Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Whatever You Do, Don't Stop!

My husband, Earl, told me I should post this. It has to do with playing through your mistakes. So many times, beginners stop every time they make a mistake. Many times they will then start the entire song over again because they can't pick up from where they left off, or because they think it has to be perfect all the way to the end. If you start over from the beginning because you are lost, keep practicing until you don't have to do that. If you are starting over just because the song wasn't perfect, don't! Especially banjo players! Think about how many notes you are playing in a song. It is impossible that you will play a song perfectly every time, especially as the new songs you learn get longer and harder. I explain it to my students like this:

You are driving down the highway during peak traffic at 55+ mph and miss your exit. Now, you're not going to put on the brakes, back up in the middle of the highway and take your exit, are you? You will have to find another way to get where you are going, even if you have to turn around. You don't need to go back home and start the trip over again, you just need to find the best way to keep going from where you are.

Last Friday night at Perk's, I was playing the minor version of Turkey in the Straw. If I don't play this regularly, I tend to make mistakes in it. It's just one of those songs that I have to keep "on top of" to play good. Several of my students that can play this particular version were there to listen. Well, I had not played this in a while and I made a number of mistakes in it. Mistakes which I thought were pretty obvious. Now, in talking to one of those particular students, I found out that he (Rick) heard the mistakes, but that he thought I was just playing another version. I improvise all the time when I play, so you never know what I might play. Rick has been playing banjo for a while, and he has a good ear, so to hear him say that he wasn't sure there were mistakes was a good lesson for all my other students to hear. If I had winced or made faces at my wrong notes, or if I had stopped, there would have been no doubt that I really messed up. In the end, I made it through the song and no one really knew I played some notes I didn't want to.

So remember, keep playing no matter what! Don't go back for missed notes. If you're lucky, what you play will still "work" and sound okay even if it's not what you meant to play. Keep everyone guessing!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Beginner's Jam

Last night was our Beginner's Instructional Jam Session. We have this every other Monday night. We had two basses, three banjos, two guitars and a fiddle. The songs we practiced last night were Dooley, Long Journey Home, Unclouded Day, Hot Corn Cold Corn, and Worried Man Blues.

The way this jam session works is everyone has to pick a song to sing. We do this because most beginners are not able to take breaks on songs yet, so instrumentals are out of the question. The songs preferably should have no more than three standard chords, and it makes no difference if the person is a good singer or not. I help each person figure out what key they should sing their song selection in, as this is one of the main reasons why people don't sing in public. I think you'd be amazed at how good everyone is able to sing when they sing in the correct key for their own voice. Participants don't have to sing and play at the same time, and they can have someone sing with them if they want. Everyone joins in on the chorus.

I go over chord changes to the songs, we examine the chord structure of the song, and we also determine if there are any "tricky" things about the song. During the two weeks that we are waiting until the next jam, I record everyone's selections in their designated keys and burn everyone a CD to practice with. Sometimes we will learn harmony parts to the choruses of some of the simpler songs.

Depending on the skill level of the participants, some participants take breaks or fake breaks. We also talk about how to start songs, various fill-in licks, endings, tags, and other basic things that are important to what everyone is learning.

Playing with other people is a key factor in becoming a better player. It's what most people want to do anyway! Too many students are focused in on learning to play breaks, but they don't know how to play with other people. They might know breaks to 10 songs, but can't play them with anyone. They don't even know what key they are in. Learning backup and chords is fundamental to bluegrass music. It is actually the easiest thing to learn and will allow people to play with others almost immediately. Check out what Pete Wernick has to say about this at

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Perk's Coffeehouse Performance

Last night, we (the Chris Talley Trio) played at Perk's & More Coffeehouse in Freeburg, IL. What a great crowd! We had so much fun! Several of my students came to play as well, including Ashley (from Gillespie), Colton (from New Athens), and Chelsea (from New Athens). There were so many people that they had to borrow chairs from the shop next door.

One of the funniest things of the evening was Red's performance of Duelin' Banjos on an inflatable plastic banjo. I played the banjo part, but Red pretended like he was playing it on the inflatable banjo. He was hysterically funny!

We did three encores at the end of the evening, so we didn't get out of there until around 10:30 p.m. I can hardly wait for our performance there next month.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Learning by Ear vs. Reading Music

I get asked about this often, so it seems like a subject that would be of interest to folks. I think the first question to ask is "What are you wanting to do with your music"? For orchestra and band students, it is very important to learn to read music. For bluegrass, country and folk musicians, it is not necessary to know this. Can it help? Yes, but playing by ear is more important for this type of music. Now let me explain why.

