Monday, December 17, 2012

ABC Music Notation

There are many music-writing software packages on the market, Sibelius being the most popular for classical musicians and ubiquitous through schools and universities. There are freeware applications that work with varying degrees of sophistication as well. These products are all well and fine for the professional musician who needs to provide perfect partitur for orchestras or ensembles, extract and print individual parts, and "play in" their compositions directly from a keyboard onto the music stave. But many of us just need a simple solution to jot down a tune so we can remember it, store it and find it again and maybe email it to our friends or band members. ABC is the simple system developed for just this.

Like a lot of folk musicians, I've been using the ABC notation system for many years; for collecting and learning tunes and songs, working out chords and harmonies, recording lyrics and sharing or collaborating on arrangements. I recommend it to anyone who can understand standard music notation even slightly and has a computer. Let's start with a bit of background.


Using letters as a shorthand notation for music has been around for over 100 years. It's easy to quickly jot down EDC, EDC, to remind you how "Three Blind Mice" goes - but it becomes a bit trickier to show rhythm, key, rests and the like without recourse to standard music notation.

With the arrival of the computer era, the ASCII (standard QWERTY) keyboard became the most common data set for transmitting information, whereas music manuscripts could only be transmitted as graphics files (images) and as such, were large and unwieldy and could not be edited.

In the 1980s Chris Walshaw began writing out fragments of folk/traditional tunes using letters to represent the notes before he learned standard Western music notation. He was using a programmer's text editor and saw the power of being able to have a text language to record and distribute tunes. He developed the first iteration of the language we call ABC Notation.


While there are many people who can read ABC notation in its "native" form (at its basic level it's easy to understand), this is not its primary purpose. It's important to remember that ABC Notation is a system, not a programme. There are many programmes that "render" the ABC file into standard music notation, or turn them into sound files. Because the ABC file is ordinary keyboard characters it can be emailed, stored in a text file or database, searched on for specific terms or phrases and file sizes are kept very small. One simple text file (or .abc file) can hold hundreds or thousands of tunes.

Let's have a look at a simple tune in ABC notation, Hewlett by O'Carolan:

X: 1
T: Hewlett
C: O'Carolan
M: 3/4
K: D
AF|D2 DE FG|AB c2 A2|d2 f2 fg|fe d3 B|A2 F2 F2|G3 B AG|AF D2 D2|1 D4:|2 D6|]
|:A2 F2 AB| A2 F2 AB| A2 d2 d2|dc BA GF|G2 E2 GA| G2 E2 EF|GF GB AG|AF D3 E|
FE F2 G2|AB c2 A2|fe fg ag|fe d3 B|A2 F2 F2|G3 B AG|AF D2 D2| D6:|

You can probably guess what much of it means by just looking at it. The first 5 lines are the headers which tell us (or more importantly, tell the rendering programme) something about the tune.

The X: field is an indexing value (it can be any number you choose, for quick reference when you have many tunes in one file). It is the only field that is compulsory (your ABC code won't work in rendering programmes without it).
The T: is the title, C: is the composer, M: is the time signature and K: is the key. The rest of the code is the notes and barlines. Let's turn it into music:

  • Copy the code - everything from X: 1 to D6:| 
  • Go here: (just one of many online converters),
  • Paste it into the text window. 
  • Scroll down to the button "Submit" and click that.

After a moment or two the programme will return the music in standard notation as an image. Directly below this are two links - midi and pdf. Clicking on the midi link will play the tune on your sound card (or ask you to download it, and then play it); the pdf link will give you a printable page of music.

Now, let's look at the notes themselves. Here's the first line:

AF|D2 DE FG|AB c2 A2|d2 f2 fg|fe d3 B|A2 F2 F2|G3 B AG|AF D2 D2|1 D4:|2 D6|]

  • The notes from middle C to the B above are capital letters, the notes above B are lower case (we can go higher and lower with other symbols).
  • F and C notes are actually F sharp and C sharp - but we don't need to indicate this because we have declared that the key signature is that of "D major" in the header (K: D).
  • Default note length is an eighth-note, and that to make a quarter-note we add the multiplier 2 after the note name, 3 for a dotted-quarter, 4 for a half-note etc. 
  • Bar lines are represented by the symbol | (shift, backslash), repeats |: and :| and first and second time bars as |1 and |2 etc. Double bar line || or |]
  • Spaces are not required, but are added for clarity and grouping - eg eighth-notes grouped without spaces will be beamed when rendered.

You can change things in the editor window and press submit again and see what effect they will have. Some things will cause the rendering to fail, but most things will have the effect you expect.

