In more than 200 episodes, Musicality Now has brought you interviews with the world’s leading experts on musicality as well as teaching segments on crucial topics to your music learning. But while we’ve been inspired by the accomplishments of educators and musicians who seem to “arrived” musically, something very important has been missing.
What is really going on in the day-to-day musical lives of passionate music learners who are still very much on the Pathways to reaching their musical goals?
Well, today we have the first in a new series of episodes in which we’ll be talking with folks just like you, reaching out, inspiring each other, and lending each other a hand in our musical journeys.
Every day inside Musical U we see the power of peer-to-peer learning, and how much we can all gain from being among the right community of music-learners. And so we’re going to be inviting the Musicality Now audience as well as our members at Musical U to come on and share their own music-learning journeys, and the resources, insights, and breakthroughs that have helped them along the way so far.
If you’ve had a musicality breakthrough – small or large – please get in touch by sending an email to email@example.com – we want to hear your story!
Today we’re joined by Nick Cheetham, a podcast listener who reached out to us after our recent “Intimidating – or Inspiring? You Choose” episode to share some of his thoughts on the topic, and he had such interesting things to say we decided to invite him on the show to share his journey so far.
In this conversation you’re going to hear about:
- What caused Nick to pick up the violin for the first time at age 40 despite worrying he might be “tone deaf”
- How Nick’s been able to achieve several significant goals over the last 18 months and how that relates to the choice of “intimidating vs. inspiring”
- And how after 10 years of learning Nick made some adjustments and was quickly able to get off the page and into playing by ear, improvising, and playing in groups.
Nick loves the violin so much, he built one himself! If you scroll down to the Transcript, you’ll see pictures that show his violin-building process.
We hope you’ll enjoy this new kind of episode – let us know what you think, and maybe we can share your story next!
Watch the episode:
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Nick: I’m Nick Cheetham. I’m a violinist recently interested in gypsy jazz. And this the Musicality Now podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Nick. Thank you for joining us today.
Nick: Welcome. Thank you for having me on.
Christopher: I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation that you got in touch by email, and there’s several really fascinating topics I want to talk about with you. But I wonder if we could set the scene a little for our listeners who don’t know anything about you or your backstory. Tell us a little bit about how you got started in music.
Nick: Late, I think is the short answer. I started playing the violin at age 40. That was 20 years ago so you can do the maths yourself. Prior to that I don’t come from a particularly musical family. I have had one term of learning classical guitar at age 12 then nothing at all after that. And the start for it was actually my son, my youngest who was age six, came home from school saying, “Dad, there doing music lessons at school can I try, can I start?”
Nick: I expected it to be the recorder but it was violin. So I took him down to the music shop to rent this tiny quarter sized violin for him and the music shop said it was ten pounds per term, so I just pointed to another big one on the shelves and said, “How much for that one?” “Ten pounds a term.” “Okay, I’ll hire one and practice with you just to keep you honest.” He stopped doing it after two years and I carried it on.
Christopher: Terrific. And were you nervous at all to start something new, if this was the first time you’d tried playing an instrument.
Nick: I was intrigued. Particularly on an instrument such as a violin where there are no frets. One of the thoughts I had, “Am I tone deaf? Can I hear the tones, can I get the right tuning?” And actually after a couple of goes on the thing I realized, Yes, I can actually hear and I can move the fingers to the correct position to get something moderately pleasing, it took a while before it became really pleasing but with the violin it’s that scratchy… it’s awful scratchy stage when you’re learning the violin at first. So nervous no, intrigued, yes.
Nick: The nerves came probably later when you first say, “Right okay, let’s fire the teachers.” And then you obviously want to… you’ve got the nerves of working with anybody new, but after that, no, I played purely for my own pleasure rather than in of front of other people and so, it’s probably about 15 years before I realized that I played for my own pleasure and just with a teacher, there was a whole world out there I wasn’t exploring. That I was perhaps letting myself off things in terms of timing, in terms of intonation, whereas when you play with other people, you can’t get away with those things, you have to play with them, in tune, in time. So that was the nervous stage, to actually go outside of the practice room and go out and play with other people.
Christopher: Well, I want to come back to that in just a minute, but before we do, where you a music fan all your life? Where you someone who was… because you mentioned worrying you were tone deaf, did you think of yourself as someone who had a connection with music even though you didn’t play an instrument, or not even that?
Nick: I always listened to music and I always enjoyed music, I’d been to see live music and some of the band, I was of sufficient vintage that I could tell the kids, “I saw all the good bands.” I went to see the Boom Town Rats, I grew up at university in the early punk era, Blondie, Boom Town Rats, Clash, all of these iconic names. I’ve always listened to music throughout. But not necessarily classical. I’ve enjoyed classical, but it’s been more of the popular and the enduring music, like Dylan, stuff like this.
Christopher: And you mentioned classical there. Were your lessons on violin when you started with the teacher, was that classical?
