Sunday, November 9, 2014

 The O'Flaherty Retreat

I go to two Irish music schools a year, the Irishfest Summer School in Milwaukee and the O'Flaherty IrishMusic Retreat near Dallas. I also go to the St. Louis Toinol when I can and between the three of them I get to meet a lot of Irish trad players. But my favorite of these is the O'Flaherty because it is on one campus, the food is good and the instructors outstanding. This year was no exception.
I took two classes: Seamus Egan on banjo and Roger Landes on mandolin.
My main class was six lessons from Seamus Egan. For those of you who don't know, he is one of the founders of the band Solas (two other band members were teaching at the O'Flaherty) and he is a creative genius among other things. His classes focused on learning variations and developing style. One of the things he emphasized is that we (a group of intermediate and advanced students, there was a beginner's class taught by RickCunningham) needed to take ideas from the class and use them to develop our own style. He expected that in a year we would be playing the tunes and techniques he taught in a completely different way that suited our styles.
I video all of my lessons but I have a strict rule that these videos are not publicly available unless the teacher allows it. Seamus did not want his image on the net, and I honor that, but he suggested that I could video myself doing what he taught. This is a good compromise, especially since what he taught was not supposed to be gospel but inspiration.
But before we get to that, here is a sample of the instructor concerts at the O'Flaherty. Somewhere in the mix Seamus is playing the banjo:

Seamus' main message was that there are many variations that can be played on the banjo and that putting them together makes the music more interesting. While this may sound simple, his style is a result of a lot of woodshedding and living with the music most of his life. He doesn't expect us to sound like Seamus Egan. This is important because the goal of playing the banjo is to make music, just like any other instrument. (Seamus won four All-Ireland titles by the time he was sixteen, on four different instruments. For all I know he plays the Irish ukulele too.) But each instrument has strengths and weaknesses and these should be taken into account.
One of the interesting exercises he had us do was to play as softly as possible. “The banjo is naturally a loud instrument”, he said, “but it has dynamic range. The problem is that few players realize this enough to use it.” He had us play a tune as softly as we could which not only made the next door class happy, but allowed us to realize how the banjo sounds at that dynamic level and how it allows us to listen to the music differently.
Another point he brought up is the role of the right hand. He showed me a method of right hand placement that is similar to those of many others, but I finally understood it. “The right hand only does a few things”, he said “ emphasizing the downbeat and triplets. Once you relax into the right hand and are smooth, the rest is easy and you can do anything with it.”
Here is my interpretation of what Seamus taught:

Roger Landes has been a friend of mine for years but I don't get to see him very much. Since he was teaching the mandolin class at the Retreat I had to take one class from him. We spent most of our time together at Herb Taylor's booth playing the wonderful instruments that Herb makes including three of his tenor guitars. Roger had Herb build a unique bouzouki that had a detachable body – the neck could be strung up without the body with this design – that had it all. I'm so glad I didn't bring money with me to the Retreat otherwise I'd have spent it all at Herb's booth.
Roger gave an “informance” which is a question and answer period in which Roger performed and then commented on how he played and the history of the music. One of the main points he brought up was that a key to improvement was playing as lightly as possible. By this he meant that left hand fretting and right hand relaxation (much like Seamus) techniques become less and less a matter of power and more of finesse. He showed how you could fret an instrument just by the weight of your left arm and that a minimal amount of force was needed to get a good tone.
Roger gave us an exercise that he learned from his classical guitar instructor: fret the note and then let off until it starts to buzz. Try and hold that (very small) pressure point and in the process learn exactly how much it really took to play a clear note. It's not much but if you don't practice it, you will revert back to a gorilla grip, especially when things get tense or exciting. Lighter means faster and smoother, both good qualities to have if you play a fretted instrument.

All in all it was well worth the money and time to go to the O'Flaherty Retreat. This year it was held in Midlothian, TX atCamp Hoblitzelle, a gorgeous campus that boasts a lake, great food and wonderful facilities. It will be held there next year as well. Everything is provided for (bring your own instruments, however) and it is 24/7 sessioning if you want..

Mike Keyes
9 November 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Milwaukee Irishfest: Banjo and Mandolin

Milwaukee is my backyard and as such Irishfest is a don't-miss for me.  This year was no exception as our band, the Drowsy Maggies, played two gigs in harp tent and I was a volunteer for the festival.  I also went to the Summer School in order to take a banjo class with Enda Scahill and a mandolin class with Martin Howley.
I took these classes last year and reported on them in this blog but you can never get enough schooling from such great players and teachers.
But first, I saw a great band, Dallahan, that I want to share with you.

And it's not because  they are playing one of my banjos.  This is a hot band with lots of new material.

