Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Introducing Tyler!

This is 11-year old Tyler playing guitar and singing "Hot Corn Cold Corn."  Tyler has only had about 2 months of guitar lessons (every other week) and is doing very well.  Tyler's guitar and accessories were provided by The Bluegrass Shack's scholarship program.  The scholarship program is funded by donations from folks who provide monetary gifts, lessons, or instruments/accessories to deserving students of all ages.  Great job, Tyler!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Practice: Your New Year's Resolution

No doubt, many of us make New Year's resolutions.  For some, it may be to lose weight, eat better, exercise more, be a better mom/dad/spouse, save more money, etc.  For musicians, it might be to practice more or more efficiently.  If it's something that you like to do, it might seem like an easy thing to do.  Practice time can be hard to come by for all of us, though.  Life is busy... 

My best friend, Sharla, told me about her New Year's resolution to practice more.  She plays piano. She told me over the phone a couple of nights ago that she wanted to play the piano every single day...even if it was just one song.  Then she said that she just wanted to make sure she actually sat down on the piano bench and went through at least a scale.  Then I laughed and said, "you mean you want to make sure that you at least take one finger and play one key on the piano as you pass by it every evening."  Then Sharla laughed too and we agreed that that sounded more like what would actually happen.

So what can you do to make sure that you have a practice resolution that you can actually keep?  Here are some ideas for you. 

First of all, make sure that your goal is reasonable.  It might be reasonable to play at least one scale every day, but not reasonable to play for one hour every day.   And with practice, how OFTEN you practice goes farther than how LONG you practice.  Playing for 4 hours every weekend is great, but if you can spread that out over the entire week, you'll progress more and faster.

Practice SMARTER:  Another great goal would be to practice for at least 10 minutes on days that you have your lesson (after the lesson when you get home).  It REALLY helps you to be able to remember what you did during your lesson, which will help you in all your practice sessions all week.  If you don't take lessons, remember this technique when someone shows you how to do something.  If you're out at a festival or jam and you learn something new, make sure to go over it again as soon as possible so that you don't forget it.

Practice what NEEDS practice.  If you can't play the last line of a song, don't keep going back to the beginning to play it all the way through.  Practice the last line.  I know this might seem like common sense, but as a teacher I see this happen all the time.  Especially with beginning students.  They always tell me that they can't start in the middle of the song.  You have to learn how to do this...even if it means getting your tab or music out to help you do it.  When you get ready to play a song you know there is a trouble spot in, play through the trouble spot several times before you even play the whole song.  That will increase your chances of playing the song correctly the first time through.

Practice with others.  Maybe your goal needs to be to practice with other people.  Practicing with others is one of the best ways to get better faster.  If you haven't tried it, let me warn you that it's hard for most people.  It's worth the effort!  Many times when people first start attending jam sessions, they tell me they feel lost and frustrated.  Don't let this stop you.  Keep trying until you can do it.  You may play better in your living room, but eventually you will be able to "carry that living room feeling" with you to the jam.

Try television practice.  What???  This is one of my biggies, especially for kids who try to tell me they don't have time.  I ask them if they watch any television.  The answer is almost always yes.  I tell them to take their instrument with them to where they watch tv, then play it during the commercials.  If you play during the commercials of a 30 minute program, you have probably practiced about 10-15 minutes.  Not too bad if you consider the alternative was to not practice at all.  Reminder:  I'm not saying do ALL your practice this way!!!!  I personally will use this method while watching the news if I am trying to memorize something.  I have 5 minutes or so to play through a phrase or portion of a song, then I watch some news, then I see if I can remember what I memorized during the last commercial break.

Do you have your own practice tips?  We'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Dad - Ever the Entertainer!

Probably most of you don't know that my Dad has been in the hospital and a nursing home since the beginning of November.  He is doing okay, but will have surgery sometime in the middle of January.  Daddy is 83 years old, but is always busy entertaining.  He is one of the most social people I know.  My sister brought him his fiddle so that he could play while he's staying in the nursing home.  Well, Daddy has been entertaining everyone, and has even allowed a few other fiddle players who are staying there to pull the bow across the strings of his fiddle.

While we were there on Thanksgiving Day, we decided to put on a concert for the residents during dinner.  It was quite impromptu, but was also a lot of fun.  Earl played guitar, I played banjo, and Daddy played the fiddle.  We all took turns singing.  Then we did a little bit of switching around and Earl took several pictures.  I could tell the folks staying there really enjoyed the music, but there was one lady in particular who stands out in my mind.  Daddy said she used to be a singer.  Every time we sang a song she knew, she would sing out in one very high pitch -- loud and with much vibrato.  She didn't sing any words, just the one note.  It was simply the most joyous thing I have ever heard.  It sounds really funny, and I guess in a certain way it is, but I wish you all could have heard it.  It was pure joy that came straight from her heart.