There is much that you can do in ABC including chords, multiple parts, lyrics and more. There are many hundreds of databases containing thousands of tunes in ABC format all over the internet as well as many tutorials and references on ABC Notation. Once you've mastered the basics of the notation, you can collect and share the tunes you like, make your own database or write you own tunes.

Other links and references:
Mike Moroney

Monday, December 03, 2012

Ye Olde Folke Clubbe

NEFC 1981
Notwithstanding a short-lived association at McMurdo Sound, I believe the New Edinburgh Folk Club (my club here in Dunedin) is the Southernmost folk club on the planet. I've been active in it for 30 years, both as a performer and organiser, and it is interesting to me how the beast has changed over those three decades.

When I came upon the club in my early twenties, I was about the mean age of its constituents. It was a club in the true sense. It had its own clubrooms, enthusiastic volunteers and committed members. It was the place to be on Friday night. The stage was buzzing with musicians, often in combinations thrown together at a moment's notice for that one performance. There was much banter, a wide variety of performers and instruments and healthy competition to get onto the stage. There were also well organised and highly regarded concerts, barndances and the Whare Flat Folk Festival. From time to time we'd hire a big bus and the more intrepid of us would head off en masse to festivals in Canterbury, Cardrona or even Wellington.

Over the years all these qualities atrophied as folk got older, made families or just got on with life. The clubrooms became an expensive luxury for a once-a-week endeavour and had to be let go. Ever since, the club has been nomadic, finding sanctuary in cafes, pubs and community halls. From time to time good arrangements are made with landords to remain resident in one place for a year or two, usually as long as the vagaries of the hospitality industry allow. We are in such an oasis now.

Interestingly, 30 years on and I'm still the mean age of the parishioners. The club membership is about 3 times the number it used to be and the appeal and patronage of our clubnights and concerts is wide and varied. What has changed most significantly is that we are essentially a committee-run entertainment organisation. There are many club members I don't know or recognise, that don't involve themselves any further than paying their subs and turning up occasionally. The amount of money we deal with annually is large enough to require the oversight of accountants and auditors and the machinery of the club, everything from websites to sound systems, requires a dedicated and knowledgeable committee.

We now pay most of our performers; a significant change from the old days. We're privileged to have artists play for us, whereas it used to be a privilege to get to play at the club. All this, I suppose, is as it should be given the way things are now. These days our punters demand a comfortable, quiet venue where a pinot noir or latte can be obtained and supped to the accompaniment of quality performers, starting on time and finishing at the socially respectable time of ten-thirty or so. And that, by and large, is what they get.
Mike Moroney

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Richness Around Us

Going to the folk club is a bit like going to church regularly; the format is much the same and the content changes slightly. Sometimes it's rewarding, sometimes it's obligatory. Last night was one of those times when the planets seemed to align (to confuse the metaphor further) and I was reminded of what unorthodox talents I'm surrounded by.

I had no sooner arrived than I was called over to view (and play) an f-style mandolin, a prototype made by luthier Steve Barkman (who made my own guitar and indeed, most of the guitars you'll see at the folk club on any given night; Steve also does the sound engineering most nights). This was a truly beautiful instrument with the characteristic bluegrass "sound like running water" and felt so lovely under the fingers. It was as light as a feather.

Shortly afterward, a 5 string violin, a spec eBay purchase that required a good deal of work to make it even playable, was returned to me by Peter Madill, another spectacular luthier in the fold. The instrument had been pulled apart and reassembled with a care and precision I can only guess at, for it didn't look as though the thing had been touched. It played exquisitely. (I can only report to within the scale of my ability, as testified to in a previous post.)

Then, to settle back with a glass of Emerson's 1812 Pale Ale (another local product, the astounding quality of which is beyond the scope of this blog) and listen to our guests for the evening, Brenda Liddiard and Mark Laurent. This fantastic Auckland duo never ceases to amaze me with the diversity of their songs, musicianship and poetry. The hour flew by graced with sublime guitar and mandolin textures and soulful harmonies. As is often the case at the end of a warm summer's day, there were too few people to give them their due but those that were there were well rewarded for their investment.

It's good to be reminded from time to time what a rare and privileged society we live in and the fine and talented people we're surrounded by.

Steve Barkman's instruments can be viewed here and Peter Madill's instruments here. I commend them both to you.
Mike Moroney

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nice Website, But...

It's that time of year (it's always that time of year) where we're trying to put together artist profiles for festival websites, brochures and programmes. Of course, the first resource is Aunty Google to find the artist's bio, press kit and publishable photographs. It's rare that a performer doesn't have some kind of web presence these days and many are very beautiful affairs with gay graphics, designer-quality presentations and many innovative approaches to engaging their public. And almost always they fail in many important aspects.

