Monday, November 30, 2009

100 Days of Practice Round 2, Day 47: Progress?

Since 1991, there hasn't been a return flight from Ireland (and that's about twenty flights we're talking about here) on which I didn't "start a book." Always with the good ideas, I scribble wildly in my journal, or lacking that, an airplane napkin, a used beer mat I'd stuffed in my pocket at the session the night before, the back of my print-out ticket, or once, a barf bag. But this very well may be the first of such journals I actually will publish. Hooray for the unedited, un-peer-reviewed blog!

Funnily enough, I'm not sure I had much to say. Here's what I wrote on the return flight on Sunday, slightly edited
:

Well, big deal. Another trip, and happy to be returning home. Friday, I wrote that "everything is better in Ireland." To which I say: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

It's a bit surprising that I even have the chance to write on this plane, as I've got my wee friend beside me, but she's finally self-occupied with one purple horse, a tiny mouse in a dress, and a pile of plastic accessories. Six hours into the flight now. Two to go, and to be honest, so far Mini Me has been fabulous.

Somehow, today I'm fresh as a daisy--at least on the inside. Coulda used a shower before the flight, but what the hell. I'd only get dirty again anyway. Last night's going away party finished up at 4 am. There were five of us left, and we were milking every second we could from each other's company. No one wanted to give in and go to bed; we kept asking each other for just one more song. It was great to hear our friend Gabo Roberts singing again. His voice is so powerful and natural, his delivery so heartfelt, it's really hard to understand why he's not famous. Seems to be people like that under every rock in Ireland, and Ireland has a lot of rocks.

Last night was a good old fashioned house party singsong, where eight or so people gathered around in a tight corner of the living room, and sang song after song, everyone chipping in on the ones they knew, which was most of them. This part of Ireland, I always miss. In America, if someone pulls out an instrument and begins to play, one or two people may listen, but most will continue to talk to each other loudly, often directly next to or in front of the musician, no matter how good the individual may be playing. In Ireland, if you're in the room with the session, then you either participate, listen, or leave. If you want to talk to your neighbor, it seems that you generally leave the room to do so.

Music is participatory, not background--and that has been one of the most difficult adjustments Steve has had to make here in America, though it's fair to say that it's an adjustment he hasn't made--and I hope he never does. Oh, you can find situations here in which people really will listen and sing along, but usually the room is lacking an ample supply of carnivores, and there's always this sneaking fear that someone might break into "Kumbaya" at any moment.

Let me just tell you, though, that even in Ireland, this sort of environment is quickly disappearing. For example, our first two days in Ireland, the talk everywhere was of "Jedward"--John and Edward Grimes, two Dubliners who'd made it through several eliminations of "The X-Factor," the British equivalent of American Idol, in all of its glitzy, grossly excessive glory. It appeared to be a novelty to have Irish artists make it so far on the show, and everyone was talking about it.

So, the big show was on, on our first Sunday in Dublin. It was George Michael night, and the twins did a version of Wham!'s "I'm Your Man," wearing all white: skinny jeans, blazers, high top sneakers, and "Choose Life" t-shirts, good Catholic boys they must be. Then there was the hair: an exaggerated bouffant rising five inches off the tops of their heads. They could barely sing, couldn't dance, but had those Elvis Presley crying eyes, and perhaps therein lay their appeal. Actually, I'm not really sure what their appeal was, but it was widespread. We were in a pub filled with about 200 people when the X-Factor came on, and all fell silent to watch their performance. The barmaid shouted, "There'll be no drinks served while this is on!" and everyone glued their eyes to the TV. God, it hurt to watch. All over the news, of course. Ain't they cute?

It is almost certain that the old Ireland is nearly gone. That's what happens with progress, eh? The Celtic Tiger came and went, but in its wake, though most people complain about recession, things are a heck of a lot better than they were before the feline invader. They're speculating on how bad it is, but they're doing it from the kitchen tables of their 4,000 square foot houses, from their kitchen extensions, from their comfy leather couches. It is my humble opinion that things ain't too bad, folks.

When I first arrived in 1991, the EU didn't exist. Ireland had its own currency, and its own laws. Things were very tough then. Ireland hadn't recovered from the horrid recession of the 1980s, and in the little town of Thurles where I first landed, and subsequently ran out of money in, and further subsequently fell in love in, and still further subsequently spent about six months in, things were very bad. 20% unemployment, no tourism. Everything felt dirty and grey. In my memory, the town then was dingy, outdated, backward, and depressed. I revisited that town on this trip, and was amazed to find twice the number of shops open, brightly painted shops, fully stocked shelves, cafes and restaurants, a BENETTON right on the square, and a brand new two-lane highway belting out of town and cutting across formerly untouched fields. It was great to see that the town had come along and appeared to be bustling... but the highway? DEPRESSING! It made me sad, but I'm just a visitor. I'm sure the locals are happy that they can get around more quickly--that is, those locals whose land wasn't destroyed by a concrete ribbon. The ones who like it most probably also were watching Jedward with great interest.

Progress. Ireland has come a long, long way, and much about that is good—but it has left behind a great deal in the process.

Progress most certainly has a price.

* * *

Speaking of progress, how is yours? We're at day 47--nearly halfway there, and man, this is going quickly. I'm afraid that I fell off the wagon a bit last week, only managing three days of real practice in the nine that we were away. I'm back on track now, and I did miss it. How about you?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 45: Everything's Better in Ireland.

On Friday, I decided I’d had it. Must everything be better here?

That the Guinness would be better, I expected. I knew that.

The chat and the music: they’re always better here, and that’s why I’ve been continuing to come to Ireland at least once a year since 1991. Not to mention the men, but my preferences in that regard are obvious by now.

I could handle the fact that the bread is fresher, more fluffy, less sugary, and never tastes like plastic-laced cardboard.

I’ve even been getting used to the fact that the coffee is delicious just about everywhere you go.

The cream buns at Quigley‘s in Nenagh--so good I can’t even talk about them.

And I did accept, albeit with a great measure of resent, that the Special K With Red Berries has not one, but three, varieties of berries, and there are many more of them per bowl, and they’re all huge.

