Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lesson 13: How a Beginner Should Listen to a Tune.

There are two ways for a novice banjo player to listen to an Irish tune.  The first is for enjoyment.  We were all attracted to the lift and joy of Irish music and even though "it all sounds the same" to an outsider, there is plenty to enjoy and savor in the genre.  For a beginning musician, however, there' that problem of learning the tune.
Because we are beginners, we are just barely out of the "it all sounds the same" stage of our life but because we have a desire to learn the music from the inside out, we do know that there is something essential about the music that we are trying to duplicate and eventually create.
One of the problems of listening to Irish music (other than not being able to listen to enough of it) is that people play tunes in a differently.  They may play it slowly, with different emphasis on notes, with alternative notes or different timing.  All of these factors change the way the tune is played and heard. 
Most Irish tunes are simple in structure.  While there are many exceptions, they usually follow a predictable form and with the exception of the the second half of each part are repetitive.  There are very few "crooked" (i.e. extra beats) tunes in Irish music because it is dance music first an foremost.  The dancers have to know what is going to happen and as a result, someone new to the music can also anticipate what will come next.
Part of this predictability is the notions of essential or basic notes in a tune.  Every tune has notes that make it that specific tune.  For the most part it is usually the strong notes, the ones that are also the emphasized notes in a tune.  For a jig it can be notes one and four in a measure while the other notes are either passing notes or "interesting" but not vital.  Reels are a little different as they probably have more essential notes per measure but they vary a lot more than jigs.

Here is a video of trying to demonstrate this principle.  You will notice that I can't play and sing at the same time.  My IQ drops 50 points when I try:

Once you learn the essential notes, you can go back to your favorite rendition of the tune and see how much of it is style and the player's interpretation.  Knowing the essential notes also gives you a leg up when you read the notation.  You can start picking out the tune from the notes and see where you can vary things without losing the essence of the tune. 
As an aside, this is one of the reasons I recommend using notation to preserve the tune for further evaluation.  TAB records the way a certain player does the tune and it is less obvious what the essential notes are.  Memory sometimes develops new tunes but once you have a tune, you automatically parse out the essential notes.
So when you listen to tunes, think in  terms of the skeleton.  There are notes that support the whole tune and it is your job to eventually flesh it out.  But first you have to have the basic form down before you can go on.

Mike Keyes

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lesson Twelve:  How to Tune Your Banjo

Tuning seems easy, you just twist the knobs until the electronic tuner says you are in tune.   Oh, if it were only that simple!
I recently had a workshop with Marla Fibish at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat outside of Dallas, TX.  Mandolins are notoriously hard to tune - you have to make sure both strings of the course are the same, there is a lot of stress on the instrument which moves the neck and changes the tuning, and the scale is very short which means that bridge placement is crucial.  Marla showed us some of the tricks to tuning this finicky instrument that will translate to the banjo.
Banjos are not as hard as to tune, they have four strings after all, but they suffer from the same problems that a mandolin has plus they are banjos.
Why "plus they are banjos?"  Among stringed instruments, banjos are a distinct minority in that they are an assemblage of parts instead of being an organic glued-together entity.  The average banjo has between 70 and 90 parts all of which can come loose at some time.  In addition they are all put together by external forces which have to be optimal for the the banjo to sound good. 
Like other instruments they are also made of wood which is a material of widely varying properties and they are subject to environmental forces that can change the relationship of the parts.
The bottom line is that banjos can be just as squirrely as their owners and usually more often.
So where does this lead us when we want to tune?
The so-called Irish Tenor Banjo tuning is GDAE, lowest tone to highest, an octave below mandolin tuning and lower in pitch than the standard tenor banjo tuning of cgda.  Since tenor banjo scales vary quite a bit from nearly 16" to about 23.5" (400mm to 600mm for those of you who are inch deprived) the string gauges vary quite a bit in order to reach these pitches.  In addition action heights often vary for a number of reasons and the tension on the strings changes with a number of factors including string type and gauge. 
If you add in the age of the instruments, the type of tuners, nut slot widths, bridge slot angles, etc., tuning suddenly becomes more complicated.
Other factors include your musical environment (i.e. how well the other instruments are tuned), the physical environment (temperature, humidity, changes in both) and you ability to hear and duplicate tones.
Actually it is a lot harder to tell you how to tune than it is to tune, so let's get started.
You need three things besides your banjo to tune well: an electronic tuner, a pick, and a good ear.  In the old days before electronic tuners you had to have a really good ear if you wanted to be in standard tuning.  The newer electronic tuners (the first one was a strobe tuner dating 1939 and they are still the most accurate) are cheap and accurate.  I like the Snark series because they seem to react to banjos well but a lot of tuners work.
The pick is mostly important in that you are consistent in the way you strike the string and that you don't hit another string in the process.  The harder part is developing your ear.
 Being able to distinguish tones is a skill that every string player has to pick up at some time.  Electronic tuners take some of the gross skills away - you don't have to know when you are close to A=440 anymore, the tuner will do it for you - but you do have to know when the tuning sounds "right."  This latter skill is not a savant absolute pitch thing, it is more of an emotional response to when all four strings sound right.  Banjos (or any other instrument) don't tune exactly to the mathematically correct notes that some tuners look for.  For one thing nothing is a straight/parallel line with banjos so fret placement is not always reflective of absolute notes.  Also, since banjos are resonating bodies they all have a natural tone that they resonate to.  Some of this depends on the setup and especially the  tension of the head so that certain notes will be louder or fuller than others.  As a result  if a string is slightly out of beat with the natural resonance of the banjo (which includes the other strings) then the banjo will not sound as good as you'd like. 
Jazz (cgda) banjo players will often say that they like the third string to be slightly flat by a few cents to make sure that the banjo sounds best.  Piano tuners tune the whole pianos close to perfect as possible and then the tune to the ear so the piano sounds the best.  It humbles you when realize that every piano key has two or more strings.
Throw in testy tuners, slightly small nut slots, the wrong angle bridge break (the angle from the bridge to the tail piece), and the effect of string gauges then you have a less precise and more artful task when you tune.
The basic rules are:  1) Always tune from below the note, it lessens the chances of slippage later on; 2) tune the A string first as close to 440 as possible with the electronic tuner; 3) tune the other strings as close as you can with the electronic tuner and finish off with your ear; 4) banjos are ungrateful (expletive deleted) and  go out of tune at the most inopportune times so be aware.

