Nov 07

Rachel K Collier breaks down her live performances

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Rachel K Collier is a vocalist, electronic music producer and performer from Swansea in Wales. Coming from a background working in songwriting as a topliner (writing vocal parts over instrumentation), she is a die-hard Ableton enthusiast who loves finding fresh ways to perform her original tracks in a live setting. Whether performing solo or with live percussionists and interactive visuals, Rachel’s expressive, high energy performances are rooted in a multi-instrument based technical setup while allows her to bring the studio to the stage.

At the end of October, Rachel released her debut album RKC, and has just had her first Melodics lesson set ‘And I Breathe’ released on keys, drums and pads. On Tuesday 19 November, she’s playing a special headline show at The Grace in London. You can purchase tickets over on her website here.

 

Melodics: Is live performance the most important part of music for you?

Rachel K Collier: I’d say I’m 50/50 between producer and live performer. I feel like as an electronic performer, you’re either recreating parts you wrote in the studio in a live setting or stem DJing them. I feel like since you spend so much time in the studio crafting those parts, the most rewarding way to play it live is to actually play them live, rather than just having a band play those parts, or having everything set up as tracks. When you play live, you really get to show off your studio productions in the best way, and it’s kind of like taking the studio to the stage, but obviously with some compromises.

 

Melodics: Do you enjoy how recreating your songs live can add an element of danger to the performance?

RKC: 100%. There is room for human error, things are going to go wrong, and you have freedom. You can have big breakdown sections and be doing all these live effects, live manipulations, and it’s different every single time.

 

Melodics: How important is improvisation to you?

RKC: My productions actually start from improvisation, and when I perform without any pre-made stems or clips, which I do, I’ll just be starting there with eight empty channels. I’m basically creating a whole track from scratch, and there is something so liberating and amazing about that. I get to record myself playing percussion, vocal loops, key loops, trigger them, and I can change them up into any shape or form that I want to.

 

Melodics: It’s very rewarding when you get into a flow with this sort of thing, isn’t it?

RKC: Exactly. You get into a flow, and you might just do one extra note on a loop, but it’s really sick, so you decide to do it again next time. I feel like it is really important to leave a bit of it up to chance. I’m the type of person who gets bored really quickly. With this live set-up, I can constantly evolve things, which means it never gets boring.

 

Melodics: Would you like to tell us anything about your debut album, RKC?

RKC: When I was in the topliner world, I got very bored of writing generic pop lyrics, so every song on the record is a personal experience for me. If you’re a songwriter and you want to produce your own music, you should just go for it. Even if it takes time, you can do it, because I did it. I hope everyone enjoys it and gives it a chance because all the tracks are quite different.

 

Melodics: Could you talk about your live performance set-up?

RKC: I have two live set-ups. One where I’m alone, and I create everything from scratch, and one with percussionists and visuals. I use two little Yamaha Refaces. I’ve got the Arturia MiniBrute, Ableton Push 2, two additional midi controllers, a DJ TechTools Midi Fighter, an Akai LPD8. So I have three midi controllers and several synths. When I add my percussionists to my show, I have a KingKord synth on stage as well. Everything runs through Ableton on my laptop.

 

Melodics: How much time do you spend practising your live show?

RKC: I practice a lot. When you are practising for a technology-based set, as well as actually singing or playing, getting the notes right, there are always little tech amendments you need to be doing. I’ll do a little vocal warm-up, then I’ll try to do my set, but instead of programming and rehearsing at the same time, I’ll make notes about the programming changes, before having a break, and then practising again, but the next practice session will be a programming session. I separate out the technology rehearsals and the actual physical performance rehearsals. Sometimes I play Tetris in-between sessions because when you concentrate that hard, you need to take breaks. I can’t really have anything else going on that day. I have to devote days to practice. If I have to make a video or finish producing a track, I can’t practice as well.

 

Melodics: What can you tell us about your Melodics lesson ‘And I Breathe’?

RKC: It isn’t really a typical song type of thing; actually, it’s really odd. I’ll never forget how happy writing it made me feel because it represents a turning point where I realised I was becoming a really good producer. When we play it live, no matter the show, it’s always my favourite. There is a big synth solo at the end, a big percussion solo, and the song is about when everything gets too much, and the world feels crazy. It’s about the feeling of release you can get from music.

 

Melodics: How do you feel about having your song converted into a lesson people can play?

RKC: I think it’s really cool. Melodics can really enhance your production. It’s about more than just playing in time. Learning those grooves, chords and keys, that’s the type of stuff that can actually inspire you when you are creating music. It’s a lesson for you to get tighter at your finger drumming, and you can use that when you perform live, but for me, Melodics inspires me to create with different grooves. I like to go on Melodics for fifteen minutes before I start producing because it just warms me up and really gets me into the groove. Instead of just looking at the plug-ins on a song in a production tutorial, you can actually have a go at playing those rhythms. I think it is amazing and I am looking forward to sharing my lesson with everyone.

