Posted by: aliveinthewild | June 9, 2019

Instant Gratification: Help or Hindrance?

There has probably never been a music student who didn’t wish they could play their instrument easily and immediately, or any musician who didn’t wish they could play a complex new piece without practicing it. I saw a cartoon recently in which a music student is telling his teacher, “I want to skip ahead to the part where I’m awesome.” Alas, we all must face reality if we are to play well.

When approaching a new musical skill, there are several things to consider:

  1. Developing a new skill requires serious work. It can also be fun at the same time.
  2. It will not sound like you think it should for quite some time; that is normal and necessary.
  3. If you rush or shortcut the process, it will never sound right, because you will never learn it right.
  4. When someone else makes it look or sound easy, that’s because they’ve already had a great deal of practice.
  5. No matter what other skills you already have, or how talented you might be, you might not have a realistic idea of how much patience and focus are required to learn a specific new skill.  Your other skills may not be transferrable.
  6. “Talent” is only a very small part of what makes a good musician. Practice is the much larger part.

Those who are learning a new instrument in addition to one they already play well are at the biggest risk for shortcutting their learning process. Many accomplished musicians have forgotten how hard they had to work to learn skills that now are so habitual that they seem to come naturally. Backing up and being a beginner again requires humility and focus. Whatever your new instrument, it’s important to begin at the beginning, just as you did with the first instrument you ever learned. You can’t build a house without a foundation, no matter how many other houses you’ve built.

If you already read music well, for instance, it may be very tempting to try to play pieces on your new instrument that are far too advanced for your actual skill level on that instrument. Reading music well is not a substitute for technique, and each instrument has a technique that is unique to itself. You can’t, for instance, transfer piano technique to the harp, or vice-versa; they are entirely different instruments requiring very different techniques and new habits of placement and movement.

Even among new musicians, it’s a common assumption that learning to play is going to be a quicker process than it really will be. It can be astonishing that one can expect some skills to take years to master. Some new musicians feel overwhelmed by the work and tell themselves they can be satisfied with half-learning basic skills. But if you “pretend” to learn now, then five or ten years from now your playing won’t be any better than it is now.

There are those who believe that if you have talent, skill will come effortlessly. “You have such talent!” is a phrase we hear often. I want to say, “What I have is practice.” Many people with a “talent” get left in the dust by those with less affinity but more willingness to practice.

If you don’t have a specific skill yet, you can’t know how much time and patience is required. You might assume it should take a week, when it really will take a month or a year. Everyone learns at a different rate. What’s more, someone who learns faster does not necessarily learn better. Let it take as long as it takes, without the “should”.  Additionally, learning more new music may not take less time as your skill improves. When you have some familiarity with the instrument and maybe have some good habits of technique, adding to your repertoire can seem frustrating because a new piece will still take nearly as much time and effort as the first few pieces did. Many musicians get stuck and won’t learn new repertoire because it feels so difficult compared to the now-familiar feel of what they already know.

Singing is not exempt from this phenomenon, by the way. The voice is an instrument, too, and singing really well isn’t something that comes naturally. One might naturally have a good voice  – a “gift” –  but it’s a guarantee that every voice is made better by learning good singing technique. Why not be the best singer you can be?

Instant gratification seems to be a relatively new phenomenon historically. There was a time when most people understood that new skills require time and patience. There’s something about our culture that has conditioned us to think that we don’t have to put much effort into what we create or learn. Many seem to assume that paying for something means that since you’ve bought it, you will absorb it through osmosis. That’s evident in college students who sue their professors for giving them low grades for not doing their work, or certification-program students who think the certificate is what they’ve paid for. On the other hand, we don’t seem to value instruction that we don’t pay for. We really need to look at value in a different way. The pay is for the instruction, but it’s our responsibility to work for the knowledge.

Whatever your instrument or your intention for playing it, don’t put yourself down when your progress isn’t as fast as you thought it should be. Comparing your actual progress to your expectations isn’t helpful, and expecting excellent skill levels to come before the work is done will only make you feel bad rather than enjoying your own music-making. Instead, enjoy the process. Set high standards, but then let yourself do what it takes to get there.


Posted by: laurie689 | December 2, 2018

There’s More Than One Way to Learn a Piece of Music

One of the most common questions music students ask is, “What’s the best way to learn a piece of music?” There are many ways! These are the ones I find most helpful:

  1. Sight reading from notation

When you sight read, it means you can play the piece immediately and accurately the first time you read it.

