Monday, January 7, 2013

The Path from There to Here

It was a fleeting thought last night:
Twenty years ago, I would most certainly have assured you that I would not be sitting here tonight deciding whether it would be easier to transpose "New River Train" from the key of D to G or to tune my banjo to an Open D.
Those who knew me then would know it's not just because I don't own a capo yet...

Perhaps it's always been a trivial matter for the anyone who grew up with a guitar or the like, but for me it's all still new. I found a simple melody and I wanted to hear the banjo sing it in the clawhammer style, but the banjo was tuned to Open G and the song is presents in the Key of D. Finding the melody's notes would not be a problem, but hitting the D, G, and A chords between those notes might be, what with my lack of experience and all... But you just know that that banjo can sing that song and you also know that you can make it happen. Without taking the time to master playing D songs in Open G tuning, I could only see two choices: Change the instrument's tuning to D or shift the song into the Key of G.

It only looked like a dilemma to me, of course: changing tuning and transposing keys are both trivial matters for the experienced--happening without a second thought. For a novice, there are obstacles to either solution--neither or which, by the way, will guarantee that I'd be able to make an intelligible presentation of the tune in the required style anyway! Still, it seemed to be a necessary intermediate step on the way to a solution, at least from where I was standing.

But 20 years ago, I did not foresee this; looking back, it would be hard to even see its beginnings. What I do have, though, is some vague sense that suffering through this awkward fumbling is worth the effort and a sense that it's a necessary step on the way to something I can't quite describe.

I can tell you, though, that it just feels right if not unavoidable.

Sounds as clear as a bell that you're about to strike... once you find a mallet, that is!

Now, why is it that when there's a keyboard on my lap and a mandolin resting on its stand beside me that this banjo story would come to mind at all?

As usual, feel free to read once through for the novice musician's path and maybe another time through in case there's an application to your own situation. You can even put off finding the koan within it indefinitely, or at least until the time is right--it's up to you!


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Great Remember... Almost

Nearly twenty years ago, I approached my piano teacher with sheet music for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata under my arm. She sent me home with "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie."

I inhale, I raise my wrists, and with enough heartfelt melancholy to bring a tear to the listener's eye, I deliver the news in 22 notes with maybe two chords thrown in for fanciness here and there: The old grey goose is dead. And while I might have earned a standing ovation at the recital had there been a recital and I been an additional 20 years younger at that recital, It's doubtful that even my mother would have imagined that she had just heard me play the Moonlight Sonata.

Skip forward those 20 years to learning fiddle tunes on the mandolin. With a bluegrass fiddler for an instructor, the basic targets seem to be precision and speed (all within the proper rhythm, of course). When you're responsible for the melody on the mandolin, it can be painfully clear when you've missed that note--maybe not "missed note on a fiddle" painful, but still...

At this stage in the game, your audience knows what the tune is supposed to sound like, and the final applause-to-contorted-false-smile ratio is largely based upon how little you screw it up.

Interestingly enough, something completely different seems to happen when you've got a banjo on your lap--and it's quite an amazing thing: People tend to be happy to find the tune they expect to hear within whatever it is that you're playing! Now that's not to say that they're going to strain their imaginations unduly, but if you've got the rhythm right, you're within the expected chords, and you occasionally hit a good melody note, you just might find a few people tapping their feet and smiling, maybe even singing along.

It's crazy!

But it's not unexpected. If anything, it's a case of "managed expectations." While there are different schools of thought about how this funky thing should be played--with disagreements voiced with all kinds of religious fervor--my very basic beginner's understanding says that you will at a minimum be providing rhythm and chords that accompany your song in some form. When you're soloing, the more of the actual melody that you can weave in there the better.

Some people call that "approximating the melody," balancing the banjo-ness with the song itself. For instance, you might hear someone saying, "In clawhammer style, we play the characteristic 'bum di-ty bum di-ty bum dity'" and it's up to you to arrange the tune to to fit into that form." In a different parlance, we're looking at a projection of a song against various styles. In each case, what's comes out is an approximation of the original given the style and the interpretation--and hopefully it's still recognizable! Why approximate? Well, there don't seem to be a lot of note-for-note melodies that sound all that pretty on a banjo--if for no other reason than that you can recognize that you're hearing a banjo, but that je ne sais quoi banjo-ness is missing. There's just something offensive about a banjo not being played like a banjo, and that something can be more offensive than the banjo itself--enough so that you'll not even notice that there was a tune in there at all!

Now admittedly I'm using the "that was fun / sounds good!" method of banjo education so far--tempered with some reference materials and knowledge from my mandolin classes, of course--so I hardly have an opinion about The Right Way to do anything. Still, I'll tell you that there's something to it...

Know what I'm sayin'? Can you dig it?

It's in there...

Anyway, for fun:

  • Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, not performed by me (link).
  • A song written for the banjo in clawhammer style, played by a fellow better know for something completely different in other circles: The Great Remember.
  • You can find some renditions of Go Tell Aunt Rhodie on your own.
  • Remember, this is a Sword Mountain. If you read the post through Applied Zen lenses, what do you see?
Enjoy... and let me know when you find the koan!