Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Excerpt from Matt Glaser's Ear Training for Instrumentalists

This week I've been listening to Matt Glaser's Ear Training for Instrumentalists in the car while driving.  Disc Three of this 6-CD Homespun Tapes "audiobook" is where it really gets interesting.  Glaser starts that disc by taking a short phrase and playing it in all twelve keys, while traveling in 4ths, pausing between each key so that you can play it back with him.  First he plays the phrase in C, then F, then Bb, then Eb, then G#, then C#, then F#, then B, then E, then A, then D, then G.  Very cool.

When I got home last night I gave this a shot on mandolin and it sure is an ear and finger buster!  I had to use some extra brain power to get through it, although some of it came surprisingly easy.  The phrase is do - la - sol, la - sol - mi, sol - mi - re, do.  Numerically, this is 1 - 6 - 5, 6 - 5 - 3, 5 - 3 - 2, 8.  Listen to the audio sample below and then try this out for yourself!

Matt Glaser
Matt Glaser is the Artistic Director of the American Roots Program at Berklee College of Music, so yeah he knows his stuff and this is a really well thought out teaching of Ear Training.  It is a few years old (published in 1999?), but the information it contains is of course timeless.  As you might expect, the ear training study overlaps with theory and improvisation.  Since it's mostly audio, with only a few printed pages in the booklet, the six disc set is a nice mix of the intellectual and the intuitive.  

There are many great tips along the way, including what Matt calls "internal hearing", and I haven't even gotten to the last two CDs yet.  This is definitely one of the better music practice book/CD sets I've come across.  What a novel concept - a music instruction book that is actually almost 100% audio!  

At $60 suggested retail, it's a little expensive, but there are some used copies on Amazon for under $25.  Well worth it, considering the content within is as valuable as several lessons with an instructor.  You can also download the audio from Homespun Tapes.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Learning How to Learn with Barbara Oakley's A Mind for Numbers

While on vacation last month I read A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D.  In this new book, Oakley offers mental tips on learning that can help anyone with any subject or discipline, including art, music, literature and sports - not just math and science.  Of course as I was reading it I related everything back to my study and learning of music.

Barbara Oakley failed her high school math and science classes, but had a knack for language.  Without the money to go to college, she enlisted in the Army right out of high school, which gave her the opportunity to follow her passions and learn Russian.  When she later became 2nd Lieutenant in the Signal Corps, the need for the technological expertise she had shied away from became apparent.  Oakley learned how to re-tool her brain from math-phobe to math-lover and is now an engineering professor at Oakland University professor in Rochester, MI.

A free online course from the University of California San Diego, based on the methods in this book begins October 3rd through Coursera, and you can register now.  The course is being taught by the author Barbara Oakley and her colleague Terrence Sejnowski.

Here are some of the highlights I took away from the book A Mind for Numbers:

The Pomodoro Technique
Distractions pull up neural roots before they can grow.  The Pomodoro technique involves turning off all distractions, beeps and alarms such as cell phones, TVs and computers for 25 minutes and focusing intently on a task, working as diligently as you can.  Almost anyone can focus his attention for that long.  When the 25 minutes are up, treat yourself to a reward.  By doing one or two Pomodoros a day, you avoid the tendency to cram everything in at the last minute.  The Pomodoro technique combats procrastination.

The Process, Not The Product
It's about the process and not the product.  Don't worry about finishing the task, just the process - the work itself. Process is the way you spend your time - small bits of time you need over days or weeks.  Product is what you want to accomplish.

Focused Mode and Diffuse Mode
The brain uses two very different learning modes - the focused mode and the diffuse mode - and "chunks" information.

The focused mode is when you are concentrating.  The diffuse mode is not-concentrating, as in taking your mind off the problem and allowing a little time to pass while you wash dishes, go for a walk, and so on.  Part of the key to creativity is switching from focused concentration to the relaxed, dreamy, diffuse mode.  When you take a break another part of your mind takes over and works in the background.  When you return to the problem, you will be farther along in your learning.

