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!

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