Don’t Forget to Practice

keep-calm-and-practice-your-instrument-3What does it mean to practice? If you’re like me, you are happy just to have time to pick up your instrument and get a sound out of it. More often than not I’ll just play a bunch of tunes. And that’s not a bad thing at all, I suppose, but if you’re just playing aimlessly and not really paying attention to what you’re doing, is it really worth it? If you’re playing tunes incorrectly the whole time, or executing ornaments sloppily, is it really beneficial to you, or does it just make things worse?

Practice, on the other hand, is performing a skill repeatedly to perfect it, right? But you have to know what your goal is. If you have no clue what “perfect” means in your particular field, you’re shooting spitballs in the dark. And I doubt you’ll like what you see once the light is turned on. Neither will your mother, so clean that mess up!

Wow, I’m the analogy master.

But really, you need goals. Short, medium, and long-term goals. It’s kinda like life. If you’re not aiming for something you’ll be lucky to hit it. So take a few minutes to sit down with a pencil, paper, computer, whatever you have to write with, and jot down what you want to accomplish with your playing.

For example, and hypothetically speaking, let’s say I want to play fiddle at regular, full speed sessions. (This is actually true.) That would be my long-term goal. Now I have to decide what I need to do to get there.

There’s a lot involved in playing Irish music, like rolls, cuts, and intonation. Also, string crossing and figure-eight bowing patterns that happen in so many Irish tunes. As short term goals, I can set a little time aside at each practice session to work on those things.

Another short-term goal might be to work on my speed–playing regularly with a metronome, and increasing the speed gradually over multiple practice sessions.

My medium-term goal might be to learn 3 tunes that I can put together as a set, so that when I get to try my new skills out I am prepared. So I can devote a little time at each practice session to that as well.

Both the short-term and medium-term goals serve the long-term goal, obviously. It’s up to you to decide what is important to you in terms of reaching your long-term goals. You might not think that snappy rolls and cuts really matter all that much for session playing, or that you want to defer working on them so you can work with a metronome to increase your speed. Don’t set intonation practice aside though, please–no one will want to play with you if your intonation is bad.

So let’s say I get an hour to practice every day. I might break down my session like this:

INTONATION–10 minutes scales along with a recording or drone note.

ORNAMENTATION–5 minutes each rolls, cuts, trebles, slowly (15 minutes total)

BOWING–10 minutes play part of a tune that uses the figure eight bowing pattern, slowly.

TUNES–25 minutes learn/practice playing a tune, slowly (at least half-speed) focusing on the notes and intonation. Use a metronome for consistency, and increase speed regularly.

As I get better at the skills, I can change my goals. Eventually I’ll want to play the tunes adding some ornamentation, but I’ll save that for later.

Anyway, I hope this helps. I know it’s difficult to be disciplined about practice when you just want to PLAY. But there’s a difference between playing and practicing. Practice at home, play at the session. And may your practice be focused and productive–you’d be surprised how much your playing improves if you devote a little time each day to the basic skills. And furthermore, there’s already a ton of info and opinion about effective practice online and in published form, so do your own googlin’ and see what else is out there. Most of what I have written here is based on what I’ve learned online, but al ot of it is just common sense.

Happy practicing!

P.S. I recommend recording yourself as well–this can give you valuable feedback on your progress. DO IT! I do: ME ON YOUTUBE

Audacity–a Quick and Dirty Tutorial

Audacity-logo-r_50pct“Audacity® is free, open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing sounds.”

That’s the first thing you read on the website from which Audacity can be downloaded. It’s also a simple, fast and free way to manipulate audio files for music practice.  I have often mentioned Audacity at the session–I’m finally getting around to explaining how to use it. This is going out especially to my session posse! Holla back!

A few things I do with Audacity:

  • Import and edit recordings I have made of our session tunes.
  • Export the session tunes as MP3s to make them easy to up-and download.
  • Speed up and slow down recorded music files–without changing the pitch.
  • Change the pitch of a recorded audio file (transpose to another key).
  • Select a section of recorded audio and play it as a loop.
  • Select, copy and paste a section of recorded audio to create a new file.