But here’s the one that took the camel down: Even the HAIRDRYERS ARE BETTER.They work faster. Listen, I'm the kind of person who goes to bed with their clothes on to save time getting dressed the next morning. With my American hairdryer, it takes about 20 minutes to dry my hair. So I don't bother. Here, it took five minutes. That just killed me.

I complained to Granda Pat. Why do Americans put up with such terrible quality?

Granda Pat, who is fond of metaphor (to put it mildly), said it’s like the man who trained the dog. Wipe that look off your face. I’ll explain this to you.

The man trained his dog by giving him a pound of beef the first day. The second day, the dog got 15 oz. The third day, down an ounce again to 14, until at two and a half weeks, he could replace the meat with shite and the dog didn’t even notice. Problem is, Pat adds, once he got the dog trained, he died.

Folks, our collective Special K is berry-less. And why the lack of public outcry? I always wonder.

Competition, Pat says. Hm. American competition: See who can provide absolutely no quality at all at such a low price that we don’t even notice its absence.

Alas. That’s the way it is. We’re back in Dublin after three days in Tipperary, which included a visit to the Rock of Cashel, a stop in an old stomping ground for me (Thurles… more on that in a subsequent entry…), a night out with a raucous session that mixed blues, Bob Dylan, The Cure, Cameo (Oh, yes… remember “Word Up” from the ’80s… and imagine it on acoustic guitar, in a pub in Ireland…), rather large hangover, and a long drive back to Dublin.

Which is where we are now. At the moment, there’s a going-away party getting into gear downstairs….Bags are packed and we’re leaving tomorrow. Must enjoy the night!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 43: Working on New Things

An excerpt from Berklee professor of guitar Robin Stone, from a forthcoming Rock Guitar Improvisation course that I've been editing for Berkleemusic.com:

"Musicians are creatures of habit when it comes to learning new concepts and as the saying goes, 'old habits die hard. Musicians who have been playing for a few years tend to play within their established comfort zones. They know some tunes, have some licks down, and for the most part stick to what they already know. The only way to evolve and progress as a musician is to explore those areas of your playing that you don't have together. I always suggest to my students here at Berklee that every time they practice, they should work on the material they want to work on for some of the practice session but also pick one topic or concept that they are not well versed in and work on that as well. A typical example would be a rock-based student learning a jazz standard. Practicing things you already know is a good idea—we all understand that repetition is an important factor in one's playing technique and vocabulary. However, learning new concepts, though frustrating at times, will advance your playing beyond your current comfort zone and keep your improvisational ideas fresh."

Remember to add "new" skills to your routine on a regular basis... but don't just dabble with them and then start something else that's also new. Keep them in your regular routine until you've mastered them, then add something else that is new.

Just like "there's no such thing as very pregnant" -- there's no such thing as "half learning." You've either learned it or you haven't learned it yet. You can be working on learning, but no such thing as "half learning."

100 Days of Practice, Round 2, Day Something or Other: On Vacation

Not that anyone’s checking their email today… but Happy Thanksgiving, from Ireland, where there’s no such thing.

Still traveling! Yesterday, we made a day long trek to Tipperary County, to visit Soul Papa’s sister. An evening of reunion and chat, and now we’re waking slowly, one by one, and trying to plan how to fill our day today, as it’s “lashing rain”--which, we hear, is not unlike what’s been happening for about three weeks solid in this part of the country. The talk everywhere you go is of the floods in all the low-lying areas of Ireland: roads washed out, homes destroyed. They say that there’s never been a situation like this. We are staying not far form the banks of the Shannon River, at Lough Derg, one of the largest lakes in Ireland, and the water is more than 6 m higher than usual. The news has captured some very sad scenes.

Other than that, it’s been an uneventful few days: visiting with family, and another day in Dublin proper. Monday was a highlight. We spent a day at Newgrange, a 3,200-year-old burial mound that predates the pyramids of Egypt by some three hundred years. (How they know this is unclear to me, but, sure, didn’t St. Brendan discover America long before Christopher Columbus?) Newgrange sits atop at hill in the heart of the Boyne River valley, among hundreds of other similar mounds… though Newgrange is the largest, and one of the few that have been fully excavated. It was discovered in 1699 by a local landowner quarrying its millions of small white rocks. Through the rubble, miners found the large standing stones that mark the entrance to the chamber. It’s said that a dog went in after a rabbit, and went deep into a cave. Workers follwed it, and soon discovered the innards of a cruciform burial chamber, perfectly intact.

At that time, Newgrange was mostly a pile of small stones (a big, big, big pile and lots of stones), and it was reconstructed decades ago, according to an archeologist's idea of what it might have looked like. I'd post photos for you but we didn't bring a cord to connect the camera to the computer. Bad blogger!

Newgrange's entrance is marked by a doorway of very large stones, and as wtih the pyramids, historians can only speculate that they were put there with some concoction of hemp, pulleys, and logs. Marking occasional stones at the entrance are carvings of a variety of ancient marknigs and patterns, mostly swirls and diamond shapes they call lozenges. It's not known what these markings meant.

Above Newgrange's entrance stones is a small opening, about three feet across and less than a foot high. Every year around the solstice, the rising sun comes up over the hills on the opposing bank of the Boyne, and illuminates the inside of the chamber. Sun worship is no surprise, as those who populated the area were a settled and agricultural people. The return of the sun at the darkest day of the year, December 21, would be a celebrated event, indeed.

Actually, the return of the sun on November 26, 27, or 28th, 2009, would be welcome as well! The weather hasn’t been too bad. People seem fond of discussing just how terrible it is, though we feel we’ve had good weather, for the most part. Rain every day, but only light, and just a little sun. But it’s okay. If we wanted a sun holiday, we’d have chosen Hawaii.

Now, about practice. Not a good story. I haven’t done a bit of it all week, and I must admit, I am missing it terribly now. But it’s hard to make it happen, when travelling with four other people (one of whom is our happy girl!), staying in other people’s homes, and not wanting to remove myself from the goings on to play. Soul Sistah tells me to just think of it like vacation from practicing… but it’s a vacation I didn’t need, in that regard. Alas. We’ll see what the day brings!

