Michael Daves singing duets with Sarah Jarosz.
Michael Daves has made a name for himself over the past 15 years on bluegrass guitar and mandolin, and as a powerful singer. And now, he's the latest addition to the ArtistWorks online music school roster, where he will be teaching bluegrass vocals. With a strongly individual style, he's played and recorded with Tony Trischka and as a duo with Chris Thile. And recently he released his own double album on Nonesuch records, Orchids & Violence with an all-star bluegrass band that includes Sarah Jarosz on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Brittany Haas on fiddle, and Michael Bub on bass.
This would be an impressive resume for any rising bluegrass player, but all the while he has also maintained a full-time teaching schedule. Not the occasional master class, but 30 or more hour-long lessons per week, plus group classes, Skype lessons and recitals. And that's given him valuable insights as a music teacher as well as performer. Bradley Klein is a observer of the NYC bluegrass scene, and a long-time student of Michael's. He recently sat down with him in Brooklyn for the Mandolin Cafe.
Michael Daves was holding court at the Rockwood Music Hall where he plays a one-hour set every Tuesday. It's a wintry night in 2007 and he threads his way through the audience, carrying the tools of his trade: a guitar and a mandolin in gig bags, an Audio-Technica 4033 condenser microphone, and a box of self-produced CDs. It's a good crowd for that small room. Chris Thile's sitting in tonight. Folks are buying drinks and chatting as the two step behind the mic and Thile kicks off "Blue Night" on his Dudenbostel F-5. The room snaps to attention as soon as Michael starts in, his voice effortlessly slicing through the chatter. "Blue night... got you on my mind...". The boys trade verses and instrumental breaks. Thile with the smooth virtuosity that he honed over the many years with Nickel Creek. Michael brings something else. A voice that cuts through any sonic landscape and an instrumental style that lands each note like the jab of a boxer.
I sat in that audience that night, because I'd heard that Daves gave mandolin lessons. And I knew I'd found my teacher as they sang and played their way through a carefully curated set of bluegrass songs and tunes, familiar and obscure. There was instrumental technique that I couldn't really aspire to, but it was always paired with a joy in playing and singing together, and a healthy dose of camaraderie and fun. I wanted to capture some of that for myself, so I joined a waiting list for mandolin and guitar lessons with Daves. But once we got started, the lessons involved a big helping of vocal and ear training. And now that he's teaching bluegrass vocals on the Artistworks platform, folks outside of NYC will have access to this dedicated teacher.
Close By - Michael Daves & Friends
Growing up in Georgia, was bluegrass always a part of your musical life?
It was always a part of what I did from the age of 11 or 12 when I started backing up my parents on guitar. My mom plays fiddle and my dad plays banjo — that was the family jam situation. And I studied with a guy named Ray Chesna in Atlanta who was a specialist in finger-style, ragtime, bluegrass and western swing. He'd played with a 15-year-old Bela Fleck back when he was a student in New York. When my friends were listening to Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana, he helped point me toward Charlie Christian, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the like. And there was a jam session at a place called the Freight Room near my home. And once a month a major act would come through. So I saw Del McCoury, Tim O'Brien, Larry Sparks, John Hartford, Norman Blake, David Grier and Butch Baldassari.
Were you able to play in those jam sessions as a high school kid?
I was a little intimidated. They played real fast and I could barely keep up. But bluegrass culture has a good balance between the competitive thing and being pretty inclusive. You don't get that in rock music or jazz. They tend to be more exclusive. There was this fiddler there named Dallas Burrell, who was a major character. He played on Atlanta Barn Dance on the radio in the fifties. He was a regular at that jam, and I picked up a lot from him. Dallas and some of those guys, they're going to challenge you. 'Play a break boy, and make it good.' (laughs)
You went to Hampshire College and studied jazz and composition. When did you realize that your voice was this powerful instrument that you could use in a bluegrass setting?
That kind of snuck up on me. One 'aha!' moment was 15 or 20 years ago. There was a contest in Roxbury, CT and I went down and entered on guitar. I'm far from a contest-style player, and I didn't expect to do well... and I didn't. But that year they decided to add a singing category. I sang "High on a Mountain" and won the thing!
And I know from studying with you, that the line between vocal and instrumental technique is always getting crossed.
Some of that came from studying jazz. It's a common thing to practice singing along with improvised solos. You want your thoughts to freely come out of the instrument. In bluegrass you can learn the G-run and a couple Tony Rice licks and be off to the races. In jazz, you're supposed to be able to play anything in any key, and a common way to practice is singing. It can help you counter the effects of muscle memory, when your fingers learn some pattern. And as I got deeper into bluegrass, I started to see that all the best soloists have a strong connection with the melody. Especially fiddlers, whose instruments have such similar capabilities to the voice, with bends and sustain. They're not just shredding the pentatonic scale. And with Bill Monroe too. It's such an important aspect to his playing, how he treats the vocal melody in his instrumental breaks.