WeBanjo3, Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, John and Maggie Carty, Alasdair Fraser, Tony McManus, Carlos Nunez, and Different Drums of Ireland were just a few of the great acts present.It was a great festival, as usual. If you ever get a chance to go, take it and try to get to the Summer School as you get a lot of perks including free access to the festival.

Here is Martin Howley playing the slip jig "The Good Wife."

Martin has been studying a number of the great mandolin players out there and adapted a lot of the techniques he has learned to the specific needs of Irish Trad.  He has been trying to get away from playing the mandolin like a tiny banjo and let the instrument shine on its own.  If you are a banjo player who plays mandolin too, there is a lot to learn here.

Enda Scahill also taught the banjo, something he doesn't do as much as he would like because of the hectic schedule of WeBanjo3.  Here he is teaching a favorite tune, Dinny O'Brien's Reel.  This is actually from last year - my video this year was screwed up - but it is good stuff.

Both Martin and Enda did an interesting thing, they taught one or two tunes and focused on listening to the tune and learning how to create variation using your skills and ear.  Each person is different, both of them have extensive skill sets but they emphasize using what you have and making it musical, not technical.

Here is Martin playing the Vincent Broderick tune "The Rookery", a tune he has played since he was twelve.

Here Martin plays it slowly so we can learn it and then adds variations.

There was plenty more to learn at the Irishfest.  John Carty was terrific, all the music from new and old groups was inspiring.  I can't wait until next year.

Mike Keyes
30 August 2014

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Making Your Best Banjo

There is a Firestone ad out in which an owner of a vintage car happily passes up car dealerships because his vehicle has been taken care of by the Firestone store.  The gist of the ad is that the best car is the one you have.
So it is with Irish Tenor Banjo. For whatever reason, an obsessive desire to sound like Barney McKenna has never erupted amongst Irish banjo players.  Any banjo that sounds decent (a relative term according to fiddle players) will do as long as it is playable and loud enough to be heard in sessions.  Oh, there is a Holy Grail - the Essex Paragon - but only because BMc played one (with a Gibson style tone ring) for a while and because it is a quality banjo.  Almost any good banjo will do subject to the tastes of the owner.  Which brings me to my main point.
I've gone through a lot of banjos since I started playing Irish music.  This is due to a combination of Banjo Acquisition Syndrome (BAS) and a curious mind about banjos.  I played the five string banjo for years and only had two banjos the entire time, both Gibson Mastertones of some sort.  Since then I have either owned or played a variety of banjos including Epiphone Recording As, Paramount A-C, various Lange built, Vega built (including Style M), B&D/Bacon and Gibsons of all sorts.  I have settled on what I call Gibsonoid banjos as my day to day players.
The obvious rhetorical question is: "Why Gibson?" It's not because it is the best sounding banjo (doesn't exist since it is a matter of taste) nor is it because I fell totally in love with the banjo.  The main reason is that more is known about the Gibson style banjo than any other thanks to Earl Scruggs and if you want a good banjo that will not break the bank, you can actually make them up from parts that are easily obtained.  Hence I have a number of banjos made from the Gibson pattern.
The vast majority of banjos sold in the past 50 years have been five string banjos.  Of those a huge number have been built on the Gibson pattern that started in the late 1920s, the one piece flange (OPF) double coordinator rod eleven inch head banjo.  Almost every modern banjo is a variation of this model including a few that look as if they have dowel sticks but really have a coordinator rod imbedded in a dowel stick.
Throw in the American desire to sound like Earl and you have a number of converted banjos (from tenor to  five string) resulting in a surplus of tenor banjo necks designed to go on a one piece flange patterned pot.  Basically the tenor neck was taken off and a five string neck attached.
Of course it is not as simple as that, the neck has to be fitted to the pot, but it is almost as simple as swapping out parts.
Once I realized this, I decided to try my hand at building a Gibsonoid banjo - I say Gibsonoid because rarely are there original Gibson pots involved - with a TB-7 neck given to me by a friend.  I used a vintage Gibson rim, top of the line parts and a lot of money with the resultant banjo being a killer.  Ironically I don't travel with this banjo anymore because the parts alone are worth a lot of money and it looks just like an original TB-7 which go for nearly $80K these days.  Too many people have tried to take the banjo from me.