Try Rachel’s lesson I Breathe:
Keys
Pads
Drums

Oct 09

It’s guided learning, but YOU create your own path.

by in Fundamentals, Melodics, Pro Tips

Learning to play music is exciting, but getting started can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming. Where do you start? Where do you go next? What do you do when things get tricky? What should you be focusing on?

These are all common bits of feedback we hear from those looking to get started with learning to play their instrument.

The solution?

Introducing the Melodics Guided Path – a structured map through the Melodics Courses to help you find your way and improve your skills on the keys, pads, or drums.

The Guided Path gives you an overview of the areas you should focus on when starting your musical journey with Melodics. Working your way through each Course in the Guided Path will help you lay a solid foundation for you to build upon further.

We’ve designed this path for you to follow, but try moving both ways. Forward through the courses to master new concepts, but also back to lessons you’ve passed so you can see the improvements you’ve made, increase your scores and get those perfects. One of the joys of music learning is the satisfaction of easily re-playing a lesson you once found super hard.

Continue reading It’s guided learning, but YOU create your own path.

Jul 30

Melodics Playground Mode

by in Melodics, Pro Tips

Feel like your playing is getting better but you’re still too nervous to play on your own? Want to be able to sit down at your instrument and play without any prompts? 

Introducing the new Melodics Playground Mode! Now you can free play over Lessons, record yourself, and listen back to evaluate your performance.

Every musician wants to be able to play their favourite songs, but becoming a great musician means more than following a script. Playground Mode gives you all the tools you need to take what you’ve learned and add a splash of your own creativity. Record and listen back to evaluate your own performance! Become a more confident musician and see how much progress you have made! 

How do I find Playground Mode? 

Next time you pass a Lesson, you’ll unlock Playground Mode for this Lesson. Once you’re in there, you’re free to play anything you want. Test yourself by playing the Lesson again from memory with no prompts, or improvise your own remix – it’s up to you

where-to-find-pg-mode

 

Want to know how you actually sound?

Loop it up and record.

Playground Mode will keep looping, so you can spend as long as you want in there. Hit the record button when you’re ready – you can record and listen back to evaluate your performance, start playing another layer over the top, or just sit back and admire your genius.

Messed up? Don’t worry – just hit the X button to start again.

 

Want to get creative, but don’t know where to start? 

Learn the chords, or just jam out! 

Don’t worry if you get stuck, for keys, we’ll let you know what notes and chords mostly sound good with each Lesson. Follow the scale indicated with green dots, or hit the “Show Chords” button to reveal the chords for that Lesson’s key. If you’re feeling extra brave, turn down the backing track to release your true potential and play anything you want!

pg-scale-guide

 

What’s a song key?

A song key determines what notes and chords mostly “sound good” together. This is more of a guide than a hard rule. It’s a good place to start but don’t be afraid to try other keys too, especially when played quickly as passing notes.

 

Is Playground Mode also available in Melodics Pads and Drums?

Of course! Pads and Drums don’t include the key, scale, and chord guides (as those are Keys-only concepts) but you can still jam your ideas, remix the track on the fly, and record yourself to listen back to.

pg-pads-drums

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The benefits of recording, playback, and evaluation.

Being able to record and listen back to your performance is an incredibly useful tool. When you’re in the moment, it’s hard to notice small mistakes or happy accidents, and it’s difficult to critique your playing in real time. Humans like to get complacent too, so if you’re not careful, you might start to develop bad habits! It’s hard to notice these bad habits, and even harder to break from them without proper feedback.

Usually we have to rely on others for subjective feedback on our performances, but humans are not always the most reliable or critical, either! So who better to provide the best feedback than yourself? You are your own worst critic.

 

Learning how to improvise and jam

One of the most difficult skills to learn is applying your knowledge gained from Lessons to playing in the real world with other musicians. Lessons and courses provide the best core knowledge, but it can be hard to fully understand some concepts and apply them to the real world.

Playground Mode gives you the space to experiment and apply what you’ve learned without any prompts. With our chord suggestions for Melodics Keys, you can explore and get comfortable playing in a specific key, and learn which chords and notes work well together. Pads and drums will allow you to play what you want and evaluate your timing when playing without prompts.

Improvisation is also a big part of becoming a great musician. If you’re comfortable playing the Lesson content, Playground Mode is the place to go to improvise your own version. There’s no time limit, so you can spend as long as you want in there – it’s just you and your instrument!

 

Suitable for all abilities

Regardless of your skill level, there’s something for everyone in Playground Mode. Next time you pass a Lesson, jump into Playground Mode and explore. Start by testing your memory and play the Lesson again without prompts. If you’re feeling confident, set up a loop and improvise your own remix. You can also turn down the backing track and play anything you want. Don’t forget to hit that record button to listen back to your creativity!

Good luck!

____________________________________________________________________________

FAQs

Who has access to this feature?

This feature is for subscribers only. Subscribe to one of our plans and get access to Playground Mode for as long as you want.

