Thursday, September 10, 2009

Report from Brazil Music Camp

Just returned from Brazil Camp, our third and final
music camp of the summer. While the other two were a
fun mix of very eclectic music classes and a lot of
jamming, Brazil Camp was serious business for very
serious musicians.

It was fun, don't get me wrong. But it was a serious
challenge. But people ask me, "Why Brazil Camp? What's
the deal with Brazilian music anyway?"

Many people associate Brazilian music with the Bossa
Nova. Certainly Bossa Nova is a big part of Brazilian
music, but it's only a part. Here's what make Brazilian
music so special to me.

Consider the music that was created and has developed
in the New World. The influences come from two primary
sources, Europe and Africa. A little after the time of
the discovery of the New World, European music was
beginning to become very rich in harmony (think
Bach/Beethoven/Mozart). But it was pretty anemic
rhythmically. The meters were mostly 4/4, 2/4, or 3/4,
and syncopation was almost non-existent.

Contrast that to the music of West Africa which there
were almost no tonal instruments to create harmony, but
whose rhythms were so glorious, they defied European
musicological examination.

As music developed in North America, it borrowed from
and modified the European models of harmony and even
adopted some of the simpler African rhythms. But to
this day, the rhythms of the music of the Americas are
pretty simple compared to those of Africa.

Except for Brazil.

Here in this music you have extremely challenging
rhythms side by side with some of the most
sophisticated jazz harmonies you've ever heard. The
result? Jazz with a Brazilian flavor. It's rich and
complex, yet from a listener's point of view, very
approachable. It's exciting, but not self absorbed or
over analytical. It's music you want to stay and listen
to or get up and dance to. But unless you're well
versed, don't try to play it.

Brazil Camp, however, was very forgiving to a newcomer
like me. I was either in class or practicing seven
hours a day, and I actually got a chance to be included
in spite of my limitations. And I was inspired to try
hard to "get it."

And some day I will get it. I've got plenty to work on.

Keep playing (it all comes back to that).


How to Accompany a Singer

Since the word got out that I taught a piano course for
accompanying singers at music camp, people have asked
me if I have a training program for that topic so that
people could learn at home. Surprise. I do not.

But as I went through the course over a period of seven
days, one thing became very clear. Almost every aspect
of piano accompaniment style relates either directly or
indirectly to just about every other aspect of playing
piano. (With one important exception which I'll reveal
in just a moment.)

For example, using the piano as an accompanying tool
will often incorporate elements of the blues, left hand
and right hand variations, the Circle of Fifths,
playing by ear, introductions, endings, power chords,
and various piano style.

Yet it's on the whole easier to use the piano to
accompany a singer than it is to play solo piano. And
this brings us to the important exception I mentioned a
second ago. When accompanying a singer, a piano player
does not play melodies. That's the singers' department.
Much like a guitar player, a piano accompanyist
"strums" chords. And that's something that can be done
with just one hand on a piano.

If you play guitar, imagine how much easier it would be
if you could make chords by using just one hand instead
of two. But that is indeed what it's like with the

Of course there is more to good piano accompaniment
than merely playing chords with one hand. But that's
the basis of it. So will I ever write a book about
accompaniment? That's yet to be answered. No immediate
plans. But I will continue to educate people on the
fundamentals of chord piano. And remember, the
techniques are all applicable in one way or another to
piano accompaniment as well as solo playing.

And I do plan on repeating the class again next summer at
Lark Camp. (


Letter from Summer Camp

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.

Music Camp was fun. The days went mostly like this.
Wake up...breakfast...take a one-hour class...take
another class...prepare to teach a class...teach the
class...lunch...break...accompany the vocal
class...teach another class...dinner...find people to
jam to bed by 1:30 (hopefully).

Repeat that routine for seven full days.

Notice there was a break in there. That was for a nap
sometimes. The rest of the time it was for playing

After a week of that routine it was total exhaustion
for us, so we rented a little cottage in Mendocino
where we could recuperate for the weekend. So what did
I do on my "day off?" I went and took a 90 minute piano

What is it about musicians? Are we all insane? All that
work, practice, study, rehearsing, learning. For what?
And the weird thing is, this insanity appears to be
universal. One thing that struck me when I was studying
anthropology in college is that all cultures have
music. Primitive, advanced, ancient, modern. Music is
one of the things that actually helps define what it
means to be a human.

And that point was emphasized at this camp inasmuch as
you could find classes in Irish music, Middle Eastern,
South American, Mexican, Balkan, African, Hawaiian,
French, Galician. You could learn to play marimba,
kalimba, hurdy gurdy, oud, bombast, ukulele, slack key
guitar, swing guitar, gypsy jazz guitar, piano,
accordion, fiddle, pandeiro, and every kind of bag pipe
imaginable. Plus you could learn all kinds of dances
from contra and square dance to hula and cajun, to
jitterbug and tango, to English country dances done to
bag pipes at 4 am.

Is that work or is that play? Is that a vacation or is
it professional development? Is it rational or is it
insanity? I don't know. But I'll tell you what it was.

This one was called Lark Camp. But there must be
hundreds of music camps for adults around the country
every summer. You might want to check one out this year
or next.