These days I have grown increasingly interested in mental health and music’s role in affecting mental well-being. I’m fascinated by the idea that what goes on in our mental or emotional life is also a physical, biological process, and that these areas that we normally see as separate (mental, physical) are actually linked or even part of the same system. Psychologists say that everything psychological is biological. And every thought we have occurs in our neurocircuitry.
It’s worth mentioning that I am not a doctor or trained as a scientist. But as an inquisitive person, and as someone who anecdotally knows how music (and particularly playing music with others) has affected my life positively, I find this topic so interesting and have been looking forward to exploring it here.
So what are neurotransmitters? According to the trusty Wikipedia page 1 , neurotransmitters are “chemical messengers” that “transmit signals across a chemical synapse,” from one neuron to another neuron, muscle cell, or gland cell. There are more than 100 known neurotransmitters, but some well-known and oft-talked about examples include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin.
Our levels of different neurotransmitters have a major impact on our mental health; for example, low serotonin is correlated with depression, just as low dopamine is correlated with ADHD. Neurotransmitters have obvious implications for addiction, as well, since some substances severely spike and then crash levels of dopamine, for instance 2.
Research on music as it pertains to neurotransmitters is relatively new, but a few studies exist. For the purposes of this article (and based on available research), I’ll be focusing primarily on dopamine and oxytocin.
So first, dopamine. As a person with ADHD (and we know ADHD is common among musicians and other creative people) I am familiar with dopamine and its effect on the motivation so necessary for learning an instrument. I’m also familiar with the snowball effect that practicing music has on increasing motivation and maintaining attention and interest. So it is unsurprising to me that dopamine would be correlated with some intrinsic aspect of music.
At McGill University in 2011, a study was performed 3 to measure dopamine levels in participants as they listened to music that they enjoyed and that they felt neutral about. Using a variety of metrics such as PET scans, qualitative measures such as participants’ reports of pleasurable feeling, and also “chills” (as in the chills experienced when listening to music that moves you) this study was able to make a correlation between experiencing pleasure while listening to music, to dopamine production. But what is groundbreaking about this study is that the research found that dopamine is released often about 15 seconds before a “pleasurable” chord or sense of resolution. This speaks to something that is obvious to any musician; that music is a process of tension and resolution.
This study differentiated between two phases of dopamine production: the “wanting” phase and the “liking” phase. Or in other words, expectation and reward. Further, dopamine is highly adaptable to predictable stimuli. So the greater the anticipation, or the more unexpected the resolution/lack thereof, the greater the release of dopamine.
So for songs that hang on the V chord, or that have an unexpected turn before resolving to the I, there is a neurochemical reason why that suspension is exciting.
Now let’s get into oxytocin. This neurotransmitter is associated with social bonding and is known for being released during infant-parent bonding (in fact, recent studies have shown 4 that oxytocin is released after parent-child vocalization, not just physical contact as previously thought. After reading about oxytocin in the context of singing, I find this fascinating). Several studies have shown that oxytocin is released in group musical settings.
In a 2014 study about choral singing, oxytocin was shown to increase after group singing 5 , at a level markedly higher than after conversational chatting. Many of the study’s participants were amateur singers, many of whom had been singing non-professionally for most of their adult life. The levels of oxytocin released were not dependent on being a professional or an amateur singer. The researchers pointed out that this commitment may indicate a lasting strong social bond, which is present for singers regardless of professional ability.
Another 2015 study 6 (low sample size, but provided initial data) compared improvisational singing with arranged performances in a jazz vocal quartet. The participants were student musicians of varying skill levels, and some of them expressed that they had trouble getting into a “flow state” (i.e., lost sense of time, immersion in the present moment, effortless performance) due to not being experienced improvisors. But, the average oxytocin levels went up after improvisational singing and down after singing standard arrangements. In the discussion of this study, improvisation was framed as an interdependent activity that naturally leads to social bonding behaviors (listening, responding, eye contact, cooperation).
So. As bluegrass musicians, we get to experience social bonding whether we’re amateur or professional musicians, and our skill level at improvisation may impact our ability to “get in the flow,” but oxytocin is released at higher levels when improvising no matter what.
There’s a reason why playing music together creates such a close community. It literally has to do with chemicals in our brains. That may not sound particularly romantic, but I actually find it hopeful: music brings us together in a way that is beyond our control. Just as playing music together in a group setting such as a jam helps us bond, the tension and resolution embedded in music theory and song structure affects our brains on a chemical level, and increases our dopamine. Rad.
Music makes us healthier, happier and more connected to each other. We know this intrinsically, but it’s pretty cool to see the specifics of how music functions in our neurochemistry. I’m into it.
3. Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience (14), pp. 257-262.
4. Chanda, M.L. & Levitin, D.J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(4), pp. 179-193. Pg 188.
5. Kreutz, G. (2014). Does Singing Facilitate Social Bonding? Music & Medicine Vol. 6(2), pp. 51-60.
6. Keeler, J.R., Roth, E.A., Neuser, B.L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D.J.M., & Vianney, J. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9(518), pp. 1-10.
by Gina Astesana
Upon arriving in Seattle, I was lucky enough to have been introduced to a local group called the “Seattle Ladies Jam.” It was a fairly new, but thriving group of gals dedicated to regular ladies jams and general community support through a growing private Facebook page and a simple strategy of strength in numbers. Sound familiar? During those first few months in a new land, I tried to make it out to as many of the Seattle Ladies Jam (SLJ) events as I could. I was anxious to explore my new community and found comfort in the familiar sentiment. As a cofounder and board member of The Handsome Ladies (The HL’s), I knew that I would eventually begin taking steps toward starting a Seattle Chapter. In order to do that, I needed to figure out where we would fit in. As time went on, it became clear that not only was there plenty of opportunity for both organizations, but that their tandem existence would actually compliment one another.
Because of the obvious overlap, there has been a fair amount of confusion about the differences between the Seattle Ladies Jam and The Handsome Ladies. See the following Q & A for some clarification!
Rachael Snyder is a Seattle local and one of the newest additions to the HL board.
Anna Culver is a Seattle local, HL Board Member and co-founder of Seattle Ladies Jam.
Gina Astesana is a Seattle local, co-founder and board member of The Handsome Ladies.
Find more information about all of our board members here.
Rachael: What is the Seattle Ladies Jam, and how did it get started?
Anna: Seattle Ladies Jam, or SLJ for short, brings women together for bluegrass jams, but it’s also a space on social media where we can share other women-centric bluegrass events or content. Right around the time I was trying to find my own niche in the bluegrass community here, a few of us had been talking about how great it would be to have a women’s jam. After we did the first one, it went so well that we kept having them. And then it just became easier to make a Facebook group, and now that group has been a way for us to connect in other ways.
Rachael: Is it (SLJ) just bluegrass?
Anna: SLJ was born out of the Seattle bluegrass community, but styles such as oldtime and swing are played at our jams too and are welcome.
Rachael: What kinds of things does the Seattle Ladies Jam do?
Anna: SLJ developed organically to provide a mutual space to plan and announce all-women jams, and that’s still the main purpose. But the Facebook group in particular is used for a few different things. One of my favorite things we do is post a “song of the week” by women in bluegrass. It's been a really fun way to engage with a lineage of women artists. We also share articles, events, and shows with each other. It’s a great way to network with each other and it is a supportive atmosphere, for others too I hope.
Rachael: What do you think are the most important differences between SLJ and The HL’s?
Gina: The first thing that I always tell people is that The Handsome Ladies is specifically Bluegrass while SLJ welcomes all genres. That’s the simple answer. Secondly, when it comes to jams, SLJ jams can be hosted anywhere by anyone while HL jams must be hosted by a board appointed Ambassador. Also, Handsome Ladies jams work hard to uphold standard bluegrass jam etiquette while SLJ jams are more casual, less structured.
Rachael: How do you think the HL’s and SLJ complement one another?
Gina: Having both organizations is incredibly convenient. If you’re a songwriter and you want a safe and supportive place to share your song, SLJ is there for you. If you’re obsessed with learning bluegrass harmonies and you want to talk about The Stanley Brothers all night, there’s an HL jam that you can go to. Also, I think that getting to experience both scenarios in a safe and inspiring way offers a unique opportunity for new players to figure out what they like or what they want to work towards. Additionally, most players just want to get out and play and having both the HL jams and SLJ jams to choose from is always a plus.
Anna: Agreed. I think having both organizations means we have more ways to jam, more ways to connect with each other, and ultimately a great network of women musicians to pick with and get to know on a deeper level. Sometimes a private jam, like a house jam through SLJ, is exactly what I’ve been needing. And the HL jams are so empowering because of how public they are and how we take up space. I’m a better musician because of both organizations, and having that community is such a big part of it.
