Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Machines in my violin case

A small device with several moving parts helps me to hold my violin. It is a shoulder rest, and it attaches to the bottom of the violin near the base to fill the space between my shoulder and chin and keep the violin in place, leaving my left hand free to play notes rather than support the weight of the instrument. The shoulder rest incorporates simple machines to make it an adjustable device, allowing for differences in sizes of violin bodies and human bodies.
“Machines” in the Life Science Library says the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria, about the time of Christ, listed five basic machines: the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, wedge and inclined plane, and screw, which form the basis of all other machines. “... [T]hese tools are viewed as ‘simple machines’ — detachable extensions of the human body that, in the main, supplement the function of arms,” says “Machines.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Inspiration from pencil and plectrum

Look closely at a wooden pencil, and you can see, running the length from eraser to point, a faint line, with a matching line on the opposite side. If you have presbyopia (that’s not a religious condition), you may need a magnifier. If, like me, you have both presbyopia and myopia, you can remove your glasses and focus on the faint lines. Those lines mark the joints of the two halves of the pencil, which is a wooden cylinder holding a long stick of graphite, and although we apply the term “lead” to the gray or colored material with which we make marks on paper, it is not metal but a relative of carbon.
The graphite pencil dates back at least to the 16th century, the term “lead” a holdover from writing with pieces of the metal. Graphite comes from mines, the first high-quality stuff from a mine in Borrowdale, England. Borrowdale graphite by the 17th century was being widely exported, and security measures had to be taken to prevent pilfering from the mine, workers being required to change from regular clothes to work wear when coming to work and the reverse upon leaving.
When France could obtain no pure Borrowdale graphite in the 1790s due to war with England, French Minister of War Lazare Carnot commissioned Nicolas-Jacques Conté, a 39-year-old engineer and inventor, to develop an alternative to pure graphite. Conté, it is said, did so in a matter of days, and in 1795 he was granted a patent for mixing finely powdered graphite with potter’s clay and water, placing the paste in long, rectangular molds, packing the sticks after drying into charcoal and firing. Pencil leads to this day are still made of graphite and clay.

Whistling gypsies at Burkhardt’s Pub

The Bog Carrot in 1993: John Whitacre, Mark Roliff, and Tom Perkins.
The Bog Carrot at the 2000 Warren Celtic Heritage Fair: John Whitacre, Tom Perkins, and Mark Roliff.
Published March 10, 2011
I put my violin to my chin and thought, “Four hours; that’s a long haul.” It was St. Patrick’s Day, and The Bog Carrot was embarking on its annual musical marathon at Burkhardt’s, a restaurant and brewpub in the Shops of Green south of Akron.
I learned of Burkhardt’s in the early 1990s when craft beers and brewpubs were sprouting all over the country nearly as fast as fast-food joints and drugstores with doors in the corners. Because the Irish and Scottish music I play are intimately associated with small family pubs in their homelands, I thought Burkhardt’s would be a good place to play, and I sent a band flier to owner Tom Burkhardt. Tom responded soon after receiving my mailing, and he offered our band a few experimental gigs with fresh beer as our pay. When he received favorable responses to our playing, he offered us real money to play on St. Patrick’s Day, the first time in 1992.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All play and no work makes John a dull musician

My favorite part of music is practice time, all alone at home, with no one watching or listening. The acoustics are good, and solo time with my instruments is where I make progress. I can concentrate on points of technique and particular musical phrases that need attention, and it’s important to do that alone because it involves playing one short part repeatedly. I find great joy in playing the same thing over and over, but it’s not much fun for the listener.
I estimate a ratio of 10 to 1 regarding practicing versus public performance: 10 hours of practice for one hour of playing, and that may be generous on the public performance side. Too much “playing” and not enough practicing, and my technique deteriorates alarmingly. It was interesting to find that concept confirmed in a book about introverts.
Susan Cain in “Quiet — The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” published in 2012, discusses the work of research psychologist Anders Ericsson and colleagues, who compared three groups of expert violinists at the elite Music Academy in West Berlin. The professors divided students into three groups: the best violinists, with the potential for careers as international soloists; good violinists; and a third group training to be violin teachers rather than performers.

My accidental new guitar

Published June 2, 2011
I accidentally ordered a new guitar last month. I just learned about it last week when a notice came by email that my new guitar was being made. A photo from the factory shows the guitar in its embryonic stage, just a rough fingerboard and shaped sides.
This was a complete surprise to me. I was looking at new guitars on the Taylor website last month. I swear I was only looking, but somehow I must have placed an order.
I have no money for a new guitar, but the builder is not allowed to refuse my order and must send the guitar regardless. I assume he’ll be reimbursed by the federal government, but that’s not my concern. All I care about is the guitar. Someone else can pay for it.
I won’t have money for upkeep either, so I signed up for a federal string replacement program. I change my strings at least every three months, more if I play a great deal, and since I can’t afford all those new strings, federal funds that magically appear out of the sky will pay for the strings. I could recycle the old strings and packages, but I’ll just throw them in the trash where they’ll contribute to the growing landfills. I’ll need fingerboard lubricant and wood polish too, and the magical funds will also pay for those necessities.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Records worth keeping

Vinyl records were made obsolete by CDs, but I still find pleasure in them. Much of my interest is based on nostalgia for my youth and for times before I was born and for a more mechanical, less electronic age when people rode trains, wrote with fountain pens, and typed on typewriters, but I also appreciate records for themselves. I like the cover art and liner notes, and I like watching a needle in the groove as a record hypnotically spins round and round. Playing records involves a hard needle pressing into soft vinyl, and they are susceptible to the elements, so they need special care. But first, some background. 

Christmas music of the 1960s



Music and the sense of smell are two of the strongest memory triggers. The first fall furnace run, filling the air with duct dust, triggers childhood memories of colored lights on a live Christmas tree and Christmas music on a monaural record player.
Each December in the 1960s we eagerly went with our father to Goodyear Hall in Akron for an early Christmas treat, where every child of Goodyear employees received a Christmas present and a bag of hard candy. The exciting part was that you chose your toy from the racks, and the toys were not cheap junk that broke in an hour; they were exciting, good-quality toys. My older brother, obsessed with things on wheels, always chose models. Sometimes an inflatable parade float hovered in the hall, movies were shown, and, if I remember correctly, the model railroad club ran its trains on the room-size layout.

Exploring the frontier with music

Earlier this week I listened to the album “Symphonic Star Trek” by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. It’s a collection of music from the Star Trek television shows and movies, and much of the music stands on its own, even when you set aside images of star ships flashing past and battles with Klingons, as good classical music tinged with a touch of popcorn. I especially liked the theme from “Star Trek: Voyager,” a television show, fourth in the franchise, that ran from 1995 to 2001. The Voyager theme is typical space show fare, grand and celebratory, capturing the affection that sci-fi fans have for outer space and star ships. It reminded me somewhat of the theme from “Dances With Wolves.” The DWW piece is more melancholy, the woodwinds and brass supporting the strings, which carry the main theme, whereas Voyager is more celebratory, opening with tympany, which always serves well as a fanfare percussion instrument, presenting the theme on brass supported by strings, and as I listened to Voyager instead of futuristic ships in space I could picture a cowboy guiding a herd of cattle across a western river.
This grand orchestral music has become a tradition in science fiction movies, firmly established by “Star Wars” in 1977. For that ground-breaking film, George Lucas and John Williams eschewed 1950s-style sci-fi music filled with electronic effects and the eerie theremin and instead opted for awe-inspiring classical themes that enhanced the passing of a spaceship or the entrance of a villain with new levels of drama and grandeur through the magic that only music can bring to a film. The first Star Trek movie, “Star Trek The Motion Picture,” was released in 1979, and the success of “Star Wars” compelled the Star Trek creators to follow suit with a redesigned Enterprise (that’s the ship, for you non-fans) and classical themes. Jerry Goldsmith proved equal to the task for the first movie, and his main theme was adapted for “Star Trek The Next Generation,” the long-awaited sequel to the original series that first aired in 1987; and succeeding movies continued the tradition.

Brian's Blog

See this link for a post by my nephew Brian that includes comments about folk-rock music:
http://brianrwhitacre.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/searching-through-the-past-for-the-unknown/

La musica, la famiglia, l’amore

Published April 18, 2014
Much of the appeal of the movie “Moonstruck” for me is the music. I first saw the film, which was released in 1987, in the early 1990s and bought the soundtrack not long after, drawn to it for the mandolin music. I recently watched the movie again and got caught up in its look at Italian-Americans in New York City.
The producers patterned the movie’s structure after an opera and opened the first version with selections from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” but seeing lack of audience response during a test filming they reworked the opening, moving the opera scenes further into the show and placing Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” over the opening credits. The song’s tongue-in-cheek view of Italian-Americans set the tone and relaxed the audience.
Longtime jazz musician Dick Hyman arranged and composed most of the film’s music, his arrangements reminiscent of early 1960s jazz-influenced music that dominated much of popular radio before rock music took over. Vikki Carr’s 1967 hit “It Must Be Him” figures strongly in the film and contributes to its ambience, and New York City’s Little Italy further lends the film a feel of decades past.

