Tuesday, November 24, 2015

For the Love of Bluegrass

This past Saturday my brother and I went to the Harvest Jam that is put on annually be the Minnesota Bluegrass Old-Time Music Association (MNBOTMA). I've been listening to Bluegrass Saturday Morning for the past few years and really enjoying it, even though my go to music has always been Celtic Folk Music if I were to choose a favorite. I brought my Ukulele so I could join in on the Ukulele jam. I spent a good amount of time wandering around and being my normal introverted self until my brother showed up around noon.

This was a fantastic event, and I'm beginning to think it was a life-changer for me. My favorite way to experience music is sitting around and playing with others. Although I don't know my Uke well enough to sit in on the Jams, I did find out what it will take for me to get there, and there are resources available locally, most notably BUG - the Bluegrass Ukulele Group that meets twice a month. Looks like I'm finally going to be learning a bunch of Bluegrass standards, this time on my Ukulele!

I have also decided that I need to get out and see live music of some kind on a weekly basis. It feeds my spirit to such a great amount, I can hardly believe that I go so long between such outings. With winter coming in, it may not be as often as I would like, but hopefully as often as I need. I will continue practice my instruments on the long, cold dark nights, going to the monthly open mic in Chaska and hopefully writing more songs as well as increasing my Uke Bluegrass skills.

One thing I found rather strange over the day at the Harvest Jam, I did not see a single Mountain Dulcimer or Autoharp at any of the jams or performances. In my own experience, they are hard for others to jam with, but I thought at least one person would show up with them. As I get to know the jammers, hopefully that mystery will be solved. In the meantime, I know I will be going to more events, jams, and shows featuring bluegrass music.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Why? Because I Can

Last night was my second time performing at the Original Works Open Mic at the Dunn Brothers in Chaska. This time I brought my autoharp, and utilized the pick-up for the first time ever. Rosie sounded great plugged in, I was nervous and fumbled on the chord bars a few times, but my vocals were strong and it was really fun.
Kent Hansen playing Original Music at Open Mic night
 My brother Kent leads this and provides the amp and the mic, he has a huge collection of songs he has written, so he was able to both start out the night and bring it on home after I'd had my turn. I had such a good time listening and playing, and was complimented on my singing so that makes me feel very happy. A friend of my brother's said I should record an album and he will sell my CD's for me at the coffee shop while I'm singing!

Since I first took up the Autoharp six years ago, making music has been my happy place. The fall of 2009 was my first Fall Music Party, and I could only kind of play two songs and I was incredibly nervous to play them even to my friends and family in my own living room. Fear is the mind killer, and I have been chipping away at my stage fright a little bit at a time ever since. My favorite way to experience music is in a circle with other players, so we can all play together. While I really appreciate those who are devoted to performing their music, and I love listening to great performers, I'm coming to it reluctantly myself. But now that I'm writing songs, I really want to share them, and I love love love singing so much that I'll sing the songs that I love the most for others.

It's a busy music month for me, which began with my Fall Music Party on Saturday the 7th which was a ton of fun. We started the night earlier than usual, because if I had my way, everyone would stay and play all night. Alas, it was not to be, as my players all drove quite a distance for the party, the last of the music ended just before midnight. Still, a good time was had by all, and we had a photographer in our midst, who caught me doing what I love to do.

This morning while I was drinking my coffee, I started contemplating why I do this. After all, I have no desire to have a career at this, no ambitions to be a performer at all. I just love music so much, and I love telling story with song. What came to me was that I make music because I can. Life is too short, and I intend to fill mine with music. At some point I might want to throw my creative juices toward recording an album, because it sounds like a fun and rewarding project to me. For now I am in my happy place, and just last night I got another melody for a new song while I drove home from Chaska. My muse is taking me places I never thought I'd go, and it's a very good thing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Powered by Decaf

Last Thursday night I did not strum, I did not pluck, and I did not drone. What I did do is stand behind a microphone and sing a song that I wrote, with a drummer for back-up. (Thanks Jason!) So begins the next phase of my musical adventure.

I'm going from singing for my cats, to singing in public. It's a really big step for me, because I do have problems with stage fright. But over time I hope to learn to manage it as I sing more and more. This was my first step into the waters, and it was a very safe zone for me. My brother is hosting the Original Works Open Mic night every third Thursday at the Chaska Dunn Brothers. I arrived to find a beautiful old brick building, and it was a relatively quiet night, and I did my best to open my eyes as much as I could and look at my brother and his friend there watching me sing. I arrived 35 minutes before close, so I didn't get the full experience, but the beauty of the venue won me over immediately and I want to go back and fill that lovely coffee shop with some of my original music.

