Why being an adult learner is awesome.

I hear it all the time from my adult students (who constitute the vast majority of my studio):

  • “I wish my parents had made me stick with it when I was six!”
  • “I know I’ll never be as good as my neighbor’s twelve-year-old!”
  • [insert any number of variations on the same thought]


Someone somewhere told them they’re too old to learn.  Usually it involved a cursory appeal to science: it’s just, you know, neurology.  Their brains have been decaying for decades and there’s just no hope, no point in aspiring to ever really get anywhere on an instrument they waited until adulthood to begin.


Well, forgive me, but I think it’s crap.  I’m not a neurologist, but I’ve worked with over a hundred adults, teens, and tweens over the past five years, and more than a few kids, and I see some patterns:


  • Adults have better hand-eye coordination than kids, so adults tend to progress substantially more quickly in terms of bow or pick control, intonation, reading music, and learning by ear.
  • Adults have heard a lot more music in their lives than kids have had the opportunity to hear, so adults’ intuitive senses about what the music “should” sound like are more developed, even when they have no idea that that is the case.
  • Adults are more likely to have analytical and troubleshooting skills that help them practice effectively.
  • Adults are in it for the love, not because someone is forcing them to study an instrument “for their own good”.  So motivation to practice, and practice well, tends to be higher.  (Unless they’re beating themselves up for “being too old to ever sound good”!)

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How to find your way back to practicing after a crazy summer

Here comes September.

Are you getting ready to settle down after a busy summer? I know I am. I’ve had some great opportunities to travel, some of it for music, some of it for teaching, and some of it just for me. All in all it’s meant frequent upheavals in my routine, so much that I hardly remember what it is I normally do during the rest of the year on, say, a Tuesday. Sound familiar?

The days are getting shorter, though. Some of you (or your kids) are getting ready to return to school. The volunteer pumpkin growing out of my compost pile (I have no idea how it got there!) is growing large and starting to think about orange. Are we a little run ragged from our summer adventures? Is it time to buckle down into a routine?

Let’s be honest here about what I’m really getting at: has your practicing–or even your music-making in general–fallen by the wayside this summer?

Yes, well, it happens to the best of us.

Try any or all of these ideas that appeal to you or seem manageable:

  • Take a class – Well, you knew that was coming, but you have to admit it’s a great idea. Community, accountability, and new information dosed out in manageable bits. Check the menu at the top of this page to see what classes I’ve got coming up for you.

  • Get a CD or three from the library – What’s on your “to look up someday” list? Names you’ve heard, genres that intrigue you? Jazz, Cajun, Norwegian, Quebecois, 20th-century classical, Gypsy/Roma, indie rock?

  • If you don’t know where to start, pick a name from this list that you don’t know, or whose music you haven’t spent much time with, and stick your toes in the water: Kenny Baker, Stephane Grappelli, Andrew Bird, Vassar Clements, Mark O’Connor, Nickel Creek, Kevin Burke, Natalie Macmaster, Laurie Lewis, Byron Berline, Joe Venutti, Doug Kershaw, Lisa Germano, Alison Krauss’ earlier stuff.

  • Go see some live music! Any genre or instrumentation has the potential to inspire you to get going again, but of course if there’s a fiddler/violinist in the band that’s especially great.

  • Make a list of things that would be fun to learn sometime, even if they are the “wrong” genre or seem totally out of reach to you now. (My list right now includes the Sibelius violin concerto and the guitar instrumental “Flatland”.)

  • Pull that book off the shelf and put it on the music stand. If you’re like a lot of us, you have some books that seemed really exciting when you bought them, but you haven’t really gotten around to doing much with them. Pick one and get to know it. What’s in it? Sightread some tunes.

  • Get out those voice memo recordings from any camps or workshops you went to this year, last year, five years ago. Yes, I do that too. Find what’s useful, delete the rest.

  • Revisit songs you learned a long time ago and don’t really remember how they go anymore. You’ll find relearning is a different experience than learning them in the first place.

  • Make a date to play music with a friend. It’s okay if you’re both nervous!

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What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play

Mel Bay’s Fiddle Sessions blog has published the third and final installment of my article “Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play.” In this series I lay out how to figure out which chords to play, how to play them, and what to do for different types of music.

Here’s an excerpt from the new article (I’d include the whole thing, but the publisher might get mad at me):

Off beat chucks are a common pattern for bluegrass, polka and other songs in 2/4 or 4/4 time. This is how to do it:

– Place the bow close to the frog.

– On beats two and four (the offbeats), play a short stroke, aiming for maximum crispness and punchiness. Most people do down bows; I prefer up bows because I find I can play more precisely that way. Try both and see which you prefer, or whether you like them both but in different contexts.

– If you’re confused about which beats are the offbeats, and there’s a bass player, see if s/he’s playing beats 1 and 3 and leaving the others empty. (Usually, the answer is yes, unless s/he’s getting really fancy and non-folky.) Your notes will happen between the bass notes. You are essentially providing two halves of the same rhythm part; the bass does the “boom” and you play the “chuck”. There’s no shame in watching her/his rhythm hand!

You can read the rest of the article here: What Do I Do With These Chords Besides Droning?

This is the final installment of a three-part series on chordal accompaniment that I wrote for Fiddle Sessions. If you missed the first two parts, here are the links:

Chords: What to Play When You Don’t Know What To Play
How Do I Know Which Chord To Play?



You might also like:

Bluegrass vs. other genres: what makes it bluegrass?

Salt Creek: 1, Kat: 0, and what you can learn from my epic fail.

How to practice when you don’t have time.

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How to practice when you don’t have time

Some weeks this is just how it is.

One of my teenage students walked in the door today, obviously frazzled. I asked how she was doing. “Tired!” she said, with uncharacteristic force.