As someone who uses your website, allow me to point out why it's not working for you.

The first time I go to your website is when you point me to it as part of your application to our festival or club. That's when I want to find out who you are, where you're from, what other people are saying about you and your achievements, and see or hear a few clips. Most of you get this much right, but the trick is to give a good overview with a few salient words and images: I should not have to keep digging down through pages and links to glean a complete picture.

The second time I go to your website is when we've booked you and I need some sensible copy and print-quality photographs. I'm looking for links that say Press or Bio or EPK (electronic press kit). This is where even the most seasoned touring artists fall down. Often what I find is a rambling history of the artist, punctuated by name-dropping lists of famous people they've played with, played for, been on the bill with or once met backstage.

When I design a website, be it for an artist, venue or festival (disclaimer: I'm not a graphic designer - I secure those services from the professionals), these are the key points I observe:

  • Title or name as the heading. (You might think this is obvious, but some websites eliminate it in favour of some clever graphic.)
  • Byline. A pithy, quotable sentence that describes you.
  • A 40 - 80 word paragraph that says what you do. (Get someone to write this for you if you're squeamish about self-promotion.) Imagine this as the blurb about you in a programme or a newspaper article.
  • Link to a biography page. This should contain a list and description of personnel (if it's a band) and a short timeline of your accomplishments. The key to writing a good bio is to make each paragraph complete in itself so that at the end of any given paragraph it makes good sense. This is so that someone (me) wanting to get promotional copy about you can select one, two or three paragraphs to fill the available space without having to rewrite it.
  • At least two or three up-to-date digital photographs at high resolution (behind thumbnails for selecting) for use in the print media. Each should be 2Mb or greater. Have at least one in portrait and one in landscape. It's worth paying a professional photographer.
These are just the basic marketing things that need to be there. Think of your website as your calling card. Clearly there are many more bells and whistles you can add for interest - but make sure your pages, especially the home page, load quickly. Here are some things to avoid:

  • Entry homepage. "Welcome to my website, Click to enter." is an annoying waste of time. Get all the relevant information in front of the viewer immediately (hence fast loading).
  • Homepages that are insider oriented. Too many websites are designed for fans and people that already know them and don't provide information for the first-time visitor.
  • A Facebook page is not a substitute for a website. Social networking is ideal for keeping up buzz and information among your fans and promoting your next gig. It is not particularly useful for definitive information or as a repository for promotional resources. Make sure your Facebook page links to your website (and vice versa).
  • The dead website. Nothing looks worse than an abandoned website, where the last blog entry was 2006 or where there are spammy entries in the comments (Aunty hates it too and will push you down the search pages as punishment.). It's ok for your website to be static (non-interactive) as long as it's accurate and up-to-date.
  • Pages that scroll sideways. Total fail. And keep all the most important information 'above the fold' - don't make the reader have to scroll down until they're fully engaged.
  • Text information as an image. It might look pretty but I can't copy the text - unless that was your point in the first place.
The key thing is to make it immediately obvious to the visitor who you are, what you do and how to contact you in a single hit and then easy navigation to fuller media content after that. Everything else is superfluous.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Louise who is trying to put the festival programme together.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thank You for Your CD

Recorded music is cheap, ubiquitous and relatively easily made and distributed these days. The definitive document still seems to be the CD (the Compact Disc as developed by Philips and Sony in the early 80's) - although sales of the commercial product have been in steady decline this century, despite an overall growth in the recording industry's output. The balance, presumably, is distributed digitally as mp3 files. For those of us who still like 'to have and to hold' our albums, the CD is the default. And although some still covet the vinyl LP with its tactile physicality and its lovely readable cover, this remains largely the domain of the audiophile and the serious collector. My own small collection of LPs sit mostly idle, occasionally rifled by my grown-up daughter who has a penchant for things retro.

Sales notwithstanding, CDs are used most often as promotional calling cards. They are distributed freely around promoters, festivals, libraries, reviewers and radio stations in the hope of bookings and broadcast. Having had an organisational association with a folk club and festival for many years, I have acquired several hundreds myself. Now I gaze upon a wall of two thousand or more CDs and wonder if I will ever listen to most of them again.

Because I listen to virtually (- see what I did there?) all of my music in mp3 format on my home computer connected to the home stereo, I have developed the habit of migrating (ripping) chosen albums from my wall to my computer when the listening occasion arises. Any newly purchased disc's first destination is to the CD drive of the computer and then to the wall. My media player reports that I have eight months and twenty days of continuous listening without repeats - and I have only transferred a small percentage of the wall. Of course this data pool is regularly supplemented by iTunes purchases as well (- sometimes I just want the music).

