The Old Town School of Folk Music has a number of "ensemble" classes. These are like regular music classes that are devoted to a particular theme, and open to a range of instruments. Or, to put it another way, they're like playing in a band except A) you don't have to audition, and B) the band leader is getting paid to teach you what to do. They have a Beatles Ensemble, and an Irish Ensemble. A couple years ago I took the Andean Ensemble. Now I'm taking the AC/DC ensemble, and my first lesson was last night.
I'm still wicked new at this whole "music" thing, so my apologies if I over-explain simple concepts here. This stuff isn't simple to me at all, yet, and I'm still amazed that I know some of this stuff.
So it was the instructor, Dan Fulkerson; a drummer; eight electric guitar players; and me with my fiddle. It totally rocked. There's a fantastic diversity of experience, ranging from a guy who started playing the guitar about three months ago, to this guy who has been playing for thirty years, and everyone is incredibly nice. I was wicked nervous going in, because I really didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be a blast.
Dan reminds me a bit of Jack Black in School of Rock (he probably hears that all the time) because they have a slightly similar build, but also because they have a similar passion for Rock and Roll, rocking out, &c. &c. The whole experience was pretty authentically Rock, it felt, from the fact that two different folks brought twelve-packs of beer to class to the fact that the neighbors (the Beginning Cello class upstairs) came down to complain at least twice.
I didn't know what to expect at all, so I brought my acoustic violin. I'm bringing the electric next time, and the FX pedal. In fact, I'll hopefully be able to mod it out pretty soon (as soon as I get a dremmel from someone!)--I've wanted to replace the volume / tone knobs with gears for a while. And then last night as I was coming home, the Church Rabbit dashed in front of me, and I realized that it was mandatory that I buy one of these and affix it to the head of my violin.
I learned more in that hour than I have in the two years of trying to teach myself Rock and Roll. Most importantly, I learned that I really, really love Rock and Roll music. I want to be a Rocker. I want to Rock Out. I want to turn on my amp and blast out a wave a distorted sound. If that means I have to learn guitar, I'll do that, but I'm still thinking that my violin will work just as well. Another important thing that I learned is the difference between riffs and phrases. Well, maybe not that, but something.
I've had enough (barely enough) music theory, and I've been playing long enough to know something or other about the music I've been playing: old timey music. I can't quite figure out the exact difference, but here's one important piece. Old timey music is made up of a series of phrases, each five to ten notes long. So, many old timey songs I know have a six-note phrase, then the same phrase slightly varied, then the original phrase, and then a new phrase that ends the A part. Then you play it one more time. Then there a new phrase, and it follows the same pattern for the B part. These phrases comprise the melody, and in general everyone plays them together, and the vocalist sings the lyrics to the same notes (although, of course, it's always nice to have a guitar playing just the chords in the background). Angeline the Baker is a great example of this, and the site I've linked to (which I didn't know about until just know) has a nice, clean MP3 of it.
The riffs that Dan taught us (e.g., for "Girls got Rhythm", last night) seem to serve the same purpose as phrases, except that they are shorter and repeated much more frequently. I'm sure that to anyone who grew up playing music or, indeed, listening to the radio this is too obvious to mention. For me, however, this was somewhat revolutionary (I didn't particularly start listening to music until my second year of high school, and I just started playing music in 2003). In fact, I'm still very unclear about the difference. Certainly there is a melody, but it seems to be driven by the vocals . So far years now I've been trying to learn rock and roll by buying sheet music and then attempting to play the melody. Sometimes it sounds ok, sometimes it sounds awful, but it has never sounded like Rock and Roll. This was also true of all of my attempts to write music and to improvise. Now I'm starting to have some idea of why. Perhaps my approach would have worked if I'd been playing the sheet music melody alongside a bunch of guitarists (or cellists, for that matter) who were playing the underlying riffs, but those riffs are the key element. Last night we played without vocals at all (and, thus, without any additional melody) and it sounded fantastic.
Another thing that I'm learning (after a mere hour in the class) is how to read guitar tab. If you want to learn an old timey tune, an Irish jig, or a hornpipe, there are dozens of online, searchable databases that will give you the sheet music for free--often in your choice of standard notation, ABC notation, or as a MIDI file. There are also a growing number of sites that do the same for classical music. There are, of course, plenty of sites that have the music for Rock and Roll songs as well, but these are almost exclusively in guitar tab, and so I haven't been able to do anything with them. Well, the only music we're given in this class is tab, so I finally have the motivation to learn it. I'm not sure that I'll be able to sight-read it--the format takes into account the design of the guitar, which is entirely different from that of the violin. I'm certainly getting better at using it to figure out what I should be doing, though.
The last thing that I learned last night is that I am now much better at playing double-stops. Quick background info: one of the two biggest weaknesses* of the violin is that, unlike the guitar, it can't play chords. A chord is a combination of three or more notes, but the violin is engineered in such a way that you can only ever cause two strings to vibrate at a time. On the guitar, of course, you can strum all six strings at once if you like, so you can certainly play three notes at once. Chords are nice because they sound full and deep and powerful, and they're pretty much the basis of Rock and Roll, it seems. (It also seems to do something cool to distortion effects when more than one note is happens at once.)
Anyway, so no chords for me. Instead, I can play double-stops--I can bow two strings at once, and get two-thirds of a chord that way. So for a long time I only played double-stops accidentally (it's all too easy to brush the E string when I am trying to only play on the A string, for example). Then a while ago I got to the point where I could add in some double-stops as accents. Chords are the root plus the third plus the fifth note above the root (so for A the chord would be the notes A-C#-E all played at once). The strings on a violin are tuned to G, D, A and E, so that means that you can play two-thirds of a chord just by bowing two strings next to each other, without putting any fingers on any string--easy<>. So every time an A came around, I could choose to give it a little extra weight by also bowing the E string, and it was really easy to do.
During class I'd just been playing single notes, which worked fine (partially because everyone else had an amplifier, so I couldn't really hear myself). But last night, after I got home, I sat down and figured out (for the first time) the double-stops for all of the notes in the riff. And it actually sounded pretty damn good, I think.
*In my vastly inexperienced opinion, obviously. For me, the other biggest weakness is volume control--the violin was painstakingly designed such that one tiny half-pound instrument could be heard from the farthest seat of an opera house, which is a triumph of engineering. If you're at a picnic, though, you can either sit quietly and watch the guitarists and banjo players quietly strum in the background or you can stand up and give a concert. If there's a way to subtly play the violin while still participating in conversation, I've never learned it.
<>I apologize again if I'm "showing off" a level of music theory knowledge that is vastly inferior to what everyone already knows, but this stuff is still really new to me, so I guess I'm showing off for myself. (And hey, it's my blog after all).
D# D# F# D# B A# D#
(Seven Nation Army, by the way).
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G G# A A# B C C# D D# E F F#
D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C C#
A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D#