Monday, November 23, 2009

100 Days of Practice Round 2, Day 39: Defining Moments

Every trip I take to Ireland, there is at least one defining moment when I ask, "Why don't we live here?" Admittedly, this sometimes happens as a multi-pint "I love you, man" moment... but tonight it happened in the pouring November rain on Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, with the unexpected convergence of two of my favorite things: sentimental holiday tradition and, surprise, my favorite Irish band.

It happened on Sunday, our second day in Dublin, when I took my Soul Sister to see downtown Dublin. M-I-L drove us to Connolly Station, and we ambled down Talbot Street, before turning onto O'Connell Street to pick up one of the open-top, hop-on, hop-off doubledecker city bus tours. Our 23-stop tour included all the expected sights, all of which I'd seen before but not in succession: Grafton Street, Trinity College, home of the Lord Mayor, Dublin Castle, Trinity Church, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Guinness Stores and back along the quay to where we'd started... when the bus took a short detour, skipping the Parnell Square loop because O'Connell street was to be closed down for the annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremonies. Soul Mama's radar went straight up. I'm a sucker for that s£$!te.

We had time to kill, but planned to return. We hopped off the bus, wandered back toward Grafton, had a coffee and a sandwich in the famous Bewley's, and took in a few tourist shops before making our way back to the tree lighting at 6:00. When we arrived, a choir of carolers was singing the known carols on a festively decorated outdoor stage, and we escaped the pouring rain by tucking into the portico of a lingerie shop until the automatic blinds came down at 6:00.

At the appointed time, and after a round of speeches from local city VIPs, the gathered crowd shouted a countdown, then the tree was lit. Ah, the tree--a 25-foot tinsel and steel construction. A stack of glittering balls, far greener than a real tree because it was lit by 78,000 LED lights (generously provided by the ESB--the electrical board--so the Lord Mayor told us in her introductory remarks).

And then, the unimaginable happened. The emcee told us to stick around for two more bands, the highlight of which was the psychedelic Irish traditional informed but world-music inspired Kila.

What better place to watch the seven-piece band than sandwiched between a stack of shimmering balls, the 120-meter stainless steel "Spire of Dublin," affectionately known as "the Spike on the Dike," and the historic GPO--the General Post Office, site of the first battle of the six-day Irish insurrection of 1916, a rebellion that was initially unpopular but that eventually touched off the Irish War for Independence.

The scene was not lost on Kila, who commented on it. Awareness of the world around them seems to be a hallmark of the band, whose music is a sort of trance-Irish malatov cocktail. Made up of fiddle, flute, and uillean pipes fired up with guitar, bass, drumset, and bodhran (on some... on others, a cajon). I have characterized this band as the Irish traditional answer to the Grateful Dead, only with refined talent on Irish traditional instruments, and, it seems, a more sharply honed sense of social consciousness. But, like the Dead, their performances can be trancelike communal experiences, enhanced with stilt walkers, acrobats, tightrope walkers, giant puppets, pyschedelic lighting, and the occasional fragrant smoke clouds...

Until the Kila show, we'd had a somewhat limited pallette of music. Our city tour had included about six rainbow sightings (testament not to some mystical magic but to the fact that it rained heavily about every fifteen minutes)and sampled an array of tourist shops from couture of Kilkenny on Nassau Street to the shite-and-shamrock of Carroll's on O'Connelly Street, each blaring something quintessentially Irish over their loudspeakers. I admit, there's nothing like the relentlessly ebullient pop-tinged Sharon Shannon to send you dancing and lilting up to the till, Aran sweater in hand. In between the shops, and everywhere on the streets were the Romanian gypsy street musicians, duos of alto sax and piano accordions playing some sort of tango-esque polka. And one lone woman on Grafton Street, playing a concertina.

Kila was an exciting change. They played about a 45-minute selection of tunes I recognized as "hits" from the six or so Kila albums in heavy rotation on our home stereo. The highlight for me was "Last Mile Home," title track from a recent album, and a song that lead singer Ronan O'Snodaigh introduced as a Christmas song that honors the plight of Dublin's homeless. I stood there entranced, and so appreciative that they were really saying something about the city's homeless, one of which knocked me out of my daze, reeking of the sweet sour smell of a long day of whiskey and trying to entice Soul Sister and I to dance. I admit, with a little embarassment, that I did not dip in my pocket to share spare change. Instead, being one of two women alone together at night in a foreign city, I chose to completely ignore him. He stood beside us, swaying for some time, but occasionally talking to imaginary friend on the handset of a white 1970s-era wall phone, which was connected by a curly cord to the base, inside his jacket. Completely mad, the poor creature. Which is how homelessness begins, so often.

Kila finished their set with "Silent Night," sung and played on acoustic guitar by the flute player, joined by the multiracial gospel choir that had preceded their set.

The festivities thus concluded, we did the only proper thing: headed for a pint. We walked 100 yards south and turned west along the quay of the LIffey, and ducked into the Arlington Hotel, a 6,000 square foot wood-and-brass rich pub that boasted "Irish music nightly." Well, it being only 7:30, the only music being blasted over the loudspeaker was, you guessed it, Sharon Shannon. This time alternating with the Dubliners and Christy Moore.

We left the city at 9:30 on a Malahide Train, getting off at our Kilbarrack stop, and arriving "home" to a meat-and-two-veg dinner cooked by Soul Mama-in-Law, and the loving embrace of my girl, who'd spent the day with Nana and Grand-dad.

I didn't practice a note on Sunday, but this thought has been running through my head: "How much do you need to practice?" The answer: "It all depends on how good you want to be, and what you're willing to give up." I wouldn't have changed one second of my day. Today, I was willing to embrace a fun-filled life of high-level mediocrity with not one regret.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 38: Upcoming Lindsays Events


It's the cozy season, and we hope you'll join us for one of our seasonal
December concerts featuring some exciting duo/duo concerts with Stanley and
Grimm!

Dec. 2: Open Irish Trad Session at Bridgewater State College, 7-9:00. One
Park Avenue, Rondileau Campus Center. All are welcome! Free, of course.

Saturday, Dec. 12, 2:00 pm: Celtic Christmas at the Scituate Library, 85
Branch Street, Scituate. One-hour concert features the Lindsays with fiddler
Nikki Engstrom and Irish Step Dancers. Free.