Out with the old? Nope

Published July 26, 2013
Among the loads of stuff large and small I brought home while cleaning out my parents’ house was my dad’s old stereo receiver and turntable. They were of excellent quality in their day, and because my receiver crackled in one channel I decided to replace it with my dad’s. My turntable still works well, but I just couldn’t resist the second turntable. Installation, however, evolved into more than twice the job I expected.
I spent several hours over a few days last winter installing the equipment because I own a large, complex system. In these days of all-in-one stereos and home entertainment systems, I still prefer my complex multi-component stereo system. I subscribe to the idea I learned in the 1970s that an individual component is of higher quality than one that is part of a combo setup, and a further advantage lies in the ability to replace a component rather than the entire system if one component goes bad. Extending that idea, a high-end stereo employs a separate amplifier and receiver because the two interfere electronically with each other, but I haven’t gone that far, and combined units manage to compromise well enough.

O Muse! Sing in me

Published Dec. 16, 2003
“A Mighty Wind” blew through my house last month. Nothing was damaged, but records, books and CDs are strewn about my library.
“A Mighty Wind” is a mockumentary made by the folks from Second City in Chicago and is a dead-on satire of the early 1960s folk music boom. It follows three music groups who gather for a tribute concert, and it is especially convincing because the actors sing and play their instruments, with no dubbing. Sham album covers and bogus ’60s-style television performances contribute to the realism, and someone who doesn’t know this is all a send-up could be absolutely duped.
The parody is convincing by virtue of its accuracy. The New Main Street Singers copy the choral harmonization and squeaky-clean looks of The New Christy Minstrels, complete with a look-alike Hawaiian singer and the catchphrase “Easy now,” as proclaimed by Barry McGuire in the hit “Green, Green.” Mitch & Mickey are a parody of Ian & Sylvia, who started with traditional folk songs and later moved into topical, personal material, and the Folksmen imitate the good-time music of the Kingston Trio.

He’ll meet you at the crossroads

Published Nov. 6, 2007
Niccolo Paganini, says the “Forgotten English” calendar, was the first musical superstar, producing “giddiness and ecstatic collapse among female members of his audience ...” His amazing skill on the violin led people to claim that he had made a pact with the devil.
Paganini, born Oct. 28, 1782, set a standard for showmanship in violin playing, using harmonics, pizzicato (plucked) effects and new fingerings, and influenced generations of violinists. But he wasn’t the first musician to be associated with the devil.
Musical alliances with Old Scratch were a common theme in violin playing and especially in Celtic fiddling, which was associated with the devil because it compelled people to dance and young people to fraternize too closely. The kirk (the Scottish term for church) banned dancing and dance music long ago, thus depleting the traditional repertoire of dance tunes until the kirk lightened up and composers and fiddlers began writing tunes again, starting in the late 1600s. The legends persisted though and survive in a wealth of tunes and songs with “devil” in the title, both in British Isles fiddling and in American tunes.

A fiend for the guitar

John G. Whitacre Published June 30, 2009
Two guys with guitars across the way were having a good old time, drinking beer and singing old rock songs as we set up our tent. Neither was a great player or singer, and one even said, “You know what — we suck,” but still I wished I could join them.
I often take an instrument on vacation, but most times I play it too little to justify leaving it in the car for hours and worrying about it while we’re off touring. This time I came close to taking my guitar, but I left it behind, and all week I ached to play thanks to our tour of C.F. Martin & Co.
We began our June vacation in eastern Pennsylvania visiting family, and my nephew suggested a tour of the C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth. The C.F. stands for Christian Frederick, who came from Mark Neukirchen, Saxony, (now Germany) in 1833, setting up a music shop in New York City after studying the making of violins and guitars under Johann Stauffer of Vienna.
Herr Martin operated a full-line music store, importing and wholesaling instruments, strings and sheet music. C.F. disliked the big city and longed for the wooded hills of his homeland, so in 1839 he sold his business and moved to Bushkill Township, near Nazareth. From then on, the Martin Company focused on building instruments and in the early 1900s developed the dreadnought, the guitar that dwarfed its 19th-century predecessors and set the standard for American guitars.

Meeting guitar maker Jean Larriveé at Wildwood Music

Published March 22, 2013
I had several questions for master guitar maker Jean Larriveé, founder (in 1967) and owner of Jean Larriveé Guitar Inc. (That’s the French man’s name Jean, not the woman’s name.) I’ve been studying guitars in great detail as I prepare to buy, and I had the good fortune to ask the man himself about scale length, bracing, tonal qualities, recording ideas and the proper guitar for Celtic melody playing.
I met Jean Larriveé and Ricky Thompson, the Larriveé director of sales and artist relations, when they visited Wildwood Music in Roscoe Village, across the river from Coshocton, last Saturday. Wildwood owners Marty Rodabaugh and Don McKay sponsored the visit, having stocked an abundance of Larriveé guitars and maintained a business relationship/friendship with Larriveé for many years.
The small store was quite crowded, so it took a while for me to get Jean’s ear, but I enjoyed perusing the store, and I had nowhere else to go. Jean and Ricky answered all my questions, and I learned later that Jean prefers the smaller guitars to the large dreadnoughts that dominate U.S. guitar preferences.
I was surprised to hear that people drove from Indiana (four and a half hours), Michigan and Virginia (six hours) to meet Jean, who was personable, informative and instantly likable. After the store closed, many of us adjourned to the Warehouse restaurant in Roscoe Village for dinner with Jean, Ricky, Marty and Don.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Muse and Commander

Published March 2, 2004
There is one message I have for you today. It is to find something you love and do it for the rest of your life. — Ray Bradbury
A beautiful world awaits the adventurer who dares to tear himself from the glowing screen. It waits in books, it waits in nooks, if you dare to look beyond that crook, that glowing screen.
It’s easy to sit in front of a television and do nothing. I quit watching TV in the late 1980s after I realized inertia, more than programming, kept me on the couch, and though some shows are interesting, I don’t have time for them. I’m too busy living life to watch it.
Music, words, history and animals are my passions, and nothing on TV can stack up to actions and interactions in the three-dimensional world. Television is eclipsed by the joy of my goat napping on my lap, and improvement in music or writing is only begot through study and practice.
I’m never so bored that I would turn to commercial television. I simply don’t have time, because I subscribe to Thomas Edison’s belief in hard work: “Opportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed in overalls, and it looks like work.” The meaning of Edison’s most famous quote, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” has been dulled by repetition, and I didn’t truly understand it until I dedicated myself to music: Seemingly magical talent, knowledge and creativity are the result of a mess of work.

In readiness for the next step

Published: Oct. 4, 2005
For a few hours, Thomas Wolfe was wrong. The Bog Carrot reunited for a day of conversation and music, and for a few hours I was 15 years younger.
The Bog Carrot was a Celtic music group formed in 1990 by musicians who met at Quail Hollow State Park music sessions. Tom, Mark and I played traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and Wales on fiddle; various sizes of mandolins, flutes, whistles and recorders; hurdy gurdy, bodhran (an Irish drum) and guitar.
Tom, the founder, invited me to join after he saw my blossoming interest in Celtic music. I had discovered traditional music in 1989 at Quail Hollow, near Hartville, and I was immediately attracted to the Baroque-style music of the Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan, a contemporary of Johann Bach. I didn’t immediately settle on the Celtic style, which itself comprises several styles, because I still found the shuffle-bowed Appalachian style fiddling appealing. But Tom introduced me to music groups such as the bagpipes-driven Tannahill Weavers from Scotland, mandolin-laden Planxty from Ireland, and Ar Log from Wales; the Ligonier Highland Games in Pennsylvania; and instructional material, steering me firmly toward the sometimes haunting, sometimes driving, always emotional music of our Celtic forbears.

Mandolin Society concert took listeners back a century

Published Nov. 1, 2004
The Montana Mandolin Society took listeners back a century to the mandolin orchestras that were the rage in the early 1900s. Based in Bozeman, Mont., the string ensemble played at Alliance High School in the opening concert of the Alliance Area Concert Association’s 2004-05 season.
MMS plays a mix of popular and traditional music on mandolin family instruments and other string instruments and is a resurrection of the Bozeman Mandolin and Guitar Club of 1902. Group leader Dennis White said the mandolin orchestra era ran from 1894 to 1924 and ended when Louis Armstrong’s loud, driving jazz superseded mandolins and the gentler classical and traditional music styles.
Mandolin groups were as ubiquitous then as rock groups are now and were found in just about every city, inspired by The Spanish Students that toured the country playing bandoras, a large European instrument similar to a mandolin, and guitars. Those mandolin groups played a quartet of instruments patterned after the string instruments of the orchestra.

Hop a train with Johnny Cash


Published Jan. 13, 2012
Johnny Cash mounts the steps of a steam locomotive in the beginning of the documentary “Ridin’ the Rails,” pulls a blast on the whistle cord, looks out the window as the piston rods begin turning the huge driver wheels, and pulls the whistle a few more times as the locomotive gains speed. I’m jealous — I wish I could ride in a steam cab. Such is the benefit of fame.
Cash starred in the documentary history of U.S. railroads, created, written and produced by Nicholas Webster and Dyann Rivkin and airing in 1974 on primetime television, mingling mysteriously as an unseen participant with historical characters in reenactments of famous moments in railroad history, telling stories of railroads, and singing songs about the good and the bad moments of railroading, opening with the title song.