These days promotional packages of CDs and printed material (about as useful as glossy press photos) are deprecated in favour of a convenient link to a website or a YouTube clip or two.

But in the event, thank you for your CD; it will be listened to, booklet thumbed and credits acknowledged, then placed lovingly in alphabetical order with the others. Maybe in the not too distant future, an inquisitive grandchild might peruse the wall of CDs the way I did with my granddad's books or my daughter with my LP's, and find there treasures I've overlooked or failed to recognise. I really hope so.
Mike Moroney
Happy birthday Joop Walhain.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Third Hand

Needs must.
It's been a source of great amusement to me over a period twenty years or more to observe the incessant and pointless evolution of the simple toothbrush. Every few months there is a "revolutionary new development" in the dental hygiene technology that is essentially still just a stick with bristles on it. From putting a kink in it (remember the flip top head ads?) to tongue scrubbers, a myriad of head designs, thumb grips, vibrators and more. I can hardly wait for the next instalment. It's a bit like that with the humble capo.
A few types of capo

Like a passive third hand on your fretboard, the capotasto (to give it its full name, literally: the head of the touch) can be a simple device to raise the pitch of your instrument or a complex mechanism to contrive new tuning combinations. Gone (almost) are the days of the elastic strap and buckle systems that strangled the neck and threatened to take out an eye during an inadvertent explosive release. These days capos are engineering marvels, both simple and complex.

The main consideration is to have something closely approximating the force and form of a human finger on the strings which, in most cases, means applying pressure from around the neck. You might think that this is simple and straightforward, but the number of mechanisms developed for achieving this is startling: elastic straps, spring loading, cam mechanisms, lever-tensioning, friction locking and over-centre locking are just some of the engineering principles employed for this seemingly simple task.

Whatever its design, it's important that it applies only the necessary pressure. Too much and the tuning is compromised; too little and the strings 'buzz' on the leading fret. It should be possible to tune the instrument with the capo on (usually necessary as the intonation is inevitably compromised when capoing).

But it doesn't stop there. How about capos that only fret certain strings and leave others open (partial capoing). Or low-friction capos that are designed to be more or less permanently installed on the instrument that can be slid quickly into position for a rapid key change while playing.

Partial capoing is used on guitars, most commonly on the second fret across the A, D and G strings making the effective tuning of E,B,E,A,B,E. (Those familiar with DADGAD tuning will note that this is the same tuning ratio, 2nd fret). This gives the dubious benefit of being able to play in a faux open-tuning, but use conventional chord shapes. I've always thought this defeats the purpose of open tuning in the first place. It's not uncommon to see a player use a normal capo and a partial capo together.

The use of capos is not restricted to guitars. There are small ones for mandolins and ukes and the afore-mentioned low-friction, sliding type for use with open tuned instruments like the Irish bouzouki (or mandola, or cittern) that sit behind the nut when not in use and can be slid like a collar to the desired fret mid-tune.

Dobro capo
Not all capos press down on the strings. Some, like those designed for instruments played with a slide or steel (Dobro, Hawai'ian guitar etc) slip between the fretboard and the strings and push up, like a moveable nut (the slotted block at the top of the fingerboard that the strings run through). I've known fiddle players to carry a small length of leather shoelace to slip under the strings, making an effective capo and similarly a matchstick used in the same way on a mandolin.

Your choice of capo will depend on your style and mode of playing - many are designed to be positioned with one hand (important if you wear finger- and thumb-picks). Some are discreet and some are imposing. Another consideration (recently demonstrated to me) is that different capos make your instrument sound differently, so it's worth trying a few. That's the thing about capos. You can try them at the shop. Not like toothbrushes.
Mike Moroney