Nick: Primarily. In England, I know your listenership is largely US, but in England, the teaching, particularly for new people tends to be very much around the grade system. There’s various examples, you take Grade 1 which is the starter one, through to Grade 8. Grades 1 to 5 there’s the theory and a practical paper. So initially, yes it was taking the grade piece and saying, “Okay we’re going to do these two scales because that supports this grade and then we are going to do things in these positions because that supports this grade.”
Nick: But, I was very lucky in finding the music teacher I had. Linda Simcot, she played in a ceilidh band and one of the things she was… and she almost regarded me as, I think, an anti-dote against the children playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star badly. Because she said, “You don’t need to go through the exams, I can take you through the steps, but don’t do the exams, we’ll do the repertoire and we’ll mix in some traditional English music which we play at ceilidh.
Christopher: You might have to explain for our audience what a ceilidh is.
Nick: Oh, sorry, a ceilidh? It’s a dance where you come together and it’s… you play traditional jigs, reels, strathspeys and again that other equivalent in America of possibly a hoe-down. That type of thing where everyone comes together. There’s usually drink involved and lot of sweat.
Christopher: For the musicians and the dancers alike. And so, how did you find that learning experience, it sounds like your teacher had the sense and the creativity to give you a bit more than the classical strict grade system. But where you finding it came easy to you? Was it something you felt like you were putting in hard work because it would pay off? You learned for ten or 15 years with that teacher I believe, what was that like for you?
Nick: Well in fact, I learned with her for about ten years and it was hard at first and I found I had to work at it and again, it’s interesting… it was very much more, and we’ll come to this later, like playing as an engineer. Saying, “Here’s a sheet of music and here’s a dot like assembling a piece of furniture, play that note, play the next note, play the next note, that sounds pleasing.” I don’t know why it sounded pleasing, I don’t know what the harmony underneath it was, but I could get these notes out in a sequence, so yes it was hard because, and I think it was made more hard because I didn’t necessarily have the understanding at the time of how harmony, et cetera, fitted together.
Nick: I worked with that teacher for about ten years and then I got… I picked up repetitive strain injury through over-use of the keyboard and mouse and I had to take about three years out whilst that sorted itself out. And at that point, I switched teacher because she had retired at that point.
Nick: So again, that was interesting going to a different teacher, different perspective on things. But coming back to it, it really brought home to me how much I’d enjoyed it and how much I missed it and at the time I was doing a very stressful job, quite a bit of traveling and I found this was the best anti-dote to stress. It was almost a form of meditation to get totally lost in something which requires your full attention. If your attention wanders, then you don’t play correctly.
Christopher: Absolutely. And you mentioned there something which we hear a lot from our members and our audience of this podcast, which is that experience of playing music, particularly from sheet music and getting officially quite good at it, but feeling frustrated because you don’t really understand the music. You feel like you don’t know why those dots are on the page or why the melody does this. Or why the composer made these choices. There’s definitely a sense of, “I’m playing what I’m told to, but I don’t really get it.” Could you talk a bit about how you experienced that and what changed over time?
Nick: How I experienced that is exactly as you say. There was a sheet of music which had certain things in a certain time, I used to find the most useful piece of information on a piece of classical music, to me certainly, was when it said, “Rubato.” And for those who are not classical, it means you don’t need to bother about the timing, you do it and feel and go faster and slower as you see fit, which is great because that let me off the hook on so many things.
Nick: But perversely, equally, while that actually does require you to play with feel, it doesn’t mean to say, “When you get to a tricky bit you slow down.” It’s like a ballad, a love song, when you can see the singer just about to break into tears after you’ve slowed down and then you accelerate to and introduces a bit more drama. So I found it difficult moving from, understanding the piece other than Rubato, and I looked in awe at guitar players who would just look at a chord sheet and just say look here, just play G7, G7, D minor, whatever the chord structure is.
Nick: And how they did that. There’s no melody there. How do you play that, what is it that tells you to play that? Interestingly enough talking to some guitar players they said, “I can’t do without the chord charts, I just have to play the things in sequence and so practice that.” To a certain extent they were at the same place as me. What intrigued me was those people who could hear the changes and hear what was going on and play something over the top of it. And I think that’s what interested me about five years ago to say, “Yeah, okay, I’d like to do that as well.”
Nick: Because I see violinists, I mean just for instance, Jackson Brown has a really good violinist doing back-up for him. Rod Stewart had a lot of violin background. Dylan had some really good violin backing and I could see that it was different on different recordings. How did they play that and make it work with the underlying harmony? That was the real bit that got my interest.
Christopher: And was there a particular moment, or a particular insight that made things start to shift once you had that interest and you had that curiosity to know if a different way was possible?