The secret to good music

Published Oct. 18, 2005
I got out my main violin two weeks ago to practice, and I was appalled. I haven’t been practicing, and it showed. Violin is not something you learn and then set aside, picking it up when it’s time to perform. It requires regular practice just to maintain ability and serious, dedicated, slow practice to improve.
A violin lets you know that you haven’t been practicing. I know this, and I go through this regularly, but if I play after a hiatus, I get discouraged and feel as if I’m wasting my time, that I lack some secret talent the great violinists possess. But it’s no secret; as Pete Seeger wrote in his book on playing the banjo, the secret to good tone is practice.
It didn’t help that I was tired that night, and I was trying to practice with the music book on the piano instead of my heavy black stand. And the next day I realized that my strings and bow hair were nine months old. Three months is enough to kill them in normal circumstances for a part-time musician, and nine months is 90 years old in string years.

Memorial Day 2004 Observations

Published June 8, 2004
Informal should not mean rude, but it often does. I attended the Dulci-More folk music concert on Memorial Day weekend, and Saturday’s featured performers, Bob Zentz and Madeline MacNeil, gave excellent performances. Zentz performed for a half-hour and MacNeil, after the intermission, for about 45 minutes. And in that time, not two minutes passed without someone in the audience getting up to go somewhere.
I have attended and performed in dozens of concerts and plays, where the audience stays in its seat during the show. You stay there because you might miss something, and if the show isn’t your mug of tea you sit still out of respect for the performers and other audience members.
I realize the folk concert was an informal affair. Folk music by nature is an informal creature. Doors in the concert hall were left open to keep the room cool. Snacks were available for sale on a side table, and vendors manned their stations at the back, selling recordings, instruments and accessories. People continuously went outside and came back in.

The glass armonica: music to expunge fingerprints

Published July 11, 2006
An invention largely forgotten, overshadowed by the sundry enterprises of America’s first citizen of the world, is Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica, a superb example of the workings of Franklin’s agile intellect.
While an agent for Pennsylvania in England from 1757 to 1762, Franklin attended a concert performed on wine glasses. Franklin the musician enjoyed the concert, but Franklin the inventor was dissatisfied. “Being charmed by the sweetness of its tones and the music he produced from it, I wished only to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, and brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number of tunes and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument,” he later wrote to an acquaintance. The armonica, wrote Franklin, was based on the common practice of bored dinner guests, and some musicians, of producing a resonant tone by moving a wet finger around the rim of a glass. It was founded on a copy made by Edmund Delaval, of England’s Royal Society, of a contrivance designed by Richard Puckeridge in 1743, in which glasses of different sizes were fixed on a table and tuned by placing them in water. Franklin turned his mechanical mind to the problem and in 1761 invented the armonica.

Ken ye these words?

Published Jan. 18, 2005
Scottish fiddle music is an enchanting music dialect, resonating with the culture and history of Highlands and isles, and the titles of tunes or songs can lead down fascinating byways. Many unusual words in the Scots dialect are of Gaelic origin, and some are Germanic with a Scots burr.
“Wha Wadna Fecht For Charlie?” (Who Wouldnt Fight For Charlie?) is an 18th-century Scottish fight song. Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to retake the throne of England from the House of Hanover in 1745, and many Scots still revere him. In the movie “The Great Escape,” two Scotsmen danced in a circle and sang this song when they heard the first tunnel was nearly complete.
“Loch Lomond” is that rare Scottish song that almost everyone knows. It is possibly about a follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie who is about to be executed. He tells his fiance he’ll take the low road, or the grave. Another famous loch is Loch Ness, home of the monster. A Gaelic word meaning lake, loch is a common geographic term, the Irish spelling is lough, and lochan is a small lake. Lochaber, a district in northwest Scotland on the west end of the Grampian Mountains, includes Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain. The traditional music group Boys of the Lough plays frequently on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Picking a bone with Dr. Scholes

Published May 2, 2014
I have a bone to “pick” with Percy Scholes. He belittles my beloved mandolin.
Scholes describes the mandolin in “The Oxford Companion to Music” as “an instrument of somewhat the same type as the lute but much less artistically valuable, being now in use for the most part by people who wish to play simple music without much trouble.”
I found Scholes’ dismissive definition of the mandolin in the 10th edition of the “Companion to Music,” published in 1970. The first edition was published in 1938, “the product of six years and more of work on the part of one superman and a varying number of paid and unpaid clerical helpers who at various times included” Scholes’ wife and mother-in-law, according to the preface of the 10th. “The result of this solo performance was a book which has been called ‘strongly personal, limited in range, but endlessly fascinating’ ... For the present revision it was considered quite inappropriate to change radically the characteristic rich anecdotal quality of Dr. Scholes’ style. ...”
Scholes said in the preface to the first edition that he played or read thousands of sheets of music and scrutinized thousands of pages of concert and radio programs, gramophone record catalogues, etc., so it’s not as if he was unaware of the classical catalog of mandolin music, which is more extensive than most people realize.

An intense love of song

Published Feb. 24, 2012
Perhaps it was a T-shirt bearing the red dragon of Wales that caught my eye. I have this vague memory of David Mandry wearing such a shirt at the Flax Scutching Festival in Winona in the early 1990s, and because I played in a band, the Bog Carrot, that included Welsh music in its repertoire, in addition to traditional Scottish and Irish tunes, I may have said hello.
David and Joan Mandry, the latter hailing from Aberystwyth on Cardigan Bay and being a singer and folksong compiler, soon became Bog Carrot fans, because it’s not everywhere you hear the traditional music of Wales. They came to hear us play on Aug. 19, 1995, in a concert hosted by the Lisbon Historical Society next to the Old Stone House, a former tavern built in 1805, and with them was a young Welsh woman, Mari Morgan, who, we learned, sang traditional Welsh songs.

The theremin: not just for flying saucers

Published March 23, 2010
Perhaps you never heard the term “theremin,” but you may have heard the instrument by that name. The theremin accompanied robots and flying saucers in science fiction films of the 1950s, most notably in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But well before the electronic instrument gained renown of sorts lending atmosphere to UFO invasions, it had found a champion in a musical prodigy from Russia.
Clara Rockmore was born Clara Reisenberg in Russia, the youngest of three musical sisters. She was a child prodigy “with absolute pitch and an uncanny sense of music,” writes Robert Moog in the liner notes to a CD Rockmore recorded in 1987. She was admitted at age 5 to the Imperial Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg and at age 9 toured Europe with her sister Nadia Reisenberg.

Free yourself from your electronic crutch

Published Dec. 11, 2007
I completely disagree with this lead sentence in an AP business story last week: “Musicians of the world are getting a new kind of artistic freedom with technology that eliminates the challenging chore of tuning.”
A new Gibson electric guitar is equipped with onboard tuning technology developed in Germany that allows the newest Les Paul guitar to tune itself, the first self-tuning technology in the world. “It is particularly useful for beginners, who tend to find tuning a headache,” says the article. The guitar also comes with six types of tunings, so a musician doesn’t have to take an extra guitar for alternate tunings or retune during a concert.
I disagree especially with three words in that first sentence: “Freedom,” “challenging” and “chore.” First, I consider tuning a pleasant time with my instrument, listening to its pleasing tones while giving my hands the chance to warm up as my instrument acclimates itself to the change in humidity and temperature after being taken from its case. Tuning is a pleasure, not a chore.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mexico’s sunny mariachi

Published Jan. 10, 2006
If Mexican food could make sound (other than the scream caused by a searing chile), it would be mariachi. Mariachi is the folk music of Mexico, a marriage of Indian rhythms and Spanish instrumentation. Its spice and sauce speak of our sunny southern North American neighbor, where Spaniards, themselves a blend of Celtic, Roman and Arabic Moorish cultures and bloodlines, mingled with Indians and blacks to become mestizos, the melange of dark-complected people who make up the Mexican population. Mariachi’s rich sound begins with a comforting tortilla base of nylon-strung guitars: the vihuela, a five-string rhythm guitar; the bajo sexto, a 12-string tuned lower than a normal guitar (bajo meaning low); and the guitarron, the giant six-string bass. One or two trumpets add salsa and Mexican sunshine to the sound, and the sweet sound of violins playing close harmonies contrasts sharply with the Iberian brass. The rhythm shifts from the beat to irresistible syncopation (an irregular procession from bar to bar, as my former violin teacher liked to say). Accordions and waltzes in the north attest to German influence.

Bowing With a Brogue

Published May 18, 2004
One thing I enjoy about Scottish, English and Irish fiddling is the creative contribution expected of the musician. If one played the notes on the page strictly as written, the sound would be choppy and dull, lacking the uplifting dance beat that gives life to the tunes. A fiddler is expected to add the elements of his style to the music, giving the music its accent, its peculiar dialect.
For people who grow up around a certain type of music, that is easy and automatic. But growing up in the 20th century, when traditional fiddling is rare, and in America, across the ocean from the countries that harbor the music, I had to search for the sound of British Isles fiddling and train myself to play it. I’m still learning.
I had to learn the same way about historical Baroque performance. The Baroque era in classical music lasted approximately from 1600 to 1750, when J.S. Bach died. After Bach’s time, his music was considered outdated and stilted, and if someone mentioned Bach, they were referring to C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S., who wrote in the newer, more fluid style of Mozart and Haydn. So when people performed Baroque music, they infused it with the performance style of their time.