Sunday, Dec. 13: The Lindsays with Stanley & Grimm. Celtic Christmas
Celebration for the Whole Family at Cotuit Center for the Arts, Cotuit, MA.
A two-hour program pairs up two Celtic duos for a round of seasonal
favorites. Join us for a mix of holiday themed songs old and new, alongside
upbeat traditional instrumental jigs and reels played on Irish fiddle,
flute, whistle, and saxophone all with a distinct Irish lilt. Alongside the
music, the program will include seasonal poetry, stories, and lively history
from Ireland and beyond. The presentation is warm and intimate, personal,
inspired, entertaining, fun and even humorous at times! Also featuring Irish
step dancers. Tickets $15 adults, $10 children.
http://www.cotuitcenterforthearts.org/events.htm

Sunday, Dec. 20, The Lindsays with Stanley & Grimm, Highfield Hall, Falmouth
MA. Two-hour Celtic Christmas concert at the gorgeous and newly restored
historic Highfield Mansion, decked out in greens and lights for the season.
Elegant! Two shows, 3:00 and 7:00 pm.
http://www.highfieldhall.org/programs_concerts.shtml

For more info on the Lindsays visit www.irishmusic.us
For more info on Stanley and Grimm visit http://www.stanleyandgrimm.com/

Saturday, November 21, 2009

100 Days of Practice Round 2, Day 37: Practicing Quietly

Back when I was in college, oh, about (mumble mumble) years ago, I attended a workshop with baritone sax player Hamiett Bluett, who performed with the adventurous World Saxophone Quartet.

He was talking about the critical importance of daily practice when someone asked him, "But what about when you have roommates or live in a dorm and don't want to bother the people around you?" That question sounded so whiny; it was probably me who asked it. I don't actually remember who asked it, but I do remember his answer. He got scary. Firey. He boomed:

"Then practice playing QUIETLY."

Despite being shrunken by the response, funnily enough, I don't remember ever having done it in my musical life. Well, it takes some of us twenty years to get around to doing things right. I did just that tonight, in a beautiful attic bedroom of a Dublin row house, while Mini Me sleeps in the room next door, and big sister and inlaws sleep downstairs.

Tonight, I practiced my entire routine, but quietly: long tones, A rolls, B rolls, low D crans, and the eight or so tunes I've been working on lately.

How did it go?

JUST AWFUL!

It is VERY difficult to play quietly while also maintaining good tone. Mine got warbly, and the sound was fluffy. What a lesson. It took immense will to continue. But, playing quietly also had a side benefit: for some reason, I also started playing slowly, which is one of the best ways to test if you know a tune as well as you think you do.

It was very, very good stuff. Not quite as good as our windy, sunny walk along the hills of Howth today, our visit with the giant wild seals of Howth, or the chat in the Pier House afterward. Not nearly as good as watching Mini Me's joy at being with grandparents. And certainly not nearly as good as sharing the "other life" I've been living with my older sister, who is here on the trip.

But very, very good, all the same.

Goodnight from Dublin!

Friday, November 20, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 36: Have we packed?

Well, we're leaving for Ireland at 2 pm today.

I practiced this morning! Hooray!

We got a letter from Blue Cross stating that our health insurance has begun! Hooray!

After six years in progress, the woodwork on the downstairs practice room/bar is done, and the room is pristine! Hooray!

All the laundry is done! Hooray!

Passports located and ready! Hooray!

We've raked the leaves and the yard looks great! Hooray!

The yard is all cleaned up, gardening tools put away, ladders and rakes stored neatly! Hooray!

The bathroom closet has been reorganized and it's perfect! Hooray!

All the gifts are bought and ready! Hooray!

I'm almost done with all of my work! Hooray!

The house is nearly spotless! Hooray!

The fridge is clean! Hooray!

The mudroom is spotless! Hooray!

Have we packed, you ask? Well... um... it's like this....

Thursday, November 19, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 36: Miss McCleod Meets Bob Marley

Perhaps I was inspired by Danny Morris. Perhaps I was bored. Perhaps I'm a wee bit nuts. And irreverent. Today I announced to my Bridgewater State College Traditional Irish Ensemble that we were going to jam.

We've spent the semester studying the "right" way to play Irish traditional music. Now it was time to have a little fun. As Coltrane reputedly said, "You have to learn to play 'in' before you can play 'out.'" Before you earn the right to, that is. We've been playing jigs, reels,and hornpipes all semester. It was time for new jive.

I started The Old Copperplate,the fiddle joined in, the bass player got going on a deep groove, the pianist soon added upbeats, and we had a reggae reel. (Note: Bass player was wearing tie-dye today.) Under those conditions, it's only a matter of time before Bob Marley will sneak in like bong smoke through a door jamb. Oh, he did. We discovered that one of Marley's most famous bass lines works beautifully with Miss McCleod's reel. Of course, right behind good old Bob was the ghost of Michael Jackson and his Billie Jean bass line. Folks, we've got a reel for that, too.

Today, the bass player learned to simplify. Like many a bass player, he couldn't help but want to fill all the spaces left by our slow grooving tempo. But you can't do that with a reel, where the melody line is already busy.

Here, we can all take a lesson or two from the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section, the Swampers. You know... "Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they've been known to pick a song or two. (Woo, ooh, ooh...)" That is, Muscle Shoals is the Alabama studio responsible for the sound on a list of anthems too extensive to list. Think Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon, Bob Seger... and on. And on.

Soul Papa and I checked out Muscle Shoals tonight, thanks to suggestions from yet another Berkleemusic.com course, Music Production Analysis, a FABULOUS course from Professor of Music Production and Engineering Stephen Webber.

Now, let's remember. Muscle Shoals are the dudes that played on Wilson Pickett's super grooving "Mustang Sally," not to mention Paul Simon's "Love Me Like a Rock" and "Kodachrome," Bob Seger's "Main Street" and "We've Got Tonight," and a million other songs. But we had to check out Rod Stewart's "Sailing." Funky does not come to mind when I think of this 1970s anthem, so I thought I'd see what David Hood, the groovin' est bass player in the history of r&b (excepting, of course, Bootsy Collins), does with this tune.

