Singing

To my ear, there is an enormous amount of work left to be done on my singing. It’s often frustrating work, because there aren’t many instructional resources available, far different from the mountains of materials you’ll find for learning and refining your skills on an instrument. And when I hear something wrong with my singing, it takes a lot of reflection, speculation, and experimentation to figure out exactly what is wrong, much less what I might do about it.

Still, I have managed to identify quite a few specific problems, and even figure out the source of most of them. Some were amenable to quick fixes, some took extended practice to fix, and some (like unconsciously adding vibrato) I’m still working on.

The project of the moment is to eliminate all “churchiness” from my enunciation. Not because churchiness is bad, just because it’s out of place in bluegrass singing. My biggest clue came at jam camp this year, when someone with no special training told me that they liked my singing, but that it sounded too “proper.” I didn’t understand at the time what that meant, but after some time spent comparing myself to good bluegrass singers I’ve decided that much of it is due to the fact that my singing is not “conversational” at all–it doesn’t sound like someone talking to you, as most bluegrass singing does. And I blame that on churchiness.

It’s no suprise that my singing is churchy–until recently it’s the only place I ever sang, and what I knew about singing I learned there. Most of it I didn’t learn explicitly, but rather from listening and imitating, and so it’s taken awhile to figure out just what I do that makes my singing sound churchy. It’s complex enough that I’m not able to make small fixes here and there, but I’m having to learn a whole new approach, namely to take spoken lyrics and somehow lay a melody on top of them. Initially it was uncomfortable, but I’m slowly coming to appreciate it.

This is one of those long-term efforts, and since I don’t need any additional burdens I’ve decided to take the same approach to singing in church. Which has led me to pipe down, since I don’t want to throw anybody if it sounds too weird. One nice benefit: I can now hear my fellow parishioners better, and am encouraged to work at blending my voice with theirs, so worship feels a bit more corporate.

Brief update

We had a lesson with Roy Andrade on Monday, and we’ll be having another on Friday afternoon. These are precious opportunities, because he is about to go off on tour again, and we probably won’t be able to schedule regular lessons until late October. But Chris has become ever more skillful at asking good questions and working hard on the tasks that Roy sets for him, so he continues to make quick progress.

Right now I’m in the midst of a bunch of business-related busywork, so it’s convenient that our next performance isn’t until late August. But we’re already thinking about the three songs we’ll be doing. One three-song set has already been practiced and discarded, and tonight we’ll probably start practicing another one.

Pickin' in the Park 7/25/2004

Another good day at Natural Tunnel State Park. Today’s three songs were gospel numbers: “Walking in the King’s Highway” (Carter Family), “House of Gold” (Hank Williams), and “River of Jordan” (Louvin Brothers). Nina Ketron asked us to start the program again, which we did, and I think we performed as well as we ever have.

The next Pickin’ in the Park isn’t until the end of August, and the three songs we’re planning are songs we’ve worked on before, so we’ll have time to focus on other things. Our next project is to get ready to record twelve or so songs next weekend, for a demo CD that we can pass around. No time to do an elaborate multi-track job, but I think that if we plug in the guitar, put a microphone on the bass, and use the fancy microphone primarily for vocals, we can get a good and balanced sound while recording the songs live.

New DHP website

Those of you reading this weblog are invited to take an advance look at the new Draught Horse Press website. Testing begins in earnest on Monday, so no guarantees about what works now, and it probably isn’t helpful to let us know about glitches, broken or wrong links, etc., since we’ll be finding most of them ourselves. But if you have any general comments, they are welcome.

We hope to take the new site public by mid-week.

Kosher Pickle

This afternoon Chris and I had a lesson scheduled with Roy Andrade, so we decided to leave a bit early and stop by the Kosher Pickle Deli for lunch, since Saturday is the day they host a bluegrass jam. The sandwiches were good, the jammers were friendly, and the music was fine.

In such situations we tend to hang back, since they are the regulars and we are the newcomers. Fortunately there were regulars who were pretty active in guiding the jam, and so the music flowed pretty steadily, with only one goofy zillion-chord song that the fellow who suggested it finally gave up on. And two of the regulars sang lead and harmony, which gave me and Chris a chance to focus on our playing, always a good thing. We stayed for an hour, and when we left it looked like things were just getting started.

Then it was on to Roy’s house. Too bad that Roy wasn’t there. Never showed up, either. But that was OK, since his house has a pleasant side porch where Chris and I waited; eventually we redeemed the time by getting out our instruments and practicing nearly an hour for tomorrow’s performance at Natural Tunnel park. I scribbled a note on one of our band business cards, and stuck it in his front door.

Morning lesson

I usually have a bass lesson with Brandon Story on Wednesday mornings. Today I decided to use the time to have him help me and Chris figure out how best to use our small portable PA system. We reserved a picnic pavilion at Steele Creek Park across the street, and set up our equipment there. For about an hour we tried different PA settings, different ways of playing around a single microphone, and different ways of miking the instruments, with Brandon making suggestions and evaluating the results. We learned where and how to stand, and when we needed a bit of choreography (i.e. getting out of one another’s way). We also decided that the sound system is adequate for playing to about one hundred people in an outdoor space.

After the lesson, Debbie and the other kids came and joined us, bringing a picnic lunch. The weather was as good as it’s been this summer, and the park was empty and peaceful. We sat and ate while listening to the nearby stream burble along.

Steamwinders

Yesterday Chris and I drove over to Boone for the day, to visit with the Steamwinders at Tweetsie Railroad. The day started out disappointing–the band checked with management to make sure it would be OK for us to bring in our instruments and play backstage, and found out that it was not OK. But we still heard them perform four times, and spent lots of time between performances visiting with them.

We invited the band to have supper with us at the Dan’l Boone Inn before we headed home. Two of them, Shawn the banjoist and Jed the mandolinist, had to play a date in Black Mountain that night, and so couldn’t come along, but Jeremy (guitar) and Emily (fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass) joined us. After stuffing ourselves, we went next door to the Appalachian State University and found a small park where we played old-time tunes for maybe 2 1/2 hours. That was particularly pleasing for Chris, who doesn’t often get a chance to play his banjo with a fiddler.

We really like the Steamwinders, and we’re hoping we can get them to play at our baptismal feast next March.