Playing violin with a dead man

Published July 17, 2007
I spent 90 minutes on Independence Day with George Bush. The George Bush I visited, though, is not the president; he fought in the American Revolution.
George Bush was an officer of the Continental Line under George Washington. He was born about 1753 in Wilmington, Delaware, and after the conclusion of a four-year apprenticeship to a Philadelphia merchant in 1776 joined the Army as a lieutenant, fighting at Staten Island, Brunswick, Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown and in encounters with Indians. He was wounded at the battle of Brandywine, Pa., in September 1777, and after Germantown, in October 1777, most of his time was spent on recruiting missions and as a paymaster. He wrote to a friend during the winter of 1781-82 that health had prevented his participating in the fighting at Yorktown.

Epistle to Erin

Published Oct. 28, 2008
Erin,
After years of near estrangement, we are again an item. We once again consort in public, and friends remark on our compatibility. It’s a welcome change after those dark days when you had become a stranger to me.
When I met you, I loved everything about you, as is so often the case with new love. I attended every party where I could find you, and we held long, intimate conversations as I learned every nuance of your Irish heritage, your family background and relatives, your lilting dancing, and your lovely Irish accent. We drank beer as we communed, and I learned to love Guinness, that dark liquid stout so symbolic of Ireland, and the occasional Irish whiskey. We attended music festivals and dances, and we were inseparable.

My persistent friend

Published Feb. 24, 2009
Sometimes my friend Josh drives me crazy. First off, Josh isn’t even his real name. When we played in the Tuscarawas Orchestra together, he went by Johann, and I always wondered if his father was German. Then he started playing folk music and switched to Josh. I still don’t know his original name.
I met Josh, or Johann as he called himself back then, in ninth grade. We played in school orchestra together. His father was long dead, and Josh had most recently lived on Ravenna Avenue in Louisville, which I later learned was really Marlboro Township, Louisville being just the mailing address.
We had a lot of good times in school and community orchestras. Johann was the quiet one, keeping to himself in groups but coming into his own during practices and performances. We held long talks and told many jokes with our female orchestra friends before high school concerts. We hung out with our friend Dale, who started on violin but turned traitor and switched to viola, in Canton Youth Symphony.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Grand dame of the harpsichord

Published March 16, 2010
The harpsichord was the stalwart of Baroque music. It provided rhythm and harmony in almost every ensemble piece, whether a sonata for harpsichord and violin or a concerto grosso for full orchestra. The harpsichord and Baroque music thrive these days, and Baroque music lovers are fortunate that many ensembles specialize in correct historical performance of Baroque music, one of the best being Apollo’s Fire, based in Cleveland.
They nearly died out after J.S. Bach died, when Mozart, Handel, Bach’s sons and others composed homophonic music and considered Bach’s complex, elegant polyphony to be outdated and outmoded. But J.S. Bach, the harpsichord and polyphony saw a revival in the early 1900s, much of it thanks to the inimitable Wanda Landowska.

Keeping time in colonial times

Published April 20, 2009
From my first visit in 1975 to my most recent last year, Colonial Williamsburg’s fife and drum corps ranks high as one of my favorite historical attractions at my favorite town. I could watch the corps play and march for hours. CW’s corps recreates the military maneuvers of the American Revolution, when fifes and drums acted as timepieces in camp and as message-bearers in battle.
The fife is a transverse flute (held at a right angle to the body) with six tone holes. It has no keys, all the holes being open and covered with fingers to change pitch. It is pitched in the key of B flat and plays a B flat when all the holes are covered. The traditional fife is made of wood and requires regular oiling, compared to modern flutes and piccolos that are made of metal.
Music for the fife is written in the key of D, and fingering patterns are the same as a D instrument, so the B flat player reads in D but plays in B flat. Fifes can produce nearly a three-octave range, the upper octaves used outside, where the higher pitch can be heard above snare drums and the sound of battle, and the lower octave reserved for indoor use.

The best of both worlds

Nov. 3, 2008
One night at a music party long ago, two friends placed tune after tune on my music stand, watching me as I sight-read the music. I had never seen the tunes before, but I had learned through years of orchestra playing to read music on sight, so I could play most tunes note-perfect if not with the best bowing or tone, which always require practice. A potter at a festival this October compared my playing from the printed page to typing.
Learning to play music from the page requires associating, on string instruments, certain fingers on certain strings with specific notes, and, as with most things, the more you practice the better you become. I learned to play violin in the school orchestra system, learning from the start to play from the page and progressing to school orchestra and the Canton Youth Symphony. But I have loved traditional music all my life, and early on I figured out how to play tunes by ear, which means figuring out what fingers to use by hearing the intervals.

Playing the orchestra game

Published Jan. 4, 2013
I rarely watch football, and when I do, usually at a family gathering where I’m forced against my will to submit to the artificial world of high-stakes ball-chasing, it drives me crazy because they can’t play the game without stopping. Because I don’t watch television, I’m accustomed to movies on DVD without interruptions other than those I choose, so it annoys me to no end to see the continuous stopping of the action in football. Imagine an orchestra concert run like a football game.
First, the kickoff. The orchestra manager stands at the back of the auditorium and kicks the conductor’s baton in the air, and the conductor races to catch it while all the musicians, instruments in hand, race from the sides of the room and find their seats.
The conductor raises his baton while a cameraman hovers to the side, and the musicians launch into Handel’s “Concerto Grosso in F Major.” But just before they reach the key change to C, the orchestra manager calls a time-out and brings out music, aided by the official librarian, with revised bowings for the second violins. The violinists form a huddle with the conductor to discuss the changes, and everyone swigs Perrier. During this lull in the action, the channel televising the concert shows footage of other orchestras around the country and goes to commercials for violin rosin, oboe reeds and trombone mutes.

The quiet pub

Published Jan. 18, 2013
A pint glass of Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale accompanied me the other night as I played Irish jigs and reels on my fiddle. My violin and bow calling forth traditional tunes that resonate in the deepest recesses of my musical being and the toasty ale made in Yorkshire, the ancestral English home of the Whitacres, transported me. I felt as if I were playing in a British pub rather than in my bedroom. The problem is that the pub I see in my mind doesn’t exist, not in this country at least, not that I know of.
I picture an old-fashioned pub, something like you see in “The Quiet Man.” In that movie the men gather at the pub not merely to drink “black beer,” as John Wayne calls it, but to socialize and learn of community doings. It’s like a living room for the extended family of a close-knit village, and one of my favorite scenes is when a singer playing accordion launches into “The Wild Colonial Boy,” quickly joined by other patrons:
“There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name; He was born and raised in Ireland, In a place called Castlemaine; He was his father’s only son, His mother’s pride and joy; And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.”

Learning to play with Mel Bay

Published Nov. 16, 2012
Four decades later I can still play the tunes I studied in the early 1970s, although a jog of my memory reminds me that I did play some of those tunes at times over the ensuing years. I discovered this fact recently when I played Mel Bay’s arrangement of “Santa Lucia.”
When I play music I develop finger memory, and once I learn a tune I can play it with very little conscious effort because my fingers know where to go, and this was the case with “Santa Lucia.” I learned Mel’s arrangement of the tune in 1972, and it’s still in my fingers, but for a couple spots that evaded me and required consulting the book.

My Irish resolution

Published Feb. 5, 2008
I renewed a resolution this year that I made two years ago: I resolved to practice music every day. Non-musicians probably don’t understand the incredible amount of practice that leads to facility on an instrument. A prospective musician, and I say prospective because it can be weeks before he makes music and months or years before he makes musical music, devotes an inordinate amount of time to learning the basics just so what he does can be called music. Music takes practice, preferably daily, to maintain one’s level of playing and more practice to improve. I knew that, but I still wasn’t practicing, and the Celtic music world was passing me by.
I played violin, mandolin and mandola in a Celtic group in the 1990s. We played at occasional festivals and were accomplished enough to be respected by many of our peers. When the band disbanded, I took a needed break from solo and band practices and the trips to gigs, years passed, and one day it occurred to me that I had become an outsider. I felt as if I were looking into one of those snow globes at a Celtic music scene that I had once inhabited and could not re-enter.

Margery Henke -- My favorite teacher

Published May 18, 2012
I was fortunate to have many good teachers over the years, influencing me in various ways, some bolstering my self-confidence, some my love of history, but my most influential teacher wasn’t a full-time teacher; she may not have had a teaching certificate. She was my first violin teacher.
Of course my most influential teachers of all, my parents, guided me to music. In fourth grade my mother suggested I begin violin lessons at Clearmount Elementary School in North Canton, but when I asked at school the program had begun and it was too late to join, so I enrolled in fifth grade.
The classes were held in the gymnasium/cafeteria — nowadays it would have a fancy combination name, but not so in the 1960s — with long tables that folded up into the walls, up for gym, down for lunch, and some were down for the violin class. I stood by one of the tables learning the names of the strings, barely able to hold the violin, and I clearly remember learning to hear the difference in pitch between strings, blowing into my pitch pipe to help in tuning, and my first song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I came to love string music that year, and to this day that love continues to deepen and intensify. My teacher was Margery Henke — she played viola in the Canton Symphony, was assistant director of the symphony and was director of the Canton Youth Symphony.