Nick: Yeah, I think it was two things happened together. As I was approaching retirement, I had a little more time to do these things and we moved to Edinburgh. We lived in the city of Edinburgh for two years, which involved me looking at another new teacher in the new city. And I set some of my criteria, rather than people who could teach adults were very competent, nice people, but somebody who could do some improvisation work and help me with this question about, “So how do you play over something rather than just doing this straight grain pieces or classical repertoire.”
Nick: And I was very fortunate to find a lady, she was the daughter of one of the main jazz educators in Scotland. A guy called Richard Michaels. So she was able to recognize exactly what I’d want because she’d grown up with it in her house and she could do exactly what I wanted to do and I could see her doing it, so that was great to hook up with her.
Christopher: And what was different about how she taught you in terms of what the lessons looked like or what you focused on?
Nick: Well, it’s interesting because there was not purely improvisation, we still did classical repertoire and used that as a vehicle for getting technique and keeping the technique sharp. But there was more of a, “I’m going to play something, you respond. Here’s something like Rock Around The Clock, very clear, easy to hear changes of chord.” Even I at that stage could hear the changes in Rock Around The Clock, I think there’s a basic blues structure isn’t it? Yeah.
Nick: And saying, “Okay, when this changes, what’s it’s changing from and two? I’m going to play a note on the piano, is that higher or lower and then until we actually got the basis of the tone structure within the song.” And then she’d have me doing things basically such as, “Okay, don’t play any chords, just play the note you recognized.” It’s going to be a G and play an A and play another G and then an A and then go an F or whatever it was. And then expanding on to something which I had never understood the reason for, is arpeggios.
Nick: So, okay you have an arpeggio around a G, so I would have thought okay, it’s skip a note, skip a note, skip a note, one. Said, “Okay, if you play that, that’s your chord and here’s how your basic chord structure works, it’s a stacking of the notes of it within a chord.” So, by doing that she was able to immediately cement for me all the stuff that I’d been learning with the scale and the arpeggios and saying, “This is why they’re used. And that’s what they’re used for.” And that was real eye-opener for me.
Christopher: Absolutely, it’s funny, I laughed a bit when you said that because I remember exactly the same perspective. I grew up playing a lot of scales and arpeggios were just a modification of the scale, like it was another exercise you did and it was years and years before anyone pointed out that, “Oh, you’re playing the notes of that chord.” And obviously like on violin that’s your connection to playing the harmony or relating to the harmony. That’s wonderful.
Christopher: We talk at Musical U often about this trifecta of music learning where the instrument technique is one thing, but then there’s also the music theory and the ear skills and we feel you have kind of need to cover all three of those to some extent to feel like you know what’s going on in music and you’re capable of doing things in music. It sounds like she was introducing some of the ear skills there where you… had you already studied music theory, was that something she was covering, have you continued just focusing on technique and ear skills, how do you see those three things?
Nick: Yeah. I recognize the triangle and for me, the vertex of the triangle, that I was missing was very much the theory, well I was missing the theory, and the ear training, so let’s do the ear training first. She was introducing this ear training, she was also said, “You need to get a keyboard.” So I just got a cheap Casio keyboard, and practiced to say playing minor second, playing a major chord and a minor chord, getting used to the sound of it, playing a seventh chord or a major chord, get used to the sound of it, and introducing me to some apps on the iPhone, there are any number of them out there, which will do you a little quiz, saying “What is this a major third, fifth, is it flat five?”
Nick: So that was something that I continued to do and continued to struggle with to get it absolutely nailed. The other thing that she did and in fact I also did by joining a… in Scotland, I was in Edinburgh, of course, which is home of the Scottish fiddle, there’s a fiddle tradition, there was a Scottish music group which met on a Thursday evening and the teaching method was that you sat in a room with 20 or so other people and they said, “We’re going to do a bonny tune tonight.” And the teacher would play two bars and you had to play it back by ear, no music, play it back by ear. Slow. Then we do the next two bars, play those two back, then he say, “Okay we’re going to put those four together now, play them as a group back.”
Nick: Of course by the time you’ve got to here, you’ve forgotten what the first two were, so we went back around again. But that hugely difficult, but I found that just by doing that, trying to learn things purely by ear, it really did sharpen up the ability to do so. I’m by no means there yet, but I can actually now, start to niggle around with a violin and pick out a tonal center and to pick up basic patterns and basic music.
Nick: So that was one apex of the triangle. So we’ve covered the theory, practice and the technical ability. Okay, so the theory one is only one which is missing, because like you, I was doing scales and arpeggios purely just as an exercise, just to warm my fingers up and to understand the tonal environment. But none of the stuff around harmony, cadences, all of this stuff. I did buy the theory book but I found it just so intense that I very quickly put it to one side.
Nick: The one thing that helped me greatly is there’s a resource called Coursera which is available in the US and it’s where universities and centers of learning put out free, often free, video material and there’s an excellent one put up by Edinburgh University which is understanding music theory I think is the name, I’ll give you the correct title afterwards, but it’s a… it takes you from the very basics. Absolutely basic level, through to understanding cadences and it’s free and it’s about a ten week course. And I did that, in fact I did it twice to be able to drive some of this home. It’s still a weakness and it’s something I need to really work on. I’ve joined in the Foundations of a Musical Mind Course through yourselves and I’m finding that’s a great way to fill in some of the gaps.