“Are you tired from good things or bad things?” I asked.

“Good things. But they’re wearing me out.” She went onto explain: she’s just joined a gymnastics team. Their first meet is only a few days away. The team has only a few practices to learn a lot of moves and put together an entire routine. Most of them have never done gymnastics before, including her.

As we settled into the lesson, it became obvious that this situation had taken a toll on the amount of time she’d been able to spend practicing this week. That’s natural enough. It’s not that she’s losing interest in fiddle; she’s just engaged in an intensive project right now in another part of her life.

I see this all the time with my teenage students; they have so many opportunities available to them, so many adults in their lives encouraging them to express themselves creatively and athletically and to do it all right now. Hey, I’m one of them! We adults like to enable kids to overcommit themselves with fun stuff since we know they won’t have as much time to pursue these opportunities later. Of course, we need to be careful to avoid burnout, and we need to teach kids how to set boundaries that will support their emotional and physical health. But that’s a different article.

This busy-busy theme is obviously not limited to the teenagers I work with. My adult students are even more likely to come to their lessons buzzing with stress: “I’m sorry I’m late; my business meeting ran over time and then I hit all the red lights! They’re restructuring my department and now I’m doing the jobs of two people, for three-quarters of my old pay!” And then “I didn’t have time to practice,” often followed by “I’m sorry” or “I know I should be practicing” or some other self-deprecating comment.

Look. We are all going a mile a minute. Want to know a secret? There are weeks I don’t practice at all. And I’m a full-time musician! The important thing is to know what our priorities are, and to live according to them. Some weeks, music and the personal growth it facilitates are top priorities. Some weeks, they aren’t. And that is okay.

But we also know that we do need to practice regularly if we are to keep making progress. A day we don’t take a step forward is a day we take a step backward. What we need is a way to be kind to ourselves by continuing to press forward in our music projects at the same time that we allow ourselves the freedom to respond to the rest of life as it happens dynamically around and within us.

We need to practice efficiently.

We need to know what the bare minimum is that we have to do in order to keep moving forward, even in baby steps. Or at the very least, we need to know what we have to do to stop going backward–even if we’re just treading water.

So, okay: how to do that.


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Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play

I’m pleased!  Fiddlesessions.com, a blog run by the music instructional publisher Mel Bay, has posted an article I wrote.  “Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play” is part 1 of a 3 part series about how to accompany other musicians during jams or band situations when you are not soloing.

I hope you’ll check it out, and perhaps leave a comment if you’ve got something to say about it. (Ideally the comment will be about the content of the article, not my dorky author photo, but do what you gotta.)


Kat Bula, Kristin Allen Zito and Jenna Bean Veatch - photo by Maria Sonevytsky


Here I am, probably playing accompaniment chords, while jamming on klezmer tunes with Kristin Allen Zito, Jenna Bean Veatch, and others not shown. Maria Sonevytsky took this picture last week at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. Have you ever been to music camp?

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How to practice (without freaking out or getting bored)


For many of us, but especially those of us who are adults, it is difficult to do things we don’t already know how to do.  Learning an instrument, especially if it is our first instrument, is humbling.  We may feel like small children, knowing what needs to happen but without the wiring in place to make our hands act in accordance with our intentions.


When we finally quiet our inner critic, our spouse or children or cats may wrinkle their noses at our best attempts.  We turn on the television and see reality shows where people sing their hearts out, then turn to face a panel of judges who are paid to be merciless in their criticism.


Even if your deepest musical wish is to be a professional, idolized by others, leave that wish outside the practice room. Practice time is for you, not for the imagined or real people you hope will give you better love if you master this instrument.*


*(Here’s a tip: it won’t make any difference.)



The plateau


Maybe you are on a plateau.  If you aren’t on a plateau right now, you will be someday.


When you are on a plateau, it feels like you’ve been stuck at exactly the same level for a long time.  You’ve been walking and walking and not getting anywhere.  You remember the climb up to where you are now, that exhausting but intoxicating feeling of progress, but it’s a distant memory now. Practicing doesn’t seem to make a difference and it’s increasingly difficult to remember why you ever thought this was fun or worthwhile.  


You may consider quitting your instrument.  A lot of people do at this point.


Allow me to suggest that everyone who has ever mastered an instrument (whatever that means, exactly) has crossed many, many of these plateaus.


Allow me to suggest further that you are actually getting somewhere, even if you feel like you’re walking in circles or backwards.


Entertain the possibility that an epiphany is around the corner.  It could take any of a variety of forms:  a sudden intuitive sense of something your brain hasn’t been able to understand rationally; an encounter with a genre of music you didn’t know existed and which ignites you completely; a new friend with whom you share an instant and inspiring musical rapport.


In the meantime you need motivation to keep practicing.  For that to happen, practicing has to feel a bit less like drudgery.



Kindness to yourself


    1. Stretch. Breathe.
      Bring your best self to your work.Take 2-3 minutes to make sure your muscles are loose and your mind is clear.

    3. First, play something you feel.Start with your favorite tune.If every tune feels wrong today, make up something that expresses how you’re feeling. 

    5. Decide what to work on today.
      You do not have to practice every tune or exercise assigned every time you play. Pick one or two things to focus on today.

    7. Get down to work.
      Spend as much time as you can (five minutes, or five hours) on your focus area(s).


      This is work, but it should be joyful work. If you get frustrated, take a step back. Stretch tense muscles. Break the hard thing up into smaller chunks, and focus on just one chunk for now.


      If you’re having trouble focusing, take another minute to stretch and breathe. Play a slooooooow scale. Stand in front of the mirror and play open strings, watching for straight bowing, or places you’re holding tension in your body, etc.

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