My next step was to try and find a way to make a similar banjo for less money.  I needed a travel banjo that would not break the bank to replace and if it was broken by the airlines would not break my heart.  One of the virtues of the Gibson system is that you can take the banjo apart by removing the neck and put it in your luggage surrounded by clothes and bubble wrap.  It has a much better chance of surviving than even in a Calton case.  Plus, it is probably cheaper to fly on Frontier that way.
I went to the Banjothon several years ago where I discussed this issue with a few of my five string friends. (The Banjothon is a private gathering of original pre-war Gibson five string banjo owners.) It was pointed out to me that First Quality in Louisville, KY has a huge collection of tenor necks obtained during conversions and that they would be glad to sell me some of them.  I called Eric Sullivan about my project and ended up with several of the lower end TB-0. TB-00 and TB 100 necks that they had.  Every neck was at least fifty years old and made from very good wood.  They also fit the Recording King  OPF rims I found at
I made a very nice banjo from a 1954 TB 100 neck and an RK pot but then a funny thing happened. RK banjos became so popular that the parts became scarce due to demand.  There were no spare rims left.

As you may know, it is more expensive to buy almost anything part by part than to buy the object itself, but the RK pots were a bargain at just a little over $600 unfinished and undrilled.  I was able to do all of drilling, staining, finishing and aligning in my shop but it did take time and some tooling.  Nonetheless the result was a significantly better banjo than could be bought at that price point.
It turns out that the five string banjo made from the RK pot, the RK-R35, can be bought used for slightly more than the parts on ebay if you look.  I bought one and swapped out the necks.  Instant (ish) tenor banjo.  And I have a banjo case I can use for the tenor banjo at no extra cost so the overall cost is actually less.
Here is a video showing you how to take apart the RK-R35 and add a tenor neck. Warning, it is long:

The trick is to learn how to adjust the neck with shims or if you are really bold by changing the neck angle with a jig and a sander.  The banjo comes with all the parts needed including a set of Chinese tuners and an adequate but not great tailpiece.  These latter two parts are always cheaply made in Chinese banjos but they work, more or less.  One thing you have to do with some of these old necks is to enlarge the tuner holes to 3/8" to fit the tuners.  I also had to add a washer to the tuners to make them fit properly but that was an easy thing to do.  Enlarging the holes takes a little work but if you are meticulous, there is no problem.

Here is how to do it:
1) Buy a plumber's reamer and a 3/8" drill
2) Ream the holes from both ends until the hole just accepts the tuner.  You can eyeball this and when you work the other end of the hole there will be sawdust on the reamer that shows you where to stop.
3) The hole will still have some material that has to be drilled out to make sure there are parallel walls.  There are two ways to accomplish this: hand turn the drill or put your electric drill in reverse and slowly let the drill take away the wood.  I mean SLOWLY or you will chip out wood or otherwise screw up.

Setting up your banjo is a little bit voodoo, a little bit science, and a lot of musical feeling.  While there are well known algorithms for this kind of setup (Here is an excellent version), they are all geared towards sounding like Earl and you may not like that sound for Irish music.  Here is a video showing how to set up the banjo and how to shim the neck.

The overall cost for doing it this way, if you figure in paying for the drilling and your hourly rate is  less than getting the raw parts and putting it together yourself.  And you also have a five string banjo that is fairly decent if you reverse the process.

Mike Keyes
3 August 2014

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Left hand Ornaments

The Other Way to Make a Difference

I ran across a book called "ASAP Irish Mandolin - Learn How to Play the Irish Way" by Doc Rossi who is much better known as a cittern player.  The book purports to be for any player who wants "to improve their technique, develop ideas and learn new repertoire ASAP."  That's a lot to say for 31 pages and a short CD,  but it did inspire me to think more about left hand ornamentation.

When I first started out with the banjo, like a lot of others, I spent a lot of time trying to play triplets and did not learn much about the music itself.  Because I had a hard time learning to play triplets and went through several iterations of the ornament, I developed a few left hand ornaments to compensate for my lack of good triplets.   The majority of these were from my bluegrass mandolin playing and while some of them worked, I was still not listening to the music very closely and they sounded odd at times.

Later on I was able to incorporate some of these ideas into Irish music and I was able to learn how to play triplets, more or less.

When I took Kieran Hanrahan's class at the O'Flaherty Retreat in 2013 I noticed that he used a lot of left hand ornaments too.  Part of this was due to his constant use of DUDUDU, even with jigs, and part was his style.  Irish fiddlers often use a lot of left hand ornamentation to present the music and this has a specific stylistic effect that is very pleasing (and very Irish.)

Doc Rossi's book is not the final word on left hand ornamentation, in fact it hardly exists as a text since most of the  book is tunes ("arranged in order of difficulty" - Maid Behind The Bar is the last tune) and the CD shows very short examples of the techniques.  But it does address something not talked about very much and gives concrete (if short) examples. If you are interested in getting the book, I think it would help a beginner.