That’s a wrap! Thanks to my co-writers and fellow board members, Rachael Snyder & Anna Culver. Let’s pick!
Gina Astesana,: signing off.
by: Yennie Dee Brecheisen
You Are Welcome Here.
Besides Traditional Bluegrass, Community, Inclusivity, and Courage are the foundation of our values as an organization. We envision creating a cultural shift for all individuals seeking to join our community. Bottom line, we are here for you. Join us on your bluegrass journey, no matter your identity. In this community, we are all Handsome Ladies.
The Handsome Ladies strives to create a cultural shift in the bluegrass community in which more women participate in and feel welcomed at bluegrass jams, and where women feel empowered to rise to their desired level of musicianship.
How Does One Say "Howdy"?
In trying to communicate our inclusive position, we decided to make our stance apparent on our homepage. This touch point is easily the first place people go looking to learn more about The Handsome Ladies. Instead of it being left to wonder, why not clearly state our positioning just as we transparently tout our Mission, Vision, and Values? If our board members can't be the first to welcome you, at least our website can attempt to do the same.
In researching LGBTQ+ symbolism, I went searching for a way to display our alliance, acceptance, and welcoming message to anyone who identifies as a woman or desires to join our community. I wasn't able to find something that I felt communicated exactly what I was looking for, but did learn a lot about LGBTQ+ symbolism along the way. I also educated myself further with other important terms and pronouns. I hope that I have become more aware, humble, and sensitive in this process.
Left feeling unsure of how to proceed, I decided to create a unique symbol that would draw from a blend of established representations. I did this with the utmost respect for those who identify as LGBTQ+ (or any form thereof), with modest observance of my ignorance of the realities, a heart filled with good intention, and open arms.
Here is What I have Learned and What I Drew Inspiration From
LGBT Pride Flag
It's iconic. Just about everyone knows, or think they know, what or who it represents. The The Rainbow Flag is a long-standing symbol for LGBT community, created by Gilbert Baker, who passed away earlier this year. The original rainbow flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. This first version had a band of hot pink on the top, above the red band, and also a turquoise band, but were later removed.
Did you know that the colors themselves represent individual concepts/ideals?
Red = Life
Orange = Healing
Yellow = Sunlight
Green = Nature
Blue = Harmony & Peace
Purple = Spirit
Straight Ally Symbolism
I adopted the Λ (lambda) form from part of the symbolism for straight allies. The lambda is a Greek letter, which stands for liberation, represents unity, energy, and light shining into the darkeness of ignorance. How beautiful is that!? It has a full Wikipedia page dedicated to its extensive symbolism and meanings throughout science and history. The lowercase lambda was adopted by Gay Activists Alliance of New York in 1970. It was a way do identify fellow activists and blend in undisturbed in a hostile community as it could be mistaken for a college fraternity symbol.
I decided to remove the black and white stripes which represent the CIS gender/straight community. I felt we did not need to make any nod that "we" were, or were not, straight. It's not about telling anyone who we may or may not be, but showing our acceptance of and being allies for the marginalized.
Throughout history, many symbols have been used to identify homosexual men and women. As you can imagine, these identifiers were not used with good intentions. There has been much work done to reclaim once derogatory symbols and terms. The LGBTQ+ community has adapted them to use as their own.
The Transgender Pride Flag was created by American trans woman Monica Helms in 1999 and was first shown at a pride parade in Phoenix in 2000.
Here is her logic in her design:
"The stripes at the top and bottom are light blue, the traditional color for baby boys. The stripes next to them are pink, the traditional color for baby girls. The stripe in the middle is white, for those who are intersex, transitioning or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives”
In my new design, I altered the colors to more reflect the pastel quality of colors found in the Transgender Pride flag.
Just a little bit more...
With a great suggestion from someone much smarter than I (i.e. Kara Kundert, who is also killing it with all things Bluegrass Pride related) and in alignment with the original band of pink on the first pride flag, I revised my initial design to add a pink band prominently on top. Really, the icing on the cake. With all colors in place, horizontal bars were turned into a smooth gradient, changing the hard division into a soft, fluid progression through the spectrum. One where we are all welcome to reside and to take space where we see fit.
Here is the final outcome applied to our logo:
A small, but meaningful symbol, and important stance, to all of us who run this organization.
So, did you notice the symbol and wonder what it was about? What do you think of it? I welcome you to join in the conversation here in the comments!
**The Handsome Ladies is for all Ladies. If you see us using the capitalized form of Ladies, this is also an intentional choice. We are choosing to use the term as an inclusionary proper noun, meaning to be a member of The Handsome Ladies collective, and not as a singular or specific gender identity.
Now, LET'S PICK!
by Yennie Dee Brecheisen
I was a lucky last-minute addition to the volunteer-run CBA Suite crew this past September at IBMA. I had never been to IBMA before and wasn’t sure what could be expected. I was warned that IBMA really meant “I’ve been mostly awake”, which sure held up to be true.
Here is a summary of my favorite moments, of too many to count, from the whirlwind week in Raleigh:
Rhiannon Giddens' Keynote address on diversity and the truth about the history of bluegrass. I was in tears for much of her moving speech. Do yourself a favor, grab a tissue and watch these important 24 minutes:
Witnessing Molly Tuttle win Guitar Player of the Year at the IBMA Awards Show (which is also known as “Bluegrass Prom”). She was the first female nominated and first to win this title. The California crowd, and women particularly, let out a joyous roar for this historic win.
Photo-bombing Darby & Molly with my IBMA twin, Kara Kundert:
The same night, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Largely overdue, these two icons have finally been recognized for their contributions to the genre of bluegrass music. Alice even personally nodded to our #brotherinbluegrass, Justin Hiltner, about his work in the Diversity Showcase, "Shout and Shine!"
Taking this picture of three legends checking out their selfie:
Bluegrass Pride Brunch!
Representing The Handsome Ladies and Bluegrass Pride, networking with other professionals in all fields of the industry.
Both HL’s and BGP were very well received and lauded. It was fulfilling to share them with the greater bluegrass community.
Wishing that I could learn banjo by osmosis.
Taking photos with all the banjo shredders that I could find at Bluegrass Prom. Just a small sampling here:
Looking forward to next year at IBMA, you can bet that the Handsome Ladies hope to have an even greater presence with more board members in attendance. Bluegrass Pride also has intentions of keeping the Bluegrass Pride Brunch an annual event at IBMA and we may even go in cahoots and share an Expo Hall booth!
While this event can seem so far away from us here in California, I found that it’s actually another home away from home, there is always someone you know around the corner and new friends to be made. A place where you can become involved with what matters to you, one that you can make a difference in, and of course one where there is a lot of pickin’ to be done.
The CBA, the CBA’s Kids on Bluegrass, and California pickers in general, all have a great reputation at IBMA. The CBA Suite showcases at least a half dozen artists in an intimate setting, night after night. There is usually a line down the hallway as the room fills to capacity. The suite stays open for jamming until 3AM, or later, and it’s all run on well-coordinated volunteer power. If you are interested in this volunteer opportunity next year, please reach out and I can help get you in contact with the right person.
by Michelle Haft
When I was a kid my mom once offered my sisters and I a gift—one VHS tape each of any movie we wanted. I chose The Wizard of Oz. There was a scene in it I'll never forget, in the end when Dorothy and her friends visit the Emerald City and Toto pulls back the green curtain revealing the "Wizard" as a normal middle-aged man, frantically pulling on levers to project a mystical, fiery image of himself. It taught me an important lesson about appearances—that things are often much more hectic and less glamorous on the inside as they may seem on the outside. Working for a non-profit, I find this lesson to be even more poignant than ever.
When we first started The Handsome Ladies five years ago, it was a humble operation. We were seven founding members who met at Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, mostly all beginner players, sharing the responsibility of hosting monthly jams in our private homes. We had a small community of enthusiastic gals who wanted to participate. Our only dream then was to continue jamming amongst this small group of awesome ladies, so that we could one day become strong players like the bluegrassers we admired on stage.
Before we knew it our community of Handsome Ladies grew to hundreds of followers, so we added more frequent monthly jams including a regular spot at Amnesia, and an East Bay jam. The organization was taking on a life of its own and we decided it was time to become an official 501(c)(3) non-profit. We defined a clear mission:
Through opportunity and resources, we support and encourage women bluegrassers of all levels, promoting the advancement of the individual musician within an inspired and connected community.
And then the momentum grew.
