Sunday, 22 September 2019

Forwards to the beginning again

Shirley Collins: where it all began
Exactly five years after switching my musical focus from English Traditional Folk music and playing the Crane Duet Concertina to Americana and playing the Mandolin, I have decided to reverse direction again.

The Hillbilly band has been fun but I wanted to have a rest and to create more space to explore solo projects. I had a number in mind including Blues Mandolin, but the most obvious option was to revive my English repertoire and relaunch my concertina playing in a new, more chordal, style.

Bert Lloyd with Alf Edwards
on English concertina
Scarcely had I made this decision when my life was suddenly interrupted by a potentially fatal  condition requiring an immediate operation. Fast forward a month and I am now convalescing.

This unexpected time to reflect has given me an opportunity to think about style and I have been particularly drawn back to the very roots of my interest in English folk music. That is the singing of Shirley Collins, particularly when accompanied on Portative Organ by her sister, Dolly, and the singing and concertina accompaniment of Bert Lloyd and Alf Edwards.

It will take me some time - maybe months - before I develop anything performable. In the meantime I will just enjoy dabbling.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Sore Fingers 2, Learning to Learn and some English Trad Folk

Celebrating May
Day with Fowler’s
At my second Sore Fingers Summer School I was enrolled in Matt Flinner's class. He focused on the first and third Four-Finger Closed Positions and close-harmony double-stops. It was the most valuable Bluegrass tuition I've enjoyed to date and will be central to my plans for future development.

Another significant experience was reading Jonathan Harnum's The Practice of Practice. It wasn't all new to me and I didn't warm to the writer's style, but the book does bring together and bring home some essential points about how you should practice, as well as some interesting ideas for maintaining interest.

I saw a Mummer's Play marking St George's Day and sang a few English Trad Folk songs in the session which followed. I also took my concertina out on May Day to join Fowler’s Troop leading a Jack-in-the-Green procession through Deptford and Greenwich, an annual fixture and re-acquaintance with my English Trad Folk past. I also did some unaccompanied English songs in sessions during the Wessex Folk Festival.

It was interesting to find I could still play the concertina and remember some of my old repertoire, but it didn’t draw me back. I find Americana much more exciting and I feel my own performance flows much more readily in that genre.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Baptism of fire

The Orpy String Band: John Edwards, Rik Lawson,
and Matt Hearing.
The trio I play in had its first couple of gigs in December. We have been playing together on the local session/folk club circuit since January of last year but these were our first proper gigs and went well.

We describe our music as 'Old Time and Americana'. We mainly do upbeat Old Time songs and instrumentals in stringband style with Bluegrass-type chops, and some more modern Country Blues numbers.

I'm not promoting the band here as this blog is just about my personal, and at times, naive, musical journey, but I wanted to mention it as an indicator of progress.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Time and tide

The 'Highly Strung' scratch band at Sore Fingers
(I'm second from right).
A lot has happened since my last post: my first Sore Fingers School, enrolment in a Peghead Nation online course, a succession  of plectrum changes, and, above all, a rewarding collaboration with other musicians.

There are basically three elements to playing Bluegrass-style with a mandolin: vocals, chopping and picking. While maintaining the first two, I'm now focusing on developing the third.

I've learnt a few fiddle tunes and the melodies to some of my songs. I need to learn more, to improve my accuracy and consistency and to embellish the melodies with articulations. The good thing about the mandolin is that there is no shortage of instructional material. I know exactly what I need to do. It just takes time and effort.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Not forgetting the positives

The Stanley Brothers
We all want to do better, but constantly bemoaning one's inadequacies makes you sound and feel like a loser, and that isn't good for one's confidence or credibility. So maybe it's time to reflect briefly on the positives.

When I read some of the posts on about the difficulties of others, I begin to feel grateful that I've got as far as I have. I can sing. I have a repertoire of over 30 suitably Grassy songs which I know by heart. I can accompany those songs using three and four finger chop chords. My timing has improved. And I can usually find the key in sessions and work out the chords if they follow the simple 3-chord trick. I'm used to performing and don't suffer from nerves in the way that many others do.

That's enough self-congratulation. Now back to picking.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Picking 1

Having more time and inclination just at the moment, I'm blogging in more frequently about my progress. This is just for now as I need to spend time on the fretboard rather than the keyboard.

I've accumulated a whole shelf of Bluegrass and other mandolin books but have never really put them to proper use. I've preferred to jump into learning songs with a minimum of easy chords to support them. If I'd known at the beginning what I know now I could have accelerated this process, but although I've fumbled about, I'm convinced that the path I took was basically the right one for me. It had me performing songs and playing along with others in a social environment, and that gave me the incentive to keep going as well as providing real-life experience.

And I don't regret spending the time accumulating about 40 songs (rather than developing technique). If you expect to perform an average of three songs once a week, I feel you need that sort of repertoire to avoid too much repetition. Having said that, it's now time to slow down on mere accumulation for reasons of both maintenance and development.

Anyway, when it comes to picking, it looks like I'm going to have to give up my preference for instant gratification in favour of spending time in isolation working systematically through exercises. This is totally contrary to my basic personality and a huge and taxing hardship. Just saying.

