Friday, July 25, 2014

Five Great Guitar Players: A List

Earlier this month I posted a reference to Paul Murin’s excellent essay on Memorizing Music.  Paul is the curator of the guitar instruction site High Country Guitar.  Among the info on that site is Paul's list of Great Guitar Players.  Being a sucker for lists, I checked out his favorites and was happy to see that 3 of my 5 favorite guitar players were represented!

Trey Anastasio
Here’s how Paul describes Trey Anastasio, the guitarist for Phish.

Trey is known for long, extended improvisations as well as avant-garde instrumental compositions.  Trey is a technical and creative master of the instrument. 

The key element of Trey’s sound is overdrive followed by compression.  You crank up that overdrive, and then you get a grip on it by running it through a compressor.  It creates a warm, soaring sound with seemingly (and sometimes literally) endless sustain.  A key element of his picking style has to do with palm muting - when you play with a lot of overdrive, palm-muting becomes essential to keep things under control.  By making constant (and, at this point, presumably unconscious) adjustments to how the palm of his hand sits near the bridge, Trey is able to coax a lot of different sounds out of his guitar.  

If you watch Trey's right hand, you'll notice that it doesn't actually move much when he is soloing.  His palm tends to hover just over the strings, near the bridge.  This allows him to make those constant, minute adjustments so that some notes come out as more staccato, while others ring out fully.  It also helps create a tight, focused sound.  

Many of Phish's big jams are primarily modal.  Mixolydian tends to be the most common for major key jams, and for minor keys, Dorian seems to be the go-to mode.  In most of these situations, the mode is mixed with a healthy dose of pentatonic/blues licks.

Trey commonly uses chromatic licks approaching chord tones.  Perhaps because of his compositional skills, Trey tends to build solos using motives - little melodies and/or rhythmic patterns that get repeated, moved around the neck, displaced, etc.  These motives give his solos a sense of coherence.  Personally I think Trey is better than just about anyone (in rock and roll) at this kind of thing.  His solos almost always feel very deliberate, and rarely sound like he's just "noodling" in search of an idea.

Many of Trey's more complex compositions feature a "theme and variation" approach, where he takes a lick or melody and moves it around through different keys, sometimes extending it, other times truncating it.  Most of Trey's complex compositions, regardless of how complex they are, are oriented around a groove.  They keep the crowd dancing as they wind through all kinds of weird musical places.  

Jerry Garcia
Next on my list would have to be Jerry Garcia.  Here’s what Paul has to say about ol’ Jerry:

Founding member of the Grateful Dead.  Known for long, extended improvisations.  Strong foundation in American roots styles - blues, country, and jazz. An incredibly passionate and creative musician, and a virtual walking encyclopedia of American music. 

Here are some descriptions of Garcia’s playing by others:
The essence of Garcia's sound came in the way he attacked the notes with his pick.
Jerry could weave colorful passing tones into his lines like no other rocker. 
He had a clear, “well-spoken” tone and a strong and precise connection to the string.
Garcia picked almost every note and seldom used hammer-ons or pull-offs. 

Bill Frisell
Thirdly is Bill Frisell.  I’m so glad that Paul included him on his list.  About Frisell, Paul says:

Bill Frisell is a great player who is difficult to categorize.  Usually categorized as a jazz player, he really blends a strong helping of country/folk/bluegrass in his music.  Known for his restraint and use of space.  I once heard someone say that he plays guitar the way Miles Davis played the trumpet.  One of my favorite players, period.

In a recent article for No Depression, Jake Schepps described Frisell like this:

Frisell is so distinctly American, creating music that is at once jazz, country, blues, and noise.  His music is unique, yet incredibly familiar, and at times sweetly dissonant (like no one else can be).  It has me questioning so many musical preconceptions about how music can work, what makes something compelling, what can be a song, what is soloing, and more. 

With Frisell’s approach to music, when playing folk tunes, Bob Dylan songs, original country twang ditties, and old swing standards the beauty is so pronounced, so touching, melodic, at times so directionless yet with such inevitable and perfect forward movement.  It is jazz, and so “not jazz” (which is actually very jazz).

Norman Blake
Surprisingly absent from Paul Murin’s list is Norman Blake, although to his credit Paul didn’t entirely omit all flatpickers, but chose to list David Grier, Tony Rice and Doc Watson among his favorites in that style.  However, I’d put Norman Blake up there as well.

