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 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


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.