March 8th, 2012 by pilgrims
“… Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft — that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect….
Dave Grohl at the 2012 Grammy Awards.
This week I walked into a supermarket expecting aisles of food, but instead found a sea of Easter Eggs looking prematurely smug.
There was no sudden yen to devour handfuls of chocolate but rather, a wave of terror that said: “OMG! It’s almost performance time”.
And this freaks me out.
Why? Because, and apologies to Dave Grohl, it may not be about being perfect, but surely it’s about being half competent!
After a positive start on the fiddle, where I went from knowing nothing to being able to play some vaguely recognisable tunes, I perhaps got slightly ahead of myself and then, last week, hit the wall.
My good friend Zena reminded me that, “Adult learning is not a steady upward progression. More like a series of steps and plateaus, with the occasional plunge into deep icy crevasses”.
My ice-pick was sadly missing when I had my lesson last week.
Remember I have been practising every day, (well almost every day), since mid-November.
I now have four tunes I can play.
Between lessons I try to play alongside Sebastian on Sound Cloud. I also scour the Internet and match myself against the dodgy prowess of the “bedroom protégés” — the midnight virtuosos who film themselves playing after four lessons and post into cyberspace, hoping to validate their progress. I like these people because I can almost outplay them. Of course the world of U-tube musical wannabes is a whole other story….
Marcus is progressing well. He walks around the house with the mandolin hanging from a strap looking like a poor man’s Mike Compton. And a few weeks back we had our first little jam in the back room, me playing the notes for Spanish Lady, he strumming chords on the mandolin, an instrument that sounds magical, no matter what you do with it. It was a wonderful moment.
We were feeling buoyed by our experience “off road”. Having never ventured beyond the safe confines of the National Folk Festival, we had stepped into hardcore folk festival territory. After the Big Day Out on Australia Day, we spent the Saturday and Sunday just down the road from Cooma, at the four-day riverside campsite ‘session’ that is the Numeralla Folk Festival.
Marcus hates camping. He used to hate folk festivals. Just getting him from Amaroo to EPIC, (a five minute drive), was a Leviathan task in itself. That we were a) camping, b) at a folk festival on the other side of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, and c) we had instruments we actually intended to take out of the car and out of their cases – well, it verged on the miraculous.
And we had a ball. Such a wonderful community of generous people: from helping us to put up the tent, (another tale), to giving us endless words of encouragement about our journey.
But BEST of all we had our first session with real musicians. We played along to Spanish Lady and it was simply the greatest feeling.
And the icing on the cake? Dave O’Neill taught me “The Britches Full of Stitches”, (really, where do they get these names from?), as we sat by the river in the morning sun.
I was feeling high for weeks after this beautiful little festival, where the musicians were ridiculously talented (oh, those South Coast fiddle players!). I was also feeling reassured by a stream of friends and family, who all seem to have a violin or a mando out the back and have offered to help.
Then last week, feeling good, I had the lesson from hell.
Nothing worked. I played my tunes and made more mistakes in one lesson then I have made in four months.
The bowing was awful. It takes years to get this right. I have weeks. Fingers that had been so confident gliding across the strings seemed to slur with inexplicable memory failure. Sebastian has since placed yellow marks on the neck of the fiddle so my fingers don’t stray too far from where they should be. It suddenly felt remedial.
I still don’t know how to tune the bloody thing. Oh and I don’t “do timing”.
Unlike Marcus and Col, where there has been a more traditional approach to teaching, Marcus initially focused on chords and understanding timing. Sebastian and I went straight to the tunes. It has worked for me. But now Sebastian says, “remember to think about timing”; to “find your inner metronome”. Your what?!
All too much to think about! So last week I found it hard to maintain momentum.
Sebastian says it is at this point that 80 to 90% of people give up. And if weren’t for this Pilgrim’s Progress project I have signed up for, I may well have just quietly put the fiddle in its case and pushed it to the back of the wardrobe into evening wear oblivion.
But … I have persisted. I have played and played.
I was in Bathurst on the weekend at a dear friend’s place, (she introduced Marcus and I some 27 years ago). On her balcony I played to a group of friends and family and even had people singing along to “She Moved Through the Fair”. Almost a great moment, except for the one dog who left the balcony yelping. The other stayed but he was, my friend informed me later with a cheeky smile, completely deaf. Of course he was.
Happily on the upswing, I have had two great lessons with Sebastian this week. I basically play alongside him, both of us on our fiddles.
Today I had the day off work and had a lunchtime lesson. (In the video you can see me attempt the ‘The Britches Full of Stitches’.)
Sebastian has given me some more hints on bowing and says it will come.
I am under strict orders to play more against his recordings on Sound Cloud.
With the Folk Festival now only a month away I need to play until my arms ache every night.
