Warm Up And Play

websitemusicfermataI’ve been at this for so long that some of the basics are such a part of my natural rhythm I don’t even think about them any more.  For instance, there’s one small point I was sharing with someone the other day.  We were about to start playing and I suggested that before we begin we first wander through something easy as a warm up.  They said it sounded like a good idea and so off we went.  Turned out to be a great session.

It’s a pretty basic concept, isn’t it?  Warm up.  Get the body and brain in gear first.  Begin the hard work once you’re truly present.  Not a difficult thought to grasp.

So you’d think it would be a no-brainer.  But time after time I’ve been part of some unit directed to jump immediately into the hardest material.  Which usually sets the tone for an absolute grind of a rehearsal.  After watching folks flounder around for a few sessions, as a fellow player I’ll make the suggestion that maybe we could begin with something straightforward, mostly so I can remind myself what playing with these people is like.  But I can’t count the number of times that the leader has growled at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that playing a warmup would just be a waste of our very limited time.  And so we return to their idea of saving time–hours and hours and hours of grind that could easily be avoided by simply remembering that musicians are people, and should be treated as such.

Come to think of it, there’s maybe the problem, eh?  Mind you it also looks to me like they’ve simply forgotten that when it comes to music the verb we use is very specific.


Let me say it again so we’re clear.

We play music.

What’s so hard about that?

Now excuse me, I’m gonna go warm up.

Strange Moments Again

websitemusicfermataSome performances stick in my mind for odd reasons.  I remember once upon a time working with my partner in a small town in the mid-west, noted for the local university having been converted to all things yogic, two great huge meditation domes and all.   Neat.  Part of why the gig was memorable was playing in a huge stone church, close to cathedral size.  There was a pretty reasonable turn out, people as a group feeling excited, I’m thinking this is going to be a good night.  So we begin playing, the first piece ends, it’s surefire and we’ve nailed it, I notice how long the echo is in the hall.

Then I realise the reason I can tell this is because the audience hasn’t made a sound.  Ten seconds…  twenty seconds…   it goes on forever…  thirty seconds…   I’m thinking, ‘We’re dyin’ up here.  We have so tanked, they are going to rise up en masse and start hurling their meditation pillows at us, death by pillowfight, this is not how I want to be remembered.’  Then, finally, they erupt in applause.   You know the kind, when you’ve really hit the mark, and they have no way of showing how much they appreciate it except to clap, hard, and longtime.  And I can breathe again.  They were just taking their time to appreciate the sounds before they responded.  Okay, we are going to have a good time after all.  And we did.

But just for a moment I wondered.

With No Instrument

You and I have been talking about memorising words for a while now and somehow I’m not sure it’s occurred to me to mention that I do most of my memorising with no instrument in my hand.  The reason is simple–it’s easier when I don’t have to think about what chords to play, or where my fingers go, or whether I’m in tune, or the gazillion other things that can interrupt my stream of recollection.  Actually I prefer to work on words while I’m walking, or doing chores, or anything that keeps my body occupied and leaves my mind free.  Yes, I can do it while I’m playing, but it just seems to take forever.  So no, when I really need to work on the words, that’s when I put the instrument down.  Just thought I’d mention it.


kbsitepicscene054I know I’m a little more organised than some of my brothers and sisters, and a little less than others.  But I think everyone I know has developed one of these at some time or another.  It might be the box that all the odd cables go into, or all the ones that need repairs, or maybe even where All the cables go.  Okay that last one makes me a little twitchy, which I consider a failing in me, but I do know more than one person who uses that method so I understand it really is an option.  When I see an example of it in the wild I’m always reminded of someone sitting at my kitchen table telling me about this performance they’d seen.