Monday, November 05, 2012

John Archer and NZ Folksong

For as many years as the Kiwifolk websites have been running (since the inception of the web itself), John Archer's NZ Folksong website has been growing and becoming increasingly sophisticated, making a huge contribution to our social and folksong histories. It is a resource of considerable depth with lyrics, histories, recording and clips of songs and waiata (importantly, the only online resource I know of that combines the two), with plenty of informed comment. John himself is known to be outspoken on issues of our social history in respect of our musical heritage, often garnering respect and opprobrium in equal measure on the nz-folk list. John writes:
"I’ve just been looking at the statistics of my NZ Folksong website for the past 12 months. For the songs I have heard sung at folk clubs, the most visited songs are:
  1.  Farewell to the Gold 1890
  2.  Taumarunui 1360
  3.  Minnie Dean 1270
  4.  Davy Lowston, She’ll Be Right, Spider in the Bath, Across the Line 850
  5.  The Close Shave 730
  6.  Gin and Raspberry 680
  7.  Russian Jack 640
  8.  Down the Hall 550
  9.  (my own) Arthur Allan Thomas song 510
  10.  Dugout in the True 480
  11.  Wellerman 450
  12.  Stable Lad 440
  13.  Beautiful Coast of New Zealand 410
  14.  Packing My Things to Go Home 340
  15.  Gone to Invercargill 300.
In the more plebian Pakeha folk culture, the most visited songs are
  1.  Ten Guitars 14,900
  2.  Blue Smoke 4400
  3.  Gumboot song 3600
  4.  Damn the Dam 2000
  5.  No Depression in New Zealand 1900
The most visited Maori-language songs get many, many more visitors...
  1.  Pokarekare Ana 47,500
  2.  Tutira Mai 30,000
  3.  Ka Mate 25,600
  4.  E Papa Waiari 20,000
  5.  Po Atarau/Now is the Hour 17,100
... but I deliberately put Pakeha and Maori songs on one website so that young people coming for one type can explore the other. And so I have mixed both Maori and trad folk songs in the same topics on the School Projects page. For example, “Hunting and fishing - In My Little Whare, The Eel Song, Black Matai, Karu Karu, She'll Be Right Mate, Te Manu Titi.” 
That School Projects page has had 1650 visits, presumably by school teachers, so I hope this is helping to get the next generation on New Zealanders familiar with the old trad NZ folksongs.
It is great to see that kids are visiting the site, using their school’s computers: an average of 400 every schoolday. Visitor numbers drop from about 1500 to 1100 on weekends and school holidays. 
But kids are now getting smartphones and tablets and using them to visit the site on the weekends. Mobile visits have increased from 50 a day to 250 in the past 12 months, and those mobile visits peak up on the weekends. Guitar chords and embedded Youtube videos are big drawcards for youngsters learning the songs.  
As well as visits from Kiwis (350,000) there has been a significant number of visits from overseas.
  • Australia 68,200
  • USA 44,500
  • UK 24,500
  • Germany  7,000
  • Canada  6,500
  • France  4,200
Altogether there have been 562,500 visits to the NZ Folksong website in the past 12 months."
I know from my own paltry efforts that the upkeep of such a huge resource is an undertaking only for those with singular dedication, time and ultimately, generosity of spirit. The best reward for such an endeavour is to mercilessly plunder the treasure within and spread it around.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to John, with thanks.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wellyfest Lives Up To Its Name, Again.

Another Wellington Folk Festival has come and gone. As is usual for any event anywhere in country on this long weekend, weather is unpredictable and indifferent to what's best for your event. The Brookfields site this year boasted frost, wind, sun (a little), rain, some more rain and above all, mud. Daunted we were not.
Pat higgins writes:
"Thanks Wellington Folk Festival Organisers. We had a great weekend, in spite of the cold on Friday night and the rain on Saturday night. Very good mud-co-ordination this year, really good quality and distribution.
"The old-Timey crew from Virginia were great (Martha Spencer and Jackson Cunningham), they do great authentic mountain music, the real stuff, great frailing, dancing guitar picking and mandolin playing.
"Had some nice sessions late into the night.
"In my opinion the Wheeze and Suck band while fine harmony singers, don't really make the grade. I've seen better pub bands round Dublin. I'd stay for the whole gig, if they just sang a capella.
"Enjoyed Ian Goodsman on the slide guitar, learnt a lot from his workshop and playing.
"The coffee was disappointing this year.
"The Balladeer was a great success, nice warm atmosphere. Also the Spooky Mens Chorale were fantastic, Loved their monumental self-aggrandistic style. So much so we went to their "Monday night concert in town. What a delight, great to experience man-firmation.
"Lovely to see so many talented and well-behaved teenagers in the mix. There was no rubbish I could see left in the top field, and we were last out. Thanks Organisers for all the hard work to deliver such a great event."
Have to agree with all of that. Especially the coffee. It was all there - just needs a good barista.

The layout of the site requires that all traffic (foot and vehicle) travel through some pinch points and these are the areas that always become quagmires. Perhaps a little pre-emptive maintenance could bulk these areas up a bit. The stage looked a lot better this year with blacks extending above neck height (otherwise the Spooky Men would've looked like so many disembodied bobbing heads!).