Changing my mandomotion

Published in The Alliance Review on Jan. 13, 2009
I’ve been playing guitar for 37 years and mandolin for 19, but I recently discovered a point of poor technique that I’ve unknowingly been practicing. I saw my problem while watching a DVD recorded in 2000 of my former band playing at a festival in Warren. On the opening medley of tunes, I played rhythm on octave mandolin and guitarist Mark played rhythm on guitar while Tom played a pair of Irish reels, “The Coalminer” and “The Silver Spear,” on whistle. Watching the video, I noticed that my strumming motion was limited to my wrist, whereas Mark strummed using his entire forearm. Looking further through the video, I found a tune where Tom played guitar, and he also strummed using his forearm. I next watched John Doyle on an Irish guitar teaching video and saw that John also strummed with the entire forearm, not the wrist.
I got out my octave mandolin and strummed it, and I played from the wrist just as in the video; I tried the guitar and did the same. My poor technique both surprised me and bothered me because in the early 1990s while first studying mandolin I had learned, at least in theory, that proper pick attack involves moving the pick perpendicular to the strings and that the wrist must move back and forth across the strings, not rotate, which causes the pick to make only partial contact. I knew that, but there I was doing the wrong thing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Looking back to "Paradise"

 Driving west on the Western Kentucky Parkway, we crossed the Green River into Muhlenberg County, and back I went in time to January 1976. I was a freshman in college, majoring in history but more interested in music, and one of my favorite artists was John Denver. I loved his message about cherishing nature, and I loved the acoustic instrumentation and country-folk influence in his songs.
I started listening to Denver in high school when my brother bought his greatest hits collection and “Back Home Again,” and I bought his double-record “An Evening With John Denver.” I started acquiring other albums, and that January I bought “Rocky Mountain High” at a record store in Oxford, where I attended Miami University.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ken Burns and the top hit of 1990

A musical lament in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”is the closest the traditional music world has had to a top 40 hit. Fiddler Jay Ungar’s mournful, Scottish-style “Ashokan Farewell” provided a moving backdrop to the 11-episode documentary released in 1990, and its popularity led to its publication as sheet music and its performance around the country for weddings and funerals. A wealth of traditional tune books are out there, more than you would imagine, but, until “Ashokan,” a single traditional tune in sheet music existed only on the list of mythological creatures alongside the ram with the golden fleece.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Creativity or mathematics?

My mother’s heart attack in 2004 helped me to compose a new tune, one inspired by the annoying beeping of a machine in her room. Suffering is said to lead to art, although in this case she did the suffering and I created the art, but was it creativity or simply following the rules of mathematics in music?
The heart attack nearly killed my mother, and she spent several weeks recuperating in Aultman Hospital’s Long-Term Acute Care unit, much of it on a ventilator that prevented her from speaking, beeping when it needed attending to. The ventilator launched into its little air when I was visiting my mother one evening after playing music in Canton. I had my mandolin with me and said, “I’m going to write a tune based on that melody,” so I got out my mandolin and found the notes.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Historical Reenactors

It's not easy to define the music I play; it's not a quick answer. I'm equal parts musician and historian, and I most enjoy presenting traditional British Isles music of the colonial period clad in 18th-century garb, followed closely by playing Civil War music sporting 19th-century vestments.
I discovered living history in the summer of 1975 while visiting Civil War sites and for many years have been acquiring reproductions of clothing worn in the mid-1700s and mid-1800s. I often feel more comfortable in that clothing than in 21st-c duds, and I heartily dislike the slovenly casual clothing I see everywhere I go. So I was fascinated to find this reenactors' blog: http://passionforthepast.blogspot.com/. Hope you enjoy it.
Keep checking here for my performances and my slow but steady progress on my recordings. I am working on my first solo recording, a mix of Celtic music of various time periods and of tunes I wrote in the 18-c Scottish style, and after that I will begin my colonial music album. I recently started a Rampant Mandolin Twitter feed to impart news.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Practicing the mandola

I've been playing mandola a lot this week. It is the alto member of the mandolin family, its standard tuning being CGDA. For years I have played the tuning equivalent to Andy Irvine's mandolin tuning of GDAD, on the mandola, CGDG. It allows me to enrich the melody with drones in the keys of G and D, and with the capo at the second fret I can play in A. I resurrected a medley of Irish tunes I played a lot in the 1990s and a medley of two hornpipes the Bog Carrot played, also in the 1990s. The mandola is just low enough and strong enough to serve well as an accompaniment instrument, more on arpeggios than strumming, and it's very good for harmonies.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Partial Capo

I composed a short Scottish-style reel on my Martin guitar using a three-string capo last week. I put the capo at the second fret covering the D,G and B strings, creating an open A tuning because the capo serves as the fingers that make an A chord. It's not the same as retuning the guitar because three strings are open and are difficult to play at the second fret and below with that capo in the way, but I learned fingering patterns that allowed me to play tunes in bagpipe style, and using that tuning I wrote the reel, which has yet to find a name for itself. I practiced that tune incessantly last night, for about 45 minutes, working to perfect the fingering. I can whip out my new tune on mandolin in seconds, but it's a challenge on a guitar with a partial capo, a challenge I enjoy. I know the tune so well that for me it has become part of the Scottish tradition, as firmly embedded in my mind as are tunes written long ago, and I'll probably include it on my recording.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Imprisoned by 16 strings

It was my own fault. Sixteen strings held me prisoner for two hours. The bastille of music kept me under lock and key.
Feeling fatigued late one evening last week, I nonetheless coerced myself into practicing music in the bedroom rather than putting up my feet and reading. It was 11 p.m., and I figured I would try to play but get nowhere, but I had been craving placing a pick on pairs of strings all day, so I made myself stick with it.
John, you may ask, why didn’t you just go to bed, get up early and practice in the morning? Good question, but it doesn’t work with me, because my body operates on MST — Musician Standard Time. I know people who, no matter how late they retire, whether it’s 9 p.m. or 1 a.m., pop awake at 4 or 5 a.m., and I do the same, in a manner of speaking.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fiddler to the Gordons

William Marshall didn’t write music for bunglers. One of the foremost composers of Scottish dance music, Marshall excelled at so many studies and athletic endeavors, one wonders when he slept.
William Marshall was born at Fochabers in December 1748 to a large family. He received six months’ education at the parish school, some instruction from his father, and lessons from the staff at Gordon Castle, where he served starting at age 12 under the house steward, eventually being appointed butler and house steward to the fourth Duke of Gordon. Besides composing Scottish dance music and playing violin, Marshall studied mechanics, astronomy, architecture, land surveying and clock-making and was a superb athlete and dancer, all while holding employment with the Gordon family.
Marshall expanded the definition of Scottish fiddle music by writing difficult tunes with wide compasses and in flat keys, which were not normal fiddle keys and are harder for the less experienced musician. Fiddle tunes were traditionally written in keys corresponding to the violin’s open strings: G, D and A, which make the violin ring with sympathetic vibrations and require simpler fingerings, not that any fingering on the violin is easy. Upon hearing a complaint about the difficulty of his tunes, he responded “all the tunes could be played, and that those performers must learn to play better, as he did not write music for bunglers.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Two Scottish jigs


I heard these Scottish jigs on the album "Traditional Music of Cape Breton Island" by Natalie MacMaster and Buddy MacMaster, and I found the transcriptions on the site folktunefinder.com. I transcribed them last night from transcriptions I printed from the site that were too small for comfort. I use a fine-point calligraphy pen for music transcription.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

DADEAE Tuning

Working Sunday evening: On my supper break I practiced chords on my Oscar Schmidt 12-string guitar in DADEAE tuning. I learned the tuning from the book "Traditional Irish Guitar" by Paul de Grae. It seems like an odd tuning at first, but de Grae recommends it as a good alternative to standard and DADGAD, allowing you to play in more than one key more readily than does an open tuning that is limited to one key. The advantage of having multiple guitars is being able to key one or more in alternate tunings. I explored this tuning after I bought the book in 1999, and with my recent study of advanced Celtic guitar accompaniment I have returned to it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Developing my Celtic guitar technique

I've been developing my Celtic guitar accompaniment technique recently. For years I strummed away on all six strings, but since playing guitar more avidly the last few months I've been listening to the guitar parts of tunes rather than the melody, and I'm hearing the intricate, varied accompaniments that involve so much more than just strumming all six. One of my inspirations is the playing of William Coulter on "Celtic Sessions" and "Celtic Crossings." This morning I learned to imitate his simple but hypnotic guitar intro on a set of reels from the "Sessions" CD.

Friday, March 7, 2014

I’ll see him some day on Fiddler’s Green

Published December 15, 2008 in The Alliance Review
When I met him, my friend Tom joked that he wanted his ashes to be entombed in his mandolin. He loved that mandolin and infected me with that love, and I wasn’t happy until I had bought one of my own. He was an amazingly multitalented man and one of my greatest influences. Now he’s crossed over to Fiddler’s Green, the sailor’s heaven, where his glass is always full and the music never ends.
The late Tom Perkins claimed in a letter written from New Mexico after his retirement that years of technical reports had beaten all expressiveness out of his writing, but his correspondence repeatedly disproved that claim. He illustrated points with such diverse subjects as psychology, philosophy, history, mythology and physics. He was a retired geologist and in one letter drew a cross-section of Rio Grande valley faulting to explain the region’s topography. Mainly, though, he wrote about music, encouraging my studies, sending tunes he had written and reporting on his music studies.
I met Tom in 1989 at a traditional music session at Quail Hollow State Park. I had attended the sessions for a year as a listener, reluctant to take my violin because everyone at the sessions played without music. But I took my violin that night, and when Tom, discussing Celtic music with a hammer dulcimer player, pulled out a page of music, I asked if I could join. On that page were three Welsh tunes Tom had transcribed from a record. We played that music and followed it with tunes written by an Irish harper named O’Carolan, Tom playing flute, the woman on hammer dulcimer and a man playing 12-string guitar.

