Thursday, January 29, 2015

A New Life for the Slowplayers Irish Tune Learning site

Eddie Edwards
A Kansas City, MO based musician named Eddie Edwards has taken over the Irish Traditional Music (ITM) themed website slowplayers.org.

The mission of slowplayers.org is to help people who want to play Irish music learn to play Irish music. Eddie says that to learn to play the tunes well you have to begin by playing them slowly so you can get the right lift. Thus, the idea of “Slowplayers”.

The re-vamped site contains lots of helpful information, including:

Ten Steps for Learning Tunes on Your Own

A Tune Dictionary with descriptions of the different tune types, including Reels, Hornpipes, Marches, Barndances, Flings, Polkas, Jigs, Slip Jigs, Slides and Mazurkas.

The Short List: Thirty-Five Tunes for Beginners

Details about about the history of and how to play individual tunes, like this writeup about the reel Gravel Walks. Plus slow play / medium tempo recordings of tunes, like the recordings found here of the jig Out on the Ocean.

There’s also lots of information and tips for Learning By Ear and the Modes and Keys used in Irish music.

Eddie appears to be updating the site frequently so it’s worth checking out often. Slowplayers also has a Facebook page.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Leaning Toward Irish Trad Exclusivity

In the 8 years that I’ve been playing music, only about a third of that time has been devoted to playing Irish music.  Within that third of the time little to none of it has been spent learning Irish trad the proper way – by ear.  More recently I’ve been getting the urge to let go of ancillary musical distractions and focus on Irish almost exclusively. Here are some reasons why.


My primary instrument – the 4-string tenor banjo tuned GDAE – is affiliated with Irish music.  In fact, some people refer to it as “Irish Tenor Banjo”. 

Irish music is purely melodic.  Therefore it’s a genre where my philosophical preference toward melody over harmony is welcome.

There are a variety of instruments that take the lead in Irish music.  It’s not just about the fiddle.  There’s also accordion, flute, whistle, concertina, pipes.  Even banjo and mandolin can have lead roles.

Irish music has a variety of tonal centers (D, G, A, E, B) and modes (Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian), and you can experiment with even more.

Irish trad offers a variety of time signatures (4/4, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8) and tune types (jigs, reels, barndances, slipjigs, polkas, slides, marches).

The session scene and culture.  Irish music is played in pubs and having a pint while you play is a built-in aspect of it.  Most major US cities are going to have an Irish session.

In the session environment tunes are spontaneously segued together into sets, often with key/mode modulations from tune to tune.  This adds a sense of excitement and the unknown.

Irish music comes across as slightly exotic and foreign sounding, giving it an air of mystery.  However, it is actually quite tidy from a music theory perspective.

There’s a disassociation with bluegrass and quasi-hillbilly music.  It’s less easily confused with bluegrass.

Irish music is mostly instrumental and secular.  There is a vocal tradition but for the most part that is separate from the tunes. 

No matter how commercialized or polished Irish music gets at the recorded or performance level, as a musical hobby it is quite safely removed from any trends.  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mnemonic for Remembering Music Modes - I Don't Punch Like Muhammad Ali

When I transcribe a melody I try I like to determine which of the 7 "church" modes it might be using based on the notes I am hearing. There is a mnemonic for remembering these modes - I Don't Punch Like Muhammed Ali.  I learned it in an online music theory class taught by the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music.

In other words, that's I (Ionian) Don't (Dorian) Punch (Phrygian) Like (Lydian) Muhammad (Mixolydian) A (Aeolian) li (Locrian).  Since there are two modes that start with L I try and remember that Locrian comes last.  Another one that works is I Don't Play Loud Music Any Longer.
So what do these modes mean?  I like to think of them in terms of the major scale.  Let's use the C-major (Ionian) scale since it doesn't have any sharps or flats.

Ionian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 1st scale degree: CDEFGAB.
Dorian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 2nd scale degree: DEFGABC.
Phrygian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 3rd scale degree: EFGABCD.
Lydian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 4th scale degree: FGABCDE.
Mixolydian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 5th scale degree: GABCDEF.
Aeolian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 6th scale degree: ABCDEFG.
Locrian = the notes from the major scale starting on the 7th scale degree: BCDEFGA.

Using the above scenario, if a tune doesn't have any sharps or flats but has G as the tonal center, then it's G-Mixolydian.  If if doesn't have any sharps or flats and you feel like D is the tonal center, then it could be D-Dorian.

