Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Playing Music in the Valley

In the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the historic Hale Farm & Village, an outdoor living museum of life in the 19th century.

Jonathan Hale, a farmer from Connecticut, came to what was then the Western Reserve in 1810. Three generations of Hales lived in the house he built in 1825.

Across what is now Oak Hill Road, a small village dots the bucolic landscape with barns, a church, a schoolhouse, a pottery shop and other small buildings . Today, reenactors inhabit the village to display blacksmithing, glassblowing and other trades. Great Lakes Brewing Co. operates a small organic farm, where it grows vegetables and herbs to be used in its restaurant. Hale Farm & Village is open year round, and each July it hosts Music in the Valley in collaboration with the local non-profit group Folknet.

This past weekend marked the event's 40th. In the video above, you'll see the wide variety of music represented at the two-day affair. The group I played with shows up at the 1:10 mark. The circle grew much bigger by Saturday afternoon.

This was my first year attending Music in the Valley, and I was toting along my 10-month-old son, as my wife worked that day. It was our first big father-son adventure, as I usually only run short errands while on Dad Duty. I brought just my banjo, as 1.) I'm not comfortable enough playing my fiddle in a jam yet, and 2.) it would have been way too much to carry, what with the baby, stroller, diaper bag, camp chair and other supplies.

As it was, I had to rig up a strap for my banjo case so I could sling it around my shoulder. I used a length of nylon rope I keep in the car for tying down the trunk when hauling large items. It looked ridiculous, but it worked.

The event goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with overnight camping available for those interested in attending both days. Musicians get in free, otherwise it's $10 for adults and $5 for ages 3 to 18. My son and I showed up around 1 p.m. and stayed until about 4:30.

Hale Farm is only a 15-minute drive from my house. I didn't know what I was missing by not attending past years. This will have to become a regular event for my family. In addition to the music festival, Hale Farm also hosted a wine tasting event during the weekend. There is plenty to do for young and old, musicians and non-musicians alike.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Leftwich Lessons: Second Quarter

It's been six months since I started working with Brad Leftwich's Homespun two-disc DVD series Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle. This is my second quarterly report on my progress.

You already heard from me earlier this month when I switched over to Lesson 2. There hasn't been much progress in the intervening two weeks since then. I've been listening hard to a couple different versions of "Citico" to get the rhythm of the tune better fixed in my head.

I'm starting to hear how my slow playing will eventually become the up-to-speed version I'm listening to from Lowe Stokes, Leftwich and Marcus Martin. However, the Martin version is reportedly in AEAC#, aka "Calico" tuning, not GDAD as the Stokes and Leftwich are.

My biggest problem so far with this second disc is getting the feel of the syncopation on "Tommy's Lick." I'm hoping that it will click the more I play the tune and get closer to the sound, but it may require slowing down and getting the rhythm right by either synchronizing my bowing and foot tapping, which I don't do well, or (GASP!) busting out the metronome.

Last week, I plugged "Citico" into my trial version of the Amazing Slow Downer and tried to bow along. It's the first phrase of each part that I've having a hard time matching. Somehow or other, I'll get it close to my idea of right.

The next tune is "Breaking Up Christmas," a tune I've long loved to play on banjo. Of the tunes from Lesson 1, I still have some kinks to work out with a few of the tunes, especially "Sugar Hill." I don't know why it gives me the fits, but it does.

What tunes are you working on? Any bowing advice?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Next Lesson

All this playing fiddle in the park has been a big help in my progression with Brad Leftwich's instructional DVDs. Up until now, I've been consumed with Lesson 1 of his Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle series from Homespun. Yesterday, I finally cracked the seal on Lesson 2.

The disc starts off with what Leftwich calls "Tommy's Lick" or what some refer to as "synco shuffle" (for syncopated shuffle), which leads to the first tune, "Citico." Shifting from simple saw strokes and basic shuffling to this style is tough to wrap my head around, and reading about it doesn't help — at all.

In fact, the more I try to understand it, the more nebulous it seems. I need to close the websites and open my ears.

While I don't yet have the feel for the bowing, I was gratified by how quickly I grasped the fingering for the tune, which Leftwich teaches in GDAD, a new tuning for me. Granted, it's not that difficult since the tune never drops to the high D string, which is more for the nice drones.

My slow version is enjoyable to play, but I'm having a hard time hearing how it will sound up to speed compared to Leftwich's version.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to delving into the tunes on this disc, which in addition to "Citico" include "Breaking Up Christmas," "Johnny Don't Get Drunk," "Rocky Road to Dublin," "Little Maggie," "Boll Weevil," "Wagner," "Chicken Reel" and "Old-Time Blackberry Blossom" (which I think is the same as "Garfield's Blackberry Blossom").

And as I've done with most of the Lesson 1 tunes, I also plan to transpose these to banjo. Gotta keep off the OK Plateau.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Playing in the Park

Now that the weather is nice, my lunches have gotten much more old-timey. Instead of eating at my desk like I did through most of winter, I am now bringing my fiddle along and exiting to a nearby park to play tunes.

There's a quiet picnic area with a set of secluded tables that are usually empty when I arrive, providing a comfortable place to play away from the sensitive ears of others.

But usually empty is not always empty. Take today, for example, nobody was at the tables when I arrived, but about halfway through my practice session my solitary area filled with other lunchtimers and forced me to suck it up and play for a crowd.

Confession time: My demeanor is not the most extroverted, especially when it comes to playing music and even moreso when it comes to playing the fiddle. However, my midday forays to the park have helped me overcome the impulse to clam up or stop playing in the company of an unexpected audience.

Twice I've been complimented for my novice fiddling, and today's interlopers sat quietly at the very next table as I played. They didn't say anything, but they didn't run off screaming either. Although their sudden arrival in my peripheral vision startled me, I played through the hiccup and finished my practice session with satisfaction.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Playing in Between Times

Fatherhood has had a profound impact on my life, as it should, and playing music has come to occupy a different space than it did before my son's arrival last fall.

It used to be that I'd carve out an hour almost every night to play banjo or fiddle. I would mark the calendar each month with the local old-time jams I planned to attend, and then attend them I would.

Ever since my son was born last September, these luxuries seem beyond my reckoning. Now, I play my music in whatever time I can manage between work and family duties.

My wife has been OK with my instruments residing in our dining room, close at hand for when I have the time to play.

When the weather is nice, I drag my fiddle to the office and play in a nearby park at lunchtime.

When my son gets fussy eating his dinner, I yank my banjo off the stand and play until he's ready for the next bite.

When his eyes are fluttering as he settles down for a nap, I serenade his dreams.

And when he's finally off to bed for the night and my wife is still at work, I pick up whatever instrument has been idle longest.

I haven't been to jam since before he was born, though not for lack of trying. A few weeks ago, all three of us headed out for an old-time session, but we arrived at the location to discover that the jam no longer took place there.

We visited an antique store and drove around instead. I don't know when I'll be able to carve out such a time again. I still mark those jams on the calendar, but it feels like wishful thinking anymore.

This is life now. I know when he gets a bit older and doesn't need constant monitoring that I will be able to drag him along to jams and local festivals. For the time being, I hope that my playing for him is embedding this music in his heart so that one day he'll be able to play alongside me. That's the dream.