Apparently the music was quite fine, but what they remembered most was the guitar player.  It seems that the guy sits down on a chair in front of his amp and opens up a medium-sized suitcase, which is heaped with the most amazing tangle of wiring you and I are ever likely to see .  Now of course we both know that an e-lectric guitar needs a cable to go from the guitar where the playing is done to the amp where the noise is made.  So the guy puts his guitar into playing position and pulls out from the suitcase the end of one cable, which he plugs into his guitar.  Just the end, mind you, the rest of the cord is still fully enmeshed inside the suitcase.  He then pulls another cable end from the suitcase, again just the end, and plugs that into the amp.  Now he begins to play.  There is no sound.  So he unplugs that cable end from the amp and pulls another from the magic suitcase.  Again the plugging.  Again the playing.  Again the nothing.  Again the unplugging.  This is repeated several times until his amp starts making guitar-shaped noises.  At which point he figures he’s got the right guitar cord on both ends and gives the thumbs up that he’s ready.  None of this is part of the act, mind.  At least not intentionally.

kbsitepicscene055I’ve never had the nerve to try it myself, I think in the right hands it could be hilarious, but one day I’d love to write it into a scene somehow.  It’s one of those things that you write and someone assumes it’s fiction and tells you it’s a little far-fetched.  I tend to just smile and nod.  However since you may in fact run across an example of this sort of cable collection one day I thought it would be good to include a depiction of the approved method of closing such a case.  Just as a public service.

You’re welcome.


Well, gosh it was interesting to see those pictures, friend.  Thanks for that.  The experience wasn’t without mixed feelings of course, several very significant fashion errors.  Ouch.  And I will admit it was a little jarring to see me playing a guitar in standard tuning.  If we’re right about the date then it would be around the time I changed to DADGAD tuning pretty much full time.  So now when people ask me how long I’ve been playing guitar like that, I actually have a reasonably accurate answer.  It’s been a little less than thirty years full time, first got serious with it a little before that.  Not that the counting is important.  But I do forget sometimes how long I’ve been playing that way.

I did find one thing caught my attention.  In those pictures I’m accompanying someone.  And it looks to me like I’m doing then something that I still do now.  Yes, I’m listening closely to what they’re playing, no question, but I’m also watching them intently for any kind of clue about how they actually want to play this thing.  I guess that’s where I began to learn that focus it takes, that to be able to have a fighting chance to hit that downbeat in that same quirky way as them I was going to have to take in how they moved.  Figuring out a singer’s phrasing was pretty easy after that.  Funny what you learn.  I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I guess I’ve been trying to supply useful groove to other people’s playing, often people who had a very personal relationship with time and phrasing, for a little over thirty years.  Okay how did that happen?

I certainly don’t do a lot of accompanying any more, so I’m fairly certain I’m not as good at it as I was.  All good.  Although I guess that’s a bit of what I’m doing at the Tuesday night sessions.  Only now I’m doing it on the bass instead of the guitar.  Same verb, different noun.  Folks are nice to let me play when it makes sense, so I figure if in return it helps them enjoy their night it’s the least I can do.  Just another application of supplying groove, I guess.

Supplying useful groove for thirty years.  No way I’d ever say that in real life, but yeah, that’s funny in all kinds of ways.


kbsitegraphicexc01One of those astonishing conversations I would have with folkies, back when I was working that side of the street, was when one of them would tell me that the casual bigotry that is behind some humour is essential for those jokes to work.  Oh they would do backflips and handsprings in order to get that little piece of nonsense to be true.  I specifically remember the banjo-god telling me that racially bigoted humour could only work without being offensive if you took out the specific people insulted and put in an imaginary race.  I didn’t have the heart to suggest to him that the very idea of race is considered an imaginary concept in science, but such was my time wandering around the peoples of social significance.

One odd little backwater of humour is musician jokes.  Which is only really funny to my ear when it’s a musician telling a joke about players of their own instrument.  And of course, because viola players will have heard every viola joke there is, the one they remember will be scathingly funny.  I’ve probably told you about being in a shuttle van full of musicians who each told their favourite joke about their own kind.  Shortest bus ride I’ve ever taken, laughing hard the whole way.