How do I find Playground Mode in-app?

Once you get at least 1 star on a Lesson, you will see a Playground Mode icon on the screen where your score resides. You can also access Playground Mode in the Pre-Play screen for Lessons you already have at least 1 star on.

Does my performance in Playground Mode count towards my Daily Goal?

It does indeed! However, the time is counted only if you are actually playing – hitting the keys / pads / drums.

Apr 29

What finger-drummer Robert Mathijs has learned on his quest for groove

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Amsterdam producer, guitarist and singer Robert Mathijs is the man behind The Quest For Groove, a website and YouTube channel devoted to helping users become expert finger drummers. Over a series of courses and videos, Rob combines his experience with live performance, studio production, finger drumming, web design and teaching into approachable steps and processes for understanding his three stages of musical mastery. Stage one: What to play (what pads to hit). Stage two: How to play it (loud, soft, laid-back, energetic etc.) Stage three: Why do I play this and not something else?

For Rob, his engagement with finger drumming grew out of a desire to record his own groovy rhythm parts in studio sessions without hiring a session drummer. From there, he began exploring the creative possibilities of pad controllers and other new ways of bridging that musical gap between humans and computers. Given this, he was a natural lesson partner for Melodics. Below, Rob walks us through some of the challenges he sees new finger drummers facing, and his thoughts around the art of practice.   

 

What are some of the common challenges you see new finger drummers coming up against?

I noticed a lot of beginning finger drummers struggle with picking the right gear, the right software and setting everything up. There are a lot of options available on the hardware and software front, and unfortunately, a lot of those options don’t work if you want to play the way I play. Either the pads aren’t sensitive enough, or the sensitivity varies too much between pads, or the software that comes with the pads doesn’t provide you with the right sounds.

My preferred setup currently involves putting a Maschine MK3 in midi mode, completely ditching the Maschine software and then triggering Addictive Drums 2 with it. That’s not a very straightforward thing to do and takes a lot of messing around with midi learn and stuff, but it’s necessary for me to get both that great pad sensitivity and that hyper-realistic drum sound.

 

What are your thoughts around the roles finger-drumming can play within modern music paradigms?

I think now that digital has basically absorbed analog (I believe we’re at a point were digital can ’emulate’ most analog behaviour) it’s time to start developing ways to get the same amount of precise and subtle control over our digital environments as ‘traditional’ musicians have over their instruments. The computer is the studio now, or the instrument, or the orchestra for that matter.

As humans, we want to make it truly understand what’s in our hearts and one of the ways to do this is finger drumming. It’s one of the most direct ways to communicate the grooves we feel to the computer instead of playing by the rules of the computer and going out of our way to speak the computer’s language (which is how I feel when I have to program a beat).

 

Do you have any advice for users on how to create a regular practice routine and keep at it?

The most important thing is to have your music setup ready to go whenever you are. It’s a bit silly, but one of the main reasons I’ve been playing more guitar lately is because I put it in a stand next to the couch instead of keeping it in its suitcase. All it takes is the reach of an arm to start playing.

For finger drumming or anything electronic it’ll usually take booting up your computer and firing up the software, but you can at least make sure all your music making stuff is hooked up to one USB hub so you can plug it into your laptop and everything works right away. Have shortcuts to all your favourite music making programs ready on your desktop and preferably create standard templates for those programs, so they boot up with your favourite drum kit loaded and your favourite songs ready to go in a Spotify playlist or something.

Another trick is to attach practicing to something that’s already part of your daily routine. Breakfast? Brushing your teeth? Watching The Late Show? Attach your practice sessions to one of those things.

 

Now that you’ve been involved in creating Melodics lessons, what sort of initial suggestions would you have for Melodics users around finger drumming?

I think the most important thing when doing a melodics lesson is to realise that it’ll help you learn what pads to hit when. Once you know what to do, maybe close your eyes, don’t look at your hands, don’t look at a screen but just listen to what you’re playing and how that feels. In the end that’s what it’s all about.

 

Do you have any other thoughts on Melodics, and how it can mesh in with users personal interests in playing and creating music?

One of the first things I was extremely jealous of was how easy it was to start playing. Melodics app makes it so easy to set up your pad controller. No explanation video could ever beat that! Secondly, something I also noticed with some of my guitar students who played ‘Rocksmith’ (basically the guitar version of melodics on a PlayStation) is that this gamification of practice is so incredibly helpful in nudging people towards practicing the right way. Like slowing it down, focusing your attention on certain weaknesses and stuff like that. It also creates this nice crossover between reading sheet music and doing everything by ear.

Try a lesson from The Quest For Groove here.