Guess what he does in the intro? One-note per bar! Just the root! All those chops, and he's playing one note. There's a lesson. Check out his recording with the Swampers on the Atlantic Crossing album for a lesson in simplicity and solidity.

That's what those chops can teach you: Less is more. Less, in fact, is almost always more.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 35: Soul


I've spent the last several months editing an online course at Berkleemusic.com titled, "R&B Bass" written and taught by Fender bass player and Berklee Professor Danny Morris, aka D-Mo. I loved what Danny had to say about practice and performance in his draft of lesson 12:

At a certain point in your development as a musician, you turn your instincts into sound. Call it a sixth sense—it’s essential when performing music. Your gut instinct provides impetus to play one way or another. To leave a rest, to play a syncopation, to play the root, the fifth, to play a slide into a note—all your choice! Your practicing pays off when you go onstage or enter the recording studio. You enter that environment with a healthy anticipation of creating magic. By this I’m talking about that one ingredient inherent in all great music: soul. You can’t put your finger on it, but you recognize it, and feel it when it’s present. This is why we practice, and why we continue to work on music as a language. Whether you are playing R&B or some other music style, your musicianship palette will be your springboard from which to choose your (musical) ideas. In the act of performance you rely on instinct and intuition. There is no time to question this or that, you simply do “it.”

Yeah, Danny. For more info on Danny's course, check out this description, which also includes a video of Danny discussing his course and his ideas on great R&B bass playing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 34: Inquiring Minds


One of the great things about teaching is what you can learn from your students.

Today in my Music Appreciation class at Bridgewater, a student asked me, "How much DO conductors make anyway?"

I said, "A lot. Like more than $100k or something."

But, unsure, I decided to look it up. Imagine our suprise when we read a 2006 Boston Globe article:

James Levine is not just among the most acclaimed music directors of his time. His combined salaries from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New York's Metropolitan Opera make him the highest-paid conductor in the country, according to the most recent Internal Revenue Service filings.

The BSO paid almost $1.6 million for Levine's services during the 2004- 05 season, his first leading the orchestra, according to a tax filing the Globe obtained yesterday. The money was paid to Phramus, Inc., a New York-based firm. According to the Met's most recent filing, it paid slightly more than $1.9 million to Phramus, Inc., care of artist manager Ronald Wilford .


Good reason to practice with that baton.

But what about the musicians?

SimplyHired.com tells us that the national average salary for orchestra player jobs is $37,00. Average orchestra player salaries can vary greatly due to company, location, industry, experience and benefits.

Salary.com doesn't have a category for musician in its database. Not a real job, apparently. But, they do tell us that a music teacher makes an average of between $31k-$65k. The average music PROFESSOR makes in the range of $64,540-$121,426.

These are decent reasons to practice.

I really liked what payscale.com had to say about it, too.

Musician Salary Overview
"Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners, she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable." - Martin Luther

While it's perhaps not the goal of every musician to make people more moral and reasonable, it can't be denied that music and musicians play a huge part in human society and have for thousands of years. "Musician" is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. Long before there were accountants, biologists, lawyers or bartenders, musicians were already carving out their niche in society. As with a majority of artists, musicians are not typically the most well-paid group of people. When you think of "musician salary," do you picture a best-selling recording artist or that guy you just passed on the subway - the one with his guitar case open, playing for dollar bills? Those who become famous and earn a huge musician salary may be far and few between, but it's entirely possible for many people to make a good living as a musician. Salary will of course vary depending on a musician's skill level, the industry in which he or she works and more.


You can read the full article and salary report here.

This article on payscale.com is also interesting.

Overall, a viable career... if you practice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 33: Recording Yourself


Friday morning, I was having a discussion with a client. Being a supportive editor, I picked out my favorite line of her most recent chapter and read it back to her. "That?" she said, with disdain. "I almost took that out! It's so... so... not positive." Silence. I raised my eyebrows, shrugged to myself. Then, over the phone line, I heard the click of a lightbulb going off in her head. "That's it!" she exclaimed. "That's it. I've finally figured out: You are maudlin! You are a maudlin creature!!!"

Ok, so I'm maudlin. Whatever. But then, Sunday morning, I got the opposite feedback from someone who's known me since I was seven. Contrasting me to my skeptic husband, she said, "You're a Pollyanna!"

Fortunately, God gave me an ample supply of salt grains just for weekends like this.

(Indulge me for a moment. This really is going somewhere, and it's not about me.)

Then more feedback. Saturday, my neighbor told me I'm gifted musically. I am sorry, but I'll never believe ANYONE who tells me that. Which brings us to my philosophy on positive musical feedback:

You tell me you like my playing. I assume one of the following:

• You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.
• You know what you're talking about, but you're just saying that because you like me.

Clearly, you can't trust what others say. So what can you trust?

Your own ears.

One of the most valuable things you can do for yourself is to record yourself playing. Practicing, that is. Record your practice sessions, and record as many gigs as you can. Listen to what you're doing. Congratulate yourself on the positive; work on the weak points. And do it often. You simply cannot hear yourself objectively while you're playing, and you'll be amazed at what you hear when you listen back to a recording.

Last night, I got a chance to judge myself, for myself. My colleague and boss at Bridgewater brought over a recording of the Caravan trio concert we did at Bridgewater on October 28. Salil, Tom, and I felt so-so about the show at the time. Immediately following the encore (oh, they were just being nice, that audience), the house lights came up and we immediately got into a discussion about what had gone wrong in the performance. We weren't being negative, really. It just happened that way. But it was disappointing. I had so wanted it to be a fabulous concert, and it turns out that it was just so-so... or so I thought.

Then, we listened to the recording of the entire show last night, and you know what??? We sounded fabulous, and it was really exciting. I found a few things to work on, of course--great things to work on!--but that's what practice is for. Overall: Yowza! Great stuff.

It's a great feeling. Of course, you won't always listen back and like what you hear... that's a given. But you will most likely like SOME of what you hear, and you'll also be better able to identify what you DON'T like, and then you can work on that. (Ahem... um... did anyone say recently that daily practice helps your musicianship?)