That connection between singing and instrumental work is pretty central to your approach to teaching mandolin or guitar.
Everyone does ear training. And as far as bluegrass goes, I like to deal specifically with the original recordings. I very rarely teach a generic version of the song. We'll pick a source recording — Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs — the classic stuff. And the first thing, we'll learn to sing and play the melody on the instrument. It's not an instrumental break. We listen to the ornamentation, the slides the voice is doing into and out of notes. And from the beginning, the goal is to get the instrument to reflect that movement in the vocal part.
Bluegrass trio singing with Jen Larson and Chris Eldridge. Mike Bub on bass and Noam Pikelny, banjo.
That approach must take some instrumentalists by surprise, breaking down every nuance of say, a Jimmy Martin vocal line.
It's important to respect those subtleties, even though much of it is just three chords...
...and the truth.
...gotta get the truth in there. (laughs) You have to respect the sophistication in the vocal performance. It's not just note, note, note. It's about the contours between the notes and great vocalists express a tremendous amount there. It's valuable for mandolin players even though they can't really bend notes. But they can suggest them the way great jazz and blues piano players can suggest a slide just like great jazz and blues vocalists.
With a great slider like Mike Compton, my brain doesn't really hear each half step, it just smooths out the slide...
What enables Mike and players like Monroe to do that, is that they're engaging with the vocal melody. So what they're playing on the instrument is a suggestion of a more complex thing. And that's where things get interesting.
Let's talk about your approach to teaching singing for its own sake. You've just signed on to teach bluegrass vocals online with ArtistWorks.
One interesting part of preparing videos for Artistworks is that some students will not play an instrument. So as I'm teaching the melody, I indicate with my hand where the notes and contours are.
Did you create an entire sign language music vocabulary?
I didn't create it. If you've ever sung in a choir you've seen choir directors indicate with their hand where the melody is. So part is visualization in a linear sense so you can 'see' the contours and combine that with the same ear training as instrumentalists.
And you're using scale degree notation rather than the names of notes. Like 1, 2, 3 instead of C, D, E.
I provide notation with everything and it's in scale degrees. A bluegrass song can be in ANY key because the singer picks the key. With scale degrees you can transfer to any key or instrument for that matter.
Working the single microphone. Sarah Jarosz, Michael Daves, Mike Bub and Noam Pikelny.
Harmony is an essential part of the Bluegrass vocal tradition. But a fair amount of students must assume, "I'll never be able to get that."
Bluegrass is not a sing-along like a folk hootenanny. As my friend Jen Larsen says, "you have to learn to stay in your lane!" Especially in the three-part harmonies you'll find in Monroe or J.D. Crowe for instance. I've provided 60 songs in the curriculum to start with, and we'll add more over the years. The beginner section is all solo vocal standards. Intermediate is mostly duet singing. And in the advanced section, it's mostly trios. And along the way I'm building in this program of ear training, that if you go through it will help folks learn to find their part.
Besides the transcriptions and video, are there the kind of audio tracks that you provide in private lessons?
We're providing multi-track recordings of each song based on my transcriptions of classic recordings. So what you'll get for a trio is a complete mix, an instrumental mix, a mix with each vocal part by itself, and also a mix of each pair of parts, so you can practice the lead with the tenor and baritone for example. And for the 'tech savvy' you can download a stem pack with each track that you can import into GarageBand or some other DAW )digital audio workstation) and make your own mixes.
Over the years, I've learned that you're don't really teach students to sing or play exactly like you do in performance.
Look, you want to sound like yourself. That's something I've thought about quite a bit. By studying great performances in detail, you enter the aesthetic and emotional world of the singer to some extent. And by studying that on the level of melodic detail you can learn the tools to put your own experience and emotion into songs.
Are there any other elements in your ArtistWorks curriculum?
I mix in a lot of crucial information on jamming skills, conventions and etiquette that really open the door to playing with others. And I include a lesson on microphone technique.
Like, how not to smack you band-mate in the head with a banjo when you're singing trios into a single microphone?
I do suggest that if you perform with a single mic, if you can get a headphone distribution amplifier and rehearse with everyone wearing headphones and hear what's making it into the microphone, that's a great way to understand what the audience is going to hear. Even a solo act has to learn how to really use the microphone.
Have you ever taught a student who truly could... not... sing... at... all?
I've never worked with a student who was genuinely tone deaf. And I've taught 35 lessons per week for the past 17 years or so. I get them all to sing because I feel that regurgitating licks is the pitfall for most instrumentalists. And when you get together, if you can sing a song, you're that much more valuable to the jam.
Speaking for myself, I'll just add that your teaching method has had the added benefit of making me a better listener. I know that I hear more of what's happening in music, because of the work we've done together.