"Chunking" is the uniting of separate bits of information through meaning.  Chunks are built with focused attention on the information you want to chunk and understanding the basic idea.  Eventually the concept begins to connect more easily and smoothly in your mind.  Once a concept is chunked, you don't need to remember all the little details - you've got the main idea.  You start to let go of conscious awareness and do things automatically.  Once you grasp a chunk in one subject, it is much easier to grasp a similar chunk in another subject.

Attempting to recall the material you are trying to learn is far more effective than simply re-reading the text.  Don't passively re-read.  After you read a page or chapter look away and recall the main ideas.  Highlight very little and never highlight anything you haven't first put into your mind by recalling.  Highlighting can fool you into thinking you are putting something in your brain, when all you're doing is moving your hand.

Retrieval practice helps improve your understanding of a concept.  You learn more and at a much deeper level.  Recalling enhances deep learning and helps begin forming chunks.  The more effort you put into recalling, the deeper it embeds itself into your memory.

Barbara Oakley @barbaraoakley
Eat Your Frogs First
Work on the most important, most difficult and most disliked subjects in the morning.  When you later take your mind off the subject, the diffuse mode will be able to work its magic.

Exercise helps us learn and remember more effectively.  Mentally review the problem in your mind while doing something active like walking or some other physical activity.  You usually become more effective when you return to your work.

The Einstellung Effect is the tendency to stick with the solution you already know rather than looking for potentially superior ones.  Be mindful that parts of the brain are wired to believe that whatever we've done, no matter how glaringly wrong it might be, is just fine, thank you very much.  If you're stumped on something, discover who first came up with the method.  Try to understand how the creative inventor arrived at the idea and why the idea is used.

Experts are slower to begin solving a problem.  Slower ways of thinking can allow you to see confusing subtleties that others aren't aware of.  This is the equivalent of a walker who notices the scent of pine and small-animal paths vs. a motorist who is whizzing by.

Strengthen an initial learning pattern the day after you first begin by working on the problem again, as soon as possible.  Keep your focus on the parts that are difficult for you.  Space your repetition. Spread out your learning a little every day.  Your brain is like a muscle - it can only handle a limited amount of exercise on any one subject at any time.

Skim Ahead
In a textbook or learning material it helps to skip ahead to check the questions at the end of the chapter and also skim through the pages looking for text that stands out before reading it in full.  This helps prime the brain for building chunks of understanding.

Keep A Weekly List
Once a week, write a brief weekly list of key tasks.  Look at the big picture and set priorities.  Before going to sleep each night, write a list of the tasks you can reasonably work on the the next day.  This helps your subconscious grapple with the list.

Simplify And Talk Through Difficult Concepts
Simple explanations are possible for almost any concept, no matter how complex.  When you break down complicated material to its key elements, the result is you have a deeper understanding of the material.  Imagine someone has just walked into your office and explain the idea in the simplest terms, so that a ten year old could understand it.  Your own understanding arises as a consequence of attempts to explain.

Sleep is an important part of the learning process.  Sleep washes toxins out of the brain.  Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques when you sleep and it also practices and repeats whatever you put in mind right before you go to sleep.  Lack of sleep is related to poor concentration.  Before you go to sleep, mentally recall the problem or subject matter again in your mind.  Let your subconscious tell you what to do next.

Know When To Stop
Learn to set a reasonable quitting time, doing work earlier in the day and saving relaxation time for later.  Set a goal finish time for the day, such as 9pm.  Planning your quitting time is as important as planning your working time.  Done!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

LA Re-Cap -- Best of Los Feliz / Silver Lake Bars and Restaurants

I've just returned from a little over a week in the Los Feliz / Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.  Two distinct neighborhoods within walking distance of each other, Los Feliz and Silver Lake are both happening, bohemian enclaves that still feel isolated from the glitz and gaudiness of stereotypical LA.  To the West is Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills.  To the East is Echo Park and Atwater Village.  Along the North is the awesome Griffith Park and to the South is Downtown LA.  Although I had rented a car, I did most of my exploring on foot as this part of the city is very walkable and our cottage was equidistant to both Los Feliz and Silver Lake.