But there’s a better, kinder class of musician joke.  Somehow telling it at our own expense, and yet riffing off both our experience and our pre-conceived notions around that instrument.  An example?  Well, okay.  So I walk into a session the other day, typical assortment of lots of guitars and one or two mando-things, I haul my upright bass around the corner to see what’s up, and there at the other end of the room is another upright bassist, already in progress.  Most excellent, although it’s a little like showing up to a party wearing the same outfit.  Only louder.  The other player sees me, I see them, our eyes meet, and without thinking, surrounded as we are by umpteen guitars, I say, “Oh good, there’s two of us, now we have them outnumbered.”

No vulgar slams, no rehearsing bigotry in gentler guise.  Just a touch of self-deprecation, and a slightly skewed world-view.  And I am no expert on these things.  So how hard can it be?

But first, the job is to believe it is possible.

The Weird Chord (part 2)

Yesterday we were talking about weird chords, in particular one that’s called ‘diminished’.  I thought maybe in the interest of accuracy I should probably point out that so far we’ve been talking about chords with three notes in them.  However in some forms of musical theory language (I know, there are a few) a ‘diminished chord’ actually has four notes, not three.  In that case it has the three notes we talked about plus another one on top (for what it’s worth, the top note is based on the 7th note of the scale, then lowered down a semi-tone)  For now I just wanted to point out that in some circles what we were talking about is actually a diminished ‘triad’ (triad = 3-notes) rather than a diminished ‘chord’ (chord = anything more than two notes).  Triad is a word you’ll hear a bunch when we’re talking about music.  I figured you might as well know.

The Weird Chord

You and I have been looking at chords for a while now.  I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve given you the idea that all chords are either major or minor.  They’re not.  There are other options, although we don’t hear them quite so often. There’s one particular chord it’s good to know.  I think of it as ‘the weird chord’.  You won’t come across it every day, but every once in a while.  And when it does come up it’s good to have someone in the room who knows what to do.  So think of this as your own musical heimlich manoeuver.

When it comes to chord names if it doesn’t say major or minor there’s a good chance it’ll say ‘diminished’.  It’s definitely a weird-sounding chord, but it’s not as unusual as you might think (you see it a bunch in things like ragtime and a lot of old-school pop music).  You can arrive at it a few ways.  Me, I start from a known and work from there.  And for me there is no bigger ‘known’ in music than the major chord.  So let’s start there.

Let’s work from a C-major chord (just because in C there aren’t any sharps or flats to confuse things, but you knew that, right?).  A major chord is made up of doh, mi and soh in a major scale.  So a C-major chord would be C and E and G-notes.  Okay, once we’re there the rest is easy.

Remember that the only difference between a major and minor chord is that the minor chord has the middle note a semi-tone lower.  So the three notes that make up a C-minor chord are C, E-flat and G.

All good so far, nothing new there.  But what if we also take the highest note of that C-major chord, the G-note, and do the same trick, change it from a G-note to a G-flat by lowering it a semi-tone?  Our new three notes would be C, E-flat and G-flat.  And those are the notes that make up a C-diminished chord.

So if you know the major chord you can figure out the diminished.

  • If a D-Major-chord is made up of D, F-sharp and A-notes,

a D-diminished chord is made up of D, F and A-flat notes.

  • If a G-major chord is made up of G, B and D-notes,

an G-diminished chord is made up of G, B-flat and D-flat notes.

Yup, it’s that easy, once you know the major chord.  So next time somebody chokes over a diminished chord, you’ll know what to do.

You’re welcome.

(Sidenote–the distance from C up to G is called a fifth.  You figure if we lowered it a semi-tone it’d be a ‘minor fifth’.  But there’s no such thing.  Neither is there a ‘major fifth’.  If a fifth is exactly where it would be in the major scale it’s called a ‘perfect fifth’.  And a semi-tone down from ‘perfect’ it’s called diminished.  Same is true of a fourth, and an octave for that matter.  So for this reason it’s useful to remember 1458.  When we go from doh to any of those notes in the scale they’re all referred to as ‘perfect intervals’, not ‘major’.  And a semi-tone lower is called ‘diminished’, not ‘minor’.  A little goofy, but good to know.)

