Me and my guitar, first week of 2021

Years ago, when I was very much into English folk music and tried to play the melodeon (if you're Irish, in the English context it's the 2-row accordion, but tuned D/G), a new friend of mine had started her YouTube channel where she documented her journey of learning to play the melodeon and anglo concertina. It was SO inspiring! She posted videos of herself playing, from square one, so that everyone could follow her learning process.

I don't even know if her channel still exists, but it has continued to inspire me, 10 years after. I always underestimate myself, I always compare myself with other people, and I can say that today's social media/blog trends, where you have to be an expert at everything, aren't helping. Actually, the seemingly general view that everything you show online has to be perfect and brilliant, is why I never post any videos of myself playing (I send them occasionally to friends though). It's sad but true.

But when other people show themselves as beginners, learners and non-experts, it inspires me because it makes me feel that I can be a beginner too, that it's normal and ok. So I've been thinking that it would be nice to share on this blog now and then what I'm learning, what I've been practicing and what has inspired me lately. That could also give some kind of documentation of my progress! Well, at least valuable for myself.

I'm learning to play bluegrass guitar with an online workshop website, Artistworks. You sign up, pay a fee, and then you have access to a vast gallery of video lessons for the instrument you have chosen. You can also choose to send videos to your teacher on the site, and he or she will reply with a video to give you feedback. This is very valuable but I haven't used it much. I sent in a video in September and received some very good advice on playing up the neck. I plan to try to record something next week - the same tune months later, and another tune added to it.

During the late autumn, sadly I couldn't make time to practice as much as I did until October or so. Of course this has shown in my playing. I did improve on the up the neck things but after that, I've had no development whatsoever. But during Christmas and New Year, our main activity was to play music, and I started on some new tunes. I've also been trying to make a plan for how and what to practice - if I don't know how to practice, the practice session will be quite useless. Sure, it's good to keep up your tunes, keep your guitar happy and maintain your fingertip calluses, but you're not going to improve playing if you don't consciously work on developing your technical skills.

So what/how do I practice and what am I working on now?

I have a nice list of fiddle tunes that I play, and all of them have their own difficulties, so I don't do many standalone exercises because the tunes are such good exercises themselves. This is an almost complete list of tunes that I play, although a few of them are tunes I've put aside for a while until I'm better at certain techniques, but I'll come back to them later.

  • Beaumont rag
  • Big Sciota
  • Bill Cheatham
  • Billy in the lowground
  • Blackberry blossom
  • Cherokee shuffle
  • Black mountain rag
  • Forked deer
  • Clinch mountain backstep
  • Prettiest girl in the county
  • Red-haired boy
  • Salt creek
  • Soldier's joy
  • St Anne's reel
  • Turkey in the straw
  • Whiskey before breakfast
  • Wildwood flower

I still struggle with playing up the neck, so I've created an exercise for myself where I play scales without open strings, first on one string at a time but using all the strings from the bottom to the top, and then back. It's an excellent excercise to strengthen your pinky finger but I find it's also very good to strengthen your left hand generally. This helps a lot and I already notice a difference when I play the top notes of Big Sciota and Salt Creek. Great!

What has inspired me lately?

Most days while working, I keep videos or music going on my iPad. It can be Spotify playlists or documentaries on YouTube. Earlier this week I was watching a playlist of "Seconds from disaster" (I have a weird fascination for such things) when I suddenly felt that "Why am I watching this, why don't I instead try to find something inspiring?" I did a search on bluegrass guitar, and found a chat about guitar improvisation, with Bryan Sutton (who is my teacher at Artistworks) at a channel called "Lessons with Marcel" that focuses on bluegrass guitar tutorials. I watched it, and absolutely loved it. I found the channel generally very inspiring, and subscribed.

The chat was perhaps aimed for more advanced players, but I found it very interesting to listen to, and will go back to it later on. Marcel, the channel host, also showed a little lick by the late Tony Rice (I'll write more about him in a future post) and how it could be used to spice up a solo or a fiddle tune. He showed how it could be used in Red-haired boy, so that's what I use it for now. And I will definitely explore this channel a bit more!

And then the little things...

In the middle of this disaster that we're living in, it's important to be happy about the small things in life. Nothing is too small if it gives you a moment of joy. Such as...

  • Yesterday I could finally play decent pull-offs without getting stuck with my fingertip callus in the string.
  • I could play both Big Sciota and Salt Creek without major problems and my fretting hand position is beginning to look good.
  • We found the Swedish film series Jönssonligan on YouTube.
  • After almost two weeks of temperatures around or below zero, Met Éireann says it'll finally be warmer next week.

What have you been up to this week? What little things brought you some joy?

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