Christopher: Terrific. Well Yeah. It’s worrying when a Civil Engineer by trade struggles to get through a music theory text book. That kind of suggests something is a bit wrong with how theory is taught.
Christopher: Because yeah. I think you kind of touched on the solution there too, which is that your teacher was showing you why the theory mattered, and why something abstract like an arpeggio actually was highly practical. And it sounds like you’ve been finding good ways to meld all of those together.
Christopher: You mentioned something about practicing for yourself and your own enjoyment kind of in a bubble for a long time and then you stepped out into playing in a group and having to tighten up timing and intonation, was that when you went along to those local jam sessions and were learning by ear or was it something else?
Nick: I did it twice, once was about eight years ago when I joined… with the encouragement Linda at the time, I joined in the Macclesfield Light Orchestra which is very welcoming. They would take students of all abilities and I sat in the second violins and it was a blur, I just couldn’t follow it, it was just going too fast and I couldn’t sight read quickly enough. The conductor was really helpful, he kept calling out, bar 37, bar 50 across because he could see me having just lost the plot. Anyway I did a bit for two or three weeks and just stopped I was just overwhelmed. Playing outside the bubble, the first time I did it was through another musical group which we’re very fortunate to have in Macclesfield, is a group called the Macclesfield Music Center which has a training orchestra as well as a main orchestra and lots of other feed-in groups and it’s for adults and children. And they have Music for Minis, so you get five year olds down there as well.
Nick: So I joined the training orchestra on a Saturday morning and again there was a bowed instrumental sectional, which they ran through the pieces for the violins, the cellos, the violas, and then you came together for half an hour to play some nice music, very straightforward music, just pitched at the right level.
Christopher: And that stretched you in a different way then, in terms of, I suppose listening and collaborating with other musicians rather than just reading the notes on the page?
Nick: Absolutely, and it made me realize quite how much, when you get a fast run, of a Vivaldi piece or something like that, how much I’d be letting myself on the timing. I slowed myself down, I thought it was sounding fine when they’re off, and you’ve got to catch up again. But again, that’s where you listen, and you think, “Yeah, okay, I recognize that bit of melody, I’ll join in on two bars ahead and catch up.”
Christopher: And that step into joining an orchestra or going along to a local jam session, is one that a lot in our audience would feel intimidated by, and it was actually our recent episode on intimidation versus inspiration, that caused you to get in touch by email. What was it about that episode that resonated with you?
Nick: The main thing I picked up was… well, it was exactly as your title suggests is that by either joining in with others or singing a virtuoso, or whatever the experience you have, you have a choice to be either intimidated or inspired. Obviously, let’s do jam sessions first. The important thing is to choose something which is risk free. So it’s a friendly environment and as I say, you go to a local folk group in your pub or bar rather than going to an open microphone where you’re standing up on stage solo in front of 200 people who may have paid a small amount, but have paid to see something. The latter is far more risky.
Nick: So, the intimidation certainly is there in both settings, but by sitting down and being a part of that, then you get the inspiration from others to say, “I play okay, some things I did wrong.” I saw a couple of good players and you kind of say, “I want to be like them, I can’t be, I’m rubbish.” Or I say, “Actually, I’ve sat here and played along with them, they didn’t say ‘stop playing’ but I could see they did something really interesting at the end of that piece or that bit I struggled at, I can see how they played and did something nice across the top of that tune.”
Nick: It’s the same with the virtuoso, we all go, like to see good, professional musicians, but again you have a choice to say, “I’m seeing Nicola Benedetti, the famous violinist, and I will never be as good as her, I’m rubbish, or I can pick up two or three things from her which will help me. I’m watching how she does.” In violin, it’s a very technical instrument, how you hold your wrist, or how high your elbow is on certain points you can change the sound greatly. So again, just by watching her, you can say, “Yeah, I can see she does it like this, rather than like this, I’ll try that when I get home.” So inspiration.
Christopher: That relates, I think a little bit to something we don’t talk a lot about, but think a lot about here at Musical U in terms of how we can help people like yourself and our members and our audience which is, there’s a book by Carol Dweck, called Mindset, which puts forward the hypothesis that people basically are growth mindset or fixed mindset, the former meaning, I could learn anything if I set my mind to it, and the latter meaning, I have certain abilities, I’m restricted to those and the most I could hope to do is optimize within that. And it sounds like you’re more in the former camp. Would you say that’s true, is that an attitude you’ve taken to life in general that whatever you wanted to learn you could if you put in the effort.
