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!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Memorize?

I have played a variety of different instruments and a variety of different styles of music, but none seem to rely on memorization as much as bluegrass or folk music.  These two styles (and there are certainly more) lend themselves to playing in groups with others by ear.  This means that you must be able to memorize songs.  I will write another blog about HOW to memorize for those of you that find it difficult, but for now, I want to tell you WHY it's important.

It helps to develop your ear.  I realize some people are visual learners and some are auditory learners.  If you are a visual learner, you may find memorization harder in the beginning, but you CAN do it.  I teach it.  I see my students learn to do it.  Even those that think they can't.  When you memorize, you start using your ears.  You listen more intently and you start to memorize by sound rather than by rote finger positions.

As your ear develops, you begin to hear chord changes.  I love when my students tell me they have started to hear where chord changes are.  This usually starts after my students start playing in small groups or jams.  At first, they can't tell at all where any chord changes are.  They can't anticipate anything.  Then, they start to hear where the changes are in certain songs.  They stop counting and start listening to the song.  After a while, they are even able to anticipate chord changes in songs they don't know.  They may not know what chord to change to, but they hear where it happens.  After a while, some students are even able to anticipate what the chord changes are.  (There are "formulas" for which chords will most often appear in any given key, but I am referring to actually hearing the correct chord as the music progresses.)

As your ear develops, you begin to recognize certain patterns of notes.  I believe this is most true for Scruggs style banjo players.  That is because Scruggs style banjo playing is not note driven.  It is lick driven.  Individual notes aren't the main thing that happens.  Individual notes become part of rolls and various licks.  Even a beginning banjo player will learn to recognize something like the "G Lick" pretty quickly when listening to banjo picking.  Can you recognize a simple scale?  Most people can.  You might not know WHAT scale, but you can tell it's a scale.  And you can tell if a wrong note is played in a scale.  That is because your ear has learned to recognize the pattern of a major scale.

Your speed will improve because you are not impeded by how quick your eyesight is.  Your muscle memory will take over and help you play through passages that you think you have forgotten.  How do you know you are using muscle memory?  Try to slow down a song you have memorized.  I mean REALLY slow it down.  Are you still able to play it?  Can you remember it?  Or do you have to pick up the speed again to get through the song?  If you can't play the song slowly but you are still able to play it faster, that means you are using muscle memory.  You are no longer thinking about every individual note.  The best teachers are able to play using both muscle memory and by thinking about every note.  (And this is something I believe all serious players should learn to do...but that's a topic for another day.)

You will be able to learn new songs faster.  This happens not just because your memory gets better as you use it more, but also because you start to know where each sound (or note) is on your instrument.  You also start to recognize certain licks or patterns of notes that you have used in other songs.  And those you already have memorized!  Yay!

You will be able to play songs in jams "on the fly."  One of the questions I get most often is how do I play a song that I have never heard before.  People are amazed that I can hear the melody once and then duplicate it (or come close) right away.  This actually has a simple answer.  By memorizing lots of songs, you start to recognize that many songs have similar melodies or chord patterns.  When I hear a new song in a jam, I don't memorize the entire song immediately.  I compare the new song to something that I already know, and then I just take note of the differences.  So perhaps one song is exactly like another except for one different chord change.  For instance, Bluegrass Breakdown and Foggy Mountain Breakdown are alike except BB uses an F chord in the same place that FMB uses an Em chord.  For some songs, the melodies sound almost exactly alike and I can simply think of the song I already know in my head when I'm taking my break.  For example, Worried Man Blues and Somebody Touched Me.  Without a memorized repertoire, you will never have this ability.

If memorization is something that you just don't think you can do, I would say the odds are that you CAN.  I will write my next blog on some different techniques that will help those of you who find this part of learning difficult.  In the mean time, start thinking about all the improvements in your playing and musicianship that can be developed by memorizing.  Start thinking about where you will be a month from now, six months from now, a year from now...  Talent doesn't fall out of the sky on certain people.  It is developed by those of us who desire it and work to attain it.  YOU can do this!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Why Lessons?