Keep your hands to yourself

During a break between sets at the Yankee Peddler Festival many years ago a man stopped to talk about our instruments and the music, and I could tell he was itching to play. He asked if he could play my violin and acted offended when I said no. I don’t let strangers play my instruments, I explained, but unexpressed was my shock at the audacity of this total stranger wanting to touch my violin.
My stringed instruments are some of my most cherished possessions, and a total stranger asking to play one is like a stranger asking to hold your child. A special relationship builds between player and instrument over the years. My parents bought my violin 40-plus years ago; that instrument has traveled with me farther and to more places than most of my friends. Holding it and playing it are as natural as breathing. My mandolin was handmade in Virginia, and I picked it up at the builder’s home in the Blue Ridge when it was finished. Within three days, a mystical bond had formed between us, a connection that has been noticed by others. My mother said that when we play it’s like are working together.

The road to musical exploration

Actor Steve Martin released an album of banjo instrumentals and songs in 2009, and I can relate to the first song, “Daddy Played the Banjo.” It tells of a man who plays music but has no children and hopes other children will hear his banjo and find joy and inspiration in the music.
“Because the banjo has always been so present in my life, it’s hard for me to think of it as an underground instrument,” writes Martin in the liner notes. “Yet, even though thousands of people crowd bluegrass events all over the country, bluegrass seems mostly invisible in the world of music that is focused upon by the media. I remember in the 1980s, when young people were routinely and earnestly piercing their noses and eyebrows, stumbling upon an Irish fair and discovering 13- and 14-year-old girls competing with old-fashioned innocence in an Irish step-dancing contest, so far outside the darker world of the American teenager.”
I’ve known about Martin’s involvement with the banjo since the 1970s. He played banjo on his comedy LP “Let’s Get Small” that was released in 1977, and the flip side of his 1978 hit single “King Tut” contained banjo instrumentals. One of those, “Hoedown at Alice’s,” is on “The Crow.” An old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album includes a photo of Martin playing with NGDB member John McEuen, another banjo wizard and producer of “The Crow.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Learning to record

Published in The Alliance Review February 1, 2013
A new folder sits on my computer desktop. It contains four digital audio files of tunes I recorded in 2012, rough drafts serving mainly as forums for arranging. I will record each of them again to improve them and make them suitable for CD release, but they represent, on the desktop, the next step in learning the technical side of recording.
These four tunes are stored in my Tascam eight-track digital recorder in multi-track format, but I had to learn how to make a two-track master and transfer it to the laptop. So Thursday morning I played “Welcome Here Again,” set the volume levels and pans (the controls that place instruments to left or right in the stereo mix), and learned how to convert the multi-track mix to a two-track master, how to prepare the tune for export to the computer, and how to transfer it to the computer.

The truth behind expensive violin strings

I wrote this a few years ago, so the prices are outdated.
Violin strings are breathtakingly expensive, and the prices continue to rise. I use a brand called Dominant, made by Thomastik-Infeld of Vienna. Dominants have the rich, clear sound of gut strings but are more stable, not needing constant tuning as temperature and humidity change. Three of the strings are made from metal wound around multistrand nylon cores, and the fourth, the E, is either a plain metal wire or metal wrapped around metal. When I began buying Dominants in the early 1990s, they listed about $20 for a set of four. Now list is around $80, and I buy them for $50, which will soon increase.
Compare this to mandolin strings. I pay about $4.50 for a set of eight mandolin strings, which are phosphor-bronze wound around a wire core, so that’s less than 60 cents per string, compared to an average of $12.50 per violin string. (An average gives a false price for individual strings because heavier strings cost more than lighter strings, but it will serve for this comparison.) Cheaper violin strings are available, but get too cheap and you have poor tone; lower-priced sets of good quality range around $22 to $30 or so — less than that and you should just buy baling wire. String tone deteriorates with playing, caused by a combination of friction, skin oil, humidity and tuning. If you play daily, you’ll get a few weeks from a set, and if you play several hours a day, they’ll die more quickly. Expensive strings may sound better, but they don’t last any longer than cheap strings and must be replaced just as often to retain optimum tone.

Showcasing traditional Irish music

Rarely is traditional Celtic music heard in movies. When it is, it usually serves as background music — albeit excellent background music that enhances the mood, as in “Rob Roy” starring Liam Neeson and “The Last of the Mohicans” starring Daniel Day-Lewis — so a movie about traditional Irish music is a true delight.
“The Boys & Girl From County Clare,” a comedy/drama set in the late 1960s, takes place at the national Irish traditional music competition at the height of the Beatles’ success. It follows the attempts of two ceili (pronounced “kay-lee”) bands to win the ceili band competition, showing each band at home at the beginning of the film practicing for the contest. (A ceili band combines traditional fiddle and flute playing with modern adornments, such as drums and bass.) I don’t remember if the movie used the name of the competition, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (Festival of Music in Ireland), but it’s clear that that’s where it takes place.

I just look Irish

A man asked me once if I am Irish. I was playing at a Christmas open house in a casual setting, where people could walk up and talk to us or sing along. I wore my standard winter hat, my Scottish-style tam, and a tartan scarf, because we played in an unheated building. I guess the man didn’t know the tam was Scottish because he told me he saw guys that looked just like me in Ireland. Most of my ancestors hail from the British Isles, so it’s possible.
I wasn’t dressing to create an image; rather I wore a Scottish style cap and tartan scarf for the same reason I play Celtic music, because I feel a connection to the Celtic culture that is part of my heritage. It’s an introspective reason, not an exhibition intended to evoke an image.

Far from the Shamrock Shore

Standing behind the mike with my fiddle in hand, I’ve watched singer John Ferguson with charm and wit entertain an audience, bursting with Irish pride, whether raising a pint while toasting Irish independence before singing “A Nation Once Again” or walking among the audience, microphone in hand, singing and shaking hands with listeners, many his friends from years playing the Akron Irish scene and haunting the Hibernian Club, an enclave of Irish-Catholic culture.
Ferguson’s band, Fergie and the Bog Dogs, based in Akron, connects with the audience through humor, sentiments of home and hearth, rebellion against English rule, a bit o’ blarney, and that enduring love of homeland that thrives in the hearts of grandchildren of Irish immigrants who have never themselves seen Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore.

B, his family and I

I met B at the Stumptown Steam Festival near Cadiz in the early 1970s. My family went there to see the steam show, but I was sidetracked by the fiddle contest. Old fiddlers played tunes in a circle before the contest, and B was with them. I had seen him on television and heard him on the radio, but there he was in person, at the fiddle contest. He had a southern mountain twang with a hint of black dialect in his voice. His parents and grandparents were descended from the Scottish and Irish settlers of the southern Appalachians and from the banjo-playing slaves of the Tidewater plantations. I was fascinated by the music and asked one fiddler how to learn those tunes. His reply — “Get some records and learn from them” — didn’t help me much though.
I next saw B at the Algonquin Mill Festival in October 1973. The festival was much smaller 30 years ago, and the fiddle contest was held on a stage behind the mill. The winner wowed everyone with “Orange Blossom Special,' and again I was mesmerized by the music. I had played only orchestral violin until then, but fiddling called to me. It was in my soul, even before I fiddled.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The continuing skirmish between old and new

A frequent question I receive when playing goes along the lines of “How old is your violin?” You can also substitute guitar or mandolin for violin in that query. I also get asked if I made my mountain dulcimer, but that’s another subject. People ask the first question because a myth exists that older always means better when it comes to string instruments, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Some older instruments are quite good, but new luthiers are building superb models these days, and a Taylor Guitars catalog calls this the golden era of guitar making.
Two lines of instruments are highly sought by collectors and players: Martin guitars from the 1930s and early 1940s and Gibson mandolins from the early 1900s, especially those made by Gibson builder Lloyd Loar. I haven’t played or heard those instruments in person, and I’m not doubting their quality — I heard a couple old Martins on a CD last year, and they were gorgeous — I’m just saying that old doesn’t automatically mean good. Quality sound is a result of workmanship, wood, good strings, a good player and time, the last because wooden instruments improve in sound as an instrument is played. I’ve seen that first-hand: if I neglect an instrument, its sound locks up and it requires many hours of playing to loosen up the sound again. When that happens, the sound hole sings to me with a delightful sonority, a resonant, ringing tone that swells and fills the room before fading into the ether.