Here is a video showing you my method of tuning:

Mike Keyes

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lesson Eleven:  An Hour with Kieran Hanrahan

The very first Irish tenor banjo CD I ever bought was entitled "Kieran Hanrahan Plays The Irish Tenor Banjo."  Since than I've always wanted to hear him in person and perhaps take a lesson from him.  It didn't hurt to have Gerry O'Connor, Brian McGrath, and Enda Scahill all tell me that he was a master on the four string "even though he played a different style."
That latter caution (if that is the word) intrigued me because as far as I was concerned Kieran's driving style was something I'd like to emulate.
Kieran rarely comes to the US since the days of Stockton's Wing tour in 1984 so when I heard that he would be at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat, I couldn't wait to see and hear him teach.  The problem was that I was already signed up for Marla Fibish's mandolin class and I could not miss that either.
Fortunately the format of O'Flaherty's had changed this year and allowed for an advanced class in banjo with Kieran Hanrahan that did not interfere with the mandolin class.
Kieran plays with a driving style that is particularly strong on stage especially with others playing with him.  He uses alternating picking exclusively - a style he developed himself as he had no good models the way students do this way.  The result is a driving swinging style that I love and one that suits North American banjo players who come from other instruments and other musical styles.
Most of you are familiar with the "controversy" concerning the right hand style needed to play jigs.  In typical internet style there has been a long protracted discussion mostly consisting of persons advocating DUD DUD or DUDU pick strokes that mostly is people talking past one another.  Kieran Hanrahan often is featured in these dialogues as the poster boy for DUDU while others point to a variety of well known banjo players and teachers who insist that only DUD DUD should be played when jigs and slip jigs are involved.
For the most part, I advocate DUD DUD for beginners because that is one of the best ways to learn the feel of jigs and I try my hardest to do that when I play.  But I have to confess that I was brought up in bluegrass and old time music which has a long tradition of not playing jigs so my fall back position is almost always alternating picking (DUDU) when I get tense or unsure of the tune.  Kieran showed us that alternate picking can be successfully used with jigs but it did take both a paradigm shift and a lot of work to make it sound like music if you are using the DUD DUD method.
With this in mind, I took in his advanced class armed with a borrowed banjo (thank you Kenny Tweedy)  and an open mind.  It didn't take long to realize that this man is a genius on the banjo and that the reason all those other geniuses wanted me to see and hear him was that any banjo player would be incomplete without exposure to his methods.
Right away I realized that he was a consummate musician who had a full grasp on Irish traditional music, not that that is a surprise, but was also able to present the music in a fresh and appealing way.  I have known most of my classmates for several years having taken at least five banjo classes at the O'Flaherty.  They all said that this class was different and "made them think" (almost everyone said those exact words) about considering expanding the way they play the banjo.  Instead of the contrarian view often posed in the internet discussions, I found that his style is complementary to the more or less standard style taught these days.  Kieran, like most elite level musicians, developed an efficient and musical style that is fairly easy to explain but takes a lot of work to use in a seamless and accurate way.  Basically he shows that keeping a steady alternating beat with the right hand drives the music while the left hand can bring in stylistic elements with the occasional right hand triplet.  This simple idea has multiple variations when music is played and he showed us a few of them in the class.
Gerry O'Connor (who is a good friend of Kieran's) has a similar approach to playing the banjo.  He told my class at Milwaukee in 2012 that he has a simple approach that uses the triplet in a distinct way.  He said that he didn't use a lot of ornaments but he did vary the way the tune was played and continues to develop his style.  There is no question who is playing when you hear Gerry play, just as you can tell when Kieran plays.  The elements of their styles are distinct, but the format of their playing, simplicity that becomes infinitely variable within the style, is the same.  All good banjo players eventually decide how they want to play the banjo and sound like themselves.  Stylistically, Kieran is just different than the average banjo player.
So there is not a big difference and certainly not a heretical version of banjo playing with Kieran Hanrahan. He even has the proof - he wrote his Master's thesis on how the Irish tenor banjo is taught.  i was unable to look at the entire text of his paper but he does have some pretty good evidence that most teachers show students the same things he does and only at the higher levels do things change.
So what about the DUD DUD vs. DUDU?  It's a matter of style.  What you get is the strengths of both techniques when you hear an elite level musician play.  The same tune can sound quite different in different hands.  The differences between alternate picking and DUD DUD players are less different than those among DUD DUD users.  The important thing is that if you are going to pick a style, you have to learn it inside and out if you want to become creative with it.  In addition there is no rule that says you can't use both and in several interviews with well known players they all admit that they use alternate picking in jigs when it suits them.
Remember, that these musicians are the very best and that they began with one or the other technique and then developed style afterwards.  At an intermediate level it is possible to continue to add styles and then meld them as your progress.  It is in a beginning student's best interest to start with a standard style so there will be a base upon which more sophisticated methods can be built.  If you use a hodge-podge of unrelated methods starting out, then there will be no base to expand and no logic to your system that will allow you to analyze and improve.
Kieran's style is incredible and is one that I am drawn to because it is so similar to what I grew up with in the States.  My problem has been learning to play the music as Irish music and not an Americanized version of the tunes.  I found DUD DUD very helpful and will continue to use it but I also find that the expansion of my style will benefit by the use of alternating picking.
Kieran does not like his image to be on youtube.  You can see why if you look for him, there are a few poorly produced images that really don't show his full genius.  He let me video the tunes he taught in the class, but I won't show them.  Instead I'll try and show the things he taught us with a video of my own.

Kieran has graciously allowed me to show his video.  He pointed out some small errors that I made in the article:

"Thanks for the complimentary article on your blogspot. Much appreciated. There are one or two points to make . Early in the week of the O’Flaherty retreat I made the point that I don’t exclusively use the DUDU technique while playing but it is the point from where I start. You could say that I use it 95% of the time. There are times when, for effect or depending where there’s a single triplet, I change by doubling up on the downstroke. I showed some examples of this during the earlier classes. Even in the playing of the Rambling Pitchfork I made a couple of subtle changes in order to show the cross-picking effect. I think If you take a closer look at the clip you’ll see about four or five changes of stroke but at that point I was more focused on the effect of cross-picking. I’m not caught up in the rights or wrongs of technique but rather that a player should have a plan when playing and not, as happens a lot, have a random approach to picking."

Two things are shown on this tape: Alternating picking a jig allows you to get a very interesting syncopated effect  by hitting the drone string while playing a descending passage and the left hand plays a more important part in the music with this style.  What is not shown is the use of a triplet that starts on the upstroke - something I need to practice a lot if I want to do it properly - and a left hand triplet that he does by inserting a left hand pizzicato  with his ring finger in between the down and up stroke.  I wish I had the ability to do this left hand ornament, maybe later, but it is pretty nifty and he does it automatically with great style.
Kieran Hanrahan is a seminal player of the Irish tenor banjo who has to be heard in person for your pleasure and a class with him should be on your bucket list if you want to expand our style.  He is both a gentle man and a scholar of the instrument who developed a masterly way of playing.  I am so glad I was able to get this hour with him and I hope to be able to take a longer set of classes with him some day.