Others have described Norman Blake like this:  His melodic lines are direct and elegant, without the pyrotechnics often associated other flatpickers.  Blake’s music has an air of authenticity and basic honesty few can achieve.  Blake’s music is of an elemental sort that transcends technological change and the tides of pop culture.  Blake’s music takes you back home to the porch and the living room, where, symbolically and literally, it was born.

Norman is not the fastest flatpicker in the world - but he brings the wood of the acoustic guitar to life. He doesn't play very much beyond the first five frets of the instrument, but that is why he makes one acoustic guitar sound like an ensemble!  The drone of the open strings picked here and there provides an anchor for the tune he picks, so that one acoustic guitar, without any backup, is complete in and of itself.  His crosspicking techniques add to the fullness as well.  (The Flatpick Post)

Grant Green
Lastly, but also missing from Paul’s list is Grant Green, a perpetually underrated jazz guitarist who recorded prolifically for the Blue Note Label throughout the 60’s and early 70’s. 

Grant Green had a "dark-blue", instantly recognizable sound that was influenced by horn players.  He rarely comped, choosing to drop out when trading off with other soloists rather than doing any backing.  When asked why he didn’t play chords Green is said to have responded “Charlie Parker didn’t play chords”.

Jazz Times described Green like this: 

Grant Green was among the most disciplined yet imaginative soloists of his generation.  His single-line statements were rhythmically brilliant, and his use of staccato notes equally intriguing.  Green’s earthy melodies were clean and fluid, his voicings impeccable and he was especially captivating on ballads.  Though his initial fame came through his participation in soul-jazz and organ-combo sessions, Green eschewed blazing speed and notey forays for deft harmonic response, funky rhythmic dexterity and nimble melodic interpretation.

DGDA and ADAE Tunings (Mandola and Tenor Banjo)

Mandolas are basically just slightly bigger mandolins with a scale length between 15.5" and 17" - so about 12 to 25 percent longer than a mandolin scale, which is typically 13.875".  A mandola is usually tuned in 5ths like a mandolin, but that 5ths tuning is CGDA instead of GDAE.

I recently got a mandola with a 15.5" scale.  I was going to tune it CGDA, but then I was reminded of a chapter in Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor on Alternate Tunings where he describes tuning a tenor banjo ADAE instead of GDAE.  (Note: the Irish tenor banjo's standard GDAE tuning is one octave lower than the mandolin's GDAE tuning).  Purists beware, ADAE is the way Enda normally tunes his banjo!

Tuning an Irish tenor banjo to ADAE simply involves tuning the 4th string (lowest string) up a whole step from G to A.  On a mandola this would equate to changing the CGDA tuning to DGDA.  I've found out that DGDA is the way Marla Fibish tunes her mandola, and maybe John Doyle as well.   I'm willing to give it a shot!
Enda Scahill
In his tutor Enda Scahill describes several advantages of this alternate tuning, and below I have paraphrased some of these while translating it to mandola-oriented language.

Advantages of DGDA tuning
DGDA is almost an open tuning of D or G.  By playing the A note (fret 2) on the G string or the B note (fret 2) on the A string you play either a 4 string D chord or G chord.  This allows the instrument to resonate more in tune with itself.

The stretch to that pesky low F# (Fret 6 on the low string) is now only a stretch to Fret 4.

The G note on the low string is now at Fret 5 instead of 7.  This allows for fiddle style double G “chording” (open G played with G on the low string).

Tuning the low C up to a low D creates opportunities for droning on the open string.  This is a big advantage for the key of D (the key that most Irish tunes are played in) and for the key of G (arguably the 2nd most common tonal center in Irish traditional music).

The DGDA tuning affords different (easier?) chord formations new found harmonies and voicings.

Tuning up to D tightens the tone and the action by creating more tension in the string.  In other words, you can use a lighter string but still achieve more tension.  This results in the 4th string being not as twangy, heavy or loose.  (This feature has perhaps more relevance among banjo players tuning up to ADAE from GDAE).

I'll add to Enda's list by saying that this alternate tuning makes the mandola even more of a unique, hybrid instrument.  The interval from the 4th string (D) to 3rd string (G) now becomes a perfect 4th (like on a guitar) instead of a 5th, yet you still have the interval of a 5th between the other strings.

