Rhythm Problems

What’s a “rhythm problem”? It’s the struggle some have with keeping the beat while doing all the other things that fiddle playing demands. The frustration shows up clearly when trying to play with others or with recordings. For those who have a serious rhythm problem (and I’ve seen this affect even some amateur performers), I will suggest an unusual antidote, but most learners don’t really have a “rhythm problem”; they have a priority problem. This article offers a few ideas about what might be going on and what to do about it.

Rhythm is an essential part of the natural world. We all experience it. It’s there in the sway of a tree, the gait of a horse, the beating of a heart. We feel it hearing the surf on a beach, and sense it with the tides, with sunrise and sunset. We move with rhythm all the time — walking at a very regular pace, breathing steadily in and out, and impatiently drumming our fingers on a table using a perfectly regular beat.

When we speak forcefully, our timing is unmistakable: speaking with unclear timing makes us sound insincere or uncertain. In fact, when we talk, we use much more complicated timing than music does. For example, if you say to a child, “GO to the CAR,” you are using a jig rhythm: ONE-two-three ONE. But if, just as you’re about to say those words, you spot a car speeding down the road between your child and the car, you will say, “DON’T go to the CAR!” This is a reel rhythm: ONE-two-three-four ONE. Seeing that car coming made you change instantly and naturally from jig to reel as you spoke. Musicians rarely attempt this, and certainly not without some planning. You manage complex rhythmic skills in everyday life that you probably take for granted.

If you have trouble playing in time, it’s not because you don’t have rhythm. It’s because Continue reading Rhythm Problems

Stepping on the Gas!

People often say they have trouble tapping their feet while they play. But they’ve got it all wrong; they just need to step on the gas. Let me explain.

It’s really helpful musically and otherwise to move to the beat while you play. Musically, tapping, marching or moving in some other way drives the beat, which is what music is all about, and provides a physical backup system to take you through a tune and keep you on track. Emotionally, moving to the beat takes the edge off any tensions you may have and gives you a place to put them that’s part and parcel with your music making. Physically, moving as you play relieves your muscles of being frozen in one position, where they can get overstressed and cause strains and pains.

If you don’t move as you play, all your playing has to be managed in your head, which is very little help to you. Your mind can easily be overloaded with worries, demands, and so-called executive functions (the existence of which many neurologists have doubts about anyway), in addition to the fact that without physical engagement, your mind can feel overstimulated by complex sound, social cues, and bodily tensions. Read my past article about “Reversing Old Presumptions” (type “reversing” into the search box to pull up the article) to see why playing music starts with ears, uses muscle memory, and engages the brain last, instead of the other way around as most people presume, and have to struggle with.

But how to manage that pesky notion of “tapping your feet”? It doesn’t have to be Continue reading Stepping on the Gas!

Expression

Someone asked me recently about how to release emotions, ideas, expression into her playing. It’s a great question that players of all levels can get a lot out of for themselves.

Expression doesn’t happen by itself. And it isn’t all about technique.

Putting musical expression into your playing may be easier with better technique, but just because someone has the technique doesn’t mean they’re going to have expression. In fact, it’s easier to learn better technique if you have ideas about musical expression — not only is there more motivation, but if you have an idea of what you want to hear, you’re more likely to figure out how to get that sound.

In classical music, dynamics are often written into the music, and for many, this turns expression into just another technical exercise. One time I judged a high level fiddle competition where a classical player played a nice slow air, but when she played it again, I realized she was playing it exactly the same way. It lacked genuine, responsive feeling.

In this little article we’ll look at some ways you can add expressive ideas to your playing, and then include a few tips on enjoying it more and making sure people hear what you’re trying to do.

You can try this with any tune, but let’s suppose Continue reading Expression

What’s a mistake?

How we think about musical mistakes has a huge impact on how we practice, how we learn, how we perform.

How do you think about making a mistake? We all think differently. For you, does making a mistake feel dangerous, like falling off a bicycle? Scary and disorienting, like finding yourself on the wrong path in the woods? Painful, like tripping on a tree root while hiking? Frustrating, like hitting the wrong floor button in an elevator? Hard to erase, like dropping the wrong ingredient into a recipe?

Or is it something that passes by, like saying the wrong word, or missing a fly with a fly swatter?