Mike Keyes

Friday, November 1, 2013

Marla Fibish:  The Irish Mandolin

I had the great pleasure of taking an Irish mandolin class from Marla Fibish at the 2013 O'Flaherty Retreat.  for those of you who don't know Marla, she is one of the great teachers of Irish mandolin in North America and a superb musician herself.
Marla started out playing the mandolin thirty years ago in San Francisco which has had a long Irish music tradition that continues today.  Marla is one of those musician who had to explore her instrument mostly by herself and in the process learned the strengths and limitations of the mandolin.  She plays a 1921 Gibson A2 that she inherited from her grandfather that has become her trademark.  She also plays mandola and guitar, but in this lesson we focused mostly on the mandolin.
Coming into this lesson I was biased by the many glowing reports about her teaching style and her musicianship.  I was not disappointed, in fact those remarks were muted if anything.  Marla is a warm and welcoming person who has a lot of information to impart and is more than willing to spend time with you.  She clearly has a love for the music and like all elite players has strong opinions about how best to play the music.  She does not impose a prescriptive method, but she does want you to play to your potential and to learn to improve your technique.
The class started out with basic strokes on the mandolin.  She insists that you get the best tone out of your instrument and she has developed a number of exercises to help all levels of players.  She taught a few new tunes, but most of the emphasis was on learning to get into a groove with the stroke and to make sure that you play with taste, drive, and tone.
We spent half the class on reels and the other half on jigs.  Marla also taught an "enrichment" class for advanced students (much like a master class) that explored issues with various tunes and techniques.  The basis of these classes was learning how to use the pick and we practiced a number of increasingly complex exercises in alternate picking (DUDUDUDU) for reels and jig picking (DUD DUD) for jigs.  All of the class was familiar with alternate picking and most of them had the idea of DUD DUD  down before the class so she was able to teach a number of interesting ways to use these strokes. 
While all of this seems like it would be fairly basic stuff, it really wasn't.  I've seen both Roland White and Andy Statman give similar classes and each time I came away with new insights into the mandolin. Ironically in the Roland White class only the better players seemed to understand the absolute need to keep up basic skills and for me that was the insight.  In the Andy Statman class every player there was an expert and the class went down very well.  The same is true of this class.
One of the things that Marla emphasized is that playing the mandolin requires a system of techniques.  Mandolins are relatively new to Irish music and some tunes are not suited for the mandolin as much as they are for the flute or fiddle.  If you read Joe Carr's book on Bill Monroe he addresses this issue much in the same way that Marla taught.  Bill Monroe could not play the tunes the same way the fiddle did so he developed his own style that included doubling notes instead of using passing notes and changing the tunes in minor ways to reflect the strengths of the mandolin.  Over the years Marla has come this same conclusion about the mandolin and Irish music.  Instead of a complex descending triplet/roll she would substitute a smothered triplet on one note or advise not to even do it.  It is possible to play those fiddle ornaments, but there are ornaments that the mandolin can do and the fiddle can't (such as droning an octave below because of the sustain a mandolin has) that fit much better with the mandolin.
As a result much of the music Marla plays is a little slower than session speed and much richer on the mandolin. 

Here is a sample of her teaching the Paddy O'Brien reel The Antrim Rose:

If you ever get a chance to take a lesson from her (She does Skype lessons, take it.  You won't be disappointed

Mike Keyes

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lesson Ten: Speed Kills

The first thing beginners want to learn is the triplet.  The second thing is how to play faster. but the right thing to do is neither.

 Here is a good example of someone who plays fast:

And here is the same tune also played fast but with a difference:

This last video is by David Mold who regularly contributes to Mandolincafe "Song of the Week" and is a good example of how to play fast but remain tasteful with good tone.

I hope you can hear the difference between these two examples of the same tune.  There is an  important lesson here: speed is not that important, but if you insist on speed, you have to have good fundamentals.
There is a natural progression for beginners on any stringed instrument.  First you have to learn consistent technique that produces good tone before you do anything else.  For most fretted instruments this means that the right hand produces about 90% of the tone so you have to work hard on the right hand.Learning to produce a good tone is paramount (pun intended) if you want to advance.
While this is primarily an Irish tenor banjo blog, I will frequently use mandolins as an example (and will talk about Irish mandolin and tenor guitar as the spirit moves me) because banjos are infinitely tunable due to their construction.  The importance of the right hand can be lost if a banjo has a terrible setup and sounds crappy.  Mandolins, on the other hand, have some setup requirements but are not as variable as a banjo.  I mention this because sometimes it seems impossible to hear a good tone in a banjo that is not setup well.  Assuming that your banjo is well setup (I will have a column on setup at a later date) then learning to produce good tone will make more sense.
In the case of our two intrepid mandolin players, tone is clearly impeded by speed in one case and not in the other.  The difference is in the level of good technique between the two.
Let's look at what has to be done to produce good tone.
If you look at videos of the great banjo players, you will be struck by one thing, they all seem to hold the pick differently and there seems to be no similarities.  Compare Angelina Carberry and Enda Scahill and others in this video: totally different on the surface.

What you don't see at first is that there are a lot of similarities: the pick is perpendicular to the  head but at an angle to a plane that bisects the fingerboard. This allows the pick to slip through the string but still strikes the string strongly. In addition the pick is held very softly which allows it to move but  not flip out of the hold.  But most important is that the hold is consistent throughout the tune.  One of the reasons for this is that these players use a relaxed wrist stroke which is the most efficient way to produce a sound.
Here is where speed is not your friend.  If you don't have good consistent tone and you haven't practiced your technique at different tempos, you will not be able to produce the same tone as your tempo increases because the angles will change and you will tighten up your grip.  In fact, even for the best players there is a limit to how fast you can play with good tone - of course at those speeds no one is listening to the tone of the banjo as they are  too dazzled.  There is not so much dazzle when a beginner attempts to play at the same speeds because consistency (hence tone) is lost at speed.
If you listen to the experts when the question of "how do I play faster" is asked, they will all tell you to play slowly first and speed will eventually come.  For many beginners this advice is too difficult  to take because they want to get from point A to point F without learning solid layered technique.  The result is seen above - anyone can play fast, the trick is to play well.
So the trick to playing fast is to not play fast but to play well.  Learn to play with great tone and consistent technique.  Play the music so it sounds good.  At some point you will find that you are playing faster but playing well.
Speed kills.

Mike Keyes

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lesson Nine: How to Practice

