Friday, December 30, 2011

Thank You Dennis & Fred!

I just wanted to take a minute to thank Dennis and Fred for their help this month.  Some of you know that we had a sewer problem and we had to have 35 feet of sewer pipe replaced.  Unfortunately, the 35 feet of piping was right underneath the sidewalk leading to our front door.  The good news is that this all happened during Christmas when we didn't have a lot of students here needing to use our restroom!  It truly is a blessing that the timing worked out this way.  Dennis and Fred helped us out by levelling the remaining parts of our sidewalk and setting up the forms for the new concrete.  Tomorrow we'll actually get the new concrete.  Thank you Dennis & Fred!  This is what things were looking like:

The 2012 Bluegrass Shack Tuesday Jam Schedule

Calling all pickers! Here is the 2012 Bluegrass Shack Tuesday night jam session schedule. Our jams are held every other Tuesday starting at 7:30 p.m. and going until there is no one left. That usually occurs around 10:30 p.m., but has gone as late as 1:00 a.m.! Our jams are open to everyone (even listeners) and are for acoustic instruments only. We pass the mic around our jam circle and each person has the opportunity to share a song with the group.

2012 Public Jam Schedule
January 3, 17, 31
February 28 (only one due to Valentine's Day)
March 13, 27
April 10, 24
May 8 (only one due to Silver Dollar City's Bluegrass & BBQ Festival)
June 5, 19
July 3, 17, 31
August 14, 28
September 11, 25
October 9, 23
November 6, 20
December 4, 18

Chris' 2012 Lesson Schedule

For all of those students who take lessons from Chris:

Chris' 2012 Lesson Schedule

On the following dates, Chris will NOT have private or group lessons:

January 16, 17, 18, 19
February 20, 21, 22, 23
March 19, 26, 27, 28, 29
April 16, 17, 18, 19
May 21, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30, 31 (Join us in Branson at Silver Dollar City's Bluegrass & BBQ)
June 25, 26, 27, 28
July 16, 17, 18, 19
August 20, 21, 22, 23
September 3, 10, 11, 12, 13
October 15, 16, 17, 18
November 12, 19, 20, 21, 22
December 24, 25, 26, 27, 31
January (2013): 1, 2, 3

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Biggest Christmas Party Yet!

Saturday, December 10th, marked the 5th year in a row The Bluegrass Shack has hosted its annual Student Christmas Party.  This year was the largest yet!  I think better weather helped us out this year.  The past two years were still great, but slightly less attendance due to snow and freezing rain.

We had around 200 people in attendance at the party.  Everyone brought food to share, so there was a great selection to choose from!  Nick was kind enough to provide all the soda and water again this year, and St. Agatha Parish allowed us to use their multi-purpose room (cafeteria) again this year.  We are so blessed by the kindness of others!  I personally sampled home-made vegetable soup, rice and broccoli casserole, mashed potato casserole, macaroni and cheese, honey-baked ham, cheese and crackers, a gingerbread cookie with cream cheese frosting, and a chocolate cupcake!  I know, I know....It sounds like I ate a ton.  However, I am an expert at potlucks and buffets.  I know how to make the most of it without being miserable afterwards.  I take only a little portion of many things so that I can try out a lot!  And it was all good!

Santa came early in the evening -- I'd say around 7:00 p.m.  He brought lots of smiles to all!  He handed out candy canes, suckers and a few sticks!  I can't wait to get the pictures from Marvin to post.

We started off the evening's celebration by handing out attendance prizes.  This continued throughout the evening until practically everyone present received an attendance prize of some sort.  Our huge stocking winners (for 12 and under) went to Anna and Jarrett.  Lucky Jarrett!  Somehow, he has managed to win the giant stocking two years in a row!  The winner of the gingerbread house was Denise.  Congratulations to Denise and Marvin! 

The entertainment for the evening was provided by Bluegrass Shack students and all present.  We started off with a flute quartet.  My student, Pat, selected the pieces she wanted to perform, and I found two other students that also played flute who were willing to join us.  Paige, Pat, Amelia and I played Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Here Comes Santa Claus, Angels We Have Heard on High and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

I had a surprise trio of young girls that wanted to sing for everyone.  This trio was all under 10 years old and consisted of Joy, Isabella and Isabelle.  They sang Away in a Manger for everyone and did a super job!  I think everyone present loved it!

Next up came the fiddle duets that we play every year.  I have a great book of fiddle duets that we use every year because the arrangements are not too complicated and the harmony parts are the best I've ever heard.  Joy and I played the harmony parts, while all the other students played the melody.  This is something that is never practiced as a group, but only as individuals during regular lessons.  It always works out amazingly well considering there is no conductor and we've never practiced together before.  We had quite a few fiddle players this year:  Earl, Tim, Colton, Joy, Angela, Nathanael, Emily W., Emily C., Alex, Pat, Susan, Aubrie, Liz and me.  I hope I didn't leave anyone out!

After the fiddle duets, we had a sing-along of Christmas carols.  Lyrics and chords were passed out to everyone, and then we all sang a number of Christmas tunes together.  I love this part!  It is so nice to hear everyone's voices all together!

Finally, the evening was ended with a Virginia Reel.  This year, we had 16 couples that participated.  Many thanks to Ron and Lucas for helping out with this!  Ron played guitar for my fiddle, and Lucas did all the calling.  We had all ages from 5 years old to almost 80 years old partcipating.  Having to play for 20 minutes solid doesn't seem nearly so long when I can watch the fun that everyone is having!

I'll be getting the pictures back from Marvin very soon, so be on the look-out for them!  Many thanks to everyone for coming.  I hope you all had as good a time as I did!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fiddle Bows (Upgrading) - Part 2

If you haven't read Part 1, you might want to do that first so that you have the background information that will apply to this article.

One of the most common fiddle bow questions I get is "When should I upgrade my fiddle bow"?  After that, folks generally want to know what to upgrade TO, how much money they should expect to pay, how much difference a better bow will actually make, and how to select a better bow.

There are several good reasons to upgrade your fiddle bow.  It could be obvious, like you broke your bow, or your bow needs a rehair, or it could be that you are getting a better fiddle and you'd like to upgrade your bow at the same time.  I think it is important that you have played long enough to establish some consistent bowing habits before you spend much money on a bow.  After six months of playing, you should have established some consistency of bowing -- good, bad or ugly!  Why is that important?  Because if you bow differently every time you play, the bow you play best with today may not be the bow you play best with tomorrow.

When you are ready to upgrade, I think it is very important to be able to play the bows from which you are selecting.  That is not always possible, but it is certainly best.

Finally, it won't do you any good to have someone else try all the bows and select one for you, unless you are in a "must replace" situation and are a rank beginner.  The sound the bow makes is different based on who is playing with it, the type of strings, and the actual instrument!  That means whatever bow I play best with will not necessarily be the bow that you play best with.

WEIGHT - Bow weight is measured in grams.  Most violin shops should have a bow scale that will display the weight of the bow.  In general, you want a bow between 59 and 64 grams.  If you don't use bow pressure when you play (you SHOULD), then you may want the 64 gram bow.  If you tend to bear down on the bow too much, then you might want the 59 gram bow.  One gram can make a very big difference!

BALANCE - The balance of the bow can make a huge difference in how it plays.  A heavy bow can seem light if the balance is different by even a mere 1/4"!  You can find the balance point of a bow by simply balancing the bow on your finger.  Make sure you do this in a safe way.  You certainly don't want to scare the shop owner or actually have a bow slip and fall on the ground.  Hold your finger out straight, and then move the bow slightly one way or the other until it stays balanced on your finger.  Don't try to balance it on the tip of your finger!  This probably won't be very useful in selecting a bow, but if you notice that a heavier bow seems lighter, this would explain it.  A bow with improper balance just won't FEEL right when you play with it.

BOW COMPOSITION - Unless your teacher is telling you to purchase a certain type of bow, try bows of all compositions.  You won't know if you like a wood bow versus a carbon bow unless you have tried them.  Also, make sure you try more than one of each!  If you are trying out carbon bows, try out five or six of them.  If you want more information on bow composition, make sure you read Part 1 of this article.

PRICE - If you are purchasing your first bow upgrade, expect to pay at least $100.  Bows can cost thousands of dollars, but you don't need one of these unless you are playing quite frequently or are a professional.