In this altered mandola tuning you can't quite transpose and use the exact same fingerings you've memorized on mandolin...you have to make adjustments for any notes on the low string.  But, overcoming obstacles and finding advantages in what at first might seem like an unnecessary challenge is all part of the fun of playing an instrument and growing as a musician!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Paul Murin of The DeadPhish Orchestra on Memorizing Music

Paul Murin
Paul Murin, the lefty guitarist for the help > slip > tweezing Colorado band the DeadPhishOrchestra, has a website designed for the intermediate to advanced guitarist called High Country Guitar.  On this site Paul covers practical music theory, improvisation, composition, the Caged system and more.  Much of the info he teaches is universal - beyond just guitar - if you know how to interpret it.

Being the leader of a tribute band that effortlessly merges the disparate music of Phish and the Grateful Dead, Paul knows a thing or two about the playing of two of my favorite guitarists – Trey Anastasio and Jerry Garcia (and Bill Frisell!).  One thing I'd love to some day study is the music of Phish, especially their improvisations like the unbelievable music they are making on the spot each night on this remarkable summer 2014 tour, if my abilities and comprehension will even allow for this.  Since Paul gives Skype lessons, he might be one of the best sources for this knowledge and understanding.  

But for now, I thought I’d share several excerpts from a blog entry on High Country Guitar about Memorizing Music.  For the full original post click here.

Memorizing Music
"I found that playing jazz standards and trying to learn them from memory improved my overall memorization skills because it forced me to learn to use my ears above all."

"You have to make an effort to memorize music.  It does not just happen. You could play a song a thousand times with the sheet music in front of you, but if you haven’t made a conscious effort to memorize it, you’re very likely to forget it on the 1,001st time if you put the sheet music away."

"You’re probably making plenty of mistakes anyway, even with the sheet music in front of you, and you’ll play whatever it is much better and more consistently if you just memorize it."  

"I find it a lot of work to read sheet music while I’m playing anyway…it’s much easier to put in the work memorizing a tune for a little while; then you can put away the sheet music for good and just play the tune. But to do this, you have to consciously say to yourself, 'I’m going to memorize this thing,' and really make an effort to do it."

"Another thing I notice is that I can think I have something memorized after spending some time working on it, but then if I put it down for a day or two, when I go back to it, I’ve forgotten it all over again. So when you think you’re done memorizing something, keep in mind that you might not be as done as you think."

"As I see it, the memorization of music happens on three different levels: Aural (how it sounds), Intellectual (the theory behind it) and Physical (the fingerings and movements required to play it)."


Aural
"When musicians refer to being able to hear something, they are really talking about the ability to recognize what they are hearing, musically. If I had to rank the three aspects of memorization, I would say that this is the most important, and in fact as I write this piece, I realize that all three of these methods really point back, in some way, to your aural skills, a.k.a. your ears.”

"The best musicians have amazing ears. A great jazz improviser can hear a melody and instantly play it back to you, as well as instantly recognize a chord (or chord progression) and come up with melodies to fit it on the spot."

"So, yes, you should be able to learn to hear a G chord change to a C chord. And, yes, it’s possible to be stone deaf and still have good ears."

"Once in a while somebody will try to tell me that they are tone deaf.  I doubt this condition even exists; if it does, I have never seen it, and I’ve taught a LOT of different people. Some people might have a little more ablility than others in this area; some are just good at it while others have to work at it. But I’m fairly certain that ANYONE can learn it."

"In general, good ears, combined with a solid knowledge of how the sounds are laid out on the fretboard, makes it much easier to remember a piece of music."

"One of the best ways I have found to practice my ear training is to try to play melodies that I hear…TV, radio, Christmas songs, anything.  Phish fans may have already noted that Trey Anastasio has often spoken of this as being a valuable practice tool. It helps you learn to recognize intervals, and it also helps you be more creative with your own melodic ideas because it breaks you out of the usual guitaristic patterns."

"All in all, I think it is important to be able to sing any melody that you play, and play any melody that you sing. It follows, too, that if you can’t sing a melody that you are planning on playing, you probably can’t play it very well either. Practicing this helps you make a much quicker connection between what you hear in your head, and what you actually play on your guitar. It follows, then, that if you can really memorize what a song sounds like down to the minute details, you can memorize how to play it."

Intellectual
"When I refer to the intellectual aspect of memorizing, I am referring to the math behind the music, i.e. the theory behind it. What are the chords? What is the chord progression? If the part you are memorizing is melodic, are there chords implied in the melody? What are the interval leaps within the melody? What scale(s) does the melody come from? This is all information you can use to help you memorize a complex piece of music."