Don't forget to play for others!  No matter how good or bad you are, you will bring joy to others!  You may never know how you touch other people, but you will.  I promise.

Sylvia's Christmas Letter

Those of you who attend the Monday night beginning instructional jam session know Sylvia and Dave. Unfortunately for us, they moved to Alabama just about a month ago. I sure miss them! Sylvia wrote me the nicest letter ever for Christmas. I wanted to post it for everyone who knows Dave & Sylvia. I scanned it in because it is so long, so you'll have to click on the picture to enlarge it so it is readable.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to Dave & Sylvia!  We all miss you so much!

Courtney Wins & Plays the Fiddle!

This is 9-year old Courtney who won the fiddle she is playing in July at our fiddle contest.  She has been taking lessons from Chelsea for about 5 months now and is doing a great job!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

MABC Fiddle & Banjo Contest in Eureka, MO

It's that time again!  The 28th Annual Winter Bluegrass Festival will be held on January 8th & 9th.  The fiddle & banjo contest will be held on Friday, January 8, 2010.  It starts promptly at 7:00 p.m., with all contestants needing to be registered by 6:30 p.m.  If you are not registered by 6:30 p.m., MABC will not allow you to enter the contest.  There are Open and Junior contest divisions in both fiddle & banjo, with prize money presented to the top three contestants in each division.  Trophies to the top five contestants in each division.  Medals awarded to all junior contestants regardless of placement.

This is a great winter festival, held at the Ramada Inn Six Flags in Eureka, MO.  Lots of jamming, lots of great bands, and a great contest Friday night.  We hope you'll make it!

For a copy of the flyer, click here.  For the rules of contest, click here.

Chris' Private Lesson Exclusion Schedule

This is for all of my private students.  Please grab a copy of the 2010 schedule when you come in for your next lesson.  Here are the OFF dates.

Jan. 18, 19, 20, 21 (no group lessons this week either)
Feb. 8, 9, 10, 11
Mar. 1, 2, 3, 4, 22
Apr. 5, 6, 7, 8
May 10, 11, 12, 13
June 14, 15, 16, 17
July 5, 6, 7, 8
Aug. 2, 9, 10, 11, 12
Sept. 6, 13, 14, 15, 16 (no group lessons on the 6th)
Oct. 18, 19, 20, 21
Nov. 22, 23, 24, 25
Dec. 27, 28, 29, 30 (no group lessons this week either)

2010 Bluegrass Shack Jam Session Schedule

Here is the new Tuesday night schedule for 2010.  We hope you can make it!  Our jams are every other Tuesday, starting at 7:30 p.m. and lasting until everyone is gone!  Typical end time is around 10:30 p.m., but we have been here as late as 1:00 a.m.  This is an all acoustic jam session, open to the public, free of charge and suitable for all levels of musicians and/or singers.  You can even come if you just want to sit and listen.

January 5th & 19th
February 2nd & 16th
March 2nd, 16th & 30th
April 13th & 27th
May 11th & 25th
June 8th & 22nd
July 6th & 20th
August 3rd, 17th & 31st
September 14th & 28th
October 12th & 26th
November 9th & 23rd
December 7th (only one this month)

Incredible Original Artwork by Keyona

We have been absolutely blessed by some of the most giving and kind people.  Case in point:  Yesterday, Keyona and daughter Aubrey brought me this amazing oil pastel a la "Picasso" that Keyona herself had made.  It is so incredible!  There is a harmonica player, a fiddle player, and a jug player.  I can't wait to get this up on the wall!  Many, many thanks!

Our First Snow

Now this really isn't newsworthy, but hey!  this is a blog!  I think that makes everything at least a little bit newsworthy.  When I got up this morning, we barely had a covering of snow on the lot.

Olympic Boxing

Well, you probably never thought this was bluegrass, but this week gives a whole new meaning to the words "olympic boxing."  The internet sales this week have been quite a bit more than normal, and Dennis and I have been competing every afternoon in olympic boxing before UPS Bob arrives at 2:30 p.m.

