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What’s Difficult, What’s Easy?

How we musicians perceive ideas of “difficult” or “easy” is a fascinating example of how different each human brain can be, and how there are no absolutes. Individuals attach a wide variety of meaning to these two simple words. Yet we tend to give ultimate credence to them and allow them to affect our music-playing experience.

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Overtones, Sympathetic Vibration, and Resonant Frequencies

What happens when you pluck a taut string, exactly? The obvious answer is that it produces a note, but in fact the result of plucking a string is far more complex. What we think we hear as a note actually consists of many notes, most of which are significantly less audible than the fundamental one. Our brain mostly ignores the others and picks up on the fundamental because it is louder. But those…

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Using Dynamics for Expression

What exactly does the word “dynamics” mean in terms of music performance?  Many people assume it means using lots of volume and gesturing, or excessive vocalizing (shouting, roaring, etc.). “He gave a very dynamic performance,” usually means it was excitingly over the top, like an Elton John concert. But that is not necessarily what the word means; the use of dynamics is really much more subtle than that in most circumstances, and does…

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Can You Learn Kinesthetically?

It sounds like some kind of game, but “kinesthetic” refers to learned movement that becomes automatic. I’ve been writing about it for years. It’s the result of consistent and focused practice; the point at which a specific sequence of movements becomes a kinesthetic habit is the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music improve, the ability to play expressively increase, and you get the feeling that…

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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…

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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: 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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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Intuitive Musical Communication  – Getting in the Zone With Your Musical Partners

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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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News from Laurie!

NEWS FLASH! I will be on a concert and teaching tour in July – please go to https://laurierileymusic.com/lauries-concert-and-workshop-tour-schedule. See https://laurierileymusic.com/lauries-concert-and-workshop-tour-schedule NEWS FLASH! I am pleased and humbled to announce that I wil be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival in July! This is an annual international gathering of harpers.  http://www.somersetharpfest.com/presenters4.html#riley NEWS FLASH! After August 2017 I will be teaching in my new retreat center – The Center for Musical Enrichment –  in Port…

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It’s finally here – my new book…

My Life in Music By popular demand! Laurie’s autobiography! A must-read for all musicians! This life story expresses the challenges and joys of becoming a successful professional musician, from earliest childhood influences, through detours and uncertainties, and through the career that has been my lifelong passion. Formerly, I wrote about a portion of my touring life in my books “All Roads Lead Home”  and “More Roads Lead Home”, but this complete autobiography explores all the years previous and…

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I am thankful for this honor!

April  2017           JULY 20-23 at the Sheraton Parsippany Harp pioneer Laurie Riley has been there, done that! When Laurie Riley took up lever harp in 1981 there were very few musicians playing the instrument and very few harpmakers making folk harps. Laurie Riley is this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, recognized for her pioneering work in three facets of harp which we now take for granted. We recognize her…

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Is Your Music Left-Brained or Right-Brained?

Is Your Music Right-Brained or Left-Brained? Although almost no one is completely right-brained or left-brained, most of us tend heavily toward one or the other. A right-brained person is usually defined as someone who is intuitive, expressive, and creative; a left-brained person is usually defined as someone who is matter-of-fact, logical, and precise. Right-brained musicians can be highly emotive, while left-brained ones can be perfectionists and love to develop complex skills. On the…

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Working Well with Sound Systems

Every performer who has been on a stage with a sound system knows that it adds a dimension that can be either a pleasure or a challenge.  Sound systems are supposed to enhance your performance, but sometimes they do just the opposite. Here are some hints to make the sound system experience as successful as possible. Usually there will be a “sound tech”  –  the person in charge of running the equipment and…

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Teaching to Learn; Learning to Teach

Why teach? Should you? Do you? What if someone asked you to? Are you ready? Many students regard a teacher as an absolute authority, and many teachers prefer to be regarded as such. Although there are some awesome teachers out there, no one is really a perfect teacher. That is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. It’s not so good if the teacher is truly under par, obviously. But it is…

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It’s All in Your Head

The real music is not on the paper. What’s on the paper is a series of symbols. You could listen to that page all day and never hear a thing. Notation is just a guideline. The music is in your head (and your heart). Unless you’re a Mozart or a Salieri, it’s nearly impossible to play expressively without an auditory reference that tells you how the music can sound, or for which to strive musically.…

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I Want to Sound Just Like…… But Do You?