HAIR COLOR - Violin bows are generally haired in white (or bleached) hair.  Mongolian horse hair is the most common because it is very consistent.  If the bow hair has any deformities in it, kinks or knots, you will hear this as the bow slides across the strings.  Black horse hair is generally used only for cello and bass bows.  This hair is slightly thicker.  It grabs the strings more.  Sometimes fiddle players like this, but it is hard to find unless you request your bow to be rehaired in black hair.  You may also find bows that have dyed hair, so that the hair could be any color of the rainbow.  Since you are UPGRADING, you probably don't want one of these because they are more for fun.  A good quality bow is not going to come with red or blue hair!

BOWS THAT YOU CAN REHAIR YOURSELF - P&H makes a bow that is simple to rehair yourself.  It is the only brand that I know of, but there may be more out there.  Otherwise, you will need to take your bow to a violin shop to get it rehaired.  It costs about $60 to rehair a bow.  If you have the P&H bow, it will cost you about 1/3 of that.  P&H rehairable bows are fiberglass and tend to be rather heavy, so this will not work for everyone.

BRANDS OF BOWS - I really don't put much stock in a specific brand of bow.  There are so many good bows out there.  If you can't try out your bow first, a specific brand may help you get something that is quality.  Otherwise, just make sure you are purchasing from a reputable place that will guarantee their products.  It is nice if a shop will allow you to try out several bows and send back what you don't want.

QUALITY AND APPEARANCE OF BOW - Make sure you read Part 1 of this article so that you are knowledgeable about camber, warping, general appearance, and proper function of the bow.

HOW TO ACTUALLY SELECT YOUR NEW BOW - This is where the rubber meets the road!   Will you actually be able to tell a difference in the bows?  Almost always!  Not only will you FEEL the difference, you should be able to HEAR a difference.

The first thing you want to do is play the fiddle that you normally play.  Don't just arrive at the fiddle shop and play one of their fiddles.  You want to hear the bow on YOUR fiddle with YOUR brand of strings.

Next, pick out at least five bows to try of varying compositions.  If you can pick from more, then do it!  Play the same song with each bow.  You might want to start with a slow song using each bow, then play something faster or completely different with each bow.  You should notice a difference in feel (weight and smoothness), volume and tone quality between the bows.  Every once in a while, we will have someone in the shop that we simply can't really notice any appreciable difference between the bows.  This is rare, though.  Generally, the bow that feels the best when you are using it will be the one that sounds the best.  If you can't notice any difference and you really need a new bow, select the one that is the least expensive or simply pick by which one you like the looks of the best.  I know this sounds simplistic, but it simply doesn't make any sense to spend a lot of money on something that doesn't make a difference in your playing.

When I got the bow that I currently play with, it made a huge difference in my playing.  The tone that I am able to get out of my fiddle is so much better, and I simply play better!  I would say it took me about 2-3 weeks to really get used to my new bow, but I liked the feel and sound immediately.

I hope this has helped answer some of your questions!  When it comes to fiddle, any time is "bow season."  Happy bow hunting!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fiddle Bows (A Primer) - Part 1

There are so many bow choices, it can be overwhelming!  You hear about carbon bows, fiberglass bows, octagonal vs. round bows, fully lined and half lined bows, pernambuco, brazil, snakewood, and it goes on and on.  Prices start at $15 and go up to thousands.  How is a player to know which one is right?

First of all, let's start with the rank beginner.  Usually a new student will purchase a fiddle outfit that comes with the case and bow.  Most beginner outfits come with very cheap bows.  Some of these are okay, and some of these are not okay.  Here at The Bluegrass Shack, I end up replacing about 1/2 to 3/4 of the bows that come with our beginner outfits.  I do this at our expense, and I check every bow before it leaves here.  I go so far as to rosin up the bow and play the fiddle with the bow.  What do I look for in these inexpensive bows?  I look for camber, warping, proper function of the frog (tightening/loosening mechanism), condition of the hair and whether it's real or synthetic, and general condition.

What are these things I mentioned and what do they mean?

CAMBER - Camber is the curve of the bow.  It is important that bows have camber, which is different from a bow having a type of curvature called a warp.  Good camber in a bow will allow the hair to touch the stick when the bow is in a loosened position.  (Yes, you need to tighten the bow hair to play, and loosen the bow hair when you are done playing.  We'll talk more about that in a minute.)

This picture shows a bow with good camber.  Notice how the hair touches the stick in the middle of the bow.

I check for camber in a bow without hair by placing the bow on a straight surface and making sure that the middle of the bow touches or nearly touches the flat surface.  For this test, the frog has to be on the bow.

Good camber (the shadow looks like hair, but there is not any hair on this bow) - You can see how the stick touches the flat surface.

Insufficient camber - You can see how the stick does not come even close to touching the flat surface:

WARP - A warped bow is one that is curved from side to side.  You can check for warping by sighting down the bow from one tip to the other tip.  It should be straight all the way down.

Here is a bow that is completely straight with no warping:

Here is a bow that has a warp in it:

FROG - The frog is the black square part that is attached to the end of the bow that you hold.  There is a threaded fitting that goes into the end of the bow that allows the frog to move back and forth.  This either tightens or loosens the bow hair, depending upon which way you turn the knob.  You should be able to loosen the bow hair so that it is completely slack and can touch the stick, and you should be able to tighten the bow so that there is at least 1/4" between the hair and the stick.

This is what the frog looks like when it is removed from the bow.  You can clearly see the mechanism for tightening and loosening the bow.

Here is a picture that shows all the different parts of the bow.  You can click on the picture to enlarge it if you have trouble reading the labels.

This is what a properly tightened bow should look like.  The hair in the center of the bow is about 1/4" from the stick.

This is what a bow that has been OVER-tightened looks like.  Notice how there is almost no camber left in the bow.

Overtightening a bow can cause a number of problems, the most severe being warping or actually breaking the stick.  Overtightening can also cause premature breakage of the bow hair and loosening of the wedges that hold the bow hair in the bow.  The most common thing I see with the overtightened bow is that one of the wedges comes out of the bow and then the bow hair won't tighten, or it falls out completely. 

HEAT can also cause a bow to warp, even if the hair is completely loosened.  Don't leave your instrument in a hot car or directly in the sun!

The cheaper the bow, the easier it is to warp.  This does not mean you can't use a cheap bow and that it can't be a decent bow that lasts a long time.  It just means you have to take care of it!

THE BOW HAIR - Unless you are allergic to horse hair, you want to make sure that your bow has real horse hair in it.  Real hair holds the rosin better and is not as slippery as synthetic hair.  If there is no rosin on your bow, it will not make a sound when you pull it across the strings.

It is not uncommon for there to be a few loose strands of hair in a new bow when it is tightened.  If they bother you, cut them off.  There shouldn't be a lot of them.  Don't pull the hair out.  Since the hair is held in the bow by wedges, pulling the hair out can cause the wedges to become loose which can result in all the hair falling out immediately or prematurely.  Any time you get a broken hair, the same applies.  Simply cut it very close to both ends, but leave the ends in.

GENERAL CONDITION OF THE BOW - I check the general condition of the bow to make sure there are no cracks in the stick or the frog, and to make sure all the wedges are properly in place.  You won't be able to see the wedge inside the frog, but if you look at the tip of the bow, the hair should lay pretty flat where it comes out of the tip.  If it doesn't, then that could mean that the wedge is pulling out.  If the wedge inside the frog is loose, then you won't be able to tighten the bow all the way.  You'll tighten the mechanism as much as it will go, but the hair will still be loose.

A NOTE ON HUMIDITY AND BOW HAIR - The bow hair is very susceptible to humidity and heat.  When bow hair is fitted to a bow, there is a very close tolerance to the length that the hair has to be so that it can tighten and loosen properly.  The bow hair can be fitted perfectly to a bow, but if the bow is kept in a very dry environment, the hair will shrink up and you will be unable to loosen the bow hair enough to remove the tension from the stick.  Likewise, if the bow is kept in a very humid environment, or if you are playing in a humid or hot environment, you may find that after a while, you are unable to tighten the bow hair any more.  I always take two bows with me to my gigs, especially when I'm playing outside in the summer.  When one bow reaches its limit and can't be tightened anymore, I loosen it completely and use the other bow.  As soon as my bows are back in a "normal" environment, the hair shrinks back and the bows work fine.