Let's go through some of the left hand ornamentations:


Banjos can't really pull off a drone - a constant note that underlies the tune - unless they player is advanced enough to play a duo style,  but if you look at the introduction of other notes the way a piper does with registers, then the concept comes alive.  Doc Rossi divides this concept into two different classes, drones and octaves, but I don't really see much difference.  There are plenty of tunes, especially the ones in G, that benefit from either an octave doubling or hitting the open G note while playing the tune.  Most of the time the "drone" is hitting an open string although in the key of D you can hit the low A note or in AM or the key of A you can finger both the low A and the low E (on the D string) for emphasis.

Drones can be used in a variety of ways depending on the tune and you might find them in your style in interesting places. 

The Cut

Doc Rossi makes a distinction between a leading note that is a pull-off right into the note of the tune and a hammer-on/pull-off that does the same thing.  Granted, they are different, but in the banjo such subtly may make little difference because the banjo relies on its brassy personality for a lot of its effects.  There are several different ways to introduce a note that are not in the book: hammer-on, usually a slightly delayed one and  the slide (which I will cover later on in this thread) are two good examples.  As you continue on as a player and develop a style you will discover them in your playing or the playing of others.

For me the quick hammer-on/pull-off seems to be a little more appealing but there is a difference that others may appreciate.

Double Stops

Double Stops are first cousins to drones but the big difference is the emphasis.  They are often used to emphasize the rhythmic aspects of a tune or to draw attention to that particular part of the tune.  Octave drones are a type of double stop, I suppose, but most of the time they are used as a two note chordal ornament and they work especially well on the banjo.  You are all familiar with this ornament and I am sure you will find it in your stylistic bag of tricks soon.


Doc Rossi doesn't mention slides as a left hand ornament.  In fact he fails to mention a lot of left hand additions to the tune but since this particular one is a favorite of mine, I thought I throw it in anyway.  I like to use slides with hornpipes and polkas but they work with all sorts of tunes.

Bending the String

This is a very American ornament drawn from blues guitar.  In Irish music it is usually very subtle and sometimes you can't even hear the slight tonal change that goes on.  Pipers get this effect with fingering and you hear it in fiddle playing all the time. Microtonal changes are typical of many folk musics and sean nos singing is noted for it.    So while the bend may be a little rock and roll, it is a very effective left hand ornament.  Not in Doc Rossi's book either.


Triplets/trebles are by definition a right hand ornament, but as such they are a one trick pony and can be very dull after a while.  Almost every teacher I have had states categorically that in order to make a triplet organic to the tune you have to do something with your left hand be it smother the triplet, add a note or two in the process of playing a triplet or using a cut of some sort during the triplet.  Of course you can just play a straight triplet but that should be just one of the many variations you can do with your left hand (in that case doing nothing - which is not always bad) and should be done as part your interpretation of the tune. 

Putting It Together

Left hand ornaments are just tricks if you don't have a good idea of how the music sounds.  They are just as essential to a style as the triplet is, but  are much more subtle and, to my mind, interesting.  You still have to play the tune and you don't have to go ninety miles an hour (remember the three basics of learning the banjo) but you should learn to make the tune interesting and, well, tuneful, which the left hand ornaments can do.  Of course you have to use them tastefully but I'll leave that up to you.

Mike Keyes
1 June 2014

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Lesson on Lessons

As most of you know, I led a banjo lab at the St. Louis Tionol in mid-April (2014) recently whose purpose was to help intermediate players improve their playing and learn to set goals for improvement.  While this may be a cliche', the teacher learned a lot too.

My main teaching points were three: you don't need to play triplets, you don't have to play fast, and you have to know the tunes.  Put another way they could be characterized as: Simplicity, Tone, and Knowledge.


Irish music (or any music, for that matter) is not a sum of its diddleys.  I believe that for a beginner ornamentation is a distraction and for the intermediate player an incredible distraction from the music.  The problem, of course, is that the triplets/trebles are what attracted many players to the music in the first place and especially with banjo players who tend to be oriented to the spectacular to begin with. (Or at least it seems that way, we have a loud dominating instrument that can overwhelm a session that doesn't have a piper and is a hell of a lot easier to play than the pipes or accordion.)

But if you listen to the great players you will quickly realize that they are musicians first and that their technique is only a way to express style and not the music itself.   Here is a lesson using the tune "Mountain Road" that Gerry O'Connor gave at the 2012 Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School:

We all know Gerry as the triplet king, but what a lot of banjo players don't know is that he is also a very good traditional fiddle player (not to be confused with Gerry "Fiddle" O'Connor who does not play the banjo.)  If you look past his technical abilities you will find a sensitive and creative musician who is capable of great performances.  He is a true master of the banjo and his style is impeccable.

What he shows in this video is that he can play a simpler style and make it sound good.  The message here is that the tune is the most important thing and learning to play the tune is what any musician has to do  before you can perform. 