We began hosting workshops at venues like the Freight & Salvage and guided jams at local camps like Walker Creek, Wintergrass and Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. This year we hosted our 4th annual Sadie Hawkins picking campout in Sonoma County. Requests came in for performances at local events and on the radio so we formed a pick-up band program call The Picks, where women from our community could hone their skills at a live performance. We were invited to have a booth at Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, where we held a vintage clothing and swag sale to raise money, hosted a late-night musical showcase and had numerous jam mixers. We’re now getting into our third-annual booth at the festival next year.
All this to say, behind the curtain of success, The Handsome Ladies is still run by a very small group of regular gals, balancing the responsibility of running a non-profit with the demands of everyday life. At the start we were each spending maybe five hours a month on operations, now it’s more like five hours a week and even more during big event weeks like Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. None of us are getting paid a dime for this, we do it because we love it and see the positive impact of our efforts on so many women in bluegrass. It’s been incredibly rewarding for each of us to be a part of this, and we’re proud to say that 100% of the donations we receive go directly into funding org activities.
In the last six months, we’ve also had three of our original seven founding members leave the board. I want to take a moment to express some gratitude to Lucy Salcido Carter, Niki Savage, and Tonya Newstetter, who helped make The Handsome Ladies what it is today. We were sad to see them leave but understood where they were coming from. Life got busier for all of us, a few of us had weddings and got promotions in our regular jobs that required a more demanding workload. It was a big ask for any of us to keep working for free as the time-commitment to the organization increased and with it, the pressure of everyday life.
But nonetheless, our four remaining board members have risen to the challenge and have managed to keep The Handsome Ladies moving along smoothly. Sometimes we feel like the Wizard of Oz, frantically pulling on levers to keep this thing afloat, but mostly we’ve learned to work efficiently and divide and conquer the needs of our operations. As the saying goes, nothing worth doing is easy, but we also need help and we’re not afraid to admit it.
We need to bring on another board member here at The Handsome Ladies. Interested? We’d love to hear from you! For more info about the requirements of this position, click here.
This is a call-to-action to our community:
Fast-forward to today, we recently started local Handsome Ladies chapters in two new cities, Seattle and Nashville, and are working on a pilot program for other cities who are interested in starting their own local Handsome Ladies chapters. We’ve been getting amazing press, and some of our most admired female bluegrassers actively support us. Two of our board members have also recently joined the board of the California Bluegrass Association, further solidifying our relationship to other leading bluegrass organizations. We are so humbled and ecstatic at the reaction we’ve received from the entire bluegrass community and feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to everyone that has helped us along the way. So for anyone out there who wants to be a part of this amazing organization, work alongside four hardworking, badass Handsome Ladies, and directly contribute to the success of our mission to support and encourage women bluegrassers of all levels within an inspired and connected community, the board wants to hear from you!
Yennie Dee Brecheisen
The first few chapters can make or break most books. If they don’t succeed in peeking your interest, you may never come to find how the story ends. It has been in the works for some time, getting our latest two chapters up in running in Seattle and Nashville. Delicate clippings that were each very carefuslly rooted in their new towns. Our budding organization is building upon a rich history and we want to turn the pages, chapter by chapter, taking all of you with us!
The Handsome Ladies Seattle Chapter
Join in every 3rd Monday at Al's Tavern.
The Handsome Ladies Nashville Chapter
Message for details!
Not to fear, The Handsome Ladies in the Bay Area is still thriving with a 3rd Monday monthly jam at our favorite local bluegrass haunt, Amnesia, which turned two last May, and a more intimate private jam in Berkeley.
Packed House Jam in Berkeley
Join in every 2nd Tuesday.
As we spread the mission of The Handsome Ladies with these new chapters, we are humbled by the dedication of everyone to hone their bluegrass skills, thankful for our welcoming communities, and empowered to keep growing to serve all the women pickers out there while participating in the broader bluegrass community as a whole.
While I’m on the topic of serving the greater bluegrass community, I’d like to take a moment to let you know that both Jessica Furui and I are running for the board of the California Bluegrass Association! While Jessica is a current board member, doing fabulous work, this is my inaugural run and I hope to join the ranks of this long standing organization. I encourage all of our California locals to:
- Consider becoming a CBA member, if you are not already - join here
- Read the candidate statements of those running for the board
- Last but not least, participate by casting your VOTE!
By Jessica Furui
This past Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival was the first time I successfully sang a decent tenor to anything. And wow! Keith Little was right when he said “it's the most fun you can have with someone with your clothes on.” This past festival was my fifth year and to be quite honest I thought being able to get the tenor would be much easier than it was. But considering it took me a few years to actually sing the right note, sing on pitch, sing songs that were good for me, etc...I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Oh my darling best friend Gina, oh how she kindly tolerated me.
It's the most fun you can have with someone with your clothes on.
I’ve had excellent times singing lead with others singing tenor or baritone parts. When its on, the buzz appears...the vibes between you and them. But that buzz feels totally different when you’re doing the tenor part. Though it’s kind of hard to explain. The incredible thing is that if you get off it for just a split second the buzz goes away but will quickly return when the notes are right once more. It is definitely one of the most incredible feelings I’ve been humble enough to experience in my thirty-some-odd years on this planet. It’s no wonder I see my friends and heroes smiling at each one another as they sing. It's so much fun! And it’s definitely no wonder that people like myself can get goose bumps, chills or even shed a lonesome tear when the harmonies cut like that.
It’s been a rough road for me though. Being in jams, especially the more intimate ones with close friends. Someone calls a song and the race is on to see who calls the tenor, then perhaps the baritone. The song is sung and I’m there listening with great pleasure, yet there is a deep longing in my heart to be one of those harmony parts. Like when you’re at the school dance and you know you can (kind of) dance but you’re a little shy and goofy, and alas, you’re there at the edge of the room watching everyone else dance, laugh and smile. Ugh. I’m having a good time, really I am. But the longing of being able to sing together like that is deep and wide as the Mississippi herself.
Here I am, five years into the bluegrass life and I’m starting to crack the code of harmony. Everyone I’ve ever asked has basically given me the same answer: listen to the music. And listen I do! But I’m also a visual learner so I felt like I needed some kind of reference and never could find one. The whole “third above,” “fifth below,” or whatever-it-is business never made any sense to me anyway. I realized - finally - that I was trying to find that part too high above the lead.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my trials and tribulations it's that if you want to try and sing the tenor part you’ve got to know the lead, by George! Facial expressions are hilariously telling non-verbal communications to you that you are either totally nailing the harmony or completely not-nailing the harmony. Makes me laugh when I think of the times I’ve tried to sing a harmony part and the corner of the other singers mouth crinkles up a little bit, or their eyes wince, or perhaps they’ve even gone so far as to slightly back away from my enthusiastic attempt. On the flip side, as a wobbly lead singer it can be very difficult to stay on the lead or even sing the song if the harmony singer doesn't a) know the words; b) sings a different version; or c) isn't hitting the right harmony note. There are so many things happening! Playing an instrument is one thing. Adding vocals, a whole other thing. Then try to sing with others!! Wow. Try to do all that well and you're onto something.
But, oh, the feeling when you see the singer’s eyes light up. Their smile beams brighter, they slightly lean in closer. That is what its all about, people. That is what we’re talking about! The buzz does its thing and both people seem to float a little above the ground for a moment in time. One of my favorite moments from this past Father’s Day Fest was when dear Gina and I stole away for a few hours to play some songs together. She called I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, a song that I call myself and in the same key. So it came time and I sang with her and I sang the right part. She started smiling so much that she could barely sing the song any more. And if I remember correctly we both started laughing that we had to stop the song. The look on her face was of the surprised proud parent/thank-the-good-lord-this-is-finally-happening look – it was awesome.
Here are a few tips that I've picked up in my quest to find the Final Frontier. Mind you I have not yet conquered, just paid a quick visit. But these are some tidbits I've pick up along the way.
- Know the song first. If you kind of know the harmony part, it's quite alright for you to go over it a bit with the lead before the song starts. This is somewhat dependent on the situation, of course. But if you don't know the song or the part, it might be best to let someone else do it.
- Make eye contact with the lead and follow their phrasing. If they are doing a different version than you're used to perhaps wait to become acquainted with their version before launching into the harmony part.
- In jam settings, have people call the harmony parts rather than several people singing together. The folks singing together will have a better chance to hear themselves in order to put their best effort forward.
- Take heed to the nonverbal communication going on and listen to yourself. That said don't give up and have fun!