Almost every musician has a favorite other musician they’d like to emulate. Mine is… hmmm… there are so many! On harp, I’d love to sound like Kim Robertson or Harper Tasche. On banjo I’d like to sound like Adam Hurt. You get the idea. Only one trouble: I will never sound like them. If I do what it takes to play as well as they do, I will still sound different. Striving to…

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Focus and Relaxation: The Essentials of Great Musicianship

The mind is like a puppy: it won’t just automatically do what you tell it to do  – you have to train it.  Interestingly, training doesn’t just apply to the things we need to focus on, but we also need to practice how to relax mentally and physically, and how to develop the habit of beneficial attitudes, in order for the mind to do what we want rather than going off on its…

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Genre and Style  –  How Much Do You Know?

What’s your musical genre? Have you consciously chosen one? Do you really know all about it? How does it differ from others? Can you describe its nuances? Every genre and sub-genre or style of music is characterized by specific features, some obvious and some quite subtle, without which it just isn’t really authentic. Many nuances may be completely overlooked by players who don’t realize they are important, and maybe don’t hear them, because…

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Teaching for Passion, Practicing for Joy

Last night I attended a concert of the Victor Provost Quartet, with guest artist Paquito D’Rivera. These are some of the world’s finest jazz musicians (google them for info). I was awed, as I always am by Victor, because his music is so amazing that I can greatly enjoy it even though I have little familiarity with his style of jazz. Truly, there is a level of musicianship there that goes far beyond…

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The Impostor Syndrome: do you think you’re not as good as they say you are?

CEO’s of large companies, stars of sports and movies, and professional musicians have something in common: a large majority suffer from something that has come to be known as The Impostor Syndrome. I knew a talented young man who graduated Summa Cum Laude from an important music school, with a major in classical guitar. He continued to study with a famous instructor in New York City whose students’ albums were in the top…

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Building Repertoire and Building Skill

It’s easy to assume that there’s one definition for musical skill, but in fact there are different sets of skills for different musical situations, and each needs to be defined separately. Some people shine in one skill and some in another, and some are adept at more than one. Let’s look at the most general skill sets: session skills and performance skills. Each requires a different focus. (Of course in either genre there…

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Excellence is Not the Exception

It’s assumed by most people that only a few can achieve excellence. That’s why the word exists  –  to excel in something means to do significantly better than the norm. But it’s really more complex than that. If we look, for instance, at what was considered really good guitar playing by well-known folksingers in the ‘60’s, and compare it with the best accompanists today, there’s quite an improvement  –  the average players today…

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Performance Anxiety – Part 2

This article is a continuation of the one posted last time, which you can find below this one on this page. As a performer, your demeanor signals audiences how to react; it affects how they feel about you, about your music, and about your instrument, and even how they feel about themselves! The audience will take its cues from you. If you look serious, they will be serious. If you are witty, they…

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A New View of Performance Anxiety – Part 1

“Stage Fright”, as we often call it, is the bane of many a performer, both amateur and professional. Although some won’t admit it, a majority of performing musicians experience some form of it, from mild jitters to debilitating fear. When it’s mild, the feeling of increased adrenalin can actually help us perform well. When it’s profound, we can’t perform at all. When it’s moderate, it may make us play too fast, play inaccurately,…

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Elements of a Successful Gig

Although there are many things to keep in mind in making a gig successful, we can think of it in two simple foundational aspects: logistics and delivery. Logistics is preparation and set-up. Delivery is the actual performance. They are of equal importance. Logistics: Naturally, adequate practice is ninety percent of a good performance.  If you’re unsure of or not totally confident with a piece, why perform it? Playing it only “pretty well” at…

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Why Play Music, Anyway?

Ask any number of musicians why they play music, and you’ll get a different answer from each one, ranging from, “My parents made me,” to “I can’t NOT play music  –  it’s my passion!” Assuming we want to play, what is it that drives us to pursue music? The answers are as diverse as are the people. Have you ever experienced goose bumps while listening to music? If so, explaining passion to you…

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We Can’t Hear What’s in Your Head

Your audience can’t hear what’s in your head. They can only hear what you actually play, and that could be a good thing, or it could be not so good. What is in your head as you play a piece of music? Is it the “soundtrack” of the first time you heard the piece played on a recording or in a session or concert? Is it your version of how the piece or…

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Music Changes the Brain

In the last twenty years or so it has come to our attention that there is researched proof that music positively affects how our neurology develops. Humans are musical beings and have always used music for entertainment, ritual, and mood enhancement. Now science is beginning to be able to tell us why it is so important to our well-being and our brain health. It’s a shame that music has largely been removed from…

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Are You Teaching Your Students How to Learn?