ROUND VS. OCTAGONAL STICKS - Bows come one of two ways.  Either the entire stick is octagonal, or the stick will start octagonal at the frog and will be round the rest of the way to the tip.  In general, an octagonal stick will be stiffer than a round stick.  Why does this matter?  The stiffer the bow, the less bounce.  Let's face it, a bouncing bow is not our friend!  This does not mean that a round bow will always bounce, nor does it mean that octagonal sticks never bounce.  Most inexpensive bows are round, so you probably won't have a choice in this as it will ship out automatically with your student outfit.  If the bow has proper camber and is not severaly warped, this should not be a huge issue regardless of the expense of the bow.  Bouncing can also be caused by poor technique, so think of this as an opportunity to improve your bow technique.

HALF LINED VS. FULLY LINED - This is something that does not matter at all as far as functionality of the bow is concerned.  Less expensive bows are half lined.  If you take a look at the picture of the bow parts that I posted earlier in the article, you'll see an arrow pointing to the back part of the frog that says "half lined."  If the bow was fully lined, you would not be able to see the black part of the wood there.  You would be seeing a piece of metal there instead that would continue from the slide all the way up the back of the frog to the stick.

COMPOSITION OF THE BOW (WOOD VS. NON-WOOD)  - Bows can be made of a variety of types of wood and also of several other materials.  Some old bows were even made entirely out of aluminum!  Today, the most common materials a bow is made of  are wood, graphite (carbon), and fiberglass.  The main advantage to non-wood bows is that they don't warp easily and they are harder to break.  In fact, it's almost impossible to warp a non-wood bow.  As far as which is better, this is a personal preference.  Some teachers and players prefer non-wood bows for their students.  It doesn't matter to me as long as the bow works well for the student. 

The main types of wood that a bow can be made of include brazil, pernambuco and snakewood.  Brazil wood is the least expensive, but there are many very nice bows made from brazil wood.  In general, brazil is not as stiff as pernambuco.  Brazil bows start at $15 and go up from there.  Most professional bows will be made from pernambuco wood.  It is stiffer, harder to find, and it costs more.  An inexpensive pernambuco bow will probably start around $150.  They will go up in price to many thousands of dollars.  Snakewood is a rarer, very beautiful wood that bows are sometimes made of. It is valued for its appearance more than anything, but its functionality is good as well.  Snakewood bows start at $200 and go on up from there.

Bows are easy to break.  They are very fragile.  If you drop the bow, especially on its tip, you will be lucky if it doesn't break!  If it drops flat, then it will probably be okay.  Children sometimes tap the bow on its tip on the floor, a music stand, their shoe, etc.  This will cause weakening of the bow, which can result in the tip breaking off even if the bow is not dropped.  Many times, the tip does not break off immediately, but rather at a later time when the bow is tightened to play.  This may cause you to think that there was a problem with the bow when it was actually misuse that caused the bow to break.  Even so, I don't see this very often.  (I think twice in five years out of thousands of bows.)  Children also like to sword fight with their bows.  Not a good idea if you want the bow to last!

So now, the million dollar question.  Which bow is right for a student?  I never recommend anyone purchase an expensive bow when they are just starting out.  A beginning student has no consistent bowing habits and so it really won't make any difference what bow is used as long as the bow has camber and is not severely warped.  (In rare cases, a student bow may be either very heavy or very light, and this can make a difference.)  After six months or so of playing, a student will have developed some consistency of bowing, and at this time, the student may want to revisit the idea of getting a better bow.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Child Stars

What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?  A firefighter?  Doctor?  Teacher?  Movie Star?  Princess?  How many of you actually became what you first dreamed?  If you didn't, why?  There are probably several reasons why, and more than likely it wasn't because you weren't good enough.

What does it mean to be a "star"?  I suppose it can mean different things to different people, but in the end, I think it has to do more with fame and fortune than anything else.  Think about the things a famous musician gets:  travel, nice things that money can buy, name-recognition, doing something they love to make a living, the ability to meet other "famous" people, playing in the most prestigious venues, and the list goes on and on.  It sounds great on the surface, doesn't it?

Now for what you don't think about.  How about the grueling schedule, including the time spent away from home, family and friends?  How about the sheer number of concerts in a short amount of time?  How about the ability to just go somewhere and enjoy yourself without having to worry about people following or stalking you?  And finally, how many really famous people do you hear about that have drug, alcohol and moral issues?  That won't be hard to come up with!

How many musicians do you know that are REALLY good?  You probably know quite a few, even if you don't know them personally.  How many of them make their living solely by playing?  Probably not many.  Does fame equate with talent?  Certainly not!  Just go to Nashville and listen to all the great musicians.  Or how about travelling to Branson and watching them live at Silver Dollar City or in any one of a number of different venues along the strip?  There are many, many talented musicians and singers that never "make it big."  Are they any less valuable?  No!

Does playing a famous venue or playing with a famous person make you famous?  Of course not!  It's a great experience and something that you are not likely to forget soon.  It's something that most people don't get the opportunity to do, and it is something to be thankful for.  It is an honor.

Have you heard of the term "starving artist"?  I would imagine so.  There's a reason for that.  It's called playing for nothing just to be able to play and promote yourself in a way or in a venue that you think will further your career.  It means no health insurance, unless you are lucky enough to be covered under someone else's policy.  It means not being able to choose exactly where you'd like to live, because you need to be in Nashville, or LA, or New York, or some other location that is more likely to further your career.  It means portraying a certain persona (sexy...) and dressing in a certain way.

Are these things that a child can understand?  Absolutely not!  A child equates fame with everything good.  A child cannot understand the lifestyle that ANY occupation entails.  At least for those who want to become a doctor or lawyer or teacher, there are plenty of others who can help them.  How many famous musicians do you know personally?  A child cannot understand giving up childhood until it is too late.  A child cannot understand that people have many dreams along the way.  That is healthy and good, but it's also good that they don't all come true!

A child who loves to play music dreams of becoming famous, just like a child who plays with fire engines dreams of becoming a fireman.  If your child is dreaming of becoming a fireman, you might take him or her to the firehouse, but would you actually let them ride the truck to a fire and help put it out?  If your child dreams of becoming an astronaut, would you send him to space camp?  If you could afford it, probably so!  You might go to Cape Canaveral to watch a space launch.  You might even buy a nice telescope.  But would you hire a private tutor for an 8-year who wanted to be an astronaut?  How about invest in an agency to further a 10-year old's space career?  Yet some parents don't bat an eye about doing these things for a budding musician!  The excuses I hear?  The child loves it, dreams about it, and practices all the time.  The child is specially gifted.  It's the only thing the child wants to do.  Well, to me, this sounds like a kid who loves to play computer games, too. 

What about the agencies that promote this?  You PAY them!  Of course they are going to tell you what you want to hear.  It's their JOB.  Why would they turn away someone that had the money??  Of course your child is especially talented, beautiful, cute, smart and marketable!  If the talent agency really believed that, they wouldn't be charging you!  They would know that your child was going to make them big money and they would pay YOU as it happened.  They would know an INVESTMENT when they saw it if they were that good.  It's like taking pictures with a digital camera.  It doesn't matter how many you take because it doesn't cost you to take them.  If you take enough photos, you are bound to turn out a few fantastic ones!  Every agency boasts about the career they made for someone.  They just don't tell you about all the "digital film" they went through to get there.

You can hire agencies all day long and pay them to tell you what you want to hear.  That's all it is.  You can enter a thousand contests and even win them all.   You can do photo shoots and promotional videos.  You can record a CD in Nashville or any other place as long as you have the money.  In the end, it's not how talented you are. It's all about how much you are willing to give up, who you know, and being in the right place at the right time. 

Support your musical child and give them as many opportunities as you can.  Get them music lessons.  Make a CD.  Travel to concerts and other venues to listen and to play.  I'm not against doing these things for and/or with a child, but I am against doing them for the wrong reason.  Don't waste their childhood and your money SEEKING fame and fortune!  Let the children grow up and then make their own decision.  It's not too late!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why I Post Videos

TO INSPIRE AND TEACH - This is a big reason why I post videos of my students, and inspiration goes two ways.  I hope to inspire my students to practice, and I hope to inspire those who listen to their recordings.  It is an honor for me to record my students, no matter what their level of experience or expertise.