One of the things I emphasized in the lab was that every player will develop a style eventually.  There are impediments, however, and we covered a lot of them.  Not having a good base of technique was one of them and once you play within your technical ability, you can produce real music even if you don't know a lot of tricks or your technique is just starting to produce a cogent product.

But keeping it simple is more than that.  One of the true signs of a style being produced is realizing that you are not using the every technical trick that you own but are selecting those aspects of your style that please your inner critic.  You start producing what the voices in your head tell you about the music.  But this takes practice and beginning with the simple tune structure until it becomes part of you.

As you advance technically, you will find that there are other directions you can go in.  The journey to a personal style starts with how you make the decisions about playing music.  If you start with all the ornamentations then you miss the music.  If you start with the music, then you can build on that simplicity until you have a sophisticated style, trebles and triplets included.


I've heard this time and again from the very best players: you can't play music well if you don't have good tone.  You'd think that this is obvious, but as a beginner or intermediate player I was fascinated by the incredible abilities of the very best and it never occurred to me that I had to work my way to the top by applying he basics, especially when producing tone.

Tone is a product of learning your instrument, consistent technique, and learning what the limits and peculiarities of your instrument are.  I get told that the very best break the rules all the time when it comes to technique and still produce good tone.  What those who tell me forget to acknowledge is that they are talking about the very best.  The reason that the "rules" are broken is because these individuals apply a sum total of experience, talent, and hard work to their music and they are constantly on the edge of the music looking for new ways to perform.   They know what has to be  done to produce goodness (including great tone) and are "breaking the rules" because their vision calls for it and they expect great results. 

On the other hand, if you can't produce a good consistent tone from your instrument, you are not ready.   Roland White once told me that he can't listen to the Kentucky Colonels album (for those of you not familiar, the Kentucky Colonels were a breakthrough bluegrass band  many years ago) because while he had wonderful ideas, his technique was not solid.  It was only after Roland worked for Bill Monroe that he learned how to use his right hand and to produce good tone.  Andy Statman, Gerry O'Connor, John Carty, Angelina Carberry, and a host of other great players/teachers all say the same thing.  Tone First.

The problem is that "tone is boring"  but it is the microcosm of great style.  As you improve you become more consistent, more idiosyncratic (i.e. you develop style) and you are more efficient.  All of this can be developed as you try to produce great tone.  So far no diddlys, but they come along with speed as you  lay down a base of good technical skills.

Here is an example of my trying to develop a style using "Lark In The Morning" which I tend to play slowly in order to let the tune ring out according to what I hear when I sing it in my head.  Your mileage may differ:


One of the hallmarks of any expert is a thorough knowledge of the subject.  In the case of Irish tenor banjo it not only includes a nearly encyclopedic survey of tunes but also an intimate knowledge of the instrument plus the techniques needed to play the banjo.  Since this journey takes years of inquiry, practice, and exposure to the music, it is not expected that most intermediate and beginning banjo players have that extent of knowledge.  What is expected, however, is the desire to learn as much as possible about the music and the banjo itself.

Interestingly, most Irish professionals know very little about the mechanics of the banjo whereas most American players tinker constantly with their banjos.  As a rule, if you have someone who can setup your banjo for you, you don't have to have that primal knowledge about setup,but it does help if you are comfortable with minor tuneups.

More important is knowing the tunes and how to work with the music.  This is another aspect of the learning that can't be avoided although I am not sure why anyone would not want to learn as much as possible about how the music sounds and how it relates to the banjo.  Part of this is true because if you really want to play Irish music on the banjo you have to eventually decide how you are going to do it.  Most of the time this is not a conscious decision, rather it is an amalgamation of what you hear and what you can do, in other words it's your style.

Style and knowledge go hand in hand since the more you learn about the music and how you relate to it, the more likely it is that you will have a comfortable arrangement with the music.  Listen to all the great Irish musicians and you will be able to tell who they are in a few notes by their style.  This is not an accident, the great ones have a personal relationship with the music and they each have a unique take on  how to express the music.

The bottom line is that in order to develop as an Irish musician you need technique, a love of the music, and a strong knowledge that lets you develop over the years of playing.   That meme of 10,000 hours is true if you go about it correctly and learn to play in a layered logical manner that sets the stage for more sophisticated methods and also allows you to play in a style that suits you - in fact it is you.

Mike Keyes

May the Fourth (be with you), 2014

Sunday, April 6, 2014

More Homework for the Tionol Banjo Lab

Here are a few principles:

1)  You don't have to play triplets. (Part of a longer video from PaintedBirdIII.)

2) You don't have to play fast:

3) You should know the tune before you play it in earnest:

Mike Keyes

Saturday, April 5, 2014

St. Louis Tionol Banjo Class April 12, 2014 Part One - Homework

As of this writing, the banjo class is one week away. 