 Being a beginner means that we have to learn not only the music, but the style and technique of the banjo - this holds true for experienced musicians as well as absolute newcomers.
As a result, no matter how much you read about playing or see on youtube or follow in your live lessons with your teacher, you have to practice.  If you don't practice, you will never learn to play the banjo.
There is a lot of very good research available these days about how musicians learn.  The very best classical professionals start being taught as children, work obsessively with a variety of teachers, go to a professional school and then try and find a job.  In the process their brains are altered until they are very different from even good amateurs in that they end up playing at a higher level than mere mortals.
The best Irish banjo players have similar stories.  The majority of them started as children or teens, developed technique and style via a variety of teachers (or at least good models) and practiced incessantly until they had a style and a method of playing that allowed them to become creative and go beyond the abilities of most other players.
The one thing that none of the best or worst players can escape, however, is the need to practice.
All the teaching in the world, all the talent, all the listening to music will not take the place of practice.  If you want your brain to physically change (so called muscle memory, among other things) so you can become a better player, you have to practice.
There are some universal guidelines about practice that have to do with how the brain operates.
The first principle is Repetition.
By repetition I mean practicing specifically to learn basic skills and technique and then applying them to learning how to perform tunes.  It means practicing good techniques and then reinforcing them by practicing them again and again.
I suspect that a lot of you have heard the theory that to become a master at anything you have to put in ten thousand hours of practice.  That is true, in a sense, as long as those hours are layered.  By this I mean that you have to have basic technique down and part of you before you can move on otherwise if you are missing some basic technique, you will not be able to build on it in the future and you will run into a dead end.  The best way to do this is to have a teacher guide you.  Each time you move up a layer you learn it until it becomes part of your unconscious and automatically occurs when you play.
Once the basics are learned you have to reinforce them with practice as you advance.  This is why  many of the best teachers will tell you to play scales and training riffs to warm up.  Basics have a tendency to be lost as a player advances because cumulative small errors sneak in unless you consistently remind yourself of the basics and play them.
The second principle is Rest.
If you do nothing but practice and not allow time to rest, two things will happen: your skills will  worsen and you will injure yourself.  If you don't give your brain and your body time to recover and assimilate, you will never be able to improve.  The idea of resting  your body is probably obvious if you have played sports or practiced for any non-musical performance.  Your body will eventually tire so much that mistakes creep in and you will never be able to build muscle fitness or learn good technique.
The same is true for the brain except that the brain needs recovery/assimilation time even more than the rest of the body.  We know from studies of musicians that the brain not only develops specific pathways for music, but that a process of growing new brain cells devoted to these pathways occurs.  In order for this neurogenesis to occur, the brain needs sleep, rest and nutrition. In other words your mother's advice to "sleep on it" has literal validity.  While you are asleep your brain is putting it all together.
This also means that practice times should include some rest time and time limits on what you are doing before you move on to other things either in life or in practice.
The third principle is Planning
Probably the worst way to practice is to just play tunes.  For one thing, playing tunes is a fun exercise but it is not very critical of technique, tone, or timing.  How many times have you gone to a jam or session and found the self taught musician who can't keep time or is not able to function with other players?
I suspect that this player only plays tunes at home and is not listening to what he or she is doing.  It is very important that you set up goals every time you practice and that you keep to these goals as much as you can.
A typical beginner's practice session is to 1) determine how much time you have; 2) begin by warming up with scales or practice riffs; 3) start on the issue you want to practice (tone, tempo, timing, pick hold, positioning, right hand technique, left hand technique, practicing performing, etc.) and focus on that one issue.  After a period you should move on to another issue but you have to make sure that you are practicing the right thing and doing it properly.  If you don't then you are practicing to be either inconsistent or to have a poor performance outcome. Later on you can devote some time to putting these skills together and playing tunes.  Each time you practice you want to learn something new.  You should have an idea what that new thing is, but there will be times when you surprise yourself. 
The last principle is Analysis.
These days we have wonderful tools to help us learn and analyze.  Even your phone is capable of recording, videoing and slowing down your music to see and hear what you are doing.  Once you have this raw data, you can then watch and learn, send them to a teacher or coach, and determine what you have to do in order to improve.  If possible you should write all of this down  so you can go over it when you are able to be more objective.  One of the great tools that the best players have is to be able to objectively look at their own work and then make the necessary changes.
It's up to you as to how much you want to practice and how you practice.  The more time you devote to practice, The more likely you will improve but even minimal practice will help if you go about it with clear goals and a good idea about what you need to learn.
The guidelines I mention are universal for all sorts of things but the most important cog in this wheel is you.  In order to improve you have to put in the time and learn from that experience.  What you learn is going to have the most effect on your improvement and that "wood shedding" is the reason why there are so many great players in the folk music field who are "self-taught" - they were able to practice with meaning by following the guidelines above, even if they didn't know they were following them.

Here is a great podcast by one of my favorite violinists, Rachel Barton Pine, on how to practice.  Note that most of us will not be able to keep her schedule of eight hours a day from age three to eighteen.

Mike Keyes

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lesson Eight: The Most Important Thing To Know About Learning the Irish Tenor Banjo

The most important thing about learning the Irish tenor banjo (or any other instrument) is listening to the music before you try to play it.

OK, I am a little over the top with the title of this blog, but I think I am correct about this.  You can't learn Irish music without listening to it and by listening I mean making the music part of you.
There are very good neurophysiological reasons for this. The process of learning takes time and exposure to the information needed to learn.  But more importantly, there has to be more than just a logical process if you really want to learn a tune, or in this case, how the music is played.
Irish traditional music is a foreign entity to most of us who play it, even for some from Ireland who found it after they became adults.  This is not an argument for "you have to be born in Ireland to play Irish music", but it is a bit of reality we all have to deal with.
The same thing can be said about many American roots styles: it takes work to be able to incorporate the music so you can interpret it in a way that honors the music and have an emotional relationship to it.
Irish music is something of a fuzzy concept.  If you listen to Martin Hayes and Tommy Peoples play the same tune you could not say that they were identical.  Part of this is a reflection of regional variation but even that concept is questionable ever since Michael Coleman started to send records back to Ireland from the United States.  There are clearly regional tendencies, of course, but most of the music we hear these days is more related to the genius and style of the various expert players.
Today's players use a differently tempered scale, have better technique, and have explored the music far more than a lot of the players from the first half of the last century.  More of these players are professionals and they have learned from teachers and records while developing their own styles.
One thing all of these musicians have in common is that they have listened to the music.
Seamus Connolly, Artist-In-Residence at the Boston College Irish studies program, pointed out in a lecture (at the O'Flaherty Retreat) that beginners should attend master classes in fiddle because they would always come out of the class with something of value.  His thesis was that by listening to the best teachers and musicians you get a feel for the music that you don't get in beginner classes because the beginner classes focus on teaching tunes and technique while the music is secondary.
There is no question that you have to have good technique if you want to advance in the music but technique is not the whole picture.  Even knowing a lot of tunes is not the be-all and end-all of the music.  You need to learn the "lift" if you want to play the music and really enjoy it.
Martin Howley alluded to this in his lecture on learning by ear at the Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School. There are skills you can learn to reproduce a tune and there are plenty of apps and aids to help with this process.  But in order to really learn the tune you have to make it your own.  To make it your own you have to have an emotional relationship with the music and then it really comes alive.
The process of learning music is one that has been studied extensively in medical schools and universities. (The perfect storm, highly trained poor musicians attending school offered a lot of money to put their heads in an MR machine while they play - all at the same university.)  What has been learned is that the brains of musicians, especially skilled musicians, are different from non-musicians and this difference is a result of years of hard work both in technique plus being  immersed in the music that they play.  Highly skilled musicians have a section of their brains that light up when they see other musicians play called the mirror neurons.  In order for this to happen, the brain has to change a lot and brain growth actually occurs.
Music is not a logical endeavor.  In order to learn a style or type of music you have to work very hard at it and in the case of Irish banjo playing, listen to a lot of music played well
This doesn't mean you have to listen to banjo exclusively.  In fact that would only limit you.  You should try and listen to as much Irish music as you can, take in all the styles in the genera, and enjoy the experience.  This is especially true in the beginning as you are learning technique.  For one thing knowing the music will give that technique some context and as you start to sing the music in your head, you will add the little diddleys automatically.  At some point it will come together, but you have to work.

Here is a video of Enda Scahill playing The Doon Reel.  This is a popular session tune in many areas and well worth learning.  But first listen to how Enda plays it.  He is adding a number of variations (which he explains) and points out how they work.  You may not like what he does or even understand it on a logical level, but try and learn the feel of the music too.  At some point you will hear this tune and will be able to anticipate the lift and rhythm as you harken back to this video:

Here are the ABCs, you can plug them into the Concertina converter and get a PDF printout:

X: 1
T:Doon Reel (6) (The)
T:Leather Buttons
(3Bcd ec dBAB||d2fd Adfd|d2fd BABc|d2fd Adfa|
afeg fddc|d2fd Adfd|d2fd ~e3f|gfec dcBA|(3Bcd ec dBAF||
 Mike Keyes

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lesson Seven: Triplets

I've written about triplets before, in fact my other web site has a very good article.  But I will talk about them again because trying to produce triplets is an obsession for all beginners. (I've given up on trying to use the other site,  the NSA will have more luck getting in and changing it.)

My first lesson on the Irish tenor banjo was with Gerry O'Connor (his web site seems to be gone) who is, by any reckoning, the triplet king.  He was not that eager to teach our group of beginners how to do triplets but we hounded him until he showed them to us.  Gerry was reluctant for a reason, he doesn't think that beginners should worry about what is, after all, only an ornament.  The fact that he makes his living with triplets aside, he wants people to play the music and you can do so without the triplet, especially in sessions where they are lost in the mix of instruments.