A great musical loss

I play guitar — acoustic, not electric — I love guitar, and some of my favorite recordings are heavy on acoustic guitar. I love a rich blend of strings, an acoustic playing rhythm while a second plays melody, maybe both playing a mix of melody, harmony and rhythm. But I find the guitar’s domination of popular music of the last few decades to be monotonous at times, so I was interested to find a similar indictment of this trend in the book “Guitar — An American Life” by Tim Brookes, published in 2005 by Grove Press, New York.
Brookes, a semi-professional guitarist, upon ordering a new guitar custom-built by a Vermont luthier, began an investigation of the guitar’s history, combining that history in “Guitar” with a detailed explanation of the construction of his guitar. Brookes explains the guitar’s origins and the musicians and historical events that led to its dominance. A good example: a Confederate sailing ship attacked a whaling ship in the Pacific during the Civil War, some of the wrecked crew members were Portuguese guitar players who ended up in Hawaii, their playing led to the development of Hawaiian slack-key playing, which enjoyed popularity in the early 1900s akin to rock, and that style of playing helped to fix the guitar as the dominant instrument in the United States, these days outselling all other instruments combined. In other words, a random Civil War attack led to the guitar’s dominance of American culture and music.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The mobile miniature music emporium and traveling zoo

I carry a small zoo around in my mandolin case — alligators, tortoises and a gorilla live in perfect harmony in the case’s small compartment.
My case abounds with stories hidden inside the myriad accessories that are packed into every available space, and the mandolin itself has a story to tell, about how I custom-ordered it from a builder who lives along the Blue Ridge in Virginia, our trip to pick up the mandolin, and our visit with the builder’s family.
In the case I keep a postcard picturing the Peaks of Otter, twin mountains that overlook the builder’s house. A steep road up the peaks leads to a resort at the top, where the temperature is noticeably cooler. Beneath the postcard is a copy of a photo of my great-grandfather John McClintick and a small mandolin group with which he played in the early 1900s when mandolin groups were all the rage, playing popular and classical music, as common then as rock bands are now.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Don’t request “Orange Blossom Special”

Sometimes I have a great deal of trouble explaining the kind of music I play. Many people, some of them my own relatives, think I play bluegrass. I play violin, also known as fiddle; mandolin; mountain dulcimer; and guitar. All but the dulcimer are stalwarts of bluegrass music, but bluegrass is worlds apart in style from Scottish and Irish fiddling. I even sniff haughtily at people who think I play Appalachian fiddle, often called “old-time” music, a term with which I take umbrage for its vagueness, being understood by the people who play the music but for a word nitpicker like me being too broad and undefining.
I never tell people I play “folk music.” That’s another word that is too broad and vague, and it conjures images of folksingers and hootenannies. It’s easier to tell an outsider what I don’t play, but those who play the music I play easily understand it.

Casual but not lawless

Traditional music is casual music. I love to drink a pint of ale and wear jeans while playing Irish tunes — it’s much better than being stuffed into a tuxedo on a stage, where drinking would be frowned on. But the music’s casual approach can give a false impression that it lacks rules. Outsiders sometimes misinterpret the music’s relaxed informality and approach me while I’m on stage and talk to me when I’m playing.
Musicians new to traditional music should also understand that the music is not a free-for-all. Like any social gathering, the music has rules, and like any social group, learning the etiquette is part of learning the music. These rules for Celtic music sessions can help everyone.
First, acquaint yourself with the session’s basics:
The style of music. It irritates Celtic musicians to no end when someone plays bluegrass music at a Celtic session or tries to graft rock guitar onto traditional tunes, which have their own rhythm and chordal structure, and Celtic music itself is divided into separate styles. A teacher at a Scottish session once reprimanded a fiddler who played an Irish tune.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Encouraging respect for the banjo

It’s hard to imagine top 40 radio playing songs featuring banjo and fiddle music in these days of electronic wall-of-sound overload, but it happened when I was young, and two movies made major hits of bluegrass banjo pieces. “Bonnie and Clyde” brought Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to the airwaves, and “Deliverance” spawned the wildly popular “Dueling Banjos,” which was one of the best and one of the worst things to happen to the banjo.
It was good because the movie put bluegrass banjo on the radio, and people who would otherwise never go near a banjo recording listened to the irresistible duet between banjo and guitar. Sheet music was issued, and an album of bluegrass instrumental numbers called “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” was repackaged with “Dueling Banjos” added to boost sales. It certainly influenced me; I bought the sheet music and learned to play both parts on guitar, and with money from my first job I bought a beginner’s banjo.

Extreme keys and the stringed stratosphere

Published in The Alliance Review November 6, 2006
Stringed instruments have a way of putting me in my place, and violins are the worst.
I’m playing violin in the Carnation City Players’ production of “Once Upon A Mattress” this month. Theater music is always daunting. I join a pianist and company of actors and technicians who have been practicing the show for weeks, and I scramble to learn, in a week, the music and where my part fits into the scenes while working during the day and trying to have enough home life to feel rested.
These difficulties are compounded by the style of the music. Most of the year I play traditional Celtic and early American music, which rarely visit the places on the violin encountered in theater music. Theater music differs mainly in its range and its keys. Theater music uses keys I never encounter in folk music, such as G flat, which has six flats. The violin is tuned, from low to high, G-D-A-E, and the keys favored by the average violinist are those that have zero to three flats or sharps. Any more than that, and fingering in the extreme keys becomes quite challenging, “extreme” being listed in my 1947 book of musical terms, predating by more than a half century the sporting events that feature people too dumb to know when something is perilous. The key of G flat is a half step below G, which violinists absolutely love. That’s also one of the best keys for Celtic music because it employs open ringing strings, creating bagpipe-style drones. Because vocalists can sing just as easily in G flat or G, I often wonder why composers of musicals torture us string players with G flat. Put it in G! Can a half step make that much difference to a talented singer?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Give me my acoustic

When it comes to string instruments, I’m an acoustic player through and through. I toyed with the occasional electric guitar in my youth, but I learned to play on acoustic instruments, and that is what I prefer. I can walk right past the electric guitars, mandolins and violins in a store or flip quickly past them in a catalog, but I can’t pass by an acoustic instrument without at least checking the brand.
To me, an electric instrument is just a chunk of wood adorned with strings and deriving its sound from the electric pickups, whereas an acoustic instrument creates melody through the interplay of strings and a precisely fashioned wooden box full of air. I know many electric players will disagree with me, but that’s how I view an electric instrument. So imagine my dismay when I was hired to play out of town for a gig that quickly went sour.
I took the train to the gig, and I stepped from the train onto the platform carrying my guitar and mandolin, my knapsack slung over my shoulder. My employer’s driver picked me up and drove me to a tavern, where I met the owner, Rick Alan. I showed him a few licks on my mandolin and guitar, but he reached behind the bar and handed me a flame-blue electric guitar. “Here, try this, he said.”
“An electric guitar?” I asked. “What for?”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Fender you hold in your hand

You can hide a guitar pick between finger and thumb, and many consider it so inconsequential they think nothing of leaving it lie, forgotten, where they last used it. But it commands considerable importance in playing fretted instruments, being a major determinant in the sound the player produces. For years I’ve enjoyed experimenting with types of picks, but after more than two decades of using almost everything except the old classic I’ve begun using the same type of pick I used in my early guitar playing years.
That pick is the Fender 351, and it will always pull me back to 1972, those halcyon days when I was learning guitar, when all guitar players, it seems, used the small reddish triangular pick with the rounded corners, the cursive Fender logo embossed on one side. A mere 0.71 mm thick, it is made of celluloid, the first plastic.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Judging a guitar by its cover

All motorcycles look alike to me. Same goes for pickup trucks. It’s because I see the broad outlines of the vehicles but not the many details that distinguish one from another. Until recently that was somewhat true for me concerning guitars, despite having played for four decades. I could easily spot a classical guitar, a steel-string guitar or an electric, but further than that I paid little mind to the details during two decades of obsessing over all things mandolin.
I said “until recently” because last year I delved deeply into the arcana of acoustic guitars, learning details such as the number of frets clear of the body, scale length, types of wood, and much more after years of fumbling about in the half-light of partial knowledge, not needing to know more than what it took to play. I owned a Sigma dreadnought guitar for years but mostly played mandolins, mountain dulcimer and violin, and although I liked to play guitar I paid little attention to the fine points of construction. I began my quest when I picked up Taylor Guitars’ annual guitar guide, featured in the winter 2013 issue of the company’s magazine, “Wood & Steel.”

Austria’s lustig landler

Every style of music has its signature tune, the one song or tune known by people who don’t know anything else about that music. Irish music has “Danny Boy” (not even Irish), Scottish, “Amazing Grace” (not Scottish at all) and bluegrass “Orange Blossom Special.” People who dont know the difference between Celtic and bluegrass fiddling will ask me to play “Orange Blossom Special,” so I’m especially sensitive to musical stereotyping, and when I asked a German trio at Epcot Center once to play a landler, I like to think they were gratified I didn’t request “Beer Barrel Polka.”
The landler is my favorite type of alpine tune, an Austrian folk dance in 3/4 time originally called the Landl ob der Enns. The name comes from the German “land,” meaning country, signifying a dance from the countryside as opposed to court or city dances, the countryside in this case being the states of Upper Austria (Oberosterreich) and Styria (Steiermark). Enns is a city in Oberosterreich near the confluence of the Enns and Danube rivers. The name was shortened to landler sometime around 1690, and the dance, gaining popularity around 1720, entailed close body contact between men and women, a stark contrast to circle dances and the formal minuet, a court dance reserved for the wealthy who had time to practice its complex steps. Knowing the nature of rustic dances, I suspect the landler, which included turning, gliding, hopping and stomping in hobnail boots, was an energetic, lustig amusement, a celebration of rural life.

