Monday, October 24, 2011

The crowd goes wild

When working on new material, pick a small venue and pay attention to the audience reaction.

Note to self: Don't make Wagon Wheel a signature piece

Friday, October 14, 2011

Less tap, more glide

About three years ago I had a big Aha! moment. I had just decided to get serious about playing the reso I had fooled around with for 15 years and went online to learn about this box that had the cool sound and why I wasn't sounding a bit like the stuff that got me interested in the first place. I found a lesson by Ivan Rosenbeg and learned Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Well, the light went on.  I had been playing the reso like it was just an open tuned guitar played with a slide. I applied what I had learned from over 40 years playing folk music. I was using my basic Travis style picking, occasionally throwing in some rolls from my banjo days. You know, laying down a substrate of notes from the chord and weaving the melody line through it.

That's not what Ivan was doing. He was throwing something into the mix that had never occurred to me: silence. He was shaping the sound as he played individual notes, sometimes with some picking around it, but a lot of the time just letting the voice of the reso sing the melody. And he'd let it stop to breathe. And sometimes he'd slide the low D up to a G and let it drone the open G string right above it. I got it! This was a unique instrument and not meant to be played the same way I would a regular guitar.

Lesson learned and apparently forgotten. As I was getting ready for my first Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp last year, I bought Steve's four-hour bluegrass workout book and CD and started learning some fiddle tunes. One I learned was Saint Ann's Reel, arguably the prettiest fiddle tune of them all. But Steve's arrangements were for flat pickers, either guitar or mandolin. None the less, I learned them note for note and played them on my reso. Pretty, but one problem--practice as much as I have, I just can't get up to jamming speed.

Then the next Aha! There is no way that I was ever going to be able to match what a flat picker with fingers and frets could do by finger picking and playing with a slide. Please spare me your links to some Jerry Douglas recording and your "Oh Yeah?" I didn't say Jerry couldn't do it; I said I couldn't. So last night I'm jamming at the Red Light Cafe in Midtown Atlanta and sure enough the mandolin player says "Let's do Saint Ann's Reel." Well I tried to keep up but ended up playing what felt like every other note just to stay with the others. Hmmmm, it didn't sound real awful. So this morning I worked through it and paid attention to the "money notes," i.e., the ones that really defined the melody, and I ignored the flourish notes. All of a sudden what came out was Saint Ann's Reel at jamming speed.

So I opened up my Mike Witcher book to see how he played it and, lo and behold, I wasn't too far off of what he did. Just for grins, I counted the number of notes in the first three bars of the B part. Steve's flat picker arrangement had 21 notes. I was playing 15. (Mike's arrangement for reso had 17--well, that's why he's Mike Witcher and I'm Mike Hughes.) Just that small reduction in notes, though, was all it took to get me up to jamming speed.

Being a tech writer by trade, my first analogy was that it was like editing a text, taking out the non-essentials and leaving the meat. But that wasn't quite right. In editing, we take out parts that don't add value, but in this case Steve's extra notes all added value.

It's more like watching Gregory Hines tap dance. Fast, furious, fantastic! But now imagine another dancer joins him on stage, Fred Astaire. Fred dances to the same beat, but fewer movements. He glides, lingers in space for a moment, then seemingly falls into the next step. Beautiful!

One's not better than the other; each is bringing his unique artistry and talents to the stage. The reso is more like Fred Astaire. It glides, it lingers, it uses its special tonality to add voice to the melody.

So my new mantra is "Less tap, more glide." I think there are some life lessons outside of music somewhere in that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Live vs. Recorded

Warning: I have absolutely NO data to support the following assertion.

People have different tolerance levels for filler talk depending on if it is a live presentation versus a recorded one.

If I dial into a webcast, it doesn't bother me so much when the speaker starts off, "I'd like to thank Frank for inviting me here today, before I get started I'd like to let him say a few words." "Thanks, we are thrilled..."

BUT, if I encounter that at the start of a recorded webcast (where all of this goes on with just the boring cover slide up for the first five minutes) I go bonkers and drop off.

I'll leave it to others to prove such an experience is general (which I think it is) or to examine why we have different expectations. But if you believe it to be true, you should do two things:

  • Prompt the opening speaker to have a clear jumping point from intro filler to meaty start of the presentation.
  • Edit the intro filler out and start the recorded webcast at the meaty start.
Why not just start with the meaty start? Because I think the intro filler serves some real need in live presentations, it lets folks jostle the chairs and get situated, in reality or in virtual equivalents.

At any rate, think about it the next time you are doing a presentation that will get distributed in a recorded format. Right before you get into the meat, pretend the camera just got turned on.