Nick: Yeah, I would agree with that. Obviously there are the certain physical limitations that one may have, I mean for instance if you’re born, unfortunate to have one arm, you’re not going to become a violin virtuoso. And equally well, there are certain things which are time limiting as well. There’s a certain… “I can try as hard as I like, but I can’t put in the seven, eight hours that other people may do get to a certain pitch because I’ve got the financial limitations that means you’ve got to do other things, than play music.”
Christopher: Well, yeah. Let’s talk a little bit more about practice in due course. But you mentioned something in the context of that episode relating to goal setting. What was it in that idea of intimidating versus inspiring, that related to goals for you?
Nick: Well, I think it’s, depending on… we’ve already mentioned the thing about a goal, if you don’t… what I find is if I haven’t got some idea of what I want to do, or become, then you can go into a situation such as watching a violin virtuoso in a concert, and because you haven’t got a point of reference, your goal immediately goes, “I want to be like them.” And do everything that they are going to do. Rather than saying, previously, having said yeah, “I within a year’s time, I want to be able to master six out of the twelve scales around me in the musical world.” And I want to be able to play this piece by Debussy or whatever it is.
Nick: If you have that frame of reference you can then go to a concert by a virtuoso and see immediately how it relates to the goals that you are setting. So, okay, I can see that they played that piece by Debussy and this is how they did the fingering on that tricky passage. If you don’t have those things set in advance, then you do get into this awful mindset of, “I don’t have any goals set, but the goal I have set for myself which is to be as good as them, I’m never going to achieve.”
Nick: So, if you like, to have a bit of a foundation. I mean we talked earlier Chris on the pre-interview about some of the things that I’ve set for myself over the 12, 18 months and they’ve sort of aligned to that in the I moved from classical into playing more free. I wanted to become more free, get away from the page, be able to learn things by ear and to play without sheet music and play with others. All very loose, wooly goals, but I sort of pinned those down into, “Within the next 18 months, and this was 18 months ago, to play three tunes by ear without music, to play three tunes with others without music and to attend at least one jam session and play something without having to listen to it, listen to the music on the spot and to be able to play along, not at a virtuoso level, but just play along and make something which means that people don’t say, ‘stop playing.'”
Nick: Attend live music… an event once a month. In Macclesfield we have lots of just small pub and club venues where people can come along and watch and see just a girl and a guitar. So those are the things which I set previously and having them, and then it gives me a really good safety net to say, “I’ve seen something there which is outside of my comfort zone, how does it relate to the goals I’ve set and can I pick anything from that to bolster or meet these goals that I’ve given to myself.”
Christopher: Fantastic. And how did you go about relating those goals to your practicing. I know you made a comment about how virtuosos sometimes talk about practicing umpteen hours a day and playing things in all twelve keys. Did you find it tricky to think, “Okay, if I want to play three songs by ear, a year from now, what does that look like now when I sit down with my fiddle?”
Nick: Yeah. And this is something I’m still struggling with and I’d be very interested on seeing on a future podcast, this perhaps as a discussion point. If I could take that point, if you want to learn three fiddle tunes, do you just do just three fiddle tunes, you don’t do anything else until you’ve actually got those nailed and in your head and you can play them fluently, or is it more productive to say, “Okay, I’m going to split my practice into, probably the three elements, technique, intonation, a bit of theory and also a bit of the repertoire, to be able to get these nailed?” And I’m finding that just doing purely one of them by themselves doesn’t really work. You’ve got to… you could maybe be able to play the tune by ear, but it sounds awful because you’ve neglected some of your intonation aspects.
Nick: Or if somebody else is, “Okay, I’m a stinger, I want to move it up a key, would you be able to do that because of your understanding of music theory, for instance.” And that’s really hard on the violin, it’s not quite like putting a capo on a guitar. I wish someone would invent the violin capo. So does that answer your question.
Christopher: It does yeah and I think you’re right that I think that it’s something that we could talk about more on the podcast. I think there’s a few really interesting facets to it and one is the kind of engineering or scientific perspective which talks about things like deliberate practice or interleaved practice and how you structure your practice sessions to make sure your attention and your energy are going to pay of in the biggest possible way.
Christopher: And I think that relates to, to what you were saying about goal setting in the sense that you kind of need to make sure that’s pointed in the right direction as it where, if it’s going to pay off and get you to those goals. But I think equally important is, particularly with adult learners, the motivational aspect and what you were saying there about, “Do you just focus on one thing versus doing lots?”
Christopher: I had a really interesting conversation recently with Robert Emery for the podcast I in which, and he’s a professional concert pianist and a musical director in theater and we were talking about the peculiarities of adults when it comes to learning music and particularly if it’s the first time you’re learning music. And he was saying how we really have this natural tendance a) to over-commit ourselves and be too ambitious and b) to want to know all of the answers right away on day one, and I think whether we’re conscious of it or not, this is often actually the biggest barrier to achieving what we want to in practice.
