Updated: Apr 26, 2022
New Tips Posted Each Week!
Listen to 30 seconds of absolutely perfect phrasing in this verse here:
Note the varied phrase lengths/starting points after each sung line.
If you’re like me and didn’t grow up soaked in this music, or are just looking for better ways to improve your practice- I wanted to share 3 ways I practice working on great phrasing like the above example.
1. Focus on length of phrase - Are all of your musical ideas the same length?
If all of your ideas start and end in the same place, they can sound mechanical. Try mixing short and long ideas. Don’t underestimate the power of just two or three notes that are well timed.
2. Vary the Shape of the phrase - Are all of your musical ideas going in the same direction?
-Mix this up by starting some ideas on the lower two strings, and others on the upper strings.
-Mix both ascending and descending lines.
-Try a “U shaped phrase” that starts low, goes high, and returns low, or the opposite.
3. Change where the phrase starts - By changing up where your first note begins, you can keep it interesting to the listener. There are a few ways of doing this.
-Start Phrases on the last word of the sung phrase - This is more challenging to do and involves either knowing the song really well, or successfully predicting the end of a phrase.
Adding a double stop or colorful notes (7ths, 6ths, 9ths…) feels really great to play on the last word because it essentially is acting as a harmony to the end of their phrase.
-Start the phrase after the last word of a sung phrase - This is easier to do on the fly, because you can wait until after they finish a phrase/sentence and respond to it. There are many options that can provide more interest here.
Play on The Beat after (Great place to start but can get old if you do it every time)
The “+” or other parts of the beat (Vary this by starting on the “e” or “a”)
What is the purpose of this all this?
Well, if you practice deliberately starting on different parts of the beat, then in your improvisation you will feel totally free to start phrases anywhere.
Ideally you are starting in different spots each time- that keeps it interesting to the listener.
The way that we really allow ourselves to play with more rhythmic variation is by practicing deliberately starting ideas on the word, the beat after the word, and in between the word and the next beat.
Once we have practiced all of those different things, then we can play more musically and with more and more freedom in our improvisation.
It’s as fun as it sounds - I’ve been to the “Old Time Rollick at The Ashokan Center twice now -
Once in 2019 and another time in 2022 - the online one in 2020 was fun too!
I thought I’d share with you some common tunes and some tips on Old-Time music today.
First and foremost, music camps in general are great ways to motivate, inspire, and guide your musicianship at any point. There are workshops for all levels on different instruments and you might even be like me and skip the workshops to jam all day!
Here are some of my thoughts on how the Old-Time Music jamming scene/expectations are different from bluegrass and country music
The emphasis in Old-Time jamming is tunes, not songs, so there is a lot less transposition.
Many jams stay in the same key for a long time- fiddles use cross tuning where they change the tuning of their instrument to AEAE, AEAC#, GDGD, or DDAD and banjos use alternate, modal tunings for certain keys.
Rather than solos, a tune is played over and over until you see the foot - a universal signal to end the song.
Jams tend to be bigger, with several concentric circles. The inner circle usually consists of stronger players who call the tunes and hold down the groove, but others are welcome to join in outer circles.
Old time Musicians have a HUGE repertoire of tunes, and the tunes they know are often regional or even generational. It’s a good idea to have a list of tunes you know in each key. Feel free to check out mine here: List of Tunes and Total Repertoire
What’s your experience with Old Time Music? I’d love to hear from you or know what camps you plan on attending!
What I’ve Learned from Music Camps
I owe so much of my musicianship today to the mentorship of the experienced, selfless musicians who have passed on knowledge to me.
I’m so excited to be joining their ranks, teaching at Fiddle Hell online this weekend (April 7-10, 2022)- so in the spirit of gratitude, I thought I would share with you what I have learned at past music camps.
I’ve hyperlinked my free form notes from these events in case you want to get a sense for some of what you might learn this weekend at Fiddle Hell!
“Fiddle Hell Online will have 180 live workshops to learn from, 35 live concerts to enjoy, and 35 live jam sessions to join on Zoom, for fiddle, mandolin, cello, guitar, old-time banjo, & singing. Info and registration (and discounts) at https//FiddleHell.org.”