Benefit: Those who are good at sight-reading have an unlimited repertoire, since they can play anything they can read.

Drawback: You need the notation to be able to play the piece.

How to learn this skill: this ability usually comes after years of music-reading, but it is dependent on knowing that what you see physically on the page represents intervals which you can recognize by the shapes and patterns you see. If you’re trying to think of the names for each note, sight reading is less likely to be successful.

  1. Memorizing from notation

This means after studying the music and playing the piece numerous times, you can put the notation away and play the piece accurately from memory.

Benefit: You don’t have to carry around a bag full of sheet music and books.

Drawback: none.

How to learn this skill: Work on remembering one phrase at a time. Don’t read through the whole piece and expect to remember it! And don’t go back to the beginning each time you make a mistake or don’t remember something; start from where you left off.  Memory is often set through struggling with something, so don’t refer to the notation every time you aren’t sure; instead, play around with it until you find the right notes. You’ll be sure to remember it next time! Also, rather than memorizing what you see on the page, memorize instead the sound of the music and the patterns it creates both aurally and in the fingering. If you are seeing the notation in your head, you may as well have it on the paper In front of you!

  1. Reading with practice

This means after studying the piece and reading it through numerous times, you can play it well while reading it.

Benefit: Confidence while reading

Drawback: You are dependent on sheet music and books.

How to learn this skill: The key is a LOT of practice.  Instead of reading every note you play, see how much you can play without looking at the notation – you might be surprised!

  1. Transcribing what you hear, then learn it from your own notation

If you have a good ear, and if you know how to write notation well, this works for those who don’t like to memorize music.

Benefit: You don’t need to start with hard copy notation because you make your own. And in so doing much of it will stay in your memory.

Drawback: You can become dependent on the notation you create, when you could be continually creative.

How to learn this skill: Learn your music theory and get ear training. These skills are essential as a musician.

  1. Playing by rote – memorizing exactly what you have heard

If you listen carefully to a piece, understand what you are hearing, and have the skill to play it and remember it, this is an effective way for some people to learn.

Benefit: You won’t need notation  –  the tunes are in your head and in your hands.

Drawback:  If someone wants you to play a different arrangement of a piece, unless you also have one of the above skills, you are limited.

How to learn this skill: Some people, especially those who are considered “left brained”, find this easy.  It involves no interpretation,, just an accurate memory for exactly what you have heard.  Memory can be developed by listening to a piece repeatedly before attempting to play it.

  1. Memorizing a melody and then creating your own arrangement by ear

If you listen to and can memorize a melody and a general chord structure, you can create your own arrangement of it, which by choice may or may not sound similar to the arrangement you first heard.

Benefit: You can play pretty much anything within your chosen style and skill level , and sometimes even do it on the fly!

Drawback: If you don’t also have some of the other skills listed here, you may not be able to play notated pieces as written, which can be important in ensembles.

How to learn this skill: Listen and listen and listen some more. The, if you have an understanding of music theory or an ear for harmonizing and chord structures, this is an almost automatic skill.

Probably the best way to learn your music is to choose at least three of the above methods: the one you do most naturally, and two others that will enhance it. There may be some work involved, and that’s a good thing. Really having to work at something will integrate the information and the skill permanently.

Very importantly, don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one right way to learn a piece of music. Everyone learns differently. Music is an art and a science, and we need to be flexible.

Posted by: laurie689 | October 7, 2018

Successful Recording

How lucky we are to live in a time when anyone can record! Years ago, the only way a musician could create an album for sale was to be “discovered” by a large record company, and if you signed their contract, they took charge of your life  –  even told you what music you could or could not play. In the late 1980s a change came about as recording equipment went digital and became less expensive, smaller, and easier to use  –  which meant it was accessible to more people. Those who could afford the equipment started “independent labels”. This, of course, changed the entire industry and how music was marketed. Now, the industry has changed once again as digital downloads have replaced CDs. The income we used to get from CDs has been slashed by digital downloads that cost the listener pennies. Musicians aren’t making an income from their recordings anymore unless they are super-idols, so we’re sort of back where we started. Big business is once again in control.

As a recording artist, I grew up in the era of vinyl records, survived the cassette tape era, thrived in the era of CDs. I was one of the lucky ones to have a producer back in the early ‘80’s who created the first of the independent labels and was a genius at marketing; I was his primary artist, so before more artists discovered they could do that too, he had a heyday and sold over 100,000 of my first serious album. Later, he got into other things and I began producing my own albums. After more than 30 years of making new albums (whenever the demand prodded me or I felt creative), I’ve just released what will probably be my last album, which gives me a sense of satisfaction. (Shameless self-promotion: “Infinity” is available on the Books and CDs page at the above link.)

