About a month ago, I got a phone message from a New York Times writer doing research for a piece on webcam music lessons. Seems my websites for guitar, harmonica, and ukulele turned up when she Googled “Skype lessons.” A few days later I chatted for about forty minutes with the writer, Catharine Saint Louis, and tried not to sound too starstruck. She didn’t end up quoting me in the final article, but it was still a cool experience. You can read the article here.
“Hey, it’s a sunny day, think I’ll go for a walk. Oh wait, it’s 24 degrees. Better put on gloves and a scarf.” New England has taken some getting used to, climate-wise, though everybody here likes to remind me that it’s been unseasonably warm.
We haven’t even had real snow yet, and as a lady at the grocery store pointed out a few days ago, the sun’s staying out until almost 5pm now, which means we’re already on the upswing back to summertime, in the grand scheme of things. That’s probably the kind of detail that’s important to keep in mind through a New England winter.
Contra dances are native to this region, and I don’t know much about their nationwide popularity, but it seems like a lucky break that I got to attend a good handful of them in North Carolina before moving up. I don’t remember hearing about contra dancing when I lived in Texas.
I’ve got a hotspot on the ball of my left foot from the Monday night dance in Nelson, NH, and while I’m basically a tenderfoot when it comes to contra dancing (and playing traditional music), it’s kinda cool to feel a concrete connection to everyone else who’s danced in a Nelson contra over these last 200 years and gotten their own blisters. Good free cookies this week, too.
Best wishes to you in the New Year. May your feet stay warm and get tougher from use :)
As you may know, in addition to writing songs, recording and performing, I’ve been an active music teacher for over a decade. I teach three instruments, and this year I set up a website for each of them:
Each one has lesson info, free songs and tips for beginners. I teach in my home studio in Keene, NH and online using Skype.
The color scheme and graphic design could use a little sprucing up, but there’s a lot of good stuff up there. Enjoy!
I’ve been messing around with learning Irish fiddle tunes on guitar, tin whistle, and harmonica since 1997, and recently I’ve made quite a bit of progress learning new tunes and playing them on the harmonica at sessions, and a lot of it has to do with the use of an alternate tuning: “Paddy Richter.”
The Paddy Richter tuning is really simple: you just take a standard diatonic harmonica and raise the pitch of the 3rd hole blow by a whole step. On a C harmonica, that means bringing a G up to an A.
Retuning the 3rd hole blow makes it possible to play melodies that use the 6th note of the major scale without having to play a difficult bend. Since fiddle tunes are dance music, they’re often played really fast, and bending accurately at high speed is quite tough, especially on the 3rd hole, which is one of the trickiest on the harmonica.
Why not just play everything way up high and avoid the lower octave? You could do that, and on some tunes that’s actually the best option, but D is a really popular key for fiddle tunes, and on a D harmonica, that top octave is pretty shrill. I like the sound of the lower octave a lot better. Plus, when you repeat a tune three or four times, it’s nice to be able to alternate octaves every other time, playing a low version AND a high version.
So that’s the “why” part of this article. Let’s move on the harmonicas pictured at the top. The two in back are Suzuki Promaster harmonicas in D and G, tuned to Paddy Richter by Brendan Power, who wrote the book “Play Irish Music on the Blues Harp.”
Those two instruments are “half-valved,” which means they have windsaver valves strategically placed over certain reeds in order to make them more airtight and allow bending on both blow and draw notes on all holes. I particularly like using those little bends to articulate repeated notes. The valves do change the tone a bit, making them sound reedy, more like a chromatic harmonica. You could also compare the sound to an accordion or even pipes sometimes, which is appropriate to Irish music.
What I’m most excited about, though, is the two harmonicas in front, which I retuned myself using a small file from my Lee Oskar harmonica maintenance kit. At sessions, folks had been playing tunes not just in D and G, but also A and C, so it became apparent I’d need a couple more keys.
After practicing on (aka “destroying”) a couple of old harps in random keys, I applied my new tuning skill to a Golden Melody in A and a Meisterklasse in C and after a few hours of filing with a furrowed brow, they play fine! They don’t have valves, which is a project for another day, but they play in tune and I’ve been able to use them in sessions. Hurrah!
I’ve posted a new 40-minute live video at my Youtube channel, from last week’s set at Fritz, in Keene NH. It was an experiment in just using a mic on the guitar and I think I managed to stay focused pretty well despite the need to keep myself oriented in the same direction at all times to maintain an even volume.
