Monday, January 10, 2011

Practicing as a Family

by Cheryl

I have been asked on a few occasions how we coordinate everything to prepare our music performances. In the following article I plan to lay out some of the nuts and bolts on how I structure our rehearsals, from the organized details to the relaxed aspects. However, before getting into the fine details, I'd like to add a simple note on where it all begins for our family. I admit, we are not a family bluegrass band that "sometimes plays gospel". We are actually a family gospel bluegrass band, that plays a bit of everything, and enjoys interacting in many different settings. This means everything is filtered through our faith. Over the summer Michael had an interview with Al Brouillette of "For That Blessed Hope", where they discuss this aspect. I recommend the ideas Al puts forward as an essential starting point.

Most anyone who may read this does not have a family band, but there are aspects of working with children and music practice and coordinating family activities that transfer well to other areas. It's my prayer that someone may get a few ideas on working with their own children in music, or on a unifying family goal.

Practicing as a Group

We began making music as a family because it was fun, and one thing it has certainly taught us is the better you are, the more fun it becomes. This is why practice is something we do not neglect. It started with just a few songs we fumbled through, but as we got better, we wanted more music, more opportunities to play, and more skill. If you want more, you have to put in the work.

If there is one thing that ensures we will pull up our sleeves and get to work, it is when a performance is coming up. To be honest, I don't think we would bother practicing if we didn't have deadlines, so if nothing is immediately on the schedule, it becomes a priority to find something. Anyone who knows me will also know that I am not a naturally organized person, but there is nothing more motivating than an audience listening to every note you play. If the stakes are high enough, even a disorganized person can suddenly find a way to make it happen.

At the start of 2011 we hit the ground running, beginning with two shows by mid-month, then moving right into a 2 1/2 week trip through South Texas and Arizona, with a few primarily gospel programs, and a few anything-goes programs, where we pull out everything from John Denver, to Dueling Banjos. This meant we had a lot to cover, and quickly. Three of the songs were new, or at least new arrangements.

Additionally, there were gigs to schedule for the trip, calls to make, program orders to decide, and dates to remember. It was time to pull out the big white board. In the picture below you can see how a list is made early in the day so everyone knows what we will run through. There should be no excuse for going in surprised by something that hasn't been played in awhile. It's all there, usually by morning. A program order for the next show is up, a list of dates for the nearest performances, and a spot for reminders on places that need a phone call, contract, or otherwise.

After many frustrating times while working up new music, I realized we needed a better system for everyone to remember what the problems were that required individual work. "Oh, I forgot" was a common phrase, and I believed the forgetting child, because I would forget too, until the issue came up again the next night! We now have notebooks that are supposed to travel with them to and from practice. After a song, if there is something that must be addressed, like a need for a banjo break in a specific spot, or areas where some vocal harmonies need some polishing, the notebooks are to come out, a note written, and we move forward.

Prior to every performance, we spend a couple days just reminding ourselves of chords and lyrics, then a few days hitting the metronome. The day before, we pull out the microphones and actually stage where everyone will need to stand. Because we prefer to work largely with a single condenser microphone accompanied by a couple directional vocal microphones for instrument breaks and fiddle, instead of multiple single microphones, we need to practice balancing around the condenser and getting out of one another's way when someone needs to get in closer to the microphone for a break. With young musicians, you cannot assume they'll think about these things on stage, so it's always best to help them know where they will stand and when. Even then, someone will run into someone, smack you in the face with the neck of the banjo, poke you in the head with a violin bow, or any number of things to keep your sense of humor.

Individual Practice

Naturally, different ages require different practice plans. For Alex and Katie, at the age of 16 they are nearly adults and I do not micromanage their practice. They have their notebooks, they have their own goals, and the tools to meet those goals. When a break is needed, I simply ask them to write this in their notebook and tell them when we need to have it ready.

I don't usually have to have anyone practice singing in this house, especially the older two. The lighthearted video posted below shows a glimpse of what cleaning the kitchen often looks like in our house. Once again, the better you get at a skill, especially when in a positive environment, the more fun it often is. You no longer have to concentrate on every note, you can clean the kitchen in harmony - with an added benefit of annoying a younger brother. More is said below on fostering such and environment that includes freelance singing through the day.



Sean is 10 and I am in the process of removing myself from his practice time as much as possible. However, he needs a great deal of guidance, because he doesn't have the self-discipline or attention quite yet to practice effectively. I have a couple of tools I use as a transfer from constant supervision, to independent work.

As a fiddle player, we often record parts of his lessons onto our digital camera. This helps a great deal, because he can review it as much as necessary. I have been known to put the music demonstrated in his lesson and audio recorded examples from model bluegrass fiddlers, onto an iPod for him to take into his bedroom when it would be distracting for him to play out in the open living area. Sometimes I have him video tape what he is practicing so he can see for himself, and show me, where he is on any given song.

I have a standard template of which I provide for his assignments, which is altered whenever something new comes up. I keep it at the computer to avoid having to rewrite assignments each week, instead only adding or moving lines. I include repetitions, metronome markings, and a list of older songs to review. Although he is temporarily taking a break from his classical viola study, this is not much different than the methods we used for that.

One thing to note is that the difference between Alex, Katie, and Sean is not in ability or how long any one of them has played their instrument. It's strictly based on maturity. Sean has played violin longer than the other two have played their instruments and has quite an ear for learning music. The difference between what can be expected at 10 years old for independent practice, and of what a 16-year-old young lady is capable, is significant regardless of ability.

Mary is at a very different stage in her music instruction. At only five-years-old, most music should be around play. In fact, although she sings with us, some of the songs you hear her perform started out as a bedtime song I sang to her every night. Pretty soon she knew the song and could sing along. A few months ago, Mary helped me put together a little video on musical play with children. If the long-term desire is for a child to walk around singing at the top of his or her lungs while cleaning the kitchen, this is where it begins.

Despite my strong advocacy of music being light and playful at younger ages, I am not opposed to formal lessons for even young children. Mary started violin lessons a couple of months ago, because she has a natural desire to join in with the family's activities. She also wants to do what Sean does on his fiddle because he makes it look like so much fun, and Suzuki violin is a wonderful way to start young children in music.

Below I have a very short clip of a practice session with Mary. I often record our music practices, so this one is pretty straight forward. No one is cleaned up fancy for the camera, and I don't think she even knew the camera was on.


Putting it All Together

Although we try to put on a professional show for any audience, our family is of higher value than any small level of prestige or applause. Most of what we ultimately do, where the band is concerned, must first be for the long term good of the children. This can mean making it fun, but it can sometimes mean the occasional need to get firm and expect practice, silence from the instruments when something needs to be discussed, expecting humility by reminding young players that all they have is a gift of which they cannot boast, and the expected use of musical disciplines like drills and metronomes, when it's far more fun to just wing it. Character is a priority in parenting in this house and music, especially as a group, is a fine way to encourage good character.

Nevertheless, fun often sneaks in even during the most serious of practices, including spontaneous giggles, pillows over the head for silly mistakes, taunting between siblings on who has the coolest instrument, allowances for a bit of relaxed postures when drilling songs that are well known, and childhood antics of a large variety. It's always important to win the battles that are picked, but when pickin' bluegrass, it's even more important to pick you battles carefully so you don't spoil the ride.



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