Persona NAMM Grata

Each year the National Association of Music Merchants meets here in Nashville for their “Summer NAMM” trade show. Geared toward retailers, the show boasts booth after booth of nearly every conceivable type of musical product manufacturer trying to pitch their wares to the Sam Ashes and Guitar Centers of the country. Recording equipment. Sheet music. Guitars. Keyboards. Violins. Horns. Drums. Weird instruments that defy categorization. You name it.

No "Stairway to Heaven"

The NAMM show, like the US musical instrument market it represents, is very guitar-centric.

Unless you’re looking for an accordion, that is.

It’s possible that I missed a booth or two, but as far as I could tell when I visited, the place was 100% accordion-free. A squeezebox wasteland.

Even Roland, who gets a lot of credit for spearheading the digital accordion movement with their “V-Accordion” line, was basically phoning it in with a mere handful of non-accordion products. (The fact that they weren’t even mentioned in much of the printed material makes me suspect that their attendance was a last-minute afterthought.)

I guess that’s not too surprising. There was a time when accordions outsold electric guitars in the USA, but that was way back in the pre-Beatles days of yore. (Interestingly, Musikmesse, the European equivalent of NAMM, is still chock-full of accordion exhibitors.) Also, the Nashville show is really just a quarter of the size of the “real” NAMM taking place each year in Anaheim, so I guess you have to focus on what sells.

If there’s a silver lining it’s that just about every guitar-maker at NAMM was also selling ukuleles, along with entire booths leased by ukulele-only companies such as Kala and the Magic Fluke Company (who, by the way, are awesome folks). That’s something you probably wouldn’t have seen five years ago.

I’ve always felt that the ukulele and the accordion were sort of kindred spirits following similar trajectories–enormously popular in the first part of the 20th century, the butt of jokes by the second part, and only now becoming “cool” again thanks to a generation too young to have Tiny Tim and Lawrence Welk on their cultural radar.

So if the ukulele can successfully escape from the Island of Misfit Instruments, maybe there’s hope for the accordion yet.


Review: Berklee’s Free Improv Class on Coursera

Berklee College of Music is once again teaching a five-week, online class on jazz improvisation, starting July 19th. Is it worth your time and effort to enroll? I completed the course the first time it was offered, back in the spring. Read on for my review…

Assuming the format remains the same as last time, here’s how the class works:  Each week covers one broad topic and features several short video lectures in which the instructor (multiple Grammy award winner Gary Burton) explains and demonstrates the material. There’s usually a quiz, which you can retake multiple times before the due date.

The real fun is with the weekly assignments. Most weeks Prof. Burton gives you one or two tunes to work on. For each tune, you download a lead sheet and an mp3 of backing tracks (similar to the Jamey Aebersold play-alongs). Record yourself jamming along to the music, upload it to SoundCloud, and submit your link to the Coursera website.

Obviously, it’s not possible for Gary Burton to personally listen to and grade each of the tens of thousands of submissions, so he doesn’t…  you do. Well, you grade and comment on five (or more) of your fellow students, who are randomly and anonymously selected for you. Meanwhile, other random students are grading you. Your score is the median of all the grades, so you wind up with a sort of “wisdom of the crowd” effect.

This “peer review” process of grading sounds like it shouldn’t work. But, in its own weird way, it does. I loved listening to how others approached each tune, and I found the comments they left on my work to be (mostly) helpful.

Incidentally, the course is open to players of any instrument. I wound up reviewing bassists, vocalists, violinists, and even a steel drum player. Naturally, I took the course with my accordion–and I wasn’t the only one!

But a warning:  This class ain’t for sissies. When originally given, it was titled “Introduction to Improvisation” despite being anything but. They’ve since retitled it “Jazz Improvisation”. A bit vague, but better.

You really need to know your instrument (at minimum, be able to play minor and major scales in all 12 keys) and have a basic knowledge of intervals and chord theory. You should be able to recognize musical notation, but you don’t have to be a strong sight-reader. This being a jazz-based course, classically-trained players should be prepared from some differences in notation, not all of which will be explained.

Like any new class, there were several glitches during the first run. There was a much weaker instructor and TA presence on this course that in others I’ve taken. As a result, the powers-that-be were often frustratingly slow to respond to problems. Let’s hope that the changing of the course title is an indication that they’ve listened to feedback and have ironed out a lot of these issues.



Learning from Andy Murray

If you don’t follow tennis, you might not know that, this past weekend, Andy Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win the Wimbledon championship.

Tennis Racket and Ball

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

He had tried to pull this off when he made it to the finals the year before. Then, as now, he had the talent. He had the strength. He had put in an enormous amount of work training with one of the best coaches in the sport. Just like this year, nearly the entire country was following the match on television. Crowds packed the pubs and gymnasiums of his hometown of Dunblane to hold viewing parties and cheer him on. Over three-quarters of a century of pent-up British hope sat on Andy Murray’s shoulders… hopes that were dashed when he lost in the fourth set.

So what changed? How was this year different? I suspect the key was Murray’s mental game. He was noticeably more calm and composed this time. Mistakes and annoyances during the match seemed to more easily roll right off of him. He somehow found a way to shrug off the unfathomable pressure.

Playing music is not much different from playing sports in this regard. You can practice the material. You can run your drills, etc. But even then, an untrained mind can sabotage your performance.

It’s worth reading some advice from Murray’s sports psychologist. One tip stands out as applying especially well to musicians:

An essential truth to performing well: You won’t play at your best when you are focused on outcomes. “Focus instead on the specific task at hand […] When your mind starts tracking/wanting to know how the match is going to turn out, you have stopped PLAYING THE MATCH.”

Similarly, musicians can guard against pressure by focusing on their task at hand when performing. When your mind starts worrying about outcomes–whether you’ll pass the jury, or whether the club owner likes you enough to hire you again, or if anyone will remember that note you flubbed four measures ago–then you have stopped playing music.