Thursday, February 28, 2013

CTO ... I have a new music stand!

Rouse the Spouse designed and built it. It's constructed of curly maple and purple heart, with hand-made knobs and a hand-rubbed finish. The desk is, of course, trapezoid in shape!

It's a lovely addition to the music room. Beautiful to look at, and so nice to use. My students will be happy to be rid of the old flimsy collapsable stand. I'm counting on less music falling to the floor!

Check This Out ... Jerry Read Smith was kind enough to provide us with one of his original hammered dulcimer sound hole rosettes. That design detail makes this project really special. With it, the music stand coordinates beautifully with my JRS Grand Concertmaster. You might say they're perfectly in tune!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are You in a Musical Slump?

Did someone declare last week "Musical Slump" week? Several of my students showed up complaining of frustration and confusion in their practice. After working so hard on holiday repetoire some of them are unsure about what they want to play now. For whatever reason, they don't know where to focus their attention.

"I don't seem to know what I'm doing anymore."
"I've lost track of my goal."
"I'm frustrated."
"I'm not having fun."

Does this sound familiar? I know it sounds familiar to me. I suspect that everyone finds themselves in 'the doldrums' from time to time. What must we do to maintain our enthusiasm?

Think about the vocabulary we use. We 'play' our instruments. Play is supposed to be 'fun', right? So, how do we keep the fun in our play? What is it that makes playing the hammered dulcimer fun, anyway?

FUN is a multifaceted thing, and the definition of what is 'fun' will vary from individual to individual. To me, I have the most fun when these two things are in place:
  1. The ability to play something with confidence and freedom.
  2. The knowledge that I am making progress.
The "something" might be a simple melody or a challenging rhythmic backup. It might be a highly arranged solo performance piece or a fiddle tune jammed at contra dance tempo.  The crazy thing is, most players have fun doing a lot of different things AND are constantly raising the bar.

Trouble is, the hammered dulcimer seems deceptively simple to play. True, it is relatively easy to hammer out a melody line. In reality, though, mastering the instrument is a complicated process and can not be rushed. A student of the hammered dulcimer must be able to see the big picture, then be able to break it down into a bunch of micro skills. These skills must be internalized, typically by repetition ad nauseam. You'll know you've internalized a skill when you can use it consistently and automatically. Once internalized, these skills become the foundation from which more complex skills are derived. And then you're really on your way.

This process requires persistence. It requires careful observation and critical listening. It requires delayed gratification. It requires regular, efficient, and effective practice. So here we are, back to the practicing thing, and trying to figure out how to remain happy, calm, and sane while we're doing it for the long haul.

Here are some suggestions that come to mind today:

  • Daily practice is important. It's better to have short daily practice sessions than to skip days.
  • Avoid marathon sessions ... mental and physical fatigue can initiate a downward spiral, leaving you tired and frustrated. Plus, you could actually hurt yourself.
  • Make your practice specific. Decide on concrete goals. Write them down.
  • Record yourself playing, then listen to it critically. Write down what you hear. Make corrections.
  • Keep a practice journal. I highly recommend writing things down!
  • Practice at practice tempo, i.e. the speed at which nothing can go wrong. If you never play errors, you'll never learn mistakes.
  • Make a game of it. Reward yourself. Eat chocolate if you must.
  • Play the music you like. Life is too short to practice something you don't care about.
  • Turn difficult sections of tunes into custom-made exercises.
  • Tired and frustrated? Stop what you're doing. Play something you like, something you've already mastered. Then give yourself permission to quit for the day. Come back to the challenge when you're rested and refreshed.
  • Make a gig for yourself. Your practice will become more meaningful.
  • Find a music buddy. It will make you more accountable and require different skills.
  • Listen to all kinds of music. Look for different versions of the music you like to play. The internet has opened up all kinds of possibilities for this.

Recommended reading for more on this topic ... an article by John Blasquez of Singingwood Music, San Francisco, CA How to get to Carnegie Hall --- Practice, practice, practice?

Practice should contain some hard work and diligent repetition, but it should also be fun. Be kind to yourself and have fun!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday's Muse

"In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and *snap* the job's a game." ~ Mary Poppins

Friday, February 22, 2013

CTO ... Ripple Effect opening for Virgins Family Band & Baobab

Ready for something different?

Ripple Effect, comprised of Jordan Humphrey (hammered dulcimer) and Christian Adams (cello), will be performing the opening act at the Local 506, tonight, February 22. You're gonna love Humphrey's improvisational style. Plus ...  heard of 'fiddle sticks' or 'playing the straws'? (Go ahead ... Google it.) Jordan applies that idea to the guitar with help from friend, Catherine.

Check This Out ... Ripple Effect will be warming up the crowd, anticipating the celebration of the release of new music from Durham's experimental-world-folk minstrels, Baobab, and Chapel Hill's double-drum indie-jazzists, Virgins Family Band.