Others who listen to these videos may be inspired to learn an instrument or learn a song that they have heard someone else play.  Even a teacher can learn new things!   I listen to others' videos to learn new songs and new variations to songs I already know.  Sometimes I listen for the pure joy of music!

TO ALLOW STUDENTS TO SHARE WHAT HAS BEEN LEARNED - Not only am I proud, but so are they!  When these videos have been posted, parents, grandparents and others who are interested have the ability to view them.

Case in point?  I have a student who is in his mid-70's.  I took and posted a video of him playing a song.  He figured out how to view the video from his cell phone.  He showed it to his children, to several nurses at the hospital, and several others.  How wonderful!  He keeps track of the "hits" on YouTube and is proud of his post.  So am I!  How many 70-year olds do you know that decide for the first time in their life that they want to learn to play a musical instrument?  Who better than a 70-year old to inspire another 70-year old?

I wish I could share with you all the reasons I am proud of each student.  I have students that have natural talent, and I have students that are not born with natural talent.  I have students with all different types of physical disabilities.  I have students of all different ages from 2 years old to 80 years old.  What I know is that it doesn't matter!  Success is not determined by these things.  If a student is willing to work hard, there are so many things that a student can overcome.  If you only knew what each student had overcome, you would be as proud as I am!  What I can promise you is that YOU CAN DO IT, TOO!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Considering a Beginning Bluegrass Banjo?

I get a lot of e-mail from folks wanting help purchasing their first banjo.  The questions run the gamut from "What's the cheapest, playable thing I can get"? to "I want it to last me a while" to "What's the best I can get under $YouNameIt dollars"?  These questions are actually kind of tricky to answer because it depends upon how much money you can spend, what kind of tone you want, what style of banjo you are going to play, and other individual factors.  I'm going to post some information that will hopefully be helpful to those of you looking to purchase your first banjo.

What style of banjo do you want to play?
This is probably the most important question to ask first because it will determine the TYPE of banjo you purchase.  Are you going to play 4-string banjo or 5-string banjo?  Tenor banjo (4-string) is used mostly for strumming with a guitar pick.  It is popular for dixieland and Irish music and can also be tuned like a ukulele.  5-string banjo is more for bluegrass and jazz. 

If you are choosing a 5-string banjo, you also need to decide if you are going to play clawhammer/frailing style (like Grandpa Jones) or 3-finger style (like Earl Scruggs).   This article will focus mainly on 5-string Scruggs style banjo.

How much money do you want to spend?
Unfortunely, banjos are not cheap -- even when they are used.  You might get lucky and find something playable for under $100, but that's just it -- you got lucky!  Also, take into consideration any repairs that will need to be made to that "bargain" before you buy it.

If you are going to play 4-string banjo, or if you are going to frail a 5-string banjo, you can get away with a less expensive instrument to start with.  You should be able to find something for under $200.  More about this later.

If you are going to play 5-string Scruggs style, you should be prepared to spend $250-$500 to get something that is decent and playable.  Again, more about this later.

Why the difference in price?
The difference in price reflects the actual parts the banjo is made from.  A good, bluegrass style banjo will be bright and loud.  Banjos have a reputation for being the loudest instrument in the jam.  They also have the reputation for always being out of tune!  You'll want to make sure that you get something that is dependable and not just one problem after another.  On the positive side, banjos are mainly bolt together instruments, so if one part is broken or doesn't work right, you can almost always replace it!

The main structural part of the banjo that makes the most difference in tone quality is the tone ring.  Amazingly enough, not all banjos even have a tone ring.  The most easily changed non-structural part of a banjo that makes or breaks the tone would be the banjo head itself.  If you don't like the way a banjo sounds, you can almost always alter the tone by tightening the head (to make it brighter) or loosening the head (to deepen the tone or even make it "thumpier").

What are some other factors that influence tone quality?
Just about every part on a banjo will affect the tone quality in one way or another.

* Tuning Pegs - Planetary pegs (the kind that stick out the back of the peghead) will make a banjo sound better than guitar-style tuners (the kind that stick out the side of the peghead like guitar tuners).

* Nut - A bone nut will sound better than a plastic nut.

* Tailpiece - In general, the heavier the tailpiece, the better the sound.  Waverly, Gold Tone, and Kirchner banjo tailpieces are just a few that are thicker.

* Bridge - Now here you've opened a can of worms!  There is every kind of bridge out there that you can imagine to enhance or minimize any kind of sound a banjo can put out.  My favorite bridge for years has been the Snuffy Smith bridge.  I need to write another article on bridges just to cover the multitude of information that a person should know about purchasing bridges.  A brand-name banjo bridge will probably cost $20-$30.

* Head - I mentioned earlier in this article that the head tension can greatly affect the tone quality.  It is also true that the brand and/or type of head can also make a huge difference in sound. 

Remo is probably the most readily available banjo head.  Remo heads are thin, plastic heads.  The plastic part is attached to the metal part of the head using glue or epoxy of some sort.  After many years, this glue will deteriorate and will cause the plastic part to separate from the metal part, which means you have to replace the head.  You also will not be able to tighten a Remo head as much as some thicker heads because Remo heads will break more easily.  Most banjos come with Remo heads, and they are certainly fine heads and should not be a factor to NOT buying a particular banjo.  I am only mentioning these things to distinguish between several types and brands of heads.

Ludwig heads come standard on Stelling banjos.  These are very thick, plastic heads, and they have a lot of frosting (paint) on them.  They can be tightened a lot before they break, and they are helpful if you want a tone quality that really cracks.

Another popular, thick banjo head is 5-Star.  This is what we use most often here at The Bluegrass Shack.  I like these heads because they are comparable in price to Remo, but have the same attributes of the Ludwig heads.  The plastic part of the banjo head is crimped to the metal part of the head, so you don't have to worry about glue deterioration over the years.

Clear or non-frosted banjo heads are made by several different companies.  5-Star and Remo both make these, as do several other companies.  A clear banjo head is usually used for show or to get a really bright sound.  I generally only recommend them for cheaper banjos that just can't "cut the mustard."  One drawback to a clear banjo head is that if there is no frosting on the top part of the head, the bridge tends to slide around more.  Due to the tuning of a 5-string banjo, there is uneven tension between the top and bottom of the bridge, so the bridge tends to slide either up towards the 5th string or down towards the 1st string.  With a frosted head, you can push the bridge back into place and it will usually stay there.

Elite banjo heads come in a number of different varieties.  They have thick, white heads, clear heads, Renaissance heads (kind of yellow in color) and heads that look like real skin but are still actually plastic.  Each of these has a particular purpose.  The Renaissance head will make the banjo heads look older, like aged skin.  It also dampens the tone slightly, but again, this will depend upon how tight the head is.  The skin-type heads produce a more muted tone quality as well.  These are great for frailers or also for banjos that need to be toned down somewhat.  I put one of these on a really bright, archtop Stelling banjo that the owner wanted to tone down, and it made the banjo sound great!

Fiberskyn heads are like the Elite banjo heads that look like real skin but are not.  Once again, they will help tone down the brightness of a banjo.

A real skin head is not practical for use on a standard rim size (11") due to humidity and temperature changes.  You will constantly be tuning it and still be playing out of tune!  I only use real skins on banjo ukes, which have very small head sizes.

* "Pot" Construction
The "pot" of a banjo is the tone production part of a banjo, and this includes the rim and tone ring.  The heavier the banjo, the better.  A heavier banjo means that the rim is thicker and the tone ring is larger.  A full size tone ring will produce a better sound than a rolled brass tone ring.  A rolled brass tone ring is WAY better than no tone ring.  A full size tone ring needs a more substantial rim to sit on; thus, the extra weight from not only the tone ring, but also the rim.

Some banjos have what is called an "integrated" tone ring.  These banjos have aluminum pots.  Some combine the rim, tone ring and flange into one piece of aluminum.  Others combine just the tone ring and rim, and have a separate flange.  This type of banjo is still far superior to a wooden rim banjo with no tone ring.

If you plan on frailing, a tone ring is not necessary.

