Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Race to the Finish, Part Two

This is the second part to my previous post from April 5th titled A Race to the Finish, Part One. I ended that post by saying:
What does this all mean to the rest of us? To those of us who are not professional musicians, who do not put out CDs or book concerts or appear at festivals, who merely play at home for enjoyment and perhaps hope to find other kindred souls to learn from and to play with in pleasant settings? What does all this mean to those of us who seek in our music to find rejuvenation and intimacy, a life tonic to help balance the daily life onslaught of relentless racket and frantic rushing about?

Clearly this trend towards speed and volume is not something that only occurs in the world of mountain dulcimer players. How then has the average dulcimer player been affected by this musical movement towards faster speed, louder and 'bigger' playing?
Well, to find the answer we must look at the settings in which we learn and play traditional music nowadays...
In the 'old days' (say, before the folk revival of the 1940's) dulcimer players were mostly rural people living in close knit communities with extended family. It was not uncommon for various family members to play an instrument, and for people to go to community dances where local people played music to dance to. Anyone interested in learning music would seek out some local person whose music they admired and try to learn from them. Learning consisted of a lot of listening, and picking up tunes and songs bit by bit from those you listened to and watched. It was common for even good musicians to have a personal repertoire of only a few dozen tunes and songs that they liked to play and played well. Personal tunes they were known for.

If you read my post from February 25, 2009 entitled "What Happened?", you will understand some background of what I am getting at here.

Things have changed a great deal since the 'old days', and of course many of these musical changes are good and exciting. It's wonderful to be able to hear rare old field recordings of old-time musicians from long ago. It's great to be able to record something that you want to go home and learn later. And great to be able to learn about music in books and on the internet- a whole wonderful world of information is at our fingertips!
But how do we now learn to play our music? Well, we usually don't live in large extended families or close knit communities where many people play home made music in their daily lives anymore. Instead, we go to classes and workshops, and buy books and DVDs to learn our music. We listen to CDs, but find it hard to learn by ear from them since there is no live person playing it for us in person, slowly, knee to knee. Instead, we learn tunes and songs from TAB, sometimes without ever even hearing how a tune sounds. We learn the bones without the flesh.
We have no idea how to go about playing in various keys with other instruments such as fiddles, guitars, or banjos, yet we yearn to play music with others, such a very natural human desire.
So we form dulcimer-only clubs and meet at specific times to all play together. To prevent total pandemonium and enable the learning of more tunes, large books of TAB are distributed and that is what it played, in a large circle. Everyone plays the same notes from the book at the same time on the same instrument in the same key and the same tuning. It sort of has to be that way for such a large group of non-professionals to be able to play together successfully.
I notice that most tunes speed up a great deal while being played in large sessions- usually due to two or three 'lead' players who like to play fast and push the tunes ever faster. This tends to leave true beginners behind, feeling inadequate. Some people even say right out that they want to play the tunes fast and only twice through because that way many more tunes can be played during a session. They don't want to spend very much time on any one tune. Is this a goal, then, to play as many short fast tunes as possible? Where is there a chance then to learn from or savor a tune or song? Playing lots of tunes quickly is sort of like collecting vast reams of TAB- you can say you 'have' that song, or you 'did' that song....but can you really play the song with meaning and feeling? Is it coming from you or are you just playing fret numbers?

Naturally, there is a happy camaraderie involved with attending these large dulcimer jams or club meetings. A geographically isolated beginning dulcimer player would be lonely, bewildered, and discouraged without this club spirit of encouragement. I loved 'goin' to meetin' when I was starting out. It's a wonderful and supportive thing for when people live scattered about. Without dulcimer clubs and tab books I think maybe half the people now playing dulcimer would not have been able to start playing any music at all. In that sense it is very good.

Added to the clubs are dulcimer festivals and 'camps'- sort of like old-time music gatherings but mainly catering to dulcimer players wanting to be taught by professionals and wanting to meet new dulcimer friends. Some people go to the same camps and festivals over and over every year, like a vacation. Many festivals offer dulcimer workshops, and the camps can run from a day or a weekend to as long as a week or more, packed with classes and workshops. Both offer concerts as well, showcasing the exceptional talent of the hired instructors. In the evenings, there is usually plenty of feverish 'jamming' going on, where dulcimer players of all levels form large circles and play one tune after another. Most of the people leading these jams play pretty fast. The meek beginners usually remain on the outer fringes, content to gingerly pick out a few notes as they are able. They would be mortified if anyone heard them trying to play music or making a mistake. They've told me so many a time.
People go home loaded up with new books, CDs, recorded lessons, more TAB, and are happy.