Notes from a Great faculty- Alex Hargreaves, Robert Anderson, Jason Anick, Nicole Yarling…
Andy Reiner shares that Chords in bluegrass are open (so thirds can be either minor or major)
He also recommends improvisation practice where you switch back and forth between Melody and two measures of improvisation
Jeremy Kittel recommends
-Reharmonize the i chord with bVI for cool sound
-Chopping and singing is a legitimate solo option
Martha Mooke recommends…
-"Shimmer" effect pedal recreates contemporary pad synth church sound effectively.
-You can use GarageBand, logic, or mainstage to replace pedal boards- go directly from audio interface to computer- computer to amp
-Expression pedals are useful for changing parameters of effects with foot
-Line 6 wireless transmitter is the way to go, freedom to move about the room beats cables any day
Dave Eggar recommends….
-Communicate to singer songwriters, visual, or dance artists with EMOTIONS, not techniques (they don't know what most classical terms mean)
-Fiddle tunes sound great with drums, expand your opportunities as a musician this way
-Pull influences from a variety of genre sources by naming specifically what it is you like about a performance/technique
Regina Carter recommends…
-Sing more, include singing along to solos with passive listening (while doing dishes, laundry, etc)
-It is possible to improvise in a harmonically complex situation by singing first - then playing (ear is ahead of instrument)
-Play hard in the string, slightly more loose bow hair, imitate voice
-When working on blues with students, be conversational (practice talking/singing and bowing at the same time. Play like you talk)
-Improvising words and melody to the blues is an excellent comprehensive creative practice.
Christian Howes recommends that you “Record yourself and make judgements about your musical ideas, separate from your execution of them”
Bluegrass jamming with Tony Watt and Laura Orshaw
Solos often start to left of whoever kicks the song off
Everyone gets one song-
Talk to person next to you about not wanting to solo
Kick off person often gets 2 solos
Orphan chorus- chorus without a verse indicates end of song
Lead singer looks up at end of every chorus
Repeat last two lines
Andy Reiner recommends that you learn solos from people who don’t play your instrument
Rob Flax recommends the Primacy of the Ear book
Darol Anger recommends learning melody -> Harmonize it -> Follow it loosely
Double stops on the chords
Bottom two strings
Christian Howes recommends Harmonize chords to simple tunes without looking them up
Also, there are two blues scales
Major and minor pentatonic ->
Major and minor blues scale
Jeremy Kittel on the Blues: Blues notes are behind b7 and b3 slow slide
Train Sounds with Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw 5th and 7th, or 3rd and fifth, or seventh and 4th
Single shuffle = *low low high high
Double shuffle =*low low high low low high low low high low low high low
Jeremy Kittel on Playing over Changes
Switch to blues scale over V
For half diminished, play DOM a major third below
E Harmonic minor over B7
GYPSY JAZZ with Dwayne Padilla
String based approach to American Jazz
Reimagined american Jazz with string instruments because Django and Stephane
Learning Rock Solos with David Wallace
Transcription under slow speeds is king
Learn the top ten rock solos of all time
Billy Contreras and Jason Anick talk the history of jazz and swing…
It Started with the Blues…
Mix of African rhythm, 20th century harmony
Swing- bepob - modern….
Swing era guitar would comp four to a bar
Bass more linear, less arpeggiated
Common chord progression IV V I became ii V I
3 and 7 comp and are guide tone
Long tune, short solo section
Bebop era 40-50s
Things got faster
Dance music---> listening, musicians music
Band would play same stuff during day and bebop in night
Trading started here
Short head and most of the tune improv
Celtic Martin Hayes and Jeremy Kittel
“Feel is so much more important than anything else in this music” It cannot be notated
Singing tunes makes playing them more organic and solidifies them in memory
In Ireland, people didn't have recordings, they had to vocalize them!
Also, people used to have music as a hobby, they would sing them at work
Bruce Molsky talks the history of old time music
When Did You First
Hear and See a Mandolin?
On Tuesday, March 22, 2022 I had the pleasure of sharing this instrument to over 100 high schools for the first time ever!
After receiving grant money from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA Foundation) I’ve organized a number of public school visits, where I have been demonstrating the bluegrass instruments to high school students across New England.
For the vast majority of these students, this marks the first time they have ever seen or heard both the mandolin and the banjo in person.
What an awesome honor!
In this school orchestra visit, I explain how the mandolin family is tuned just the same as a traditional orchestra - with the mandolin being tuned the same as a violin, the mandola tuned the same as a viola, and the mandocello being tuned the same as a cello.
As someone who learned violin in my own school orchestra, learning mandolin was an easy transition- as it is for many fiddle players!