It's actually been quite a bit of fun.  We play the game of trying to guess what state each box is going to.  Even some of our walk-in customers have been competing.  I tell them what part of the US the box is going to, and then we see who can guess which state first.  When no one can guess the right state, I then announce that there was a GREAT prize for the winner and that it was sad that no one got it.  Second grader, Jarrett, got me, though.  He wanted to know what the GREAT prize was, and I had to tell them there wasn't one...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Getting Through a Slump

How do I know a student is going through a slump?  If I can't tell by their playing, I can sure tell by what they say.  We all know how it is...things are rolling along just fine, and then all of a sudden it seems like we've made no noticeable progress.  Or worse yet -- you can't do things that you used to be able to do!

I actually don't view these times as slumps, but rather as plateaus.  Everyone has periods of time where there doesn't seem to be any progress followed by periods of time where progress is very noticeable.  This is in addition to the fact that daily playing varies from time to time as well!  One day, you play well, another day you can't even get through the simplest song.  How do you manage to get through these times?

First of all, remember that you are not alone!  That way, as you are working your way through the plateau, you remain optomistic about actually getting through it!  Encourage others who are going through this, as we all need to know we will actually get through it.

Second of all, a plateau is a normal part of progression, and the longer you have been playing and the better you play, the longer the plateaus will be.  Even professional musicians have them.  I had been on a plateau with my fiddle several years ago that lasted several years.  I was playing okay, but there were many things I wanted to be able to do that I couldn't do.  I faithfully practiced them, employing all kinds of techniques to help me get better, but I saw no REAL progress.  One of the things that got me through this plateau is my next point...

A different instrument can help you in some cases.  Now I'm not saying that buying another instrument is the answer, but it can help in some situations.  In the case of my fiddle plateau, this different fiddle that I got was a miracle for me.  And I have seen this for others as well.  I had a good fiddle, but my "new" fiddle was simply easier to play and I was finally able to do some of the things I had been working at for so long.  And I'm talking for years I worked diligently at these things.  My "new" fiddle had a skinnier neck and it was angled more towards the E string side and I was finally able to reach some things with my little finger that I couldn't reach before.

Sometimes when you just can't get something, it helps to do something different.  This is where the cliche "don't through out the baby with the bathwater" comes in.  Why get rid of the whole song when there is just a small section of it you can't play?  Do something different in that section, or get rid of it altogether if it is just a variation.  You can keep working on the part, but just leave it out of your "playable" version.

Now, if we are talking about going backwards, there can be several causes for this.  You probably just need to slow down.  It's hard to do, so don't think you can't do this.  One of the phases of learning is "auto pilot" mode.  Most people never get past this phase.  Good teachers do because they have to teach others.  The three phases of learning are:  1) I know everything I do and I have to think about it as I do it; 2) I play on auto pilot and don't have to think about what I do.  If I start thinking about it, I can't do it; 3) I know everything I do, and I can play it at any speed that I am physically capable of playing.  You may have to get your tab or music out for this phase, or you may have to play through parts of the song up-to-speed to be able to figure out what you are actually doing.  Then you should practice the song REALLY SLOW so that you are focusing on technique.  Make every note as perfect as you can.  Make every technique or bowing as good as you can.  A metronome can be helpful in this because it will keep you playing slowly.  When I say slow, I mean REALLY slow.  Most of my students still play rather fast when I tell them to play slow.  I have to tell them to slow down several times before they get slow enough.  Pretend like you're teaching someone else how to play the song.  They are going to listen to you and need to be able to see and hear individual notes and phrases.  This technique is good regardless of where you are at in your playing.

If speed is your issue, and I mean that in the sense that you aren't able to play fast, then you will have to start practicing playing fast to get faster.  A metronome is also very helpful for this because you can write down what speed you are at and you will be able to actually see when your speed is getting faster because of the numbers. 

The most important thing is to keep going!  Talk to other musicians.  They will know what you are going through!  It can be a big help to hear how others have "weathered the storm," so to speak.  Keep on playing music!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wild About Music Coupon Code

If you haven't finished your Christmas shopping and want a great place to find unique musical gifts, you should try out  The Bluegrass Shack has nothing at all to do with this company, nor do we get commission.  They have some really neat gifts, and they are offering a discount for purchases made before 1/1/10.  This is directly from my e-mail:

$5 off any purchase

$10 off any $100 purchase

Enter code in coupon box on checkout page. Coupons cannot be combined.
Offer for online purchases only. Expires 1/1/2010

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Custom Made Banjo Fingerpicks

Calling all banjo players!  Here is your chance to get some custom made, high quality banjo picks.  John Ellington is from Canada and has made fingerpicks for some pretty high profile banjo players, including Alison Brown (when she played for Alison Krauss).  These are really nice fingerpicks and they are guaranteed.  I have two sets of these and they are non-slip and sound great.  Take a look at John's website at   You can order the picks directly from John on-line.