Here’s to more singin’! Thanks for reading. I'll leave you with some of my favorite songs:
By J. Rose
It was August 2016. I had recently moved to the Pacific Northwest and was making my way to all of the Bluegrass festivals that I could. Being the new girl in the scene was proving to be harder than I thought. Back home, in California, I knew everyone or at least knew their faces. Bluegrass festivals were like reunions. Festival friendships would pick right back up where they had left off the year before. I knew who I wanted to pick with and where to find them. I expected that finding my place in this new community would take a while and most days, I was up for the task, but I couldn’t help but feel homesick.
Like an angel in a Stetson, my best friend had flown in for the weekend and we were on our way to the Mount St. Helens Bluegrass Festival in Toledo, Washington. Two of our favorite California bands were scheduled to perform, so the whole place was peppered with familiar faces. I welcomed the comfort of my long lost community and settled into the sunny weekend at the local fairgrounds. One lovely festival afternoon, I heard that one of my new friends had been looking for me. “Did Jay find you?” someone asked. I had met Jay at our camp the day before. He had been showing off a picture of his sailboat to my fellow campers and introduced himself. He was an older fella with white hair and a kind smile. Jay walked with a cane and a limp, and not a single thought about why he should slow down. He and I hit it off immediately. I wondered what his inquiry could have been about.
Later on, that day, as the sun was shining sideways and the pine trees cast their lengthened shadows, I spotted Jay and asked him why he had been looking for me. “Gina!” he exclaimed as he hurried over. “Did you meet the young lady?” “Which young lady?” I asked wondering who he might be referring to. “Anna” he replied without hesitating. “She lives in Seattle and I told her that you guys need to meet.” During our conversation the day before, Jay had learned that I was new to Seattle and being the thoughtful and smart man that he was, knew that Anna and I needed to meet. “What does she look like,” I asked, not having any idea who he was talking about. He described her hair color, shirt color, and even added that she was wearing cowboy boots and carrying a fiddle. “Hmm,” I said, “I haven’t seen her, but I’ll keep my eye out for her. Jay was not ready to give up. He began leading me through the different camps as he dodged the fallen pine cones and added to the story of how he had met Anna and where he thought she might be.
After about ten minutes, I started to feel a little bad that poor Jay was walking all over the place for me and assured him that I would keep my eyes out for her. Just then, Jay flagged down a passing golf cart. The driver pulled over with a smile and we all introduced ourselves. Before I knew it, Jay was sitting in the front seat holding his cane in his lap, I was in the back seat and just like that, we were all on the mission together. Jay described Anna’s outfit and hair color to his friend and directed our route, gesturing with the top of his cane. The two of them made small talk as we scooted around the festival. I’m pretty sure we could have walked faster than the cart was moving, but our new friend explained that “he didn’t want no one falling out now.” I laughed out loud, but cut it short when I realized he was serious. Everyone that we passed waved and smiled and for a moment, I felt a little less lost. It was a perfect summer night.
We had made our way to the main stage where the golf cart was no longer permitted. Still feeling the need to let Jay off the hook, I quickly assured him that I would find her, but he wouldn’t have it. I fanatically thanked my new friend for the ride before he drove away into the sunset. Jay and I stood on the outskirts of the lawn and scanned the crowd for Anna. There in a clearing between two tall pine trees, across the crowd, I spotted a young gal with blonde hair and a green shirt standing by herself. “Is that her Jay!?” I exclaimed squeezing his forearm. He looked in the direction that I was pointing and after a couple of seconds, said: “that’s her alright” and took off. We both walked up to the cowboy boot wearin’ fiddle player with intention. Anna, a bit surprised by the sudden company, held out her hand and smiled as Jay introduced us. Before we finished our introductions, Jay had already begun to make his way back through the crowd of people. Apparently, he knew that was all we needed. I paused and yelled after him, “Thank you, Jay!”
Anna and I found a place to sit in the grass and began to chat while the rest of the crowd watched the band that was on stage. We both shared the short version of our current stories and talked about how we had come to be bluegrassers. Anna had already heard about The Handsome Ladies and I elaborated with excitement. Then, with equal excitement, she began to explain how she and some other Seattle ladies had decided to start a ladies only jam. The first one had happened just a couple of weeks earlier... and just like that, in the setting sun of a Toledo August night, I had found my new community.
By Michelle Haft
Music camps are by nature a gamble: you have upwards of 10-20 students in a class each at different playing levels, with their own competing musical priorities and all fighting to divert the teacher’s attention to their topics of choice. Unless the teacher brings in a very structured lesson plan— they don’t always do—they are looking to the students to help guide them. It can be a recipe for disaster. But it can also be incredible: when the chemistry in the classroom is great, the teacher is reading the room perfectly, and you can feel yourself and the people around you becoming better players in real-time. Or when you're exhausted from the late-night jamming the night before but at the same time high on adrenaline from the new lick you finally were able to pull off after years of trying. Some of my best periods of growth were immediately following a music camp experience.
One thing that makes camps such a wonderful opportunity is the access to such a wide variety of talented teachers, together in the same place at one moment in time. The purpose of camps is broad exposure—from the many different playing styles of the teachers, to lightly touching on many different topics during class time—that each help you identify where you have room to grow. Once you get home from camp you can dive more deeply into specific topics, ideally in private lessons with a teacher. But during camp, its all about the high energy, the variety, the packed schedule and lots and lots of playing time.
Having been to a handful of camps now, I've learned some things about how to come in better-prepared, steer clear of common pitfalls and maximize the experience. I'll give you an example of a less successful camp experience. A few years ago at a small one-day music camp I learned all about a topic I cared little about: nail maintenance. I was in the clawhammer banjo workshop in one of those small, bungalow-style classrooms with low ceilings and a steady hum of fluorescent lighting overhead. About seven or so students gathered around the teacher, a fantastic clawhammer banjo player, listening intently as he introduced the song we would be learning. But when a student raised their hand and asked a question about how to maintain healthy nails for playing, we spiraled into a 20 minute conversation about protein nail polish, nail-cutting, and cuticle health. It wasn’t until about 40 minutes into our 1-hour workshop that we actually started playing the song.
I confess, I was frustrated by the end of the lesson. I felt we had squandered an opportunity to learn something of greater substance from this wonderful player during this limited hour. But after some time I realized I had in fact learned an incredibly valuable lesson— that music camps (and playing in general) takes patience, empathy, and a willingness to speak up when necessary. Ultimately, the vast majority of my music camp experiences have been incredible. Below are a few tips I'd like to share to help any of you that are considering investing in a music camp experience in the near future, in hopes that you'll find the experience as valuable as I have.
Elevating the class beyond the lowest common denominator
In any music camp classroom, even ones where levels are clearly defined, you’re always going to have a mix of more beginner and more advanced players. There's a natural tendency for the teacher to lower the level of the class to the most beginner person in the room so they don’t feel left behind. This can be frustrating for the more advanced players, but there are healthy ways to elevate the lesson, and the first is to speak up. If the teacher doesn’t know how you’re feeling they won’t be able to react to what you need. But you need to do it respectfully and remember you're one of many—don't interrupt class in the moment or show your frustration—wait till there’s a pause or lull in the lesson and express that you would like to move onto new topic. You can also pull your instructor aside during the next break and privately let him or her know how you feel so they can be more mindful of the larger students' abilities.
At the same time, its important to be patient in those moments and remember that you were once the beginner too. In fact, you may not realize that the majority of others in the room are enjoying lingering on a certain topic, and you are in fact the minority. Tread lightly and respectfully, but express your needs.
If you happen to be that beginner in the class, try to be respectful of others time and let the lesson flow at its natural speed, even if it feels like you're not picking up on everything. Though you may not leave each lesson with a full understanding of every single concept, you will most certainly come away with at least a few new pearls of wisdom. That’s what matters most. If you learn even one new thing you didn't know already, consider yourself one step closer to bluegrass greatness.
Temper you expectations
Music camps are by nature overwhelming and exhausting. What's more is your brain has a limited capacity for taking in new information. And yet during camp you’re being bombarded with new information for days-on-end. Remember to write things down—make a list of concepts you want to explore further, a list of songs from your jams and classes that will enable you to focus on those concepts, and record as much of the lesson as possible (just make sure to ask your instructor first if it's ok!). You’re much more likely to recall what you learned when you’re ready to practice again if you have an artifact to remind you. It helps to practice in between classes during camp and review what you learned so you can start to build muscle memory for when you come back to it later.
Lastly, don't expect to come home immediately playing better. You'll need some time for the experience to marinate, to let all the learnings sink in. In fact, I often feel like an even worse player right after camp. But that's a false perception colored by your newly expanded field of bluegrass awareness and the fact that you've just exposed all the opportunities for personal improvement. Seize them! In the next few weeks, and with steady practice, you’ll surely feel the growth—how it's just a little bit easier to pull of that difficult lick, how much faster if was to pick up that new song.
