Masterclass / Forum


• How to Practice

• Using a Shoulder Rest
• Trouble with "new" posture positions
• How to Play in Jam Session
• Learning new bowing patterns
• Guitar backup for Celtic tunes
• Playing by Ear versus using Sheet Music
• From where do you get your Material?
• Frustration and envy over child prodigies
• Is there anything new yet to be created?
• An artist being accessible to the public

I've been brushing up on my guitar backing for Celtic tunes. I realize a lot of Celtic music is modal, but what modes are you indicating in your charts? Mixolydian? Dorian? [click here to see chart]

1) I refer to "modal" [A modal] when I'm looking for no V-chords in the backing -- instead, the flat-VII chord would be the typical second chord [ie: in the key of A, the second chord will always be a G, not an E]. These will hardly EVER have the 3rd of the chord present in the backup; just use open chords, or, in the case of DADGAD, use flavoring pitches such as the 9th, 4th, flat-6, etc. This type of backing is great with pipe tunes of the "Scottish gapped-scale" variety, the melodies of which skip the 3rds altogether [ie: Pipe Major Jim Christie of Wick March].*

*some gapped-scale tunes such as Lexi McAskill, which would normally be considered in A modal, can actually be played in Em modal with an electrifying effect.

2) I refer to "minor modal" [Bm modal] when it's clear that the melody has a flattened-3rd [ie: Congress Reel and Sean Ryan's Jig use a C naturals]. This doesn't necessarily mean that I like the backup chords to contain 3rds; I still prefer 3rd-free chords in most cases. The reason I indicate these differences in my charts is so that you know what's happening in the melody.

3) I refer to "mixolydian" [A mix] when it's clear the melody has a major-3rd. [ie: Braes of Brecklett] These often sound fine backed up by chords with a major-3rd. But still, use 3rds very sparingly. As a melody player, I like to be able to create the effect of changing from major-to-minor or minor-to-major by changing the tune I'm playing, rather than having the guitarist give the effect away with the chords.

Additional Notes:

• As for Dorian, I think of this mode as more relevant to describing the melodic content rather than the specific chord voicing.

• The progression I to flat-VII , as we all know, is the tried-and-true standard for modal tunes. The use of the flat-VI chord [ie: F in the key of Am modal] is fantastic -- exactly once. It's a very powerful effect used near the end of a tune, but if it gets over-used the effect becomes trite. An example of this is Track 12 of my Murmurs and Drones album, in which the guitarist, in my opinion, used the flat-VI too many times successively and it got boring.

After the lesson in which you showed me to hold the violin more level, not collapse my left wrist, and change my bow hold, I can't seem to play at all now. But if I go back to doing it the way I ws doing it before, I can't do that anymore, either. So now I'm upset because I just want to get on with it and play tunes, but I can't.

I often think of a moment of my childhood when my mom told me to go clean my room, and I had an epiphany which turns out to have been a model for the rest of my life and for my progress on learning music:

--> I had to make my room messy-er first. <--

I had to pull everything out of drawers and off of surfaces and out from underneath the bed. Then I had to restructure the way I was organizing stuff, label boxes and drawers, vacuum the dirt. I then put everything into proper places. When the job was done, Manalive!, did it ever feel good. So refreshing. My head and heart were clear and I could move around the room with ease.

The same goes for undoing old habits such as ineffective box movements or un-ergonimic violin posture. It may get "worse" before it gets better. But the long-term advantages far outway the immediate toil.

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Your methods are slowly but surely taking hold. I can't believe the difference in a tune just from changing from my infernal habit of boring bowing! I've reworked a bunch of tunes I've played for years, and turn them into a "porpoise playground"! I'm getting a huge kick out seeing how much more character the tune can have using these Irish-y bowing patterns. Thanks again. I know teaching students like me can be tough at times and you may wonder if it's making a difference...BUT IT IS!

Some examples of "porpoise" bowing patterns (ie: my own name used in my classes to describle the swooping, arc patterns of Irish bowing style) can be found [HERE].

When I went to your concert a few months ago in Hendersonville, you said: "we are taking a break now and will be back in about 15 minutes." It was over 35 minutes later and you were still in the lobby, talking to people, including the organizers of the concert. Sorry, Jamie, but that is just plain rude to the people who had returned to their seats, as instructed, and were waiting for you to return to the stage. I purposely did not work the night of the concert, which took some juggling of my schedule. I had to be somewhere the next morning, early. For you to delay the concert....on and on...was just inconsiderate. Just a suggestion. I enjoy your work immensely.....but it is an event that people paid to attend.

Looking forward to hearing you perform on October 31 in Marshall.

Very good point, Debbie. Thanks for the note. This is the type of
thing that happens to small time artists like me who are totally self-managed and have no infrastructure to help them with the minutia of managing all the details during a break. Many performers refuse to appear in public during the break for this reason -- these are often performers who have support or some kind of assistance with selling CDs and looking after all the other biz.