But I ramble. Let’s get to the subject at hand…

Recording is very different from performing, and a lot easier. Logistically, the equipment and how it’s set up is different, but so is the atmosphere and the attitude. There’s no pressure. You can relax in the studio, because you can fix anything that’s not perfect, and you get as many re-do’s as you need. Once you understand the logistics, you can concentrate on your music and do your best.

A brief overview of studio logistics:

As in a stage performance, the sound engineer sets up your microphones and runs the control panel, but in a recording studio there is no audience and you’re in a quiet atmosphere, so every nuance of what you do is audible  –  and that’s a good thing. Great playing isn’t just about accuracy but is also a sum of sensitivity and nuance.

After everything is recorded, the engineer will go over the material and remove as many imperfections as he or she may find that didn’t get corrected during the recording process, the tunes will be placed in the order you request, and the volume and tone of your instrument will be set to best levels. You will be given a “master”, which you will upload to whatever duplicating company you choose (browse online for “CD Duplication”). Your CD is now called “Product”. From most duplicators you can get as many or as few pieces of product as you wish, or you can just go through the process of doing mp3 downloadable tracks.

But what about how you feel and how you play when recording?

As mentioned above, you can relax in the studio. The engineer isn’t judging you, and the only other thing listening is a machine that doesn’t care what you do. You are free to play your best and to play expressively, to sound the way you want to be heard by those who will eventually be listening to your recording.

In a recording you have no visuals. The musician’s facial expression and body language can make a difference in what a live audience perceives they hear, but when those factors are absent, the music is all that’s left. So we need to make sure our expression is also in our music, not just in the visuals we usually create. You want your personality to come through.

If the musician is uptight while recording, that affects musical expression. I recall during the recording of my second album, the sound engineer (who was also a good friend) said, “I know you as an expressive musician. But you’re playing dryly. Why?” I thought for a moment and realized that I thought I had no right to play expressively for a recording when my skills were not, at the time, as high as those of some other recording artists. I had to laugh at myself. Expression is part of skill.

I think the most important thing I can tell you is: keep it simple. If people like your performances, that’s what they want to hear on a recording. Some recordings are overproduced, which hides the personality of the musician. Sometimes there is too much reverb, or too many other instruments, or the balance of volume of voice vs. instrument isn’t natural. More than once I’ve bought recordings that had world-class production quality but sounded nothing like the artist does in person. Another thing that can affect whether the recording sounds like you is if the sound is “equalized” too much (the range of frequency is condensed). Resist the temptation to make your recording sound commercial. It usually doesn’t work. It’s good to get a sample mix of what you’ve recorded, and take it home to play for several trusted people who know your music well (preferably also musicians) and can give you an honest critique before you approve the final version.

Another bit of advice: It helps immensely to remember that if you are playing your own arrangements, your listeners do not know what you heard in your head as the “correct” way to play each piece. In other words, if you play a note or chord you didn’t expect, or play the sections out of order, nobody is going to know you didn’t intend to play it that way, unless it’s disturbingly disharmonious. The listener isn’t expecting what you expected. If it sounds OK, let it go. You have more important things to do than to correct little things that sound fine. Timing and tempo do matter, however. If you have hesitations or tempo irregularities, fix them.

Most importantly, be yourself. Have fun. Enjoy the process!

Posted by: laurie689 | September 17, 2018

I’ve just introduced a new harp playing stand!

Usually I just use this page for my blog, but I’m so excited that I had to let you all know about my new product – an innovative, unique, ergonomically designed, beautiful playing stand for small harps!  In the links at the top of this page, click on “Best Playing Stand for Small Harps”.

I’ve been busy with this project, and that’s why I haven’t blogged for a while. Look for a new blog post soon. And if you have auggestions for blog subjects you’d like me to write about, please email me at

Posted by: aliveinthewild | July 28, 2018

A little unabashed self-promotion

My new CD “Infinity”, and the sheet music for my composition “Island Girl” are now available! Please click on the Books & CDs link above.