If you are playing bluegrass music, everyone gets together and just plays. You might not know all the songs or even the people with whom you are playing! It is important to have developed your ear skills because you need them for this type of get together. You just don't see bluegrass musicians setting up their music stands and reading music. (Now you might see them with their words to songs, though.) Usually, whatever method you learn first is the method that you will be most comfortable with. So if you learn to play by ear, you'll do it just fine. If you learn to read music, then you won't want to get rid of your music.

If you are going to play in an orchestra or band, or if you want to play classical music, etc., it would be impossible to do this without knowing how to read music. You are expected to play everything exactly the way it is written on the page. No improvising, no ad libbing...

By contrast, in bluegrass music, there are as many ways to play a song as there are people who play the song. It is desirable to improvise and come up with your own style and/or way to play the songs, as long as you stay within the chord structure and rhythm of the song. There are songs that are even played slightly differently in different parts of the U.S. This even includes different words to songs from time to time! Since this music was passed on from person to person, there will always be these variances.

Do you think you're tone deaf, or have a "tin" ear? Chances are, you are not. A truly tone deaf person speaks in a monotone because they cannot hear variances in the voice. I have never met anyone that spoke in a monotone. I HAVE met people who couldn't sing on pitch or couldn't tell the difference between pitches. That is not tone deaf. Even if you can't sing on pitch, you can train your ear so that you can play by ear or even sing in tune. I have seen this over and over. It's not what you were born with, it's what you develop.

What about learning rhythm? Is that possible? Yes. From a teaching standpoint, I think teaching rhythm is much harder than teaching pitch. When a person doesn't have natural rhythm, they can't play with other people. When a person doesn't have good pitch, they can still play with others, though they might not be in tune all the time until they develop this aspect of their playing.

What about people who have played a long time and still don't "have it"? My thoughts on this is that many people don't realize they have a pitch or rhythm problem, so they don't work on it. Or maybe they don't work on the right things or have the right teacher to help with these issues. For instance, it is popular belief that a metronome will help people that don't have rhythm. I don't believe this is true. A metronome is very hard to stay with even when you have great rhythm. How in the world can someone who doesn't have natural rhythm stay with it? I think a much better way to develop good rhythm is to play along with the song on a CD. Some students prefer to import the songs to their iPods and play while they listen to it. Either way, a person with poor rhythm should avoid playing alone. Playing guitar also helps people who don't have natural rhythm.

People who have poor pitch can practice playing a fiddle with an automatic tuner. Someone who wants to learn to sing needs another person of the same sex to work with them. That is because the voice differences between men and women are too great for those with the poorest pitch. You don't even need a voice teacher, per se, just someone who has a lot of patience and who can help you learn songs that are the appropriate difficulty level for you.

One more question - What about trying to memorize all those songs? Even you can do this! You will develop your memory just like you develop everything else. Once this gets on track, you will amaze yourself at how fast you can learn a new tune. I have had banjo students that could only memorize four notes at a time in the beginning. I would have to write things down and record them, and then the students would go home and practice and try to memorize as much as they could. Those with the worst memories would have a remarkable improvement by the end of the first year. Usually by that point, I can teach an entire song in a lesson and the student can remember it all. Maybe not play it all perfectly or up to speed, but they can retain everything fairly well. With a CD to take home, they don't have to worry about forgetting it later.

Feel free to post your comments and questions, or e-mail me.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tuesday's Jam Session

Wow! We really had a great jam session last night. I enjoyed it tremendously. It always amazes me how good the music sounds no matter what the skill level of the participants. We had so much good singing and playing, with a total of around 25 people!

Torey (I hope I spelled that right) was a new participant. She is learning to play fiddle, and last night was the first time she had ever taken a break. By the end of the evening, Torey had taken breaks on 3-4 songs and did a fine job. It's always hard for beginners to do this because of nervousness, lack of confidence & experience, etc.; but remember -- we all started here!

John also came to our jam session. John is a local pastor and comes to most of our jams. He plays guitar and mandolin, and a little bit of fiddle, too. He has such a good voice! I love singing harmony with John, but with this cold I had to keep my singing to myself last night.

I have been working on a new sign for the shop over the past two days. Chelsea helped me out with it. I took a piece of paneling that we removed from the building and spray painted it black glossy enamel. Then I traced my fiddle and my banjo onto a piece of newspaper. Chelsea cut out the fiddle and I cut out the banjo, then we taped them to the paneling. I took white glossy enamel spray paint and sprayed the edges of the newspaper so that the sillouette of the instruments would show up. After it all dried, I removed the newspaper and painted "The Bluegrass Shack" in red glossy letters across the top. I'm going to paint a shadow on each letter in gold, and then I think I'll add some musical notes in gold.

The customer's fiddle that I spoke about in my last post has been completed now. I finished it up yesterday morning before my lessons started. It is a very smooth sounding fiddle. My favorite part of repair is getting the instrument done and hearing what it sounds like. It was a big success and I can't wait for the owner to play it.