As I type, Marcus is in the kitchen cooking. Afterwards we are going to play Spanish Lady together. He can now play the notes and it sounds like music.
Yesterday I had my fiddle at work and played to one of my young staff members. Her eyes lit up and she said she felt inspired to learn.
Then I remembered why I am doing this – to encourage and remind others that it really is never too late to pick up an instrument. It might be hard. It might be full of highs and horrible, hell-scraping lows, but it is an amazing journey.
From next week I am hoping Marcus, Col, Sebastian and I can get together and we can start getting Marcus and I playing together, so we have the courage to get up on a stage in front of people who may not know we are adult learners.
A few days ago Marcus joked that we should continue with these instruments and do the festival circuit as “Double Dissolution”. I quipped that perhaps we may be more aptly titled ‘Double Delusion’.
Time will be the judge. But there’s no doubt, things are starting to get interesting.
February 23rd, 2012 by pilgrims
Col Bernau is a patient man, a very patient man.
When I first undertook the challenge of learning a musical instrument I and my wife Virginia were to choose between violin (or fiddle in the folk world) and Mandolin. Once in High School I picked up a violin and made such a howl with my first bow I put it quietly down and left the room swiftly – I wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. Added to this was the fact that one of the great pop songs of recent years, Losing My Religion by REM, featured a Mandolin prominently… so really, my choice was made for me.
But my initial enthusiasm turned to despair…
Early conversation/lessons may have gone something like this:
“So first finger, second fret on the G string, but after the open chord…”
“What’s a G string? There’s a piece of music by Bach yeah?”
“Not important… then the other strings, D, A and E. Think of it as G’day! “
“OK, what? Sorry but where’s the apostrophe string, shouldn’t there be five strings then? Why are there eight but kind of four, because you play two together? But not really when you’re playing chords… and where’s the Y?”
“No the E is the last one, G’day is only how it sounds…”
“So the E is the Y? Please tell me why I am here because I am confused and I want to cry….”
As I said Col is a very patient man…
After four lessons I am kind of playing notes, I know three chords badly and I have callouses on my fingers where they have never existed before. No, I still don’t know what I am doing but the mandolin is much better than the fiddle – or at least that is what I am telling myself.
This was all before this week’s lesson with Col, who asked me if I was having fun. I paused for a moment, because I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Just trying to get my thoughts around a musical instrument has done my head in these past few weeks, but in recent days I’ve just been strumming away making a bit of a racket and not really thinking about it.
This is when I had something of an epiphany. “It doesn’t matter because I just love it,” I replied.
When the folk festival sent out the press release, I did a few radio interviews and most of the announcers expressed surprise Virginia and I were even doing this at all and often praised our bravery. However, it isn’t bravery. It is the excitement of something new and different and these instruments, even when we play them badly, sing to us.
Yes it will take time and who knows how we will sound when the festival comes around, but I have something new in my life and it is making me think differently about one of my greatest loves: music.
So you see I’ve started a voyage, and no doubt it will be a long one, but my bags are packed and I’m on the ship, and we’re slowly pulling away from the dock!
February 1st, 2012 by pilgrims
Hello there. My name is Marcus Kelson.
I am a journalist (I work as the morning Radio News producer for the ABC in Canberra) and long-time music lover, critic, writer, and radio reviewer of a broad range of musical styles, mostly not of the folk variety.
For more than 20 years my dear wife, Virginia Cook, has been telling me what a joy to behold the National Folk Festival is and I should really come along, I would love it.
My oft repeated response usually went something like, ‘bunch of smelly hippies who never knew ‘The Clash” (world’s greatest ever band by the way), why would I even be interested?’ But her persistence and a nagging curiosity got the better of me.
So now, after maybe five years of going to the Festival, interviewing organisers, participants and even the odd headliner, I am about to cross the Rubicon.
I have, for the first time, and at the tender age of 51, picked up a musical instrument. It is a mandolin and it is beautiful, and after two lessons of turning my fingers into some godawful configuration not meant for mankind, I am now full of doubt, anxiety, and the gathering storm of personal failure – but enough about me.
The idea, floated by Zena Armstrong and others, was to prove that people of a certain age can and will learn a musical instrument to a point where they are capable of playing a tune or not making a total fool of themselves, and that as part of the National Folk Festival’s commitment to teaching (in this case adult learning for a big sook) show to others that picking up and enjoying a musical instrument is not only not impossible, but is fairly within the realms of enjoyment.
I suspect I will test this commitment, but I have made my first step– in fact, I have also made my second step.
Last weekend the pair of us were invited to the Numarella Folk Festival just outside of Cooma. It was very laid back, the people were fabulous with their time and energy, and yes, patience–and if that was anything to go by the next two and a bit months (before we take to a very small stage at the back of the folk festival at six am when nobody is around – just joking) could be an absolute load of fun.