While it's true that sometimes the break goes longer than it should,
you are incorrect to proclaim a verdict of "Rudeness" upon me. It's my
willingness to make personal contact with people -- some of whom will
inevitably talk at me a bit longer than they should -- that can often be difficult fit into a tight schedule. I might point out that it's this SAME
interest and courtesy I show those folks which has me willing to
connect with you now via email. So, I'm afraid personal accessibility
comes with a price.

As an addendum, I'm might add that the management of a theatre should
take an active role in how an evening is to be scheduled. A presenter
who is on the ball should be looking after the clock -- not the artist
who is torn in a dozen directions.

Thank-you for your interest in coming to hear me at my upcoming
concert. Hope you have a good time.

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I am struggling with learning how to jam with fiddlers. My classical quartet "jam" is with all of us reading music.  If I were to bring sheet music to a fiddle jam session, I am afraid I would look like a total geek. Any clues would be appreciated.

There's a reason why fiddle players don't use sheet music at a jam session or onstage. The process of gleaning information from a printed page inhibits a person's natural rhythmic pulse and sense of groove. And although sheet music is definitely an invalueable learning and remembering tool, it indicates very little of how the music should actually sound. (Even less with tab.) It's like a map to the national park: you don't want to spend your vacation just staring at a map, you want to GO there to enjoy the experience!

"Going there" in music means knowing the tunes inside & out, upside down & backwards, dreaming the tune, fingers twitching the tune, whistling the tune in the shower, being able to play the tune 100 times over without the slightest concern. Thus, when you know and feel the music completely, sheet music becomes irrelevant.

Learning to play with others is a lifetime and very enjoyable process (and I'm still working on it--like everyone else I know!). A good way to start to get your confidence up is to ask people to play a tune with you which you've just learned. Then ask them if they will teach you a tune they know.

Jam session (or, "Session") etiquette is an important skill to understand and develop. When you attend a session, make sure you behave humbly and try to blend in with the general flow of the group. If you are asked to start a tune, you may certainly pass if you're not comfortable. When you do start a tune, try to play something that is consistent with the ethnic style at hand; if it's an Irish session, for instance, stick to Irish tunes. It is very courteous if you tell the guitar players what key your tune is in before you start; but if you forget, that's okay, they'll figure it out.

If you know few or none of the tunes that are being played, just sit in the back of the circle and listen a lot. No-one one will think you're strange if you're not playing, and it can be very fun to enjoy other people's tunes.

You can try to pick up a new tune by playing along VERY faintly. I call that "ghosting". Thus, you won't bother anyone -- as long as they can't hear you! Little-by-little, try to catch a few of the notes at the beginning or end of the phrases and start to get the outline of the tune. When everyone stops playing, ask your neighbor what the name was so you can go home and finish learning it. A very useful tool to have with you is a small portable recorder so you can learn the tunes later.

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Could you describe to me how you practice violin? Do you stay in shape just from playing concerts every day?

I still practice in much the same way I did when I was a classical player. I start out with lots, and lots, and lots of: 1) drones -- that is, notes played as double stops against open strings; 2) very slow double stops in 3rds, 6ths, and Octaves played as scales or other patterns; and 3) broken intervals starting from each finger, ie: up a second, up a third, up a forth, up a fifth, etc., played on each string. All of these I do in all the major fiddle keys of D, G, A, and their associated minors bm, em, f#m; if time allows, I also try to do other keys as well, especially Bb, B, and C plus their minors.

Then I go on to do scale-like passages in all the major keys, using varied bowing patterns, especially those bowings relvant to jigs and reels. The same with arpeggios.

After about 30 to 60 minutes of all that, I begin working on tunes themselves. First I play straight through several tunes I already know, just to get things "oiled up." I work a lot with the metronome. Soon I start picking apart the tunes to rework or improve certain passages.

Eventually I go on to tunes which are new to me. This is where the hard work begins! I begin with a small segment of a tune, say 4 or 8 notes, and loop these around and around until they are on "auto pilot." Then I move onto the next few notes, etc. until all the patterns in the whole tune are ingrained. Then I start stringing patterns together until I can play whole phrases with ease. During this long process, I increase the tempo from very slow to very fast.

When I can play the whole tune at full tempo, I then start considering the bowing patterns which I think would enhance the style of the tune. In more straight forward tunes, the bowings work themselves out quickly. But for certain other tunes in which I'm trying to develop a new technique or sound that is uncommon, it may take several months for me to finally decide on a system of bowing patterns that accomplishes what I'm after.

I consider adding ornaments only when I can play the tune with aplomb. Otherwise, the rhythm can suffer if ornaments are added before the tune is rock solid.