How you think about mistakes determines your response to making them.
Some players seem so worried about hitting the wrong note or making a bad sound that their playing sounds like they are tiptoeing through the music, afraid of being mugged by a mistake. Since there are always going to be mistakes, their fear is bound to be realized sooner or later!

The main thing to remember is that the greater musical skill is found, not in avoiding mistakes, but in recovering from them — staying on track, keeping the music going. To do that, you need to have a sense of where you are in the music, to keep it going in your head, in your body (feeling and trusting the beat). The fingers don’t always cooperate, but we don’t have to allow them to hijack a performance.

This is one key benefit of learning tunes by phrase, as can be found throughout the fiddle-online.com site — this helps you keep the structure of the tune in mind, and helps you get back on track, rather than be derailed by missing a note or two.

As listeners, dancers, or fellow bandmates or session players, we want musicians to play with confidence. A wrong note doesn’t stop us from tapping our toes or nodding our heads with the passion of the music. But a timid or fearful sound, or fuzzy timing, does affect us with uncertainty, and it’s hard to feel the music when you’re not sure it will carry through to the end.

Ultimately, of course, it’s not the mistakes or the missed opportunites we care about, but the performance, the music, the flow and the spirit of it. The goal is to allow the music to flow, and studies have even measured the healing effects of flow in music.  One study about how people engage with music said, “Playing and performing music has the potential to induce a flow-like state”.  Another study looked into the effect of flow in music.

If you are a worrier about making mistakes, just consider the listener’s point of view— it’s not what was missing that we remember, but what was there.

©2018 Ed Pearlman

Finding Articles You Want!

There are some 70 articles in this blog!  Apart from the more recent ones highlighted to the left, you can check out past months in the archive, if you know which month you want, or if you want to hunt through them all.  But the easiest way to find something useful to you is to use the search box at the left.

Here are some keywords you can type into the search box to bring up selected articles you might enjoy.

“advanced” — tips for use of fiddle-online by advanced and professional players

“tuning” — about tuning the violin

“mind/hand/ears” — reversing presumptions on how to learn to play

“playing faster 1”, “playing faster 2”, and “playing faster 3” — three articles setting you up for learning to play faster and understanding how fast to play various tunes

“mapping” — how to “ear-map” your tunes and learn most efficiently

“clarify” — once you’ve “ear-mapped” your tune, how to clarify and embody that map

“troubleshooting 1” — how to handle and avoid various physical problems from playing

“troubleshooting 2”, “troubleshooting 3”, and “troubleshooting 4” — understanding and improving bow control

“troubleshooting 5” and “troubleshooting 6” — addressing left hand problems

“stagefright” — is it learned?  New and organic ideas on how to avoid and handle it

“style” — what are fiddle styles?  how to learn them from within

“nature” — about intonation and mother nature, including a comparison of musical pitches and those of various insects around us

“motivators” — ten aids for motivating your practicing

“brain” — how learning and playing music enhances brain capacity

“musical fork” — how to avoid being derailed by wrong notes

“jokes” — 60 jokes making fun of every kind of musician!  Perhaps the most useful article of all!

**Have any favorite articles you’d like to recommend?  Leave a comment!**

©2018 Ed Pearlman

Do We Do It for the Applause?

Those who watch performances, and those who do them, often have very different ideas of what’s going on. I remember one woman who was convinced that the reason musicians get on stage is for the applause. She felt that musicians play in front of people because they are basically egotists, or narcissists.

If you are working hard learning to play music, you know otherwise. Applause is not much of a motivator for playing music. It’s nice to get applause as appreciation, but it’s not what gets us on stage. In fact, for some sensitive souls, applause is what keeps them *off* the stage! Some have a bad case of stagefright. Oddly enough, stagefright, a fear of how you come across to listeners, a fear that you might screw up in front of them, is in a sense based on a certain kind of egotism, a focus on oneself instead of on the music. I find that people who love he music they’re playing, who know all about who wrote it and what it’s been used for and what it means to them, who really want to convey their enthusiasm for the music to their listeners — these are people who rarely have stagefright.

