Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You Can Make a Difference

I have been taking the instructional jam groups to our local nursing home for the past several years now.  Each group practices the songs for several months or so until they start to come together, then everyone volunteers for breaks and kicks-offs to prepare for the concert.  Everyone takes this very seriously, and you might be surprised how nervous the students are to perform for the residents at the New Athens Home.

Last year, when my dad was ill, he had to stay in the New Athens Home for a short time.  I didn't think any of the residents would know me outside of the jam groups that I bring.  Boy, was I wrong!  As I walked through the hallways to my Dad's room, people spoke from their rooms and from their wheelchairs, all saying hello and asking when was I going to bring another group to play music for them.  It touched me more than words can say because I guess I thought they would forget or that it wasn't that big of a deal.

Yesterday was another one of those moments that really hit home.  I took another jam group to the home last night and we played for an hour.  We did songs that I wondered if the jam group might think was "below" them.  I picked out songs like Oh Susanna! and She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain.  I wanted songs that the residents might know so that they could participate in the singing with us.  As we played, I encouraged them to sing along and even "dance."  I told them they could dance by moving their feet or just by holding hands with the person next to them and moving to the music.  And they did!  I told them the names of the musicians and made up little jokes about each one.  Then I would ask the residents if they remembered the music students' names.  We would try to remember their names, and they would try to remember our names.

When we were done playing, I thanked them for coming to listen to us play, and then I asked the music students to stay and talk to everyone -- which is something that we always do.  I was talking to one of the ladies that always comes to listen to our music.  I asked her how her day was.  She told me that it had started out really bad, but that it was good now because we had come to play music.  She told me that she had been having trouble with her eyes and that the doctor told her she was going blind.  She was scared.  She told me how a couple of relatives were supposed to come and visit her that day, but that even though they were only about 10 miles away, they didn't make it to visit.  She said that she was so happy when she heard we were coming, and that it had made her bad day into a good day.

My point?  You can share your music and make a difference.  These music students weren't musical prodigies.  They were "regular" folks having fun and sharing what they learned.  They were making a difference in other peoples' lives by taking the time out to play for them.  It doesn't matter how good you are, how perfect you play, how great your voice is, how wonderful you are with crowds or even how nervous you get!  What matters is that you take time to share with others.   You may find that it not only makes their day, but that it makes your day, too!

Monday, April 21, 2014

No Jam - Bluegrass Shack Closed on Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I have already changed the 2014 jam schedule, but I wanted to try to get the message out so that no one would show up here to jam on Tuesday.  We will be closed on Tuesday, April 22, 2014, because the movie "Belleville" premieres that night at the Lincoln Theatre.  The Bluegrass Shack, Chris Talley Armstrong and The Chris Talley Trio are all in the movie, and The Chris Talley Trio will be walking the Red Carpet and then playing LIVE before the movie shows.  We hope that you'll come to downtown Belleville and join in all the festivities.  Here is a link to the showtimes and other information that you might need:  www.bellevillethemovie.com

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Does Perfect Music Equal Great Music?

What is the most common complaint I hear from students and other musicians?  "I can play this much better at home."  I even hear this from people that I think did a great job on whatever song it is they are playing.  When I question them a little more, it usually hinges on a lack of perfection, especially from banjo players.  It seems students and musicians equate perfect music with good music.  I used to think this, too.

Many people don't know that I am classically trained on the flute.  It is the only instrument besides trombone on which I have been trained.  I read music very well and spent many, many hours "perfecting" my music.  One of the most enlightening moments of learning came when I was practicing a difficult piece of music that contained lots of fast notes, long notes, and passages with large skips between the notes.  I had been working diligently on some of these passages and could hardly wait to go to my lesson.  I thought the lesson was going really well, too.  I picked up my flute, blew through all the passages in great form, and could hardly wait to hear what my teacher would say.  What did I hear?  "Well, you played all the notes."  I was shocked!  Wasn't that what I was supposed to do?  I had practiced the music forwards, backwards, with different rhythms and with different articulations.  I actually had to ask what my teacher meant.  That was when I learned that music was not just playing a bunch of notes.  It is about emotion, empathy, excitement, etc.  It is about FEELING, and also conveying that feeling to those that are listening.

