Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Learning Irish Fiddle With Dale Russ

I can play Irish fiddle ornaments effortlessly, naturally, it seems, but it wasn't so in the beginning. I had lots of help from Dale Russ.
Ornaments, the extra little grace notes, help to create Irish fiddle's charm and distinctive style. An example is a quick note above the main note,  then returning to the main note. In classical music the violinist clearly delineates all three notes, but Irish fiddle ornaments, called a cut in this case, are more rhythmic than sounded. The ornamenting finger brushes across the string rather than playing it firmly.
I love those little touches, and I learned them by studying Dale Russ's "Basic Irish Fiddle" on videotape when I began playing Celtic music in 1990. I studied his finger movement in slow motion and practiced those ornaments slowly to develop the necessary coordination. In concert with this study I listened to tapes of Irish fiddling to understand the placement of ornaments within the main note. It's a series of notes that can't be precisely notated, and depends on the player's understanding of the music.
If I had grown up in a Celtic fiddle tradition I would have had that sound in my head from youth, but I did not so I had to embed the style in my brain. I was playing in a community orchestra when I found Celtic music, and after a year those ornaments began inadvertently entering my classical playing. Knowing which way the wind was blowing -- a decidedly Gaelic gale, it was -- I left the orchestra and committed myself to the traditional music I had long sought.
Dale's tape was sold through Lark in the Morning, and my friend Tom had loaned it to me. Dale now offers online lessons through Peghead Nation at  https://pegheadnation.com/string-school/courses/irish-fiddle/. I recommend his clear teaching and playing style for the person wanting to learn Irish fiddle.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

My Second Mandolin

Tom Perkins started coming to our house in July 1990 to play Celtic tunes and educate me on stylistic points. He helped me with mandolin embellishments and loaned me a video on Irish fiddle. He had recently formed a Celtic trio, and I suspected he may have been working toward adding me to the group.
At one of our sessions he mentioned that he owned a mandola he would be willing to sell, and I knew sight-unseen I wanted it. I asked why he wanted to part with it, and he said, "I can capo the bouzouki at the fifth fret if I want to play in mandola range." I was still puzzled why he would give up an instrument in the mandolin family because I was feeling drawn to those instruments, but he did not have the calling that I possess. Thus did I learn about a third member of the mandolin family.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Mountain Dulcimer Beginnings

This is a mountain dulcimer made at Boulder Junction in 1975.
At the same time I was obsessively studying the mandolin, I was doing the same with the mountain dulcimer. My interest arose from a vinyl record, a TV show, and a historical festival.
I first saw people play the Appalachian dulcimer in person in the summer of 1974 at the Buckskin Jamboree in Carroll County (Ohio). I say “in person” because I first saw the dulcimer on an episode of “The Waltons”, “The Love Story”, which aired in the first season, on Jan. 18, 1973, and showed John-Boy playing and singing for a girl he liked. Richard Thomas did a decent job of playing but was no singer. I next saw people playing dulcimer in the early 1980s at Malabar Farm State Park near Mansfield, and I finally bought my first instrument at the Mountain Arts Festival in Ripley, West Virginia, in 1982. It was a simple instrument costing only $60, with straight sides and no soundholes, but it sounded good. The festival has since moved to Jefferson County, near Harpers Ferry.

Friday, February 22, 2019

My First Mandolin

I bought my first mandolin in March 1990 at Ross Music in Akron, Ohio,  which sold a host of acoustic instruments, accessories, and music books. I bought some of my first traditional music books there, including "The Fiddler's Fakebook", which was popular with musicians of my ilk.
This is my first mandolin, now owned by my nephew Brian.
To digress, while browsing a vendor's goods at the Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival in April, I overheard a lady ask if a certain tune was in that book, and I said I thought it was and quickly turned to it because tunes are listed alphabetically by title. She was amazed, thinking I had the book memorized, but I was honest and told her about the book's abecedarian system.
But back to my mandolin. It wasn't the first mandolin I had played -- I borrowed my Aunt Mickey's mandolin a couple years earlier and enjoyed playing it, eventually returning it. I bought the cheap beginner model at Ross because it was all I could afford, and this was a case of getting what you pay for. It had thin sound and high action, but it was a mandolin and served as a learning tool while I saved for a Jones instrument, and Thom Humphrey, the store owner, lowered the action for me.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Music at Quaker Square