Again, dulcimer clubs, festivals, camps, and workshops are a very good thing in that they now fill a terrible vacuum that was left behind when people stopped playing music as part of their daily lives with family and friends in their communities. When people scattered and moved away from families and home towns, and became Too Busy to play music. Now it takes a determined bit of planning and often some traveling to get together with anyone to play or learn music.

But the result of learning to play music in this type of setting is a double-edged sword. There is both good and not so good to it.

First, you have to spend money (sometimes hundreds of dollars) and travel long distances to attend these events. Naturally once you get there you want to try to cram in as much learning as you can in the very limited time you have. People rush from workshop to workshop (as I have done on numerous occasions) and by the end of the day their head is spinning. You stay up late to 'jam' and get up early to get to classes. I'm long past my twenties, and I don't know about you, but by the end of the week or weekend, I would often feel like it was an unreal dream.
Because of the investment of time and money and the limited time factor of the event, one can feel
rushed and desperate to get it all in before it's time to go home. Something that long ago was a delight to absorb slowly and intimately from person to person now from necessity in our frantic schedules has become more of a product, something consumed rather than absorbed.

The end result is also a sort of packaging of dulcimer playing into something that promotes playing fast and fancy, and that encourages playing in BIG all-dulcimer groups, in unison, generally encouraging one key, one playing style, and one tuning over others. This inevitably isolates dulcimer players from other mixed musicians, makes them dependent on each other to provide 'dulcimer safe' playing environments, and it makes it more difficult for a dulcimer novice to play with people who play other kinds of instruments, in various keys. I feel a little sad when I see how isolated beginner dulcimer players can become from other music players who enjoy mixed sessions. I have heard some dulcimer players say that they feel the rest of the music playing world is just not open to them. And even though it's not really true, dulcimer players now have a reputation for not being able to play in anything but the key of D. Indeed, I know several who can't play in any key other than D even though they've been playing for many years more than I have. Yikes.

At first I never thought much about all this- about the modern ways of learning of our music from books and CDs and workshops and clubs and TAB and classes and internet forums (and blogs!). I'm still pretty busy learning the dulcimer myself, and often utilizing these very methods myself.

But as I look back now over my own limited experiences and see them from the standpoint of having myself been a total beginner not that very long ago, I realize that of all the musical learning experiences in my journey so far, the moments and realizations that were most intense and profound were not learned through those methods. Rather they were quiet slow small moments of personal musical sharing and realizations.
Perhaps I happened upon a beginner fiddler sitting alone under a tree scratching out a tune at some festival, and I stopped to play for just a minute with them- and wound up figuring out something amazing and simple in trying to play with them, something that I had never thought of before. In trying to solve a problem on my own, I learned in a meaningful way...even if I couldn't solve the problem! Perhaps I played a few tunes with someone who was just learning banjo, with a very old or very young player, and they gave me some fascinating story that forever effected the way I think about music for myself. Perhaps I heard some drones in a concertina being played by someone on a street corner, drones that I recognized in my own playing and thus learned to hear the interval of a particular tuning. Perhaps I made someone in a nursing home experience happy memories when I went to play for my mother there as she was failing, or perhaps I said something silly about music that really impressed my 9 year old banjo student. And perhaps it was just these small moments of wonder that made me feel like the best musician in the whole wide world.

When I think about it, all the most memorable and enriching learning experiences in my life, even aside from music, have been during quiet moments of listening or reflection or experimentation, or through non-rushed personal interaction with another person or with my surroundings. I think of music as a living thing- it needs to be lovingly nourished, and it needs to breathe.
How will you grow and nurture your music?

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Little Sadie and the Dorian mode

I am going to introduce you to the Dorian mode now. You know how the Aeolian mode has a sort of spooky or lonesome sound to it? Well think of the Dorian mode as the 'other' lonesome blues-y spooky mode. Most spooky/blues-y/lonesome songs can be played nicely in either the Aeolian or Dorian mode.
Remember- the Mixolydian mode has your key note ("Do" of do re mi) or tonic note on your zero fret (open string). The Aeolian mode puts your tonic note on the first fret. The Ionian mode puts your "Do" tonic note on the third fret. The Dorian mode puts your tonic note on the fourth fret. And guess what?- that's as high as we are ever going to go on this blog! Once you can play a couple of tunes in those four modes, you can get by pretty well without learning any of the other modes if you prefer. Mixolydian(0 fret), Aeolian(1 fret), Ionian(3 fret), and Dorian(4 fret).

