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.

Posted by: aliveinthewild | July 5, 2017

All About Practice

We tend to think when we are practicing that we are not being successful if we make mistakes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even if you know your pieces well, mistakes can and will happen, just as they can in performance. The fact that they do occur in performance is the key element here  – because when we practice what we need to be doing is practicing how we will handle  our msitakes. If you practice enough, it’s probable that over time every possible mistake you can make will be experienced. That’s good. It gives you the chance to purposely become aware of how it happened, where it happened, and how you can avoid it, play through it, or improvise with it next time.

I find that if, during practice, I keep my mind open to hearing my mistakes and never ignoring them, I can analyze, respond, fix and/or camouflage errors. If I don’t practice enough I won’t have that opportunity, and then during a performance I will be unable to handle them; if during practice I am simply going back and re-playing without any analysis or effort to deal with what went wrong, there will be no improvement.

Let’s look at the kinds of errors you need to be aware of:

  • Simple wrong notes. Your fingers went to the wrong place.
  • You played the note but it didn’t sound.
  • You made a noise that wasn’t part of the music (buzzing, rattling, squawking, etc.).
  • You played a sour note (fretless instruments).
  • You forgot how the piece went (either briefly or the whole thing).

What are the possible causes?

  • Lack of focus/wandering mind
  • Unexpected distraction
  • Poor fingering
  • Eyes not looking ahead (if you play an instrument you have to look at)
  • Poor lighting/can’t see (if you play an instrument you have to look at)
  • Not breathing/holding your breath
  • stress
  • Poor technique
  • You don’t really know your piece well yet

There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. I found two of them particularly interesting: one was about what kind of practice habits are most effective, and another claiming that the much-touted 10,ooo hours or practice is not what makes a musician good. I have some opinions about both of these so-called studies.

First of all, one cannot do a truly scientific study on something as esoteric as how musicians practice, because there are too many variables to consider or to eliminate. Every musician is different in background, attitude, and aptitude.  One simply cannot make blanket statements about what makes us good musicians or not. And it always amuses me that such “studies” are often done to acquire information that could have been obtained by just asking musicians how they gained their skills. (Sort of like the anthropologists who study indigenous petroglyphs in an effort to discover their meanings. Why not ask the indigenous people who still live in the areas where the petroglyphs are found? They have passed the knowledge through generations of their own people. They know what they mean.)

The study debunking the 10,000-hour rule hints that you’re born with talent or you’re not, and that if you’re not, no amount of practice will help. Worse, it suggests that if you are talented you don’t have to practice. Both of these ideas are proven wrong by millions of musicians very day. As a professional musician, I can definitively say that if you don’t practice you can’t play well, no matter what talent you were born with. Yes, some people have an affinity, but that’s not enough. An incredible amount of practice is necessary to become truly proficient at your instrument. And I can also tell you from a lifetime of careful observation that many people with talent who don’t work really hard can be bypassed by those with minimal talent but who work harder. (A very few people cannot learn music, but they are rare. You’re probably not one of them.)

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, states in his book Guitar Zero, “Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing.” Well, yeah. I took a number of courses in school about which I remember nothing. Why? Because they didn’t interest me. Any kid forced to take music lessons without wanting to is not likely to remember much. That’s not a significant way to look at the effectiveness of practice.

Another study stated that the difference between ineffective and effective practice, which leads to the difference between mediocrity and mastery, is practicing deliberately. This I agree with. It’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice. Your practice habits make the most difference. Without self-evaluation and constantly correcting weaknesses, progress is not possible. Simply playing what you play best is fun and necessary, but that’s not the same as striving to reach a new level. You have to push yourself and focus on what you don’t yet know, or can’t yet do, if you are to make progress.  We have a tendency to be self-congratulatory about our progress much sooner than perhaps we ought to be.

Also, just reading through tunes on a page doesn’t do a lot for one’s skills unless the music is also used as a tool for focus, analysis, and deliberate skill enhancement.

What are good practice habits? There are three necessary kinds of practice: that which you do when learning a piece, playing for your own enjoyment, and that which you do in preparation for a performance. These three habits are very different.

When learning a piece, it’s a good idea to get it committed to memory and kinesthetic sense, thusly:

  • Learn by playing every tune slowly and deliberately.
  • Learn a phrase at a time (don’t just read through an entire piece; that is not productive).
  • When you make an error, don’t just correct it and go on –  that is practicing the error! Figure out why you made it.  (Is it poor fingering, poor eye planning, a technique you don’t know?)
  • Correct the fingering, eye movement or technique.
  • Address the error by making the phrase into an exercise and repeating it many times slowly until it feels natural and is easy to do right.
  • Then play the phrase in context.
  • Always remember to breathe, especially while playing the hard parts.
  • Play the piece with a metronome to increase accuracy.