For our Caravan concert, Salil recorded with the Zoom H4n. It is of incredible quality, and not too expensive.. in fact, the price recently dropped. Check it out. X/Y paired stereo mics, plus two XLR inputs. With the recorder positioned fifteen feet away, you could hear the guitarist breathing while he played. Okay, maybe not always desirable... but the quality of sound is impeccable.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

100 Days of Practice,Round 2 Day 31: God Still Blesses the Family that Sleeps Late.

God Bless Soul Papa and Mini Me and their penchant for late sleeping.

Because Soul Mama, inspired by a session at the Irish Cultural Center last night in Canton, woke up early and sought to fill holes in the repertoire.

This morning, learned:

The New Policemen
Sweet's Hornpipe
Humours of Ballyconnell
High Road to Linton

Half learned (no such thing--blog coming on that, on Nov. 24):
If There Weren't Any Women in the World
Castlekelly

And read through a bunch of others. Being able to read music does open up a world of tunes.

But some things are much more important than new tunes. For example: When your next door neighbor calls and offers freshly baked muffins and hot coffee.

Goodbye flute, good bye tunes. There's food!

Friday, November 13, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 30: Embracing Your Inner Suckiness

Why practice?

Practice is about two things: musical improvement and skills maintenance.

Which is more important? For me, the former! “Good enough” is not good enough. I want better. (Very unBuddhist of me to admit that. But alas, sometimes Soul Mama, Sybil of the Spirit, must ignore the voices of her inner Buddhist and embrace her more goal-oriented Proddy. Young bucks, you will have to Google Sybil; I can’t help you.)

Why must we always aim for bigger, better? Because, from what I can tell, most musicians think they suck. Or that they suck more than they used to. But, based on empirical evidence: most everyone who thinks they suck doesn’t actually suck. (I learned in college not to use that word. I suck at following the rules, though.)

I had a conversation today with a friend who said that he knows no one with as many hang-ups about music as he. He said that those hang-ups get in the way of actually doing what he loves most: music. With two music degrees from one of the most prestigious conservatories on the East Coast, this friend doesn’t like to play his music when anyone’s listening, and he doesn’t like to share his compositions with anyone. (He recently shared his entire catalog with a fellow musician, and likened this to sharing images from a colonoscopy. He doesn’t suck, by the way.)

I commented that part of playing music is about staring into the vast prarie of “You-Suck-edness.” In other words, musicians frequently bash themselves to bits psychologically, one of the greatest problems being fear or criticism, and the other: comparison… comparing ourselves to others who are “more skilled” players. Have you ever said this: “Oh sure, that was a fine solo I just did, but not as good as X would play it!”

I once chatted about this with my colleague BrassDoc (who also doesn’t suck). I loved his answer. “It’s not about being as good as X, Y, or Z. It’s about being as good as Sue Gedutis.”

But therein lies the problem. Sue Gedutis is always just a wee bit better than I am.

I’m helping someone write a book right now. Today, she sent me her latest chapter, on the importance of competence, and I loved this quote:

“Maybe purpose’s purpose is to remind us that as long as we believe in something bigger than ourselves, we’ll always be optimistic and positive in our thinking.”

Hm. So assuming that musical improvement is the thing that is “bigger than ourselves,” let’s put a positive spin on this. Here’s why we practice:

If we practice, we will suck less.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 27, 28: Joy

The Lindsays are prepping for a series of Celtic Christmas concerts in Scituate, Cotuit, and Falmouth. We're working with Stanley & Grimm on these concerts, and are currently in the heat of putting together our programs, planning for rehearsals, etc.

I remarked to a fellow faculty member at Bridgewater that such prep is a little stressful. He said, "If you're not prepared going into a performance, then you are stressed, and that stress comes out in your performance. But if you go in well-prepared, then what comes out is pure joy."

So true. By inference, then, practice is the way that we refine our ability to express joy.

Later last night, I was honored to witness joy in performance. I attended a concert at Bridgewater State. Power Batik, the college's jazz faculty trio, performed, with David Bond on sax and bass clarinet, Jacob Williams on bass, and Greg Conroy on drums. All of them extremely talented musicians, and the concert was very enjoyable. Conroy, in particular, projected joy visibly, and I told him so. His response was simple: "Well, this is what I like doing best of all. I just wish I could do it for a living."

"But you ARE doing it for a living," I said. Of course, he meant that he wishes he make a living performing, and not necessarily all the myriad other things musicians must do to get by--teaching, writing, editing, correcting papers, the incredible array of performance opportunities, paid and unpaid... All part of making a living as a musician.

But aren't these part of the whole? If we can undertake to do them with great joy, then what else do we need? Uh-oh. I hear an echo from my church upbringing...

This isn't the exact Bible verse, but an adaptation as I remember it:

"Whatever you do, undertake to do it with great joy, as for the spirit rather than for men..."

Despite being sick for the third day in a row, and exhausted, I practiced tonight. The spirit, both mine and the one that we all share, was surely gladdened.

Monday, November 9, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 26: Play the Tune Again

Cape Cod fiddler and dear friend Denya Levine shared the following poem. It's a beautiful, poetic statement on the value of repetition in musical practice:

From "Weathering" by Alastair Reid (Canongate Publishing, 17 Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DR; 1978.)

A Lesson in Music

Play the tune again: but this time
with more regard for the movement at the source of it
and less attention to time. Time falls
curiously in the course of it.

Play the tune again: not watching
your fingering, but forgetting, letting flow
the sound till it surrounds you. Do not count
or even think. Let go.

Play the tune again: but try to be
nobody, nothing, as though the pace
of the sound were your heart beating, as though
the music were your face.

Play the tune again: It should be easier
to think less every time of the notes, of the measure.
It is all an arrangement of silence. Be silent, and then
play it for your pleasure.

Play the tune again: and this time when it ends,
do not ask me what I think. Feel what is happening
strangely in the room as the sound glooms over
you, me, everything.