Los Feliz is an affluent, neat, tidy and safe feeling cross-section of hilly streets with a bustling little village area along Hillhurst and Vermont Avenues and some very nice homes as you start to climb up the stairways of the adjacent Franklin Hills.  Silver Lake is a bit crunchier and gentrified, but was recently named "America's Hippest Hipster Neighborhood" by Forbes Magazine.  The majority of Silver Lake's shops and dining options are clustered around the part known as Sunset Junction.

There are tons of restaurants, bars and coffee shops in these two neighborhoods and things are changing all the time.  This is only a small sample of the offerings from my experiences over a week spent there in late August 2014.

First things first.  You can't go wrong with Fred 62 (1850 N Vermont Ave), offering an extensive menu of breakfast staples - some with eclectic twists.  Open 24 hours.  Over in Silver Lake, the young and hip flock to Millie's Cafe (3524 Sunset Blvd) where you can sit outside on the sidewalk to see and be seen.  Much more than a diner, Millie's offers some killer huevos-centered specialties like the Machaca that'll keep you full for the better part of an afternoon.

Happy Hour
We wandered into the non-descript El Chavo (4441 Sunset Blvd) late one afternoon and were directed to the no nonsense back bar where drinks are cheap(er), the jukebox is free, and a Charles Bukowski vibe is in full effect.  Definitely not your prototypical LA...or is it?  El Chavo's El Tres Inn (located above the restaurant) seems like it might be a place worth staying on a future visit.

Dive Bar
The Drawing Room (1800 Hillhurst Ave) hands down.  This is the place to go if a Red Stripe or highball at 8am is your kind of thing.  Or at 8pm.  What's the difference?  Perhaps you'll see a celeb in there for the same ironic reasons as you.  The complete lack of windows only adds to its character.  Killer old school jukebox (5 plays for a dollar) where I programmed some Linda Rondstadt and Tom Petty.  (Note: I did not make it into Ye Rustic Inn across the street, but I heard good things about that dive as well.  Take your pick).
The Drawing Room - cocktail lounge open at 6AM
Cheap Eats
Tacos.  Tacos.  Tacos.  Whether you get them from Machos Tacos (1670 N Vermont Ave) at the corner of Vermont and Prospect, or at "Best Fish Taco in Ensenada" (1650 Hillhurst Ave), you can get a pretty tasty, filling meal and still have plenty of change back from your tenner.

Draft Beer
While I didn't stumble upon any nearby breweries, I did find a few places with some good craft beer selections, including:  Jay's Bar (4321 Sunset Blvd).  Jay's is too hip to be a dive bar, but it looks like it could be one from the outside.  Once you venture in you might be tempted to stay for hours sampling the local craft brews on draft. Spitz (1725 Hillhurst Ave) also has a well chosen selection of draft microbrews in a nice open air setting.  Good food too!  The German themed Red Lion Tavern (2366 Glendale Blvd) is sort of off the beaten track in Silver Lake, but well worth the visit if Black Lagers and Malty Ales are your thing.  Public House (1739 Vermont Ave) probably has the largest beer menu of any place I found, but it also has an over abundance of TVs and bad top 40 music playing, both negatives IMO.  To make those apsects more tolerable, we grabbed an upstairs table overlooking Vermont Ave and commandeered their internet jukebox to play some Ween, Dawes, Dr. Dog, and lots of Phish for a good 2+ hours.
The bar inside Red Lion Tavern
View from 2nd floor of Public House 1739
The only pizza I had in LA was at Garage Pizza (4339 1/2 Sunset Blvd), but it was perfecto!  Thin crust, New York style.  They are open late.

H Coffee (1750 Hillhurst Ave) was my favorite place to get coffee and hang out.  Friendly staff.  Sprawling coffee house where you could sit for hours and read a book.  Another good coffee find was Casbah Cafe (3900 Sunset Blvd) in Silver Lake.  Relaxed atmosphere.  New agey, hippieish decor with hassocks and mismatched furniture.  Leafy, hidden alcoves for sitting outdoors.

