August 28, 2013

Pomegranate Orange Tuttifruity Cola – mix it up

Have you seen those new Coke machines? The one where you can craft your own soda?  You can pick any flavor you like, just about – and make up your own combinations. You can mix flavors and get something new. Or you can get the same thing every time.

I know what I like. I like it a lot. I get it over and over again.

It’s easy to do the same thing with our music.  Once we finally learn a tune (once we have taken smaller bites!) we can really settle in and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Sometimes, we have so much fun playing a tune we have (finally!) gotten that we practically play it to death. In fact, sometime we will play it until other people are ready to pull their own ears off – just because we are so enjoying that feeling you get when you finally have it down!

We often will do the same thing with our arrangements. We will use the same basic patterns, chord structures, phrasing, and expression. After all, we know we like, we know we can do, we know were comfortable with.

But sometimes "same old same old" just isn’t good enough anymore. Every once in a while we need to mix it up. We have to leave the flavor of the month, whatever it is that makes us so very comfortable, and try something new.  Set some time aside in your practice to come up with some new flavors - you might find something surprising...that you like even better!

August 21, 2013

Teaching is the best way to learn

Learning tunes is one of those never-ending challenges. The matter how many you learn not only are there thousands more, but great composers keep generating new ones! Although we know we will never get to the end and learn every tune ever, we keep trying.

But what do we mean when we say learn a tune? Do we mean that we have gotten it down enough that we can (barely) keep up at a session? Do we mean we have a down well enough to play to an audience? Do we mean we have it down well enough to never forget it (by the way – no such thing!)?

We sometimes fool ourselves by thinking we know a tune cold. But, how cold is cold? If you want to know if you actually know a tune, try teaching it to someone else.
You may make the mistake of starting to teach the tune off the top your head. This will quickly fail you. To be able to teach the tune, you have to know it – really know it. You have to learn not just the notes, but also the structure, the phrases, how the parts fit together. You will be well served to know which pieces are in the A part and appear again in the B part. Or what motif underlies every phrase? What is the underlying theme? Where will you be going? From where?

These types of analyses of the tune will impact how you choose to teach it. Really doing this work will allow you to teach the tune more easily. And all of this is exactly what you need to do… to learn it in the first place!

August 14, 2013


As musicians, we strive to develop our skills, to improve our technique, our repertoire, our span of knowledge. We want to get better – typically we are working on our ability to perform. Whether we are renowned for our performance on the world stage, or simply playing to amuse our cat, we work to be worth listening to.

But how often do we listen? Be honest.
Do we take the time to really hear ourselves? Do we actually really listen to others when they play? I don’t mean the listening where you relax and let the sound wash over you (even though that is one of the benefits of playing our beautiful instrument, but that’s not what we mean here).

Involved listening is another skill that we must develop. This is an essential skill. Whether you are solely ear trained, solely paper trained, or somewhere in between. It is from this type of all attentive listening that you learn important elements like phrasing, ornamentation, style, and expression. And like every other skill, you can build your involved listening. Here are four things you can do to get better at involved listening.
  • Focus. You can spend all day listening, but if you don’t pay attention, you won’t actually hear anything. Take the time to focus on what you’re listening to.
  • Think. What are you listening to? Are you hearing the melody? The harmony? A particular phrase? Think about captures your attention and decide if that’s what you want to focus on.
  • Pause. Remember that music is a communication so the pauses are almost as important as the sounds. Listen for those pauses. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean?
  • Reflect. Now that you’ve listened to the tune that you’re interested in. You have to think about how you’re going to make it yours. Reflect on what you’ve listened to and how your to bring it out and you.
Being involved with your music by truly listening will allow you to become a better musician as well as appreciating other people’s music all the more.

August 7, 2013

This is harder than it looks

I just got a fancy new software package. It’s perfect for me - now instead of typing on my keyboard, I just talk to my computer.  It really isn’t hard.   Except now it is.  I’m having to learn to do things completely differently. My little machine listens to me and dutifully writes down everything I say.

This is a problem. You see, I’m not used to saying aloud what I’m trying to write. And actually, it’s quite challenging to write while you’re talking – this is very different.  When I'm typing it just comes out.  I can correct it on the fly (of course when I'm typing the computer isn't trying to guess what I said or how to spell it either!).  So, I am going to learn how to do something new. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.

How many times do we think this when we're learning a tune? We think it should be easy. It’s an easy tune. Everybody else learned it really quickly. It’s not that complicated! I should be able play this. :-(
And yet sometimes we run into tunes that make us do things differently. Sometimes what is easy, isn’t. It might look easy on paper. It might have been easy for the person next to us in the workshop.  But it’s just not coming together for us. We’ve all been there – we don't like being there, but we’ve been there. And so what are we supposed to do?
Here are three things we can do to make it easier (whether it’s learning a tune, or how to type by talking):
1. Take it slowly. Whether the tune is simple or if the software says you can use it right out of the box, we need to give ourselves the time to absorb what it is were trying to learn. Zorching off as fast as we possibly can, because "it’s easy,” just makes us frustrated. Take your time. (Yes, I am always exhorting you to slow down...because, usually, this is the solution!)
2. Think -  what about the tune is challenging. It’s not likely the entire thing is hard for you. It is more likely that there is just one thing that you’re struggling with. Take the time to examine what’s giving you a hard time and see if you can parse that into smaller elements that you can work on independently. Once you have those down, fit it into the rest of the music - slowly.
3. Quit worrying about whatever everyone else is doing. I saw recently a really good quote that said something about never forgetting that you only see other people's "highlight reels" while you focus on your own "bloopers".  Mostly people won't own up the having a hard time...they're too worried about what everyone else will think...but really - no one else cares. So forget the litany in your own head about how you’re never going to get it and realize nobody else will admit that. Get over it and get back to work.