Thursday, January 26, 2006


Extreme problem, extreme solution...

I think I may have found a magic trick to end my pre-competition jitters.

But for this magic trick, I need a volunteer to assist me...

Monday, January 23, 2006


Recital Basket Case

I don't know what it is, but the better and more comfortable (dare I say "brazen" I become about public performances, the more of a basket case I become in recital and competition situations. Elke's students had a studio recital, and I fell apart. I am playing so beneath my ability in such situations, because I get so nervous. And rationally, I know better, I'm trying to keep it under control, but to no avail.

Rosemary and I arranged and orchestrated sets Sunday. We got through Birks & Heather, Muckin', The Devil's Reels, and Sergeant Where's Mine. And we have a good idea where to go with Coilsfield House. So things are coming along very well. It's all quite exciting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


One year and singing

So today's a bit of an anniversary for me. I've had my new violin for a year now.

I played on the same inexpensive student violin from 13 to when I stopped playing classical violin at 16; and when I took up the instrument again as a fiddler 15 years later, this was the instrument I went back to. I loved it, it was made the same year I was, but there were limitations to it I couldn't even realize at the time, since it was the only full-sized violin I'd ever known..

A little over a year ago, I was looking for a baroque-setup violin, for living history demonstrations. Any instrument set up this way would be a professional grade instrument, and so would be better than mine. The typical starting price was $6k, which was a bit steep. Then I found one at my favorite online ethnic music shop, Lark in the Morning for $2k. I researched the maker, found that he was highly regarded, and said what the hell. Normally you'd want to try out a number of quality instruments before buying, but I went on a hunch.

I got the instrument, and it was gorgeous. Lightly flamed maple back, the bookending offset slightly to create a "backgammon board" effect. The spruce top was tightly grained, and the stain a wonderful dark amber. It was feather-light - the walls of the sound chamber were much thinner than my student instrument. It took me a while to get used to the baroque bridge and gut strings, but I settled in.

And the difference in the sound was amazing. This instrument was so fat, so rich, so wonderfully brimming over with harmonics and overtones I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And I wasn't the only one. Most who heard it commented glowingly on the sound. It was only then that I realized how thin-sounding my old instrument was.

You'll hear "a better instrument won't make you a better player", usually as an admonition against spending a lot of money in lieu of practicing and doing scales and etudes. But unlike most stringed instruments, the violin family is fretless. Good intonation requires precise finger placement, and learning it requires you to be able to hear when you've nailed a note, and when it's skunky. And one way you hear is to listen to ringing with the open strings. The second harmonic of any note is the perfect 5th, and the fourth a major 3rd, and the first and third harmonics are octaves. All but four of the 12 semitones, if you nail it, will cause sympathetic resonance with one or more open strings that happen to be the octave, 3rd, or 5th of the note you just played. The instrument practically sings.

A year ago, though otherwise a good player, my intonation was spotty, with occasional forays into skunkiness. I wanted to be better, but I just couldn't hear it. Part of that was my ear, and part of that was my instrument. On the old instrument, the harmonics are so thin and muted, they barely caused a quiver in the other strings, and I could never get that instant feedback. But suddenly, with the new instrument, I could hear when I got it right. And, between this and playing in more keys than the three most common ones a lot more, I did get it right much more often. It's like a little Pavlovian reward: when I have good intonation, my violin sings for me.

So a year on, this instrument has made me a better player. And it reminded me of that fact when I was playing it last night. The violin sang for me, over and over.

Monday, January 09, 2006


A Few News Items

I had a good meeting with the people over at Potomac Overlook Park. They want me to do 6 90 minute shows over the spring, and if it works out, they'll be looking to give me the "artist in residence" slot. It'll be tough to get accompanists, but I'll see what I can do. It will be a fun little promotional thing.

I got my smallpipes back from EJ, and they're awesome. His new reeds take so little air and are so easy that it's hard not to overblow and go sharp. But a very light touch, and it's in perfect A-440 tune. He's changed the drone configuration for me with new drone reeds too: a treble drone that can tune to E or D, tenor and bass drones in A, and a baritone drone in D. That gives me a lot of flexibility for playing with both the A and D chanters. I played it a bit for Rosemary yesterday, and she thought it sounded gorgeous.

Speaking of Rosemary, she came over for an Uilleann pipe "lesson" and a rehearsal. That went very well; we went through the entire repertoire, which she played on wooden flute where she could and silver when she couldn't. She also indicated a desire to play some tunes (Coilsfield House, for example) on alto flute, which has the same range as the fiddle. We also talked about the songs we're looking at, and she was equally excited.

Now the big task is orchestration and arrangement. We're beginning to get some good ideas...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


A fourth member?

The Devil's Tailors are beginning to take shape as a band. Though the latest addition isn't official yet, here's how we might be looking as a lineup:

Pete - Fiddle, Lead Vocals, Highland Pipes, Scottish Smallpipes (plus occasionally Tenor Banjo, Mandolin, Cittern, Wooden Flute, Whistles)
Anders - Lead & Rhythm Guitar, Backup Vocals, Mandolin, Irish Bouzouki
Chris - Rhythm Guitar, Backup Vocals, Bodhran
Rosemary - Silver Flute, Backup Vocals, Irish Flute, Whistles, Piano (eventually Uilleann Pipes!)

What a Hell of a lineup this would be!

Now we just need to go through the sets and fully arrange them for the range of instruments available to us now.

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