Tropical Cocktails
The one and only place for tropical cocktails is The Good Luck Bar (1514 Hillhurst Ave), a local institution.  We went on a Monday night when the place was less crowded, which made it easier to take in the ambiance (and also went back on Wednesday!).  This place has it going on and the drinks are strong.  My advice is to savor one, or at most two, of their tropical cocktails and then head out because if you have any more you're gonna be feeling it the next day!
Good Luck Bar drinks menu - side 1
Good Luck Bar drinks menu - side 2
Outdoor Atmosphere
The charming restaurant Home (1760 Hillhurst) truly does have a homey, welcoming feel to it.  The outdoor seating area has an agreeable layout and you can kind of see the Grittith Observatory from there.  I got lunch at Home by myself one day and felt pretty comfortable doing so.  The young waitress even referred to me as "honey" and "sweetie" which is a plus.  Right next door to Home, the aforementioned H Coffee also has a hospitable outdoor atmosphere.

Juice Bar/Shakes/Smoothies
The hipster-friendly Punchbowl (4645 Melbourne Ave) takes the cake on this one.  Overly priced juice bars might seem like an LA cliche, but once you've forked over ten bucks for a Greena Colada at Punchbowl, you'll know why this place is for real.

Best Overall Food
The two best meals I had in LA were at the Red Lion Tavern (see draft beer above) and at Sidewalk Grill Mediterranean Kitchen (1727 N Vermont Ave). At Red Lion Tavern I had mouth watering Hungarian sausage, with delicious sauerkraut on the side, served with a pasta/cheese dish called spaetzle that might have been the best thing I've ever eaten!  I washed it all down with a Kostrizer Schwarzbier. At the Sidewalk Grill I had a chicken kebab cooked to perfection, with hummus, dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and seasoning) and Greek salad.  Yum!

Noticeably absent from my list
I never made it to Little Dom's, one of the most well regarded restaurants in Los Feliz.  I also missed out on Blossom in Silver Lake and Alcove a little ways up Hillhurst, two other highly recommended restaurants.  Oh yeah.... and both times I tried to go to the famous Tiki Ti cocktail lounge they were closed.  Maybe next time!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Oldtime Jam and Irish Session - lessons in etiquette

While on a recent visit to Los Angeles I had the good fortune to attend both an oldtime jam and an Irish session.  There are some pretty major differences, and some subtle ones, between these two types of music gatherings so it's good to have a decent understanding of this.

The oldtime jam I attended is the once a month 4th Saturday jam at the Audubon Center at Debs Park led by fiddler (and guitarist and banjo player) Joe Wack from West VA.  I got to the jam a little early and was one of the first 3 people there, but I got the impression that I was expected to participate right off the bat.
Oldtime Jam at Debs Park (taken on a different day than when I attended)
One good thing about an oldtime jam is you almost always know where your tonal center is because instruments are tuned to a certain key.  We started in the key of G.  With oldtime even if you think you know the tune already (based on its name or version) it's best to listen for any unique aspects the lead player or group adds to an otherwise familiar tune before just jumping in with your rote version.

However, in oldtime what most people of a certain level of confidence do is start playing by the 2nd or 3rd time through the tune (even on a tune that was previously unfamiliar), adapting your interpretation as you go until you hopefully start to get it before the tune is finished.

At this jam the tunes were played several times through so you had an opportunity to really dig in, and I tried to not let my first impressions of a tune color my ability to adapt on further repetitions.  I felt more comfortable at least trying to play on unfamiliar tunes rather than just listening, unless a tune was really notey and I knew that I had no chance of actually playing anything resembling it!

Another characteristic of this oldtime jam, and most others I have attended, is that tune titles are clearly stated before the tune starts, and if you happen to miss the title you are free to ask about more information such as source, version, et cetera without risk of penalty or being labeled as a poser.  As a guest at this jam I was quickly asked if I had a tune I'd like to play and I came up with a suggestion and later had another opportunity to think of additional tunes.  It was a good time, even if some of the key members of the LA oldtime scene were absent on this day due to an out of town gig.

