Three Cs: Practicing without annoying the neighbors

The following post was written by Sally Writes.

When my daughter got her first guitar a little over two years ago, she could not have been more enthusiastic. At the risk of sounding like the typical mother living vicariously through her daughter, I was certain that she would progress beyond the “just about able to play something as long as there are only three chords” level that I had reached, and go on to be the next Chrissie Hynde.

She certainly seemed to pick it up quicker and better than I ever did, too. However, our shared joy of her burgeoning skills soon became a stomach-turning dread. Our condo in the university area of Burlington, VT was built in the 1960s, and the internal walls are not the thickest. Within minutes of my daughter picking up her guitar, the neighbor’s television would be cranked up to a tooth-rattling volume. All the pleasure was at that moment sucked out of her guitar playing for both of us.

I was determined that she would get the chance to continue – it felt like there was too much riding on this for both of us – so I set about investigating how I could create a guitar practice setup that would allow her to develop her skills without causing a war with the neighbors. Here are my top three tips which can be used for any music practice.

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Slow down, you move too fast

Fingers on the fiddleThere are a lot of great players out there who can play the crap out of a fast tune and make it sound really good. They play with rhythmic perfection, alluring ornamentation, and notes that are beautifully in tune.

The rest of us however, need to slow it down a little and learn how to really play the tune before we fire it off at lightning speed.

In my tune-learning experience, I find that in almost every tune, there is always that one little part that is either a challenge to bow, or there is an odd string-crossing, or the melody just doesn’t go naturally where you think it’s going to.

For some reason it’s our tendency to play these harder parts faster. Maybe we speed them up because we just want to get them over with. Kind of like pulling off that band-aid quickly so you don’t feel the pain for as long.

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Learn to play like yourself

Irish Session in DurangoTo those who don’t listen to Irish music all that often, listening to a set of tunes may sound like one long song that goes on forever, kind of like what techno sounds like to me. If you listen long enough though, you begin to recognize the unique style of each musician.

If you’ve ever heard Martin Hayes play the Old Bush, you know he doesn’t play that reel quite like anyone else. Once you’ve listened to his version, you’d recognize it again just by the way he slows it down, elongates his notes and plays it with expression instead of at full speed in straight 4/4.

Miles Davis said “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” I’m pretty sure Martin Hayes has been playing for a long time which is why his expression of the music is so unique. Me, on the other hand…I got some miles to go.

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The drippy side of the flute

Christy Barry, flute playerIf you’ve ever played at a session and sat next to a flute player, you know full well what the drippy side of the flute is. It’s not pretty, the condensation, I mean. The sound of a good flute player is, however.

Though the drip can be a drag, listening to the flute sing effortlessly in your ear can be quite mesmerizing and worth the drip.

There is something about the sound of a flute, that almost feels like a massage for your ears. It has this woody tone that is full and sweet and I’m not sure it can be replicated.

If you are lucky enough to play this beautiful instrument and want to improve your chops, flute and whistle player extraordinaire, Christy Barry will be giving a master class for Irish traditional flute players from 11am-4pm at the Florence Civic Center in Northhampton, MA. The cost is $50. Preregistration is required as spaces are limited. For information on email Sally or visit the Facebook page.

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Creating a practice plan

music practice

Image courtesy of punsayaporn at

In order to get better you must practice. I won’t say practice makes perfect because I’m not striving for perfect. I’m striving for better. And the only way to get there is to practice.

No one every really wants to practice. We all want to pick up our instrument and just sound great. But very few musicians are actual prodigies, most of us have to work at just improving where we are at today.

For most of my musical career, unless I was taking a class or lessons, I had no idea what to practice. So I would just learn tunes and work on the hard parts of those tunes. Occasionally, I’d play a scale or two but nothing was ever focused or planned.

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Going back to the beginning and starting over

Learning Tunes by EarAs a traditional Irish fiddler, I have never learned how to improvise on the fiddle. Like most other traditional musicians I know, everything I play, I learned by ear.

This past week I started a class at Berklee College of Music on basic improvisation. It’s only been a week and I can confidently say it’s probably one of the hardest classes I have ever taken. It’s challenging in so many ways. One because I never really learned my scales and most of the time I have no idea what key I’m playing in. And two, because I am starting from the very beginning. I’m doing something I’ve never done before and it’s intimidating and scary.

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The key to being a good musician

Key of a TuneI’m always impressed with melody musicians who can just call out the key of the next tune they are going to play. I have a hard time just lifting my foot to say I’m switching tunes. Not to mention, most of the time I have no idea what keys I play in. Aren’t all fiddle tunes in D or G?

I was talking to one of my friends the other day who is a great fiddle teacher. She said that when she teaches a tune to someone, she first teaches them the key and to get familiar with what notes might be in the tune. Then she teaches them the tune.

Because most tunes in this tradition are taught by ear, you may not know what key a tune is in. Here are a few ways to quickly figure it out on your own:

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