Now, play the tune again.

~~~~~~~

Sunday, November 8, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2, Day 25: Learning from Books

As a professional music writer/editor, it is my business to help authors craft beautifully written and perfectly relevant book introductions. But, as a musician learning from a book, I make it my business to skip the intros and and get right to the nitty gritty music. Who cares what the author has to say! It's all about the content!

Tsk, tsk. Naughty book user.

I've owned and worked with Dave Mallinson's 100 Essential Irish Session Tunes for eight years or more. Tonight, I read the intro for the first time. (Yes, yes... I KNOW.) Mallinson says that his book is intended to give session-friendly, "perfectly acceptable" versions of 100 of the most widely known and played Irish session tunes. But, Mallinson also cautions:

...I consider it unwise to learn a tune from only one source and I would suggest strongly that, when learning a new tune, you pay heed to settings in other books and recordings... Books will only help you to learn the notes of a tune. To pick up the rhythm of Irish music you must devote a large amount of time listening to both recordings and live musicians. Of greatest importance, you must practise; the value of this book is directly proportional to the number of hours a day you spend practising.

Smart guy.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 24: Bobbie Hanvey and Folding Whistle

Yesterday, I was too busy being important to write or practice. Im-POH-tant, that is.

Mini Me was sick in the morning, so instead of working, I curled up with her under a blanket near the fire and read Irish early reader books out loud. Long stories, not enough pictures for a three year old, but great slang! This way, she'll understand all the relevant turns of phrase that her cousins in Ireland use. Of course, the ones we read yesterday were delivered from the mouths of two small white dogs who can't seem to keep themselves out of the mud puddles on their farm, much to the dismay of their neat-freak mother-owner and grumpy farmer father-owner. Talk about cultural models. I think I've met those farmers and farmers wives.

Then! Last night! I was interviewed by Irish radio personality and photographer extraordinaire Bobbie Hanvey, who was visiting Boston College because that's where he had deposited 19,000 negatives of photos shot in Ireland over the last 30 years or so. Incredible photos and just launched yesterday on Boston College's Web site. Worth taking a look at the link; there's a slideshow. Lots more photos are also on Flickr, but check this out: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives (My sister, who once put my hair in three pigtails, รก la Pippy Longstocking Avec Radio Tower, says to herself, "Interviewed MY little sister?")

Here's what BC has to say:

"Hanvey's photographs comprise a comprehensive documentation of people and life in the North of Ireland beginning in the 1970’s through circa 2007. Some photographs feature subjects photographed in various other locations in Ireland. The collection contains portraits, candid images (including weddings and other social events) as well as journalistic images covering public, paramilitary and political activity."

He photographed me, too. Not expecting a photograph, I was wearing a wild-colored hand-me-down shirt from my Dad's 70+ year old wife. And this is how I may go down in the ages. Sigh.

Bobbie Hanvey has presented a program called "The Ramblin’ Man" on a regional radio station in Ulster called Downtown Radio for the last 25 years. Bobbie has an avid interest in the dance hall music of America, especially the McNulty Family. And so, with the help of accordion player Paddy Noonan, they sought me out for interview on their visit to Boston.

It was fun. Sat in a hotel room in Brookline with Bobbie and his partner and talked about See You at the Hall, and also what the Lindsays have been up to musically. We talked all about the dance halls of 1940s Boston, and also general musings about music, culture, and life. I'm sure I said ten silly things that I will later regret. Alas. But, I got to play my new Parks whistle for the first time, and this will be broadcast on Irish radio sometime in February....

Introducing, the Parks Whistle. Folds into three pieces! Durable, and a nice sound! Tuck it in its case, and keep it hidden in your pocketbook! Have it ready just in case an Irish photographer and radio personality asks you to play on his radio show! (Lipstick fits in case, too. Bad for whistle; don't try it at home.)



Carey Parks is a nice guy, a great whistle maker, and I bet also a great musician. Lots of really interesting information on his Web site: Website. This whistle sells for $60... not so bad... and it comes quickly. Honestly, I hadn't gotten a chance to play it at all since I ordered it in August, and last night was the first time I played it... on radio, of course. I found it to be incredibly consistent and easy to play--every note came out just like I wanted it to, and in tune. The whistle might be a bit on the loud side for quiet sessions or quiet rooms, but there's a little adjustment collar that fits around the tone hole, and by moving that a bit, you can adjust the volume and the tone. Carey Parks calls that a "tone ring" and says it "allows moving the whistle's sweet spot between octaves." I think of it as a volume slide of sorts. (Thanks, Carey!)

So... back to practicing. Yes, this morning I did. Continued my exploration of the Dave Mallinson tune collection, and found some new gems.

And it was good.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 22: Laughing With God

Two thoughts tonight.

1) I was feeling a little guilty at having fun with religion last week. I can't help my irreverence sometimes. It's too easy to find the funny sides of Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and, well, Celticism--but never intended as insult. Anyone who's been reading this all along knows that there is a distinct spiritual element to my own pursuit of musical practice--and yet, I'm not the least bit religious. I might make attempts at defining practice, but I'll never make an attempt at defining the unknowable--and I make no pretense of having any particular beliefs, though I will readily admit to being on some sort of path. Maybe it's David Byrne's Road to Nowhere.

Still, I was moved to tears when I heard this new song from folk singer Regina Spektor on the radio the other morning, as I was driving to work. The lyrics begin, "No one's laughing at God in a hospital..." Not my style of song, not really my style of music, and my least favorite style of female singing (well... except opera, which I dislike even more)... and yet, I loved the song's message. Take out the word God and replace it with your favorite Otherworldness and you've got the message.

Here it is, the title track from Regina Spektor's new album. Click this link to hear it from Lala.com: "Laughing With." Warning: You can only hear the full song once on Lala.com, and on subsequent plays, you get only 30 seconds of the song. But you can check out the video on YouTube. I find the visuals so distracting that I could only watch about three seconds of it, but you can always turn up the volume and avert thine eyes. (Ack!!! That religious humor again!) Here you go, if you're into that sort of thing:



So, maybe when the human is ready, the message appears.

Which brings me to point 2:

2) When the player is ready, the tune appears.

Tonight, it appeared out of nowhere: The Convenience.

