Friday, June 7, 2013

Recycled Bird's Nest

Before we even got moved in here on Old Baldwin Road, we had a swallow that lived here and built a bird's nest on one of our downspouts.  We would leave the door open as we were working, and the swallow would come inside and sit on the wooden hangers that we made for our fiddles.  For several years, the swallow would come back every year and re-use that same nest.  The swallow no longer comes here, but a robin has taken over the swallow's nest and has been using it for the past several years.  This year, I was cleaning the gutters on the building next to shop, and I looked over and saw that the bird's nest has somehow turned sideways and the robin just keeps building onto the top of it.  I decided it would be fun to post a picture of the robin sitting in the nest.  I used my telephoto lens, so I'm not really very close.  The robin has since raised another family and moved on for the year.  Here is the nest:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

L.R. Baggs Violin Pickup: Installation 101

Okay, I have seen the installation instructions that come with these and they aren't very informational.  For myself (to remind myself later on down the road) and for anyone else out there who is handy, here are some better instructions to get the job done right!

First of all, you will need a soldering iron, solder and flux.  It also helps trememdously if you have an extra set of hands to help hold everything together while you do the soldering.  The biggest part of the job is not actually the soldering, but fitting the bridge to the fiddle.  If you haven't done this before, I strongly recommend that you let a professional do this.  Since the pickup is embedded in the bridge, if you mess up the bridge, you are done.  My instructions here are going to focus on the soldering part of the job.

Make sure that you do the soldering part away from the fiddle.  You don't want to accidentally drop hot solder on the instrument! 

Start by putting the "cap" from the 1/4" jack onto the wire.  Make sure the threads are facing towards the jack and away from the bridge.


Take a look at the three metal prongs that are sticking up from the jack.  They are three different heights.  You will not be using the middle one for this regular installation.  It will look like there is only one wire that comes out from the bridge.  It is a single wire in the center covered by a plastic shield, and then that is covered with a fine, metal braiding.  You will start by soldering the metal braiding to the largest and tallest of the prongs.  Be sure to use flux and only a small amount of solder.  You will then solder the single, center wire to the shortest prong.  Make sure that all of your soldering is done on the INSIDE of the three prongs.  Any wires or solder that are on the outside of the prongs will cause the cap not to fit back onto the jack.

The following picture shows how there is no solder or wires on the outside of the prongs.

When you are done with all the soldering, you can install the bridge with the wire facing the tailpiece.  Install the jack on the same side as the chinrest.  Screw the cap back onto the jack.  It may look like the cap is not screwed on all the way because there are more threads on the jack than are on the cap.


You are now done and can plug the jack directly into your amplifier and check it out! 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Anticipation: Youth in Bluegrass

It's nearly 3:00 a.m. and I can't sleep.  It's like this every year!  Tomorrow is the KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Competition that is held at Silver Dollar City (SDC) for their Annual Bluegrass & BBQ Festival.  If you haven't ever been to SDC for this event, you are missing the "Bluegrass Event of the Year"! 

This year marks the 6th youth band that I have taught that has made it into this competition.  In fact, this group makes it six for six!  This year's newest group from The Bluegrass Shack is The Foxglove Pickers.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The very first band that I helped with this competition was almost 10 years ago.  At that time, the Bluegrass Shack didn't actually exist.  I was teaching out of our home and had a wonderful family that was taking lessons from me that decided they wanted to be a part of this competition.  I really didn't know what it was all about at the time, and unfortunately I never even got to see them perform at Silver Dollar City.  The family that I'm referring to is the Robbins family, and the name of their group was Sibling Rivalry.  It featured three-time Illinois State Junior Banjo Champion Justin Robbins (who still plays and teaches by the way), and his twin sister, Jenny, on fiddle who was every bit as good as her brother. 

After that, the Hall family band, known as Charlie & the Girls, wanted to get involved in this competition.  They won 4th place overall in the competition last year, and they are one of the bands that will be competing again this year.  They have wonderful harmonies, are multi-instrumentalists, and are so talented!

The majority of the bands that enter the Youth in Bluegrass competition are family bands.  When you think about it, how often can young kids get together to form a group of their own?  Bluegrass is different from your average garage band that plays rock music. Harmony is really important in this type of music, and this is a skill that must be taught to be done properly.  Many of the kids that come into The Bluegrass Shack don't have parents that have been involved in bluegrass music.  They might never have been to a festival even.  One of the hallmarks of bluegrass and folk music is the ability to play with others even if you haven't played with them before.  It is nearly impossible to learn this skill without playing with others.  I tried incorporating the kids with the regular jams, but it just didn't work out well.  Then I decided I would try to put several like-skilled students from different families together.  This plan worked out much better! 