I'm looking forward to it and I thought that I would give a little pre-class homework.
It turns out that the Mel Bay articles I wrote up until the last edition in 2012 are still on the net.   The worker bees at Mel Bay keep changing the address but I think that they are now in a final resting place.
Your homework, if you choose to do it, is to watch them all and then critique me at the Tionol.  Over the years I have evolved as a banjo player and these lessons chronicle that journey.
I've been very lucky to have had wonderful teachers at these weekend workshops that I write about. Many of them have been at the St. Louis Tionol (I saw John Carty there so many times that it could be classified as stalking) and all of the classes have been inspiring and helpful.  Those of you in the Midwest who want a cheap and fun weekend with Irish music should apply no matter what your instrument or interest is.
I'm looking forward to seeing those of you who are coming.  In the mean time, here is a compendium of right hands (again, I showed this in an earlier column) from my years of watching the best play.

And i know that no matter how many times I point out that triplets are not the most important thing in Irish music, I will still be asked about them, here is my usual answer from my Mel Bay article.

Bring your Ipads and equivalents.  Try to find a tuning app (there are plenty for free, Gibson has one.)  If you have the Amazing Slowdowner or Song Surgeon or Audacity, bring them.  A video camera is very helpful as is an mp3 recorder.  Your phone probably has all of these features.
We will discuss practice, style, technique and how to learn.

Here are some tune sources on the internet:

JC Tunfinder  The best way to find a tune if you know the title.
The Montreal Session site.  Lots of tunes in both ABC and notation - you have to learn one or the other if you want tunes.
Thesession.org The best place to find where sessions are and a good source of tunes.  Lots of discussion if you like that sort of thing.

See you there.

Mike Keyes
5 April 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

About Those Weekend Workshops

Weekend Workshops

I've not blogged for a month, on purpose, because I wanted to advertise my class at the St. Louis Tionol, April 11, 2014.  This will be my first class teaching beginner and intermediate players and, if my experience is any indicator, it will be a little chaotic.
Because I am not a big name Irish Tenor Banjo player I expect the class to be small, no more than four students, but I'm not discouraged since my last class with Gerry O'Connor only had five students.
What I want to do in this column is to talk about the value of weekend workshops.
I'm sure a lot of you have had this experience.  My favorite ones are held at a single on campus venue, usually for three to seven days and include not only a banjo class, but plenty of other things to do such as sessions, meet-and-greets, and seminars or other classes.   The most important thing I get from them is the fellowship and opportunity to meet some of my favorite musicians.
My first motivation, however, is to go for the classes and to meet with the teacher and to try and bring back some of the main points of the classes.  Over the years with Mel Bay and now with this blog I have presented various videos of many of the great players.   I always ask permission to do this and as a result, I have more videos than reach the public.  The class I am  teaching will use a lot of this material as background for my class.
In a  totally different life, I am a writer for  Shotgun Sports Magazine.  My articles cover mental training and sports psychology much of which is pertinent to being a musician.  In fact I draw on my knowledge of music for many of the articles since the processes of learning to become a champion are the same as those that a musician goes through in order to become expert at their music. 
Shotgun shooters will often go to weekend seminars and immerse themselves in the presence of a great shooter while burning a lot of powder trying to shoot targets.  The experience is often exhilarating and, in the short term, fruitful as many shooters take home some improvement.  What is also common is that the improvement shown in the weekend is ephemeral and does not last long enough to be there when the next workshop comes around.
There are several reasons for this: weekends are not a coaching experience even though you are coached.  Most of the time the coach is using a system that is not the same as the shooter's and there is a lot lost in translation.  Lastly, unless the classes are very small, there is usually a wide continuum of skills and the least and sometimes the most skilled are given short shrift because the teacher responds to the mean.
In addition some teachers are not prepared and "wing it" by teaching tune after tune with no reference to the student issues or  they "demonstrate" ad nauseum at a level that is too sophisticated for the audience.  Others are well prepared with lesson plans, goals, and an idea about what students want.