Congratulations to Gerard and the crew - another one down in style!
Mike Moroney
(Photo by Gerard Hudson)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Come Hither, Foreign Folkie

I regularly receive emails from overseas artists and tourists looking for opportunities to play in New Zealand. I pull up short of trying to be a promoter or agent but I do like to be able to pass on any useful information I have. The easier it is for performers to make their way around the country sharing their talents, the richer the scene becomes for us all; consumers and pickers alike. To my mind it all helps to lubricate the wheels of live music and makes it more of a usual thing for people to do of a week or weekend - a culture of turning the TV off and going out.

A recent enquiry from Britain asked about the appropriate visa status required of someone coming to play (and presumably earn money) in New Zealand. I didn't know so I put the question to the NZ folk list and got a couple of insightful replies; the first from Davy Stuart in Christchurch:
"Many overseas artists don't bother for a folk club tour, most  clubs seem to be happy to operate on a cash basis and lets face it, no-one is going to be earning thousands, given the fees versus the travel expenses etc involved. The larger festivals may be slightly more problematic and subject to greater scrutiny from the relevant authorities and I would probably advise getting a visa for those. Any concerts promoted by City Councils will generally have official tax forms and withholding tax withheld, so a visa would be advisable.

"Of course there is always the slight issue of turning up at NZ airport immigration with 'musician' on a passport and a swag of work visas for other countries.... Explain that to the officer.

"Work visas are not too difficult to obtain, I had to organise the paperwork for visas for Andy Irvine and Rens van Der Zalm the last time they were here. What it did mean though was them fronting up in person to the relevant NZ High Commission overseas, money and forms in hand, cost was about NZ$200 each from memory... "
It is true that the goal posts move with the fashion - in this case our rising-star film industry. This from Sue Harkness in Wellington:
"As Davy's first reference explains, any tour of 14 days or less no longer needs a work visa.

"Work visas for musicians need to be approved by the musicians' branch of the Service and Food Workers' Union. There is a charge per person for the approval and part of the basis of the approval is that the tour involves local support acts (not normally a problem with club gigs).

"Most acts tour under the radar but, if they are regulars or well known names, it's best to go through the paperwork.  You don't want your artist left at the departing airport or denied entry here.

"Once there is a work visa on the Immigration Department's files, there will have to be visas for all the following visits.

"Musicians from countries like China or Africa - who would require permission to visit - most definitely would require a work visa."
And an interesting rejoinder from Gerard Hudson, convener of the Wellington Folk Festival:
"One thing to be aware of is that only licenced immigration consultants can legally advise visitors on their visa requirements or what their personal (as opposed to general) obligations are to comply with the process. Safest is to refer them to the immigration service web sites that Davy referenced above."
And so that, indeed, is what I recommend too.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Sue Harkness on the recent loss of her father.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Sure You're Insured with TravelSure?

The Little Mermaid, CPN
Bernadette and I took a three week holiday in Scotland and Denmark midyear, catching up with our many musician and other friends. Needless to say I felt the need to take my guitar with me. Preparing for such a trip these days is increasingly fraught. How to play it with the additional item, what to pack in your luggage and what to take as hand luggage. No matter how much research you do, no matter how many times you scrutinise the conditions and restrictions; in the end it seems to all come down to arbitrary decisions made by the official at the check-in desk. Sometimes it's an Extra Bag, sometimes it's Odd Shaped Luggage, and then there's the special category of "Musical Instrument" attracting special levies, and sometimes you're invited to take them on as hand luggage, only to be turned back at the gate! It's a lottery and an expensive one.

Of course, if you're taking your precious instrument with you you're going to want to make sure it's fully insured. And we said so to the travel agent who arranged for additional cover and we were charged accordingly and robustly. The policy recommended by the travel agency (Flight Centre) was with TravelSure (New Zealand). Our holiday would include renting a car and we wanted to be sure that was known and included. The guitar was specified at a value of $4000. More terms and conditions followed. Perused the document, signed and paid.

Big mistake.

Of course, the mistake was entirely mine - I should have read the policy in detail, all the dozen or more pages of small print. Even then I still might not have come to the conclusion that the policy was as useless for my purposes as it eventually turned out to be. I thought I was being pro-active by asking (and paying) for cover for things when the cover you really need is for circumstances.

In the event, nothing happened to my guitar. It remained safe and sound for the whole round trip. In the seven minutes it took to check into a hotel in the Copenhagen CBD, our car was accessed (I would say "broken into", but the thief appeared to be able to unlock the car without damaging it) and bags were taken from beneath the cover of the rear of the hatch. An inspired notion and quick action by Bernadette found one bag (with our passports!) abandoned in the foyer of a building around the corner. What was missing was a small shoulder bag containing my camera, Kindle, digital recorder and a bunch of SD cards. The only thing irreplaceable was the data. A fairly good result if you have to get yourself robbed. Good thing we had comprehensive insurance.