I am starting with Bradley Laird's Mandolin Master Class from his Complete Learning System. I had seen Brad's videos on YouTube and was hugely impressed with their clarity. The book is strong on conveying concepts and reflects his pool of accumulated wisdom. My beginning point is playing scales with a metronome. I hate scales, I hate metronomes, and I'm easily bored, but I just have to bite the bullet. If I get too bored I will rehearse some songs in between. At this stage I'm playing scales very slowly indeed. The idea is to get the action and timing perfect so you can eventually play fast (but accurately). It rather reminds me of doing Tai Chi.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Lead Mandolin

Besides chop chords, the other major aspect of Bluegrass mandolin playing are the twiddly bits. While I need to improve my chopping, learning to play lead mandolin is now my major challenge,  and I'm aiming to make some discernible progress by next May.

The fundamental of playing lead mandolin is Alternate Picking as explained in this YouTube video by Don Julin:

There are two main aspects to this. The first is to hit the onbeat notes on a downstroke and the offbeat notes on an upstroke. So far so good. The second is to keep the right-hand moving in a regular rhythm regardless of what notes are played (or not played).

I've never really played melody on a stringed instrument before and at this early stage I'm finding it extremely difficult. However, I now have a week with more time than I usually have, so I'll see how far I get.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Further chopping progress

The last few months have been a period of unprecedented musical chaos and I am still struggling to get back to where I was before the changeover to chopping.

The biggest challenge has been playing the 7523 G3 shape without fouling neighbouring strings, but I finally made a bit of a breakthrough by improving my left-hand position. Thanks to Dennis Caplinger's Bluegrass Mandolin Basics & Beyond DVD I now have my left-hand square-on to the mando's neck with the thumb opposite the first finger and the back of the neck 'not' buried into the purlicue. This 'correct' position seems counter-intuitive for stretching but it works, and I can now use this shape in first position (i.e. as a G chord) as well as higher up the neck.

Apart from a small number of mainly modal/minor songs (which I'll probably keep in a style suitable for Old Time ), I've now sorted out what chord shapes to use, and it's basically a question of getting used to them, i.e. the new shapes, changing between them, making the necessary stretches, and, above all, making them cleanly without fouling.

I've also been experimenting with the even heavier tortoiseshell-style Golden Gate and Dawg picks. They give a nice 'chunky' effect and I shall be using these in the future.

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Bluegrass G chop chord

Torture machine for strengthening fingers
While developing the big stretch 7523 4-finger G chop chord I was hoping to get away with the three-finger X523 chord but it didn't work. As you chop downwards you can avoid hitting the open 1st string at the bottom but you really need to hit (and thus fret) the 4th string at the top. The same goes for all other three-finger chops, i. e. they need to consist of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings rather than the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings.

Somewhat late in the day I noticed the 452X G3 chop chord which is recommended for beginners, children and others with small hands, and that provides a quick fix to help smooth the transition. It's particularly good when playing in D as the changes between D, G and A are easy. And that also goes for the Key of E which I simply treat as the Key of D moved up two frets. Despite the reservations I expressed before, moving chords up the neck proved much easier than expected.

The 452X is less useful when playing in the Keys of G or C because the C chord shape is rather different. In G or C it's easier to play the 455X G chop chord as it has similarities with C and is identical to the 233X F chord shape. Although these chords cover three strings, they require only two fingers.

So, if I am using 452X in D (and the same shape moved up two frets for E) and 455X in G and C, when do I get to practice the 7523? I'm using that for songs in A which I treat as G moved up two frets. As the frets get smaller towards the bridge the stretch is easier. Once I've mastered this shape for A I'll attempt to move it down for G.

In the meantime I'm building up the strength in my left-hand fingers, particularly the little finger, with a D'Addario finger exerciser.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Swapping to chopping progress

Coal Porters on the Stade, Hastings, 26 Sept 2015
As well as changing from open to Bluegrass chop chords I will also be abandoning the capo as far as possible. I have also changed plectrum from a rather flexible 0.50mm to a stiffer 0.60mm which works better for chop chords and will also be better for picking individual notes.

The prospect of changing all my songs all at once seemed daunting, so I started with the three-chord trick for songs in G. I was already familiar with using X523 for G and 523X for C, so I just had to learn 245X for D. At first I tried to play this D chord with the first, third and fourth fingers but then switched to the first, second and third fingers. It's more of a stretch but less of a mental challenge. I'll try to develop the G into a 7523 G later.

Next up it was songs in the key of D, requiring the D, G and A chords. Having done the D and G chords it was just a question of adding the extra two fingers to the 2200 A chord to create a 2245 chop version. In terms of fingering shape this A chord is closely related to the 245X D chord so changing between them is easy.

Other keys I need to play in are A, Bb and E, but they are simply obtained by moving the chord shapes for G and D further up the neck. This requires more accuracy. If you're playing chop chords in first position and you accidentally hit an open string you can get away with it, but if you do that further up the neck they won't be in the same key and may sound out of tune. In order to flatten the learning curve I'm currently shoe-horning A songs into G and E songs into D.

The G/A and D/E songs account for over half the songs in my current repertoire. That leaves a couple of C songs, several minor/modal songs, and a few songs that really call for seventh chords or relative minors if I am playing solo. I've worked these out. All I have to do now is smooth out the chord changes.