Posted by: laurie689 | June 21, 2018

Brilliant Accompaniment

Brilliant Accompaniment

For those who play or want to play accompaniment to other instrumentalists or to singing, here are some concepts to consider. There are two types of accompaniment discussed in this article: 1. When you accompany another musician, and 2. When you play a full arrangement on one instrument. On a single-line instrument (such as a flute), accompaniment must be from another instrument; while on an instrument where your two hands play separately (such as harp or piano), you play your own accompaniment  –  one hand plays melody while the other determines the nature of the piece. Mood, tempo and style are all determined by the accompaniment.

Much more than just a nice backdrop, accompaniment creates the mood, rhythm, and style of the piece, and is therefore the major determining factor of the presentation. Unfortunately, many musicians think anything added to themelody it is just enhancement. But listen closely to any professionally produced piece of music that contains accompaniment and you will hear how important it is.

Have you ever noticed, when you’re listening to, say, a good cover band (a band that plays popular songs), how the introduction is usually what an audience will recognize even before the song starts? One great example is “Layla” by Eric Clapton. Listen here (The intro stars at about 12 seconds into the video):

Or Loreena McKennitt here:  Those first bars of intro make it very clear, if you have ever heard it before, what song she’s about to sing.

Or Dougie McLean’s “Ready for the Storm” at

Although two of those examples include whole bands, the same can be true of any solo arrangement, such as Dougie’s solo guitar.

These musicians don’t just start right in with the melody; they use a strong introductory theme, which may also repeat between verses, and which does not reiterate the melody at all. They are a separate thing entirely – a second and equal voice.

An introduction could, on the other hand, be a section of the melody; not necessarily the beginning, but perhaps the chorus or the last line  –  the part that identifies the melody best. A good example would be if you were playing Silent Night, you could introduce it with the last phrase because that is so recognizable. Your intro will identify tune, key and tempo, and it’s like an appetizer before the entrée.

The introductory theme can also be repeated between verses, and/or in pauses between phrases.

Additionally, there are possibilities for countermelodies and/or parallel harmonies behind a melody.

Most often, for songs we’ve heard before, we choose to play whatever chordal backup or pattern we’ve heard and therefore expect to hear. For instance, in the tune “Greenleeves”, a harpist might play rolled chords on each strong beat, or a cellist might play continuo, to emulate what we think of as a lovely Tudor-era love song. But what if you gave it a tango-rhythm backup instead? Or a Paraguayan Galopa-style backup? You’d change the entire nature of the tune without having to change the notes of the melody. That is the power of accompaniment.

In an ensemble of similar instruments (such as a harp ensemble or a cello quartet), you will often use scored arrangements for each piece, but some ensembles play from one arrangement; in other words, everyone in unison. Sometimes that sounds lovely, but you can do more. You can break it up into parts, and you can even do that without having to transcribe each part. Let’s look, for instance, at a harp arrangement: it will have the right hand and the left hand parts (right hand is usually melody or treble clef, and left hand is usually accompaniment or bass clef). Let’s say the melody in the printed arrangement contains same-hand embellishment (ornaments and/or chords), and the accompaniment (other hand) consists of chords, counterpoint, single-note harmonies and/or rhythmic patterns. Rather than having everyone in the group play all of it, the basic melody can be played by one or more of the harpists, and the embellishments to the melody can be played by others. Or the beginners can play only the treble-clef notes that appear as the first beat in each measure, while the intermediates play the whole melody. For the beginners the accompaniment can be broken down into single notes (i.e. read the lowest notes only), or maybe just the chords that appear on the downbeat or the backbeat. The rest of the bass clef notes/chords/rhythms can be played by intermediates. Advanced players can play the full arrangement. Breaking it up this way produces a more “three-dimensional” effect.

If you are creating your own accompaniment to someone else’s playing, be sure that what you do enhances rather than distracts from what they are doing. Don’t get good playing mixed up with overdone playing; if you play well, you can also play with subtlety. Keep it tasteful and understated, unless and until there is a solo break for you; then you can shine. But remember that the rest of the time the primary focus is on the main performer, not on you. You’ll know you have succeeded when your part fits so seamlessly into theirs that people can hardly tell the two apart.

The same is true for session playing. If you are not the session leader and it’s not your turn for a solo, aim to blend in, not stand out. This is true especially for drummers. In many Irish sessions, for instance, the bodhran (drum) is commonly regarded with some disdain because too many players play it too loudly and unrelentingly. If you want to be appreciated, be subtle!

If you are a solo singer, your voice alone will not always carry you if your accompaniment is not all it can be. An instrument should be more than a prop. I cannot stress enough: learn to play your instrument well; don’t settle for “good enough”. Your instrumentation should be as good as your primary voice or it will detract rather than enhance.