In a typical music lesson scenario, a student arrives, tunes his or her instrument, sits down, opens a book, plays the material assigned from the last lesson; the teacher critiques, offers pointers on technique (or not), and makes the next assignment. There may be instruction in music reading relevant to the material they are working on. Teaching methods are aimed toward meeting certain goals and standards. The vast majority of lessons are all about…

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Are You Sacrificing the Musicianship for the Music?

According to a dictionary definition, musicianship is “knowledge, skill and artistic sensitivity in performing music”. These three factors are inseparable, and each builds successively upon one before, so we can’t ignore any of them if we want to be true musicians. Knowledge alone does not suffice, since playing music also requires practiced movement to develop skill; skill does not suffice, since artistic sensitivity is essential for music to sound musical; and artistic sensitivity…

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Studies on Practice: Truth or Fiction?

There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. Two that I found interesting were the one 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. One cannot do a truly scientific study on something as…

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Effortless Musicianship?

Have you wondered how professional musicians can play intricate passages and really fast music in a way that looks effortless and sounds smooth? How do they get their fingers to know where to go faster than they can consciously think? Or even to play slower pieces confidently? Think “learned movement that becomes habitual”. With consistent and focused practice, the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music…

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Building Repertoire vs. Building Skill

Let’s begin this subject with some definitions and concepts: Your repertoire is your collection of pieces that you know well enough to play in performance, or at least well enough to enjoy playing for yourself.  It’s not necessarily what you carry around in your music bag, unless you know all the music in it really well. My repertoire, for instance, consists of pieces I’ve played over the years well enough to play in…

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Playing Right vs. Playing Well

There comes a point in learning any tune when we need to begin practicing it two different ways. Up to a point the learning process has to be about getting all the notes, timing and tempo precise (and the lyrics if it’s a song). After the point when you’re consistently playing it right, it’s time to add the second practice format: playing it well. What’s the difference? Playing a piece well means making…

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Online Store has been Updated

Several days ago I noticed that all the photos of the products in my online store (see link above) had disappeared. I don’t know how long it had been that way. For those of you who visited  that page and/or wanted to order a book, DVD, or CD, it may have been a bit confusing. In the past week as Iworked on the site there may have been down times as well. I’m happy…

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Secrets of the Professionals

When you hear a performance by a professional whom you admire, it’s likely that part of their allure can’t be described; something about their skills and/or in their demeanor on stage sets them apart from the average musician. Whatever that quality is, it’s not something we can learn as a technical skill, and it’s different for each such performer. (It could be called “charisma”, but there‘s more to it than that.) Being musically…

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What are “Selective Skills” – Are They Helpful or Limiting?

How often have you watched someone play an instrument you play, and wondered how they are doing something that’s beyond your present ability? It’s to be expected that beginners and intermediate players will have this experience, but it happens to advanced players and professionals as well! That’s because almost no one masters all the skills that are possible on any given instrument. Advanced skills often develop selectively, rather than in a broad-spectrum way.…

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So You Think You Can’t Memorize?

Consider what would happen in a dramatic theatre production if all the actors read their lines from a script, instead of memorizing them. It wouldn’t make much of a play. Learning their lines allows them to express and emote, to live the play. Likewise, memorizing your music allows you to live the music. Memorization seems daunting to those who assume that memorizing is a talent some people have and others don’t. But in…

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Expressing the Indefinable: What You Hear vs. What You Play

When you decide to learn a tune, it may be because it’s been assigned by a teacher, or because you’re in an ensemble or band that’s playing it, or because you have it in a book and it looks interesting, or because you’ve heard it and liked it. All those reasons are valid. Ideally, you’ll enjoy all the music you learn. But unless you’re very, very adept at “hearing” in your head what…

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Part 2 – Traveling with your Instrument

  In Part 1, I wrote about air travel with your instrument. But of course we must take equally good care of our instruments when we travel by car, bus or train, when camping, or when shipping an instrument to your destination. By Car It doesn’t matter where you live or even what time of year it is; even in winter if the sun is out it can get hot in a parked…

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Traveling with Your Instrument – Part 1

