Monday, July 25, 2011

Two reasons you don't want to carpool with me...

Two reasons not to carpool with me:

The first is easy; I'm a terrible driver. I know this because I just finished a road trip with my 34-year old son who is also my insurance agent. His critiques aside, even I noticed it. I drive like an old man. (Well, I'm 62!) I run over curbs at the drive-through, miss exits, take my attention off the road while I fiddle with x (x can equal radio, CD, GPS, etc), get befuddled about which way I was going before I exited for gas, start the car even though it's already running, etc. In my defense, I did avert an accident when someone who drives worse than I do turned into our side of the four-lane divided highway, but instead of turning into the near lane swung all the way over into my lane (I was doing sixty). I've been meaning to take the new Jeep off roading but the dirt shoulder of a highway wasn't what I had in mind.

But that's not the only reason you don't want to carpool with me.

I just got a new instructional book and CD for Dobro. This one is by Mike Witcher. Now instructional CDs are a lot like girlfriends. At first you go through a lot of them, looking for "the one." Each time, I would think, now I will be able to play like x (x = yadda yadda yadda). But somehow it just doesn't work out. But this time I'm very optimistic for two reasons. One, like with girlfriends, there has to be a bit of "this one is right for where I am now in my personal development." Instructional CDs, like girlfriends, aren't bad, but they might not be the right one for where you are right now. I had Mike Witcher as an instructor this year at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp, and as I listen to the songs on his CD I can tell that I will be able to learn them. But I've also learned a lot about learning in the last year. For one, I've learned about the incredible amount of repetition it takes for the finger muscles to learn something new. So I'm not so easily discouraged. "This is too hard" has been replaced with "This is new." I know it will be easy--by the 100th repetition.

And there is another trick I picked up at Kamp. This one I got from one of the other kampers at lunch who got it from one of his flat pick instructors. "You can't learn to play a song until you learn to sing it first." That's been one of my problems, I've been trying to learn a song by picking it out from the tab or sheet music. Sure, I would listen to it first, but not learn it. But now I'm trying just to learn the song first by singing along with the CD. And that's the other reason you don't want to carpool with me. I've been playing the 1 min:15 sec version (medium speed) of Angelina Baker back to back to back during my commute to work. I sing along with it, "Lah dee dah, lah diddy dah..." Again and again and again. Not playing (hey, I'm a bad driver but not THAT bad), just singing the melody to nonsense syllables. Now the tablature tells me how to play a song I know, so it's not so frustrating to grind through it trying to figure out how it's supposed to sound in three weeks when I get some kind of reasonable speed.

It's a 20-song set and I've set an aggressive pace of one song every two weeks. So in forty weeks I'll have it. Man, that's gonna be a lot of lah dee dah.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Better to be Dominant (Than Diminished)

[ I first wrote on this over a year ago. I've since gotten some additional insight from my tech writer perspective.]

My first Dobro lesson was with Mark Van Allen who spent two hours reviewing theory with me. It was a fascinating tour of the fret board, scales, and chords. Mark pointed out that if you play the scale of G on all the strings, and if you put a dot down every place you "fretted" a string, you create the basic chords included in the key of G.
G  B  D
0  0  0  GBD  G major
2  1  2  ACE  A minor
4  3  4  BDF# B minor
5  5  5  CEG  C major
7  7  7  DF#A D major
9  8  9  EGB  E minor
11 10 10 F#AC F# dim
Mark describes the patterns as bar, chevron, chevron, bar, bar, chevron, hockey stick (oh yeah, we'll talk more about that hockey stick later).
Recently, I was at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp where Ivan Rosenberg established the same set of patterns. He did it by applying the following technique for making a triad chord: "Play a note, skip a note, play a note, skip a note, play a note." He started at G and went up the scale, producing the same pattern that Mark had.

The first six chords have a particular beauty and closure about them. The three major chords are the tonic (G) dominant (D) and subdominant (C) chords. The three minor chords are their respective relative minors. (A relative minor is the minor that has the same key signature as its relative major. Their scales share the same notes but start on different roots-one yielding a major scale and one yielding a minor scale.) So for G, we have E min, for C we have A min, and for D we have B min.

Then we get that darn F# diminished! What's with that? It's like meeting the folks in a jam: The banjo guy says, "I'm Fred," the mandolin player says, "I'm Skip," the guitar player says, "I'm Jack," and then the fiddler says, "I'm Throckmorton." What the...??!! How did he end up with the others?
Even Ivan kind of dismissed the F# diminished saying it wasn't very useful for what he wanted to cover that day. The problem I have with it is that it just doesn't seem to belong. Have you EVER played a song in G where an F# diminished showed up? I haven't. But the other six chords are mainstays for G progressions.