I also spent a lot of time talking about how to develop your own artistic/creative voice through improvisation, jamming, and forming bands with your friends.
For many of the students, it was also their first time improvising. I shared with them how using the pentatonic scale eliminates the notes of a major scale that don’t always sound great- so it’s a simple easy door into the world of improvisation.
I’d love to hear about your first encounter with the mandolin!
How Chris Thile Inspired a New Wave of Mandolin Players
This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Chris Thile and the Punch brothers in my home state of CT! He played at the Jorgensen Center for the Arts at University of Connecticut.
I left that show feeling totally amazed at the collective technical prowess of these musicians.
Chris Thile is one of 23 artists who earned a half a million dollar MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”. He used this money on creative projects, some of which include his work with the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek.
What makes Chris Thile such an influential mandolin player? I would argue his musical flexibility/wide range of influence, openness, and his strong reverence for listening to music.
Musical Flexibility/Wide Range of Influence
Chris is a lover of all things music. He learned to read and perform classical symphonies and Bach Partidas, while also being one of the only people on the planet to rap and play mandolin at the same time. Thile isn’t afraid to borrow the best from every genre, and he actively searches out new material to form his own musical persona.
Here is an awesome example: Genre Hopping with Chris Thile
He also has a reverence for listening unlike any other.
In the episode on listening, Thile shares that if his family was listening to music, they would stop what they were doing and give it their full attention. They would never “passively” listen to music in the background.
Here are some further notes I took from his episode on listening:
Two types of listening:
Total void listening
Noise canceling headphones
While walking down familiar path
No judgements, just noticing
Asking, what was their intent?
Does it interest you?
Listening with others and commenting
I’ve loved taking up his advice and transforming my own practice of listening. It is now a great joy of mine to both listen to music with others, pause and analyze musical decisions, or just sit down for 40-50 minutes and really give an album my full attention.
Between the reverent listening and wide range of influence, Chris Thile can appeal to classical music fans just as much as he does to pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, and folk music fans.
We have him to thank for bringing so many new people to the instrument!
Melodies are made up of them, they are used across genres, and they are versatile starting points for all sorts of fun improvisation!
Try this fun play-along above to work on symmetrical pentatonic shapes^^
You’ve probably heard of them before, perhaps in scale degrees: (1,2,3,5,6)
Why are these scales so useful? Well, here are seven reasons:
They outline the harmony of a chord by focusing on the root, third, and fifth
They eliminate notes from the major scale that are a bit harder to place correctly in any given moment (the 4th and 7th scale degree)
They include the 2nd and 6th scale degree, both of which are quite colorful sounding notes. The second scale degree is also sometimes referred to as the 9th, because it sounds like its suspended over the root note
It can easily be build upon by adding the b3, turning this rather simple scale into the more “spicy” Major Blues Scale
For every major pentatonic scale you learn, you are also putting the relative minor pentatonic scale under your fingers.
Ex: G major Pentatonic = G A B D (E)
E minor Pentatonic (relative minor) = (E) G A B D …. Scale degrees in relation to the E minor scale are now 1, b3, 4, 5, b7
They can be combined in numerous ways to create fun double stops
They make up many of the well known melodies ie: Amazing Grace, Wayfaring Stranger, Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Whenever I work out a scale, pattern, melody, or break, I am always thinking what other keys could I get out of this if I use the same fingers over a string. Most of the time, you’ll get three keys out of every finger pattern you learn.
Then I challenge myself to learn the same pattern, scale, or break starting on each finger - which will eventually give me all 12 keys with only 4 different patterns!
Try this play along video above and see if you can transpose it starting on a first finger, or third finger instead. Let me know what you think!
Three Approaches to
Taking a Solo/Break
Having a prepared solo in your favorite key is one thing, but you will find more often than not the need to "fake" a solo on a tune that maybe you've never heard before or a key you haven't practiced it in.
What do we do in those moments? I recently gave some feedback to a student of mine who learned and executed a FANTASTIC solo on a Bluegrass standard. I told him that it sounds great - the next step was to work on transposing and “mining” that solo for licks that can easily be reproduced in other keys. Here is a snip it of my feedback to this student:
"Transposing is a lot more common in bluegrass than in old-time or celtic music because of the vocal element- each singer will choose a key that's best for them.
A lot of these quite elaborate breaks were PLANNED for the recording or group that the fiddle player was with (You'll hear many musicians pretty much hitting the same notes as in the recording in live settings)
This doesn't transfer well to a bluegrass JAM setting where the tune might just as well be called in B or G...