And just between you and me I never really found the smelly hippies…
February 1st, 2012 by pilgrims
“I don’t know anything about music, in my line you don’t have to.” – Elvis Presley
An amazing and unexpected journey has begun for me.
I took up Italian in my 20′s, tennis in my 30s and chess in my 40s. I had assumed after that the brain was closed for any further tricky business.
I always believed that only the very young could learn a musical instrument. I had also heard many times that if you are good at maths, you’ll do well at music. I sucked at maths.
Music has always been in my life one way or another. Early guidance came courtesy of my parents’ vinyl collection of Harry Belafonte, The Seekers, Johnny Cash, African Safari, Tijuana Brass, the soundtracks to Salad Days, Fiddler on the Roof and my favourite — the music from the French movie A Man and a Woman.
I inhaled the music of my best friends’ older siblings: James Taylor, Donovan, Carole King, Carly Simon, Melanie and The Rolling Stones.
In my first year at university in Brisbane my then boyfriend introduced me to The Sex Pistols. Hungry for more of this edgy, raw music I joined a swag of uni students, largely from the medical faculty, in trawling music venues to explore the local punk scene. I was lucky enough to experience Cloudland and to this day I swear Nick Cave jumped on my table at the Queen’s hotel and ripped my blouse. (I can only hope). The Brisbane punk rock scene between 1975 and 1984 is generally regarded as producing “some of the most anarchistic bands of the Australian punk rock era”. (according to the Encyclopaedia of Australian Rock and Pop, p. 237).
Perhaps it was the way the skinny boys “pogo” danced falling over each other in stovepipe pants and thin black ties, or the promise of love letters quoting The Clash — I wanted in on the act.
Of course I couldn’t sing but that didn’t stop me standing in front of the microphone of a student punk band. I was super skinny, wore op-shop clothes picked up in the then seedy Valley, had my grandmother’s pointy patent leather pumps, lit my face up with the reddest lipstick and had more confidence than was legally possible. Luckily it was the time of screaming, where not being able to sing was a minor impediment to greatness.
The band had the foresight not to actually have a name. Given its short life span it was a wise move. We played at several uni parties. The tunes were great. My lyrics were, in retrospect, a bit naive, except perhaps for my song about a girl working in the ‘pineapple’ factory. To this day when I go home my old school friends, after a few wines, make the inevitable request for me to perform ‘Cannery Girl’.
The final performance of our nameless band was in broad daylight (clearly our downfall) at the 21st party of a friend. Sitting in front of us were not our peers, but a number of elderly relatives who looked on in genuine shock. In the stark reality of sunshine I realised that despite the musical dexterity of the boys, I couldn’t actually sing.
Luckily I finished my degree and fled to Sydney to further my studies, exploring Paddington Town Hall, the Basement and the Roundhouse, seeing the likes of The Laughing Clowns, The Sardines and Mental as Anything.
You may be asking, what’s this got to do with folk music?? Stay with me.
A year later I arrived in Canberra and soon began a career as a journalist, I soon met the love of my life and we married and had two boys.
I was a great one for getting out of the house and taking my eldest, then two, to any kind of event with a soul in a city purported to be without one. I stumbled across a group of musicians at the ANU and hence my love affair with the National Folk Festival began.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love going to indie music festivals, Marcus and I have done Austin City Limits, Womadeliade and the Big Day Out, with Splendour in the Grass in our sights.
But for me there is nothing like the National Folk Festival.
And nothing like folk music. For me, not the clichéd Australian ballads or Euro pin-up trad or the impossible prettiness of the likes of The Corrs. I am talking about the often fierce, moving, funny and always deeply personal stories as told by the hands of musical wizards.
By about February every year I start getting pumped. Just thinking about the atmosphere; the food; the ever-expanding group of friends I have coaxed along (who are now also addicted); the colourful characters; the incredibly eclectic spread of music; the feeling on the Thursday night when you sit down with a Guinness and know you have left all your cares behind you for five glorious days; and the beautiful moments – a child busking, old friendships igniting around a camp-fire over mulled wine or a young girl playing fierce fiddle alongside an old seadog on his accordion piano at the Sessions Bar.
And then it dawned on me. I wanted to be in on the act. I wanted to participate. I wanted to walk into the Sessions Bar with the tell-tale black case slung over my shoulder (yes with something in it) looking like “I knew what I was doing with strings and things”.
Oh yes I have played the spoon on a beer bottle at 5am or strummed a torch with a fork to effect some kind of rhythmic noise with a group of bewildered Greek drummers at 6am – but it’s not the same…..
I wanted just once to know what it felt like to let fly with an instrument not needing to think about technical crap but having the music flow from your heart and soul (and still sound good!).
And now for the very first time in my life, I am doing something I never thought possible at this time of my life. I am making a serious attempt to learn a musical instrument. The fiddle. And it’s friggin’ fabulous.