"In music school, one thing I had to do frequently was to memorize jazz standards. As an additional tool to help us memorize the songs, they would have us transpose them into different keys from memory, without sheet music. In a 32-bar song where the chords change every measure, or even half a measure, this can get pretty complicated. It would be virtually impossible to do this on sheer memorization alone. Instead, you begin to look at the chords in terms of Roman numerals (the I chord, the V chord, etc.). You also begin to think in terms of intervals, rather than just chord names. And finally, when you start to get good at it, you just start to hear the chord change in your head – and when you get to this point you often don’t even have to really think about what key you’re in, or even what chord you’re playing, you just hear the chord and play it."

"It can still be incredibly useful to think in these mathematical, intervallic terms. Just don’t ever forget to pay attention to what these chords and chord changes sound like while you practice them."

"Take songs that you think you know well, and play the chords in a different key (without writing them down!). Start simple, with I-IV-V progressions and that kind of thing, then go to more complex songs. Again, you might be surprised how difficult it is if you haven’t done it much before, but the more you do it the better you get at it."

Physical
"The physical aspect of memorization has to do with the fingerings, fretboard positions, and hand movements required to play a given part."

"One thing to pay attention to when you are praciticing a difficult passage: Make absolutely sure that you are practicing it the exact same way every time. If you’re paying attention, you might catch yourself using a slightly different fingering on consectutive passes through the same part (and I’ll bet that those are often the EXACT spots where you are making mistakes). This will certainly impede your muscle memory progress."

"Also, when you find yourself consistently stumbling over a certain part, make sure you practice that part from a measure or two earlier; very often when we have problems with fingerings, the problems are starting during the approach to that point in the music, and not just at that point itself."

All quotes above are from Paul Murin.  Any bolded text is my doing.

Festival Re-Cap: Red Wing Roots II, July 11-13, 2014

This past weekend was the 2nd Annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival at Natural Chimneys Park in Mount Solon, VA (just over 2 hrs. from Richmond).  It was our first time attending this festival presented by The Steel Wheels, but I’m sure we’ll be back.

Getting into the festival was easy.  No real long lines and the parking arrangement made sense.  For those camping on-site, it was a fairly short walk from where you parked to where the campsites were.  Checking in was pretty much no hassle.  After getting your wristband you were free to make additional trips out to your car to haul in any additional items you might need.  Red Wing Roots is a kid-friendly festival.  Many granola-minded moms and dads had brought their children along, which is a pretty cool culture for the kids to be exposed to in my opinion.
The Chimneys (photo by Vickey Higgins Goff)
The setting for the festival is picturesque and park-like, with the two main stages (Shenandoah Mountain Stage and the South Stage) positioned between the awesome natural chimneys from which the park gets its name.  Sets on these two primary stages were staggered so that as soon as one act was ending a performer on the other one would begin.  The Blue Mountain Brewery beer garden was catty-cornered a hundred yards or so back, so you could watch and hear both the Shenandoah Mountain Stage and the South Stage from the beer garden if you wanted to.

The proliferation of urban food trucks these days means that the munchie options at festivals of this kind are better than ever.  There were several great food vendors, but I especially liked the Goatocado booth.  Very healthy and yummy.  There was a general store set up with ice and other provisions.  The porta-potties, bathrooms and showers were kept clean and there were never any long waits to use them. 
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three (Six?) (Photo by Vickey Goff)
For our group of friends, a festival such as this is as much an opportunity to hang out and reconnect (and get into all sorts of mischief) as it is a chance to see great music.  I only saw some of the bands that played on Friday and Saturday (and none on Sunday), so I’m not able to give a good overview of the performances other than saying the cool vibe and natural setting certainly helped spark some inspired performances from the assembled bands.

Highlights on Friday for me were the Steel Wheels kids set as we were setting up our camp, and Pokey LaFarge and Trampled By Turtles later that evening on the main stage.  On Saturday my faves were Mandolin Orange, Tim O’Brien’s songwriter showcase as well as his set with Darrell Scott, plus The Steel Wheels 8pm set and The Devil Makes Three at 9:30pm.  Friends who witnessed The Stray Birds, Brothers Comatose and Yarn on Sat. commented on them as being strong also, but our gang unanimously agreed that the Devil Makes Three gave the best set of the weekend.  None of us stuck around for any music on Sunday, having shot our wad after the first two nights.
The Devil Makes Three! (Photo by Vickey Higgins Goff)
Festival hosts The Steel Wheels do a fantastic job putting on Red Wing Roots.  The only thing I can think of that might improve upon it in the future would be to branch out slightly beyond the roots/Americana focus to include a few other acts like a Dawes or Dr. Dog (rock), or maybe an unabashedly jammy jamband/improv-oriented ensemble, or an uptempo reggae/world music performer.  Richmond, VA’s The Hot Seats would be perfect for an 11pm slot, like the one they did at Watermelon Park fest a couple years back.