What I’ll do today is explain how I do a couple of the most common things I do–selecting audio, slowing it down, and playing it looped (so that it starts over automatically). There are much more extensive step-by-step tutorials on the Audacity website HERE.

Once you have downloaded Audacity and have the program open, you can go to the file menu at the top and select import>audio. Or you can drag and drop the file directly onto the open Audacity window.

Your file will a appear as a “wave form”–a sort of landscape looking thing, like this:

looks like trees reflected in a lake, right?

Typical audio waveform

It’s just a visual representation of the audio you’ve imported. You can press the space bar to play the audio, and watch as the cursor tracks across the waveform. You’ll notice that when the sound is louder, the waveform appears taller. With your cursor, you can click on the waveform, hold the mouse button down and drag the mouse across the waveform and you’ll notice you’re creating a shaded area–this is the part you’re selecting. You can copy, cut and paste this just like you would text, but for now we’re just going to play with it. Don’t click on the waveform again or your selection will disappear!

Now that you’ve managed to select some audio, we can do all sorts of fun things with it. Let’s slow it down, to start with.

Continue reading

Scales and Drones

There’s one thing I have learned in the few short months I have been learning to play the fiddle–proper intonation is a must. It’s a good idea to mindfully practice good intonation, rather than just sawing away at practice time and hoping it’ll work itself out. Not many folks appreciate playing with a fiddler whose intonation is off.

There are a couple bits of advice I have heard regarding achieving good intonation:

  • Practice along with recorded scales
  • Practice over a drone note

Brass_scales_with_cupped_traysWhen practicing to recorded scales you are listening to your playing and attempting to match your tone with the recording. It isn’t hard to hear when you’re a bit off. The idea is that eventually your fingers will learn where to go to play the notes accurately. Here are some links to scales that would be useful for playing Irish traditional music–feel free to download!

A major–one octave

A major–two octaves

D major–one octave

C major–one octave

C major–two octaves

G major–two octaves

dronePlaying along to a drone means that you are listening to a single note–probably the root or tonic of the scale or tune you want to practice–and listening to the relationship between your note and the drone note. You can also play tunes along to it if you want to make it a bit more musical. I find this method more intuitive–the drone becomes almost like background, in a way, and you are able to listen attentively to your own playing. This link will take you to a site where you can play along with or  download drones–every possible note is represented. (To download, click the link, then right click on the drone you want. Select “save as” in the menu and voila!)

 

I am not a brain scientist, but I get the sense that using these two techniques in conjunction forces you to use your brain in slightly different ways,  solidifying your ability to play in tune. It’s helped me quite a lot–try it for yourself.

Thoughts on Picking Up a Second Instrument Before You’ve Mastered the First

ImageI am curious by nature. If something is a mystery to me, I’ll try to find out more about it. Take the Japanese language, for example. After learning Irish I found myself very curious about Japanese because I watch a lot of anime, and the language and its native speakers seemed very…different from myself and my own language. Was it as hard as I had heard? Were Japanese people special because they could speak it?

No, on both counts. It’s just a language. If you put in the time and effort, you start to get it.

I saw the fiddle in a similar way, and asked similar questions about how it’s played and the people who play it. So I decided to take it up. Like Japanese, I really love it. But since it’s music related, I have a feeling I won’t let it fall by the wayside the way I did with the native language of Japan.

Taking up another instrument, especially if you’re not a master of your first, brings up some issues. You should be aware that the second instrument can take time away from your first–I still need to practice the concertina, but I’m pretty dedicated to the fiddle as well. I am lucky in that i am able to play the concertina most days at lunchtime at work–either outside or in the car–so I get to play it pretty regularly. This means I can practice the fiddle at home without using up a ton of time. If you don’t have this advantage, though, think hard about whether a second instrument is going to work out for you. Picking an instrument that is portable, like the concertina or the whistle, might be a good choice if you have the option to practice away from home.