Everything was done by the book. A report filed with the Danish police and items itemised. When I returned home I spent half a day filling out the insurance claim. Amazingly I had purchase receipts for everything, except the actual bag, a total of $700. I filed my claim and waited.

A week later the email came back:
Your claim is declined under two separate exclusions. We refer you to the Travelsure policy wording under the heading “Luggage And Travel Documents” which states:
We Will Not Pay For:
2. items left Unattended in any motor vehicle unless stored in the boot and forced entry is gained.
4. jewellery, camera and video camera equipment, sound equipment, mobile telephones or portable computer equipment left Unattended in any motor vehicle at any time (even if in the boot).
“Unattended” means (refer to page 12)
a) You did not observe the loss/theft, or
b) At a distance from You such that You do not have a good chance of preventing any attempted theft.
So, even if I had taken onboard that valuables weren't covered under any circumstances, I might have still accepted the policy and kept them with me when leaving the car. If I had made it to page 12, I would've realised being in proximity to call out "Cease and desist, you bounder!" was a requirement. Makes you wonder what the insurance might actually be for - especially having paid extra for car-related eventualities. Additionally my claim referred to items being under the rear window cover (out of sight) in the back of the Fiat Panda hatchback. I was not able to say "they were in the boot"; there wasn't one. I was also unable to demonstrate "forced" entry as there was no damage.

So well done TravelSure. You got my money and didn't have to pay. My claim, after excess, was about what I paid in premium. Of course, Flight Centre is complicit in this too. Appeals to the travel agent who negotiated and sold us the policy could only elicit, "We can't go through every little detail with our clients". A quick 'Google' of TravelSure brings up plenty of similar anecdotal stuff. I'm sure others have positive stories to tell of either of these businesses; Lord knows there are plenty on the TravelSure site and I'd always found Flight Centre good in the past. I feel the travel agent, the one who is supposed to understand your needs, was remiss and cavalier on this occasion. Still, I am better informed after the fact and won't be making the same mistakes again. I shall probably make completely different ones.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Bernadette.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Confessions of a Festival Anarchist

It's getting near that time again where I plan my annual road-trip to the Wellington Folk Festival in the backhills of Wainuiomata. As usual it'll either be sunny and hot or a miserable, cold and drizzly sea of mud. It's called WellyFest and the double entendre is not lost on those who've forgotten to bring their gumboots.

I make myself useful by twiddling knobs at the sound desk as part of a highly social tech team that meets up there every year. Mostly I go to connect with my North Island music friends and play some tunes. I wrote in a previous post that I have a chequered history in this regard. As someone armed with an acoustic guitar and 50-plus years of popular song in my noodle I can keep a singing session going from sundown to sun-up if stamina serves. With great ability comes great responsibility. For many years I thought it was my responsibility to turn every gathering of four or more musicians into a raucous, full-throated Beatles singalong. To be fair, there was a considerable number of session-anarchists who supported me in this endeavour. All but the toughest and most resilient of the original musicians would pack up their instruments and slink away into the shadows. Job done.

In the last decade or so I've applied myself to playing the fiddle with murderous intent. It's been my observation that there's no skill that can't be replaced with great confidence. Witness the number of charlatans posing successfully as physicians, teachers, CEO's, airline pilots - only to be found out way down the line they have none of the qualifications they purport to have. So it can be with fiddle playing, I thought. I'll write more about the arcane nature of learning the fiddle in another post, after the psychoanalysis is complete.

Once I found out that small secret gatherings of musicians were hiding away in bunkrooms and kitchens around a given festival site; deliberately cramped in small spaces that made it impossible to wield a guitar; in tight little circles hunched inward to exclude the possibility of a singer penetrating the ring; once I found these gatherings, I would poke my elbow in with my fiddle in my fist and, oblivious to the sudden blanching of the incumbents, would assume the position. The shoe now firmly on the other foot, I did my penance.

These days as I walk around the campsites with a fiddle case, I swear I am looked upon with pity, nostalgia - even contempt - by those that still crave a good Beatles song. "He used to be one of us," I can hear them thinking.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Anna Bowen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

RIANZ and the Folk Tui

It's nomination time again. The nomination form and conditions of entry are here. An undisclosed number of albums will be submitted by their makers (very few are on a label these days), 12 units, 10 to be distributed among secret judges who put them in preferential order from one - n (where n = the number of albums submitted). The top three (when collated) will become finalists - an accolade in its own right; and the artists they represent will make their way to the Auckland Folk Festival this coming January to perform a 20 minute set and await the announcement of the winner. The prize is called 'The Tui Award for Best Folk Album"

It is great that we have a celebration of our particular genre and its output but there are a number of interesting variables in the process.