* Resonator
The resonator of the banjo is the round part that attaches to the back of the banjo.  Its main purpose is to resonate the sound of the banjo forward.  Without a resonator, the sound comes out the back of the banjo and right into the stomach of the player.  To get the best sound out of your resonator, you can use a clear or black spray paint on the inside of the resonator to help seal the wood grain.  This will increase the volume of a banjo. 

If you are going to play clawhammer or frailing style, then a resonator is not necessary.  This style of banjo values a more muted tone quality, which is why a tone ring is not necessary either.

What are some things that influence the price of the banjo but don't really affect tone or quality?
In general, the fancier looking an instrument is, the more it will cost.  Fancy inlays, carved heels, and fancy paint jobs don't make the banjo sound any better.  If looks are important to you and money is not an object, then by all means, go for it!

Another factor would be the age of the banjo.  Older instruments almost always sound better than brand new instruments.  The vibration that comes from playing an instrument enhances the tone quality of the instrument.  This is true of all instruments.  There is even a device that folks can buy that will vibrate the instrument when you aren't playing it to make an instrument sound better, faster.  It supposedly mimics the vibration of playing, so that the instrument is being played even when it's not being played!

An ugly, old instrument that has been played a lot can be a good sign that the banjo sounds good.  It could also mean it wasn't taken care of, or that it was all someone who loved to play could afford to own.

Are there other parts that I need to be sure my banjo has?
A geared 5th string peg is important, but not a requirement.  It makes the 5th string MUCH easier to tune and it also will stay in tune better than a friction peg.

You should make sure that your banjo has a truss rod in the neck.  Without a truss rod, the neck can't be adjusted.  Don't be fooled -- there is NO banjo that doesn't need a truss rod.  The tension of the strings on the neck and the humidity and environment the banjo is in will affect the curvature of the banjo neck.  A properly set-up banjo will have a small amount of curve (called "relief") in it.  The truss rod enables this adjustment to be made and/or changed.

You should also make sure your banjo has a fingerboard.  Believe it or not, there are some banjos out there that don't have fingerboards, so the frets are inlayed right into the neck!  If you don't plan on having your banjo for a long time, then I guess this won't matter.  However, any wear from fingernails and steel strings will be made directly to the neck rather than the fingerboard if your banjo doesn't have a fingerboard.  Ebony and rosewood are typical woods for fingerboards because they are very hard woods.

To sum it up, if you are going to play 5-string Scruggs style banjo, you are going to want the best tone ring you can afford, planetary tuners, a resonator, thick tailpiece and a geared 5th string peg.  Who makes these?  I favor Gold Tone banjos because they offer great prices for what you will get.  Their CC-50-RP is probably the best deal on the market.  It comes standard with planetary tuners (including 5th string peg), thick tailpiece, and a rolled brass tone ring.  It also comes with a gigbag included in the price.  Gold Tone offers a lifetime, transferable warranty on it too!  If you want something fancier looking in the same style, Gold Tone, Recording King, Morgan Monroe and several other banjos companies make fancier-looking banjos with the same general specifications for slightly more money.  The least expensive, full tone ring banjo that I recommend is Gold Tone's MC-150-RP.  If you can afford the additional cost, it is well worth it.  There are certainly other reputable brands that out there.

If you can't afford a banjo with even a rolled brass tone ring, go for the integrated aluminum rim banjo.  Saga, Rover and many older banjos with a variety of names (Kay and "no name" included) made or still make this type of banjo.  This is probably the easiest type to find used at a good price.

Please understand that I can't cover every brand of banjo here.  Just because I didn't mention a particular brand of banjo doesn't mean that it is bad or inferior.  I have experience with the above-mentioned banjos, and I have been very pleased with company support, quality, warranty, and price of these particular banjos.

One way to increase your chances of being happy with your first banjo purchase is to make sure that you purchase it from a reputable person or business.  A store that sells banjos but doesn't have anyone working there that plays banjos is probably not going to have a good idea what a beginner needs.  They also won't have the know-how to setup a banjo for the best possible sound and playability.

Another thing that will greatly enhance your buying experience is to actually go somewhere that has a lot of banjos to choose from so that you can hear someone play the different banjos.  This way, you will understand how different the tone is from banjo to banjo, and you can pick out the tone that you like the best.  After all, YOU are the one playing it, so don't you think you should like it?

I hope this article has been helpful to you.  Good luck and happy banjo hunting!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Closed November 11-12, 2011

Just a reminder that The Bluegrass Shack will be closed on Friday and Saturday, November 11th & 12th, 2011.  We will be set up as vendors in the Guitar Show at the Greater Downstate Indoor Bluegrass Festival in Springfield, IL.  There's a great line-up of music scheduled for this weekend including Rhonda Vincent, Dailey & Vincent, The Link Family, Dry Branch Firesquad & more!

I will be teaching fiddle and banjo workshops on Saturday afternoon.  There will be other workshops as well, so grab your instrument and come join us!

Talent Showcase & Open Stage is scheduled for Saturday morning.  This is always a crowd favorite!

Whether you want to listen, pick, or learn, there's something for you!  Here's a link to the flyer:

We hope that you can make it!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Step One: Writing Your Own Songs

Perhaps writing your own song is something that you've never thought about before.  Or maybe it is something you have thought about but quickly dismissed because you thought you weren't that talented, or creative, or fill in the blank with your own excuse.  The wonderful thing about songwriting is that anyone has the ability to do this!  It's not as hard as you might think.

Believe it or not, this is a skill that I teach my students over at St. Agatha School.  I teach guitar classes there every week, and in addition to playing guitar, I have my students sing and also write their own lyrics.  The easiest of exercises is something that the younger students absolutely LOVE!  Here's an example. 

The first exercise is choosing an existing song and simply adding or changes the lyrics.  I start with a song that all the kids know.  A good one for very young children is "Frere Jacques."  I use the english version, which is "Are You Sleeping Brother John."  The lyrics are:

Are you sleeping?  Are you sleeping?
Brother John, brother John.
Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing
Ding ding dong.  Ding ding dong.

I will choose one person in class (and believe me, they ALL want to be chosen), and I ask that person to tell me something other than sleeping that brother John could be doing.  He could be drawing, playing, singing, skipping, or anything else they can dream up.  If they want to change the name of the person (John), we do that as well.  If we want to get really fancy, then we could change the rest of the lyrics to fit whatever we have decided that brother John is doing.  Here's what we might end up with:

Are you skipping?  Are you skipping?
Sister Sue?  Sister Sue?
Skipping in the morning, skipping in the morning
Skip skip hop.  Skip skip hop.

Another song that I have used in the past is "Mountain Dew."  The lyrics to a couple of the verses are:

My brother Bill had a still on the hill
He turned out a gallon to two
The buzzards in the sky get so drunk they can't fly
Just from sniffing that good ol' mountain dew.

My Auntie June had a brand new perfume
It had such a wonderful pew
But to her surprise when she had it analyzed
It was nothing but that good ol' mountain dew.

The first step is to think of a liquid other than mountain dew:  water, gas, oil, etc.  In this example, rhyming is important if you want to maintain the idea of the song.  Here's an example that a group of children helped me come up with:

My Grandpa Horn had a field full of corn
He watered it daily at two
But during a drought when the water ran out
He watered it with good ol' mountain dew.

Next, you could decide how you could substitute your chosen liquid for mountain dew, and then what the result would be. The idea is that mountain dew would be better than the liquid substituted.  Here's an example I wrote about my band members:

My mom's a beaut, so good looking and cute
Everyone always thinks she's my sis
She rolls back the years drinking quality beers
That are nothing but that good ol' mountain dew.

Zane is so rare with that head full of hair
It is wavy and thick all around
He says it's his genes but we all know he means
That it's nothing but that good ol' mountain dew.

Emily can sing, you should hear her voice ring
It echos through the hollers and the hills
But she's underage so she'd better not engage
In any of that good ol' mountain dew.

The main thing is not to be afraid to try!  Kids feel pretty free at doing this.  The younger, the better.  As kids get older, and also adults as well, they tend to think that anything they come up with is not very good.  Don't worry about how "good" your lyrics are.  Be creative.  Be free.  Take out a piece of paper and brainstorm.

This is just the beginning.  I plan on writing more later.  In the mean time, try this out and remember to have fun!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Results of our October Contest!