I used this same methodology when transcribing a melodic portion of the Phish song Horn this week. In the first 30-seconds of the instrumental section that begins after the lyrics are done, I only heard a flattened note once - a Bb - that I treated as an accidental. The rest of the melody was using notes from the C-major scale, although the tonal center of the melody was either G or D. It definitely wasn't C. So I determined for now that the first several bars of of that 2-minute end section of Horn are using either the G-Mixolydian or D-Dorian mode.

More often than not melodies do have lots of sharps (or flats!), so to determine the mode you have think in terms of scale intervals - whole steps, half steps...that kind of thing. As you are transcribing a melody, determine its tonal center.  The tonal center is the root note; the note it wants to keep going back to. Once you have the tonal center you can determine the scale/mode based on the other notes being used. For example, a tune using the notes G,A,B,C,D,E,F# with an emphasis on E it would be in E-Aeolian (E-minor).

Once you have the tonal center established, it's really important to pay attention to where the 3rd and 7th scale degrees fall. Is the 3rd major or minor?  Is the 7th scale degree flattened? Where those two scale degrees fall plays a big part in determining a tune's mode.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

List of Tunes to Learn - From 3 Years of Attending Sessions and Jams

I started regularly attending Irish sessions and Oldtime jams about three years ago, in January 2012.  Ever since then I've been keeping a running list of tunes on my phone.  If something someone played at a jam or session peaked my interest and I happened to catch its title, I would jot it down in the notes app.  Here is that digital list almost 3 years later - unedited and in its entirety.  It might be time to go through and clean this up!