A bluegrass smörgåsbord
As mentioned, one thing that makes camps such a wonderful opportunity is the access to such a wide variety of talented teachers, together in the same place at the same time. My advice: don't bind yourself to one instructor during camp. Though you might be signed up to a specific group (i.e. intermediate banjo), which usually means a few days with the same teacher, try out the other instructors at every opportunity during electives! You may love one instructor's playing style, but find another's teaching style a much better fit to your style of learning. You'll benefit more from jumping around to different classes when you can, and see which teachers you gel with best. This is also a great way to find new private lesson instructors for once camp is over.
Sleep is for Sunday
Camp isn’t just about class-time only, it’s also about rubbing elbows with some of the best musicians in the business and meeting like-minded individuals who could be future playing parters. So don’t be shy during camp, get out there and be friendly with your classmates. Take full advantage of the late night jams and playing with your peers in between class time—it's just as important as the structured lessons. It's a chance for you to practice what you learned and build muscle memory for new skills. Just remember, you can catch up on sleep on Sunday night after camp is over.
Getting friendly with your instructor is a different situation, you have to tread lightly and respect their time. Remember, while camp is all fun for you, its still work for them. The best way to get friendly with your instructors is during appropriate down-time: ask questions during breaks, chat with them after class or during elective jams. Be yourself, and be genuine. Don't take it personally if they need to leave to prepare for their next class or steal some precious down time. Also, a great way to show your support and affection is by buying their swag and albums.
To sum it up, there is so much to be gained from music camps if you come into it with the right mindset and tools. Being out of your element and totally immersed in the bluegrass community for days at a time is such a rewarding experience that is so worth the investment. Despite a few camp hiccups along the way, like the time our tent almost blew away during a gnarly storm at Walker Creek Music Camp, I've come to appreciate all things music camps have to offer. I hope each of you takes the plunge and tries a music camp in your playing future. You won't regret it. Happy camping!
by Yennie Dee Brecheisen
For my very first banjo lesson, about 4 years ago, I was lucky enough to have found Bill Evans. I didn't know much about bluegrass, knew even fewer people who played traditional bluegrass, but I was told that the best bluegrass banjo teacher lived in the East Bay when I went looking for a Scruggs style teacher.
Part of my homework was to write out three lists; things I know, things I'm currently working on, and, finally, my goals. (I sure thought I knew a lot more than I did). I often look back at these list, to remember how far I've come, to make myself feel better when I think I haven't progressed at all lately, and to remind myself of the journey as a whole - all the time, people, places, and teachers.
By far, the best of the lists is #3:
- Understand the theory of the instrument
( still working on this, probably will be forever)
Play with friends/jam
(I've made so many friends through bluegrass, my bluegrass family)
I want to have a great hobby
I want to be able to play without a TAB book & improvise in 6 months
(this took a lot longer, by the way)
It would be fun to eventually play with people at open mic nights like at bluegrass Mondays at Amnesia
(BINGO! I didn't know that I'd be part of a non-profit, leading a women's only jam at Amnesia, or perform on bluegrass Monday, either!)
I think it's cool to be a banjo player
I'd say that I've hit almost all of my goals, making new goals along the way.
Bill always said that the best way to learn is to get out there and play with people. I'm sure the mechanics of any instrument are one of the most difficult hurdles in learning, but as soon as you can throw yourself out there, get out and play with people. This Bill Evans guy sure has got it right.
I've had a few teachers that are professional musicians, and without their guidance and expertise, my technique, timing, and desire to not sound sloppy would not be what it is today, but I've also learned so much from friends, just playing with people and putting it all into practice. We don't learn music by sitting at home alone, playing to the walls.
Playing with people and creating a space for beginners to feel comfortable testing out their wobbly legs is what I really enjoy about what we are doing here at the Handsome Ladies. Without the women that I've met and started jamming with not so long ago, I wouldn't have gained the confidence to go out and play with other new people, who are now my friends, and more importantly - new teachers.
I can't teach anyone to play banjo, but I can share my time and energy in creating music with beginner musicians and professional musicians, here in the great community of bluegrass. We all teach each other, like they did in the old days, sitting around pickin'.
So, what are your goals, and what is your biggest accomplishment so far? That tricky lick? a new bow pattern? a super cool G-run? Write out your lists: Things you know, things you are currently working on, and your goals. Save it, look back at it, but more importantly get out there and pick with your friends, be a student, be a teacher.
I sure had one thing right all along - it is cool to be a banjo player.
By Michelle Haft & Niki Savage
When bluegrass fan think of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, what comes to mind immediately is a long procession of wildly talented musicians that passed through that band: Bill Monroe himself, Early Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, even Carter Stanley for a short period of time. But one Blue Grass Boy who rarely gets mention is in fact not a boy at all, but rather, a woman by the name of Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion and sang with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946. She is considered to be "the first woman in bluegrass.”
This month marks Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the overwhelming contribution of many-a-great women in history, and Bluegrass history is not to be excluded. We thought it fitting to take a moment to celebrate a few of our own incredible, musical women who boldly challenged the cultural norms of their time to pursue their love of Bluegrass and country music. Their struggles and triumphs helped paved the way for women like us today, inspiring us to pursue our own passions for this wonderful music.
Sally Ann Forrester
(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Ann_Forrester)
The first woman in bluegrass, Sally Ann Forrester was born Goldie Sue Wilene Russell in Raton, New Mexico. Her grandfather, a fiddler, introduced her to music and performing. By the sixth grade, she was playing piano, classical violin, and guitar, and at the age of fifteen she adopted the name "Billie". In 1939, at the age of seventeen, she won a spot on a radio show in Tulsa, OK, playing guitar and singing. There, she met, began dating, and soon married a seventeen year-old Texan fiddler Howard "Howdy" Forrester. In the winter of 1942, after moving to Nashville, the Forresters began performing with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. In spring 1943, Howdy left for the Navy, and "Sally Ann", as Billie was now called by Monroe, continued singing and playing the accordion, as well as keeping the books, for the Blue Grass Boys. She was a band member, along with Lester Flatt, when banjo player Earl Scruggs joined in late 1945, marking a turning point in Bluegrass and establishing the signature sound of the genre. The Forresters stayed with Monroe through the end of March, 1946, when they moved back to Howdy's home in Texas.
(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazel_Dickens)
There’s no denying the voice of Hazel Dickens when you hear it: raw, powerful, and piercing. Dickens is an American bluegrass singer, songwriter, double bassist and guitarist, and an icon of Bluegrass history. Her music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, feminist songs. Cultural blogger John Pietaro wrote that "Dickens didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads, embedded her into the cause." The New York Times extolled her as "a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music." With Alice Gerrard, Dickens was one of the first women to record a bluegrass album.
Sara and Maybelle Carter
(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Family)
As part of the legendary traditional American folk music group, The Carter Family, Sara and Maybelle’s contributions to music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars. The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Delaney Carter (1891–1960), his wife Sara Dougherty Carter (1898–1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909–1978). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra Carter, and was also Sara's first cousin. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia, where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing. Throughout the group's career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals; Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group instrumentally; "Mother" Maybelle's distinctive guitar playing style, known as the "Carter scratch,” became a hallmark of the group, and was widely emulated by other musicians in her time.
(source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Gerrard)
Alice Gerrard (born July 8, 1934) is an American bluegrass singer, banjoist, and guitar player. She performed in a duo with Hazel Dickens and as part of The Back Creek Buddies with Matokie Slaughter. Her albums with Hazel are considered among the most influential recordings in folk music history. Gerrard was born Seattle, Washington and attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she was first exposed to folk music. After college, she moved to Washington, D.C. and became part of the thriving bluegrass scene there. Gerrard had four children with her (late) first husband and she was later married to Mike Seeger and recorded two albums with him. Gerard was a ecclectic song writer, and know for her strong, authentic vocals. Her work as a multi-instrumentalist was remarkable, playing instruments including banjo, guitar and fiddle. A number of honors have been dedicated to this amazing folk singer. She was also a editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald from 1987 to 2000.
There are so many more women deserving of mention but we simply can’t cover them all in a single blog post. If you want to learn more about influential women in the genre of Bluegrass music, we recommended a great book titled “Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass (Music in American Life)” by Murphy Hicks Henry, which documents the lives of more than seventy women whose vibrant contributions to the development of bluegrass have been, for the most part, overlooked.
Also, In continuing the celebration of Women's History Month, we are incredibly excited to be presenting our first ever Handsome Ladies showcase featuring two incredibly talented Bay Area-based bands: The Hossetts and Paper Wings. While the Handsome Ladies is mostly associated with hosting jams, we have been busy having conversations about how we can promote and support women in traditional music beyond just jamming. This showcase is part of a cultural shift we're hoping to create, where women performing in bands aren't simply a novelty, but the norm.