Christopher: You know with our intellectual minds we get sucked into all of this exciting stuff like deliberate practice, and how do I schedule these three minutes of the 30 minute session and not to disparage that. There’s value in it, but I think it often distracts us from the fact that actually if we go too far down that path, three weeks from now we’re not going to want to look at our instrument, let alone pick it up and the variety you talked about I think is the really valuable piece. Whether or not you’re thinking of interleaved practice and mixing and matching actually helps you learn faster, or you’re just thinking about the fact that you’re going to be bored if you do that six scales practice for 30 minutes every day for the next two weeks. So I think some self-awareness of the value of motivation and keeping your genuine enthusiasm.
Christopher: In another recent interview a chap called Nick Bottini was really looking at that emotional side of practicing and questioning whether… basically questioning the way we think about our emotions during practice and their importance versus not. And I think I’d like to do a lot more on the podcast on that side of things because as I said, it’s easy to think the solution is perfect optimization of your practice routine, but I think actually that might be a bit of a red herring and we might all succeed faster if we paid a bit more attention to the kind of fluffier side of it.
Nick: Yeah. Interesting, there was to come to the gypsy the gypsy jazz stuff, there was a gypsy jazz camp I went to two weeks ago, there’s a professional musician there, Max Bedwell who was French guy and he was talking about exactly this topic. He is also a lecturer at one of the universities in France and his time is constrained. So he says he has, say the thing is happening next weekend, a gig, he’s got to perform at and so he has to get the repertoire for that. But in the theory and the things he has to practice, he’s very disciplined, he’ll a bunch of arpeggios, arpeggios on fourths, on thirds, and he’ll time it down, half hour down to the two minutes or three minute chunks. But he lets the scales that he practices on, and the chords he practices on, be the things that are in the repertoire that he’s going to have to perform on Saturday. So it’s not… the two are actually linked and so he does a theory thing, but in support of the piece he has to produce.
Christopher: Yeah. I think that’s really key. It’s kind of analogous to what we talked about earlier in terms of relating the theory to the ear training, in the same way, when you can relate those technical exercises to the actual music you’re making, whether that’s through approaching your scales practice by, “How can I make this scale sound like music?” Or, as you say, basing what the details of those technical exercises are on the repertoire you actually care about playing. It’s an enormous thing and again one I think we don’t think enough about because we all… well maybe not all, but a lot of us come from this kind of grade system where you have a syllabus, you should do these things because these are the boxes to tick.
Christopher: And I think once you step outside of that, there are these ideas like, “Well, why don’t you practice the scales from the piece you’re working on?” It’s obviously the right way to go. So you mentioned there a gypsy jazz camp. Talk a little bit about that transition into gypsy jazz and then I definitely want to hear more about that camp, because I know that’s something a lot of our audience would be curious about.
Nick: Okay. About, it must have been six years ago, one of our local arts festivals in a small town called Bollington, there was an event run by a guy called Tim Kliphuis, a Dutch violinist who was there with his trio, and they were running a gypsy and gypsy swing concert in the evening. And they opened the doors up in the afternoon for a workshop. Come along and play and learn some of this stuff, and you will all perform a small improvised piece, just four bars after the interval in the concert in the evening.
Nick: And I went along with an open mind, frankly again feeling very intimidated. I’d never come across this music before and I turned up and there were about 15 people there ranging from 12 year olds all the way through to a couple of guitar players in their 70s.
Nick: So we did it and it was great. I saw this new genre of music and started listening to it more. So that was the Stephan Grapelli and Django Reinhardt type of music obviously with links in America with Joe Venuti and obviously the more modern proponents of that. I mean you’ve got people like the Turtle Island Quartet, Pearl Django, in the US. So this sort of thirties swing, that sort of style, interested me. It also interested me because it was very much a freer way of playing very fast. But there was soloing there, there was improvisation, so that sparked my interest and about three years ago Tim Kliphuis again came to Edinburgh to do a concert and in the afternoon he also gave a workshop, similar thing. And I now knew the music and this is where it’s interesting that Tim when we were trying to do a bit of improvisation, told me that I play like an engineer in his very direct Dutch way.
Nick: So I thought, “Yeah, okay, maybe I need to do something about this to free things up.” So, cutting to the chase, there is in Europe, in Amsterdam at the end of August a three day camp, which is called Grapelli Django Camp, you can Google it, where musicians come together and learn to play and hone their skills in gypsy jazz. I asked asked Tim, “I’m a bit nervous about this, I’m not sure it’s the right standard.” He reassured me that I would be okay, so with that reassurance I then booked my flights.
Nick: So I went to this last year, as a beginner, I was in the lowest of the five violin groups, there were 40 violins and another 40 assorted instruments, mainly guitars, double-basses, even harp. And it was fantastic. Three days of really open communication between some of the stars of this genre of music where in Europe there working as tutors, leading jam sessions and doing a super concert on Saturday. And also being with people, who from across Europe the US who love this music.
