Become a Better Bluegrass Musician!

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The Tuttles. No, not the Turtles (remember that 1960’s Rock Band?). This is the Tuttles, the family band that plays bluegrass music. This is the Tuttles who also play “out of the bluegrass box” music. If you follow California bluegrass and by now you haven’t heard of the Tuttles you’ve either been in a coma or you’ve been held captive in some prison for the last five years.

The Tuttles are an almost all family band that is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. There is Jack the dad. There is Molly the daughter. There are Sullivan, and Michael, the two sons. And then there is A.J. Lee, the young lady singer and instrumentalist who is not a biological member of the Tuttles; but if it were put up to a vote she probably would be. A.J. and the Tuttles first got together at the CBA’s 2004 Fathers Day Festival, and then started performing for audiences in 2008.

The Tuttles are well know to many CBA members because the they have performed intermittently for years at the CBA Fathers Day Festival, and other venues all over the place; both in and out of California. They are on You Tube, have been on A Prairie Home Companion Radio Show, and many other places I don’t even know about.

Probably more than a few people have asked the question, “So how did they get so good?” Well it helps that Jack (dad) is a bluegrass music teacher. It helps that the kids grew up listening to bluegrass music.

But you still have to wonder how they all got so good. There are families, and then there are families. There are families where mom and dad are bluegrass players, and all or some of their kids turn into bluegrass players. Then there are families where mom and dad play bluegrass, and there kids become trumpet and flute players, or some strange instrument you’ve never heard of. I can’t figure that one out. If you’re like me you just let the mystery be, or pursue a Ph.D. in your quest to find the answer.

As I related, Jack Tuttle is a music teacher; and a good one. I’ve take a couple of his courses at CBA Music Camps, so I’ll testify that I left those camps a better musician (you’ll notice I wrote “better,” not “good”). Part of Jack’s teaching is, “Top Ten Ways to Become a Better Musician.” I got Jack’s permission to list those ways in today’s Welcome Column. So here ya go….


1. PRACTICE. Okay, this is an easy one. The real question is how much? The answer is at least ½ hour every day.

2. PRACTICE WISELY. This one is a bit harder. By wisely this means that you understand exactly what your weaknesses are and how to deal with them. Take the time to accurately identify any problems so you can attack them head on.
3. ISOLATE PROBLEM AREAS. Ideally a student would correctly identify problem areas within pieces (tunes) and practice them over and over again. Highlight any especially difficult passage and play it 25 times out of context of the piece. This will allow for many more repetitions of the areas that need the most work.
4. LISTEN TO YOURSELF. Part of understanding your weaknesses is knowing exactly how you sound as you play. Try using a recording device and listening back. Make it a goal to eliminate the difference between how you think you sound as you’re playing, and how you actually sound to yourself on the recording device.
5. LISTEN TO OTHERS. Music is an aural art. It’s just not possible to be a successful musician from a book or sheet of music alone. You must immerse yourself with the music you’re trying to play. You should spend at least some listening time very focused on the music, making the listening an exercise itself.
6. PLAY SLOWLY AND CLEARLY. It’s important to play at a speed that will allow for accuracy so that you are training good habits.
7. PLAY FAST. Playing slowly and clearly is great, but if you only do this you will never get fast enough to play with others. Even if the hands have trouble keeping up, by trying to play fast you’re teaching your mind to think faster. You can’t get fast by playing slow!
8. SING IN YOUR MIND. Whatever you’re trying to play should be heard in your inner ear. Make sure you are mentally singing your pieces/tunes.
9. JAM! People who go out and get involved in local jams reach a higher level much quicker than those who stay at home. Playing with others is like developing a support group, and is good at making you play at real world tempos (see#7), and learning to play through mistakes.
10. FIND INSPIRATIONS. The key to success in the long run
is to keep the passion for playing music. Often hearing
the right player, whether it’s live or from a recording, can
give a shot in the arm that will make practicing come
easier. Buy CDs. Go out and hear live music/concerts.
And don’t overlook books or films about the culture and
history of the music you’re trying to play.

With winter upon us, forcing us to be indoors more often, it’s a good opportunity to practice our musical chops, and never too early to get ready for the musical “shoot-outs” in the upcoming jams; both indoors and out. During you’re “Wood shedding,” you might want to keep the Top Ten Ways in mind.

And if you find the “Top Ten Ways” helpful, consider it an early Christmas present from Jack Tuttle!

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