Fortune D
Sarah Armstrong
Rock the Cradle Joe
Dry and Dusty
Old Mother Flanagan
Rush and Pepper
Waiting For Nancy - D
Julianne Johnson - D
Indian Ate A Woodchuck
Miss Monaghan's
Old Mother Flanagan
Little Dutch Girl - G
Barlow Knife - G
Magpie - G
Shucking' the Brush - D$$$$
Twin Sisters - D
Sadie at the Backdoor - D
Waiting For Nancy - D
Washington's March - D
Green Willis - D
Cowhide Blues - G
Sandy River Belle - G
Stony Point -G$$$$$$
Old-time Blackberry Blossom- G
Lost Girl - G digital Appalachian library
New Cut Road - D
Billy Wilson - A
Grubb Sprungs - A
Fermoy Lasses
High Reel
Dublin Reel
Calum Road
Snowy Path
Snow on the Hills
monaghan's
Boys of Malin
Jig of Slurs
Moon coin
Antholl Highlanders
Kid on the Mt
Most Covered Mt.
Ships in Full Saolh
She beg Shemore
O Carolan's
Southwindg
Josie O - G
Sarah Armstrong's - D
Big Sandy River - A
Rachel/Texas Quickstep - D
Glory Reel D
The Hearhery Cruach D
Morning Dew D
Leitrim Fancy Em
Black Rogue D
Paddy Gallaghers
High Reel A
Calliope House
Woman of the House
Kelly's Cow
Top of thenMaol
O connor's Polka
Old Bunch of Keys A
Elville (Snake Hunt) A
Road to Malvern (Light and Hitch) A
Tater Patch A
John Brown's March A
Devil in the Haysdack A
Humors of Lissobel
Dr. Gilbert's (the Kennedy Sessions)
Limerick Lasses
Trip to Durrow
Congress
Swinging on a Gate
Tripping Up the Stairs
Glasgow Reel
O'Carolan's Concerto
Battle of Aughtim
Lost Everything
Old Piss D
Molly Put the Kettle On D
Sandy River Belle G
Cowhide Blues G
Flying Indian G
West Fork Gals D
Katie Bar the Door D
Spotted Pony D
Needle case D
Southwind D
Sugar Hill D
Cricket in the Hearth D
Leitrim Fancy
Shoes and Stockings G
Cowhide Blues G
Wild Horses G
Spider Bit the Baby C
Monkey in the Dogcart C
Fun's All Over C
Grub Springs A
Greasy Coat A
Little Egypt C
Half Past Four A
Girl that Broke that My Heart
Tom Billy's Jig - trad lessons
Morning Dew
High Reel
Five Miles from Town D
Snake Hunt A
Half Past Four A
Greasy Coat A
Morning Dew
Waynesboro G
Johnny Come Along G
Folding Down the Sheets D
Logan County Blues D
Sailor's Bonnet Bothy Band
Leitrim Fancy
Black Rogue
Langstrom's Pony
Top of Cork Rd./Father O Flynn's
Stool of Repentance
Tar Road to Sligo
Joy of My Life
Snowy Path
Up Sligo
Musical Priest
Otter's Holt
George White's Favorite
Lads of Dunse
Kerfunten Jign
Green Cockade
Camp Chase A
Jenny on the Railroad A
Bull At the Wagon A
Fortune D
Logan County Blues D
New Cut Road D*****
Morgan Magan D
Fanny Power D***
O'carolan's Concerto
Johnny Cope Am
Bottom of the Punchbowl
Ships Are Sailing
Golden Keyboard
Plains of Boyle
Flowing Tide
Coleraine Jig****
Charlie Hunter's (Scottish)
Double File? A
Tipping Back the Corn A
Folding Down the Sheets D
Home Ruler
Kitty's Wedding
Farewell to Ireland
Dublin Reel
Blarney Pilgrim
Jackie Coleman's D
Bag of Spuds Am
Hag at the Churn
Cup of Tea
Wise Maid
Sally Gardens
Martha Campbell D
 Needlecase D
Folding Down the Sheets D
My Love is But a Lassie
Crooked Stovepipe
Boyne Hunt
Shoes and Stockings
Lost Girl
Devil's Dream
Tarbolton >
Long ford Collector >
Sailor's Bonnet
Irishman's Heart to the Ladies
Saddle the Pony
Tar Road to Sligo>
Joy of My Life
Maid on the Green
Brosna>Dennis Murphy's>O'keefe's
Shoes and Stockings G
Flying Cloud Cotillion G
Hobb Dye G
Old Ant Jenny with a Bonnet on her head G
Squirrel Heads and Gravy G
Fun's All Over C
Rock Andy Ag
Bull at the Wagon A
Darby Gallaghers jig
Slieve Russell
Tar Road to Sligo
Dusty Windowdills
Rock Candy A
Dusty Windowsills or Chicago Jig 3 parts
Morning Dew
Westphalia Waltz G
Squirrel Hunters D(ish)
Martha Campbell D
Humpback Mule D
Logan County Blues D
Rock Andy A
Frost is all Over
Down in Little Egypt C
Rocky Pallet C
Folding Down the Sheets D
Hog Skin C
Down in Little Egypt C
Possum on a Rail G
Jake's Got the Belly Ache A Eddon Hammons
Double File A
Three Thin Dimes A
Johnny Come Along G
Flying Indian G
Squirrel Hunters D
New Five Cents D
Logan County Blues D
Grubb Springs Amodal
Coleman's March D
Flying Cloud Cotillion G
Grand Picnic D.......
Home w/ Girls Morning D
Humpback Mule D
Johnny Come Along G
Lost Girl G
Pretty Little Widow A
Jenny on the Railroad A
Leitrim Fancy > Black Rogue
The Morning Star
Rolling Waves
Behind the Haystack
Waynesboro G
Johnny Come Along G
Grand Picnic D
Jenny Get Around G
Old French D
Humpback Mule D Illinois tune
Swinging On A Gate G
Magnolia One Step G
Muddy Creek G
Dixie Hoedown G
Rachel D
Old French D
Logan County Blues D
Man of the House
Padraig O'keefe's (Mary Bergen CD, reel?)
Dr. O'neil
Sheep in the Boat
Old Piss D
Campbell's Farewell to Redgap A
Muddy Creek G
Valley Forge D
Jake's Got the Bellyache Am
Yearling in the Canebrake A
Martha Campbell D
Lost Girl G John Salyer
Flying Indian G
Rakish Paddy
Moon coin Jig
Behind the Haystack/Munster Buttermilk
Glory Reel
John Stenson's #2
Plains of Boyle
Foxhunter's
Rakish Paddy
Alexander's Hornpipe
Glory Reel
Jessica's polka
O'connor's Polka
Providence Reel
The Commodore
Buck Mountain D
Sailing Over England A
Idle wood Chirps Smith D
Pretty Little Dog Amodal
Sally in the Garden Dm
Say Darling Say D
Platt River Waltz A
Stoney Point G
Walk that Pretty Girl Home G
Moon Behind the Hill G Melvin Wine
Kelly's Cow > Top of the Maol > O'Connor's Polka
Coleraine Jig
Osullivan's Polka > ??? > Jessica's (Sean's tunes)
The Curlew
Fine Times At Our House modal
BrushyRun G
Maid on the Green
Scotsman On the Border?
Nell Fee's
Padraigh O'keefe's
O'Carolan's Draught
Coleraine Jig
Little hills of Offally
Buck Mountain D
Kicking Up the Devil on a Holiday D
Three Thin Dimes A
Turkey Foot D
Tippin' Back the Corn A
Barren Rocks of Aden polka
Nell Fees
Father Kelly's
Can You Dance A Tobacco Hill D
Lady of the Lake D
Jay bird Died of a Whooping Cough G
Gate to Go Through G Clyde Davenport
Ladies On A Steamboat G
Chattanooga G Acuff
The Curlew D
Pumpkin Rock D
Kicking Up the Devil On A Holiday Dmodal
Jenny Get Around A
Rakish Paddy
Pipe on the Hob
Rakes of Kildare
Rolling Wave jig
Foxhunter's reel
Swallowtail Reel Am?
La Bastreague D
Morpeth Rant D
Double File A
Pretty Little Dog Am
Poor Johnny's Gone to War D
Peach Tree G
Lost Goose Bb oldtime music party Brian Vollmer
Sandy River Belle G
Tippin Back the Corn A
Home Ruler and Kitty's Wedding D
All Around the Ferry Fort barndance
Green Fields of America
Stenson's
Donegal Reel
Rakes of Kildare
Roaring River G
Magnolia One Step G
Jenny Get Around A
Irishman's Heart to the Ladies
Don't Love Nobody
Where's that Rabbi with the Preacher's Wife G
Calliope House
Glass of Beer
Calico Quickstep ? G
Yearling in the Canebreak A
Parnell's march
Humours of Ballyconnell
Cameron Highlander Danu
Kitty Lie Over > Munster Buttermilk jigs
Glory Reel
Hawks Got A Chicken G
Jimmie Allen G
Roscoe G
Wild Horses at Stony Pt. G (3 parts)
Sally Come Down the Middle D
Norman Edmunds fiddler
Hell on the Wabash G
Needlecase D
Dinah D
Yearling in the Canebreak A
Calico Corn D
Old Beech Leaves G ****good