Triplets are there to emphasize rhythm and "lift" which is a unique quality of Irish music.  They are not part of the tune and in fact need to be placed in different places if you are going to play the tune more than one time if you don't want to be boring.  Some musician's styles use the triplet a lot while others don't.  At some point when you are experienced enough to have a style, you will discover which end of the triplet scale you belong.

Another ontological issue has to do with naming triplets.  For classical musicians a triplet is a written series of three notes in the period of time that two notes should be played.  In Irish music such musical triplets exist, usually in hornpipes, but mostly they are ornamental.  Enda Scahill defines a triplet as different notes played in the ornament while the term "treble" is used for three notes that are the same.  Since we are going to look at mechanical technique, which for the right hand is the same no matter which notes you play,  I will continue to confuse you and call them triplets.

When I first started to play Irish music in our local session, I played my mandolin.  It became clear that I was not going to be heard very well with my mandolin so I found a B&D Silver Bell in a local music shop and went to the dark side.  I struggled with the music and especially struggled with triplets during this period.  Now I realize that the culprit was not my technique (which sucked, a lot) so much as my inability to hear where triplets should go and my anxiety every time I tried to produce one in the session.  I could barely produce them at home where I was safely away from my friends scrutiny.

Gerry showed us what he did.  He didn't use the McTwist, a technique taught by Roger Landes and others, instead he used a wrist triplet which involves only using his wrist stroke.

Here is my take:

I made this video a number of years ago and I still use the wrist triplet with some of the McTwist features.  Often I think I am using one of the techniques and am really using both.

Learning to  play triplets is hard work for such a simple action.  Anxiety resulting in muscle tension is the reason most of us have a hard time getting triplets to work.  When you watch really good players make triplets you can hardly see what they are doing.  Look at the video of Enda Scahill playing the "relaxed hand" and you will see him barely move yet the sound comes out.

I don't recommend trying to make triplets at the start of your banjo career,  but most of the time that advice is ignored, so  when you do try, relax and sing the music in your head.  If you miss, you miss, if you get it, great, but the music comes first.

Here is a compilation of experts playing triplets I (I can't get it to come up on this blog.)

Mike Keyes
Building Your Own Banjo

I like to buy banjos (when I can afford them), fix them up as well as I can  and then sell them to young musicians for my purchase price and let them pay me off over a very long period of time.  I do this because I have found wonderful young musicians who are playing banjos that are crap, to say the least, and they need a better instrument.

Lately it has been harder to find good instrument for less than $600 or so. Usually I look at auctions, Mandolincafe and for instruments I know will probably be good from dealers I trust.  I have stopped using ebay and most of the stores I trust sell at retail which is fine for my instruments but out of bounds for a struggling musician.

I was at Banjothon, a private showing of pre-war Gibson five string banjos, this year when it was suggested that I either build a good tenor banjo or have others do so.  Greg Earnest, who is an unquestioned authority on these banjos, mentioned that First Quality Music in Louisville had a large number of tenor banjo necks for sale and that they could be mated to the Recording King PB-680 Banjo Pot Assembly and with a few added parts a professional level banjo could be had for about $600.

These pots (and the other parts needed) can be bought at two sources, and Janet Davis Acoustic Music  and they are considered to be very good for making the Gibson style banjo by the five string makers.  First Quality has the parts you need too but not the pots.

Banjos are an assembly of parts but that assembly has to be precise and you have to setup each banjo for it to be playable.  Nonetheless, putting together a banjo from parts is a lot easier than building a guitar from a kit.  The most crucial part is fitting the neck to the pot and drilling the holes for the various bits to go through.

Here is a list of what you need:

Banjo pot assembly        $250-$260 (includes rim, flange and flathead tone ring)
Banjo tension hoop         $60
Hooks and nuts                $25-27
Resonator                         $60
Coordinating Rods           $15-$35  (remember to ask for the one that fits the pot.)
Resonator hardware         $25-$30
Tailpiece                           $15
Tailpiece bracket               $3
Tuners                                $70 (for Gotoh, the best, from Bob Smakula.  You can find cheaper but not better.
Armrest not needed but     $23

Total                                   $500-$550 (you may be able to get free shipping) not including the armrest.

The expensive part of building a banjo is the neck - most of the time.  If you had a tenor neck made by one of the better banjo makers it would cost you $600-$1200 depending on the maker.  Because no one seemed to want the lower end Gibson one piece flange necks that fit this pot assembly, I was able to get 15 of them at $70 apiece.  So if you are interested in a project such as this, I'll sell one to you for that price.  Some of the necks are in mint condition, some need refretting and a new nut, some need a truss rod cover (or all the above) but they all fit the pot and they are all straight.  Because Gibson used the same blanks for all their pots and necks, these necks are good feeling but don't have the bling of the higher end necks such as binding or inlays.  They come from TB-0, TB-00 and TB-100 banjos.  The latter necks are mahogany while the others are maple.  All the necks are over 50 years old and have the original cut for the pot.

So you can add another $70 dollars and come to a $570-$620 total, a great price for a professional level banjo.

So what is the catch?  There are two.  First the banjo you end up with will be a Gibson style banjo.  It will have a flathead tone ring which some Irish tenor banjo players don't want.  I find that these banjos are powerful and have great bass response depending on the head (another $15, by the way) or the bridge (from free - I make my own - to $30 or so) and especially the setup.  If you hate Gibson, you are SOL for this project. 

Second, you have to make this banjo.  As I said before, it is not that hard.  I think that for an extra fee  you can get the lag bolt holes drilled (about $30) and the accuracy of these holes is probably the most crucial aspect of putting the parts together.  Adjusting the neck is also a little difficult, but I use .010 brass to shim the neck and get the proper angle.  I'm pretty sure that both vendors will cut the neck with their tools - again for a fee which should be reasonable. Constructing the Five String Banjo by Roger Simminoff is a great book to have on hand when you build.

In the end you will have a very good banjo.  It may not look the greatest - you will have to dye and finish the banjo as you see fit - but it will sound great.  In the mean time you will learn a lot about your banjo and will break down those barriers that make it hard for you to tweak the banjo as needed.

Here is video showing one of my banjos made from parts.  Later on I will have a video showing how to take parts and make a banjo.  If you look at the last blog entry, you will see another banjo I made with a TB-00 neck. 

Mike Keyes
Lesson Six: Bad Banjo Habits

No matter what you do, you will develop bad habits when you play.  Maybe I should say "bad habits" because there are plenty of fine Irish tenor banjo players out there who don't play in a classical manner but still have wonderful music to share. Not every thing that is wrong is "wrong."

But there are a few things that will help you advance your style and technique faster, especially if you are beginner. 

Of course there are a lot of things you can do wrong while playing the banjo.  Wrong posture, wrong grip, weird hand position, the list goes on and on.  Most of these are readily corrected either by a teacher or by checking your technique against the many videos of experts out there.  But two things stand out that are not readily seen and they effect crucial parts of your playing.

My last banjo lesson with Enda Scahill brought this out.  Enda has been studying a relaxation method called the Alexander Technique which is a system of body presentation originally devised by an Australian actor, Frederick Alexander, to help him speak and sing better.  It incorporates a number of relaxation and posture techniques that make a person perform more effectively and more efficiently by making sure that the body is relaxed and that unnecessary levels of muscular tension don't interfere with the performance.