Find out more at:
questforgroove.com
youtube.com/thequestforgroove

Dec 20

How Fabian Mazur found his sound

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Fabian Mazur first became an emergent figure within the Danish club music scene in 2010. Since then, the Copenhagen-based music producer and DJ’s buoyant tracks have caught the ears of international EDM frontrunners like Martin Garrix, Tiesto, and Afrojack, in the process helping him build a growing profile. Ostensibly hybrid trap EDM with glossy synth-overtones, his music ripples with touches drawn from traditional east coast hip-hop and R&B, and when he hypes it up on the microphone over the top, lifts the whole club up. In 2013, Fabian received a platinum-certification for his remix of ‘Chuck Norris’ by Kongsted, and in 2014 he began touring around the world. When he isn’t programming his own music, producing for other artists, or DJing, Fabian creates producer sample kits for Splice. It’s one of the ways he likes to give back and help the next generation of producers. This week, in partnership with Splice, we present Fabian’s first Melodics lesson for the track ‘Settle’. Read our interview with him below and try his lesson here.      

 

Could you tell us a bit about how you got your start as a musician?

Growing up, my mum and dad were both jazz musicians. I used to tour with them a lot as a kid. I’d see them perform, play, and rehearse, so I was always rooted in jazz and world music. Even though I didn’t really like the music myself, it provided me with a lot of knowledge about rhythm and melody. My mother is from New York. She was born and raised there, but she came to Europe as a teenager. We stayed connected with her family there. I think this influenced me a little bit. Back in the day, I used to listen to a lot of east coast hip-hop, DJ Premier, Nas, Jay-Z, so when I started making music as a teenager, I was into 90s hip-hop and R&B. After a few years, I had a friend who got me into DJing and got me into EDM acts like Swedish House Mafia.

 

How did you take these influences and shape them into the sound you’re now known for?

It definitely took me a lot of years. I guess I think it took almost ten years to get to the sound I wanted. I took some courses, and I studied a little bit. I did all types of stuff, but the main thing that got me there was putting in a lot of work, and making a lot of terrible music before I made good music.

 

The terrible music clears the way for the good music, right?

Exactly. After a few years of making pretty terrible music, I figured out I was actually getting pretty good. My music wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but it was almost there. I feel like people talk about the whole 10,000 hours of putting work into a specific task. I think that is true with playing, writing, and producing music. When I was coming up, I didn’t have Splice or all the features of the modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). I feel like I put in way more than 10,000 hours to get good at music production. As a creative and a music artist, it actually took me a really long time to find a genre or soundscape that I liked for my own music, and wanted to be affiliated with. I spent years making tons of different music, hip-hop beats, R&B beats, deep house, EDM, dubstep, whatever, and that experimenting really got me to where I am today.

 

Would you tell young producers to listen to and make a range of music until they find out what they really click with? Or in the case of Melodics users, try out a range of lessons from different genres?

Yes. That is one of the main pieces of advice I give people when they ask me how I got to where I am. I tell them to listen to a lot of different music and try to create a lot of different music. Don’t try to keep your eye on a specific genre or sound at first. A lot of people make that mistake at the start; they decide they want to be a dubstep producer only and only produce dubstep from the get-go. I think that is a very big mistake to make when you’re starting out.

 

You can hear the influence of listening to, and producing different types of music in your work.

It’s kinda natural. Genres have always had the tendency to merge at some point. Maybe it’s all just a natural part of the process, especially with the digital age of music production we’re in right now. With things like Melodics and Splice, it’s never been easier for people to merge genres the way they want to.

 

 

 

Nov 23

Step1 On Turntablism And The Power Of Practice

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Step1 (Stefanie Anderson) is a music producer, turntablist, live electronic music performer, music educator, and entrepreneur based in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Stefanie’s musical practice is built around the trifecta of beat-making, finger drumming, and turntablism, skills which are all on full display in the impressive new ‘Scratch, Sample and Push’ live performance video routine she recently created for Ableton. Find out more about Stefanie’s live performance and finger drumming here, this time we talked to her about her background in turntablism, songwriting and production, and the power of practice.

How were you introduced to turntablism, and how did you develop your skills there?

My introduction to turntablism came in 1995. A friend came over to my house, and he had a copy of the DMC World Finals on VHS tape! That was the year that Roc Raida was representing the USA in the battle. My mind was totally blown by scratching and beat juggling. I thought to myself, “One day I’m going to learn how to do that.”

Flash forward to 2004. I moved to LA, and my roommate was a DJ. He had a setup in the house, and he knew that I’d been a dancer all my life—tap, jazz, break dancing, etc. He was like, “You have good rhythm, I bet you’d pick up DJing really quickly.” He taught me the basics, and I was hooked. Scratching was my favorite element of DJing. I bought Q-Bert’s DIY Skratching Vol. 1 DVD, and I spent countless hours learning how to cut.

I think what I loved about scratching is that it’s so percussive. As a dancer, my favorite style was tap. And obviously, tap is also very percussive. You create intricate rhythms with the taps on your shoes. Basically, it’s foot drumming. So that’s one reason I was really drawn to scratching. I really enjoyed tapping out percussive rhythms with my right hand on the crossfader and using my left hand to manipulate the record.

After honing your craft as a turntablist, you developed your skills as a songwriter and a producer, which led you to finger drumming. Could you talk about this journey?