There could be volumes written on accompaniment skills, but my point here is simply that there is so much that you can do to make an accompaniment interesting, enhancing, and tasteful. Treat it as equally important as the melody or voice, but don’t make it distracting. And most of all, enjoy your music and that of those with whom you play!

There is a special element of great duo or group musicianship that, to an outsider, can seem uncanny; something more than just two or more people who are able to play the same piece at the same time. When the music is flowing out of them expressively and with an almost electric energy, it’s as though the group members can each read the others’ minds.

Well, they can. It’s not something that happens among just any two or more musicians. Finding those with whom this intuitive musical communication can occur is a bit like finding a new romance; it’s “chemistry”. It’s possible with two musicians, and occasionally with three or more. I’ve played in duo and in groups throughout my life, and have been very lucky to have found this magical quality in many of the people I’ve played with. It adds an extra element to the music that makes it effective and exciting for the listeners.

My first musical partner was my sister. We were trained by my mother in stage skills and vocal technique. Mom was a tough tutor. We cried a lot. But we learned important skills, and since we shared genetics as well as environment  –  nature and nurture  –  we developed that ability to communicate without signals or instructions. We could add an indescribable element to our music that made it more than the sum of its parts. I remember that on many occasions we’d be performing some song that we had carefully practiced in a specific way, and would suddenly get an idea for some enhancement or change. We’d just look at each other and know exactly what the other had in mind, mostly because we both had the same idea. It was like having one mind. We could adapt our arrangements on the fly in a performance without planning or verbalizing the idea for the adaptation.  There was nothing insecure about this. It felt the same as though we’d planned and practiced it.

Later I ran into a group of folk-rock musicians who gelled instantly. When we met, we really, really liked each others’ music. The first time we met, we were all playing at the same concert, we got together backstage and decided to try out a tune together. We quickly worked out four-part harmonies and blended accompaniments, so easily it was as though we’d always been together. You know what it’s like when you meet a special person and the conversation just flows, and you get each others’ humor, and you can’t stop talking? That’s’ how it was musically with these fellows. Over time and with focused work (we practiced five days a week, three hours a day) we got quite good and became very popular. We didn’t get along personality-wise, but our music was wonderful.

Many years later, I had the honor of playing with the Chieftains, the supergroup from Ireland. Their harpist, Derek Bell, had passed away suddenly, just before an American tour which they could not cancel, so they asked me to play with them for their first concert without him (other harpists played with them in other cities on that tour). Due to union regulations we had exactly ten minutes to practice the four tunes I was to do with them, which of course would normally not be adequate for developing a rapport. We would have to depend on our expertise and experience and trust that it would work. They had me start the pieces (probably to see what tempos I was inclined to use), and for two of those pieces, their flutist Matt Molloy then joined in with me before the rest of the group did. I didn’t know in advance that he would be doing that, but I was open to whatever they did. What happened in those moments of flute and harp together astonished me. I had not met him except to wave hello at the ten-minute rehearsal, and I only knew his playing from hearing their recordings. He was so far across the stage from me that I couldn’t even see him in the dim light. But the sound system was good, so we could hear each other very well. The magic of his paying was such that it almost made the hair on my neck stand up, and the two of us played together as though we were one musician. I felt as though there were a bridge of energy arcing across the stage between us, pulling the music together into a flowing stream of sound.

This magic can happen in sessions, too. My nephew Victor Provost, who plays jazz steel “pan” (google him and listen  –  he’s phenomenal) often posts remarks on Facebook about how it feels to play with some of the great contemporary jazz musicians. I can well imagine the almost physical sensation, the electricity that makes the whole body tingle, when these musicians get in the zone! I’ve seen him in concert. It’s indescribable.

This phenomenon is also common In Celtic sessions, if the musicians are experienced and are attentive to each other. It doesn’t work at all when someone is trying to stand out, show off, or play too fast or too loud. But when everyone is in sync, it’s like the groove on a bobsled run  –  it just carries you along. The key is to aim for the blend, to listen to each other and become a seamless part of the whole. This magic cannot happen unless we get away from just concentrating on reading the music and counting beats, and start really listening to each other as we play. Hear the way the music flows and moves. Feel the harmonies interact and the notes bounce off each other. Take cues from the tonal quality, nuances and subtleties of your partner’s or group’s playing. Music is so much more than a sequence of correct notes!