Tonight! February 22
Local 506
506 W. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill
Cover:  $5

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

7 Reasons Why I Subscribe to Dulcimer Players News

The winter edition of Dulcimer Players News arrived in mail boxes this week. I subscribe to a number of magazines, but the DPN is the only one that immediately grabs my attention and demands that I sit right down and read it cover to cover! So, what's the big attraction?

  • All issues are archived ... all the way back to 1975. Once current magazines are out of print they become available in the archives, accessible on the DPN website under "Resources".
  • I even like reading the ads! It's one way of keeping up with must-have dulcimer products, new cds and books, instructional materials and opportunities, festival flyers, etc.
  • Festival listings make it easy to find events in your neck of the woods, to follow your favorite teachers, or to make plans to try something new. Attending festivals and workshops is a great way to find out more about your instrument, to learn new skills and tunes, to enjoy the work of quality instructors / performers, and to meet up with old and new friends.
  • Meaty articles for inspiration and education.
  • Sheet music for practical application.
  • The Sampler CD, included with every issue. Such diversity in the projects out there!
  • And the #1 Reason I like reading the DPN ... Connection to the wider dulcimer community (both hammered dulcimer and mountain dulcimer). It's fun to see what my dulcimer buddies are up to!

Speaking of buddies in the Dulcimer Players News ....
One of our own Triangle Trapezoids, Helen Wolfson of Durham, is featured in the "Music and Book Review" section of the current DPN. Look for Helen's write-up of her new solo album, "Silver Lining," on page 46. PLUS, the title cut, "Silver Lining Waltz" is included on the Sampler CD. Congratulations, Helen!

From the western part of the state, our friends Ruth and Steve Smith have had yet another cut selected for the Sampler CD ... "Along This Crooked Road", from their Heirlooms CD. This new recording includes both vocals and instrumental tunes. Well done, Ruth and Steve!

While you're checking out the archives ...
I wrote a couple of articles that were included in past magazines:

"Getting Around on the Hammered Dulcimer", an exercise in shifting octaves.
Please note that the sheet music printed in the magazine is incorrect! The correct music may be found on Sue's website. Look for the link on the home page.
DPN, Summer 2011, volume 37 - #3, page 36

"The Power of One - Using Drones"
DPN, Fall 2011, volume 37 - #4, page 30

Check out the DPN web site. Maybe it's time you subscribed, too!
Already a subscriber? Tell us what you like best about the magazine. What great features have I missed here?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday's Muse

"The bottom line is that musicians love to make music and always will." ~ Jennifer Lopez

Friday, February 15, 2013

CTO ... Shining Light Project brings the joy of music to the underserved in Asheville

Musicians can and do make a difference. Here's a story to inspire!

Kate Steinbeck, flutist and founder of the chamber music ensemble, Pan Harmonia, says, “I’m on the planet to play music and share the light, and music has the power to do that.”

Check This Out ... Pan Harmonia is an independent artist collective based in Asheville, NC. They perform professionally throughout the region. They started the Shining Light Project to bring free music programs to various groups of people who may not otherwise have access or means to hear it. Read more at Shining Light Project .

Does this story inspire you? Or do you regularly share your music gratis? If so, who do you play for? Why do you do it? Tell us your stories!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Count to "8" for Effective Practice

Rouse the Spouse and I will sometimes head out to the tennis courts for fun and exercise. We don't play games. He's a much better player than I am. We simply hit the ball back and forth, practicing ground strokes or other skills. If we start missing - sending too many balls into the net or over the fence - we'll challenge ourselves to get 10 balls in a row over the net ... or 20. It's amazing how that little game forces us to focus, resulting in better play.

The same idea can be used in music practice. Take advantage of the benefits a little self-imposed pressure can bring. Challenging yourself to perform under pressure will transform your practice time . Setting yourself up for more intentional, focused practice will result in more efficient, effective practice. Here's a little game I play when I need some structure to support my own practice. All you need is a clothespin and the tuning pegs on your instrument.
  • Count off 8 tuning pegs from the bottom of the instrument.
  • Identify the passage and / or skill you will practice.
  • Play the passage. Did you like what your heard? If yes, the clothespin goes on the first peg. If no, try again until you are satisfied with your performance. Then, put the clothespin on the first peg.
  • Now, play the passage again. How was that? You are the judge! Was it perfectly acceptable? Yes? Move the clothespin ahead one peg. No? Move back one space. (Ooh... there's the rub!)
  • Every time your performance is perfectly acceptable you move the clothespin ahead one peg. Every time it's not satisfactory, move it back one peg. Keep going until you make it to peg #8.
  • Note: Once on peg #1, I never go in the negative. I just keep working until I get a good rendition that propels me forward.
Having trouble getting to 8?
  • Slow down.
  • Use the metronome if necessary.
  • Identify trouble spots.
  • Simplify the passage by shortening it, taking out embellishments, etc.
You may ask, "Why 8?" There's certainly nothing magic about performing a specific passage or skill eight times, but in my experience aiming for "8" tends to be challenging enough to expose my weaknesses, repetitive enough to make a significant difference in the effectiveness of my practice, and manageable enough to be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time.