It also reminds me of when sampling synthesizers first came out.  It was rumored that they would replace all other instruments because they could sound like any instrument (or even any sound, for that matter).  Why will that never happen?  Because music isn't just about a sound.  It is about how that sound is produced, including the tone, timbre, and inherent characteristics of each individual instrument.  You can "sample" a banjo, but unless you can play rolls, slides and hammer-ons, it simply won't sound like a person playing three-finger bluegrass banjo.  It sounds banjo-like.

So what does all this mean?  Is all your practice in vain when you can't play perfectly?  By no means!  When you watch a band play, are you listening and waiting to hear the next mistake?  Or are you enjoying the show?  Most people want the music to be of a certain quality, but what they really want is a good show.  If perfect music was always the best music, we could all listen to perfectly produced music on CDs and be happy.

Don't put your metronome away just yet, though.  Practice may not make perfect, but it does make permanent.  It "locks in" your technique and form, and it is required for memorization.  It is also fun, relaxing (most of the time), exciting, and quite necessary to reach a certain level of musicianship.  So after you've done your homework (practice), put your heart into it!  That is what will bring your music to the next level, mistakes and all! 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

We're on the Big Movie Screen!

We got to be a part of something last year that we never even dreamed of, and now it is actually done and ready for viewing!  The Bluegrass Shack, Chris Talley Armstrong, and The Chris Talley Trio are part of an independent film called "Belleville the Movie."  Producers from California came to our shop last year to inquire about filming part of their movie here.  Earl and I talked about it and decided we wouldn't tell anyone right away because we didn't really think it would happen.  But it did!  The filming in our neck of the woods was done in October, and now the movie is complete!  The premiere will be at the Lincoln Theatre in Belleville, IL on Tuesday, April 22, 2014.  The movie will continue to run at the Lincoln through April 25, so you need to act fast if you would like to see it here locally.  Ticket information and more can be found at www.bellevillethemovie.com.

Since this is an independent film, it won't be playing at every theatre.  We hope that people will visit the movie website and will make an effort to go see the movie!  This is a chance to see a family film, and also support bluegrass music and all the local, small businesses around here in a rather unique way.

Take a look at the movie trailer.  We think you'll recognize at least one person, and maybe many more if you are local.

"Belleville" trailer - click SHARE to share this with your friends! from BellevilleTheMovie.com on Vimeo.

Here is a schedule of events for opening night taken directly from the movie's website: 

6:00 PM Red Carpet Arrivals
Cast, Crew, People of Notoriety and Ticket Holders Arrive on the Red Carpet

Music Performances Begin

​7:20 P.M. Introductions and Greetings
Cast, Crew and Special Guests acknowledgements

7:30 P.M. World Premiere of "Belleville"

9:00 P.M. Q & A
Cast and Crew will take questions from the audience.
Audience will have a chance to interact with Cast and Crew

10:00 P.M. After Party
(Special Private Screening for VIPs and Guests)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Three Stages of Learning

Have you ever thought you learned something only to find out you have no idea what you are doing?  Here is how it usually happens.  You are trying to play something for someone else, and all of a sudden you draw a blank.  You are dumbfounded.  You played it perfectly at home 100 times, and now you can't get through it.  Or you can only play it one speed.  Fast.

There are actually three stages of learning, and going through all three stages will make you a better player, and is also the hallmark of a good teacher.

Stage 1 - The first stage is what I call "Manual Mode."  This is when you are actually learning the song.  Whether you use tab, music, or listen and learn by ear, you are very aware of every note and fingering you perform.  You generally play songs in this stage at a slower pace.

Stage 2 - This is what I call "Automatic Pilot."  In this stage, you are able to pick up the pace and play through the song without a lot of mistakes.  It is this stage where many people stop learning.  It is easy to assume you know the song really well because you can play it faster and more accurately.  However, it is also in this stage that if you start thinking about what you are doing, you become incapable of doing it.  People in this stage of learning are unable to play the song slowly anymore.  When a student comes in for a lesson and has trouble playing through a song, I will ask them to slow it down.  When the student tells me they can't play it slow, then I know they are in Stage 2 of learning.

