Monday, June 28, 2010

Instructional Beginning Jams: Our Focus

We've had a definitive change of focus as of late in the jam sessions.  One of the hardest things to do in a jam is to learn how to come in correctly for instrumental breaks.  This is particularly hard, it seems, for the banjo players.  In an effort to give everyone more chances to do this, I have changed the format slightly.

First of all, we are doing more easy instrumentals.  We have been playing Cripple Creek, Banjo in the Hollow, Bile Them Cabbage, and Blackberry Blossom.  Speed depends upon the session and experience of the players.  I have been calling on students to play, but mixing up the song.  For instance, one person plays Part A of the song one time, then I call on someone else to play the repeat of Part A.  I call on yet another person to play Part B the first time, and another to play Part B the second time.  This means that playing through the song one time allows four different people to take the break.  When we practice the vocals, I have been having the singer sing one verse or one chorus (not both together) and then picking someone to play the break.  Sometimes we play breaks back to back, sometimes I split the breaks in half, and other times I have the singer come back in after one break.  Sometimes I have all the banjos as a group play together or all the fiddles as a group player together.

Another thing we have done in the more advanced of the two instructional jams is that I have been teaching the banjo players breaks "on the fly."  We have been working on using familiar licks and how to combine them to create breaks.  We have also been learning how to pick out melodies in "C" position instead of the standard "G" position.  Songs we have been working on include Nine Pound Hammer, Bury Me Beneath the Willow and Somebody Touched Me.  I plan on adding a "C" position break to several other songs.  What's the purpose of learning songs in "C" position?  This is very useful for playing out of the keys of D, E & F.

I've heard very good feedback from this new format.  Now everyone has many more chances during the course of the jam to take a break or part of a break.  It demands that every person pay particularly close attention to what is going on.  You also have to know the songs VERY well because you don't always come in on Part A or the beginning of the break.   

I am very proud of everyone who has been taking a part in the instructional jams.  Everyone is doing a great job!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Day in the Life of The Pickin' Chicks

Anyone who has heard the Pickin' Chicks perform would know without a doubt that all four of these girls take their music seriously.  They practice on average for two hours every week at The Bluegrass Shack.  Not only do they practice together, but they also socialize together.  They are bandmates and friends both.  It's hard to believe that they didn't even really know each other a year ago!  I thought it might be interesting to let other people into a day of Pickin' Chicks practice.

I guess this day started out a little bit unusual due to the fact that the girls had a talent show audition in the early afternoon.  We all met at The Bluegrass Shack and then carpooled over together.  The audition was being held in a nursing home / senior facility, and I couldn't help but think how much the bass case looked like a coffin as I was rolling it down the hallway in front of all the seniors outside their doors sitting in wheelchairs... 

There was terrible weather on the way over, and when we got to the facility, all of the residents were sitting in the main hallway rather than in the cafeteria because of tornado code.  It felt a little bit odd to see the girls playing to a hallway full of people!  The girls did a great job and were accepted into the contest.  I will post information later as to the time and date of the actual Talent Show.

On our way back to The Shack, we HAD to stop in Freeburg at Dairy Queen.  It was Millie's Mom's birthday and also Paige's brother's birthday.  We have everybody's birthday on the calendar in my teaching room so that we can celebrate.  There's nothing better for bonding than birthday celebrations!  We had blizzards and Mr. Misty's and even some actual regular fast food.  (I don't have room for both a meal and ice cream, so I went straight for the blizzard.)

When we got back to The Bluegrass Shack, the girls unloaded all their instruments and notebooks, and we set up to practice.  This was an unusually early practice because of the audition.  We practiced several newer songs, and one brand new song.  We also talked about a new song that we will start at next week's practice.  The girls started learning "Radio Boogie" from a Hot Rize CD.  I used a program to change the key of the song so that the girls can practice it in the key in which they will perform the song.  Well, we got a little bit carried away and not only tried several different keys, but also different speeds. We had Hot Rize singing everything from the Chipmunks on Caffiene to a bear in hibernation.  It's all a learning experience, right???

We talked about several of our most recent gigs and what they did a great job on and what they could improve on.  We talked about some of our upcoming gigs.  We also discussed things like professionalism, good manners, and ethics.  All in all, the girls had a great practice.

At the end of the practice, I passed out CDs to the girls to take home to practice their new song.  We had a few celebratory donuts, talked a bit more, and then agreed to meet next week even though Mallory will be at camp.  That means I get to be Mallory next week...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Okawville Heritage Days

The last two days have been very hot, but so much fun!   I was at the Okawville Heritage Days.

I rode over with Paige's Mom (Dawn) on Saturday to help with the Pickin' Chicks' performance.  They played for one hour under a tent when the outdoor temperature was 99 degrees!  There are pictures posted on Facebook if you'd like to take a look.  They played wonderfully and the crowd really enjoyed them!  Every single schedule and business card was taken.