Artists invariably nominate their own album, so the term 'nomination' should more rightly be called 'submission'. As such, the artist selects the category that they think best fits their style. It is a testament, I think, to the folk audience that a wide range of musical styles find their way in to this category: singer-songwriters, bluegrass, bush bands, Celtic combos, even rock, pop and light classical acts - probably on the reasoning that these are the people who will give their material the best listen.

In nominating an album the artist must undertake to, in the event of becoming a finalist, travel to the Auckland Folk Festival and perform. This would seem to be an odd filtering factor on the material, immediately excluding all those who cannot make this undertaking for whatever reason. No assistance is given by either RIANZ or the Auckland Folk Festival to the artists. Last year, for example, all three finalists (being 6 or 8 people) were from the South Island. Presumably every nominee had pro-forma travel plans in place until the finalists were announced.

Occasionally one might stumble across someone who admits to having been a judge (it's a different cohort every year) and get some feedback as to what they chose and why, but there is no formal feedback to artists from the judges or RIANZ. Your nominated album essentially goes into a black hole. We take it on good faith that RIANZ has made an appropriate personnel selection - they are not revealed. Judges don't know who the other judges are either and they are asked to keep their opinions to themselves until the job is done. Reasons for confidentiality are obvious and necessary but things we'd like to know after the award might include: how many entries there were, who they were, how they fared and some comments from the judges.

If one was to use the rarefied selection of the Folk Tui finalists over the years as a barometer of folk music in New Zealand, a truly eclectic picture might be gleaned. Occasionally, just occasionally, a truly awful album is chosen; times when, in my opinion and in the interests of the genre, an award was better not made.

All in all, the process is fair and the recognition is something that we can all be proud of. The small categories like folk, jazz and country do not have the sponsoring might of Vodafone behind them and, as Chris Caddick of RIANZ admitted to me when I raised some of these issues, they do this on a shoestring budget. But unless RIANZ gets some feedback from participants and observers, things won't improve on their own. We as a community need to own it and kick it around a bit more.
Mike Moroney

Disclaimer and conflict of interest: I've been a judge, nominee and finalist over the years and none of what I've written here is in any way a personal axe to grind about my own involvement, which has always been interesting and rewarding. My thanks goes to the Auckland Folk Festival people who have always treated the finalists like royalty!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Prickly Problem of the Session

There's nothing so divisive among folk musicians and singers as "the session". I remember a time when a session, whether it was late at night at a festival or a Sunday arvo in a pub, was an all-in kind of affair with songs and tunes and plenty banter, harmonies and guitars. The more modern trend to separate the "sing-around" from a hard-core tune session has seemed inexplicable to some and a complete necessity to others. In my observation this has developed commensurate with the increased uptake of repertoire-specific instruments like the uilleann (Irish) pipes or the open-backed banjo. Not only is the apartheid of singing in evidence, but also a further refinement into Scottish, Irish, English and American tune sessions is also occurring. Indeed, most listed "open" sessions come complete with their modifiers which might include level of expertise, banned instruments, protocols for joining in, who gets free beer, number of bodhrans permitted, unsuitable tunes and more.

Sometimes, of course, this is all left to chance. In these instances, it is not uncommon for one or two dominant players to either kill a session or build it into a tour-de-force. I know because I have done both in my time.

My travels in Ireland, Scotland and Europe have revealed a different approach to the session in many bars. One or two key musicians (usually singer-guitarists) are paid, either with money or free beer, to "make" a session. They sit at a table, invite a few friends and play songs and tunes to seed the session. There may well be a few of these in New Zealand too, but I've not found them. There's always something faux about these sessions, but the singing is often good and occasionally there is a standout musician. It's also a place where visiting musicians can engage - which may, in turn, lead to an invitation to the secret session of the old hands elsewhere in the village. If not, it's best just to assume there isn't one.

There a list of open session in New Zealand here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kiwifolk on Facebook

There are some things just not worth fighting. In this case it's the popularity of Facebook and its usefulness in broadcasting to a target audience. There is the legacy nz-folk listserv. that has been running for nearly two decades (!) and has a population of around 400 interested kiwi-folkies. About twice a year there's a lively discussion, but mostly it's artists and clubs promoting events and others posting interesting links and resources. A recent survey of the nz-folk listers indicated that this is the way they like it and did not see a social media alternative as a suitable replacement. However, the Kiwifolk page on Facebook has found another, perhaps younger, audience that is receptive and constructive.