The love of the mandolin

I started playing Celtic music in late 1989 and mandolin in early 1990 after meeting a gaggle of traditional music lovers at Quail Hollow State Park’s music sessions. I had played violin since fifth grade and guitar since ninth, so adding mandolin, its tuning the same as the violin and its way of playing like the guitar, was a natural choice.
I don’t know when I first heard the mandolin — growing up listening to traditional music it was probably always in my life. But I knew I wanted to play it when, one day before orchestra rehearsal in high school, I figured out how to play “Dueling Banjos” by plucking with my thumb. In college, I found Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti on scratchy records at the North Canton Library, recorded them and listened to them for years. Now I have them, and many other classical mandolin pieces, on CD.
After I began attending Quail Hollow sessions my friend Tom introduced me to the Celtic mandolin family. He played a beautiful Celtic-style mandolin, and at a music party that first fall he played a bigger mandolin that he called a bouzouki. I was mesmerized. The bouzouki was almost as big as a guitar and had a range similar to the guitar, its tuning an octave below the mandolin, G-D-A-E (Helmholtz notation G-d-a-e´) from low to high. Its tone was similar to the guitar but a bit sharper, possessing the mandolin’s tart lemon-like tone. Tom played music by the Irish harper Turlough OCarolan, which is very Baroque in flavor and perfect for the instrument.

Monday, February 17, 2014

My four-string Polynesian friend

“My Dog Has Fleas” is a little ditty used to tune a ukulele that even non-players know. It’s one of those infectious bits of music that sticks in your head and won’t leave. I used it for years to tune my mother’s ukulele, and I still hear my younger brother’s voice as he walked about the house adding his own (to the best of my knowledge) lines to the tune: “My dog has fleas, my cat has fleas, my dad has dandruff.”
My Uncle Ray bought that ukulele in Hawaii while living there for two years. He worked for Lockheed in Marietta, Ga., and lived for long stretches in places as far afield as California and Portugal, and I was insanely jealous when we received a Christmas card in the depths of winter showing Uncle, Aunt, and their three children wearing bright short-sleeve Hawaiian shirts. The other man’s grass is always greener, of course — Aunt told me years later that they hardly occupied their house until Uncle’s retirement after nine years in Portugal.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Exploring the origins of the Appalachian dulcimer



Among the possessions Grandpap Brandt left behind after he died in 1972 was an unfinished Appalachian dulcimer. He built a long fingerboard that would have run the length of the instrument, its head a delightful carved violin-style scroll and its base consisting of a strum hollow where the pick would pass over the strings. The scroll has three peg holes but only one peg, and the underside of the flat fingerboard is hollowed out. The curved sides, now gone, were mounted on a board and held in place by sets of nails, and several small pieces of wood would probably constitute interior parts.
I asked a mountain dulcimer builder long ago if he could finish Grandpap’s dulcimer, but he said it would take more time than to start from scratch, so I discarded the curved sides but kept the fingerboard and the small pieces. For now I display the fingerboard in my music room, but it calls to me — it may be unfinished, but those pieces of wood beg to release the mountain music that is the instrument’s heritage.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pondering life with Fagin

Published in The Alliance Review May 4, 2012
Tonight I’ll play violin in “Oliver!,” one of my favorite musicals, my affection for it dating back to 1977 when Hoover High School performed the show and my younger brother and two friends were on the stage crew. That production let me glimpse the inner workings of theater as cast and crew produced magic, and I entered that world of magic in 1999 when I joined Louisville Community Theater as a musician for “Cotton Patch Gospel” and in 2000 when I joined Carnation City Players as a pit musician for “The Wizard of Oz.” Over the years I’ve played violin, mandolin, guitar and even ukulele at CCP, and tonight I return after a three-year absence to accompany Fagin as he ponders his future and Nancy as she declares her love for that most despicable of thieves.
Lionel Bart based the musical “Oliver!” on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” a portrayal of the dregs of London taken from real life. A biography by May Lamberton Becker says Dickens “taught himself shorthand and became the best reporter in all England. ... He had seen Oliver Twist’s London as a young reporter on police-escorted rounds of slums, thieves’ kitchens and night-shelters; he had visited it when he took poorhouses unawares and went through at mealtimes without giving notice, or when he had watched unseen, through the little window of the condemned cell at Newgate, the drawn, desperate features of some doomed wretch within.”

Chock Full of Blues

Reproductions of album covers, many from the 1960s and ’70s, adorn a curving wall in the guitar- shaped lobby of C.F. Martin & Co. A few of the album covers are larger than life, and one, “Eric Clapton Unplugged,” shows Clapton playing a Martin during his MTV “Unplugged” concert, a show that helped bring Martin out of a severe slump.
The 1980s were rough years for makers of acoustic guitars. Electronics dominated popular music, with electronic keyboards a standard component of most bar bands, and if anyone played guitar, it was usually electric. Acoustics survived in pockets, such as the microcosms of Celtic music and bluegrass, but they struggled for survival in the mass media world. Martin experienced its worst annual sales in 40 years in 1982, from 20,000 guitars in 1974 to 3,000 in 1982.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Donning my music overalls

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas Edison
I recorded the guitar part first, using my new Taylor jumbo 12-string. I played once through on the melody of an Irish jig, then switched to rhythm, playing chords four times through. (Traditional dance tunes are short.) The third time on chords I used a bass run I had devised a few days earlier, a catchy hook that haunted my brain until bedtime the day I created it. After recording the guitar part I moved to mandolin for the main melody, but when I started the recorder I looked down and saw the strings were tarnished. Well, so much for a finished track today, I thought. I can’t release a tune with sound dampened by old strings, but I recorded it anyway just to see how the parts fit together.
When I played it back, I noticed that I was picking too hard on the mandolin. I spent years developing a light touch, and I dislike hearing a hard attack in my playing, so overpicking further made the track a bust. Next, I noticed that my catchy bass run clashed with part of the melody, and the guitar part was short of my standard of perfection.

Tracing my music roots

I’m curious if I can trace my love of Scottish and Irish music through a specific ancestor back to the homeland. As long as I’ve played violin, long before I knew that traditional Scottish fiddling existed, I felt an intense call to play Scottish music. That longing may have originated in my ancestry.
Robert Crum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in “The Story of English,” published in 1986 and based on the PBS television series, wrote about the cultural impact of the planting of settlers in northern Ireland. The English, always trying to quash, oust and otherwise defeat the rebellious Celts who had the gall to want to rule their own lands and have freedom to worship as they chose, enacted a series of measures intended to break the rule of the Celtic chiefs in Ulster, the northern kingdom of Ireland. (I added that bit of editorializing.) King James confiscated the lands of the Lords of Tyrone and Tyrconnel, say the messieurs, and granted the territory in the north to English and Scottish planters, the bulk of the new tenants coming from Scotland. About 200,000 Lowland Scots — those who lived in the south of Scotland — went to Ulster, mainly to northeast Ireland, in the first decades of the 17th century, and 2 million of their descendants migrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries and the early part of the 20th century. My McClintick ancestors may have been among those Scots-Irish immigrants.

My Mountain Dulcimer Parents

We live near a linguistic border that divides Ohio into North Midland and Appalachian Midland dialects. Connecticut settlers populated northeast Ohio’s Western Reserve in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the southern border of the Western Reserve running east to west near what is now U.S. Route 224. I can go a few miles south or southeast of my home near Canton and hear a marked twang in residents’ speech. Descendants of German immigrants and settlers from Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania populated the region, and my Columbiana County cousins speak with that twang. Traditional music mirrors that division in a Midwest sound that incorporates Celtic and Appalachian music, and my favorite recording of that style and one of my biggest musical influences is “Pigtown Fling.”
I found “Pigtown Fling” on vinyl at the North Canton Public Library in 1982 or so, about the same time I bought my first mountain dulcimer. I recorded the album to cassette, and it became my constant traveling companion, its mix of Irish and Appalachian tunes accompanying me as I explored Ohio’s canals and Indian sites. The record features two dulcimer players, Jay Leibovitz and Leo Kretzner, the latter the biggest influence on my mountain dulcimer playing. The two spent a lot of time at Boulder Junction, a folk music store north of Uniontown, in the 1970s, and they mention on the album jacket learning tunes at the jam sessions held on Thursdays at the store. When the store closed, the sessions moved to Quail Hollow State Park and are still held there.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Farewell, Bob McQuillen

New England musician Bob McQuillen died Tuesday after suffering a stroke on Sunday. The Peterborough, N.H., piano and accordion player was 90, and his death followed on the heels of another, better known, musical nonagenarian, Pete Seeger. He played for square and contra dances, but for many traditional musicians he will live in the music he wrote for dances — about 1,000 tunes, published in diminutive books that handily fit in instrument cases.
I came to know his music in 1993 when Tom and Carole Norulak of the Pittsburgh area asked me and my friend Dennis to record an album of instrumental dance tunes. Tom played accordion, Carole hammer dulcimer, and Dennis bass on all tracks and guitar on a waltz. I played rhythm guitar on all tracks but the waltz, and on two medleys I overdubbed mandolin and violin. One medley started with the McQuillen tune “Deer Run North,” a charming hornpipe made more enchanting by the mandolin, which brings a citrus-style tang to string music.