I've fretted (no pun intended) over this for a while, and I think I've resolved it, at least for me. That seventh chord is a D7 without the root D. A seventh is the 1 3 5 b7 and in the case of D the 3, 5, and flatted 7 would be F#, A, C--exactly what we have. That would make more sense, except now I have the problem of where did the lost root go? That's the problem I have been pondering for the last year or so.

Then my tech writer background kicked in and solved it. Think of these seven chords as a seven-page document in a word processor. The first six are in Portrait and the page is three strings wide. That's plenty wide enough because major and minor chords are properly rendered with three notes. 1, 3, 5 or a 1, b3, 5.

But what if the last page is supposed to be in Landscape? That would make the page four strings wide and--lo and behold--look what we now see if we go into Landscape view: D, F#, A, C  our D7. We were missing the root because it takes four notes to properly render a dominant 7th and we were looking at just the last three! Now it's as if that fiddler named Throckmorton winks at me and adds, "But my friends call me Buddy." The world makes sense again.

OK, one problem solved, but I now have two more: (1) Why doesn't F# get its own chord and (2) why does D get two chords?

Once again my tech writer perspective kicks in on the first one. In document design or screen layout, there is a well-known phenomenon that if two elements are too close they create a visual tension. For example, text too close to table borders are the visual equivalent of nails on a chalk board. Or put a button too close to the edge of the screen and the user begs for some padding to give it some breathing room. I think F# is just too close to G! Our ears don't like a chord that is only a half-step away from the root.

And as far as D getting two chords when everybody else gets just one? Well, maybe that's why it's called the dominant.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Living Large

For someone who is not the least bit afraid or reluctant to speak in public, I am still quite nervous when I play music in the presence of others. My stint on stage at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp was a breakout moment for me.

And last night was another step forward when I took the stage for open mic at the Red Light Cafe and got the chance to play with my favorite band, Cedar Hill of Atlanta. I sang "Bring Your Clothes Back Home." When else can you stand up in public and sing "Sure I'm sitting there watchin her flip-flop-a-doopie, oh Baby."

 And in a bar no less :-)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Bucket List...check...check...check

So there I am backstage at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville, TN. I'm trying to stay focused on my solo that will be coming up in just a few minutes while the stage manager corrals my group in the wings. While I'm standing there, Stacy Phillips (Reso players, yeah, THAT Stacy Phillips) comes up and gives me some mic tips about the resophonic. "Let the mic point here--not there--and during your solo, step in and flatten the guitar out."

Wow, thanks.

Then Ivan Rosenberg (yeah, THAT Ivan Rosenberg) gives me some reassurances that I'll do fine. While he's talking to me, Kenny and Amanda Smith go walking by me.

Wow, wow.

Then I hear them announcing my band and I hear them say my name. The handler herds us onstage. The sound technician positions the mic exactly where Stacy had said it should go. The mandolin player kicks it off and we do our song, "Love of the Mountains." My solo part comes up, I step forward a bit and turn my guitar a little flatter and away I go. Fifteen seconds later I'm done and the crowd applauds for me.

OMG Wow!

That was Friday, June 24, the last night of the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp. At the start of the week, my class instructor asked us to go around and play a little so he could get a gauge on our relative skill levels. I completely froze up and could barely remember anything I had ever played. Eventually I stumbled through "Grandfather's Clock." So I signed up for the band scramble. That's where you put your name in an envelope for your instrument, and on Friday they randomly assign you to a band. You're given 45 minutes to come up with a vocal and an instrumental (along with a band name). Then the competition begins in front of all the other campers. That's one way to get over your fear of playing in front of others. What was I thinking? As it was, my group won and that earned us the distinction of getting added to the Friday night concert as the opening band.

Well, it all turned out well--as the beginning of this blog documented-- and it was the thrill of a lifetime to be on that stage (and to not screw up).

And it was the lesson of a lifetime. I am honored to have been surrounded by these great musicians and witness first hand their humility and ability to listen all week to students and encourage them. Their universal talent across the board was to hear a student play and filter it down to one thing the student was getting almost right. They ignored the good and the truly awful of what you did and went for the one thing that could make you better--the logical next step. And that's all it took.

My personal thanks to my instructors, Mike Witcher and Ivan Rosenberg, for neither berating me nor trying to make me great (in one week). Thanks for accepting the player I was and leaving me just a little better than when you first encountered me. And thanks for teaching me how to make that happen on my own now, week by week.

Did I say Wow?