Now, you may ask- why can't I just play Little Sadie in the lonesome Aeolian mode instead of having to learn the Dorian mode too?... The answer is that the Dorian mode, which starts higher up (on the fourth fret instead of the first), will then give you some of the real LOW notes that you'll need in order to play Little Sadie. Good answer, huh?

Now I found that I could not sing Little Sadie at ALL in the key of D, or even C...I had to go down to G to sing it well. Thus, I'm tabbing this version of Little Sadie for you in G in the hopes that you too will find it easier to sing than if it were in D.
Look at this chart to see the Dorian G tuning.

Here is another important note:
Usually, when we tune to a key, we put our bass string to that key/tonic note, and we tune our middle string to a 'fifth' above that, which is five steps up in the alphabet if you count the tonic note as your first note when counting up 5. Thus for the key of G I'd be tuning my bass string to G and my middle string to (count on your fingers up g-a-b-c-D) D. Then for dorian, my melody strings would need to be tuned so that the tonic G is found on the fourth fret. To get a G note on the fourth fret I'll need to tune the open melody strings down to C. C=open, D=1st fret, E=2nd fret, F=3rd fret, and G=4th fret. So a regular Dorian tuning for G would be GDC. (You'll tune the melody strings DOWN one step to C if you are starting in DAD, or UP two steps to C if you are starting in DAA.)
BUT...if you use a REVERSE tuning here, you will be re-tuning your bass and middle strings over a much shorter distance if you are starting from DAA or DAD. Look at the second chart in the picture, the REVERSE Dorian tuning. Reverse tuning is a sort of cheat method which sometimes can result in re-tuning your bass and middle strings only a short distance, it winds up being much easier to re-tune and much easier on your strings. Look at the reverse Dorian tuning on the chart to see how this would work. The reverse Dorian G tuning is DGC- much easier to get to from both DAD and DAA!
So I have tabbed Little Sadie to sing in the key of G, and tuned in reverse Dorian mode.

Once you tune to DGC (which is not that hard) you will see that it's quite easy to play Little Sadie, no big deal.
You just needed to locate the tune to a place on the fretboard where you'll have all the notes you need for playing it. And that's what modes are helpful for!

Enjoy playing the outlaw song Little Sadie!

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Race to the Finish, Part One

I'm not sure exactly how this feverish race began. It seems that life in general has become more and more frantic over the past several decades- people want instant gratification, instant results, instant endings. They talk faster, prepare food faster, eat faster, have relationships faster, drive faster, sleep less. People get impatient if you don't explain everything really quickly. They skip the middle parts of books and want to know the endings of movies. When you talk to kids these days, they look into your eyes for about half a sentence before the eyes start darting all over the room, looking for new stimulation. People walk around or drive while eating and yakking into their cell phones every minute, multi-tasking their brains out. They all seem to be constantly slurping water from plastic bottles with caps that snap and pop incessantly, and listening to music on their ipods no matter what else they are also doing. There is no quiet, no stillness. Sometimes it seems to me that life has become one long Road-runner cartoon...
I stopped watching TV altogether 11 years ago, but when I catch a glimpse of it at someone's house, I see how it has changed even in the short since when I used to watch it. Now on TV, images flash by at ever more alarming speed, music gets cut up into tiny indigestible snippets that come and go in a way that makes your head spin, and people talk LOUD on TV, practically hollering. People on TV seem way too excited. Are they on drugs? I don't think I would have even noticed this change if I had been steadily watching TV all along these past ten years.
This hyper-acceleration trend has infiltrated everyday life pretty thoroughly, and music is no exception. How we obtain music, how we learn it, dance to it, listen to it, and how we play it, all these processes have been speeded up and made louder.