Practicing on my own is quite a separate matter from rehearsing with band mates. In a group rehearsal, one's attention is focused more on the overall arrangements and interweaving of the various instruments.

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I'm asking everyone what they use for a shoulder rest; my collar bone is killing me. If you say you don't use one, I'll sink into the depths of despair.

Practically everyone needs some kind of cushion under the violin, but the industry standard "Kun" style shoulder rest isn't necessarily the best way to go.

The thickness of the of the violin plus the height of the chin rest should collectively be more or less equal to the distance between a person's collar bone and the side of his/her jawbone. One should never have to scrunch up the shoulder and neck in order to contact the chinrest and support the violin. In the case of someone with a long neck (almost everyone I know!), a cushion and/or a higher chinrest is necessary.

In my case, shoulder rests are useless because they bear no relationship to the contour of my shoulder/chest area; it just becomes a hard hunk of matter that I have to wrap my body around. Ridiculous! So, I make my own pad using a dense piece of neoprine foam cut out on a band saw. But a thick kitchen sponge works just as well. I also had my local luthier beef up the height of my chin rest with an extra shim of wood to help fill up the gap further.

There is a common misconception in the violin playing world that the violin must be held up exclusively with the pressure of the jaw and shoulder without any support support offered from the left hand. NOT TRUE! Let the neck of the violin freely sit upon your left hand and only snug up your jaw to the chin rest enough to keep the violin lightly stable. No need to press down hard on the chinrest or collarbone.

For more on this topic, see my Ergonomic & Pain Free page.


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Could you explain how you come up with your material? How much of it is original versus traditional? Is it available in print?

All of my material is created using short melodies as building blocks or "source material", augmenting or altering them in some cases, and assembling them into medleys known as "sets."

The source melodies include approximately 75% very old session tunes from Celtic session tradition and about 25% brand new tunes written by myself (most often) or by some other living Celtic artist (occasionally). I discover the old melodies either by pouring over old tune books (especially bagpipe music), listening to Celtic musicians I admire, or searching online libraries such as JC's tune finder.

The "original" aspect of my work has more to do with the arrangements than it does the source melodies themselves. Arranging is what gives my music its proprietary nature. I often go beyond the conventional practice of simply hooking a few tunes together into a medley. Instead, I construct the works by:

1) considering how key relationships of the various segments affect the larger contour of the work;

2) elevating the emotional content that is already subtly suggested by the original tunes themselves; this is done with harmonic nuance, rhythmic devices, contrapuntal interplay of two or more instruments, etc.;

3) composing transitional sections from one tune to another which help to give flow and scope to the arrangement as a whole;

4) mapping the overall shape of the arrangement. For example: will I start delicately and then grow steadily towards the end, or will I begin and end boldly, but write a contrastingly gentle section into the middle? As far as publishing possibilities go, I intend to someday publish my works as compositions in their own right. This will be particularly true of my present work which I am writing for full orchestra, as well as the chamber-sized compositions which will appear on my upcoming CD with Ashley (due out in a few months).

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I just heard about this 20-year old virtuoso pianist from China. It makes me sad because I just want to add something to people's lives as a musician, but when there are young virtuosos running around everywhere, I don't feel like I have anything to offer. Why should I even try, except for my own amusement? Seems like everything in music that can be done HAS been done.

Frequently people tell me about some new child prodigy and how dismaying it is to them. I've never really felt upset or upstaged by the continual stream of hot-shot youngsters. It's true that young talent gets a lot of public attention, which takes attention away from the rest of us. But artistically their prescence in the musical world doesn't diminish the validity of what we "non-prodigies" are doing.

For one thing, an enormous amount of soul can be conveyed without super-star virtuosity. If a person has deep and sincere feelings about music, this will have a longer lasting impact on the listener than the ephemeral marvel of some flash-in-the-pan prodigy of the week.

Also, a lot of hot-shot young talent goes wasted, because these people frequently don't know how to stick it out for the long haul, with determination and patience. Frequently their imagination is not engaged to the fullest. And sometimes they simply have other interests which eventually win out and they leave music altogether.

Does this mean we shouldn't admire young prodigious talents? Not at all. We can marvel momentarily. But not for a moment should we compare ourselves to them. As soon as we see ourselves in competition with others, we start down an unconstructive path in persuit of a battle that can't be won and only distracts us from the reason we're doing music in the first place.

I'm not sure how long creators of music can keep coming up with new ideas. I admit, it sometimes DOES seem like maybe we're running out of possibilities to find a unique sound or form. This might be a good thing to talk with Joe Craven about. He never seems to run out of new ideas. I suspect that even if at first glance we might THINK something is not unique, it's still a metamorphesis from something else, and therefore it's somewhat different -- somewhat personalized.

I think a person should just keep doing what they like and what excites them, and trust that other people out there will derive meaning and joy from it.