Transposing from Mandolin to Mandola

mandola (l) and mandolin (r)
I just got a mandola (tuned CGDA) and I would like to sometimes use it for playing Irish music.  The Irish tenor banjo player Gerry O’Connor uses CGDA tuning, so this can be done.  I believe Dervish and Planxty, among others, also utilize mandola.

Irish music tends to have four primary tonal centers:  D (D-major, D-mixolydian), G (G-major), A (A-major, A-dorian) and E (E-dorian, E-minor).  I guess you could also add B (B-minor), although B-minor tunes often feel like a modulation of D-major, since B-minor is the relative minor to D.

When playing a mandola in a session you can’t just use the same fingerings you know on mandolin because it will come out in a different key.  For example, a tune in G on the mandolin will come out in C on the mandola if played with the same fingerings. 

So, one way of working on this is to “transpose” from mandolin to mandola by thinking like this:
Playing in D on the mandola is like playing in A on the mandolin.
Playing in G on the mandola is like playing in D on the mandolin.
Playing in A on the mandola is like playing in E on the mandolin.
Playing in E on the mandola is like playing in B on the mandolin.
Playing in B(minor) on the mandola is like playing in F#(minor) on the mandolin.

This is good ear training because although you know how the tune is supposed to sound from playing it on mandolin, you can’t rely on the same fingerings on the same strings to play it in the same key on mandola.  It’s kind of like learning a new tune that you already have a head start on.

Eventually I hope to be able to play mandola without having to make these direct, literal comparisons to the mandolin, but for now it provides a foundation for comparison.  If nothing else, having a mandola should make me a better mandolin player because of the way it forces you to get outside comfort zones and think about music more universally.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ron Rash - Something Rich and Strange

I am just finishing up what might be the best collection of short stories I have ever read, by a writer who is now going to be one of my favorites. The book is called Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash. It contains 34 stories spanning Rash’s 20+ years of output. Most of the pieces were previously published in other volumes, so it's a best-of collection of sorts.