I approached the Irish session a little differently...trying to get there a little after it had started but due to lighter than expected traffic I walked in with my mandolin case just as they were getting set up.  This was the Tuesday night session at Timmy Nolan's in Toluca Lake hosted by Patrick D'Arcy and Dan Conroy and usually featuring fiddler Kira Ott.
Timmy Nolan's session 08/26/2014 (photo by Laura Fields)
Instead of instantly playing in the session I watched from nearby but was soon invited to take a chair around the table.  Sitting in on an unfamiliar Irish session is more intimidating than an oldtime jam, and this session in particular is very advanced.  It is an 'open' session, but then again not necessarily open to lowest common denominator players who would inadvertently take away from the craic.

I knew I wasn't at their level, but I also know that my mandolin is not as disruptive as some other instruments, which allows me to "noodle" more than what would normally be considered OK to do.  So I figured what the hell as I took a less than prominent seat.

With Irish music nobody expects you to play along if you don't know the tune.  I tend to break that rule somewhat if I can get a handle on the tonal center and/or overall shape of the tune, but I do so quietly and try to pay attention to any body language that indicates that I shouldn't be doing such a thing.  If I played rhythm guitar or bodhran, or a louder melody instrument like accordion or flute, I would not be allowed to take such liberties, but a discreetly played mandolin is drowned out anyway in this environment.  That said, I did a lot of listening and not playing along, which as I said is perfectly OK to do at an Irish session.

Tune titles are almost never given at an Irish session, and since you're not really ever in a certain key Irish sessions have a much looser feel than an oldtime jam (in some ways), requiring the participant to do a lot of reacting on the spot to what he or she is hearing as one tune segues into another.  I find that to be exhilarating.  It's alright to occasionally ask what that tune was, but it's best to bring along a recording device (if given the approval of the session leaders) and simply record the tunes and learn them by ear without worrying about the title of the tune.  You can find that out later in your journey.

Another cool thing at the Timmy Nolan's session, which is quite common at the more advanced Irish sessions, is that sets of tunes were not necessarily pre-determined and the lead melody players (Kira and Patrick) would kind of decide on the spot which tune was to be next in the set and say such things as "D mix" or "G" to the rhythm guitar player.  It doesn't always work - sometimes this impromptu approach fails even in the hands of professional players - but that's OK.  It's part of the fun.

Having a Guinness or two is part of the culture at an Irish pub session, but thankfully I kept my drinking to a minimum at the Timmy Nolan's session so that in hour three near the end of the night when I was finally called on to lead some tunes I had enough faculties intact - coupled with nerves (remember, Guinness gives you strength) - to lead on a couple of slides since the session had been noticeably absent of any jigs or slides.

The last thing I'll mention is that oldtime jams are both "complete" with just fiddle and clawhammer banjo and simultaneously never complete...meaning that each additional instrument, whether it's another fiddle, banjo, guitar, et cetera, is OK to participate even if you're the 20th person sitting in on a circle.  (Except for bass I suppose!)

However, a proper Irish session feels complete when the "right" assortment of instruments are present, although determining what that "right" assortment is open to many variations.  There can certainly be more than one fiddle in the circle, but if you are a rhythm player or a bodhran player, for example, you are kind of shit-out-of-luck if there's a better player there.  It doesn't mean you don't get to play at all, in most cases, but it does mean that you wait your turn and spend a lot of time listening!

I really value these opportunities to take part in unfamiliar sessions and jams.  They are nothing, if not, learning experiences that can make you a stronger, wiser and more confident player in the long run.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Funky 12-Bar Riff Blues created for Berklee MOOC

The final assignment in the Developing Your Musicianship MOOC being offered by the Berklee College of Music via Coursera was to compose your own melody using the C-minor Pentatonic scale following the "riff-blues" formula.
The riff-blues formula is: two bars melody, two bars pause (just chords/rhythm), two bars repeat melody, two bars pause (just chords/rhythm), two bars varied melody, and two bars pause (just chords/rhythm).  Presumably all over dominant 7th chord changes such as C7 - C7 - C7 - C7, F7 - F7 - C7 - C7, G7 - F7 - C7 - C7.