Since caffeine makes me shake even more than my hereditary benign essential tremor does, I was powered by decaf for the night. Now that fall has come and night is here at 7 p.m., I'm looking to get out to more of these small venues to listen, and maybe even to sing a little. I've already made arrangements to switch shifts at work so I can get there by around 6 p.m. so I can experience the whole evening in November. This time I'll bring an instrument, or maybe two, since I don't have very many songs that I've written. Poets and spoken word is welcome too, it's all about orginal stuff.

My hope is that more time spent with other musicians, poets, songwriters, and singers will feed my musical soul, and I'll be able to write some more and expand my original songbook in the coming months. Winter always makes me turn inward, and I wrote my first full song with chords and lyrics in December of 2013. This is a thing to be grateful for, the community of other songwriters and a space to share our works together. Even tonight, I plan on practicing my instruments, working on technique and memorization of songs to perform at the next Fall Music Party.

It has been a long time between posts, my music has continued off and on.  Right now it is turned ON in neon letters daring the long nights of fall and winter to sit and listen to what people like me have to say in melody and verse.Tonight I just wanted to share some of the joy that is simmering in my heart right now, and to give any poets and songwriters a glimpse of the venue which will be hosting a gathering of creative spirits next month. This is the view that the musicians have:

I'm looking forward to some good nights over the coming months. Good think I like coffee! (even if it's decaf)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Ukulele - Playful Kitten of the Guitar Family

Two years ago in April of 2013 on a whim I bought an Ukulele (Ooo-koo-le-le) and joined the Ukulele Underground forum. I kind of learned a few chords and started learning a couple of songs at that time, and I even brought it out for my Spring Music party. During said party, I discovered that keeping it on my makeshift stand (an easel book display) it was easy to knock over, so the back of the neck got dinged. After the party I felt it would be safer to keep it in the gig bag, so I did that.

Fast forward to February 2015, and my little Ukulele has been out of sight and therefore out of mind, still snug and safe (and unplayed)  it the gig bag. But this winter I found myself needing a little more sunshine, and what could be more sunny than an ukulele? So out of the gig back it went and onto my Autoharp stand it sits now between practice session. Rosie the Autoharp was put safely away in her case for now, she's had plenty of attention over the past 2 years.

I signed up for UU+ which includes lots of pre-recorded classes so I can really learn some solid techniques on my dear little Ukulele. After one week of practice I know three chords and am learning two songs with those chords. I just watched Lesson 2 of Ukulele 101 and am looking forward to completing the 10 week course just in time for my Spring Music Party. For those of you interested in such things I have the Lanikai Concert model # LU21C, a nice inexpensive entry level Ukulele with Aquila nylgut strings. I added some stickers to it, so I wouldn't take myself or my little Ukulele so seriously. 

I love the sound, and I'm pretty sure my cats do as well. It really is kittenish and playful. Due to the small size, the ukulele doesn't have much sustain, so you have to keep strumming to keep sound coming out of it. So just like a kitten, it doesn't hold still very long. It's also a strapless instrument, easy to hold with the crook of my elbow and walk around with. This week spare moments have been spent viewing Uke videos online, and have created a playlist that I go to for tips and inspiration on YouTube. Check it out!

Friday, November 8, 2013

DAD - Dulcimer Acquisition Disease

There is a longing in my heart right now that sings out to the tune of "Basketball Jones" only with Dulcimer in the place of the basketball, and I've got it bad. Last night I cleaned my dulcimer, oiled the fretboard and changed the strings. My sweet Mary Jane looks and sounds wonderful. A week from tomorrow will be my 5th Annual Fall Music Party, and I am very excited to have a bunch of friends over to play and listen. We always welcome both Pickers (musicians) and Grinners (audience) to the party. It's always potluck and BYOB and loads and loads of fun.

So in preparation, I'm taking care of my main instruments. Last week I tuned my autoharp after several months of it sitting idle, it took an entire hour. Now I've got my sweet mountain dulcimer in tip top shape. But the Jones, aka Dulcimer Acquisition Disease or DAD, did not go away because of these activities...and it is so strong. It is an instrument acquisition Jones. I recognize the symptoms.  That longing after something Other than what I already have. There are no funds for a new instrument, I have other plans for my money at the moment such as pay off my credit card, buy a love seat and rug for the living room, and the long term goal is to pay off my student loans.