I’m a nerd at heart, and I love learning. When I get interested in something, I naturally gravitate toward classes. So when I decided to learn music production, I started taking private lessons with a producer in San Francisco. But I also wanted to improve my songwriting skills, so I worked with a piano teacher for a little while to learn music theory. As a bass player, I never had to play chords, so harmony was new to me. I also took a few music production courses online. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for experimentation. It’s an important part of any creative endeavor, but I also think the right teacher or the right course can really accelerate the learning process.

In our last interview, we talked about your new performance video for Ableton. How much practice do you put into your live performance routines?

It’s a pretty ridiculous amount of practice. After I come up with a routine, I have to memorize all the parts and get them up to tempo. If the drum pattern is fast or complicated, it could take a few days before I’m finger drumming at the target BPM. After I’ve got the whole thing memorized, I have to practice it over and over until I can perform the routine without making any mistakes.

Obviously, the more complicated the performance, the longer the process takes. With the “Keep It Real” routine for Ableton, it took three weeks of practice – maybe a couple of hours a day – to get to the point where I could execute it perfectly every time. But that was on top of the hours it took to create the song, figure out how to adapt it to a live context and memorize the parts. All in all, I probably worked on that routine for five weeks. And it was only a 2-minute performance!

Do you have any advice for people who’d like to create their own performance routines?

For people who are looking to explore hybrid performances of any kind, I guess my advice would be to start small. My first routine was “Cutthroat,” where I used Push to finger drum a beat on-the-fly, and then I scratched vocals on top of the beat. The Ableton project only had two tracks: a MIDI track for the drum rack and an audio track for the scratching.

That was the first phase of my exploration, and gradually I learned how to incorporate other elements. My Ableton project for the “Keep It Real” routine has eight tracks, and I use all of them in 2 minutes. I also added a MIDI foot controller for that performance, so it was way more complicated than “Cutthroat.” But starting with a simple setup helped me wrap my head around all the possibilities offered by a hybrid performance.

Sep 28

How finger drumming made Step1 a better music producer

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Step1 (Stefanie Anderson) is a music producer, turntablist, live electronic music performer, music educator, and entrepreneur based in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Since 2016, she’s run the Sequence One music production school with her business partner Lenny Kiser. As a music maker and performer, Stefanie’s personal practice is built around the trifecta of beat-making, finger drumming, and turntablism, skills which are all on full display in the impressive new ‘Scratch, Sample and Push’ live performance video routine she recently created for Ableton. Below, Stefanie talks about putting together the routine, and how Melodics helped her developed her finger drumming skills. She also explains her thoughts on turntables in the digital production era.

 

Let’s talk about your new performance video. In it, you combine Ableton Push and a turntable to create a blend of real-time sampling, beat-making, finger drumming, and scratching. What was it like putting them together?


It was a learning experience. Everyone’s workflow is different, but for me, the song idea comes first. Then I figure out how I’ll adapt it for a live performance. Which parts will I play on the controller? Which parts will I play on the turntable? How will I transition between them? You’re going to run into limitations in terms of what’s possible to play live, so the original song idea inevitably evolves as it gets adapted for the stage. It’s a fun problem-solving exercise. I always learn new tricks in Ableton every time I work on a routine.

Your video included some excellent finger drumming. How did you develop your skill set from DJing to include beat production and live electronic music performance?

For me, production and finger drumming evolved simultaneously. As soon as I started making beats, I ran across YouTube videos from artists like Jeremy Ellis and AraabMusik. I knew that I wanted to learn finger drumming right away. It reminded me of turntablism: it’s tactile, fun, rhythmic, and it requires skill and technical mastery.

At that time, though, there really weren’t any good resources for learning finger drumming. I found a couple of YouTube tutorials and learned how to play very rudimentary hip-hop beats, but it was hard to progress any further. Then in late 2015, the Ableton newsletter landed in my inbox, and it had an announcement about Melodics. I signed up immediately!

How did using Melodics change things for you?

Melodics was a game changer for me. After a couple of weeks of daily practice, I was able to play the ‘Amen Brother’ breakbeat. I was so excited. As a crate digger who loves all the classic breaks, it was satisfying and motivating to learn that drum pattern. I just kept going from there, unlocking as many levels as I could. Last year, I made it to Level 18, but I’m stuck there because I’ve been working on other things. I wouldn’t have advanced to my current skill level without Melodics, so it’s still so crazy to me that my ‘Keep It Real’ lessons are available in the Melodics app.

I also think that finger drumming made me a better producer, which is why I said the skills evolved simultaneously. With practice, my drum vocabulary expanded, and eventually, my patterns became more complex and interesting.

 

Before this interview, you told me that you view the turntable as a controller and as a tool in your production arsenal. Could you expand on your thinking here?