Several years later, the Pickin' Chicks made their debut at SDC.  Youngest member, Millie, was only 9 years old that first year, and this group of four girls was one of the very few that were not all from the same family and did not have an adult in their group.  (The rules of the competition allow for one or both parents to play with the youth group, but the rules DO NOT allow for others over the age of 21 to play in the group.)  Though their members have changed somewhat since the initial group got started, the Pickin' Chicks have placed 5th in this competition two years in a row, and will be competing again this year.  This very talented group of three girls will knock your socks off with their harmony and instrumental abilities.

The Worthing10s Family Band and Barbed Wire & Lip Gloss were the next two groups that came into the picture.  The Worthing10s are a large family band (10 members!) and are a real treat to see work one microphone, which is part of the competition.  Last year was their first year in the competition, and they ranged in age from three years old to 18.  Individual members of the group have won or placed in numerous fiddle and banjo contests, and Lucas is currently both the Illinois and Missouri State Junior banjo champion.  Their specialty is gospel music and they have a music ministry. 

Barbed Wire & Lip Gloss was another youth band that was not a family band.  My student, Makayla, was head of this particular band, and was previously the bass player for the Pickin' Chicks.  She put her own band together, even though she was just a high school student, and then started using one of her own private lessons as a group lesson for several of her friends so that they could play as a band.  Makayla has a beautiful voice and is well-versed on the fiddle and several other instruments.  Her group was one of four bands from The Bluegrass Shack that competed in last year's competition.

So what about this year's newest group?  The Foxglove Pickers marks a milestone in getting unrelated youth together!  This group features five different families from four different cities, three counties, and TWO STATES!  There are seven members total, and they range in age from just 8 years old to 15 years old.  They have only been playing together for about 6 months at this time, so it was a real honor for them to have made it into this competition.  All bands must submit audition material, and then must wait for notification.  Only twenty bands from all across the United States are chosen for the KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Competition.  Practicing has been a challenge with this group because of the number of families involved, and simply the age of the kids.  With an 8-year old and three 11-year olds, a one-hour practice is all that is reasonable.  They meet once every two weeks, and they have done remarkably well.  My biggest joy with this group is seeing how much they like each other!  They all get along so well, and the oldest members take the younger ones "under their wing," so to speak.

I realize I have focused on the groups from our own store, but believe me, ALL of the bands are FANTASTIC and worthy of your time!  I have made so many friends.  The kids all get to know each other as well, and it is like a huge reunion every year.  D.A. Calloway, from SDC, is the one that heads up this amazing event (including all of the Bluegrass & BBQ event).  My hat is off to him.  He definitely has the world's best job and, likewise, is just as good at doing his job as the event is good itself!  Mike Smith, from radio station KSMU, has been the emcee every year that I have attended.  He does a great job announcing all the bands, explaining the rules, and then airing parts of the program.  I hope you will get out to see this marvelous event.  You won't be sorry!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Beginning Instructional Jam Material

I thought it might be helpful to include on our blog the information we covered at the Instructional Jam Class last night.  This will give everyone the opportunity to review the information.  We covered a lot!

VOLUME - Don't play too loudly if you aren't playing the melody.

BLUEGRASS vs. FOLK - In bluegrass music, only one person sings the lead and only one person plays the melody at a time.  In folk, everyone does everything at the same time all the time.  If you break this rule in bluegrass, no one will want to jam with you!

VERSE & CHORUS - The verses of a song have different words.  Most songs have 2-3 verses.  The chorus of a song is the part that is played after every verse.  The words are always the same for the chorus.  Usually, harmony is sung on the chorus and not the verses, though this is not set in stone.

KICK-OFF - The instrumental lead (melody) that starts a song.

BREAK - This is a "break" for the vocalist.  It means that one of the musicians is going to play lead (melody) on their instrument.

STANDARD FORM - The standard form for a bluegrass vocal with three verses would be:  Kick-off, 1st verse, chorus, break, 2nd verse, chorus, break, 3rd verse, chorus, tag & end.