A good reel to challenge your register-jumping chops, not to mention two all-important but often challenging flute skills: A rolls, and the low D. (It's in the Dave Mallinson book I mentioned the other day...) Thanks also to Brendan Tonra and Eddie Murray for playing the goo-ga out of The Skylark the other day, because I've been having a blast working on that one, too. (On the opposite page of the Convenience, in the Mallinson book...are you seeing a pattern?)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2, Day 22: Weekend Photos

Still at it, waking up early and hitting the dungeon, flutes and flute books in hand. All good, and getting better. It's exciting.

While other parents are posting photos of their kids dressed up like princesses and superheroes, the Lindsays post photos of theirs with a drum. Nov. 1, Mini Me's first gig....I wish I had her fashion sense. Oh, wait... I guess I do, because I'm the one who dressed her. I meant to say, I wish they made clothes like that in my size. And the rest of you should be glad that they don't.





Tuesday, November 3, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 2 Day 21: On Irish Tune Books

By the rules of nature, Soul Mama should not have been up early practicing today. In fact, it was a rather unspeakable time that she got home from Boston last night, after attending a NARAS (The Grammy people) panel on music publishing at the Hard Rock Cafe and then stopping in to visit my old friends Mr. Dooley and Arthur Guinness on Broad Street.

Yet: Wide awake at 6 am. Ready to practice! Excited to start the day with an Irish flute! Or maybe it was the tummy ache that woke me.

At any rate, a nice morning of tunes in the basement. Today, a new tune, an old James Morrison favorite, The Skylark--a tune I've been hearing for years and years and never got around to learning. And also dusted off the Flogging Reel, for fun.

Irish music folks, I tell you this: The best tune book I've found, for nice versions and also for a very good collection of classic tunes is:

100 Essential Irish Session Tunes, Edited by Dave Mallinson, and published by Dave Mallinson Publications 1995. That's the first in a four-book series: 100 Evergreen Session Tunes and also 100 Enduring Session Tunes, as well as 100 Irish Polkas. You can buy them all on Amazon here. If you can only buy one, buy 100 Essential Irish Session Tunes, but if you can spring for more, it's worth it to own them all.

These books are well-notated, clear, and super easy to read with plenty of white space—and the artwork is lovely too. The covers aren't as pretty as they used to be, but we'll let them get by this time. The book also includes chords that are good pointers for guitarists or pianists, though I personally don't always like the harmony that Mallinson suggests. But that's adjustable.

You'da thunk that the Comhaltas books Foinn Seisuin 1, 2, and 3 would be fabulous, but the jury's out on that one for me. The versions don't work well for flute, though they say that the tunes are arranged for all instruments, and some of the settings to me sound just downright quirky. Every time I look at that book to get a read on a tune, I feel like I have to adjust and fix some of the notes and the phrasing.

Having said all of this, a reminder: For the Irish musician, books should only be a helper, but are not the be-all, end-all. They are NOT the way to learn a new tune.

The very best way to learn Irish tunes us by ear, from another player, whether live or recorded.

Once you have the tune in your head more or less, books are like little flashlights that can illuminate the darker corners of notey melodies. They also can jog your memory on tunes you haven't played in years...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Round 4 Day 19: A Day Off and Samhain

Happy All Souls Day. It's Nov. 1, the beginning of Samhain, pronounced "SOW-an." In ancient Celtic times, this day would be marked by a two-day festival, a celebration to mark the end of the summer, bringing in the harvest, preparing for the darkest time of year. The ancient Celts in Ireland lit bonfires and donned costumes and masks to disguise themselves from the spirits, or perhaps to imitate them.

Those ancient Celts. They had it together. The Nouveau Celts don't have it quite so together, though we still know how to have fun. The Lindsays, for three, spend the Celtic new year with some of our favorite souls playing Irish music at a pseudo-gig block party in Watertown. It was fun. It was MiniMe's first gig. She played her djembe. She played her ukelele. She danced. It was good.

Altogether a good followup to Halloween, which of course, is All Soul's Eve--the night during which the line is thinnest between the human and the spirit world. There wasn't that close a connection to the spirit world here on South Street. We celebrated by running around the neighborhood with a 3-foot-tall toaster who was far more interested in chocolate than in her insanely uncomfortable costume. I skipped practice, in an effort to commune with the spirit world on earth: my family.

So, tonight. Is there any way to mark this important night in some sort of Celtic way?

Not really. More practical than spiritual these days. Maybe since Samhain is a bit of a New Year celebration, let's do that whole taking-stock thing that we all seem to do on Dec. 31. A little check-in on the resolutions:

-Spend an hour a day practicing. Some days I do, some I don't. I almost always WANT to. But I can't always make it happen. It's not a matter of not wanting to spend the time doing it; it's a matter of finding the time to do it.

-Consistency: same time, every day. Immutable. I discovered in my first 100 days that the most effective time for me to practice is 5 am in the morning, before the house wakes up. I've done that maybe twice in 19 days. In the morning, there are too many important things to do. Today, for example, in the only half hour I'd have to myself all day, practice was eclipsed by the urgent need to Google "honey locust trees" so that I could properly identify my backyard plants. Then, of course, it was critical to write to my friends about it. Then, of course, critical to notice that those same friends had posted pics of their kids in their Halloween costumes on Facebook--and perhaps more critical, write to them about how cute their kids look. Then my own woke up, and it was all go-go-go all day from then on. Have plan. Great idea. But the plan doesn't always work. So, always have a backup plan, too.

-Keeping a practice journal. I've done that exactly twice in the last 19 days--not the same two days as above. My goals change like the wind. I forget from week to week what I was doing last week...still, I'm learning lots of new stuff, and digging it.

-Stretch!I did it twice in 19 days, not the same two days as above, or above that.

So, perhaps tonight can be a somewhat arbitrary new beginning. One friend today wrote to me that she's inspired by the 100 days, and officially begins her "100 Days of Exercise" regime today--particularly important because she is an exercise physiologist who spends her days counseling people with dietary concerns. Hm, sounds like a music teacher who didn't practice. Do we know any of those?

Yesterday, I was a little Buddhist, a little Protestant, and a little Catholic as it suited my mood. Today, I'll be a Celt. Now, it's disputed about whether Samhain is really the "Celtic New Year," but let's make it that -- the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night.

Some say that it's darkest right before the dawn.. that in the most difficult times come the stirrings of new beginnings. You ready to start anew?

Every day brings an opportunity for a new beginning. Why not today?