There comes a time when almost every musician  must decide how to handle traveling with an instrument. Whether it’s a road trip, a music camp, a backpacking trip, a weekend at the beach house, or a performance tour, there are considerations for your instrument’s safety and the logistics of transport. Let’s look at various scenarios: Flying: Airlines are notorious for changing their regulations and pricing regularly. There has never been a reliable way…

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Rhythm Challenges, Part 3: Wandering Tempos

Although this post may seem quite basic, there are musicians at every level of skill  – even some professionals  –  who really need this information. Wandering tempos are a real problem for many. We may or may not be aware when we’re wandering, we may think we can’t do anything about it, or we may think it doesn’t matter. But it does. Not keeping a steady tempo or rhythm is a concern because…

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Part 2: More on Rhythm Ability

Although we learn to count rhythms and beats when we learn to read music, being rhythmically adept isn’t, of course, dependent on reading music  –  people the world over, in all cultures, can follow or create a beat, and most don’t study music formally. For those who have trouble, it’s important to know that rhythm-impairment and the inability to count a time signature are not necessarily related. In fact, I’ve found they are…

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A Sense of Rhythm – Do You Have It?

Many musicians feel rhythmically challenged, at least at some time, and not just the beginners. It may happen when learning a new rhythm pattern, a polyrhythm, or playing with a metronome or ensemble for the first few times. And some believe they have no sense of rhythm at all. Is it really true that a person can have no sense of rhythm? Yes, but it’s not nearly as common as many think. There…

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Listening – Really Listening!

At some time in our lives most of us, musicians and non-musicians alike, have played and re-played some favorite recording until, from repeated listening, we know every note of it. But did we realize this is actually a form of practice? How often do we treat recorded music as something more than background ambience? How often have you really listened to a recording? Not just to enjoy it, and not just in your…

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Full Benefit: the Many Ways of Learning

Learning obviously comes from many sources and in many ways. We can learn music from our families, peers, friends, teachers, recordings, and/or You Tube. We can learn from notation or tablature, by rote, by ear, and/or from observing performances. We learn aurally, visually, and/or kinesthetically. Many of us rely on just a few of the above resources and on whatever strengths are naturally easiest for us individually. Because of that, most of us…

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How We Relate to Professionals

There’s no denying that we tend to treat professional musicians differently from non-professionals, and exceptionally good amateurs differently from those who skills are average. It seems natural to be deferential to those whom we deem special in some way, to be perhaps overly polite, and even to be timid around them. Maybe we should take a look at this phenomenon. When I was touring, I was on the receiving end of the best…

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Making a melody recognizable – Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post (Part 1). The last post discussed how to make a melody stand out from an accompaniment clearly. In addition to the actual melody line, other elements that make a melody “make sense” are: emphasis, tempo, beat, rhythm, and accuracy. Harmony choices in an arrangement are also important. The melody is recognizable when the correct notes are all there and when all the other elements are…

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What Is That Tune? (part 1)

Have you ever wondered what tune someone was playing, only to recognize it quite far into the piece when it should have been apparent much sooner? Let’s assume that rather than being arranged in a purposely obscure way, the player intends it to be recognizable, in which case the problem is not with the listener but with the arrangement or delivery of the piece. It doesn’t matter what instrument you play; this can…

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What is Talent, Really?

How nice it would be if we could automatically be good musicians, with little or no effort involved; just sit down and play brilliantly! Many people assume that’s what musicians do! I think what is largely responsible for that assumption is our culture’s misuse of the word talent. When someone picks up a new instrument, or sings for the first time, if they find they don’t sound like a professional, they sometimes decide…

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The Folk Process – Embrace the Change!

“But you’re playing it wrong!” “That’s how I learned it from so-and-so.” “Well, it really goes like this.” How often have you heard that? Probably quite a lot. In classical music it is, of course, important to play a piece exactly as it was written. But in many other styles, “right” is much more flexible; It’s not just that you can arrange a tune in a different style, such as making a Celtic…

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New Posts and New Pages on this Site!