The traditional view of a turntable is that it’s a record player. You don’t create anything with it; you use it to play someone else’s music. But for the turntablist, the turntable has always been an instrument.  Here’s what I mean: With scratching, essentially you’re isolating and manipulating certain sounds. Most people associate scratching with vocals, but turntablists can scratch any musical material – drums, horns, strings, pads, chords, you name it. You can even use the turntable’s pitch control to transpose a sound while you’re scratching it.

What other piece of hardware lets you isolate, manipulate, and transpose audio content? A sampler. That’s why I think of the turntable as a controller or instrument. It’s just another way to work with audio in a music production environment. For me, the real benefit of using a turntable is that it adds a unique element to my live performances, and it lets me combine my love of beat-making with my love of scratching.

 

Sep 04

Sherry St. Germain on the importance of daily practice, improvisation and simplicity

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

 

Whether you’re talking about theatrical live performance, EDM studio sessions, film and television soundtrack/sound design work, musical education programs, or her Akylla duo project with Saratonin, Sherry St. Germain is an accomplished and assured achiever. Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, she’s a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer/songwriter who has – among other accomplishments – collaborated with Steve Aoki, Excision, Stafford Bros, Revolvr, and Genesis, performed on a flying piano for Cirque Du Soleil, and written music for male stripper comedy Magic Mike.

In conversation with Melodics, Sherry expands on her thoughts around the power of daily practice,  improvisation, musical simplicity, and taking the time to share what you’ve learned with others.

You can also play the Sherry St. Germain and Akylla Melodics lessons by following the links below.

Keys lessons
Pads Lesson


How much time do you spend playing music?


If I’m not playing, I’m producing, or teaching, or performing, so I’m kind of always in a music mode. I’m the type of person who leaves the studio and then goes home to the studio. I was raised in music. There are a lot of people that I teach on the side; I don’t even charge them, I teach them cause it helps me. I had a lot of teachers, who helped me on the side. When you teach something, you become a master at it. That’s the last stage, like in martial arts.

I think that whole statement “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is bullshit. When you do teach you explain things, you break them down in layman’s terms, which is a different type of thinking. When I teach something, I learn as well, which is really really nice.


What would you suggest to someone who wants to make music part of their daily life?

Start out playing for five minutes a day. If you can do five minutes a day then eventually five will turn into ten mins, and ten mins will turn into fifteen minutes. You can use it as a way to learn and share. Often, I’ll decode a song and its chord changes, because I want to learn it. Afterward, I’ll show it to my friends, and I’ll try to perform alchemy with it. The majority of the people I work with on production in the DJ world, don’t know a lot of theory, so they will ask me if things are in key, and I’ll advise them on works and doesn’t. Sometimes just making sense of a song musically is a good way to practice and stay inspired.

When I’m doing production work for Film and TV, they send me songs to learn, but they don’t want you to rip them off, they want you to make something with the same energy. You have to think about what makes a song appealing by dissecting it. This has been really good practice for me as well, learning which chord changes resonate with people. That’s been a good way to practice as well.


Any other tips?

Sometimes I practice by playing along to mixes online. I’ll pick a different mix, chill hip-hop, house music, whatever, and play along. That way, every day you are gonna be stimulated with something new. When you learn something new every day, you get happier. Happiness releases endorphins which you associate with learning, and you want to do it more. Why I like playing along to mixes is it’s a way to find cool things you can learn. If you love house music, practice to house music, if you love trap music, practice to trap music. Do the things you love, and you will only get better.


How important is improvisation to what you do?


I’m doing it all the time. I think every day is kind of an improvisation. You always end up having to wing it. I prepare as much as I can, but a lot of it is improvised, which stems from being excited when you hear stuff. Something inspires me, I want to do something like it, and you end up off in a completely different direction. Music makes you use both sides of your brain.


Speaking of using both sides of your brain, what’s your take on finger drumming?

I think it’s dope. I love finger drumming. It’s so good for technique cause it helps with piano. It helps with everything. It’s so great for hand-eye coordination, and it makes you better at rhythm in general. I think finger drumming and piano go hand in hand. Melodics has finger drums, keys, and v-drums, and all of those are going to help you in whatever you do. They all rely on elements of rhythm, and keys even though they aren’t rhythm, they have a rhythmic sense to them.

When you’re in a band, even if you’re the best drummer in the world and you do all the fanciest shit, nine times out of ten no one will want to play with you. They want someone who can groove and keep time. People don’t even care about the fancy stuff half the time; they just want the meat and potatoes. John Bonham [from Led Zeppelin] wasn’t a crazy drummer as far as soloing goes, but when you listen to his groove, it’s everything. You can’t help but move to it.

Jul 17

How To Practice More Effectively.

by in Fundamentals, Pro Tips

Without a doubt, music gives back what you put into it. There is no substitute for time spent ‘shedding’ on your instrument. There is no shortcut to either technical proficiency or (more importantly), conviction and ‘a voice’ in your playing. It is a humbling and never-ending journey.