Never shirk on any of this. These steps are absolutely necessary.

Above all, play music you love. Otherwise, why play at all? Enjoy it!

Posted by: laurie689 | May 15, 2017

Understanding the Building Blocks of Music

No matter how much we learn about music, there is always something additional to learn. But also, whatever our skill level, there’s always something we should already know but we missed or skipped. Those missing pieces limit our skills and our enjoyment in playing. We may not even realize there is something missing that could solve a problem or fill gaps you can sense but can’t quite identify.

In my first 25 years of playing music, I used to assume I was too dumb to learn all the information other people knew, and got by pretty well without it, until I took up another new instrument and had to figure out for myself how it worked. I had missed a lot of information, partly because as a dyslexic I could not read the music notation and was kicked out of classical lessons, and partly because the only instruction available to me thereafter was by rote. I realized that if I had been taught certain concepts early on – independently of the printed page –  it would have made learning any instrument much easier. Although I had an inherent sense of harmony, melody, and so on, I didn’t know why the things I did worked.

Even among paper-trained musicians, I find that the most common missing pieces are the most basic ones. Such as: what makes a chord, how do you know what chords to use where, how do you find the notes you hear in your head, etc. etc.

The collection of  data that is referred to as music theory is usually taught on paper rather than directly on an instrument, and is assumed by many musicians as applying only to reading music. Actually, those concepts describe the structures of music itself – its frequencies, its sounds, and how to make music make sense.

Most musicians learn music either by note or by rote, and either way there’s a lot missing. When you can read the music but you don’t know why it is what it is, that’s as much a handicap as learning by rote without being able to read. But if you understand and use the knowledge of music’s structures, you can do just about anything. You can enhance arrangements, you can compose, and you can do simple things too, like finding the right chords, use more interesting chord forms, transpose easily, and understand modes and how scales are set up.

If you’re reading this you probably have a fair amount of knowledge of music in general. But how would you know what you’re missing? (You wouldn’t, because you missed it!)  Although I cannot cover here the entirety of music strucure information, I can get you started. In a very general and simple way, allow me to guide you through a review of the basics. Let’s begin with terminology  –  if the first part is too elementary, read on  –  it gets better. If you have access to a keyboard, or to an instrument on which the diatonic (do-re-mi) scale is linear, this will be easier to visualize and hear.

What is a scale? A scale is a sequence of notes. There are many kinds of scales used in different cultures and different applications. The easiest scale on a piano, for instance, starts on the  C note and progresses thusly up the white keys: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.

What is an interval? When two notes are played at the same time, the term “interval” refers to the distance between them. For instance, choose a note and call it “one”, and then choose another note and count how many notes of the diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) there are between the two, including both of the notes you’ve chosen. The number you count is the interval. If, for instance, there are five notes, the interval is a fifth. If there are three notes, it’s a third. And so on. 

What are chords? A chord is three or more notes sounding together. There are many kinds of chords; the sequence of notes determines the exact type of chord in addition to its name.

What is a phrase? A phrase is a group of notes that complete a musical thought, much like the words between commas in a written sentence. (Phrases are not defined by measures. If they fall neatly into measures, it’s coincidental.)

The Diatonic 7-tone Scale 

Thinking of your notes as numbers simplifies everything. You can, for instance, play a scale (in any octave), but call the notes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 and 1. This is a “do-re-mi” scale, also known as a 7-tone, major, Ionian, or diatonic scale, which can be played in any key. In every key, the same numbers, in the same order, are still applicable. Simply assign the number 1 to the first note of any scale.

The scale described above consists of a specific pattern of musical sounds called half steps and whole steps. In Western (rather than Oriental or Arabic) music, the half step is the smallest change in pitch we can make when moving from one note to another. A whole step is double the range of the half step. The 7-tone scale, on unlevered strings only, goes: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

Why isn’t the scale set up evenly? Why are there only half-steps between the third and fourth notes and the seventh and eighth notes? Because, based on the harmonic series, Pythagoras (who is credited with being the “creator” of our modern scale) set it up according to mathematic principles that match those of every natural form in the universe, making the diatonic scale pleasing to the ear. (See my book Singing the Universe Awake, available from 

The 12-tone Scale

If you have a keyboard handy, you’ll notice that you create a half-step raise in pitch when you play a white key and then the black key just to the right of it. Or if you’re on a chromatic fretted instrument such as a guitar, you get a half step when you play a note on one fret and then one fret higher.