One advantage of playing two instruments is that your playing and progress on one will inform your playing and progress on the other. Your sense of timing, pitch, and your ability to really memorize tunes are all enhanced by the different approaches to music. It’s also true that if you have progressed well on the first instrument you will probably progress well or better–and possibly more quickly–on the second. It’s that way with languages too–you learn how to learn. It makes it much easier the second time around.

Another caveat which I have heard mentioned is that if you pick an instrument that is too similar to your first, it can trip you up. I’m not sure if this would be true for everyone, but I do think it could cause some folks a headache or two. For example if I had picked the English system concertina–it would feel familiar in my hands, but it’s played very differently. I may find myself wanting to use techniques that apply to the Anglo system that would never make sense on the English.

So think well, weigh the pros and cons. Your second instrument will take just as much time and effort to learn as the first, so make sure you have it to give! And by the way, cowbell is alot harder than it looks, believe me–I recommend fiddle instead. ;)

Improvin’ thru You-Tubin’

old-television copySince I started learning the concertina about a year or so ago, I have been posting videos of my playing  on YouTube. (My YouTube channel) There are a few reasons why I think this is a good idea:

First, I do it because it allows me to hear my playing objectively, without the distraction of actually having to, well, play.

It also allows me to track my progress over time–I can go back a few months, if I  dare, and wince along with my earlier self as I butcher perfectly good tunes. Then I can breathe a huge sigh of relief as I remember that the video I made just yesterday sounds waaaay better. Relax–you’re improving!

I also like to share the videos with as many people as I can. As crappy as my playing can be, I find it benefits me to play for an audience, even if they are not in the room. In fact, it’s kind of a first step toward being comfortable playing in front of real live people because you know it’s going to be seen and commented on, if not immediately.

So here are a couple examples of my videos–both recordings of The Congress reel. The first is from April, 2013, and the second is from this month–November, 2013. You can definitely hear the improvement in rhythm and speed.

And just for laughs, here’s the first concertina vid I ever posted–in it you can see I still have the enourmous rental concertina from The Button Box in Sunderland, so this was within 90 days of my very first encounter with the instrument. Junior Stevens taught me this version of the reel The Wind That Shakes the Barley–I need to record this again for comparison. Hopefully I’ll do Mr. Stevens proud!

How To Get Off Of That Learning Plateau

buzzcutOne of the reasons I decided to organize the Lower Valley Beginner Irish Session was that I felt like I had reached a plateau in my playing. I had been playing mostly by myself, and occasionally at regular sessions in the area, but neither was giving me quite what I was looking for–playing alone gets old, and trying to keep up at a fast-paced session can be discouraging, even if the folks are as nice as can be (which at my regular they are!)

My, my. It IS lonely and kinda windy and cold up on this here plateau. Time to build a fire…

So the slow session is great because on the one hand the Irish music is a social thing, meant for dancing, or playing with other people. Plus we help each other learn to listen and play with other people. It’s what it’s all about, really.

But if your playing isn’t improving and you’re really stuck in a rut, you need a coach. Someone who understands how you should sound. Someone who isn’t afraid to tell you like it is. Someone who will bring your weaknesses to your attention, so that you KNOW what they are, because if you DON’T know what you’re doing wrong, you can’t work on it, right?

This article on The Bulletproof Musician is basically all about that. I highly recommend reading it and browsing the other articles on the site. The article explains how this process of mastery can be broken down into four stages of awareness:

  • Unconscious Incompetance
  • Concious Incompetance
  • Concious Competance
  • Unconscious Competance

It’s a progression, really, from flailing about in the dark, wondering why you aren’t getting any better, to mastery of your chosen skill. The plateau exists at the “unconscious incompetance” stage. To break through to the next stage, you need someone to point the way. It isn’t always easy to take criticism, whether it’s constructive or not, but in order to progress we have to have our eyes wide open.

Just make sure your coach isn’t Bradley Buzzcut from Beavis and Butthead.