Nick: There was plenty of time free for people just to get in a corner and sit down and say, “Does anybody know Dinah, one of the standards, let’s play it.” Even if you didn’t know it, they’d encourage you to just sit down and just play something which would suit, which would sound good across the top of the chord structure and what the rhythm section were playing. So it was absolutely fantastic. I repeated again this year. So it was tremendously inspirational and my Facebook friend list now was absolutely full of the people from those two camps.
Christopher: Terrific. And you mentioned inspirational there, obviously you’d taken a few steps into playing out already. You’d gone to jam sessions, you’d been in a training orchestra and I’m sure that reduced the intimidation factor a little bit and you said it was also helpful if you could check the standard before you signed up, but was there anything else about that meant you could see it as inspiring rather than intimidating?
Nick: I think yes. Let’s see. So there were two things. One is inspiring because just having gone the second year, and I’m seeing the people on the periphery of a jam session wondering, “Should I come and join in?” And speaking to them and saying, “Look come on in, it’s not so frightening.” You realize, Yeah, actually I’ve moved on a lot in 12 months because I was that person 12 months ago, just hovering on the circle waiting to be inviting in.
Nick: It doesn’t mean by any means that I’m sounding great now, I’m not saying I’m a virtuoso, I’ve got a huge amount to learn but, with confidence in anything, with confidence then you can play better, certainly on a violin less scratchy and squeaky, and so there was inspiration there, but equally the inspiration came from seeing people who were passionate about their music who were willing to sit down next to someone like me and other beginners in this genre and teach them. And take the time to teach them, and take the time to just pull apart the things that you’re doing. Pick out the good and point out the things which are less good, but always in a positive way.
Nick: And also, to see them enjoying themselves. It’s a genre of music, which the musicians seem to enjoy themselves a lot more than some of the other genres of music where it seems to be almost like an angst thing, you’ve got to get this music out, and you watch some classical orchestras, people don’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much.
Christopher: For sure. Not to hammer home a theme to hard, but there is one more aspect to your musical life that I personally find intimidating, but clearly it’s been inspiring for you, which is that you’ve actually built your own violin. Could you tell us about that?
Nick: It was from the Scots… in Edinburgh the Scot’s music group, the tutor there had taken her violin to repair to a guy called Neil McWilliam at Haymarket in Edinburgh, for anyone who knows it. And she said, “There are people there, he’s running a night class on building your violin, he’s got three people there building your own violin, you can build your violin with Neil.” And this sparked my interest, I thought, yeah, I’ll go along and speak to him.
Nick: And he opened his workshop, he’s a professional luthier, he opened his workshop on two evenings a week to no more than three students and basically took me from a block of wood through to finishing your violin. I had to… it took two years to finish mine. The first 12 months with Neil, then we moved, changed location, we’re back near Manchester now, and I finished it with a guy called John Colburn, again another luthier who opened his workshop so that I could use his tools and his expertise. And it’s finished and it’s here.
Christopher: You have to show it to us.
Nick: So this is my violin which plays very nicely. So maple back sides, spruce front and the usual hardwoods and ebony for the finger board and yes, it’s lovely. It’s modeled… templated off the Stradivarius Messiah. The one which is not played which is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And in the world of luthering, I hadn’t realized quite how much science there was behind this.
Nick: They’ve taken CT scans and X-rays of this violin, so all of the elements of the components are known. How thick the wood is here, as opposed here and it does vary all the way around the instrument, but the fascinating thing for me was, by taking a piece of wood, or several pieces of wood, and making something like this, is you still need the skill, not as a engineer, but as a craftsman. Things such as shaping the front, we got it down with calipers to the right thickness, a millimeter and a half in some places, five millimeters in others where the pressure points are, and Neil for instance said, “Give me the piece of wood you’ve got for your back.” And he just twisted it like this, and flexed it and said, “No, no, you need to take a little bit off here.” We’re only talking a little bit, it’s just a few little scrapings again, did this. And he said, “Right, okay, that’s okay now.”
Nick: And he gave it to me, and it’ amazing, it suddenly came alive. It sort of flexed, twisty more. He said, “That’ll sound good now and it was just a variation in the wood and material, which no amount of engineering could say, if it’s one millimeter all the way across, in some areas it may be need to be nought point nine of a millimeter in order to make this thing spring and sound good. So, fascinating.
Christopher: I feel like I could talk to you all day just about this, but I’ll try not to. I do want to ask though, were there any experiences or aspects to that, that fed back into your music playing. Because I think for me, as someone who’s never built an instrument, there’s a question of, “Does it matter that you’re a fiddle player to build that violin?” And does it matter to you as a fiddle player that you have built that instrument. Is there any kind of feedback or interplay between the two?
Nick: Yeah, definitely there is. I think now, there’s much interest as anything else. So now that I know, I used to think that the pieces around here on the edge of the violin, you see these, the little sort of black edges on cellos and violas you have this, I used to just think that was drawn with a sharp marker pen as a decoration. But again, that’s inlay, it’s three layers, it’s three layers of willow on this which are inlaid and the purpose is that if you drop any instrument on it’s bottom, you will crack along the grain. And the purpose of this is to stop the crack spreading. Very functional.