That’s the technical side. The artistic side was, er, it was fun, and I felt like I represented myself well publicly. That is to say, it felt good at the time, and I like what I see when I look back at it on video.
What else is new? Well, for the last month and a half I’ve been attending traditional Irish music sessions regularly in Peterborough and Dublin NH and have started to find my footing again as a guitar accompanist to fiddle tunes. I’ve also been working on getting some of those melodies going on harmonica so I can lead a few myself.
Brendan Power’s book “Play Irish Music on the Blues Harp” has been inspirational in that direction, as have his half-valved Paddy Richter-tuned harps, both of which I received as a Christmas gift two years ago, and which I’ve playing a LOT lately. Apologies to the neighbors. Hopefully they like reels, hornpipes and jigs, and specifically the five tunes I’ve been playing over and over and over and over…
A couple nights ago I played an opening set for my friend Tiff Jimber, again at Fritz, the day before she was to leave for her first European tour. Go TJ! It was good to see her again, and she even played the Ben Folds 5 song “One Angry Dwarf,” which was a nice blast from home. I don’t think she even knew I lived forever in the town that song was recorded in.
In addition to performing up here, I’m also teaching guitar, harmonica, and ukulele lessons every week in my home studio in Keene and online using Skype. If you’d like help with one of those instruments, either in person or via webcam, let me know.
Upcoming: next Saturday Oct 8, I’m playing my first gig at MindFull Books and Ephemera in Jaffrey, a wonderfully warm and quirky listening room about a half-hour from Keene.
It’s cold and wet here, and this is just the start. Here’s to more sunny days as the temperature settles ever lower in New England!
The day after I moved up, I played at a sort of open mic curated by Tom Proulx at The Fritz. My set was about 20 minutes and included the songs Bureau De Change, T-Shirt, My Backstory, and Doing Your Dishes. Here’s the Youtube video. The monitor wasn’t working but honestly, when do I ever get a working monitor?
The Fritz specializes in French fries with special dipping sauces. Or should I say, Belgian frites. I tried the peanut sauce and found it a little mayonnaise-y. The Cobb salad was super.
Normally I also take advantage of the fact that they serve the fruity Lambic beer at Fritz, but on this occasion I abstained. Figured I needed to make a good impression before starting to drink on the job.
I’ll be back at Fritz for another short set on Thursday September 1.
The rain held off, it wasn’t too hot, Alex Wilkins played a great set, and the stars converged for my “classic trio” to all be available for one more show before I left town. Here’s the link for my Youtube video.
Seth’s a busy guy, and Charles lives in NYC now, but both were in town and it was great to play with them again. This show concludes the period 1995-2011 that I’ve lived and performed in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Thanks to all my friends, fans, and students, plus my mom (who came from the coast) and my girlfriend (who came from Charlottesville), it was great to have you there to see me off!
Technical footnote: the video’s super dark, and half of the last song is cut off, but we did get over an hour of the show. Who knew Youtube allowed such long uploads now?
Next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Keene, New Hampshire. Off now to eat breakfast and keep on packing!
In a couple weeks, I’m moving to Keene, New Hampshire to be with my sweetheart Sarah, who’s finishing grad school up there. I’ve lived in Carrboro since 2000, and first moved to Chapel Hill in 1995. It’s been a long time!
On Saturday July 23, I’m playing a farewell show at the Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro. The event starts at 8pm with Alex Wilkins, from the band Tripp. After that, I’ll play an acoustic set with upright bassist Seth and (visiting from NYC) keyboardist Charles.
If the weather’s good, we’ll set up out back on the Open Eye’s patio. It’d be great to see you at this little party. Cheers!
I’ve written and recorded a new song, “The Writing on the Wall,” for a friend’s short film, a Facebook comedy called “Unfriended.”
They’re hosting a screening for the film on June 23 at 8 pm at DSI Comedy Theater in Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro, NC.
Come hear my new song as it plays over the credits!
I’ve played a good number of shows at colleges over the last few years, and I meet a lot of other musicians interested to learn how to do it.
At some point I may write my own article on the subject to give my own perspective on it, but in the meantime, here are a couple of good articles that I found helpful when I first was considering entering the market:
A Musician’s Advice About the College Market, by Derek Sivers
The Truth about NACA: Gigging on the College Circuit, by Fran Snyder