I think a new dulcimer would be a suitable reward for that final payoff. Don't you? That way I can quietly look at all the dulcimer options available to me, savor the yearning for a new instrument for a good long time, and when the time is right...scratch that itch and get a new dulcimer. There are lots of options out there. Six string, baritone, hourglass, different woods, sound holes and so much more. And you know what? I found the ultimate Mountain Dulcimer porn site. Tons of photos of different models, they even have a Kantele that I can dream about acquiring. It is the same place I bought my sweet Mary Jane from, and the Folkroots travel dulcimer I reviewed last spring.

It doesn't help that I had a dream the other night that I went to a folk festival and met Bing Futch, a spokesperson for their dulcimers, and host of the Dulcimerica Podcast. I don't remember much about the dream, it was about finding my room and getting registered and stuff. So I think a Dulcimer Festival will be in my future at some point as well. I have lots of things to dream  about, like this little beauty:

This sure would make a sweet addition to my little instrument family. Learning new songs and techniques helps take the edge off the Jones temporarily, so I will do what I can to be worthy of such a beautiful dulcimer someday!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review of FolkRoots Travel Dulcimer

Last year I was lucky enough to hear about a free trial of a new model of dulcimer. The folks over at Folk Craft Instruments were designing a dulcimer based on an old FolkRoots Travel Dulcimer and were asking for volunteers to try it out and give it a review. So I signed up and many months later, the FolkRoots Travel Dulcimer arrived, with a Honduras Mahogany Body, Honduras Mahogany Soundboard, 22 Inch Scale Length, with 1 1/2 and 8 1/2 Frets.

When I opened the package and pulled out this sweet little dulcimer I was immediately charmed by it's symplicity and clean craftmanship. The color is rich and warm, and I was eager to try out the sound. Because of the short size, it fits nicely in the lap whether there are arms on a chair, or if I'm sitting cross-legged on the floor.

What I found was a crisp tone that was very enjoyable, and more volume than I expected in such a small instrument. It has a bit of a plucky sound that reminds me a little of a Ukulele, due to it's smaller size and short string length no doubt, but not overly so. The notes are not sustained as long as a full size mountain dulcimer, but the tone is quite nice, and has a pleasing warmth.

Fingerpicking gave a surprisingly rich full bodied sound, none of the pluckiness that I mentioned earlier. Vigorous strumming had more of the high silvery mountain dulcimer drone that goes great with traditional tunes. The middle 'A' string did buzz a bit when strummed with strong force, but only when left open. Other than that the action was really sweet and that made it easy to play.

Because I'm used to traditional dulcimers, I found the shallow height of the fretboard a little difficult at first, since I brace against the fretboard with my thumb for both chording with my left hand and fingerpicking with my right. But I did manage to get accustomed to it fairly quickly. I do not play with a noter, and I can see how that might be a challenge as well. I imagine with regular play adding a pickguard might not be a bad idea, as there definitely could be wear and tear over time. But if it's not played very often it would not be an issue.

All in all, the FolkRoots Travel Dulcimer is a sturdy little instrument that you can take anywhere and play. It would make a nice companion on either a hiking trail or college campus, and it is quite charming in my little studio room that I use for practicing. Sadly, it is too similar to my own mountain dulcimer (a Folkcraft FSH) to make it worth keeping; but it has been a pleasure trying out this little beauty, and I can recommend it to anyone who wants a small instrument that they can take anywhere.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Mountain Dulcimer is like a kitten

My mountain dulcimer is like a kitten, she sleeps in her stand looking all pretty, somehow more adorable each time I glance her way. A couple of days ago she even helped me find my way out of a pickle. I've been wanting to learn Joni Mitchell's "River" for some time now, and due to the variety of chords not usually found in a diatonic dulcimer, I thought my autoharp would be just the instrument. Well, it seems that didn't work quite right. I was missing a key chord, a combination chord of Dm and C, that really sets the tone for the whole song.

 My sweet Mary Jane, and the 1 1/2 fret I had added, came to the rescue. I figured out how to play that particular chord, and the song sounds much more complete. Like a kitten, my mountain dulcimer craves a certain amount of attention. This time stealing it away from my autoharp. Tonight is the night I catch up on some emails I need to write, so I was pretty excited to see an email from the folks at Folkcraft. It seems they are still sending out travel dulcimers for players to review and it's my turn to try it out! So look for my review, complete with photos here on the blog. The other thing in my inbox was a link to Dulcimerica 210 with Big Futch. A couple of sweet tunes on a baritone dulcimer, one of which I can play on my own little Folkcraft. Enjoy!