We are incredibly fortunate to feel the love and support from our local community, and are grateful to be traveling a path laid by local greats like Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis, and the many women throughout Bluegrass history mentioned above. We're very excited to be presenting this show, and hope to see you there!
By Tonya Newstetter
The rainy days of January have continued into February, and as I look out the window onto the misty hills of Oakland, I am more grateful than ever for the bluegrass community. Here in the Bay Area, our days are filled with news of protests, frustration, and hurt at the recent and ongoing political events. I turn to bluegrass, as many of you do, to remind myself of the love and creativity that is humanity at its best.
Those good feelings were out in full force at The Great 48, a 48-hour jam/concert/workshop that takes place every year at a hotel in Bakersfield. Pickers from all over the state descended on a big, 9-floor Marriott, booking up every room and filling the hotel with bright harmonies, thumping bass, and twangy banjo. Every floor held something slightly different, and jammers of all levels found a home in a hallway, someone's hotel room, a stairwell, or the lobby. I was lucky enough to catch a seat and hear The Hossettes and The Central Valley Boys, who both performed late on a Saturday night in a jam-packed meeting room. Everyone in that hotel had a common goal: pick.all.weekend. After a gloomy January, it felt wonderful to come together with my bluegrass brothers and sisters and rejoice in the art and craft of bluegrass music.
"building a strong bluegrass community takes work"
But bluegrass music isn't just picking and singing. Building a strong bluegrass community takes work, which I witnessed at a very special California Bluegrass Association (CBA) Board of Directors Meeting held that weekend at the hotel. In addition to usual business of amending bylaws and reviewing strategy, the board (which includes our very own, very handsome Jessica Furui) heard a proposal from Bay Area CBA Rep Ted Kuster to organize a CBA float for San Francisco Pride Parade.
In a stand of solidarity with the IBMA's stated value of diversity & inclusiveness, the board voted to approve the proposal, and this June, we will proudly open our bluegrass community to the more than one million attendees at the Pride Parade! If you would like to volunteer your time, or (better yet!) make a donation to the CBA in support of these efforts, please contact Tonya Newstetter - [email protected]
To me, this was a reminder that engaging deeply with your community can bring surprises and joys that you never expected, and in times of distress, this can make all the difference.
by Jessica Furui
We all have to start somewhere and what to do when we find ourselves in a funk? My solution: new music. It can be difficult to learn new songs, let alone find new songs that you enjoy singing and playing. With this in mind I shall offer you some tips on how to add new songs to your repertoire. Truth be told, my best friend J.Rose was first to forge some of these efficient and effective habits in our new found bluegrass world. I’ve adjusted and added things to work with my own learning style and hope you find it useful.
Keep a song/lyric book.
I used a large format sketchbook and hand-number each page. The first four or five pages are left blank that will become the table of contents showing each song and its page number. When I finish this book, I’ll type up the songs in an Excel sheet and print it out alphabetically for easy reference. For each song, I find my favorite version(s) on YouTube or in my music collection and dictate the lyrics onto the page. Sure you can look up the lyrics on helpful websites like www.bluegrasslyrics.com, but dictation, either typed or written, greatly helps the way your brain remembers the song. If I get totally stumped I’ll look up the words, but this is the last resort!
Don’t forget to make note of the phrasing. It adds a dynamic quality to songs and is essential for the delivery, just take a good hard listen to Carter Stanley or Jimmy Martin. I notate this by underlining the words or parts of words that the singer will hold or phrase differently than the rest of the song. Again, this is done by listening - sometimes starting and stopping the song over and over - to correctly notate the phrasing.
Next, you must learn the chords. After a few years in bluegrass it becomes easier to identify the chord structure without playing or even knowing the song. I found it good practice at the beginning of my bluegrass life to try and figure out the chord changes with my voice and guitar. Doing this gave me a deeper understanding of the song and its chords. It can be very frustrating to call a song in a jam that no one knows (it can happen!) and you don’t know how to explain the chords. Of course, it’s possible to incorrectly identify the chord(s), so once finished it’s important to play the song or use internet information to confirm, but your ear will be your friend. A quick suggestion, to make best use of time I recommend either learning the words to the song first, then learning the chords or melody on your instrument, or visa versa. If you attempt to learn everything at the same time, it will take longer to make both sound good.
In my songbook each page for a song will include the following: title, author, the version I like best, the key I have found to be most comfortable and the date the song was entered into the book. I love going back and discovering songs that were a little too big for me at the time or just reminding me of the ones that had been forgotten. After a lifetime of bluegrass, I wonder how many songs I’ll forget!
Bring a small notebook to jams and camps.
You can use it to write down song titles that you heard and want to “steal” from your friend. I always have a section that is riddled with cheeky one-liners and the names of the person who said them. It’s really fun to go back through after the weekend, it’s like a mini scrapbook. I’ll then add the new song titles into my songbook and make time to do the work and learn them. I prefer to use this method rather than “pulling out the phone” all the time to make a note. But to each their own!
Keep rotating your music selection.
First thing’s first….don’t expect to learn a song if you don’t listen to it! Each song has a heart-center that, when not connected to, can make the song lifeless, linear and without soul. Therefore, I highly recommend you make a playlist with all the new songs you are either working on or want to learn. I think a friend said that it takes your mind 21 days after listening to a song to really know it. Now, am I sure this is a proven fact? No, but it sounds good and makes some kind of sense. Phrasing is vital to the delivery of most bluegrass music and the subtleties of your favorite versions can be lost if you don’t really study it by listening. Understanding phrasing will also help you to cultivate your own style of singing.
Someone once said that you shouldn’t play out what you need to practice and you need to practice what you play out. Seems simple enough. It’s really exciting to get new songs and it can be hard to keep your new gems hidden until they are really ready. A vocal mentor once said, “you’ve got to corral that horse before you can ride it,” but patience and practice will allow you to become comfortable with your choice and allow you to execute the delivery.
Bluegrass to me is all about having the most amount of fun possible as much as possible. I’ve found that having a solid repertoire will increase the fun for everyone. My bluegrass resolution for the New Year is to practice more. Like, really practice…not just sing and play guitar on my back porch. I’d also like to go back and learn some more difficult songs that I’ve put on the back burner (hello, Nashville Blues). And maybe, just maybe, I can finally understand singing tenor. Just a few small, attainable goals, no big deal. Right (wink, wink).
Wishing you a Happy New Year to you and yours.
by Michelle Haft
Ahhh, its that time of the year again: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, pumpkin spiced lattes, Lifetime Christmas movies specials, and holiday bluegrass jams! Trust me, nothing breaks up family-gathering awkwardness like a good bluegrass sing-a-long. As a handsome lady and fellow bluegrass lover, I know this is also the best time to stock up on bluegrass gear and accessories you’ve been coveting all year, or show your love to another fellow bluegrasser with the perfect music-related gift.
There are so many great gift ideas out there—from the beautiful and handmade, to the clever, didn’t-realize-how-much-I-needed-it gift. So how do you pick the right gift that shows off your music savvy without falling into the realm of kitsch and impracticality? We’ve put together a list of Handsome favorites below, with an eye for style, quality, sass, and bluegrass authenticity. Whether you’re needing something to get you stage-ready for a 2017 full of gigs, or just getting your toes wet in the jamming scene, we’ve got ideas for you. Have a look below and hopefully find something you love, and wishing you all the very best of holidays and a happy New Year!
(tip: click the photos for external links!)
The Jam Queen
Copperpeace Leather Instrument Straps - $98
Handmade in Ballard, Seattle by a fellow lady-musician, Copperpeace straps are beautiful, durable and very functional. She makes her straps in a variety of styles, from Herringbone to sequins to handmade lace, and for both guitars and banjo. You can’t go wrong with these straps as a gift for yourself or a friend, and the cherry on top is their signature “Pick Pocket” built into the leather strap.
Snark Tuner - $30
This is my absolute favorite tuner to use because the interface is so easy to read. While it is on the larger side, it also harder to lose or misplace at jams. It has a nice design, the battery is easy to replace when its running low and its very affordable.
Blue Chip Picks - $35-40
These are hands-down the best picks on the market. They feel great in your hand, silky smooth but still very grippy, have good volume, good control and a smooth tone. They’re quite durable too and stand the test of time. They make both flat picks as well as thumb picks for you banjo players.