On October 29, 2011, The Bluegrass Shack hosted its annual October Fiddle, Banjo and Flattop Guitar Contest.  Wow!  What an amazing contest!  We had a total of 78 contestants this year.  Every year, I am amazed at all the talent, especially of the youngsters that are up and coming.  This year was no exception.  In fact, it seemed to me that EVERYONE is getting better.

First of all, I want to thank our judges, Dan and Iggie.  Chelsea also helped with judging Junior Banjo, and Nikki was Junior Judge in Training helping with the Open Banjo.  Carla was our scorekeeper, and all those contestants really had her and our judges hopping!  Earl was running all over the place helping out with the food downstairs, medals and trophies upstairs, and everything else in between.

I also want to give an extra special thank you to Lorraine and Ron, who managed all of the kitchen including food, food preparation, beverages, and cleanup.  Janice, Mary, John, Cindy, Terry and Dennis also helped out in the kitchen.  Ron made a really cool cardboard fiddle hanger to which the food prices were attached.

We had our largest crowd ever, with many folks staying through the entire contest.  We appreciate your support, as do all the contestants!  Susan Crider won the fiddle outfit, and Zachery Bergmann won the jack-o-lantern that Zane carved.  50/50 winner was Amelia Price.  Congratulations to you all!

A big thank you to all the contestants as well.  Obviously, we couldn't have a contest without you.  You keep us entertained and inspire us!  Thank you to Cody and Rick Hall, and also to Earl for taking pictures of all of the contestants for us.  I will be posting the pictures on Facebook.

Here are the results of the contest:

Junior Guitar (10 & Under):
1st Place - Colin Gray
2nd Place - J.C. David
3rd Place - Claire Rausch
4th Place - Haley Fizer
5th Place - Noah Lintker
Youngest - Isabelle Hobbs

Junior Guitar (16 & Under):
1st Place - Rosemary Hall
2nd Place - Paige Johnson
3rd Place - Matthew Worthington
4th Place - Silas Demay
5th Place - Colin Gray
Most Entertaining - Nikki Warnecke

Open Guitar (17 & Over):
1st Place - John Brewer
2nd Place - Zane Prosser (Oldest)
3rd Place - Charlie Hall
4th Place - Mike Wall
5th Place - Chelsea Perkinson (Most Entertaining)

Junior Banjo (16 & Under):
1st Place - Lucas Worthington
2nd Place - Emily Hall
3rd Place - Nikki Warnecke
4th Place - Christiana Gray; Josh Dolan
5th Place - Jacob Morgan
Youngest - Joy Worthington (Most Entertaining)

Adult Beginner Banjo:
1st Place - Kevin Martin
2nd Place - Liz Durako
3rd Place - Dennis Huebner
4th Place - Lori Heinrich

Open Banjo (17 & Over):
1st Place - Zach Hardesty (Most Entertaining)
2nd Place - Chelsea Perkinson
3rd Place - Amelia Price
4th Place - Makayla Smith
5th Place - Larry Reuss

Senior Banjo (60 & Over):
1st Place - Ralph White (Oldest)

Adult Beginner Fiddle:
1st Place - Denise Voegele (Most Entertaining)
2nd Place - Susan Crider

Junior II Fiddle (12 & Under):
1st Place - Justin Heinen
2nd Place - Alex Rausch
3rd Place - Patrick Garner
4th Place - Nathanael Worthington
5th Place - Caroline Stewart
Youngest - Isabella Worthington
Most Entertaining - Audrey Neel

Junior I Fiddle (13-17 Years):
1st Place - Rosemary Hall
2nd Place - Paige Johnson
3rd Place - Angela Winkeler
4th Place - Sarah Marsch
5th Place - Emily Morgan
Most Entertaining - Makayla Smith

Open Fiddle (18 & Over):
1st Place - Chelsea Perkinson
2nd Place - Joy Winkeler
3rd Place - Tim Dever
4th Place - Liz Durako
5th Place - Ann White

Senior Fiddle (60 & Over):
1st Place - Zane Prosser
2nd Place - Fred Pringle (Most Entertaining)
3rd Place - Bill Weiss
4th Place - John Barnett (Oldest)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adults can learn, too!

Jim had no previous instrument or bluegrass experience and look at what he's accomplished in several years' time!  This could be YOU!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Website Still Down

I apologize to all of you who have been trying to access our website for the past week.  When you try to access our website, it sends you to a page that says our domain has expired.  Please know that it has not, that we are NOT out of business, and that on our end, everything is just fine.  I have worked with about six different people now and was told that it was all good to go last night, and it is not...obviously! 

So, I apologize for now and I hope it will be up on Monday.  If you would like some help or assistance with anything, please feel free to contact us by phone 618-475-3678 or by e-mail.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Jerseyville Victorian Festival

Well, we made it through our first day at the Victorian Festival in Jerseyville, Illinois.  It was 100 degree weather, and boy was it hot playing today!   It was well worth it, though.  This is one of our favorite events of the entire year. 

My mom, who plays bass, had a whole cheering section to herself today.  There were four or five couples who grew up and went to school with her in Greenfield, and they all came out to listen to us play.  We saw many of our musical friends, and also talked to many of the reinactors and vendors who have become our friends over the years that we have played here.  This year makes five years that we have played for this event, and it just keeps getting better and better!

Besides music on the patio, there are so many things to see and do here.  Everything is well-marked, and there is ample parking with a free shuttle running continuously.  You can tour the 1866 mansion, watch the reinactors' Duel of Honor or the Civil War, watch a Victorian Era fashion show, buy all kinds of cool stuff at the flea market and vendors' booths, watch an embalming demonstration (I hear someone fainted today during this!), check out old steam engines and steam powered motors, get your picture taken with President and Mrs. Lincoln (who also have their own "show" here), go on a carriage ride, and enjoy some great food and beverages!  This is really a great event for the whole family!

There are two days left for you to enjoy this festival.  It continues on Sunday and also on Monday (September 4 & 5, 2011).  The weather is supposed to be really nice these next two days, so you should come on out and take advantage of it!

The Chris Talley Trio

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Bluegrass Shack Closed Labor Day Weekend

The Bluegrass Shack will be closed from Saturday through Monday over Labor Day Weekend.  We will open with our normal business hours on Tuesday.  Come on out to the Victorian Festival in Jerseyville, IL and visit us there!

Labor Day Weekend

Come have yourself a whole lot of fun this weekend in Jerseyville, IL!  The Chris Talley Trio will be playing all weekend from 1:30 - 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the Victorian Festival.  This is a great way to spend a day with friends or your family, and it's great for kids and adults of all ages!  CLICK HERE to view all the information you need.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Closed on Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bluegrass Shack will be closed on Saturday, August 27, 2011.  Come visit us in Pinckneyville, IL at Lake Sallateeska for our 2nd Annual Hee Haw Show and Bluegrass Retreat!  Click Here for the flyer!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Children and Music

Some of the most frequently asked questions I get are about children and music.  What age should I start my child on an instrument?  What instrument is the best for my child?  How much should he/she practice?  Should I make him/her practice?  Should I get them lessons?  Do I really need a smaller instrument?

These are all very valid questions and also important ones to answer, and you may get different answers from different people.  My answers are based on 30 years of teaching experience and also talking with others who teach.

What's the best age to start an instrument?  I believe that it's not so much the age as it is the child's readiness.  Some children are ready as early as two, and others still aren't ready at five.  Here are some things that I base readiness on:
  1. Does your child have an attention span of at least 5-10 minutes?
  2. Does your child have an interest in (a) musical instrument(s)?
  3. Does your child exhibit appropriate behavior so that he/she can be taught?  (e.g., Are they so shy that they won't be able to work with a teacher even with you present?  Are they so full of energy that they are unable to sit for even 5-10 minutes?  Can they be taught to respect the instrument and not to throw or damage the instrument they are learning?)
What instrument is best for my child?  This question doesn't actually have one "correct" answer.  Part of the answer is what instrument is your child big enough to play?  Some instruments come in smaller sizes to accommodate smaller fingers, hands and arms.  Some do not.  What instrument is your child interested in playing?  If they REALLY want to play guitar and you want them to learn piano, you may be in for a rough ride.  You want to pick your battles.