After The Pickin' Chicks played, there was a group called the "Gospel Messengers" that performed.  They did a nice job.  Bart and his two sons, Daniel and Dennis, performed for about an hour.  What really struck me was that the older son, Dennis, had already played a baseball game earlier in the day.  I really don't know how he did both things in the heat.  We want to personally thank Bart for letting The Pickin' Chicks use his PA system.  All we had to do was set up our microphone.  What a blessing!

There was lots of great food there.  I had homemade ice cream not once, but twice!  I also bought a loaf of homemade wheat bread and some lemonade.  The bread was freshly made and looked and smelled so good.  On the way home, I was telling Dawn how much I just wanted to take a huge bite out of the loaf of bread.  I've never done this before and never even remember being tempted by such a thing, but since I bought the bread for my husband, I decided I wouldn't do this.  Funny thing is, the next morning when I got up, there was a huge chunk out of the side of the bread!  I guess Earl felt the same way I did!

Today I went back to Okawville to perform with The Chris Talley Trio.  It was just as hot today as it was yesterday.  I was all sweaty before we even finished setting up the PA system!  We played for 2-1/2 hours and had a very responsive crowd.  I am amazed that so many people sat out in the heat to watch and listen to us.  The crowd helped us out by clapping, singing and cheering us on.  I even brought someone up on stage to help sing Jambalaya with us!  Her name was Barb -- so we thank you, Barb!  If you are reading this, you did a great job!

Several of my students also came and played some fiddle tunes.  Breck (from Okawville), Chelsea (from New Athens) and Rosemary (from Ellis Grove) all came up and fiddled a few tunes.  Zane even picked up the bass instead of taking a break.  Charlie and the Girls also stepped up and played several songs during our break.  Even Natalie sang with them today.  They do such a fantastic job.

I want to personally thank Kabbie for playing bass for us today.  Carla (my mom) was unable to play bass with us today due to having surgery.  She is fine now, but is recovering at home.  Kabbie not only played bass with us today, but she came and practiced with us on Friday for five hours!  Now that's dedication!  Anyone who saw our performance will agree that she did a wonderful job!

If you haven't seen The Chris Talley Trio this year, you'll want to be sure to catch a show.  Emily, our newest band member, is wonderful!  She is just 15 years old and has a beautiful voice!  Emily plays both the mandolin and the banjo with the Trio.  Check out the schedule at

Last but certainly not least, we want to thank the folks from Okawville Heritage Days for allowing us to perform at their event.  We hope that we exceeded your expectations and that you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jake Plays Victory in Jesus on Banjo

You don't want to miss listening to this short video!  Jake is 11 years old and has only been playing the banjo for 3 months.  He specifically asked to learn this song on the banjo, so I tabbed it out for him.  He does a great job!  He is playing the verse of the song.

Weekend of Music

What a good weekend of music we had!  Charlie & the Girls were booked at Grassy, MO.  Arrowhead Campground puts on a great festival twice a year there, and it has long been one of my all-time favorite festivals.  I love the Castor River which runs through the campground, and they always have good food there.  (Especially homemade ice cream!!!)  If you haven't seen Charlie & the Girls perform, you need to look them up and catch one of their shows.  They have a Facebook page, too, so check them out!

The Pickin' Chicks played in Collinsville, IL at the Annual Horseradish Festival.  They played at the Jack Schmidt Ford Lincoln Mercury stage near the pond.  It was an hour of great, upbeat music, followed by some of the best Italian ice I have ever tasted!  (I had to have one scoop of each of the four flavors offered...)  Afterwards, we all went to Mariachi's restaurant and celebrated Paige's grandpa's birthday.  Ed looked pretty good in the Mexican hat they put on him when they sang Happy Birthday to him in Spanish.

One of our teachers, Jennine, played at the rondeveaux at Prairie Du Rocher.  (I hope I spelled that right!)  Our friend, Ron, played guitar for her.   Jennine plays period (French) music on her fiddle for this event.  Jennine does a great job of talking about the songs, what they mean, and even pronouncing the French names correctly!

I will try to put up some pictures in the next couple of days.  I will put them up on Facebook, so you'll have to look there.  You don't have to sign up or anything to view our page on Facebook.  You can just click the Facebook link directly from our blog to go there.

This coming weekend, the Pickin' Chicks and The Chris Talley Trio will be playing for Heritage Days in Okawville, IL.  The Pickin' Chicks will play on Saturday and the Chris Talley Trio on Sunday.  We hope that you'll come out to hear some great music and enjoy the festival.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Musician's Dystonia - Part 1

Dystonia, Focal Dystonia, Hand Dystonia, Musician's Dystonia...