Let’s go to the extreme case for a moment, and take a look at a survey of one kind of performer — celebrities. Dr. Drew Pinsky managed to get 200 celebrities to fill out a “Narcissism Personality Inventory” survey. The results showed that those who had the least skills — reality TV stars — had the highest scores for narcissism, while those with the most skills — musicians — were the least narcissistic.

This survey suggests that the more actual content, discipline, and skill your work requires, the less narcissistic you are. Some aspects of the music biz can involve hype, buzz, connections, or status, but the bottom line is an inescapable reality check: How you sound. It’s very real. The skills of musicianship and of communicating to listeners are hard earned.

And those hard-earned skills are fun. It’s fun to make progress, to be able to play music you couldn’t play before, to be able to play a tune for people just the way you want to play it.

I remember introducing a group of kids to the violin for their first time. They worked hard, and every one of them had a grim and determined face. They didn’t sound so good. But when it came time to find out how they liked it, all of them loved it and said they had great fun trying out the instrument!

I thought of this when a man came up to me after I had just led a big fiddle orchestra concert, and complained to me that nobody was smiling while they were playing. He said people should be having fun playing fiddle music. I assured him they were having the time of their lives.

Fun isn’t just about smiling and relaxation and games. Working hard to learn a piece of music, and performing earnestly, is fun because it’s so rewarding — even without the smile!

And that reward doesn’t need applause, though it’s nice to see the smiling faces of the audience telling you they enjoyed the music!

©2018 Ed Pearlman

5 Sayings to Help You Practice

Here are 5 sayings for you that might just help you practice and play better!

1. The more you play, the better you get.

2. The more mindfully you play, the faster you get better.

3. It’s not the minutes that count, but the consistency.

4. It’s not how many minutes, but how much you care.

5. If you like it, play it again; if you don’t like it, don’t play it the first time.

If you’d like some brief commentary on each of these sayings (plus a special sixth saying), read on!

Continue reading 5 Sayings to Help You Practice

Expression and Dynamics — not icing on the cake!

Dynamics in music is about expression — loud, soft, warm, cool, wispy, gutsy.  In classical music dynamics are often marked on paper — crescendo, pianissimo, forte, mezzoforte, accents. They give us a good sense of what the composer wanted, or what the editor suggests. In classical music, it’s important to know how to honor those ideas and do them justice.  In fiddle music, the same kinds of expression come from the heart and make the tunes really worth listening to.
happy-sad
How do we include dynamics in our playing? Are they like clicks on a volume-control knob? Do we play at a particular volume until a new symbol appears?  Do you treat expression as a higher level technique, something that is only added once more fundamental techniques are mastered? Or do you regard expression as fundamental?

These questions struck me suddenly one time when I was judging a high-level fiddle competition.

Continue reading Expression and Dynamics — not icing on the cake!

Playing Music is Healing

Music heals.  It is widely used in therapy, it soothes the moods of people round the world, and the act of playing music generates endorphins that make a player feel better.

Music therapy has been used for many years for its multi-sensory expression.  Studies about neurological development support its use to draw out feelings and concerns of patients.  It was found to be particularly effective with traumatized children after World War II.  Therapists use many methods to work with people, including moving to music, listening, playing on instruments, body percussion, singing, and songwriting.
healing-hands
In the 1930s, my mother studied piano from a man named Moissaye Boguslawski, who had grand notions of what music could do to heal people.  He believed, ahead of his times, that music could cure antisocial behavior and treat memory loss.  A prominent concert pianist with various symphonies, he insisted on playing regular piano concerts at the Cook County Hospital for the Insane, a place in Chicago commonly called Dunning, which doubled as an insane asylum and a poorhouse.  Boguslawski was convinced that music had healing effects on people suffering in that institution.

Continue reading Playing Music is Healing

Avoiding injury and stress

Practicing and performing music is a very physical activity.  In spite of all the mental and emotional exertion that goes into it, we must always remember how physical it is.

Below are some thoupainghts about avoiding physical injury and stress while playing music, and here’s a website link that can give you lots of information about this subject, including practical tips, anatomical information, and a list of excellent books.

The exercises in the Technique Video Groups are based on the idea that building awareness through simple physical exercises teaches muscles new movements that can then find their way into your playing.  They are not exercises to do and check off your list, but more like rituals that continue to help your playing at any level.  For example Continue reading Avoiding injury and stress