Despite that small suggestion for a slightly broader lineup, I actually loved Red Wing Roots just the way it was.  However it comes together next year I’m sure it will be worth checking out again!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Playing Tips from the July 2014 Banjo Newsletter

The July 2014 edition of Banjo Newsletter, The 5-String Banjo Magazine, arrived in my mailbox the other day.  I am on their mailing list even though my banjo has but 4 strings!  On the one hand, all a tenor banjo really has in common with its five-string big brothers is the word "banjo", while on the other hand, reading - and learning quite a bit from - a magazine devoted to another instrument falls in line with my philosophy that instruments are merely vessels used to express the collective whole that is music.

Here are some of the most profound tips/quotes I took away from reading this issue of Banjo Newsletter:

--If you sound awful, that's a good sign that something in your playing needs work.
--If you sound good when you practice, you aren't challenging yourself to get better.
(Bennett Sullivan, in a segment called Things To Do Without Your Instrument To Become A Better Musician)

--Every note sounds good with every other note, and every note sounds good with every other chord.  
--Develop razor sharp concentration, look for other sounds, get beyond the duality of genre.  
--Get through the duality of 'am I playing old-time banjo or not?', 'am I playing Piedmont-style banjo, or Cajun fiddle or finger-picking Delta guitar?
--Learn to listen to yourself, really, really listen.
--We have an internal teacher that we can tap into and access by paying attention.  Attention on the process, the music itself.
--Great musicians are totally in the moment - really, really, really doing it.
(Danny Barnes, from the cover story interview with this 5-string guru)

--Create home-made music for entertainment.
--Listen, appreciate and deeply absorb the heart and soul of great music.
--Play what you feel.
(John Balch, from a feature titled Writing Original Clawhammer Music)

There you have it.  Goes to show that you can extrapolate quite a bit from material intended for players of a different instrument that the one(s) you play.  This makes me want to sign up for all kinds of music oriented magazines, from journals devoted to a specific folk instruments, like the Banjo Newsletter, to publications focusing on a specific genre of music, as well as ones geared toward music educators, and beyond.

Yes you can probably find a lot of this kind of instruction online, but it's still fun to open the mailbox and see a good old fashioned print 'zine in there.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Finding the Doh through Pre-harmonic Music Theory – It’s All Relative

Doh  dee  ray  ree  Mee  fah  fee  soh  See  lah  lee  tee

Finding the DOH is simply a way of taking a melody-line and assigning a phonetic syllable to every single note in that melody.  Once you find the DOH all the other notes in the tune fall into place in relation to it.

The DOH is the tonal center of a tune - its home note or root note - the note that the melody wants to resolve to.  "A" for Red Haired Boy or "D" for Soldier's Joy or "G" for Girl I Left Behind Me or "E" for Cooley's Reel or "C" for Billy in the Lowground, to use some common examples in their most common keys or modes.

Using the solfege concept of "do re mi" as a starting point, I've assigned phonetic one-syllable names to all 12 notes in a (chromatic) scale.  These are DOH, DEE, RAY, REE, MEE, FAH, FEE, SOH, SEE, LAH, LEE, TEE.  All 7 notes from the Sound of Music do re mi major scale are included, along with the 5 notes omitted from a major scale.  I use this same terminology whether ascending or descending.  See image below.
Define a tune's "DOH" and then all the other notes also have a syllable.
This process can be helpful when analyzing a tune like Red Haired Boy, which is often notated with a misleading key signature containing three sharps, which then requires all the G-natural notes in the melody to become "accidentals" because there aren't any G-sharps in the actual tune, despite what the key signature would have you assume.  This is because Red Haired Boy is a modal tune - mixolydian mode.  Another way to notate it would be with just two sharps because when you play the tune those G notes don't feel like accidents at all!

The person who has found the DOH knows that those G notes in Red Haired Boy are LEE notes in relation to the A note DOH. (LEE is another word for a flattened 7th).  If you were to switch and play Red Haired Boy in C, C becomes your DOH and then you would know to play a B-flat note (flattened 7th) for the LEE.