Stage 3 - This is actually a repeat of Stage 1, and is a return to Manual Mode.  It is in this stage of learning that a person is able to play the song at any speed up to the fastest that they are personally capable of (or that the song requires).  This is also the stage that good teachers need to attain.  A good teacher is capable of playing the song up to speed, incredibly slow, or any speed in between.  A good teacher not only can play the song at a very slow speed, but can also spot mistakes that a student is making when they are playing the song.  That's because in Stage 3, you regain the ability to think about every single note and fingering.  You are now capable of playing in Automatic Pilot and Manual Mode.

What will this help you accomplish?  It helps assure that your performances go smoother.  It ensures that as you get nervous and start thinking about what you are doing that you will actually be able to remember what you are doing.  It doesn't mean you won't ever blank out or forget something, but it will certainly cut down on that.  It will also give you more confidence in your playing.

So how do you know you have reached Stage 3?  Well, for one, you can play the song VERY slowly.  I mean painfully slow.  You can also describe what you are doing to someone else.  You can probably even "see" all your movements inside your head.  For instance, when I imagine playing fiddle, I go through bowings and fingerings completely in my head.  I imagine what string I'm on and what direction my bow is going.  When I imagine banjo in my head, I can imagine what rolls I'm using, what chords or fingerings I'm using, and even what fret I should be on.

How do you get to Stage 3?  You may have to play the parts of the song fast and then slow again.  The fast speed allows you to figure out what you are doing.  Playing it slowly cements it into your head.  If you can't figure out what you are doing, you will have to go back to the beginning of learning the song.  Get out the tab, music or CD, and go through the motions of relearning the song.  It won't take you long this time, and it is well worth the effort.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Music - The Gift That Keeps on Giving

My Dad taught me how to play guitar.  He played the fiddle and I played the guitar for him.  Every night, we would play music together.  Sometimes we would sing, and Daddy would always sing the harmony part in the beginning.  I learned to sing harmony because we sang together and I heard it.  Daddy never really told me how to do it. 

When we got better, we would go to churches and play.  Sometimes we played for the neighbors or in jams together.  We even played in a band together when I was still in high school.  I loved surprising Daddy with the new things I would learn.  When he would show me something, I would practice it diligently, but wouldn't tell him I was practicing.  I always did my practicing when he wasn't home.  When we would get back together again, I wouldn't say anything, but I'd just do whatever new thing it was that he had been teaching me.  I would look up at him, and he never missed a lick!  We would share a smile and it always made me feel so good!

As I got older, we didn't have the opportunity to play together every night.  I moved away, got married, and had my own life.  Still, Daddy and I always played together whenever we saw each other.  We recorded what we did from time to time on cassettes and later on CDs.  He played on my first CD. 

Playing music with my dad taught me lots of things.  It taught me that playing with others is much more fun than playing by yourself.  It taught me patience.  It taught me that hard work pays off.  It gave me lots of things, too.  It gave me a reason to laugh, to learn, and to share with others.  The best thing that it did was give me a gift that I could give back to my dad.

You see, my dad died about three months ago.  He was sick a long time.  Sometimes he tried to play his fiddle, but he was so weak it was very hard for him.  But Daddy could still sing.  Even when he couldn't walk or get out of bed or was short of breath, he would sing with me.  I would play the guitar, and Daddy and I would sing.  The music that he gave me was a gift that I could give back to him.  It is still the gift that keeps on giving.

Now I teach others, and hopefully they will use that gift to benefit others.  To play for someone else is to lift their spirit, to take them to places they forgot about or have never been, to inspire them, to make them feel better, to touch their very heart and soul.  If there is one thing I could inspire you to do this new year, it would be to use your music to touch others.  Don't be afraid to share it!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2014 Acoustic 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 14 & 28
February 11 & 25
March 11 & 25
April 8; NO JAM on April 22!
May 6 & 20
June 3 & 17
July 1, 15 & 29
August 12 & 26
September 9 & 23
October 7 & 21
November 4 & 18
December 2 & 16

Chris' 2014 Teaching Schedule

Chris will not be teaching private lessons on the following dates.  Please note that group lessons WILL be taught unless it specifically mentions no group lessons on the date.

February 10, 11, 12, 13
March 3, 4, 5, 6
April 7, 8, 9, 10
May 22, 26, 27, 28, 29
June 16, 17, 18, 19
July 7, 8, 9, 10
August 25, 26, 27, 28
September 15, 16, 17, 18
October 20, 21, 22, 23
November 10, 24, 25, 26, 27
December 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 (No group lessons)
January (2014) 1 (No group lessons)