Rash was born in Chester, South Carolina in 1953 and grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He teaches at Western Carolina University. His stories almost always take place in the Southern Appalachians of Western North Carolina, a region he calls home and where his ancestors have lived since the mid-1700’s.

Rash uses the mountainous Appalachian landscape he is familiar with as the backdrop for a whole world of creativity. His characters dwell in the post-civil war years, the 1920’s, the 1960’s, and the meth-stricken present. Rash’s writing is always captivating and often bleak. Perhaps because he is also a poet and novelist, Ron Rash’s short-fiction has the efficiency and lyricism of poetry and the sweeping grip of long-form storytelling.

I had never heard of Ron Rash until last month when he was mentioned on NPR. My local library had Something Rich and Strange in stock, which was published in November 2014. I have since ordered used copies of three of his earlier collections from which Something Rich and Strange is culled. I also intend to delve into Rash’s poetry and novels.


I needed something to get me back into reading fiction again, and discovering Ron Rash – who already has a large body of published work – came at the right time. A total immersion in his writing is in order.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review - Dark Star Orchestra at The National, Richmond, VA 12/28/14 (performing 7/14/76)

This past Sunday, December 28 was my first time seeing the Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra since guitarist Jeff Matson came on board. I had seen DSO several times with John Kadlecik in the Jerry Garcia slot until he was called up to the majors to join Furthur in 2009. Part of my hesitation in seeing DSO since then was because I wasn't sure if they would be as good with the new guy as they were with JK. I'm happy to report that there has been no drop off in quality with Jeff Matson at the helm.  It's different, but in a good way.
Dark Star Orchestra
Kadlecik’s vocals and tone are spot-on (close your eyes and it's Jerry), but I found Matson to be an edgier, more adventurous guitarist. Matson also proved to be a confident leader, taking the band down creative, and sometimes dark, paths of improv that went to places beyond just the duties of replicating a setlist and arrangements. Rather than trying to mimic Garcia, Matson's vocal delivery differed in ways that actually worked to his advantage, giving the music an in-the-moment feel.

I’m definitely not as up on my Grateful Dead history and minutia as I used to be - haven't studied it in years - although I still think I am way more aware of song rotations and the sounds of different years than the Deadheads who actually lived it in the 70’s and 80’s!  For example, by looking at the stage setup before they started one could assume it was a post-1974 Keith and Donna era show based on the two drum sets and the keyboards positioned on the left.

The opener Promised Land was sans “Donna” (Lisa Mackey) but when she materialized for the 2nd song Sugaree this confirmed that it was either 70’s show or an original setlist. Matson made a particularly good impression on this Sugaree, building it to an early peak, then letting it settle down and mellow out the last time through.

Minglewood came next. No clues there except for maybe the absence of the “T for Texas, T for Timbuktu” verse(?). The placement of Scarlet Begonias as the 4th song of the 1st set seemed odd to me and the way they were playing it indicated that this was a pre-1977 version that wasn’t going to go into Fire on the Mountain. This made it fairly clear that they were doing a 1976 show. (I usually try and guess the year of a DSO concert by the third song of the 1st set.)

The only thing that sort of threw me off was the absence of Blues for Allah songs. It being 1976 you expect things like Help / Slip / Franklin’s, The Music Never Stopped or Crazy Fingers, or maybe even It Must Have Been the Roses. The whole first set could have been a 1974 set, especially with the sparkling Playin' / Drums / Wheel / Playin’ end to the set, but the presence of two drummers meant that it couldn’t have been 1974 unless there were some ’74 shows with Mickey Hart that I was forgetting.
Jeff Matson - photo by Suzy Barocas Perler
The whole 2nd set was a highlight. The ballads were on point and there were some monstrous jams during Let It Grow into Eyes of the World, and then again leading from Wharf Rat into The Other One. They finally played something from Blues for Allah as the last song of the 2nd set - The Music Never Stopped. We left as soon as the show encore of Johnny B. Goode started, so we missed the announcement of the performance date and the bonus “filler” encore of The Weight, but a quick glance at 1976 setlists when I got home told me that we had just seen them do 7/14/76 at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, CA.

I would definitely go see DSO again with Jeff Matson as Jerry. He could really tear into '73 or '74, or even something earlier.