This little game may drive you crazy, but I guarantee it will force you to focus and that will make your practice time more efficient and effective. Want to add a little more pressure? Give yourself a deadline. For example, start 15 minutes before your favorite tv show is scheduled to begin!

Giving credit where credit is due:  The game described above is my adaptation of an idea I found on Philip Johnston's web site Alas, the original info is no longer there. The web site has moved and has taken on a different focus:  Still some good info there!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday's Muse

"Why not just live in the moment, especially if it has a good beat?" ~ Goldie Hawn

Thursday, February 7, 2013

CTO ... Ruth and Steve Smith's television appearance to be re-aired

Check This Out ...The episode of the PBS TV series, "Song of the Mountains", featuring  Ruth and Steve Smith, will be re-aired Saturday, February 9, at 6 pm on North Carolina Public television UNC-TV. Ruth and Steve perform the second half of the show.

And if you're in the western part of the state this weekend, they will be appearing that very same day, live, at the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, NC (12-3 pm). It's free!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Metronome is my Friend

Betsy and I have a gig this Sunday. Most of my practice in the past couple of weeks has involved reacquainting myself with our play list. Consequently, I have been reminded of all those pesky "difficult" spots. Time to break out the metronome!

The metronome is a great practice tool. Its benefits are many:

  • Improves sense of beat and tempo
  • Facilitates correct play of rhythms and note values
  • Aids in ear training and musical skills 
  • Exposes technical difficulties
  • Makes practice time more efficient

Many of my students are reluctant to use the metronome. The unconverted do not realize the positive impact a metronome can have on practice and play. It just seems so darn tedious! Some may be intimidated by the unforgiving nature of the metronome. Some simply don't understand how to use it.

Here are some guidelines for using the metronome in your practice:
  • Isolate the passage you wish to practice.
  • Work it out. Familiarize yourself with the notes, chords, patterns, etc without regard to rigid time.
  • Now, turn on the metronome. Set it at a comfortable, moderately slow pace, i.e. the speed at which you can play the passage with ease.
  • Play the passage correctly and accurately a number of times. (You decide how many.)
  • Gradually increase the speed.
Now, this is important. As speed increases, difficult spots will become obvious. Stop! Isolate the problem area. Identify the issue. Sloppy technique? Difficult reach? Challenging hammer pattern? Unusual rhythm? Don't really know what note you're heading to? Slow it down and fix it. Then practice out from the middle .... adding a couple of notes prior to the tricky spot and a couple of notes after. Always start at a speed that allows successful play of the passage, gradually increasing tempo. Don't worry. Speed will evolve.

Still not convinced? Think about this: Repetition is what helps us master a piece of music. Playing fast with lots of mistakes is counterproductive. On the other hand, repeating correct motions ... albeit slowly ... gets us where we want to be.

PS  While the majority of practice time should be spent playing under a controlled tempo, occasionally it's fun and instructive to crank it up to full speed. This gives you a little insight into what lies ahead, how it will feel, how motions may be different, and how some techniques may need to be adjusted.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Friday, February 1, 2013

CTO ... Dan Duggan Workshop and Concert ... Reserve Your Space Now!

Dan Duggan, of Red Creek, NY, is coming to Raleigh on March 9. He will be teaching an all-day workshop for advanced beginners and up ... then appearing in concert that evening with his wife, Peggy Lynn. It is time to reserve your space!

Dan is a well-regarded teacher and performer of the hammered dulcimer. He's a past National Hammered Dulcimer Champion, has produced many recordings, and is a prolific composer. He's always got something new up his sleeve!

Enjoy a day of practice and instruction. Then, invite friends and family members to join the fun at the evening concert.

Check This Out ... Contact Carol, the event organizer, to secure your space in the workshop and / or reserve tickets for the concert. Here's the scoop:

Dan Duggan, HD Workshop and Concert
Millbrook Baptist Church, 1519 Millbrook Rd, Raleigh
Saturday, March 9

Workshop will be geared to advanced beginners and up
10:00 am - 4:00 pm, $60 registration fee
Bring your own lunch.  Drinks and dessert provided.

Concert that evening with Dan and Peggy Lynn
7:00pm, Tickets = $10
All are welcome!

For more information about Dan's music: 

Rumor has it, there may be some informal jammin' going on between the end of the workshop and the beginning of the concert ... Hope to see you there!