This will be a several part series on a topic that is very relevant to all musicians, regardless of the type of music that is played.  Before I get started, I just want to state very clearly that I am not a doctor, nor a specialist of any kind, and I can't give any medical advice.  I am only going to be presenting information that I have learned from other sources, and then some of my own experiments.  You are welcome to add your experiences, experiments, links to articles, etc.

First of all, what is dystonia?  It's a type of nerve disorder in which the nerve impulse is still intact and normal, but despite that, the signal gets "messed up" somehow and a musician will have problems moving one or more fingers ONLY WHEN THEY ARE PLAYING music.  Who does it strike?  Piano players, clarinetists, violin players, banjo players -- any musician who plays repetitive passages over the course of years of practice.  It mainly strikes professional musicians, as this is who would have years of lots of practice and performances.  Of course, any amateur musician who plays a lot would be just as likely over the course of many years of playing.

What happens in dystonia?  I don't think it is entirely understood, but here is what I understand from reading.  (I am going to give other medical sources as well for you to do some of your own reading.)  It appears that the brain is ever-learning, ever-changing.  Technically speaking, this is called "plasticity."  When a musician continues to practice over and over again, the brain gets too good at doing certain techniques and loses its ability to "learn" new things.  Some articles have said that the brain tries to do the "open" and "close" of the finger at the same time.  Other articles I have read talk about cramping of the hand, indicating a muscle response from the nerve impulse.  I can verify that my index finger pulls up to my palm and then just stays there, but only when I play banjo. 

How does this present in a musician?  Well, let me give you my own experience.  For the past five years, I noticed that it was getting increasingly difficult for me to play my banjo fast.  It felt like my right hand just never got warmed up.  It wasn't always bad, but certain days it was really bad.  As time went on, it started getting worse and my "bad" days were outnumbering my "good" days.  I can still play slowly and moderately without a great deal of difficulty.  I have no pain, but when I watch my right hand, I see strange things happen.  My index finger pulls up to my palm and then just simply stays there.  What's funny about that is I had no idea that was what was happening until I actually started watching my right hand.  It felt like it was moving to me, but I could see that it wasn't, or that it was moving only very little.  (I will post some videos later.)  My middle finger, to the contrary, moves straight out across the banjo head in a wide arc.  The index finger problem severely affects my banjo playing because it simply doesn't do anything.  My middle finger doesn't really seem to affect my playing much because it still moves, though it is certainly not preserving motion!

It is only recently that there has been given hope for musicians suffering from this.  I am going to post several links here for you to do more reading, if you so desire.  I will also be posting some of my own experiments and some videos, but in a later post or posts.

Here is an excellent article that explores all kinds of information about dystonia in musicians:

Here is a technical paper (very technical) that details a medical study that should be of significant interest to anyone wanting to know more about treatment:

Please feel free to add your own experiences or links as comments.  In fact, I hope you will!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Crazy Day at the Shack!

Wow!  It was quite a busy day here today!

I started my day out trying to learn how to use Cubase.  When I tried to use Cubase, it would not load and I was instructed to register it.  Okay.  No big deal, so I thought.  I go to their website and there is a video tutorial about how to license the program.  You know things are going to be bad when you have to view a video tutorial just to be able to license the program.  First off, I have to register with the site, go to my e-mail, and then click the link in the e-mail to complete my registration.  Then, I have to download all updates that have been released since I bought my program.  Then I have to download this special eLicense program which will have a code in it.  After that, I have to click on another link on the manufacturer's website so that I can enter my eLicense special code.  That, in return, creates another special code that is about 40 digits long that is my official registration code. I have to go to the program now and enter that code into the registration number field.  Now I can actually try to use the program I paid for...  This is not a good start for doing something that I know will inevitably be frustrating.  All I can say now is, "I love Cakewalk.  I love Cakewalk.  I love Cakewalk."

From the moment we opened the doors, the phone started ringing and the people starting coming in.  It was quite the fun day!  We set up a couple of instruments, changed strings on several more, and then I made a custom nut with wider string slots for a banjo.  Earl installed Grover tuners on a beautiful, natural maple mandolin, and then I put some new strings on it.  Of course, we had to take time to chat with everyone and play a little bit of music.  Dennis and I discussed some fiddle repairs.  All in all, we worked on several guitars, two banjos, a mandolin, a dobro and several fiddles.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Videos from the Youth in Bluegrass Competition

Ah hah!  They are finally here.  Diane dropped off her SD card today while I was giving lessons.  I was lucky tonight because I was done at 7:00 p.m. and could work on getting these edited and uploaded to YouTube.  Here they are in all their splendor and glory.  Now you can officially be as proud as I am!