With all the free material available online today, you may wonder why anyone would want or need lessons to learn to play a musical instrument.  When I was growing up 40 years ago, we had books, recordings and people to learn from.  And quite frankly, I miss the interaction with "real live" people.  If I was to pick the number one reason to take lessons, I would say that is exactly the reason -- interaction with a person.  Conversation that can go two ways.  The chance to ask questions, clarify, expound...not to mention the all important feedback!

I'm not saying that the new materials available aren't useful, because I think they are.  I'm going to give you some ideas and thoughts that I hope will improve and speed up your learning.

YouTube - This is probably one of the great advents of this time!  The ability to hear so many different people play and sing songs is a huge learning aid.  You hear the different styles, speeds, keys, licks, and everything imaginable.  YouTube is a fantastic resource!  You don't have to buy or store countless recordings!  You can even use settings right on the YouTube video player to slow down or speed up the videos without changing the pitch.  What a great way to finally learn some of those elusive licks!  Want to learn a new song but can't think of one?  Type in "bluegrass banjo" or "Earl Scruggs" and see what pops up!  If you are a beginner, your best bet is to pick known artists so you know that the songs are being playing correctly and in time.

Free Tabs, Chord Charts, and Sheet Music - This is both good and bad.  At least with YouTube you can hear it first.  I have found much of the free written material to be less than satisfactory.  That's not to say it's not useful.  This is one of the areas that I pick and choose from.  I am fortunate that I can sightread, so I can look at this type of material and figure out if I like it pretty quickly without ever playing it.  I like to take ideas from these kinds of materials.  Many times the chords on the chord charts are not correct.  Sometimes even the words are not correct!  Make sure you double-check these types of materials.  If you don't have the experience, have someone else look at it to help you.

Paid Video Lessons or Learning Sites - This is also a new idea.  Some of these are very good.  And they are a great option to regular lessons if you live in a remote area, or if there is no one near you that teaches lessons.  Some of these sites just create videos and some use a combination of videos and tabs to teach you note for note how to play specific songs.  Most of these sites allow you to speed up and slow down the audio, which is a great learning tool!  A few of these sites, such as Tony Trischka's School of Banjo, even offer the ability for you to upload what you have learned and receive video feedback of what you submitted.  This is, in my opinion, the best of options!

Now what do regular lessons have to offer that these do not?  A very personal experience, for starters.  Nothing like having a regular teacher to be accountable to, to receive regular feedback from, to encourage you and let you know if you are on the right track or not, to give you a direction and reasonable goals, and to give you information about musical happenings in your area that you would benefit from.  A good teacher is your musical friend.  A good teacher will give you shortcuts (if there are any), help keep you from developing bad habits and techniques, give you the "why's" behind what you are doing, and tell you how things are done in your area.  Believe it or not, tunes can be regional.  That means that they are very popular in some states or counties, but not in others.  Or even that they are played differently in different areas.  This doesn't mean you can't be the one to "enlighten" the other musicians in your area, but if you are newbie looking for others to play with, you will want to pick tunes that others know.  At least in the beginning!  And picking with others is one of the key ways to get better faster, not to mention how much fun it is!  So if you haven't tried regular lessons and you are looking for a way to improve your picking this year, you may want to consider this "old fashioned" option!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Chris' 2019 Private Lesson Schedule

Chris' 2019 Private Lesson Schedule

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

February 11, 12, 13, 14 (no group lessons)
March 4, 5, 6, 7
April 8, 9, 10, 11
May 27, 28, 29, 30 (no group lessons)
June – Lessons all month
July 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11
August 12, 13, 14, 15
September 16, 17, 18, 19
October 21, 22, 23, 24
November 25, 26, 27, 28 (no group lessons)
December 24, 25, 26, 30, 31 (no group lessons)
January 1, 2019 (no group lessons)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Chris' 2018 Private Lesson Schedule

Chris' 2018 Private Lesson Schedule

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

February 19, 20, 21, 22 (no group lessons)
March 12, 13, 14, 15
April 16, 17, 18, 19
May 7, 8, 9, 10, 28 (no group lessons)
June 11, 12, 13, 14
July 4, 5, 9, 10
August 13, 14, 15, 16
September 3, 4, 5, 6
October 8, 9, 10, 11
November 5, 6, 7, 8, 22 (no group lessons)
December 24, 25, 26, 27, 31 (no group lessons)
January 1, 2019 (no group lessons)

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!