Below is a new blog post. In addition, you’ll notice that this site has a new look, and several new pages.  That’s because I’ve made it into a full website. It now contains  my online store, complete bio, testimonials, info on therapeutic music, and more. Why this new website? To better represent ALL of the musical styles, instruments, products and ideas that are of interest to my readers, students, fans and peers. Please…

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Music is a Language

Some research indicates that when we actively (rather than passively) listen to music  –  in other words, when we focus and pay attention to the music we hear  –  it is processed in the same area of the brain as language. The same is true when we learn music by ear. In all respects, music is a language; a system of communication. without sufficient prior listening and participatory exposure, learning music from notation…

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In Defense of Imperfection: Thoughts on Our Attitudes About Performance

The audience sits ready to hear the musician in concert, looking forward to an enjoyable performance. The musician stands backstage, ready to begin. He or she may feel quite confident, or may be scared to death. Chances are that if the performer has practiced adequately, he or she has some confidence that the concert will go well. On the other hand, excess adrenalin can make the hands shake or sweat, the head spin,…

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Styles – part 2

Making Your Music Your Own, Within the Style You Play  There are purists whose aim is to preserve every piece of traditional music in the exact form they find it. This preserves musical styles, but the folk process (the natural tendency of aurally-learned music to undergo change) is an essential part of our heritage, too. Folk music is the music of the people. We are the folk. There are some some forms of…

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Styles – Regional, National and Personal

Personal Style Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a personal style of playing (in addition to the genre of music you play). Your personal style is not necessarily something you develop on purpose, and though many musicians do make conscious decisions in that realm, your life experiences in general seep into your playing and/or singing, and make your way of expressing your music unique. Nearly every aspect of your personality…

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How Do You Know When You’re Ready to Teach?

(Part 4 of “The Teacher-Student Relationship”) What “qualifies” one to teach? Well, no one wrote a rule book on it, and in very real ways we are all teachers. So there’s no definitive way to answer the question. But if you’d like to be teaching and aren’t sure if you’re qualified, perhaps a few of these checklist items can help you decide: Do you know that you play reasonably well by regional and perhaps…

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How Fast is Too Fast?

First, many thanks to my readers for all your supportive comments! I’m glad you enjoy reading my posts as much as I enjoy writing them. I’d like to diverge from the current series on the teacher-student relationship (will resume with next post), to comment on the tempos at which we play our music. The tempo you choose can make or break a piece, but maybe not in the ways you might think! How…

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Part 3: The Student-Teacher Relationship

The Five Ways of Learning It’s well known that individuals learn in at least one of five ways: Aural Verbal Visual Experiential Tactile Aural learners retain what they have heard. If they have only read it, they may not retain it. I had a history teacher who was wise enough to have us read a chapter each night, and the next day he would verbally reiterate the material in the chapter. I read…

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Part 2: The Teacher-Student Relationship

This is the second of a series of posts on the teacher-student relationship. If you haven’t seen Part 1, it’s below. Your Energy Level  It’s been said that a performer uses as many calories on stage in an hour-long concert as a runner does in ten miles. Any performer can tell you this must be true. What about teachers? Many people don’t realize that prolonged concentration and speaking will burn calories. That means…

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Exploring the Student-Teacher Relationship

We are all teachers and we are all students, whether or not we realize it. We are each an example to others whenever we play, and whatever we say. And we are constantly learning. Sometimes we teach or learn on purpose; sometimes just by being who we are. Learning requires as much integrity as teaching. A bit of background on my perspective: I grew up with several influences, listening to many kinds of…

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Your Relationship with Excellence

What exactly is excellence? Webster’s Dictionary gives these synonyms: “distinction, greatness, perfection, preeminence, superiority”. But these definitions seem unfair, since one can achieve excellence without being “the best”, or greater than, or preeminent. Excellence really is being the best you can be. We do, however, need the inspiration of good example so we can strive to reach certain levels of ability according to what we know is possible. How we choose to relate to examples of…

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The Sense of Harmony

It’s been requested that I write about how to understand, find and use harmony. First, let’s look at what it is: how do we define harmony? Essentially, it’s the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes that sound pleasing together. Of course, what sounds good to one person can differ from what another finds pleasing. Aside from cultural differences in what is familiar to certain people, there’s also the fact that any interval…

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Reply to Second Comment

Margi wrote: ” I have one further question. For me there is a big difference between what I can memorize for my left and right hands (I am right handed, mostly). Whereas I can easily memorize the melody I play with my right hand, I am totally hesitant and unsure about what I play with my left hand, even if it’s just chords. Any hints or clues on why this might be so…

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Reply to Comment

Cherie said, “I like your suggestion to practice “known” songs on a rotating basis (1, 2, 3 on day 1; 2, 3, 4 on day 2; and so on). How many times do you recommend playing each one? I find that when I play a tune I haven’t played in a week or so, often the first time through goes great, but the second time through, it falls apart. I usually play each…

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Thoughts on Building and Maintaining Your Repertoire