If you have a harp, you will also notice that the levered third and seventh string of any diatonic scale will give you the same note as the unlevered string immediately above them (the fourth and eighth string).

If you start at C and play all your notes, you get C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B – that’s twelve tones – before you get to the C an octave above where you started. The twelve-tone scale is also called the chromatic scale. It is composed of all half steps. You can get a chromatic scale in any key – in other words, you can start anywhere on a piano or a guitar and play a chromatic scale. The note you start on will be the name of the key.

Using Chords

A triad is a three-note chord in which the notes are each an interval of a third away from each other. When playing a triad, the name of the chord is always the lowest note (the root). A triad with C as the lowest note, for instance, is a C chord (or a “one” chord, whch is expressed by the Roman numeral I).

A three-note chord in which the notes are less or more than a third away from each other is not a triad.

When referring to chords by their numbers, we use Roman numerals. I, II, II, IV, V, VI, and VII.  This keeps us from confusing chord numbers with single note numbers. When we refer to note numbers, we use Arabic numerals 1,2,3,4,5,6, and 7.

You can expand a triad chord to make a full chord. If you add the octave note (8) you will have a four-note or full chord. Like a triad, the name or number of the full chord in the root position (not inverted) is the name or number of the lowest note of the chord.

You can also play open chords:  if you play notes 1,3,5,8 and then take away note 3, what’s left is 1,5,8. This is very pleasing to the ear because of its uncluttered sound. The name of the chord is still the lowest note.

You can also play expanded chords. If you place 1,5,8,3 (the 3 above the 8) it produces a very open and lovely sound.

You can also play more complex chords. If you place 1,3,5, and 7, you’ll have a 7th chord, because the 7 note is included in it. (Don’t confuse this with the VII (“seven”) chord, which is a normal triad or a full chord whose lowest note is the 7 note.)

What makes a chord Major or Minor?

If you play a 1 (let’s use C) chord in triad form, you will notice that it is made of two intervals of a third. Notice also that the lower third has two whole steps within it. In other words, C, C#, D makes two half steps (one whole step) and D, D#, E makes two more half steps (one whole step). Therefore the lower third of this chord contains a spacing of two whole steps.

But notice that the upper third of this chord has only one and a half steps within it. From E to F is a half step; from F to F# is a half step, and from F# to G is a half step, equaling 1½ steps. There are more half steps in the lower third than in the upper third of this chord. A third with two whole steps (four half steps) is called a major third. A third with 1½ steps (three half steps) is called a minor third.

When the major third is on the bottom of the chord, you have a major chord. When the minor third is on the bottom of the chord, you have a minor chord. I like to think of these this way: the major chord is bottom-heavy (more half steps in the lower third), and the minor chord is top-heavy (more half steps in the upper third).

Chord I is a major chord.

Play a chord containing notes 2,4,6. This is a II chord. Look at the number of steps in the bottom third and then in the top third. This is a top-heavy chord, so it is minor.

There are three major and three minor chords in every major key. The major chords are I, IV, and V. The minor chords are II, III, VI.

The character of a major chord differs from that of a minor chord. It’s been said that major chords sound cheerful, and minor chords sound melancholy or introspective.

There is one chord we have not yet discussed in regard to major/minor. It is the VII chord. If you play a VII chord you will notice that it is not very “pretty” (again, a VII chord is not a 7th chord). If you count the steps in each of its intervals you will see that it has 1½ steps in both thirds  –  fewer steps than the other chords. Therefore, it is called diminished and is neither major nor minor.


Chords can also be inverted. You might think of it as “yoga for chords”.  For instance, play a C triad and then, move the lowest note up an octave. You now have 3, 5, and 8. This is called an inversion. You have changed the order of the notes, but still have the same note names in the chord, though one of the notes is in a new octave. In this new configuration, which is called the first inversion, the name of the chord is the name of the highest note rather than the lowest note. The chord is turned upside down; the lowest note is now the highest note. It is still a C chord.

Now move the second note of the original chord up an octave. Now you have notes 5,1,3. This is the second inversion. In this configuration, the name of the chord is the middle note. It is still a C chord because it still contains the same note names, even though some are in a new octave.

Now, move the third note of the original chord up an octave. You now have 1-3-5, a triad one octave above the original triad.

You can do the same process with a full (four-note) chord.

Inversions are useful for providing variety in your arrangements, and they are also useful when you have an instrument with a limited range of notes.

This is not a complete tutorial, obviously. There’s more in past posts and probably will be more in future ones. But if you keep your ears open, you can get good information from many sources.

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