Nick: But things like that, now that I know it, I always look at other people’s violins and instruments now with an appreciative eye to say, “Gosh you’ve got a beautiful instrument here, or I can tell, I would never say this, the person who made this wasn’t quite as careful as putting the purfling right as they could do.” So, there’s an interest aspect to, but equally well, it’s satisfied my interest to see well, what’s the physics, how is sound made by dragging a piece of horse hair across a steel or wound string in order to project it in this way.
Nick: And also understand the physics a little more about how then you can use that to play music in a different way. So, by playing close to the bridge you get louder, that louder noise can be a little bit more scratchy, why is that? So you think, “Okay, yeah, I now understand why that’s happening, therefore I can make a better… I get a better understanding of why my teacher is saying, “Don’t play too close to the bridge, play this distance away.”
Nick: So it’s a little bit like having the theory and the practice. If I understand what scales are for, you will practice them if you know they’re going to support harmony. If you know what your instrument is capable of and how it was built to do that, you can then play it… adjust your playing to take advantage of those aspects.
Christopher: Wonderful. We have this list of skills that contribute to musicality and one of them is knowing your instrument inside and out and it’s one that we don’t talk nearly enough about. But this is really the epitome of that to have actually built it yourself, so that is fantastic to hear about. Nick, I know you know, we’re big believers in kind of peer to peer learning and being in the right community and learning from one another, not just from an expert guru teacher when it comes to music. And I know our audience will have really appreciated hearing your story today, but I know they’d be annoyed if I didn’t take the opportunity to ask you what else have you found out there. You’re a listener to this podcast as are they, what else have you found in the world of music learning that’s really made a difference for you?
Nick: Okay. The online resource… the online world is fantastic, but again, there are a lot of things that are not so good. You can spend a lot of time looking at bad YouTube videos. But the things I particularly found useful are, I came across your site probably a little bit later. Musical U, you’ve got some really good resources there, I enjoyed circle of fifth piece you have, and also the regular podcasts and the summary that you do at the end of those is really, really good.
Nick: One thing I found really inspirational, something called Improvise For Real. Which is a guy based out in Spain and he again for me, really nailed this concept of, rather than having scales, you just have seven notes, some of them half half tones between them, and it’s a continuous spectrum and you can put yourself anywhere on here and bingo, the scales are just how you describe it and the chords. That’s great. He’s got some really good material there and he has a really good book and training materials as well, like you have, to purchase, but there’s a lot of free material on Improvise For Real.
Nick: Christian Howes, Creative Strings, Creative Strings Academy, he’s an interesting chap and he has, he is very much a proponent of freedom in playing, not necessarily jazz, but in other styles and he focuses very much on bowed instruments and electric bowed instruments too. There’s a podcast about mindful practice which I came across, called Mind Over Finger. Mind Over Finger podcast. And again, it’s conversation, often virtuoso performers, but talking very much about how do they get their practice effective and what barriers have they overcome in order to get as good as they’ve got.
Nick: I found that tremendously inspirational, because there are lots of common things and lots of things which I thought, “Well, if they’re struggling with that, or they have struggled, I struggle with it also, maybe it’s not so hard, we just need to… and move forward.” And Gypsy jazz is a guy called Matt Holborn, The Gypsy Jazz Violin Podcast and I think Learn Jazz Standards. I think you’ve been on the Learn Jazz Standards podcast haven’t you?
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nick: That’s where I came across you.
Christopher: I see. Terrific. Yeah Brent’s doing great work over there.
Nick: Yeah and again there’s lot of really useful information from there. Perhaps the more off-beat one is, there’s a podcast called River of Suck, which was introduced by Christian Howes, and the basis is, if you want to… everyone stand at the bank of a river and across the river where you actually want to get to, and then going across there, you’ve got to go “It’s my way, you suck”.
Nick: Either recognize that you’re swimming, and you’re swimming through it and you’re going to get to the bank and then there’s going to be another river, but it’s quite an interesting podcast too. Those are the main things that I found useful. Obviously as well, each of these guys have video material as well. Oh, Aimee Nolte as well. Aimee Nolte is really good. She’s got some really good material on YouTube.
Christopher: Fantastic, thank you. There’s a lot of interesting things there for people to dive into and we’ll make sure to have links in the show notes, including interviews with David, Brent and Amy on this show, we’ll have all the links on the show notes. Nick, it’s been so fantastic to have the chance to talk with you an thank you. You sent an email and I knew we’d have a fascinating conversation and we certainly did and I know our audience will have appreciated hearing your story. Any parting words for the audience out there?
Nick: No, I think keep enjoying it. That’s the most important thing.
Christopher: Fantastic, thank you so much Nick.
Nick: All right. Thank you.