This weekend, my band -- The Chris Talley Trio -- will be playing at Perk's Coffeehouse in Freeburg, IL. We'll be there Friday, February 23, from 8:00 - 10:00 p.m. Perk's is located right on the main highway (Hwy. 15) in the new strip mall. It's on the north corner. This is a really great venue! It is free, plus they have really good desserts, sandwiches, miscellaneous drinks and coffee (of course!). I hope to see you there.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A New Week Begins

Unfortunately, I have a cold today so I'm not teaching any lessons. Don't want to pass the bug on to my students, and there is always plenty to do around here anyway. So far this morning, I have worked on a couple of fiddles in the repair shop. One is my own personal fiddle -- something I got for Christmas. It is a beautiful fiddle made in Germany around 1870 or so. It has awesome flaming, but someone decided to coat it with polyurethane. For those of you who don't know, you should never do this to an instrument. It may make it LOOK beautiful, but it changes the tone of the instrument and also devalues it. Anway, I've been busy using different rubbing and polishing compounds to remove as much of the polyurethane as possible. At least the instrument was not stripped of its original finish.

The other instrument I'm working on is a fiddle for a customer. It is also a German fiddle from around 1870. I removed the top to put in a new bass bar, regraduate the top, and fully block the instrument. It had the bass bar carved into the top of the instrument. You'll get a better sound from a handfitted bass bar, which is actually a separate piece of wood that is fit to the fiddle and then glued in. All I have to do now is fit a new fingerboard to the instrument (the old one was cracked) and then set it up with a new bridge.

Tomorrow is our jam session. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again. It's kind of like a family get-together once you get to know everyone. Still, we have new people almost every time, so you never know who will show up or what you'll play.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Here we go!

I've never done this before, so we'll just see how this all works out. I intend to post regularly here so folks can see what we do here at The Bluegrass Shack in New Athens, Illinois.

If you don't know about New Athens, here is a little bit of information. It is a very small town in southern Illinois. There are no fast food restaurants, but several nice family style restaurants and a few bar & grills. We even have a pizza place, but there's no delivery service here. The only stoplight in New Athens is out on the main highway. The town sits right on the Kaskaskia River, so there's a marina just one mile from our shop. You can eat at the marina, or you can rent a boat and go fishing. Every year, the marina celebrates the new year with a jump into the river. (Not for me!)

Now, onto our shop. The Bluegrass Shack is a music store that specializes in acoustic, namely bluegrass, music. We also deal with band instruments, and we have a complete repair shop. We do not work on electric instruments, but we do keep a few of these in stock for "other" folks. We carry lots of vintage, used and new instruments. There are more than 100 fiddles/violins hanging on the wall in the shop, most of which are vintage. We are the only Illniois dealer for Stelling banjos, of which only three a week are made. Geoff Stelling ( personally inspects and sets up every banjo that leaves his workshop. We also carry Gold Tone ( banjos and many more. You just never know what you'll find here because we're always buying and trading. You'll even find some vintage Martin guitars here!

The Bluegrass Shack hosts regular jam sessions. These are every other Tuesday night starting at 7:30 p.m. For a listing of the next jam, visit We try to keep that up-to-date and also post video clips of jam sessions. On average, we have 20-30 jammers here. Everyone gets a turn to pick or lead a song if they want to. Some folks come to sing, some just to listen, and others do it all! Skill levels run the gamut from rank beginner to seasoned professionals. Everyone is welcome and there is no cost.

If you don't play an instrument but would like to learn, we also have six experienced teachers here to help you learn to play banjo, guitar, dulcimer, fiddle, upright bass, mandolin or band instruments. The good news about learning to play a musical instrument is that it is never too late to learn. My oldest banjo student is Al. Al is 77 years old and is learning to play 5-string banjo (Scruggs, 3-finger style). He's doing great! He's been at it for about 6 months now and knows how to pick 5-6 songs, but he can play backup to many more. My youngest student is Audrey, who is 2 years old. Audrey is learning fiddle.

Contrary to what you might have heard, most people are not born with musical talent. Oh yes, there are those that are, but many are not. This does not mean you cannot learn! I've been teaching for almost 30 years, and believe me, most of the folks who come to see me weren't born with oodles of natural talent. They develop it through practice and perseverence. I've taught people with missing fingers or fingertips, fingers that don't bend, arthritic fingers, and physically and mentally challenged folks. Everyone can learn to play if they have the desire. Success is found in determination and desire, NOT natural talent. My hope is that everyone who has ever wanted to learn to play something will actually go out and do it! It's so much fun!

Over the next few days, weeks, months and years, I'm going to post all kinds of information about learning instruments, instrument repairs, jam sessions, interesting musical information, etc. I hope you'll find this a place that you enjoy coming to!