I relate these stories because I know of no other way to describe the phenomenon. If you wonder whether you’ve ever felt it, the answer would be that if you have to wonder, then you haven’t. But you probably will. As you truly master your instrument, as you listen deeply and respectfully to other musicians, it will come. When you feel it, you will know it. It cannot be forced or faked. And when you find it, nurture it.

Posted by: laurie689 | February 18, 2018

How Do You Teach Creativity?

Those of you who are teachers have surely noticed that some students are creative learners, while others prefer to use a formulaic approach. Both ways of learning are, of course, valid, and both types present challenges and delights.

Generally speaking, the formulaic learner is often someone whom we might refer to as left-brained  –  someone who works best with a very specific method, detailed instruction, and does not want to have to infer or interpret. This type of student is likely to become adept technically, and may do very well in orchestral settings and ensembles. If they compose or arrange music, it’s likely they’ll write it on paper before they’ve played it, using their knowledge of music theory and construction to build a piece.

Generally speaking, the creative learner is often right-brained; they learn well by ear, they are intuitive, they prefer to make up their own music or their own arrangements rather than learning from a page. These students can sometimes be challenging to teach if they feel that they don’t need technique or guidance. But they can go quite far if they do accept instruction, and many become brilliant performers. When composing music, they usually do it by “hearing it in their heads” and playing it before writing it down, or by improvising freely until they hear something they like, and then saving it.

Being strictly one way or the other can be a handicap. The formulaic learners aren’t as likely to allow themselves the freedom to arrange or compose their own pieces, or to improvise or jam; while the creative learner may not realize that there is inspiration in what they don’t already know, and that learning more may increase their skills in ways they have not imagined. And each may think the other’s way of learning is inferior.

I’m one of the creative learners. I was dyslexic as a child  – still am to a significant degree  –  so although I wanted to be a classical violinist, I could not read notation. I understood notation but could not see it; the notes and the lines got all mixed up visually. So I composed and arranged using my knowledge of basic music theory as a guide, and my inherent musical sense as a muse. I was lucky that ethnic and traditional music were available to me, since historically they developed without the use of notation. I would like to go back to the piano teacher who kicked me out at age ten, and show him my Lifetime Achievement Award in harping. Being dyslexic did not mean I could not play. I’m saying this because I want all teachers to know that students can learn whether they are formulaic or creative learners, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out which are which, and to be flexible enough to work with both types.

Some students in both categories sprout wings and fly, and some who could have accomplished much just settle for mediocre. Some believe they are great when they have a long way yet to go, and there are others who are great don’t realize they are. Very few really buckle down and do the work required to achieve professional status.  I’m sure most teachers wish they would. But in reality many students just want to have fun playing whatever music they play, and that IS a valid reason to play. After all, music is for enjoying. But do nurture all your students. Some will go far indeed.

If, however, someone asks you to show them how you play creatively, how do you teach them that skill? After all, creativity is a natural talent, right? Not necessarily. Various influences can affect our beliefs about our abilities. What about the child who, because they are a creative learner, has had a teacher who told them they can’t ever play well? Or who, because they learn better aurally than visually, was at odds with some teacher’s method? Or whose parents force them to practice when they should be outside playing with their friends?

The first thing a teacher needs to do is help a student believe in him/her self. To know they have the right to be creative, and that there is no standard by which creativity is measured, so their own creations are valid. They need to be encouraged, praised, and nurtured.

I once had a brilliant student who learned best by ear, but for some reason was not creative. When I would encourage her to compose or arrange, she’d say, “But how?” – even though she knew the music theory she needed to do it. We tried a number of methods for inspiration, but she just wanted to play what I played, exactly the way I played it. It made me sad, because I knew she had what it takes to create her own music and do it well. But she didn’t know that. After I moved away and she grew up, I heard that she’d been playing in a band and that most of her music was improvisational. And that it was very, very good. So… she had been listening. It just took her a while to try it, and when she did, there was no stopping her.

Teaching at least basic music theory is essential to give students the skills to compose and arrange intelligently. It irks me that music theory is usually taught only on paper or a blackboard instead of directly relating it to the instrument. Music theory is not a description of how to read music notation. It is a description of how music is structured, and it therefore automatically explains why and how notation works, but it is so much more than notation! It is a portal to a world without limits, where music becomes a language. And when one knows that language well, they can use it creatively.