One of the ways that teachers try to find out the general level of the class is to have them play a tune.  My experience has been that when I try to do this, my frequency of brain farts increases exponentially and not only do I try and play a tune I just learned yesterday (with disastrous results) but I freeze up and can't play a triplet.  In a small class this is not a problem as it quickly becomes obvious what level each player has.  In a big class this can lead to more problems.
I suspect that this will not change very much although I have noticed a significant increase in the level of expertise in the students in classes I have attended recently.  The ideal is to find a class with a really good teacher.  These days the teachers I have had all have been much better than teachers (some of them the same people) in the past and I don't hear the same complaints I heard four years ago.  I suspect that one of the reasons is that the students have advanced enough that they are able to glean information and get results even from the worst teachers.
This brings up an interesting point, you can only learn a  small amount of information in these circumstances no matter how much information is offered or how well you do in the class.  The reason is simple, these weekends are basically one night stands.   There is no possibility of developing a relationship with the teacher since that would require a long term interaction, practice and then critique.  A music teacher will have this relationship with you as long as you take regular lessons and practice.   In this long term experience you are able to set goals, learn from mistakes and track your progress through testing and feedback. 
On the other hand, a weekend experience is none of these so your goals have to be a little different.  I like to use a workshop as a an opportunity to work on a specific problem.  When I say specific, I mean a problem that can be looked at and resolved (or an answer arrived at) in the time that you have with your teacher.  Any long term situation such as learning to play a musical instrument is basically a string of problems that have to be solved.  Beginners are often overwhelmed by the amount of work and the complexity of such an undertaking, but in the end it is still a step by step journey in which you solve each problem as they come along.  The scary thing about starting out is that beginners are ignorant of the direction they have to go.
What attracts most people to any style of music is the performance of experts who are technically able and have an attractive style that compels listeners to pay attention.  Beginning musicians want to play like their heroes, but are stymied by lack of technique and any understanding of the music from a musician's perspective.  Talent helps, but the whole package is only attained by hard work and good modeling - teachers help a lot and if you have a chance to find someone, even for a weekend, who can help, you are ahead of the game.
So a beginner needs to come in to a weekend knowing that they can get a specific problem solved, but they don't know what it is that can help them.  Intermediate players usually know what they need, but will ask for too much.  Expert players, ironically, know that they need to have the master look at their style and technique and make suggestions that tweak them towards improvement.
In other words, it is usually beneficial to ask the teacher for some hints (provided they haven't already figured out what will help in general then you are ahead of the game) and go with those suggestions.
Sometimes you will find that you won't agree with what the teacher says but remember that although you may be right, it is often the teacher who is able to be more objective and since they probably are not a friend (or enemy) they don't have an axe to grind and are most likely more aware of what you need than you are.
Once you sort out what you want from the workshop, then you have to get what you need from the teacher early in the game.  I call this the prime lesson, the one that resonates for you and the one you practice (if possible) while there.  The rest of the time you need to make sure you record everything just in case you missed a crucial issue.  It is assumed, foolishly perhaps, that you will take these pearls home and work on them later on.
A good teacher will offer something you can use, even if it is not spot on just for you.  In the case of a large class (over six) you may have to parse out what will be best for you.  For beginners it is a little hard, but I think that anything that helps you learn the music (and some technique) is best.  For intermediate or expert level students it is easier to see what strikes you as that "thing you have to learn" and then go with it.  What ever happens or whoever teaches the class, you have to make a decision about what you can learn even if the teacher is terrible because you can still see how a master works if nothing else and take cues from his or her style.

