Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tunes: John Ryan's Polka

When I was at the Aptos, CA session last week someone started a polka. The name of the tune was "somebody Ryan's"; I think it might have been Peg Ryan's. I half-jokingly asked if "she" was related to John Ryan, at which point folks decided to play that tune as well.

I've just learned the tune and wanted to play along, but the session was playing it about three times faster than I could manage. People tend to do that with John Ryan's; it's one of the tunes which is simple enough that it actually sounds really good when played dizzingly fast.

But rather than sit out the tune altogether I just tooted along on the eighth note pairs that start every other bar (like the first pair of high Ds) and omitted the rest. This was all I could keep up with, but it actually sounded good with just those notes.

I heard another whistler at my regular session do a similar thing with Harvest Home. He's a pretty good whistler, so I suspect he was doing it just for the sound rather than because he couldn't keep up. At any rate, he didn't play any of the low As in the first three full measures in the second part. I also liked the sound of that, as a variation.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Seisiún: Off to California

I'm in Scotts Valley, CA for a week to meet with some folks at Borland, and as I had a free day yesterday I decided to look for a session. It turns out that there are quite a few sessions in the Santa Cruz area but the only one I could make during my trip was the second Sunday slow/intermediate session meeting at the Britannia Arms Pub in Aptos.

Like the session I attend in Columbus, it was very friendly, somewhat informal, and welcoming to beginners. When I entered the pub I sat down outside the circle to try and get a feel for the session before joining in. Someone spotted my whistle case, however, and asked me to join almost as soon as I sat down, and then almost immediately invited me to start a tune. I found it to be a very welcoming group. As chance would have it, I had attended Sunday services at the Unitarian Universalist church in Aptos that morning and found it to be a very outgoing and warm group as well, so maybe there are just a lot of nice people in the Aptos area....

But there were differences from the Columbus session, as well. For one thing, the mix of instruments was different. In Columbus we have enough fiddles to stock a symphony orchestra, whereas there were only two fiddlers in Aptos, but three people played mandolins, making them the most common instrument in the session. Someone also brought a cello, which was neat. More significantly (though not surprisingly), the tunes were different. I recognized nearly all of them, but even when I knew how to play the tune they sometimes played it differently; the folks in Aptos play Sí bheag Sí mhor with repeats, whereas I've always played it straight through. It threw me off a bit until I figured out what they were doing, and then I could keep up. When I was invited to start tunes it took a little comparison of notes to find some that both I and the rest of the session knew, but after some discussion I ended up starting Harvest Home and the Swallowtail Jig.

This was the first time I've attended a session while traveling, and it was a great experience, both because the folks in the session were so nice and because it was challenging for me to keep up with musicians who do things differently than I'm used to. That's a good thing; it's always good practice to listen. I'm certainly going to seek out sessions when I travel in the future.

Anyone know of a session meeting next week in Santa Fe?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Shopping: A Cheap Case for My Cheap Whistles

My wife, who knits, and loves me, suggested that a knitting needle case might work very well for storing whistles. I purchased one from Joann Fabrics. It has enough pockets to hold three or four metal whistles, but probably wouldn't fit wood or plastic whistles. The slots in the case are also too small for anything pitched lower than soprano D. It also holds my tuner, extra fipples, and accessories. The outside of the case is quilted fabric, and the inside is plastic. There is a zipper around the outside to close the case.

You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

The case normally costs $14, but it's pretty easy to find coupon codes for Joann.com; just check back regularly enough and you'll find a code for 40-50% off on the home page.

This case suits me well since I play cheap whistles. If I played $200 whistles I'd probably want something nicer.

I've also been told that drum stick bags make good, cheap whistle cases. You can impress your seisiún with a coffin case for your whistle.

Update: The Whistle Shop is now selling a couple drum stick bags as whistle cases. They're a bit more appropriate, I think, than the "coffin" style mentioned above.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Personal: Sunflowers

A snapshot from a pumpkin-picking trip.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Practice: Dog Panting

At my last lesson my teacher asked me, "Do you [when not playing] think a lot about breathing?" I told him that yes, I do.

Ornamentation semantics

We talked for a while about the "breathing as ornamentation" idea expressed in that post. He both agreed and disagreed, the distinction being how you define "ornamentation." I could say that ornamentation means:

  1. Any conscious modification of a tune or deviation from the printed score.
  2. Any modification intended to call attention to itself in some way; a flourish or filigree.

My teacher feels that although you frequently drop notes while breathing that doesn't mean the gap has to be long or obvious. So it's an ornamentation in the sense that it's a change to the melody but not an ornamentation in the sense that it isn't really supposed to stand out. I can go along with that. But then again, I find that in general my favorite ornaments to listen to are the ones that don't really stand out.

Diaphragmatic breathing

As I learn to play tunes faster, I need to breathe faster, too. How can I learn that? My teacher wants me to focus on using my diaphragm.

Folks who have studied experiential anatomy (or maybe just classical flute) know that there are many different "methods" of breathing. You can breathe in by expaning your chest or contracting your diaphragm. The latter is advantageous for flute and whistle as you can move more air faster with your diaphragm than with your chest. Also, breathing this way won't move your shoulders, which interferes with how you hold your instrument.

We tried a couple of exercises to help me learn to focus on the diaphragm while breathing:

  • Put your hand on your diaphragm; it's just below your belly button. Breathe, and try to feel the muscle in action.
  • Pant like a dog, really quickly. You'll have to use your diaphragm, because it's the only way you can breathe that fast.
  • You can find more exercises on this page if the previous two are not enough.

I also found this old chiffboard post by David Migoya which concisely expresses something I've noticed while practicing the whistle:

Part of the key to good diaphram control is the use of the nose. Not only should you know how to take in breath through both the mouth and nose while you play, but you should know how to EXHALE through your nose WHILE you play. This gets rid of "stale" air and greatly increases the capacity of your body to take in fresh air for playing. I don't do this a lot on the flute, but I use it quite a bit on the whistle as I'm not using near as much breath.

I've found that if I'm not careful about regulating my breathing I can have too much air in my lungs and this makes articulation difficult. But I can breathe out through my nose while playing to get down to a more comfortable volume of air.