Today I practiced “Simple Gifts” on mandolin, preparing to play at church this coming Sunday. That old Shaker hymn, composed in the mid-1800s, has made the rounds and was familiar to many people who don’t otherwise know the music we played. Composer Aaron Copland, for one, used it in “Appalachian Spring”. It is one of the tunes that encouraged me to take my violin to Quail Hollow that night in November after hearing Annette play it on hammer dulcimer. It was a standard in the Tightly Wound String Band repertoire.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Octave Mandolin Tuning

The octave mandolin, as you would think, is tuned an octave below the mandolin, GDAE, in Helmholtz notation, Gdae'. It shares the scale and apreggio layout and symmetry with the mandolin,  the frets are farther apart, requiring different fingerings. Where the scale starting on the open string on mandolin is fingered open, 1, 2, and 3,  on the OM it is fingered open, 1,3, and 4. The next string on the mandolin can be played with the 4th finger, i.e. D on the G string, A on the D string, and E on the A string, but that is not possible on OM. The B on the E string can be played with the fourth finger on the mandolin but requires shifting to a higher position on OM, and the finger I use is determined by the course of the melody. If going higher, I may play it with the first or second finger, but if it is just a brief foray to the B I will jump up and back with the third or fourth finger.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The First Music With Tom Perkins

My journal from November and December 1989 reveals how quickly and instantly I jumped into traditional music. Ten days passed from that first session to the party at Joanne's house, but activities after that happened almost daily for a couple weeks.
I attended my second Quail Hollow jam on Thursday, Nov. 16, and Annette asked me to play with the Tightly Wound String Band in Tallmadge that Sunday. The idea of performing in public with their band was exciting, and then she told me I would be paid too. I would have played for free at that stage.
The band comprised Annette, Joanne, Dennis, and Becky, but Becky was busy with a school function, thus my invitation. We played for a Longaberger Basket sales event in the Tallmadge town hall, a 19th-century Western Reserve building in the middle of the circle. The holiday season was approaching, and I enjoyed hot mulled cider during a break from performing.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Musical Inheritance?

Brit is holding the guitar in this group.

Is musical ability inherited? My maternal grandmother, Edna McClintick Brandt, played piano, and her father, John B. "Brit" McClintick, played fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar.
He is holding the banjo. I love this picture: hamming it up with strings and stogies.
My mother said several times after I started playing violin that she wanted Grandpap McClintick to hear me play, and I often took my violin to my grandparents' house and inflicted my playing upon the relatives, but I never played for Grandpap. He died when I was in tenth grade, so I could have discussed music with him, but I simply didn't know he played when he was young or didn't pay attention when my mother told me. The latter is a strong possibility because my mind can wander when people talk; I learn better by reading than by listening. I get caught up in an idea and drift off into another realm.
That is Brit at upper left holding the Gibson guitar.

I wish now I could talk to him. He played in a mandolin group and other small ensembles, and I would love to know what they played, how he learned, and where he got his instruments, for starters. I can identify his Gibson guitar and Gibson mandolin, but I know nothing else. My Aunt Mickey said she has his instruments, some at least, in her basement, but they are lost amid the accumulation of four generations' possessions.
Maybe I will see him some day, and we will trade tunes and swap stories.