Over the past dozen years or so I have observed a distinct increase in the speed at which old-time and traditional music is played. I'm sure this trend has been going on far longer than 12 years, but that's just how long I've been paying attention to it (maybe my attention span is only 12 years). Not only is old-time and traditional music being played FASTER, but it's being played BIGGER...meaning in larger jam sessions, more often amplified, more types of instruments being added, more mixing of styles, more harmonies...and much more often in a highly energized stringband setting.
New stringbands seem to form, name themselves, get a few festival gigs, churn out several CDs in rapid succession, then disband to form new combinations with new band names. Nothing seems to last long. One thing they all seem to have in common is to describe themselves as having a "hard driving" and "cutting edge" sound, and also throwing in pretty much any genre of music that is novel, sort of a New Age/Old-time Fusion. They like to use the terms traditional and archaic a lot when describing themselves, but hard driving seems to be the overriding goal. The term hard driving used to mean something else, something steady and powerful. Now hard driving seems to merely mean fast with a heavy beat.
CDs are raining down upon us all in frightening quantities to the point where some people are pretty much just taping their sessions with friends and throwing them onto cds to sell on their websites or post on the web. I don't even want people's new CDs so much anymore when they are offered to me during music gatherings. "Hey, our band just came out with a great new CD, check it out!", thanks anyway! (as I move away trying to look busy). Because burning CDs is now so very easy and cheap to do, every Tom Dick and Harry is cranking out CDs to the point where they have become about as valuable to barter at music gatherings as yesterday's Mardi Gras beads. People have literally hundreds of tunes loaded on their ipods at any given time...some have thousands of tunes loaded on their hard drives. How can anyone even listen to thousands of tunes? 'CD release parties' have become so commonplace at old-time festivals that they've become meaningless. There is just no longer any way to keep up with it all. But- is there really a lot going on in this frantic music machine that is worth keeping up with?

In old-time music circles, there is a ravenous appetite for 'newly discovered' traditional music fodder- people scour archival field recordings of fiddlers and ballad singers in a race to see who can first score an obscure old tune or song to record on their new CD, or play at a session. Inevitably these old ballads and fiddle tunes which were originally recorded sung unaccompanied in a striking individual manner or being fiddled solo in a lonesome quirky way, are given the Full Monty hard driving/cutting edge treatment. What I often hear on new CDs and at festival jam sessions is a virtual frenzy of banging and sawing, executed with full bluegrass 3 and 4 part harmonies, thumping bass, popcorn style banjo, packed with new chords and chord changes, twin fiddling, etc., much of it played at the Speed of Light. After the first two or three tracks it becomes somehow exhausting, like walking in a crowded mall during the Christmas shopping season. The one good thing about it being so fast is that it's over with quicker.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a healthy dose of real high energy music. I love to play a fast zingy dulcimer back up to a fiddler. High energy spirited music and dance can provide a happy and welcome release from daily stress and a fun connection between friends. Some of my fellow musician friends seem to like their music fast and upbeat all the time. Good for them! But fast is frequently more fun when there is slow to balance it out and provide a contrast. Spring gets boring if there is no Autumn. Over the years, average tempo seems to have been recalibrated. What is called slow today was a moderate speed long ago. Whenever I ask anyone to play something slowly, the response is always a briskly moderate speed, never what I'd consider slow, and never as slow or as full of nuances as many field recordings where I may have first heard that particular tune or song.
Old-time music is now played so that even in sessions among friends, when I know some wonderful verses to a song being played and could actually contribute something nice, I simply cannot sing at that speed. Nor would I want to even try, because I'd have to sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks, like playing a 33 1/2 rpm LP record at 45 rpms. I often have to cut out any pleasant instrumental variations as well. No time for subtleties, no breathing spaces.

Playing traditional music BIGGER and FASTER can be fun, but should not be the norm or the goal. Like those changes over time that I noticed in TV programming, people seem not to notice that music is being played faster and louder and bigger every year. I am positive this is not all a figment of my imagination, nor a matter of my becoming senile.
Is there to be a swing of the pendulum at some point back to smaller and more intimate music? Or will the world of traditional music eventually implode upon itself like a black hole, crushed by it's own frantic density, wildly churning itself into musical butter?

What does this all mean to the rest of us? To those of us who are not professional musicians, who do not put out CDs or book concerts or appear at festivals, who merely play at home for enjoyment and perhaps hope to find other kindred souls to learn from and to play with in pleasant settings? What does all this mean to those of us who seek in our music to find rejuvenation and intimacy, a life tonic to help balance the daily life onslaught of relentless racket and frantic rushing about?
More about that in a coming post: A Race to the Finish, Part Two.

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