The creative learner who does not want to learn music theory may forever have a stunted musical “vocabulary”, and will fall into ruts in which all their music sounds pretty much the same. Conversely, the formulaic learner who will use only music written by others is like a speaker who can only read from a written page but can’t carry on a conversation. Either way, teaching every student both ways of making music will open the most doors. And for the student, being willing to learn what is outside of your own realm of experience will keep those doors open.

Posted by: laurie689 | November 22, 2017

Overtones, Sympathetic Vibration, and Resonant Frequency

Recently there was a discussion on one of the music list-serves regarding overtones. There seems to be some confusion about what they are. Many were confusing them with sympathetic vibration, when in fact they are not the same. Here’s what the difference is: sympathetic vibration is when a vibrating object causes other objects to vibrate, whether or not they are touching. Hence, in the case of something such as a plucked string, other strings sound because they pick up the vibration. Or some unrelated object vibrates in response to a musical tone. Some people call this “resonant frequency” – certain objects will vibrate at the same frequency because their density or materials are “sympathetic” to that specific frequency.

Musicians certified to play in therapeutic/medical settings often use the concept of resonant frequency, noticing what notes seem to feel best to a patient and then using those notes predominantly in the music they offer to that person. In that case the science is not exact, as there is no way to measure how or why each individual responds physically or emotionally to certain tones. We do know that it often works very well; patients usually report a feeling of well-being, or we see improvements in vital signs among patients who are seriously ill. (That is not, by the way, the only skill therapeutic musicians are taught  –  it’s just one of many.)

Sympathetic vibrations are transmitted through the air or through matter. In fact, the vibration of a soundboard on an acoustic stringed instrument could be called sympathetic because the vibration is transferred through the material of which the instrument is made  –  the string is attached to the soundboard in some way, depending on the instrument, and that material responds, its vibration transmits the sound of the string into the air chamber of the soundbox, inside which it increases, thereby making the soundboard vibrate even more. This amplifies the sound (a plucked string is not nearly as loud as one attached to a soundbox). But usually the term ”sympathetic vibration” refers to another string or another object vibrating in response to a tone.

Sympathetic vibration can be annoying if something in the room is vibrating, or when something on the instrument itself is buzzing when you pluck a string. Identifying the offending part or object can be challenging.

On the other hand, some of the pleasant uses of sympathetic vibration are those such as sympathetic strings on a nyckelharpa or a Hardanger fiddle. Their resonance makes these instruments sound like they are being played in a cathedral. (Some of their richness is from sympathetic vibration; some is from hearing overtones and undertones.)

Not to be confused with sympathetic vibration or vice versa, overtones are the spectrum of sound one plucked string makes on its own – including above, below, and within the range of human hearing. We subconsciously train our brains to be aware of just the fundamental tone, and we usually don’t notice the overtones because we are listening for the fundamental. But you can tell the difference between an instrument that has a “rich” sound (lots of overtones) and one that does not. The richness or lack of richness of an instrument may or may not be due to how well it’s made, but some are purposely made to emphasize just the fundamental note. Some people prefer them; others prefer richness.

You can listen closely to a plucked string – probably in the mid-range is easiest – and see if you detect more than one note. The overtones will be very subtle. You can prove, however, that they do exist by making harmonics. Most string players know how to create an octave harmonic by gently touching a string in its exact enter and plucking it at the same time; if you do it just right you get a note an octave higher than the note the string is tuned to. Fewer realize that you can also easily get fifths and thirds or octaves plus fifths and thirds by touching the string in various other spots. Experimenting with this is fun. The tones will “mirror-image” on both sides of center. What you are hearing are the overtones that are present whenever a string is plucked. The reason you can hear them now as the main note is because you have stopped the fundamental note from sounding, so they are no longer disguised by its relative volume.

Pythagoras said that all notes are contained within a single plucked string. He experimented with a one-stringed instrument to find and document that all chords come from harmonic mathematics, and the diatonic and chromatic scales do as well, because ideally (though not usually in actuality because it’s impossible to make a perfect string or soundbox) one plucked string produces all notes.

That brings up the subject of undertones. These are lower than the fundamental note, but occur for the same reason that overtones occur. There is argument about whether undertones exist. They do; they are just much harder to produce audibly.

For more detailed info see my book “Singing the Universe Awake” on the
books page of my website at

Posted by: aliveinthewild | August 30, 2017

Getting the Most out of Workshops and Classes

Every musician can benefit from taking an occasional workshop or class related to their instrument, regardless of whether you take private lessons as well. Getting extra instruction and a fresh point of view is always a good idea.