Here is a master at work, Claudine Langille of Gypsy Reel and Touchstone.  She learned from Charlie Piggot who was one of the early banjo masters but had to change to accordion when he injured his hand in an accident.   I suspect that I took his last class at the Milwaukee Irishfest many years ago when he was bullied (my word) into giving a banjo class well after the accident.
This is a portion of a video  by markhbass ( to show Claudine's great old school style that still rocks.

Mike Keyes
28 March 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Banjo Lab April 11, 2014  St. Louis Tionol

I will be conducting an Irish Tenor banjo lab at the St. Louis, Missouri Tionol on April 11, 2014.  Mandolins and GDAE tenor guitars are welcome too as I will bring those instruments along if anyone is interested in playing them.
This will not be a typical banjo class.  For one thing, I will have students prepare to play three well known tunes: Kesh Jig, Boys of Bluehill hornpipe, and  The Maid Behind The Bar reel.  The reason for this is that the lab will focus more on technical and transitional issues rather than learning new tunes.  Since this class will be focusing on intermediate and advanced level players, I am assuming that if you want to learn a new tune, you will go ahead and learn it.  What I want to teach is how to make Irish tenor banjo playing easier and more fun and to help develop a style for each student.
The Tionol is one of the best short weekend workshops around.  It started out for pipers but has expanded to other instruments.  It is where I first met John Carty, Pauline Conneely, and Darren Moloney and where I first learned to listen to banjo playing.  There are morning and afternoon classes on Saturday, but the weekend is full of other events including two great concerts, a dance, and what seems like non-stop sessioning that starts on Friday night and ends sometime Sunday.  Since Joyce and I never last that long, I don't know when it ends on Sunday.  It's a fun time even if you don't take a class.
I want to help students look at different ways to learn tunes and develop style.  I will have an initial session looking at everyone's instrument and setting them up as needed while teaching setup principals in order to make then easier to play and maybe sound better.  Second we will look at how people go about playing well known tunes and do some cross pollination about style and technique.  In this period I will also give some training on relaxation and the importance of consistent technique.  Lastly we will look at and use modern technology to help improve our playing.  These days there is no reason to be isolated as a player, but you can't just throw up a youtube video and expect to have people help you learn from it.  You have to learn to have a critical eye and there are plenty of apps and other electronics that help you to learn and improve from mistakes.  We will compare styles with each other and on video to see how they fit in with our own vision of playing.
Emphasis will be on development of style.  Technique is great, but it can't be learned to perfection in a short weekend.  Style, however, can be spotted early on and encouraged as you put in the time developing your technique.  I'll talk a little bit about how the brain changes as musicians train and learn and we will look at ways to encourage that growth in an efficient manner.
Because this class was added late, you will have to contact the registration desk and tell them you want the banjo class.  If you have any ideas or want to focus on something specific, let me know (
Here are the tunes. I am deliberately showing my friend Ryan G. Duns, S.J. playing these tunes because I don't want students to be thinking that there is one banjo way of playing the music. Instead you should listen to other instruments to get ideas and not be locked into strictly technical ways of playing the music.  The tunes presented are well known and often solicit groans at sessions, but they are great music and each one deserves a new look whenever you play them.
One thing these tunes have in common is that they all hit the dreaded high B note.  If you play Irish Tenor banjo (or GDAE tenor guitar) you have to learn how to hit this note.  It doesn't make a difference which of the left hand techniques you use, it is still something you can do without thinking too much about it if you follow a few simple ideas.  We will be discussing this in class.

Kesh Jig

Next is the reel The Maid Behind The Bar.  This is a reel that Barney McKenna played a lot so I thought that in his honor (or honour) we would look at it.

Last is the very well known hornpipe, The Boys of Bluehill.  This tune has a number of variations including a very nice one with the high B note.

What i want everyone to do is to bring their versions of these tunes so we can compare and contrast.  If you don't know the tunes, then shame on you.  These are tunes played everywhere.
You will notice that Ryan plays these tunes with a lot of variation and with an obvious style.  We will not be trying to emulate him, rather we will look at the elements that make up a style and try and develop them ourselves using as many influences (including others in the class) as we can.

Mike Keyes

Saturday, January 25, 2014

What Could Be and Why

I know this is a beginners blog, but I thought I'd show you what could happen if you work and plan your music well and continue to perfect your basics.  One of the things about learning any skill is that as long as you have goals and plan your tutelage you should be able to achieve what you want.  In the beginning basic skills are very important because they are the start of any skill and they remain the bedrock upon which you build all other skills.  That's why it is so important to learn to play slowly with good tone at first and why such things as triplets are not as important until you have the tone down pat.
As you progress you will find that these basics support you when you try new things and that by using the basics as your guide, you can find new and interesting techniques to play.  The idea is that after a while you will automatically use those things that appeal to you musically and you will develop a style.
Gerry O'Connor has a style that everyone recognizes.  He recently told me that he "only had one trick"  (he was teaching how to play triplets) and that was the basis of his whole style.   I was lucky enough to talk with Buddy Wachter, considered the greatest jazz tenor banjo player, recently and he pointed out that good musicians are able to take their style and produce music while not letting the techniques get in the way.  By that he meant that playing a bunch of technical skills did not make music but that a musician had to transcend technique and produce a communication to the listener.
Part of that communication is good tone and imagination.   While Irish music is mostly dance music that is fairly well established as far as the tunes go, a close look at the best players or attending a new session will show you that there is a lot of leeway and interpretation in the music in spite of what you might hear. This is the true essence of a style, to play music with what you have.
This interpretation can take the form of tempo, alternate tonal changes, rhythmic influences or technique.  The basic tune is the same or close, but the music predominates.
This is what you can look forward to when you play and even in the basic learner mode good tone and rhythm stands out making the music more interesting. 
Here is a video of Gerry playing two tunes, Niahm's Capers and The Moving Cloud.  This is for performance and to show off his virtuosity so you probably won't see this at a session.

What I want to show is the various techniques built up over the years from basic technique that a master of the banjo can use to bring out a tune.   Here Gerry uses not only the triplet he is famous for (and equally infamous) but he also uses Duo Technique, Tony Rice cross picking,  alternate notes, playing up the neck and changes in rhythm.  In addition he drives the music the whole time making you want to dance to it.
Throughout the video he sticks with his basic technique including hand position, pick hold, his four finger left hand technique and good tone.  Everything you see him doing is predicated on good basic technique, everything he is doing is based on what he learned early on and because his basic technique is so good, he was able to progress to a master level. 
So the lesson learned here is that the basics count, a lot, and without them you will never be this good.

Mike Keyes