Peghead Nation String School Online Subscription - $20/month
What better gift to give a bluegrasser than the gift of learning? Peghead Nation is a wonderful online course that has video lessons for nearly every instrument including guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, dobro, and ukulele. It features many of our favorite Bay Area teachers and HL friends, including Bill Evans, Sharon Gilchrist, Evie Ladin and more. Online subscriptions start at $20/month for one course.
The Festival Miss
Rock mount Ranch Wear Pearl Snap Shirt - $70–100
Festivals are all about the jamming, but I’ll admit: its fun to look great while doing it. And what better way to do that than a with a pearl-snap or fringed western shirt? Rockmount Ranch Wear is a 3-generation business and purveyor of fine western-wear, all made in the USA. I love this quote coined by founder Jack A. Weil (1901 - 2008) who worked daily until age 107 years old: ”The West is not a place, it is a state of mind.” I sure hope to be picking until age 107! They have a line of vintage-inspired western shirts which all have a beautiful and classic design and signature pearl-snap buttons. A few of my personal favorites are the "Cannabis Cowgirl,” the “Sugar Skull”, and the “Nashville Rose”.
Bluegrass Koozie - $3
Everyone needs a good koozie to keep their bevvies cold in the afternoon festival sun. Here are a few that feature bluegrass-related artwork, a perfect stocking stuffer.
Handsome Ladies koozie: available for purchase at any HL jam!
Camping Lantern - $30-50
Having good lighting is essential for late-night festival jamming. Camping lanterns are fairly inexpensive and come in so many convenient, collapsable styles that are easy to pack and very lightweight.
The Stage Gal
Music/Instrument Stand - $15-40
I recently purchased an instrument stand myself and wow, I can’t tell you how much its changed my comfort on stage. I play with two banjos so having a double-instrument stand was crucial for me to be able to set one instrument down and have easy-access to the other in between songs. Stands help reduce the amount of on-stage shuffling which helps polish overall performance and keep nerves down. You can also use a music stand on stage where to place lyric sheets and accessories like tuners and picks when you’re not using them. Here is a great guide to finding the right on-stage instrument stand below, a link to the double-stand I bought (guitar stands can be used interchangeable for banjos), and a music stand that collapses into a carrying bag for portability.
Ear Trumpet Labs Microphone - $600
This one is expensive, but if you’re looking to splurge this is SO SO worth it as a band investment. Ear Trumpet Labs makes some of the most gorgeous, hand-made microphones that combine state-of-the-art sound quality with a beautiful, vintage design. Joseph and I recently got one ourselves, and we absolutely LOVE it. It’s great for ensuring a consistent sound quality on stage and has been so handy for recordings around the house or studio to use for band promotion. There mics come in a nice portable metal, padded box with a handle so its easy to carry around to gigs.
We got the Myrtle, which is best for small acoustic ensembles:
by J. Rose
As musicians, beginners or not, we all know that learning to play an instrument is a labor of love. Not only does it take hours of practice and dedication, but it takes infinitely more hours and dedication than we thought it would. Throughout the years, there have been plenty of discouraging studies to show the drawbacks of being an adult learner, but in more recent years, researchers have uncovered new truths about the adult mind and how it learns new things. It’s not that it’s too late for a person to learn, it’s just that we need to go about it differently than a child would. It’s a bit funny if you think about it. We adults need to relearn how to learn before we learn.
As adults, we are used to applying the same principles to an unknown set of skills that we have used our whole lives. We have developed processes rooted in our life experience. For instance, we have all had to learn the ins and outs of a new job or even find our way around the new interface on our smartphone, but these skills do not fall in the same category as learning a new instrument. As you might remember from high school psychology class, researchers have identified 3 main learning domains:
Cognitive: mental skills (knowledge)
Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude or self)
Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills)
We can thank the Affective domain for the urge to play the instrument and the Cognitive domain for remembering the notes of the chords and where they are located on the fretboard, but it’s the Psychomotor domain that is tasked with learning the most important part of playing an instrument: Technique, precision, and speed. These skills (Psychomotor domain) can only be learned through practice and repetition. This is where the most obvious difference between children and adult learners is exposed. Because children are constantly faced with learning new physical skills that require hand/eye and hand/ear coordination, their Psychomotor domain is more active. As adults, our priorities shift and our lives tend to require more cognitive and affective tasks such as learning facts and figures and understanding our emotions. We spend the majority of our time gaining knowledge and mental skills. The good news? Our brains are like any muscle. The more we exercise the Psychomotor domain, the stronger it gets. In other words, while we can’t rush the process, it will eventually get faster.
We’ve all heard the expression “ten thousand hours.” Anders Ericsson, a cognitive therapist, coined this term during his research on psychological expertise and human performance. Ericsson defines two prerequisites when developing a skill; ten thousand hours and practice. There are three identified types of practice concerning Psychomotor learning.
Deliberate practice targets a student’s weaknesses. Ericsson credits “deliberate practice” over "number of hours." This entails focusing on a specific tune or lick and slowly working through each hand position or strum until you can play it slowly, but completely. This type of session should be fairly short and with full concentration. If you find that your mind is wandering, then put down the instrument and come back later. A wandering mind will result in mistakes and it’s better to take a break from practicing than to spend time practicing mistakes. “Quality, not quantity” should be your motto for this type of practice.
Random practice is perhaps the most useful when it comes to developing our skills in any field. This is a type of hands-on practice that you experience in an environment where you are forced to make real-time decisions using the tools that you have on hand. Yep, you guessed it. Jamming is the best type of random practice you can get. Playing music with other people forces you out of your comfort zone and gives you the opportunity to apply your knowledge in order to answer any questions that might come up. “What chord is she playing?” “What key is this song in?” “Where can I play the new D-run that I was practicing yesterday?”
Blocked practice defines a type of studying that I refer to as “cramming.” Perhaps you remember studying for an exam using flashcards or simply repeating the information back to yourself over and over again. As we all know, this type of practice is great for short term memorization, but how much of the information on those flashcards do you still remember? This type of practice will not pay off in the long run and should probably be left for your history final.
Expert or not, it always helps to understand what’s going on behind the scenes when we are taking on a new task. Additionally, it’s a good idea to have a plan when efficiency is the goal. Take a minute to decide what things you need to work on in your next practice session. Try to employ Ericsson’s tips for Deliberate practice and then put yourself to the test and see if you can play your new lick or tune during Random practice. If you can’t find the time to make it to the local jam, you might try playing along with an original recording which will force you to play it up to speed as well as learn what areas you might need to work on. Mike Stahlman, a west coast banjo player, music teacher and flight instructor explains how jamming with other people will build your Psychomotor skills faster than anything else, “My observation over the many years of being around bluegrass music is that people who jam get better and people who don’t, don’t.” In other words, let's pick!
“My observation over the many years of being around bluegrass music is that people who jam get better and people who don’t, don’t.”
Note: For further reading on this subject, check out Gary Marcus’ book, Guitar Zero, The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age.
By Lucy Ann
For years I was scared to sing out loudly and clearly. And for years I was scared to speak at big parties or important work meetings or to make presentations in front of big audiences.
By working on my bluegrass lead and harmony singing, I’ve strengthened my voice and become a better singer and a better public speaker.
I’ve learned the hard way that fear can silence you. When I let my terror take over, my throat tightens, my jaw freezes, and my breathing gets shallow—all deadly conditions for trying to sing or speak with conviction, confidence, and clarity.
I finally got tired of wanting to share, through my singing or speaking, an important message and being too terrified to do it. I had to get over myself, in a way, and realize that I would not die from being heard and that, in any case, the messages I wanted to share were worth taking that imagined risk.
Bluegrass music is full of important messages and stories so worth the telling. Take the bluegrass classic, “Dream of a Miner’s Child,” for example. The child in that story is pleading with her father to stay home from the mine, to try to save his life from what she dreams will be a mining disaster. Her message is a matter of life and death.
Take “Sweet Sunny South,” or “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” or the numerous other bluegrass songs about home place. They tell of the deep longing and nostalgia for roots, and the sorrowful loss of a place that can never be as it was in memories. Take “Ashes of Love” and the countless other broken-heart tunes that share a theme common to all human experience, the theme of love gone bad or lost. All convey vital human stories.
In my day job, I am the policy director at an innocence project. Our work of freeing innocent people from prison and improving the criminal justice system is also a matter of life and death. This very meaningful work drives me to get over my fears and to speak up about what is wrong and what needs to be fixed to make things right.
Singing bluegrass has helped me speak up more clearly and effectively about these important themes. I was on two live television shows last year, talking about the work I do, and I did just fine. I got the information out there and survived.
