March 28, 2006

Tomorrow I'm off to Palestine Texas for their annual Old Time Music and Dulcimer Festival run by Jerry and Margaret Wright.  This will be my third year there and I know I can expect some great dulcimer playing and lots of wonderful jam sessions.  The Wrights have a very laid back approach to running a festival which makes for more impromptu music and more relaxed workshops than any other festival I have been to in the south.  Last year there was also a mini concertina festival within a festival there prompted by my mentioning my appearance at Palestine to Dan Worrall, a very avid concertina player and go-getter from Houston.  Dan has arranged for the concertina mini-fest to take place a Palestine again this year.  For me, it leads to a bit of a conflict as I end up leading workshops at both "festivals" and last year I find myself somewhat overbooked.  My plans this year are to teach workshops in song accompaniment, improvising harmonies and playing by ear.  In addition I will lead a jam session in tunes from places other than the USA (hopefully other than the British Isles as well). 

How do you teach people to play by ear?  It's something which comes so naturally to me that it's hard to imagine not being able to do it.  My instinct tells me teach them to learn to sing the tune and pick out the notes that they are singing.  Think about the intervals and where those are on the instrument being played.  Then it becomes a sort of hunt and peck like learning a typewriter.  The Wrights are also doing a play by ear workshop, which I hope to attend to get other ideas on approach.  Suggestions (for future workshops) would be welcome (-:


March 22, 2006

"Suggestive Selling": a despicable trend in restaurants these days to get customers to buy things they don't particularly want or need.  I generally enjoy the food at Macaroni Grill, but when I go in and the waiter says "Would you like an appetizer, how about our Fried Calamari?" It's like my mother telling me "Now eat your mashed pototoes."  It makes me want to take the fried calamari and wallpaper the restaurant with it.  I have no objection to being asked' "Would you care for an appetizer?"  but to try to get me to buy a particular appetizer instinctively makes me feel like it's three day old calamari and they'll do anything to get rid of it.  And doesn't the unrequested recommendation always turn out to be the most expensive item on the menu?  OK.  Let's ALL COMPLAIN about it and just maybe, miracle of miracles, it will stop.  Two years ago I wrote in to Macaroni Grill and told them the food was excellent, but the suggested selling turned my stomach.  They wrote a nice reply and sent me a $25 gift certificate.  I think it's time to write again. I recommend everybody else does the same.  I wonder how many gift certificates it will take before they get the message!


March 18, 2006

When I play dulcimer, I play in what people call a chord-melody flatpick style.  In other words there is always a chordal harmony going on and I pick out the melodies with the chords ringing in the background.  What is unusual about my playing is that I am able to play very fast melodies while still keeping the chord positions.  I do this by using my left thumb as a noter - sliding it up and down the strings to capture the melody notes.  This also give my music that typical dulcimer fret sliding sound, similar to banjo and other American folk instruments.  Normally a noter is made out of wood, and played with the other strings simply acting as drones.  By using my thumb, I am able to get a very distinctive style, however when I practice up to four hours a day, or jam for even longer at a festival, it wreaks havoc with my thumbnail.  I experimented with using a wooden thimble like object to put over my thumb, but the loss of sensitivity and accuracy made it totally impractical.  Finally I started asking about artificial nails.  Many banjo players use artificial nails on their right hand for frailing (a heavy style of strumming accurately picking out individual strings).  Why not use it for my thumb noting?!  My friend Eleanor recommended a manicurist, Shannon Yost, and she suggested a fiberglass overlay.  Well, I had to do a little experimenting with the shape, but the end result worked wonderfully.  The nail is hard and glides over the strings with speed and precision.  It generally lasts about a week and I have acquired the materials to do my own home repair when necessary.  Once when Shannon was sick and couldn't see me, I went to another shop where the woman did a diamond overlay.  What a disaster.  The nail was too thick and too hard, and I could barely play at all without falling off the strings.  I filed it down to a reasonable thickness, and within an hour, the overlay came off completely.  In Austin, almost every shopping plaza has a nail salon, but it's actually almost impossible to find anyone to do a fiberglass overlay.  The nail ends ups being slightly opaque, which is apparently just not fashionable, but the slight flexibility makes all the difference in playing.  Maybe music stores should come with in-house nail salons as a standard side business!


March 13, 2006

Just returned from Port Allen, Louisiana where I attended the Lagniappe Dulcimer Fete with Robert Force, Lois Hornbostel and Quintin Stephens.  The Baton Rouge dulcimer players were wonderfully hospitable people. There was some great music,  lots of Cajun humor and lots of spicy food.  On Friday night, Margaret and Jerry Wright arrived and, with them, the wonderful jamming circles which they always bring to any festival they attend.  I was struck by how many different kinds of music can be successfully adapted to dulcimer.  I first used dulcimer as a substitute tamboura to play Macedonian and Bulgarian music back in 1969.  Then at Sweets Mill in the early 1980's I discovered you could play French hurdy-gurdy music on it and it really captured the flavor of that genre from central France.  In 2002 I started to adapt it to the music of the Swedish nyckelharpa and found that, though technically very challenging, it could do a fine job of bringing across the flavor of the wonderful Swedish dance tunes.  Of course many people including myself play Celtic music on dulcimer.  Most folks use it for those lovely slow airs and O'Carollan tunes, but the instrument is so wonderfully rhythmic that it makes a marvelous vehicle for the jigs and reels of the British Isles as well.  Lois plays Cajun music on the dulcimer, and the diatonic nature of the music (based on the local style of accordion) and its strong rhythms are wonderfully adapted to dulcimer.  In her concert set, she played with a young Cajun fiddler, and I thought the combination of dulcimer and Cajun fiddle really brought the music to life in a charming and satisfying earthy manner.  Robert and Quintin both play in a very contemporary style with strong driving rhythm, dense and varied textures and lots of movement.  Quintin's music is very influenced by Latin and Caribbean rhythms.  Robert played the Bahamian classic "Sloop John B" as well as a hypnotic Brazilian samba.  We talked about using the dulcimer for Calypso music and other south American styles.  Time to go and experiment!