The big takeaway is that if you don't have a regular group of people to play with, its good to spend a lot of time transposing and working on flexibility"
In my Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam Classes, I talk about three “Levels” of soloing
Level 1: Chord Tone based soloing
Also called a “Placeholder solo”, this method can be used even if you don’t know anything about the melody.
The strategy here is to lock in to the guitar player’s left hand, watch for the chord changes, and play chord tones that match what you see. (Root, third, and Fifth are the safest) This is where practicing arpeggios come in handy!
Level 2: Licks Based Soloing
This is a very common approach that many players use in jams where they are unfamiliar with the song that is being played. The same strategy of locking in to the guitar players left hand apply here. Watch the chord changes, but explore outside of chord tones.
Level 3: Melody Based Soloing/Embellishment
Most players want to quote the melody in some way. If you are familiar with the song, or train your ear to pick up melodies quickly, you will want to “nod” to the melody or base your solo off this.
The best way to pick up melodies more quickly is to… well…. Learn a bunch of melodies! But don’t forget to Transpose them so that you are prepared if the song is called in a different key. The more melodies you learn, the quicker you will develop pattern recognition, which is the key to quick learning.
What Do I Play Over Love Songs??
(All Two of Them)
For most people, getting the “Blues” in Bluegrass is challenging enough.
The genre is filled with songs about heartbreak, unrequited love, time in prison, somber gospel numbers, old work songs, and feeling lonesome.
We spend a lot of time working on making those sound good, but what do we do with the pesky two or three straight up love songs in the genre?
“I asked my love to take a walk
Just a little ways with me
And as we walked and we would talk
All about our wedding day
Darling say that you'll be mine
In our home we'll happy be
Down beside where the waters flow
On the banks of the Ohio”**
**May or may not be an example of a real love song
It really irks me when bluegrass musicians play really bright, major ideas over darker bluesy songs. But it’s even worse when they play dark bluesy lines over a quaint love song! At best it pulls you out of the song, but at worse it sounds corny and cringe-worthy. Not to mention it’s a totally misrepresentation of the contributions of black Americans to bluegrass music.
So I set out to listen to nothing but a set of bright, happy, encouraging or romantic songs and I made a list of all the tasteful ideas that can be put to practice. Here are the tunes I listened to:
Pride - Frenchie Burke (Doesn’t fit the bill perfectly, but a lot of these Ideas are great examples)
And then I came up with this list of musical Ideas that I hear in these songs that fit the feeling of the songs:
6ths and 9ths - Suspensions create that lofty feeling. These are colorful notes and should be thought of as the bright equivalent of the darker b3, b5 and b7 colors that we often use over darker, bluesy songs. Example: Over an A chord, deliberately play F# (6th) or B (ninth). Try sliding into these notes starting a half step below
Maj 7 - Rather than using the b7 as it is so often used in darker songs (Coming from a mixolydian or blues sound) , err on using the major 7, not as a point of arrival, but as a passing tone to brighten up the scale and overall feel of the song. At the end of a phrase, you can hit the maj 7 and 9th before resolving to 1 to further brighten the song and hint at the major scale.
Harmonics - Naturally these are the brightest sounding notes on your instrument. Throw some of these in, especially in a swing context, but also at the end of a break to create that “flashy, brilliant” sound.
6th to unison Unisons - Double stops of 6th and root -> unison double root are great, bright sounds in the keys of G, D, and A
Arpeggios - Arpeggios, like the waterfall arpeggio, create a spaciousness. Try arpeggiating a maj 6 chord for even more of this feeling.
Triplets - (As in the intro to the tune “Big Sandy River”) - this playful rhythm can lighten up a song and give it the lilt it needs to compliment the lyrics
Wide intervals - You will hear this a lot in Western Swing, wide intervals, whether as separate notes or as double stops, create spaciousness.
Constant flowing 8th/16th notes - Keep a constant running stream of notes from the major pentatonic or major scale to hint at the happy dance music where bluegrass music has its roots before people's feelings got involved.
Swing hits - Bobby Hicks was king of this sort of playing- big band style swing rhythms can give a great lilt to the song. Try this on chord tones from the major 6 arpeggio
b7th and 9th - Play these two notes as a double stop to emphasize the feeling I mentioned earlier with 6ths and 9ths.
What sort of practice will give you the biggest return on your time?