I’m lucky to share a home with a gifted singer who has patiently encouraged me to sing strongly and loudly. I’ve learned that I can shift my attention off the fear and onto the vital message or story I’m trying to convey. I can pay attention to how I’m using my mouth, my sinuses, my vocal chords, my diaphragm and my breath to get the sound out. I picture images in my head that are based on the lyrics I am singing. I focus on feeling what I’m trying to convey rather than on feeling the fear. I aim to hit the high notes straight on without scooping my way up to them. And if I don’t make it right on pitch, I know I won’t die—despite my fears. All these approaches help me tell the story more effectively through song and help me get my message out through public speaking, too.
Thanks to bluegrass, I am out there in the world sharing the stories I love and the messages I care about, with a strong, clear voice I never thought I’d have.
Squinting out past the bright stage lights across the bar, I see a crowd of familiar faces smiling back at me — friends; fellow musicians; our entire community. It’s August 1st, 2016, and Joseph and I are playing a farewell show at Amnesia, a local San Francisco bar that hosts Bluegrass Mondays. In four days we would be leaving the bay area to move to Nashville.
Joseph, my husband, and I play bluegrass and old-time music together in a duo called the Family Shipp (previously the Redwood Ramblers). Our musical journey began about six years ago when I came home one day to find a banjo in my living room — a birthday gift from Joseph. I still remember the feeling of the smooth lacquered wood in my hands, the strange, hypnotic ring when I strummed the metal strings. I nearly drove Joseph mad practicing each night, but I fell in love with Bluegrass all the same. Shortly after he learned to flat-pick on guitar, then bravely took up the fiddle. I eventually learned to play old-time frailing on the banjo.
What started out as hobby for us blossomed into a lifestyle. We made friends in the music community and started jamming together. We began frequenting the bluegrass festivals and camps — Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, Portland Old-Time Gathering, and Walker Creek Music Camp. I helped found the Handsome Ladies, a non-profit supporting women in bluegrass, with seven gals who I had met through the community. Eventually Joseph and I formed the band and started performing and playing out at local venues in the city and private events.
In bluegrass, community is everything. I don’t just mean your fellow players but also friends and family. The former become your peers and mentors, the latter, your early fans and forgiving audiences. These are the people that help sustain your musical growth throughout the ups and downs with their support, friendship, motivation, resource-sharing and camaraderie.
Bluegrass music is inherently social, its roots stemming from community dances and social gatherings. Unlike any other genre, most of the fans of this music are equally well-versed in the playing. At Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, the most prominent northern California gathering, festival-goers come to partake in communal late-night jamming as much as they come for the polished stage acts. Camping in the tall pines of Grass Valley, CA, you can hear the fiddles howling and banjos rolling until sunrise.
There’s little fame or fortune to be found in playing bluegrass. Most players are in it for the community and for the love of the music. Amateur musicians (and some professionals) often have days jobs that pay the bills, while the music provides passion and personal fulfillment. Through this devoted network of bluegrass music-lovers, players like Joseph and I are able to learn etiquette, build repertoire and get exposure to new techniques. Musicians you idolize became teachers and inevitably, friends. Friends become bandmates, singing partners and musical collaborators.
People in the scene socialize frequently around the music, providing a wealth of opportunity for practice and bringing more fun into the playing. People teach each other the history behind songs, socialize new artists and highlight older, forgotten artists. These social events became a gauge for your playing progress and give much-needed motivation, especially during plateaus in growth when there’s temptation to give up.
If you were traveling to a new country, you would probably read about the local culture and history, learn some of the language and visit their cafe’s and restaurants to meet locals. Learning bluegrass music is very much the same. If there’s only one piece of advice I could give to anyone who is just breaking into bluegrass it is to find and immerse yourself into the community. Seek out local jams, go to the live bluegrass shows and learn about the festivals and music camps. Introduce your family and friends to the music so they can better understand your enthusiasm and support you down the line.
After nearly seven years in San Francisco and an epic musical journey, it was time for Joseph and I to leave. It wasn’t that we had outgrown the city but rather, the lifestyle we wanted was no longer feasible there. We were ready to settle down, buy a home, make a family and seek a new quality of life. Moving to a new city is hard, but by far the most difficult part of leaving is saying goodbye to the community we had spent years building and nurturing, one we love and cherish like family.
But as a testament to the strength of these relationships, we are already being welcomed into the Nashville bluegrass scene through the connections of bay area friends. And even better, these new mutual friendships help us feel even more connected to our old friends.
At our farewell show — the culmination of our time playing in San Francisco — the impact of seeing our entire community standing before us like this, cheering for us on this unexceptional Monday evening, was overwhelming. If it weren’t for this group of wonderful people, we would undoubtedly never have made it this far. And in this new chapter, wherever the music takes us, we will always have them to thank.
Each of us has a unique story for how we found our way to bluegrass music, the instruments that speak to us, what sub-genres we cling to, and where those paths will continue to take us. Some are in the infancy stages, while others have been around to bear witness to bluegrass history. My path is that of one with fresh green sprouting grass, but growing in knowledge, participation, and enthusiasm. I’d like to invite you to share your “coming to bluegrass” story, in the comments of this blog!
I can trace my first bites of bluegrass back to three particular albums that I was heavily listening to nearly 6 years ago. I sure didn't know what was about to take hold of my life. (Click the album covers for a listen.)
1. The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
2. John Hartford
3. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
the mountain (1999)
These three albums stood out of all the other classic country and American that I was listening to at the time. For those familiar, can you see how those albums might stand out? Whether the album was light or heavy in doses of it, the banjo took hold of me.
When you get a hankerin' for the banjo, you will soon become familiar with one man in particular: Banjo God-to-the-Gods, Earl Scruggs. With such charm, that smile, and a cool reserve picking the hell out of his axe, I was quick to be smitten with him and the five string. I wanted to absorb all that I could regarding the history and the sound, and I knew that I had to learn to play it, too.
Since my early foray into bluegrass banjo, my tastes have grown but also stayed pretty limited in the grand scope of the bluegrass genre. I’m a traditionalist through and through, preferring Scruggs and Stanley style, paired with the traditional harmonizing style, over just about anything else. I flat out don’t have the time or the taste to venture into melodic style banjo or progressive bluegrass. My main focus is learning what I obsessively listen to.
Today, any one of my heavily rotated playlists almost solely contains: Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers/Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, J.D. Crowe and the Bluegrass Album Band, Bill Monroe, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin, and The Vern Williams Band. I don’t need much more than those handful of names for endless listening. Not to leave out some other noted favorites: Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Red Allen, Roscoe Holcomb, High Country - you get the picture.
The sound that I first was drawn to has developed into the sound that keeps pushing me today. It’s the sound of traditional bluegrass that I am compulsively encompassed with - on the surface only to help me hear what I am driven to learn, but it truly goes deeper than that. I’m grateful to facilitate women playing bluegrass together to further their own journeys, I am grateful for the friends and bonds that I’ve created over this music of the people, and I’m grateful to tap into the knowledgeable wells of my friends with rich histories.
That’s my “Coming to Bluegrass” story.
Yennie Dee Brecheisen
One of the best ways we can grow our amazing community of lady-musicians is to go out and support the women making great music right here in the bay. Here’s a survey of just a few of the amazing musicians who have released albums in the past few months who are keeping the traditional music scene relevant and exciting, and are also butt-kicking ladies.
Emily Bonn has been around the folk scene in the Bay Area for years, first tearing it down with the Whoreshoes before forming her own band The Vivants. Along with bandmates Jimmy Touzel, Clare Armenate and Kalei Yamanoha they are currently touring in support of their third album “Bluegrass Special” which features traditional covers along with stellar originals.
The only thing better then ladies shredding it on fiddle and bass, and harmonizing the heck out of original and traditional songs, is when those ladies are mother and daughter. Thomsonia is a family affair with husband-wife duo Eric and Suzy Thompson playing with daughter Allegra.
Evie Ladin Band
Evie Ladin’s a banjo player, singer, dancer and squaredance caller living in Oakland, with deep roots in oldtime music and dance. Along with her bandmates Keith Terry and Erik Pearson she recently released “Jump the Fire,” which is a mellow, soulful mix of traditionals and originals.
Melody Walker is a powerhouse singer and songwriter, and along with Jacob Groopman, Adam Roszkiewicz, Leif Karlstrom and Jeremy Darrow has just released “Mixtape.” Featuring covers ranging from women-in-bluegrass pioneers Good Ol’ Persons to indie contemporary tUnE-yArDs.
Kathy Kallick Band
A bluegrass legend, Kathy Kallick has been playing in bands, including the groundbreaking Good Ol’ Persons, since 1975. She has recently released “Foxhounds” with bandmates Annie Staninec, Cary Black, Greg Booth, and Tom Bekeny.