March 6, 2006

It's always good to be reviewed.  It's best if the review is favorable, but any review at least means someone is paying attention.  The Annoying Instrument Orchestra got its name because of a piece on NPR about which instruments people found to generally be most annoying.  High on the list were accordions and bagpipes.  Of course, I'm sure that Scottish bagpipes were the intended butt of the article, but since only "bagpipes" were mentioned, and I play Bulgarian and other eastern European bagpipes, I was invited to join the band.  We also have several fiddles, which any parent will tell you, are very annoying when they are being learned, and we have hurdy-gurdies, those fiddle-like contraptions played with a wheel instead of a bow with a special rasp to make an extra racket hopefully in rhythm with the music.  Certainly one of the most annoying instruments ever conceived of if not played well.  I am happy to report, however, that both our hurdy-gurdy players do a fine job of playing and most folks seem to think that our band is not annoying in the least. 

Last Friday, we played at Ventana del Soul.  A pleasant coffee bar and community outreach center in south Austin.  What made it stand out from other performances where food is sold is that everyone stopped and listened when we were playing.  They didn't run the coffee machines and the staff actually came into the audience and sat and listened.  We played entirely acoustically, and were even able to sing which is normally impossible without mikes in any kind of commercial establishment.

The performance led to the following review (by elsecal on Craig's List):

Annoying Instruments Orchestra: Their sound is everything but annoying, delightfully unique! Woa, what an eclectic grouping of sounds! Metal hand drum, hurdy-gurdies, violins, concertina, accordion, whistle, bagpipes, saz, mandolin, harmonica. Have I forgotten anything! They are well worth a listen, even if just to explore the unusual variety and styles they perform; and the lead singer’s voice will take you chromatically to a place you've never been. Wonderful!

It's always good to be reviewed.  Who can complain!


February 27, 2006

Wow! Has it really been a month?  OK I'm a bad blogger.  I must discipline myself to write at least two entries a week unless I'm out of town. 

It's been a hard year for music losses to cancer.  First we lost Tom Gibney, a good friend and wonderful singer and fiddle player.  Next we lost the legendary Helen Schneyer, a riveting singer, a great person, always a focus for great music and an old family friend of my parents as well.  Another singing friend who I probably will never get to see again is in hospice in New York.  When the request came for me to send her a recording of myself singing The Water Is Wide A.S.A.P.,  I was deeply moved.  I scrambled to make a decent recording and burned it onto a CD, then FEDEXed it overnight.  My sincere thanks to Dale Rempart for rising to the occasion and making the time to help in the recording.  You can listen if you'd like by clicking on the title.

I think it takes a request like that to really feel how much one is appreciated, and yet besides the great honor, I found it to be profoundly humbling. 


January 28, 2006

While preparing for the Sea Songs workshop at the Austin Friends of Traditional Music festival, I’ve been thinking about sailor recruitment.  In the 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, it was common practice to try to force young men into service in the navy.  The crudest method was to knock them unconscious and have them wake up on the ship already in open waters, but a more legal nicety would be to give them money, usually a shilling, to go into service.  Thus the expression, “taking the King’s Shilling” came into being.  Of course most men of recruitable age were savvy enough to refuse taking money from strangers, but they would be more inclined to accept a drink from a new acquaintance in a pub, and the press-gang member would secretly drop a shilling into the tankard before handing it to the unsuspecting victim.  Once he finished his drink (which was likely to be doped), he would see the shilling at the bottom of the tankard and realize in his groggy state that he was now doomed to spend the next part of his life in the king’s navy.  Because of this, publicans began putting glass on the bottom of tankards, so that the customer could check to see if there was a coin there before accepting the drink, and the use of glass bottoms on tankards and ale mugs continues to this day.


January 23, 2006

The best birthday present I ever got was a 12 week course in Chinese cooking with Florence Lin at the China Institute in New York.  Of course after that I was expected to cook dinner once a week...  Clever parents.  Of all the things I learned, the one which made the biggest difference was peeling broccoli.  A little paring knife to pull off the peel starting from the bottom of the stem, and what an incredible difference it makes to both texture and taste, particularly if you are going to stir-fry it.  Mrs. Lin told us that the best Chinese chefs throw away the florets and the peel.  Well, I'm willing to eat the florets or put them in a different dish.  As for the peels, I boil them up and strain the broth as a base for a vegetable soup. Since that wonderful course in 1975, peeled broccoli has always been my benchmark for a truly top notch Chinese restaurant.  Sad to say, I am usually disappointed.


January 20,  2006

Here's the Annoying Instrument Orchestra playing for the Green Corn Project at Boggy Creek Farm.  A little boy kept trying to climb onto the stage to feel the bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy.  His father had to pick him up and carry him back about five times... the next generation of musicians in the making.  There is something wonderful about being able to play without amplification for an appreciative crowd.


I have had my new Ron Ewing dulcimer for about 3 weeks now.  I love the instrument.  The action is so light and it is easy to play lightning fast with clarity and distinct voice.  The one thing which really strikes me about the instrument is how the tone changes so dramatically depending upon where I am strumming the pick.  If I play down beneath the fret board the tone is loud and twangy, but as I approach the large heart, the tone becomes beautifully clear and sweet.  Most dulcimers seem to have two distinct sounds, but this one has the full range in between as well.  I speculate that it must have to something do with the unusual curlicue extending from the heart sound hole.