Practice is cumulative, and muscle memory is built through repetition over time. For this reason, I often tell beginner musicians that 5 minutes a day will be much more beneficial than two hours once a week. As your playing and understanding grow, your practice sessions may demand more time, or become more conceptual than mechanical. You might also find that the breakthroughs happen after an hour or so of banging your head against the wall. But this is down the track. For now, regular time on the instrument (or program as our modern landscape may have it), and building the habit of practice are what will get you the best results.

Everyone learns differently. One aspect of effectively practicing and internalising pieces of music, musical techniques, and musical vocabulary is developing an understanding of how you learn.

These concepts quickly become quite cerebral, so in the spirit of this piece (as I’ll soon explain), let’s focus on something immediately tangible.

How do you learn a passage of music you find technically difficult?

If I had a one-word answer, it might be ‘microscopically’.

The process explained below for guitar is used in all Melodics lessons. The pieces are deconstructed into steps, so you can gradually rebuild from the foundational elements up to the full parts. Remember, if anything feels too hard at any stage, repeat it, slow it down (use the tools in Practice Mode), and zoom in.

Let’s use Link Wray’s seminal tune ‘Rumble’ as an example (which a fledgling guitar player may find some aspects of challenging):

Among its many accolades, this tune apparently holds the honour of being the only instrumental ever banned from radio!

The first 8 bars of this 12 bar blues are pretty easy. To me (and for simplicity’s sake), the tune is a slow blues shuffle in 4/4. I think the sheet music has it as 12/8. You strum a Dsus2 on beats 3 and 4 before the downbeat, then strum an E ‘on the one’ and let it ring for a bar and a half. Then repeat. Then do the same thing but go to an A. Then the same returning to the E. Provided you know these chords, this will take about ten seconds to learn. If this is confusing at all, have a listen to the link and it will become clear.

In bars 9-12, there’s a B7 chord which is likely less familiar than the first 3, followed by a 2/4 bar (which feels natural enough it won’t catch you off guard), followed by a descending E minor pentatonic scale using the open strings. Again, use the recording for reference.

Most people starting out on guitar don’t find playing chords especially difficult, but changing between them in time is another story. My fairly amateur keys playing can attest to this being a cross-instrumental issue. Even if it seems counterintuitive now, most people will play a song from the start and trainwreck it at the same place over and over. And wonder why that part always goes wrong.

Let’s assume the first 8 bars of this song have become pretty solid after a bit of practice. But when you practice, you are you still playing the song from the beginning every time and falling off the rails in the same place every time. In this case, Bar 9. Surely it would make sense to isolate the challenging aspect, and focus your energy there if that is what is causing you problems? Here’s where we can start zooming in.

First things first, you need to get the B7 chord sounding good on its own. Zooming in further, I would make sure the left-hand fingers are in the correct position, then play the notes of this chord (arpeggiate it) one at a time with my right hand. If any of them are choked or aren’t speaking properly, something in the left-hand needs to adjust. Until they all sound cleanly, things can’t progress. Maybe working on just the B7 is the practice on this tune for today.

Once that chord is under control, the change to it from Dsus is next. I would zoom out slightly and focus on just looping the D to the B7 back and forth. First without time just to get the muscle memory happening, and then in the correct rhythm for the song. You can make these exercises musical. I would set a metronome to a similar tempo as the tune (or initially slower if necessary), and make a 2 bar loop. Part of the reason I chose this song as an example is that it is slow and simple. On something more uptempo or complex, I would always start practicing with a metronome well below the true tempo.

Once this feels good, zoom out again. Now might be a good time to play the tune from the start to bar 10, and put your new part in context.  

Finally, we have our minor pentatonic run. Like many parts, this sounds cool so difficulty is assumed. It’s actually very simple. However, it will almost certainly trip you up if it isn’t looked at in isolation first. Zoom back in. Use the same process. Play just the descending E- pentatonic scale a few times. Do it in halves if you need to. Then introduce time. You can either keep the metronome in 4/4 and play them as a triplet feel, or move the metronome over to divisions of 3. Either way, start slow! I can’t emphasize enough that the slower and smaller you make parts, the easier they get, and the more solid your understanding and foundation of that music will be. With that in mind, maybe just getting that run under your fingers so it sounds badass and confident is today’s practice. Maybe you work on it just for 5 minutes.  

Assuming this lick is sounding good, zoom out a bit. Using the same process, put the last 4 bars together. Once that feels good, include the Dsus2 chords which lead into bar 9. Once this is all grooving and locked in, I think you’re ready to play the whole tune and rock it.

From personal experience of learning to play things way beyond my skill level, I believe anyone can learn to play anything if they have the patience to break the pieces down into tangible amounts. Even the most intricate music can be attainable by zooming in and working on a few notes or a chord change at a time. It’s the patience to do so, and the focus involved which is the true skill.

Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com

Jul 17

Tips for playing live

by in Fundamentals, Pro Tips

My best piece of advice for performing, is that the first time you play a piece in front of people, it shouldn’t matter.