To build a repertoire, two things are obvious: first, it helps to learn your music in the easiest and most efficient way; secondly, to maintain the repertoire you’ve learned, one must find a way to remember it reliably. Needless to say, practice is key in both cases, but let’s look at some nuances of both learning and remembering, in detail. It may be a relief to know that musically there is no such…

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Making Your Music Compelling

We’ve all heard performances where we were awed by the music. Usually this happens when the music seemingly transcends the musician, and sometimes even the composition, when some kind of magic seems to happen. The musician may be awesomely skilled, but beyond technical prowess there is also an indescribable quality that goes far beyond the notes being played. What is this elusive thing? It’s as though the universe holds a secret that only…

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Musical Proficiency and the Brain

This post builds upon last week’s post, so to get the most out of it, please read last week’s first. One of the most common questions many musicians (even long-time ones) have is, “Why am I not progressing beyond a certain plateau and why doesn’t playing come more naturally?” In many cases, the answer is that after learning a tune and practicing it (a lot) to get all the notes and the technique…

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The Right Brain, The Left Brain, and the Musician

The concept of “right brain” and “left brain” is a proven one; the right side of the brain largely governs creative and intuitive thinking, while the left side largely governs logic, mathematics, and rote learning. The two hemispheres are not like halves of a ball; they are physically separate and are joined only by one fibrous connection (called the Corpus Callosum) which allows communication between the two hemispheres and therefore helps balance our…

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Creating an Effective Promo Packet and Website

Your publicity materials are the most important tools you have, besides your music, for getting gigs. Interestingly, though, if your promo materials fall short, gig promoters are likely to ignore the quality of your music. Many musicians say, “My music speaks for itself,” but in the real world, it might not. Just as people develop most of their impression of others in the first five seconds of meeting them (and that impression is…

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The Right Stuff – Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s subject on starting and maintaining a professional music career… 9. Do the considerable office work. Although making promo materials and doing your own booking are a kind of “office work”, they’re not all there is. It’s essential to know that there is no way around doing the office work; no shortcut. A music career is self-employment, and one must be a good businessperson to keep it…

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The Right Stuff: Creating and Maintaining a Professional Career

Last week I wrote about musical success, which isn’t necessarily the same as having a career in music. This week, I’d like to offer some thoughts on developing and maintaining a professional performance career. As we all know, there are basically three kinds of careers for acoustic/folk/traditional musicians; some do only one of the following, and many do a little of each: Playing locally for restaurants, clubs, weddings, parties, cafes, festivals and occasional…

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What is Musical Success?

I heard an interesting comment recently by a motivational speaker. He said, “Information is not transformation”. I wanted to cheer. It was a very concise way to express a concept I’ve always tried to make sure my students know. We live in the information age, and are often under the delusion that what we know about is what we know. Because of this, we take in huge volumes of information but little of…

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Effective Practice Part 3 – More Good Practice Habits

This is a continuation of the list of Good Practice Habits:  Good Practice Habit #7 –  Eliminating String Noise: Many musicians ignore string noise, but correcting it can bring a piece of music to new levels of excellence. Not all stringed instruments are conducive to eliminating certain string noises, but most are. There are several kinds of string noise: a. the clicking of thick or overly long fingernails b. the intense buzzing that…

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Effective Practice, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s blog. Good Habit #6: Purposely Overcoming Trouble Spots “Trouble spots” are where something always goes wrong in the same part of the tune. Many musicians ignore trouble spots, thinking they’ll just go away eventually (sort of like avoiding going to the dentist for tooth pain). Usually they just get worse. The best way to handle them is to purposely do what it takes to correct them.…

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Effective Practice

Good Practice Habit #1: Focus We’ve all heard the term “getting in the zone”, and we all have a different idea of what that means, but we know it refers to being in a state of mind that allows us to accomplish a task at hand. I’ll call it “focus”. Focus is a quiet state of mind; it isn’t desperate trying, or forcing, or endless repetition. It’s merely being totally present, without interference…

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More on Modes

To get the most from this article, please see my first post on Modes  (“Demystifying Modes”, published on this site on 5/30/2012),  in which I presented the basic concepts of modes in an easy-to-understand format. When a folk or traditional musician sits down with a group to play a tune, the usual question is, “What key is it in?” When someone asks this question, we sometimes find, upon starting to play, that it’s really…

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More About Hands: Technique Issues