Standard Mandolin Tuning

The mandolin, in standard tuning, is tuned like the violin: GDAE, or, in Helmholtz notation, gd'a'e''. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmholtz_pitch_notation for an explanation of Helmholtz nomenclature.) I use alternate tunings, but I will address that later.
One thing I like about this tuning is its symmetry. A scale can be played in two halves, with each half using the same fingering. This is clearest playing a scale starting on an open string. The lower half of the G scale on the mandolin is fretted 0-2-4-5 on the G string, and the upper half uses the same frets on the D string. Fingering is open-1-2-3 on each string. The higher G scale is fretted 5 on the D and 0-2-3, then 5 on the A and 0-2-3 on the E. Fingering is 3-0-1-2 and 3-0-1-2.
Another aspect of this tuning is the ability to change keys by moving the fingers over a string or strings. Move that lower G scale over a string and you have a D scale. You can play the lower half of the higher-octave D scale as you would play the lower half of the upper G scale, but you must move up the fingerboard to third position to complete the scale, and I won't address positions yet. Move that same fingering over one more pair of strings and you have an A scale.
This holds true for scales starting on other frets, which I won't explain right now. It also holds true for arpeggios, or arpeggi. A G arpeggio is played 0-4 on the G string and 0-5 on the D. A D arpeggio is played 0-4 on the D and 0-5 on the A. Move that over one more set of strings for an A arpeggio.
Compare this to the guitar, where the fingering changes on every string, and you can see that this is one reason why melody works well on mandolin. Celtic tunes work well on mandolin also because the strings allow open strings to be played as drones along with the melody.

(When I use the singular "string" I refer to a pair of strings, otherwise called a "course".)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Meeting the Bouzouki

My James Jones octave mandolin and mandolin.
I started the day of Sunday, Nov. 12, helping to take down a parachute and ended it hanging out with friends, but the high point of the day was the music party at Joanne's house. Besides playing music, I encountered another type of Celtic mandolin, a bouzouki.
The parachute was part of the decorations for a World War II-theme fundraiser held by the Canal Fulton Heritage Society. We held the fundraiser Saturday evening at the Catholic social hall, and I returned Sunday to help undecorate.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The First Meeting

Tom Perkins and his James Jones mandolin in the early 1990s.
I was sick the night I first played in a traditional music session. I had a cold, and when I get a cold I sign up for the first class edition, featuring all the best in fever and fatigue, rendering me incapable of functioning in any meaningful way. My dad suffered in similar fashion. It wasn't quite that bad that night, but I told my friend Brian when he arrived to pick me up for the session that I wasn't going.
"You're going!" he snapped. "Get in the car." So I went.
I had attended the traditional sessions at Quail Hollow State Park near Hartville for a year, from 1988 to 1989, always watching and listening, never playing, because I did not know the music, and those folks used no printed music. But that fall, in October, they played a few familiar tunes, and I thought, "I can play that," so I took my violin to that third session of the season, on Nov. 2.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Celtic Mandolin: Introduction

I first saw a Celtic mandolin at my initial traditional music session, in November 1989 at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio, where a musician named Tom played a James Jones mandolin. That night, at age 32, I started playing Celtic and Appalachian music, and I passed through a door, from an aimless life into another, one holding purpose, passion, and hope for the future. I met my wife that night, I joined the band she played in a few weeks later and the band Tom formed the following year, and Celtic music transformed my life. Since then it has defined my being.
Nine days later, at a private music party held by a lady named Joanne, who plays hammer dulcimer, among other instruments, Tom brought another Jones instrument, which he called a bouzouki. I had never seen such an instrument, and I was enchanted and intrigued. Thus began my love with the mandolin, specifically the Celtic style, and the Celtic mandolin clan. That family of Celtic stringed instruments even more closely defines my essence as a musician.
My interest further ascended the mandolin ladder the following summer when Tom told me he had a mandola he would sell, and I knew I wanted it even before seeing it. At the same time I was saving money for a Jones mandolin while playing an el cheapo generic instrument, and soon after buying the mandola my vision crystallized into the Celtic mandolin family consort. I bought my James Jones mandolin in April 1991, and it and the mandola accompanied me, and still do, on many a performing junket. It took many years to acquire a complete set of Celtic mandolins, but I have done so, and with it and digital technology I can create the sound that formed in my head so long ago.
In this category of my blog I will introduce each member of the Celtic mandolin family and explain origins, tunings, the role of each instrument in an ensemble, and players and builders. I will also include music suitable for each instrument and tuning, and I will provide links to my YouTube channel showing me playing each instrument. The Rampant Mandolin in its name indicates my mission to make the Celtic mandolin a strong solo instrument, taking no back seat to the more traditional dominant instruments.