Strange Moments Again

Many years ago I worked in a duo with a harper.  It was a good gig while it lasted, people seemed to enjoy it, certainly we had more than our share of decent nights.  Of course, if you’re doing something like that long enough you’re going to collect a few interesting times.

They had decided to organize a first Canadian folk harp conference, and put together a big deal concert which they invited us to be part of, honoured guests actually.  Was nice to feel supported, so of course we accepted.  The concert was being held in a large church with ample room for a decent-sized audience, although the performance space was a bit tight.  However, we made it work by taking my three guitars and placing them on their stands each one in front of the next, three in a row (I know, I know, one was an electric, one was my main acoustic guitar tuned in dadgad, the third was another acoustic in standard tuning used to avoid having to re-tune on stage).  Sound check went well and by show time there were several hundred people in the audience.  We were given a nice introduction, walked out to solid applause thinking ‘Hey, it sounds like they like us, we’re going to have a good time!’, and took a bow.  Then my partner turned around and sat at the harp, while I took a half-step backwards so I could take up my position standing at the mic.  All good, just like we’d rehearsed it.  Except I’d misjudged where exactly I was standing.  And there wasn’t a lot of room for error.  None, in fact.

And that was when it happened.  The most amazing sound.  You see there were several hundred people there, they said five or six hundred, I don’t remember.  And many of them were musicians.  And when every one of them saw what was about to happen, I heard the sound of a significant number of people all catching their breath at the same time.  Yup, I backed up and caught the edge of the first guitar behind me, just like people had hoped wouldn’t happen, which then fell backwards onto the guitar behind it, which fell in turn domino-like and knocked over the third.  Either a strike or a full-house, I don’t know how you measure these things.  But you couldn’t have staged it more perfectly if you tried.  Happily there was no real damage and we picked up and gave a solid performance.

But the thing I remember about that night is not my goofy move.  Do enough shows and something like that’s bound to happen no matter how careful you are, no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  No, what I remember quite clearly is that sound.  Wordless gasp, large number of people.  Some folks carry colour, they have a memory for it.  I guess I carry sound.

And it’s funny what’s in my sound memory.

Bu yeah, that was a moment.

Strange Moments

Many years ago, we were performing at a festival, just about to begin our main stage set, we’d finished the cable-up, they gave the mc the thumbs up and they began their introduction while I took a moment to make sure my concentration was in place.  The intro was pretty standard at first, they’d taken notes from some of our promotional material.  I remember thinking that they were doing a pretty good job, which always helps the performance get off to a solid start.  Then they started to do a little biographical sketch of me.  And I lost my focus completely.  You see they’d done some significant research.  Yessiree, a whole whack of innernet must’ve gone into it.  Except they’d got the wrong Ken Brown.  I knew something was strange when they described me as coming from a musical family.  Huh??  My folks would’ve been deeply amused to hear that.  They spoke of both gigs and instruments I’d never played.  I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but it seemed to go on forever, was like watching someone else’s life pass before my eyes.  Just for a heartbeat I wondered whether we were at the right gig, or maybe I’d dropped into some kind of parallel universe.  Then it was over and the set started.  I will admit it took me a little while to get my mind fully back on the task at hand.  I guess we did okay, I remember the audience seemed to enjoy the set we played.  But yeah, of all the weird moments I’ve had on stage, that was definitely one of them.

No permanent damage, though.  Although ever since then whenever I’ve worked as an mc I’ve had this irresistible urge to begin with accurate material and then just take a left turn and work my way into bizarre-land.  Could be huge fun, no?  “Not a lot of people know this but our next performer actually invented the internet.  And then sold it to Al Gore…”  Never had the nerve.  Maybe one day.