(To get the most from this post, please also read last week’s post.) For those who play an acoustic stringed instrument, the term “technique” refers to the way we use our hands to play. Good technique produces the melding of four elements: optimal relaxation of the hands through good ergonomics of the hands and arms optimal tone optimal accuracy optimal smoothness, speed, and expression For each type of instrument, there is no single…

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All About Hands (part 4 of the Discomfort and injury series)

To get the most out of the following information, reading the three previous posts will give you the background information on this subject. The information here is not a substitute for medical diagnosis and treatment. ***  Musicans’ hand discomfort or injury most often develops from holding the hands stiffly or awkwardly while plucking or pressing the strings or keys of an instrument. This can affect the muscles, tendons, tendon sheaths, joints, nerves and…

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PART 3 – Discomfort and Pain Related to Playing Your Instrument: Symptoms, Causes and Solutions

To get the most out of the following information, please read the two previous posts in which I discussed neutral posture (in contrast to the posture most of us have been taught is “correct”), ways in which the holding and playing of an instrument affects the body of the musician, and specific physical problems one might experience from playing an instrument and possible ways to address them. In this post I’ll discuss treatments…

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PART 2 – Discomfort and Pain Related to Playing Your Instrument: Symptoms, Causes and Solutions

This week’s post will be most useful if you’ve read last week’s post first. Last week I wrote about the ways in which the holding and playing of an instrument affects the body of the musician, and about neutral posture (in contrast to the posture most of us have been taught is “correct”). Now let’s talk about specific problems one might experience, and possible ways to address them. The descriptions below apply to discomfort…

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Discomfort Related to Playing Your Instrument: Symptoms, Causes and Solutions

This information is not a substitute for medical diagnosis and/or care. This discussion will be a five-part series (I’ll post one part each week for five weeks) on the subject of avoiding and correcting discomfort and pain related to playing your instrument.  It also addresses the causes of awkwardness or lack of agility and control when playing. Part 1 Although we hate to admit it, even to ourselves, most musicians at some time experience…

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Session and Circle Etiquette, Styles and Skills, Part 2

Last week I posted the first part of this article. The information below will be most useful if you read last week’s blog first. By the way, if you click “Follow”, you’ll automatically get notices when I post each new blog. (I’ve been sending e-mails when I post, but at some point will stop doing that.) If you like this blogsite, please let your friends know!   Sessions and Circles – Part 2:…

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Sessions and Circles: Styles, Formats and Etiquette – Part 1

For eons in every culture, musicians have gathered to play together. In some communities, regular music sessions and circles provide entertainment and growth opportunities for musicians of all ages and skill levels, a tradition that is worth nurturing. What I love about them is that we get to hear music made by everyone and anyone, straight from the heart. They’re a great opportunity to test  new material before performing it, to play things…

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Demystifying Modes

His post is twofold: It contains today’s new subject (Modes), followed by photos of some things I’m selling – to see those please scroll down to the end of the post. Today’s Subject: DEMYSTIFYING MODES When I was a kid learning clawhammer-style banjo, my teacher referred to one of the common tunings as “G Modal”. I had no idea what he meant, and just learned the tuning by ear. Many years later, with…

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Terminology of Tone

Recently a student asked for a precise definition of “tone”. Since people use the term rather loosely, after defining it for him I decided to consult Webster’s Dictionary and other sources, where I discovered incredibly vague definitions: “quality of sound” doesn’t tell us much. When I looked up the words used in the definitions, I often found “tone” as part of their definitions. That’s like saying a cat is a feline and a…

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Expressive Playing: Installment 3

Expression Without Fear Reluctance to play emotively may come from a societal taboo against “being emotional”. But music is a safe venue through which it is considered acceptable to express emotion; in fact, if you don’t, the music isn’t very interesting to listen to. A tune’s emotion might simply be happiness or pensiveness, but it needs to be there, and it makes the music more than just a series of notes. Sometimes when…

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Expressive Play…

Expressive Playing  –  Second Installment:

Melding Technique and Expression

Accuracy without expression is just organized sound, and expression without accuracy is just disorganized sound. Notes are just notes, and feeling is just feeling; neither by itself is sufficient. But when you put the two together, you get music. A musician must be both a technician and an artist.

An exclusive inclination toward one or the other can limit one’s chances of becoming a well-rounded musician. We must purposely develop whichever skills come less easily, to become equally capable of using technical skills and expressive skills to create a complete package of excellent musicianship.