Should I make my child practice?  How much?  I do believe that if a child is going to start an instrument, they have to practice.  I think how much practice is dependent upon the child's age and level of expertise.  Kids have many things they want to do during the course of a day, and they should have time to do some of these things.  If your child is as young as two, I would suggest a 5-minute practice with parental involvement.  At two, your child will need you for EVERY practice.  You will need a good teacher who will work not just with your child, but also with you.  You need to know what you should be doing to help your child.  You need to be positive and encouraging!

As your child gets older, your involvement in practice will lessen.  It SHOULD lessen.  I've had several parents in my lifetime that I had to ask to leave the teaching room because they couldn't stop correcting every little thing that was done wrong.  That is a sure way to make your child hate practicing and hate playing an instrument.  They can't even concentrate on what they are doing because they are just waiting for your next criticism.

Should you MAKE them practice?  I believe the answer to this is yes.  If you are spending money for an instrument and/or lessons, children should learn the responsibility that comes with that.  Also, how can they experience success if they don't practice?  If they don't have success, they will not like playing the instrument.  When I taught band, I wanted my students to stay for the year and to reach a certain level of expertise before they made the decision to quit.  If they didn't practice and showed no improvement, how could they POSSIBLY enjoy playing the instrument?  It is hard to enjoy something that you don't do well.  You can't get better at it if you don't practice. 

I usually recommend 15-30 minutes a day for my students, depending upon their age and maturity.  I also recommend taking a few days off during the week.  The practice does not have to be done all at once either.  Practice can be 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there, or 30 minutes all at once.  I also think it is better to have more smaller practices than to have one giant practice.  Don't cram all the pratice into two hours on Saturday.  You need to spread it out over the course of the week.  Better to have 5 minutes on a busy day than nothing at all.

Should I get my child lessons?  Can I teach my own child?  I think lessons are very valuable.  They give your child the chance to learn in a focused setting.  They also provide accountability.  If you know someone is going to be hearing you do something in a week, you are more likely to practice it and want to show that person that you CAN do it.

If you already play the instrument, it is possible that you can teach your own child.  You may or may not want to depending upon how you and your child feel about that.  Some children are willing to learn from their parents and some are not.  Some parents have patience for something like this and some don't.  Some very talented musicians are not good teachers.  These are all things to take into consideration.

Do I need a smaller instrument for my child?  It is very important that the instrument is the right size for your child.  If it is too large, your child will develop bad habits and could even develop physical problems such as tendonitis.  If nothing else, the proper size instrument is easier to play.  Wouldn't you want to have the easiest to play instrument for yourself?  Don't you want that for your child?

What instruments are good for young children?  Depending upon the size and age of your child, certain instruments will be out of the question.  For instance, your two year old will not be able to play a saxophone.  At two, a great instrument is violin.  It comes in very small sizes and there are classes made just for children this young.  At four, a piano or a small size guitar may be just the ticket.  At eight years of age, you might want to try the mandolin.  At 10, maybe the banjo.  By 4th or 5th grade, most children are big enough to start learning a band instrument.

 Where can my child try out the instruments?  When I have a parent ask me about their child playing an instrument, I encourage them to make a free appointment with me to show the instruments to the child and let them try them out.  This way both the child and the parent have a better idea as to what the instrument sounds like, how large it is, how hard it might be, and how much they actually like it. 

There are also instrument petting zoos.  The Illinois Old Time Fiddler's Association just had one of these this past weekend.  They had a number of different instruments available in different sizes for children to try out.

What should you NOT do?  Don't just walk into a music store and start taking down instruments for your child to try.  You won't be welcome there.  A child needs to learn from the very beginning that if the instrument (or anything else for that matter) doesn't belong to them, they should ask.  Many people are very particular about their instrument(s) and don't want anyone, no matter how experienced, to pick up their instrument(s).  Most music store personnel will be glad to help you if you ask first.  If they don't want to help you, see if you can make an appointment at another time or go somewhere else.

I hope this answers some of the most basic questions you might have.  I'll be covering more topics about children and music later.  Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

8th Annual Bluegrass Shack Summer Fiddle Contest - Results!

We celebrated five years in New Athens along with our 8th Annual Bluegrass Shack Summer Fiddle Contest this year on July 17, 2011.  It was another hot & steamy day, but we were cool inside the New Athens Community Hall building!  Diane was at it again with her delicious, homemade cakes and cookies, and she even prepared the brats and hotdogs!  I owe her and Brad a HUGE thank you for their help.

We had about 30 contestants, and we alternated between the contest divisions playing and the audience participating in our pre-planned games.  The 12 & Under Division played first, and then we immediately followed that by recognizing Chelsea Perkinson, who is a teacher that has been with us since we opened in New Athens five years ago.  Chelsea is a great teacher, a wonderful person, and is so helpful to us!  She attends most of our vendor setups and helps us out with everything from packing and unpacking, to customer support.  Since she is getting married next year, we decided it would be fun to play our own version of The Dating Game with her and Zachary.  We sent Zachary downstairs, and then we proceeded to ask Chelsea some questions.  When she had answered all the questions, we brought Zachary back upstairs to see if he knew the "correct" answers.  It was quite fun, and actually Zachary did pretty good on the quiz!

We also did several other audience participation games where we had two volunteers at a time come up to compete in several different categories of questions including Fiddle Questions, Bluegrass Shack Questions, and Jam/Jam Etiquette Questions.  At one point, Fred was losing against Tim in the Bluegrass Shack Questions category.  The audience was helping Fred keep track of score by saying after each question, "Fred, you're losing".

The winners in each of the categories are as follows:

Junior III (12 & Under):
1st Place - Colton Dever
2nd Place - Audrey Neel
3rd Place - Patrick Garner
4th Place - Kaylee Roberts
5th Place - Caroline Stewart
Most Entertaining:  Lindsey Martin
Youngest Performer:  Cole Johnson

Junior II (13-15 Years):
1st Place - Rosemary Hall
2nd Place - Paige Johnson
3rd Place - Aubrie Spinka
4th Place - Trista Ogilvie

Junior I (16-18 Years):
1st Place - Kat Dierksen
2nd Place - Angela Winkeler

Senior (60+ Years):
1st Place - John Bell
2nd Place - Zane Prosser
3rd Place - Fred Pringle
4th Place - Andy Talley  (Oldest Performer)
5th Place - Bill Weiss

Open (19-59 Years):
1st Place - Chelsea Perkinson
2nd Place - Dennis Huebner
3rd Place - Liz Durako
4th Place - Joy Winkeler
5th Place - Tim Dever

Our judges for the contest were Janice Nirscher and Marc Renard.  Both are very competent players at classical and bluegrass styles, and both are also excellent judges.  Having judged contests before, I know how hard and unappreciated this job is.  I want to personally thank both Janice and Marc for giving of their time and talents to help make this a great contest. 

Zachary took on the job of score tabulation, which is something that is just impossible for me to do when I am emceeing and backing musicians.  Liz, Cindy, and Chelsea helped with registration, the door, sales, and anything else that was needed.  Too many people to mention helped me with chair setup and/or cleanup.  Lorraine and Earl were busy taking pictures and videos for me, and Earl helped me out with passing out the trophies, medals and prize money.  A giant thank you to all! 

I hope I haven't left anyone out!  This type of event takes everyone working together for it to be successful.  I couldn't do it by myself and I truly appreciate everyone's support!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Closed Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Bluegrass Shack will be closed on Saturday, July 9, 2011.  Come on over to Carlyle Lake Dam (West Recreation Area) for the Duck Races and see The Pickin' Chicks!  They will be playing from 11:15 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.  Click here for more information.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

July Fiddle Contest and 5-Year Anniversary

Did you know that July 2011 marks the 5-year anniversary for The Bluegrass Shack in New Athens, IL?  Well, we can hardly believe it ourselves!  We love being located in a small town, and we love the people and community here in New Athens.  It really is like a family here!  We plan on adding a few additional things to our July fiddle contest this year to help celebrate our 5th year.  We hope you'll come and enjoy the day with us!

The date set for our fiddle contest is July 17, 2011.  It will be held at the Community Hall in New Athens, IL, with registration open at Noon, and the contest starting at 1:00 p.m.  There are a total of five division:  Junior III (12 & Under); Junior II (13-15 Years); Junior I (16-18 Years); Open (19-59 Years); and Senior (60 & Above).  Top prize in the Open Division is $150 plus a trophy.  All juniors will receive a medal regardless of placement.