Breaks, melodies, and backup are most often composed of this lesser known blues scale. It’s just one note away from the Pentatonic Scale, but that one extra note adds a ton of color.
That one note is the minor third, which nods at a darker, more colorful sound than just pentatonic.
In the key of D, that makes this scale D, E, F, F#, A, and B
Slide up from the minor third to a major third to achieve a brighter sound, or down from the minor third to the second for a darker sound.
This scale alone works alright over all of the chords, but it sounds even better when you switch scales based on the chord in that moment: IE: G major blues over G and A Major Blues over A.
You can hear renowned guitar players Bryan Sutton and Marcel Ardans talk extensively about this scale in this interview:
Working on this scale in all the bluegrass keys should be a foundational exercise for any mandolin player.
How to Become a Stronger Improviser
There are two main times where a mandolin player is expected to improvise: during their break/solo and while playing back up behind a verse. (This one is commonly missed, but found all over in bluegrass music)
Here are three great examples (Timestamped to the moment where the mandolin player stops playing chords and instead plays licks behind the singer)
Solos/breaks are short and melody based but usually include licks, tricks, and blues/swing influenced improvisation.
Check out this video for ideas on using “The Amazing Slow Downer” --->
Most people avoid practicing improvisation because they just don’t know how - They usually resort to learning solos through tab or stick to playing chords.
If you really want to improve as an improviser, here are some practice ideas that will transfer to your playing
Practice Extended Range Scales, which are taking the notes of a scale and playing them as they occur throughout the range of one position, without shifting the hand. IE: D Major pentatonic on a Fiddle/mandolin would be A B D E F# A B D E F# A B.
Combine pentatonic, blues, mixolydian, and other types of scales with different rhythms.
Pay attention to where you feel fluency and mastery vs. discomfort improvising, whether that has to do with string crossing, fingering, or tempo- and consistently push back against this over time. (IE: Raise the ceiling of your ability to improvise/think quickly)
Practice Double Stops over a song or chord progression
I focus on smooth transitions between open or closed voicings on double stops, which you can see explained in this video. Open voicings like to move to other open voicings and closed voicing like to move to other closed voicings
Try playing one double stop per chord change, and see where the closest next double stop would be in the next chord change (This is called “Voice Leading”) Find out what area of the instrument you feel like you are uncomfortable voicing chords and push back against this.
Try smoothly transitioning from one double stop to the next, but restrict yourself to two strings at a time
Take a small, easily digestible phrase from a song or fiddle tune and try to play it in 10 different ways, switching rhythms or notes, while still keeping the integrity of the phrase intact.
Construct your own break by combining micro improvisations on the singer’s melody.
**Free Bluegrass Backing Tracks allows you to play common fiddle tunes, songs, and chord progressions over professionally recorded backing tracks. You have full control over the speed of playback and can change the key using this amazing extension: “Transpose”
I hope these tips inspire your next practice session!
Playing and blues can be challenging for a lot of folks, especially because so much of the music we hear and learn in school or out of books comes from a major tonality.
Mike Compton is maintaining this darker, more bluesy sound by mixing minor and major Blues scales. He is also avoiding notes from the G major scale, even though the tune is "in G"
You will also notice he is avoiding standard major chord voicings and instead using voicings that omit the third (G chord without a B note, D chord without a F# note) and replaces the normal C chord with a C7 or C Dominant chord.
Whenever I hear a sound that I want to incorporate into my playing, I name it and then create a system where I can build the concept into my practice.
The scales that are being used here are the Minor Blues Scale and the Major Blues scale.
These, interwoven with each other, can create a much darker sound scape, and can be used as tools for any song with a blues influence.
Check out these two play along videos for insight on how to play and practice these scales:
These are both snip its of my weekly zoom classes over in the Bluegrass, Country, and Roots Online School.
Check that out if you’re interested in learning more.
Satisfying, Interesting, Invigorating,
and Enjoyable Practice
I've had a lot of folks recently ask about what my practicing looks like.
I've learned a lot over the years about how to make the process more engaging and fruitful.
Some of the best tips I've learned from Tom Heany's "First, Learn to Practice"
I think of practice in a few ways:
-Learning (Listening or reading new material or concepts - Cognitive based... Sometimes without an instrument)
-Rehearsing (Repeating learned material- motor skills based)
-Exploring (Using learned material in new ways - Some combination of the two)
Here's what that looks like on the day to day: