to and with other pickers.

Learning to play the banjo is hard.  So is any other instrument.  It takes time and commitment.  I hope that this will help you with some of the things that are specific to the very young banjo student.  Good luck and keep picking!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Chris' 2016 Private Lesson Schedule

Chris will not be teaching private lessons on the following dates.  Please note that group lessons WILL be taught unless it specifically mentions no group lessons on the date.

March 7, 8, 9, 10
April 11, 12, 13, 14 (no group lessons)
May 16, 17, 18, 19
June 20, 21, 22, 23
July 4, 11, 12, 13, 14 (no group lessons)
August 15, 16, 17, 18
September 5, 6, 7, 8
October 10, 11, 12, 13
November 23, 24, 28, 29
December 22, 26, 27, 28, 29 (no group lessons)
January 2, 3, 2017

2016 Jam Schedule

Every other Tuesday night we have an acoustic jam session that is free and open to the public. You can come to play, sing, or just listen and it is free. Jam session is from 7:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. There will be players of all levels and we will pass the microphone.

If you are a true beginner and don't have any or much jamming experience, we ask that you try attending our Beginner's Instructional Jams as an alternative to our Open Jam.  You can get more information by calling or e-mailing The Bluegrass Shack.

Here is a list of the dates we will be having the jam.  If for some reason we need to cancel a jam, we will remove it from this list and post on Facebook.  You are always welcome to call to confirm.  We hope you'll come join us!

Jan. 12 & 26
Feb. 9 & 23
Mar. 8 & 22
Apr. 5 & 19
May 3, 17 & 31
June 14 & 28
July 12 & 26
Aug. 7 & 23
Sept. 6 & 20
Oct. 4 & 18
Nov. 1, 15 & 29
Dec. 13 & 27