So why did John start making the banjo picks?  This is what he wrote me:  "I started learning banjo from Dave Talbot, he was Canadian national champion several years in a row.  He now plays for Dolly Parton.  I found the old nationals very uncomfortable and decided to make a pick that was more comfortable and made several prototypes ( 45-50) and with Dave's input arrived at the pick you see today.  It is hand made, of the finest sterling silver.  Pierced to flex around the finger and you can actually feel the string as you play. Secondly, they will not slip if well fitted."

Yes, John made me a set with my name engraved on them, and no, I don't get any commission.  I don't recommend anything I don't like.

Support for the Troops

Okay - I know this isn't bluegrass related, but I thought it was such a good idea I had to post it anyway.  Xerox is sending free cards to the troops from their website at  You can pick out a thank you card and Xerox will print it and it will be sent to a soldier that is currently serving in Iraq. You can't pick out who gets it, but it will go to a member of the armed services.  Kids made the cards and there are a whole bunch you can choose from.  Happy sending!

Christmas Party Give-Aways!

Attention boys and girls!  Students of The Bluegrass Shack can sign up at the Christmas party to win one of these giant, 4-foot stockings stuffed with all kinds of goodies and topped off with a large, stuffed Christmas bear!  We will also be giving away lots of attendance prizes to folks of all ages.  We hope to see all our students at the party for an evening of fun, fun, fun (and food, food, food)!

Stocking Stuffer Ideas

If you haven't finished up your shopping yet and you are needing some Christmas cards or ideas for the stocking, here you go!

Karen Cannon is at it again with her absolutely adorable Christmas cards!  We are offering these at a substantial discount of only $12.00 per box (of 10).  These retail for $16.95.  Take a look at some of the cards we have in stock!

First off, how about a chinrest pad for your favorite fiddle or violin player?  At only $3.00, they are a bargain!

Every guy needs just one more tie, especially when it's a musical tie!

How about a case tag?  Every case should have one and they are only $2.50 - $3.50!

Music pocketbooks are the answer for many folks!  Some are chord books, some are tab, some are musical notation, some are theory.  All cost $1.25 - $4.50, depending upon the individual book.

Instrument magnets are sure to get a "front seat" on the refrigerator of your favorite musician.  They are all $5.00 or less, too!

Need a place to store picks and capos?  How about extra change?  These mini saddle change purses are made of real leather and come in black and brown.  At only $10.00, any cowgirl would be proud to own one!

These very detailed mini instruments make great ornaments or fan / light pulls.  They are only $10.00 and will give years of joy!

We have many other items that musicians need that fit great into a stocking:  strings, capos, picks, gift certificates, tuners, rosin, shoulder rests, straps, cables, microphones, lyres, polish, polishing cloths, fretboard conditioner, Simichrome polish for banjos and other metal parts, mutes, pitchpipes, pick pouches and holders, hat and lapel pins, harmonicas, jaw harps, gorilla snot, guitar grease, peg winders, drumsticks (wood & light-up!), reeds, cleaning kits, transducers & pickups, strap buttons, and much more!

Some of Our Many Ornaments

I get all kinds of nice ornaments each year for Christmas and even throughout the year.  Many of them are musical, but I also get many nice glass and nativity-type ornaments as well.  I thought I'd share a number of the ornaments that are on the tree this year.  If you don't see "yours", it was in the box that I couldn't locate after two moves this year...  Never fear -- I still have it!!!  It is a tradition in my family to trade ornaments each year.  It is something that doesn't cost too much, and you can never have too many for the tree!  When I decorate the tree every year, the ornaments make me think of students, family, and special moments.  It is truly a memory tree for me.

Bluegrass Shack Christmas Tree

Last year, I never did get around to even getting the tree up.  This year, I vowed to get this done early.  The weekend following Thanksgiving was my day to get this done.  I actually love putting up the tree, and I like putting the ornaments on it even better. 

2009 Bluegrass Shack Gingerbread House

Aha! It's done! Thank you to my mother for this wonderful tradition we have of making gingerbread houses every year during the Christmas season. Today was the big day! Mom makes about a ton of frosting, and she also hand rolls, cuts and bakes the gingerbread -- including a banjo for my "house" every year. And my tradition is to give the gingerbread house away in a random drawing at the Bluegrass Shack Student Christmas Party. Soooo, one lucky person attending the Christmas Party will get to take this lovely and delicious house home with them. Here are some pictures of this year's house.