Classes and workshops are usually designated by category of instrument and/or style, and by skill level. Making the right choice is obviously important; it make the difference between learning and frustration.

Choosing by Skill Level

Of course you’ll choose a workshop meant for your skill level – most of the time – but we can also take advantage of how much help it can be to study at a skill level that is different from yours.

For instance, try a class that is offered at a lower level than you perceive your skills to be. There’s not a musician on this planet who has managed to learn all the skills he or she could and should have learned for their perceived skill level. Skills usually develop selectively, rather than in a broad-spectrum way, thereby leaving the musician with a limited set of advanced skills. This is one reason you will often see professionals taking classes from other professionals. No one knows everything, even if they think they do! If you missed something along the way, how would you know? After all, you, uh, missed it. Letting someone take you back to a more basic skill level and show you what you missed will open up new worlds to you.

Yes, some workshops or classes could truly be below your level, or the techniques different from what you’ve mastered. But you can use them as an opportunity to focus and review. It’s likely, though, that some information will be remedial.

It’s considerate to refrain from trying to show the class or the teacher that you’re a better player than everyone else. Doing so intimidates the other students, and puts the teacher in a compromised position; they may feel they must teach to your level to keep you interested and challenged. Teaching to disparate levels in a group often results in no one learning much. You can keep your skill level to yourself, just be a really good student, and don’t be insulted when you’re treated like everyone else.

Another great option you can consider is to sign up for a workshop that is beyond your skill level; if it’s too advanced you can still gain inspiration. If you’re not inclined toward discouragement, such an experience can propel you forward by light years. It’s a good idea to inform the teacher beforehand that your skills are not up to the class standard, and tell them not to hold the class back just for you.

Choosing by Teacher

When someone we admire is teaching a workshop or class, it’s an opportunity to learn how they do those special things that make their music unique. Yet many beginner or intermediate students assume they can’t study with a famous person. Contrary to that assumption, the famous folks often have the most patience and empathy. So don’t hesitate.

Inquire About Format

Be sure to ask in advance whether the class is hands-on, demo only, or lecture. I once toted my heavy wire strung harp to a “wire strung harp workshop” by a famous player, tuned it carefully and set it up, as did other students, only to have the teacher do a lecture-demo. We already knew what he did because we’d seen and heard him play many times. We wanted to learn how he did it. If a teacher has not thought to announce the format, your asking can remind him or her to do so, and spare you some aggravation.

How Much Will You Learn?

After a workshop or class  –  whether it’s an hour, a day, a weekend, or a week long  –  you might remember just a few, or maybe even just one, thing that was taught. Although it may seem like you’ve wasted money and time, in actuality that one thing or few things can make it worthwhile. I once spent ten days at a music camp learning from my favorite teacher, only to find when I got home that I consciously remembered just one thing. At first I was frustrated, but it took a year to integrate that skill into my playing, and it has served me well ever since.

If you don’t consciously remember everything presented in a workshop or class, rest assured that it’s in your brain somewhere, and next time you hear it you’ll be closer to being able to remember and use it. The brain works behind the scenes when we’re not aware that it’s doing so. It’s amazing how much we learn without knowing we have.

Building Repertoire vs. Building Skill

There are different sets of skills for different situations. In the folk world we have jamming/session skills and performance-quality skills, solo playing and ensemble playing skills. In the classical world you have orchestral, ensemble, and solo playing skills. Each of the above requires a different focus.

For jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, and need to play well enough to keep up with the gang. If on the other hand you’re performing a lot, you need to play your repertoire in an exceptionally clean, accurate and polished way. But concerts only require about 90 minutes of material (usually about 15 pieces total, or fewer if they are very long ones). Many professional performers don’t do their best in jam sessions because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire, which of necessity is not as extensive and will not usually contain many commonly heard session pieces. And many jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible rather than polishing it to professional level. Ultimately, unless an audience has paid to hear you, music is for the player’s enjoyment, so what you do with it is your call.

When you take a class or workshop, ask in advance if it’s geared for jammers or for performers, and also if it’s about improvisation or about tradition. This information will give you the perspective to integrate the information in the most realistic way.

Whatever you do, enjoy it  –  if you don’t, why do it? Playing music isn’t about drudgery. It’s about loving what you do. Admittedly, some of the instruction and some of the practicing can feel like more work than you want to do, but it helps to ask yourself whether you will enjoy the result. If you will, then the work is worthwhile.

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