I'm not advocating this technique, like all systems of this sort it takes a long time an much dedication to get it right, but Enda specifically pointed out two places where this idea benefits banjo players.

This is not the first time I have heard these ideas, but it was the first time they came with an explanation.

First the Right Hand.

Speed and right hand ornaments (read triplets) depend on a single motion of the wrist and lack of interfering muscular tension.  Tight grip is the  thing that most interferes with both speed and good tone.  This may sound counter-intuitive, after all a loose grip should result in a lost pick, but time and time again I have observed the best players not only use a soft grip in which the pick moves back and forth, but they have all told me that they try to use as relaxed a grip as possible.  Videos show this happening - just look at the previous blog entry of Enda playing a relaxed grip - and while the pick moves, it moves in the direction of the stroke and is not lost.

On the other hand if you use a gorilla grip on the pick, you not only activate all the muscles in your forearm, but those of the hand too.  In other words all the muscles present are working and the result is both a slowing of the stroke (because you have to fight off the resistance of the opposing muscle) and a loss of control and strength  since the final product of all this muscular activity is the net force of the opposing muscles which is quite weak.

So as relaxed a grip as you can stand is the best grip on the pick.

Next we will look at the Left Hand

The fingers of  left hand are used to press the string to the fret in order to change the note on the banjo.  When you are excited or stressed the natural tendency is to press harder  on the string because you want to emphasize the note.  This is a normal reaction but one that is of no practical value.  Because it is a natural reaction to your music, it becomes harder to change when you need to be more light fingered such as during a fast tempo or fast left hand ornaments.

There is an easy way to find out if you are pressing too hard, your fingers and perhaps your finger joints will hurt after a session of doing so.  I play the mandolin and I tend to use the same force with the banjo that I use on the mandolin.  It is not necessary to do so so I have been trying to  change this and play the banjo more like an electric guitar.  Part of the problem has been solved by lowering the action of my banjos but the rest is a matter of learning the right technique and relaxing.

I have to deliberately  tell myself to "relax" when I play and I have to remind myself often to do so.  Eventually this will become second nature, but it is a matter of practice and work.  You may ask yourself "what's the harm in more pressure than needed?"  The answer lies in what it does to the rest of your body as you play.  I found that I was leaning forward looking at my hand, that my right shoulder was raised and tense, and that I was not breathing during the most difficult passages.  All of these factors worsen when I am playing in session or on stage.  (a lot of this has been discussed in a previous blog.)  The simple thing to do was to practice a light fingered approach.  Martin Howley showed our mandolin class what he does.  He pressed down on the strings until he has a clear note and then tries to keep it at that pressure.

Here is a video showing some of the things that I try to do when I play.  I'm the first to admit It doesn't always happen that way, but I am still a work in progress and will be forever.

Mike Keyes
Lesson Five: Humours of Tulla

I picked another easy tune for you to learn, this time the Humours of Tulla.  this is not only an easy tune, but it is well known and can be played a lot of ways depending on how you want to ornament it.  It sounds good played slowly or fast - but unless you are in a beginner's session, it will be played fast.

Here are the ABCs which you can plug into the Concertina site converter:

X: 1
T:The Humours of Tulla
C:Arranged by Michael Keyes
fe|d2 Ad BdAB|d2 fd edBc|d2 Ad BdAd|cdef g2 :|
fg| af f2 df f2|af f2 ge e2|af f2 dfed|(3Bcd ef g3 ^g|
af f2 dfef|af f2 ge e2 af f2 dfed cdef g2 |>|

This tune is in the key of D and is only played on the A and E strings.  I use a four finger guitar style when I play and this tune fits well with this paradigm.  You can use any left hand style that suits you and it will still sound good.

Start out slowly until you learn the tune.  Don't be afraid to make mistakes, you'll get it eventually, and remember that much of this and any tune is either ornamentation or variation.  Below is a video that will try and show the basic skeleton of the tune and how it can be played.  I never play this tune the same way each time and will substitute different passing notes.  The important thing is to play those notes that make the tune, primarily the D, G, and A notes at the right time and the other notes, while required in some form only emphasize the main ones.

I like to sing the tunes either in my head or out loud.  This enables me to use another way to learn the tune and it lets me learn the feel of the tune since I have been a singer all my life.  I'll play new tunes on the whistle at times before I play them on the banjo.  Mostly I just listen to the music on youtube or CDs if I happen to have them

If you listen to other sources you will find that there are many versions of a tune.  I usually pick the one I like and put it in The Amazing Slowdowner in order to learn it note for note.  Once I have the tune, I try other ways to play it.  I'll take it to our weekly session where it will crash and burn most of the time but that is all part of learning to play the tune, especially in the stress environment of a session.

Here is a video of me playing the tune slowly, etc.

Mike Keyes

Sunday, August 18, 2013

More Vacation Stuff: Learning by Ear

My last class at Irishfest Summerschool was given by Martin Howley on learning tunes by ear.  I was not there for the class initially, Martin had to give me something to take home, but I stayed anyway and glad I did.

I have been learning tunes by ear for over fifty years.  There was a period in school when I learned notation (for the trumpet) but I preferred to learn by ear mostly because I enjoyed the music more.  Over that period I have gotten better at learning a tune on the fly, but I still struggle at times when a tune doesn't fit my idea of what should come next.  Some Irish music such as Paddy Fahey or Ed Reavey tunes have that quality and I have to really listen to them for a long time before I get them.

Martin's class was small - the festival had already started so most students had moved on - but it was clearly a highlight of the term.  He began by talking about the difference between learning by notation (which most of the class did) and by ear.  Interestingly his first thought was about ear training which is a classical skill all music majors learn.  But instead of focusing on how to "sing" notes on the paper, he started by having us recognize intervals and naming them.  The purpose of this exercise was to point out a crucial aspect of ear training, learning to listen to the tune.

I know that sounds odd, after all learning by ear is supposed to be about the tune, but Martin pointed out the many musicians from this tradition stop listening to the tune after the first six bars.  Most trad music is patterned and predictable so once you hear a few thousand tunes, a new one is not that different.  The main differences occur in the last few bars of each part of the tune.Since that is where the most original parts occur, they often vary depending on whether it is the first iteration or the second of each part.

The most common way Irish tunes are taught is by sections and by rote.  In other words you learn a clump of notes, usually a bar or  two at a time and then repeat and repeat.  Eventually the tune takes form in your head and you learn it.  I have a hard time learning a tune this way since I prefer to hear the tune in its entirety and absorb it over a period of time.  When I learn a tune in a workshop the traditional way, I may or may not retain it so I find that it is very important to record everything.

Another aspect of learning by rote is that the use of notation is frowned upon for some reason.  Possibly this is a continuation of an older method from a time when neither teachers or students had notation skills.  I know that a number of the famous older teachers often used their own letter notation  similar to the ABC system.  Martin handed out the score of his tunes in his mandolin class but wanted us to only use it for reference.

The reasons for this is complex, learning by ear is a skill that should be learned by all trad musicians.  Trad music can't be quantified on paper very well.  It is music meant to be heard or danced to so there are aspects such as whether or not it is played on the beat that would make precise notation incomprehensible.  Besides, no trad musician plays the tune exactly the same each time.