One of the benefits of this way of thinking is that it can universally connect all melodies without having to tie them to a particular key or chord structure.  You may start to notice patterns such as how the MEE and SOH notes seem to fall in important parts of the tune and how the DEE and FEE notes hardly ever show up at all, as well as similarities between tunes in different keys and modes, for instance, that weren't apparent before.  

Doh  dee  ray  ree  Mee  fah  fee  soh  See  lah  lee  tee

It’s not really about the names of the notes.  That said, there are five notes (enharmonic notes) that have two names:  C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, and A#/Bb.  Rather than use them interchangeably, I’ve chosen to use only one name for these notes and disregard the other name whether ascending or descending.  I use C# (not Db), Eb (not D#), F# (not Gb), G# (not Ab) and Bb (not A#).  There’s no reason why I chose the one I did out of the 50/50 chance, other than I chose the one that seems more likable/familiar of the two.  It’s just semantics.  If you think A-flat when I use G-sharp that’s fine.

In addition to defining every note in a melody by its phonetic syllable name in relation to the doh, it’s also a good practice to know the names of any interval between two notes.  By defining the theoretical you make it more recognizable, whether it’s naming an interval, such as a major third, or the distance between two melody notes, such as “TEE to RAY”.  Below is a little refresher on intervals:

Minor 2nd (one half step)
Ascending:  Jaws Theme
Descending:  Joy to the World

Major 2nd (2 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Happy Birthday or Frere Jacques/Fray Felipe
Descending:  Mary Had a Little Lamb

Minor 3rd (3 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  So Long, Farewell (Sound of Music)
Descending:  Frosty the Snowman

Major 3rd (4 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Descending:  Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Perfect 4th (5 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Here Comes the Bride or Oh Christmas Tree
Descending:  Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Augmented 4th/Tritone (6 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  The Simpsons theme
Descending:  Black Sabbath Black Sabbath

Perfect 5th (7 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Descending:  Flintstones

Minor 6th (8 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  The Entertainer (3rd and 4th notes)
Descending:  no example found ("doh-mee" descending solfege)

Major 6th (9 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  old NBC theme or Hush Little Baby
Descending:  Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

Minor 7th (10 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Star Trek theme
Descending: The Beatles' Til There Was You (No I never heard them at *ALL TIL* there was you)


 
Major 7th (11 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Take On Me
Descending:  no example found - please help

Octave/Perfect 8th (12 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Descending:  There's No Business Like Show Business (2nd and 3rd notes)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Coloring Outside the Lines of Tunes

Traditional music is like a coloring book.  Rather than starting from a blank sketch pad, as original songwriters and composers do, the interpreter of traditional music is working from a pre-existing template that has already been partially outlined.  Flexibility comes from the materials you use to fill in that outline, what hues you choose to color it with, and how inside or outside the lines you choose to go. 

In their natural habitat, oldtime jams and Irish sessions both rely on unison melody playing, so you have to keep your tune mutations within the realm of conformity.  However, unlike classical music where the musician’s job is to perform the piece without letting too much of his or her identity get in the way, with traditional music you are allowed a certain amount of leeway.  Part of the fun is seeing where you can take that while still remaining within the group mind. 

In my mid to late 20’s, before I ever even considered playing a musical instrument, I used to write these abstract journal entries.  I would fill up a notebook page – on an almost daily basis  with a stream of consciousness flow of written words; trying not to be overly cognizant of what I was putting on the page and purposely shifting course whenever I thought too far in advance.  After filling an entire page I would then close the diary without really knowing what I had written.  Later – weeks, months, years later – I would go back and look at random pages and try to make poetic sense of it. 

I didn’t over analyze this activity or try to assign it an identity.  I simply opened the notebook having no preconceived notions of what I would write, said “go”, tried not to pause at any point while writing, stopping only when I got to the bottom of the page.  Always the same exercise but never the same result. 

I’ve recently resumed this writing practice after a decade plus lapse and the freedom of this kind of open thinking is complementing the tunes I am playing.  I’m not really drawn toward musical ornamentation/experimentation when playing.  I might play a tune several times through with pretty much the exact same notes and get off on the repetition.  Variation could seep in by fooling with the timing and emphasis – prolonging something by a little bit here or there and/or adding an accent to a place where it normally is not.  I leave the true improvisation for the page, where I give myself one chance per day to open that spout and let whatever is waiting there to pour through.


There is no right or wrong, criticism, pressure or audience for these abstract journal entries.  It’s just me, a pen and a blank page about to be filled with ink.  That’s kind of the way I’m starting to look at the open air – silence – before the notes are played in a tune.  The air is the blank page and the notes are the words that color it.