It takes time and patience. The brain actually has to build new neurons for each ability, connecting them with other neurons, encoding each with specific information, and then supporting and securing that information with repeated experience. It can take years to put it together. Let it.

Kinesthetic Playing

What makes “multi-tasking” possible is muscle memory; playing an instrument is largely a kinesthetic skill when well practiced. If we try to think about or watch every note being played, we will never play reliably at even the slowest tempos. That’s what repetitive practice is for; it trains the brain and the muscles to play on autopilot.

Muscle memory is quicker and more reliable than conscious thought. (Without it, we wouldn’t even be able to tie our shoes. Yet we automatically tie our shoes everyday without thinking about it.) Playing an instrument can be like that. Muscle memory (kinesthetic playing) comes from sufficient repetition of a movement or sequence of movements. Therefore, fingerings have to be consistent; in other words, we have to use the same fingerings every time within a tune until they become automatic. Otherwise your fingers will be forever confused. Consistent fingering should be used from the very first time a tune is played.

Tempo, Beat and Rhythm

Three basic and compelling elements in music are tempo, beat and rhythm. These are intimately related. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece of music is played; beat is the pulse of the piece, and rhythm is how the lengths of notes create patterns within the beat. In most music, those factors must be easily discerned in order for it to be appreciated on any level, conscious or subconscious.

Music’s tempos, beats and rhythms can affect those of the human body: heart beat, respiration, brain waves; and the psyche (states of mind). You can purposely use these inherent elements of music to enhance performance; it is, in fact, what all good performers do. (Please see my books Body Mind and Music and Singing the Universe Awake.)

I’ve occasionally heard someone say they don’t want to play with a steady tempo because they think it will make the music sound metronomish or unexpressive. This indicates a lack of understanding what tempo and rhythm are for, how to hear and feel them, and how to be expressive within the parameters of these very essential elements of music.

Do you feel rhythmically challenged? Do you have trouble counting beats? Can you dance? If not, playing expressively may be a challenge. To overcome the feeling of being rhythmically challenged, take classes in ballroom dancing, bellydancing, jazz dancing, or aerobics. At the very least take drumming lessons  –  not just New Age drumming (which doesn’t have the structure and attention to varied complex rhythms) but Irish bodhran or even rock n’ roll. Take them seriously and get good at it. When you have been taught how to feel a beat and a rhythm, and you have moved your whole body to it, you will have crated new neural pathways that will re-wire your brain rhythmically. It will make a huge difference in your ability to play your other instrument(s) well.

Expressive Imagery

What you wish to express through a specific piece of music may be the feeling that came to you when you first heard (or perhaps composed) the piece. But the notes alone won’t give your listeners the same experience. If you wish to have your music evoke specific responses, you have to create them.

Of course, songs with lyrics are expressed through the words, as long as you pay attention to how the words would be expressed if you were speaking. (The biggest difference between folk and classical singing is that folk songs are about the lyrics and classical songs are about the tone.) Emphasize the words and syllables you would express when speaking, but keep it musical. (More on this in a future blog.)

Instrumental music is storytelling without words. Many pieces of music evoke visual images for the player or for the listener. Your own images can help you express your music more fully. Holding an image in your mind will automatically affect how you play the piece, and even though your listeners may not “see” the same image you do, it’s likely they will hear more in your music than if you have no image in your mind.

Decide whether the piece should evoke playfulness, melancholy, joy, loneliness, love, and so on. If you can feel these yourself as you play, your audience is likely to feel them accordingly. It’s like method acting, in which an actor doesn’t just go through the motions but actually feels an emotion in order to portray it well. A good musician brings their own life experiences, convictions, and states of mind to their art. Don’t, however, fall into a trap of having all your music evoke one sentiment. Variety is essential!

Plan Ahead of Playing

While playing each phrase, instead of listening to see how it comes out, hear the next phrase in your head exactly the way you’d like it to come out. Think of it as being like streaming video. When you do this, your playing becomes more accurate and more expressive because you are at cause instead of at effect; you are creating every phrase in advance so it comes out the way you want it to.

The expression of a piece is not static; if it were it would just be a formulaic manipulation of dynamics and note values. How a piece is expressed can and should change from performance to performance. You might hold some notes longer, but the next time you play the piece you might not. You might play louder here and softer there. Or it may be played faster or slower according to your mood or that of the audience. If you try to play it the same way every time, it will just become stale. Who you are changes as your thoughts, experiences and emotions change, and your music can express who you are in the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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