The instructor provided two backing tracks over which you could create your own melody and I chose the "funky blues" backing track.  I put the backing track on repeat and just kept jamming over it and this little melody was one of the results.  There might be an "accidental" note in there!

Not that original of a riff I know, but more interesting than some of the initial melodies I was coming up with on the spot.  This was a fun way to culminate the class as I had never before tried to just jam by creating my own improvised melody over a backing track.  I'm looking forward to the next free online Berklee College of Music class starting this fall which deals specifically with the subject of improvisation! 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Music Theory Without Reading Music

The online Music Theory class that I’ve been taking has placed a lot of emphasis on reading and comprehending sheet music.  I’ve learned a lot as a result, but I’ve also realized that in today’s world, with audio recordings so readily available, a more practical understanding of music theory is less about reading and writing music and more about developing a vocabulary so that you can apply meaning and understanding to the sounds you are hearing. 
Golgi Apparatus
Being fluent in sheet music can be helpful, for example, in a situation when you need to immediately start playing a piece without having first acclimated yourself to it or knowing how it sounds.  But with sound recordings to supplement the written score, there is a less of a need to convey all the complexities of the music in the written form when a lot of it can be explained intuitively upon hearing the piece.

Tommaso Zillio of the site has this to say on a similar topic:

Learning music theory and training your ear go hand in hand.  Trying to do only one is like trying to ride a bicycle without one wheel: useless, overly difficult, and a guarantee that you will hurt yourself.  In fact I do take the radical position that ear training and music theory are in fact the same thing.

If you think about it, all music theory concepts can be explained as "If you do X, that's how it sounds,” "if you play a cadence, it sounds this way," "if you play the notes of the chord while improvising it sounds this way," etc.  As you can see though, if you don't know what "this way" is for every single concept you learn, then you are not really learning much!

This is why there are a lot of people who say that music theory is useless: they didn't connect the formal aspects of music theory with the actual reality of music.  After all, a map of your city is useful only if you know the relationship between the funny lines on the paper and the actual streets.  Luckily, there is a very simple solution for that: every time you learn something new in theory, PLAY it.  Make sure you have at least 3-4 examples for each concept you learn (you can compose them yourself in case).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Something Irish Music Has that Oldtime Does Not

I do a lot of writing that compares Irish traditional music and oldtime Appalachian music.  To whoever reads these posts it probably seems stupid because these are two DISTINCT styles with no relation to one another or need for comparison.  It would be the same if I were constantly comparing jazz to bluegrass (which I might start to do!).

But, one thing that Irish music has that oldtime does not is a focus on the tune.  Hear me out.  In Irish music there’s a growing coalition of accepted “traditional” instruments.  These include, but are not limited to, fiddle, concertina, accordion, uilleann pipes, flute, tin whistle, tenor banjo, bouzouki.  (note that only some of these are stringed instruments). 

It’s perfectly normal for any of these common Irish melody instruments to be the dominant one in charge of a tune.  Usually it has more to do with the skill and confidence of the person behind the instrument than the instrument itself.  That's why you hear of Irish banjo players who were mentored by button accordion players, and button accordion players who got their tunes from flute players, and so on.
Yet, in oldtime music - as it has come to be construed - it’s all about the fiddle.  Even the venerable clawhammer banjo serves mostly to complement the playing of the fiddler(s).  Sure, there are some other oldtime melody instruments like mandolin and dulcimer (and virtuoso players of those instruments who triumph over this classification), but quite often other melody instruments play “second fiddle” to the fiddle.  

Oldtime does have something that Irish music doesn’t have and that’s hypnotic repetition.  In Irish music you rarely play a tune more than 3 times through before moving on to something else.  Granted you usually play it three times and then pair it with two additional tunes in what is called a "set".  Sets can have a nice tension and release aspect due to key modulations between tunes, such as going from a minor-modal tune to one in a major key.

Instead of doing medleys, in oldtime you keep playing a tune several times through on repeat until you tire of it or - on rare occasions - until a second-level of transcendence occurs...or both.  So, what happens if you apply this same tactic of zen-like repetition to Irish tunes???