TAG - The "tag" is when you repeat the last line of a song at the end of the song.  It serves as an ending.  Sometimes the tag is two lines, but usually just one.

THE MUSICAL ALPHABET - The musical alphabet goes from A to G and then starts over again.

NASHVILLE NUMBER SYSTEM - Very basically, this means assigning numbers to the chords of a song.  This system is what studio musicians use so that there is only one chord chart no matter how many different keys the song may be played in.  It makes it easy to transpose to different keys, and it doesn't matter if one person uses a capo and another doesn't.

The numbers used to designate the chords are Roman Numerals.

Most bluegrass songs use I, IV & V chords.

Mandolin and banjo players learned how the Nashville Number System and their moveable chords work together.

HOW TO SIGNAL THE END - Lifting your leg up on the last line of a song is a good way to let others know you are ending the song.

HOW TO TELL WHAT KEY A SONG IS IN - If the songs starts and ends on the same chord, the song will be in that key.  If the song start and ends on different chords, then the song will be in the key of the ending chord.

We only played two- and three-chord songs last night, but we actually got through quite a few songs.  Everyone received copies of the lyrics and chords so that the songs may be practiced at home.  I will be passing out tabs to the songs at the next session.  Our repertoire is currently all in the key of G and includes bluegrass, gospel and folk songs:

1.  I Am Bound for the Promised Land
2.  Buffalo Gals
3.  Hot Corn Cold Corn
4.  Mountain Dew
5.  You Are My Sunshine
6.  This Land is Your Land
7.  The Crawdad Song
8.  Worried Man Blues

Banjo players are working on their G licks and the walk-up.  The G lick is played after the final D chord of a verse or chorus.  It is used in place of simply returning to the G chord with regular back-up.  Eventually, different licks will be used as well.  Banjo players also learned that they may use the D7 chord in place of D, as long as the song is not in the key of D.

Fiddle players learned simple "chords" to use as back-up, and how and when to play them.  Fiddle players may also play harmony to the vocalist, especially on slower songs.

Everyone, regardless of what instrument they play, learned what the G, C and D chords look like on guitar.  We also talked about how people may make their chords differently, and how you might be able to still tell what chords they are even though they are a little bit different.

Everyone also practiced singing the chorus of the songs as we played.

HEADS UP - We will add Bile Them Cabbage Down as our first instrumental.  Banjo players - start practicing with your capos at the 2nd fret!  We will be in the Key of A for this song.  Those without capos will be using the chords A, D & E. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

2013 Bluegrass Shack Public Jam Schedule

Every other Tuesday night we have an acoustic jam session that is free and open to the public. You can come to play, sing, or just listen and it is free. Jam session starts at 7:30 and goes until everyone leaves. We hope you'll come join us! Here is a list of the dates we will be having the jam:

January 15 & 29
February 12 & 26
March 12 & 26
April 9 & 23
May 7 & 21
June 7 & 18
July 2, 16 & 30
August 13 & 27
September 10 & 24
October 8 & 22
November 5 & 19
December 3 & 17

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Banjo Pickers - Splint for Focal Dystonia

For those of you that have followed my posts or know me fairly well, you will know that I have been troubled with focal dystonia in my right hand.  For banjo pickers, it is my understanding that it hits the forward roll the hardest -- and this is certainly the case for me.  My index finger curls up and just refuses to do anything.  This means that much of time I miss the strings that my index finger is supposed to play, especially when it's part of a forward roll.  My middle finger tends to shoot out across the banjo head, but fortunately for me, it doesn't cause an issue because I can always get it back fast enough to play the next note, even if it looks kind of odd at times.  What I have noticed is that sometimes this is worse than other times.  It seems to have an ebb and flow like playing itself does.  There are good days and bad days, but mostly bad.

Now for some good news.  I have come up with a splint of sorts that will keep my index finger from curling up.  I don't know how this will work in the long run, and I don't know if this will cause other problems, but this at least keeps my finger in playing position, even if I can't move it on its own volition.  I move it with my hand.  I know that probably sounds impossible, but somehow I am just able to do it.  What's even better is that after I play with the splint for a while, I can remove it and my finger is better temporarily.  It's like it is training my brain in some way.  Now, I'm no medical expert or anything of the such, but if anyone else out there is having an issue like this, all I can say is don't give up.  Analyze the issue and start trying to find a solution. 

Here is a video that shows the splint and how I use it.