For directions and more information, please feel free to give us a call at 618-475-3678, send us an e-mail, or take a look at our flyer below.  Click on the flyer to make it larger.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Flash Flooding

It's been said that hindsight is 20/20.  In this case, I'm not sure I knew enough to be able to say that it was possible to have anything other than that!  The main reason I'm writing this blog entry is to help prevent someone from being electrocuted.

For those of you who have been to the Bluegrass Shack, you are probably wondering how we ended up with flooding.  We are not near a creek, though we are near the Kaskaskia River.  Not only is the river WAY downhill from where we are located, there is a levee there as well.  Even if the levee broke, there is little chance of our building being affected by it.  With the storms we had over the weekend, though, things were just right all over the place for flash flooding.  The road in front of the shop sits higher than our parking lot, and our building is not raised.  We have some drainage ditches and pipes set up to take the water away from the building.  There were strong winds that caused the rain to come very hard, very fast, and at an angle to the front of the shop.  This allowed the water to come off the road in sheets and fill up the drainage ditches.  That alone may not have caused the flooding, but with the rain coming in at an angle, it was forced in under the doors at the front of the shop. 

At first, the only thing I could think of was to get rid of the water, which was about an inch deep in both my teaching room and the workshop.  That's an area of about 40' x 12', separated into two rooms.  By the grace of God, Dennis just happened to come by so I wasn't cleaning up by myself.  He took the shop and I took my teaching room.  Part way into cleanup, I noticed my computer screen blinking.  As a matter of habit, I never leave power strips, surge protectors, or plug-ins of any kind on the floor.  (For me, it is more a matter of cleaning and keeping them out of the way of the vacuum cleaner.)  There had been a lot of lightening, so I initially thought the surge protector must have taken a hit.  Then the power went off to the outlets in my teaching room.  I went to the electric box to see if any of the circuits had tripped.  Everything was locked into the "on" position, so I just started going through the box turning every circuit off and then on.  The power to the outlets was restored, so Dennis and I got some fans going.  Then we both started smelling electricity.

Neither Dennis nor I know much about electricity.  There is an outlet in the front of my teaching room that is low to the ground. It didn't look like water had been in the outlet, though there was evidence of water creeping up the wall there.  I made a couple of phone calls and was informed I should turn off the circuit to the outlets.

We have several friends who are electricians, so I first contacted Rich.  He is only a block from the store.  Not long after that, Dan just happened to drop by.  He is also an electrician.  The two of them were working together to try to figure out what was going on.  The outlet in front was actually bone dry.  There was even dust inside the box.  The outlets all showed full power, though every time I tried to plug in my monitor, it would flash and a surge was visible every few seconds at regular intervals.  When I plugged the monitor into the entension cord that was run from an outlet in the main showroom, it worked fine.

Without going into more details, it was eventually determined that there is a junction box in the concrete floor in my teaching room that is apparently waterlogged.  It's not visible because it is below the floor.  Only the three outlets in my room are affected by this junction box.  When the floor was covered with water, I was unknowingly standing and working in a live electrical field.  The type of problem that was occurring probably would not have killed me, but it was, excuse the pun, quite a shock to find out about this!

The best way for someone to avoid getting shocked from flood waters of any kind, is to turn off the circuits to the room(s) that are affected by water until you have removed all the water.  Wear rubber soled shoes.  As far as knowing anything else, I can't really answer that.  If things don't work right, if you smell electricity, if the circuit or outlets or lights don't work correctly, turn off the circuits and call an electrician.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Making a Band Work: Personnel

I think band personnel suitability is probably something that has been overlooked (or maybe under-looked) by many when considering start up and/or replacement band members.  It is also one of the most important things to consider, so don't let this seemingly little issue sneak up on you!

What do I mean by this?  Well, basically a band is like a marriage, only you are married to more than one person!  Not exactly, but close enough.  When considering adding members to a band, there are so many things to consider in addition to raw talent.  I'd like to discuss this, and would love to hear your comments on this as well!  And remember, just as there are no perfect people in this world, you will not find the perfect band member either!  Decide what is most important and HAVE FUN!

TALENT & MUSICAL COMPATIBILITY - I am listing this first because it is very important.  This is probably the sole factor that most people consider, and it is certainly an important one. 

Is the person you are interested in talented enough to fit in with the rest of the members?  Too talented?  You want to find someone that will mesh musically with the other members.  If they are not a good musical fit, there will either be problems with the other band members because the newbie can't keep up musically, or the newbie will become frustrated with the progress of the rest of the band. 

Is the style of music compatible?  As with most types of music, there are major differences even within the same style.  What style does your band want to play?  Do you want something straight-forward and simple, or are you wanting something more complex and less traditional?  Are original songs important to you?

Do you need a singer?  And does that singer need to be able to sing lead AND harmony, or just one of those?  Will the new singer's voice blend well with the other singers?

Are you planning to TEACH the newbie, or does s/he need to pretty much know everything or be able to learn everything on his/her own?

MATURITY LEVEL - Is the person you are considering on the same level maturity-wise?  Will they become offended easily?  Will they know when to have fun and when to be serious?  Will they be an embarrassment to the rest of the band, or will the rest of the band embarrass them?  These issues are important to consider, because you will be spending a lot of time with this person.

VISION - This is oh so important!  What is the vision of the band?  Is it important that everyone share the same vision?  Probably so!  If one person is looking a different direction, they won't truly be involved whole-heartedly in the band.  Are you wanting local gigs?  Gigs that you can come home to every night?  Do you want to travel?  Spend entire weekends or even more at festivals?  Do you want to become famous?  Make it in Nashville?  If the band is not together on this issue, you will be butting heads constantly!  All of your practice, advertising, bookings and dreams are going to be rolled up in the band's vision. 

Please be aware that vision can change, too!  Someone who might have started out on the same page can decide later that this isn't what they thought it was.  Life can change and cause the vision to change as well.  It's NO BIG DEAL!  Don't be mad at the person, wish them well!  It's better for everyone!

DISTANCE & PRACTICES - Is the new person close enough to be able to attend practices without a hardship?  How often are you planning on having practices?  How long do you expect the practices to last?  Where are the majority of the gigs going to be?  Will one person have to travel a lot farther than everyone else?  Will they be compensated for gas?  It doesn't really matter what the answers are to these questions as long as you have covered them to everyone's satisfaction.

TIMELINESS - Everyone has a different level of comfort as far as how important it is to be on time.  As a person who tries to be on time, this is something that is very important to me, especially when it comes to being to gigs on time.  However, as a person who is married to someone who is generally not on time, I understand how this can affect others.  I have become more prepared to make us on time for important things, and let the less important things slide a little.

PAY & EQUIPMENT - Will any of the band's monies be put away to purchase equipment or other band needs?  Is everyone in agreement with this?  Does the equipment (PA, mics, cables, etc.) belong to one person and will that person be the one doing all the hauling, setup, replacement, etc.?  Will they be compensated?  How many freebies will the band do?  Favors?  These are important for a band.  What is the standard pay for a gig?  Does that change with distance?  Once again, the answers aren't as important as the agreement!

VENUES - Will you play in bars?  Smoky places?  In the heat?  Cold?  Do you have religious or health reasons for not playing in certain places?

THE LOOK - Are you going to have outfits for the band, and if so, will the band members be responsible for purchasing these?  If not outfits, are you going to have restrictions on what can be worn for certain gigs?  For instance, if it's hot, are shorts allowed?  Tank tops?  Jeans with holes?  T-shirts with advertising?  Tennis shoes?

IMPORTANT OTHERS - Is the new person single or married?  Young?  You do need to consider the important "others" in this person's life because they WILL impact the band.  Is the new person married to someone who hates music and will do anything to stop it?  Is the new person underage needing transportation to everything?  Will parents be involved?

If you want harmony and fun in your band, these are all important issues.  As with a marriage, you want to add someone who will enhance what you already have.  Don't count on making major changes to the person you add!  If a person doesn't fit in with your group, that's okay!  It doesn't mean they aren't a good musician or good person!  It just means they aren't right for your group.  And it's a good thing that your group isn't the only one available!  There's something out there for everyone -- so go find it!