Instead, learning by ear allows you to  learn the music, not just the notes.  Classical music allows for interpretation too, but most of the time it is the purview of the conductor, not the musician.  So classical training is all about discipline and perfection to the page while trad music is less concerned about exact tune and more about the individual interpretation.

This is not to say that you can do anything you want with the music.  One of the purposes of learning by ear is to learn the cultural and stylistic aspects of the music.  I watched an interesting experiment a few years ago at a folk festival in Madison, Wisconsin in which fiddlers of different styles played the one tune they all had in common, Miss McLeods Reel (Hop High Ladies, etc.)  They had very different stylistic interpretations of the same notes.  They also had a great time playing it together.

That last aspect is very important.   A good tune can be played an a lot of different ways and the reason for this is that music is not a logical and linear  endeavor.  Music is clearly an emotional experience.  You can learn the tune and play it back note for note and in the process lose the value of the music.  Every piece of music was composed at some time by an individual and then passed on by others.  Every time it was played it was also heard and it affected the listener in some way.  If that listener was you, it probably affected the way you played it the next time. 

A tune heard indifferently will be played indifferently the next time possibly with notes wrong and timing off or just plain dull.  On the other hand if a tune  evokes an emotion, it can be learned in a way that makes it music when played again.

For me and a lot of other musicians, learning a tune by ear involves a series of steps.  First I have to hear the tune and sometimes it takes a long time and many repetitions to get it into my head.  One of my favorite ways to do this is to start singing the tune (silently or out loud) and just get the feel for the tune.  Martin likes to do this and he doesn't mind making mistakes in the tune as eventually the tune will find itself after a few thousand repetitions. 

Those repetitions are important.  A lot of musicians can hear a tune and play it on the fly and then not know the tune a day later.  If you like a tune but forget it, you can find it on line or have recorded it for later.  Once you "get" that tune and start lilting or singing it, you will find that you'll probably become obsessed with the  tune and you can't get it out of your head.  Don't worry, this is part of the assimilation process.  After a while you will  find that the emotions engendered by the music will help you play it better and will allow you to automatically interpret the tune with ornaments, dynamics, timing and "feel."

Learning by ear is a process that can take days.  Nowadays we have a lot of technology that will help us with the process.  In the past you had to be exposed to the music over and over by hearing others play it in  person.  Now we have youtube, mp3, Skype, the Amazing Slowdowner, smart phones and a host of other gadgets and software/apps that let us record, dissect, and communicate the music to one another.  It has never been easier to find and learn tunes or to find out if we know the tune as well as we should.

Still, it comes down to memory, assimilation, and loving the tune if you want to learn by ear.  Notation is very helpful if you use it as a resource and reminder but notation is not the  tune, your playing and interpretation is where the tune really lives and in order to make sure you have the tune you have to listen and love it.

Mike Keyes

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Another Extra: What I Learned On My Vacation

I don't have a lot of time off from my job, but when I take it it is usually to a music festival or family visits.  This week I am at the Milwaukee Irishfest , the largest Irish cultural event in the world (because it is run by Germans), and I attended the Irishfest summer school learning from the best..

If you have ever taken lessons at these weekend offerings, you know that there is a lot of information offered in each class.  Because the classes are so concentrated, the amount of information can't be assimilated very well, in fact if you don't record them you will lose a lot of what was given to you.

This week I took classes from Martin Howley and Enda Scahill.  Each class was small, a good thing, and each class was aimed at the intermediate to advanced student which meant that there were concepts that I had never considered before and they seemed to pass by me at lightning speed.  I video a lot of these classes so I can review them later (and often I do) but I also look for a unifying theme which in this case was learning the value of relaxation.

Both Martin and Enda talked about how important relaxation was to their playing and how they actively searched out methods of relaxation in order to not only enhance their playing, but to preserve their health.  Their new band, WeBanjo3, is a show band.  In other words, they stand and move around expending a lot of energy on stage all while carrying a heavy banjo.  Any extra tension ends up as back, shoulder, and arm pain.  Enda has been using the Alexander Technique which focuses on (among other things) posture and relaxation. Martin has been exploring various methods of relaxation and he finds that he can invoke a relaxation response before playing that helps him be more productive and imaginative in his playing because he doesn't worry about his technique.

"Well", you might say, "these are the professionals, what do they have to worry about?"

The answer is "everything."  They are professionals because they consider every factor in their playing and have found that in order to play well, or in this case fantastically, they have to have the ability to be efficient, accurate and precise.  If you are tense, it means that not only are the muscles that you use to play are activated, but that the opposing flexor muscles are too.  As a result there is a tug of war going on in your body that results in slower weaker movement that is imprecise and inaccurate.  Triplets suffer and you start sounding harsh and have poor timing.

I've been involved in a mental training effort for sports shooters for the past thirty plus years and write extensively on the subject.  The same principles of relaxation apply to shooting and other sports, the more you are able to relax, the more efficient and precise you are.  Just look at world class sprinters, when they are  at their best they relax every muscle that is not in use for running (you can see their jaws flapping, for example) and as a result there is no tension opposing those muscles used for running so they go faster.  This is a trained response and is one that you can use too.

In my banjo class, Enda pointed out that I was raising my shoulder, tensing my neck and otherwise squinching down while I played.  Classes like this are anxiety provoking, especially when you are called on to perform, but they also give you an opportunity to see how you do under pressure.  Enda  suggested I lower the shoulder, sit straighter, relax my elbow and grip, all while trying to enjoy the music.  He also pointed out that if you  play in front of a mirror and/or video yourself while playing, you can see when you tense up.

This is the same advice that coaches give world class athletes.  No matter who you are, you will have a tendency to tense up in performance situations so you have to train to relax until it becomes part of your system.  If you don't, then those little tense moments will sneak up on you when you need them the least.  Martin composes himself before going on stage with a deliberate relaxation ritual that keeps him going throughout the gig.  If he starts to get tense, his little alarms go off and the automatically relaxes.   This takes practice, practice, practice, just like any other aspect of learning to play an instrument.

So the main thing I learned was to start a program of relaxation. I've done it in the past for other things so I am confident I can do it for the banjo.  Knowing and doing something are two different things, however, so I will have to come back to this column every so often just to remind myself what to do. 

I'll put a  video here later when I get home showing Enda lecturing on the subject.  In the mean time you can find it on my youtube channel michaelkeyes12.

Mike Keyes

Friday, August 16, 2013

An Extra: Irish Mandolin

The other class I am taking at the Irishfest Summer School is with Martin Howley who also plays with WeBanjo3.  Martin is a great  banjo player and teacher, but he really shines with the mandolin.  I come from a bluegrass mandolin background so I am  familiar with great mandolin players so when I say he is good, I really mean it.

In Ireland the mandolin was a little banjo at best even though the instrument has been in the music as long as the banjo.  Mick Moloney, for example, played mandolin with the Johnsons back in the 60s but you never saw mandolins in sessions.  Now there is a resurgence of interest in the instrument with players like Martin and Marla Fibish (I will take lessons from her in October, so keep tuned) who have made the instrument a force of its own well worth listening to and hearing.