The first time you perform a song in its entirety that you’ve been learning shouldn’t be for a high stakes performance such as for an exam or competition.  That is too much pressure. The first time you play in your live electronic duo shouldn’t be to a packed room of 150 people who have all paid $20. Playing to 20 people who you know and will smile encouragingly when you blast them with a slightly too loud hi-hat is a better idea. The packed room can wait.

The actual setup

I had a Piano exam around the age of 11 that was going to be on a Grand Piano. Up until that stage I had only ever played on upright pianos, and my wise piano teacher knew that the position of where the music sits on a Grand piano is higher. This could have caused extra stress and nerves for the real exam. A few weeks before the exam, I spent a few hours playing on the actual Grand Piano I was going to be examined on and was able to adjust to the much higher music location. When I arrived for the real exam, it was one variation I didn’t need to worry about. I passed the exam.

Now this is looking at the context of a performance where it is relatively straightforward, where it is just a Piano player checking that they can see the music and touch the pedals. Or perhaps it is a trumpet player ensuring they’re warmed up, in tune and have put in valve oil. Basic operational checks, like a Guitarist ensuring their strings are not rusty and the loose input jack is fixed. When you add any technical aspects, such as guitar pedals or amp variables, your preparation for performance should look like your real deal performance. I’ve have had students who haven’t used a fuzz or wah pedal enough to be totally confident, and then it adds another layer of nerves when they use it in their performance. Practice your instrument with the same setup as you will perform. This includes those who plug controllers into laptops.

There was a national competition I attended and one of the band members used a laptop, USB audio card and a hardware sampler/controller. The band walked on stage but couldn’t get the sound to work on the laptop and they spent 10 minutes trying. The musician hadn’t used the USB audio card much, and so didn’t realise that when you close a laptop, it defaults to the internal soundcard (I jumped on stage and rectified the problem). This problem not only delayed the competition, but more importantly the musician was visibly upset when they went to play. Technical setups such as modular synths, laptops or anything with more than 2 or 3 electronic sound sources require a higher level of confidence in their use to reduce nerves. Being consistent in how and where things are plugged in is less important than 15 years ago as USB and Laptops are becoming less temperamental. However, focusing on reducing the variables and thus things that could go wrong onstage will lower stress and anxiety. Then you can just focus on your performance, not the gear. (Note: updating software the day before performance is not a good idea. What happens if a little tweak of a menu location happens and you can’t find that parameter?)

Knowing your part.

Do I get nervous? Not if I know what I’m doing.

After playing music for over 30 years, I still get nervous, but I now know why. It’s down to two reasons:

I haven’t practiced my part enough and so I am only 80% confident I’ll get it right.

It’s that 20% of doubt that creeps in and affects my playing. If I can play my part totally correct at least 20 times in a row, then I know I’ll be fine. This applies for me playing in a Symphony Orchestra, busking on the street with friends, or DJing that great mix.

Or

I don’t know what’s happening around me. This is because I am not totally confident of what is happening on stage with the other members of my band. For example, knowing the exact cues that the drummer will give when she is finishing her solo for me to start mine. In one of my bands, I do quite a bit of the signalling to move to the different sections, solos and improvised sections. It took a solid year of practicing what those signals were, including what to do when the others can’t see my raised eyebrows in low-light gigs, or when I’m wearing a cap and sunglasses! Once we felt secure in communicating with each other, then we all felt less-nervous and anxiety levels dropped.

There is a fine line between a performance having that spontaneousness from feeding off the crowd and each other, and the song collapsing due to key transitions being missed because the band members just didn’t know what was happening.

Playing in front of people

So if you’ve taken care of the above points, then all you’ve got to do is play in front of people.

When I’m working with individuals or bands in preparation for a competition that is judged on a single live performance, I ensure that they’ve performed their full set, as close to how it will be in the end, at least three times. I advise the first time be to 3 or 4 trusted friends and their teacher. The second time is in a more public space, but still controlled and with an encouraging crowd (students younger than them are usually good audience fodder). The third performance should be a high-stakes performance, such as a lunchtime concert, or assembly slot, but without the judging aside from the crowd clapping after each song. The important thing with this last performance, is to try and recreate all aspects of the performance. This includes walking on stage, talking to the crowd, changing guitars, changing synth patches and using stage monitors or in-ear monitors. At my school, we bring in a similar P.A sound system that the final competition will have, to give the students that experience of subs kicking in, the overall volume, and also to hear what it sounds like to have foldbacks, and FOH bouncing back off a wall.  They have lights in their eyes, smoke machines, and are at one end of a big hall.

I know that performing three times is not ideal, but it is a good place to start in reducing nerves, anxiety and a fear of performance.

And remember, don’t make the first proper performance actually matter.

Martin Emo DJs and plays in 2 ½ bands on the Trumpet, Surdo, and in a Live Electronic Duo. He is currently studying a Masters in E-Learning at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ and is the National Facilitator for Te Kete Ipurangi Te Hāpori o Ngā Toi (Musicnet), an Examination Contractor for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and a Music Technology mentor for EDnet and Midnight Music.