Here is Martin playing a jig called The One That Was Lost showing the possibilities for ornamentation and emphasis:

Here are the ABCs for this tune.  You can plug these into the converter to get sheet music:

X: 1
T: The One That Was Lost
C: Paddy O'Brien
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Edor
|: f | edB BAF | E2 D EFA | BAF D2 F |AFA def |
edB BAF | E2 D EFA | dfb afd | efe e2 :|
d | Bee efa | baf edB | ~d3 Bdd |AFA dcd |
Bee efa | baf edB | dfb afd |efe e2 d |
Bee efa | baf edB | ~d3 Bdd |AFA def |
{f}g2 e fed | BeB dBA | dfb afd |efe e2 ||

Mike Keyes
Lesson Four:  How to Hold The Pick

I am currently in the Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School taking the banjo class with Enda Scahill of WeBanjo3.  If you are not familiar with him, he is the author of two terrific tutorials and co-author of a third tune book with Martin Howley that I think serves as a third upper level tutorial.

Enda has very specific ideas about how you hold the pick and gives what I think are logical reasons for using the "natural" hold which uses the least amount of tension of all the styles of hold.  For beginners, this is the best way to start because it  promotes efficiency and accuracy, two qualities you will treasure later on.  While there are other ways to hold the pick (and you may eventually migrate to one of them), this is the one that is promoted by more teachers in my experience.

Here is a video of Enda showing the how and whys of  this pick hold:

 Here is a video I took several years ago showing Enda playing an incredible passage with this grip:

Here is Enda talking about posture and relaxation from The O'Flaherty Retreat in 2009:

Next Lesson: Another Tune, (this time easier.)

Mike Keyes

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lesson Three: Your First Tune

It's always hard to start a new instrument, even if you have been playing music for years, because everyone wants to start out playing like the best but to get there is a lot of hard work is ahead.  One of the reasons why there are so many guitars in closets is that the need to play an instrument is often overwhelmed by the amount of effort needed to learn it.

One of the ways to help a beginner to persist is to teach a simple tune right off the bat.  Very few are talented enough to be able to play an instrument well immediately, but it helps if you enjoy playing  and think you are doing very well.  Taking pleasure in producing a simple tune is often the key to having the will to persist.

Once you are in the process of learning, you learn that the process is never ending and that you want more and more.  It's this drive that helps you develop your style and to make sure that technique is efficient and consistent.  By learning a tune you start yourself on the way to learning technique and to learn to play music.  They are not always the same.

Our first tune is a reel called Mountain Road.  It is a very nice tune that can be played slowly or fast and still retain the qualities of the tune that make it pleasant and fun.  This is ideal for beginners because playing fast is not on the menu right now and you need a pleasant tune.

I don't expect you to play this tune well right away, so try and find other versions  and learn to hear the tune in your head.  I'm including the music for the simple version I am playing.  I urge you to learn to read music if you are interested in Irish music, TAB is limited and there are literally tens of thousands of tunes written in music notation.   You don't have to be an expert in reading music and most of the time the music serves as a repository of the basics of each tune.  Irish music, like all folk music, can't be exactly replicated with notation, but it does give you the basic notes and variations to start.

The notation above is an approximation (at best) of a simple version of Mountain Road.  It's there for you to learn the skeleton of the tune and later on you will be able to add the lift and drive to the music.  There is a video showing how Gerry O'Connor teaches the tune in Lesson Two.

Here is my contribution to learning the tune:

What about technique you ask?  A good question, but almost every beginner who doesn't have a teacher has to struggle to find the best technique for them. I don't want to emphasize this aspect in this lesson.  The reason is that if you check the right hands of different expert players, you'll find that they have hand position all over the place.  If you check out grip, it varies considerably too.  Left hand position is usually the same, but there is a question of whether or not a mandolin style or guitar style should be used.  I will show a basic technique that I urge you to learn, but you will find the way that suits you best sometime in the future.

Here is Gerry O'Connor on right hand position.  He was the one who taught me my first lesson and I have used a lot of his method in my own way.

So learn and enjoy this tune.  The hard stuff will come next including how to hold your pick, holding the banjo, and left hand techniques.  I have left the comments open for those of you who wish to comment (in a constructive way, I'll ban trolling, etc.) or show alternatives. 

Next Lesson:  Holding the pick.

Mike Keyes

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lesson Two: Anatomy of a Banjo

So let's start with the banjo itself. 
There is no such thing as an Irish tenor banjo.  There is an accepted tuning (GDAE) 
that most Irish tenor banjo players use, but the instrument itself is just a tenor banjo 
using that tuning.  You will find “Irish Tenor Banjo” advertised which refer to a 
short scale banjo, usually of 17 frets, like the one that Barney McKenna used in his 
career.  But this is more of a sales pitch than anything else.  Long scale tenor banjos 
around 23 inches are the standard for most performers mostly because they are easier 
to tune and they have more tone (or at least more people like the tone.)  It is not very 
important which of the scales you get but most players end up with the 23 inch scale. 
On the other hand, there is a significant difference brought on by the GDAE tuning. 
It is a lower registered tuning, an octave below a mandolin and in the guitar/bouzouki 
range, compared to the standard cgda jazz tuning that the tenor banjo started with 
during the Jazz Age.  Banjos for ITM are set up differently with higher actions for 
individual string work and most of the intonation is in the first seven or so frets. 
Any tenor banjo will do, but some are better for this tuning.  So if you are 
contemplating a used banjo for ITM, keep this in mind as you will have to slightly 
modify any jazz banjo you find.
The next question always asked is “What pick should I use?”
That's easy, start with the standard Rock and Roll pick, the Dunlop Nylon .60 mm. 
It is light gray and very cheap.  From then on you can start to experiment until you 
find the one that suits you. Pick selection is the subject of endless speculation and in 
the end you will find one that you like.
Third question asked: "What strings should I use?”The common answer is 
40/30/20/10 referring to the string diameters which are actually .040/.030/.020/.010 
but you get the idea.  No one sells a set like that, of course, buy you will find similar 
sizes at a variety of online stores.  Basically each banjo is different and you have to 
find what works best.
Tenor banjos come in a variety of sizes, ages and shapes.  They have long and short 
scales but they never have more than 19 frets.  If they do, then they are either a 
plectrum banjo or a five string (tenors have four strings.)  You can do the math.
There is no one banjo that is suited for ITM.  Unlike the way bluegrass banjo players 
view their instruments, almost any tenor banjo can be used for ITM.  What is more 
important is playability, that quality that allows you to play the banjo without pain
or having to spend too much effort.  Basically if you are playing a banjo and wish 
you were somewhere else, the banjo is not playable.

The main factors for playability are action height (Goldilocks style, not to high, not 
too low), and comfort with the banjo.  The first factor is usually a job for a luthier
if you are not handy with tools, but the second part can be fixed using a good banjo
strap.  The strap supports the banjo and keeps it in the same place as you play.  Get
a decent strap when you buy your banjo.

Here is a video showing Gerry O'Connor teaching.  Note he is wearing a strap which he does 
whether he is standing or sitting.  His banjo is made in Ireland by Dave Boyle based on the 
Gibson model.  It is an archtop banjo, typical of Irish banjos and has a distinctive sound. 

His banjo has an 11 inch head, is made from available parts and set up by Tom Cussen, 
another  well known Irish banjo maker.  It is a typical banjo for ITM.

There is no magic in the banjo, it is an assembly of parts carefully put together.  You could,
if you wished, make your own with a few hours work as long as you had the parts. 

Gerry plays several different styles in this video, by the way, and if you listen closely, you can
hear them.  And if not, he tells you anyway.

Next Lesson:  Learning a Tune.

Mike Keyes