A former banjo student of mine recently turned to the blood sport of fiddling, and for a newcomer he is pretty good. He gets the core of the tune down. Sure, he might be hunting and pecking at the start but he’s got good bowing as far as I can tell, and he’s a spirited, inquisitive student.
I think half the challenge now is stepping away from the sheet music. We made a “play date” last week, and sat and sifted through his music, trying to figure out how to make the two instruments, his fiddle and my banjo, work together. I think we were able to find some common ground and identify tunes on which to focus. Picking a select few tunes might make it easier for him to fix on the task of “memorizing,” and might help him step away from his sheet music.
From my perspective, there’s nothing worse than being tied to a sheet of music, or a sheet of tab. I have nothing against tab. I have nothing against musical notation. Every once in a while, I find myself going back to Pete Seeger’s book, Henscratches and Flyspecks: How to Read Melodies from Songbooks in Twelve Confusing Lessons With the Help of Some Old-Fashioned Songs, to refresh my memory and to re-equip me for making sense of a particular tune.
I look at musical notation and banjo tab the way I look at roadmaps. It would not make much sense to paste a highway atlas to one’s windscreen while attempting to drive to a destination of choice, but it would be rational to consult a roadmap, to look to a map as a tool that can help shape a course of action and chart a path towards one’s goal. To me, notation and tab are tools.
In old time music, these tools ought not to stand in the way of playing. Though they can help one learn a tune, once a player is up and running these tools can be constraining, and they can make playing music seem more like work than play. They can get in the way of musicians sitting, knee to knee, watching and listening to one another, playing off the cues that come from the close proximity of musicians sitting together in jams.
While I don’t want to pretend to know how one must learn to play the fiddle, I also don’t want to be stuck looking at my buddy scrunched over his music book, bending forward and squinting to see his way through a tune displayed on his music stand, instead of focusing on the moment, on the here and now as we try to figure out how to make the tune work between our two instruments.
My problem area is figuring out what fiddle tuning goes with which banjo tuning. So far, I’m navigating this terrain by relying on trial and error. In my understanding -- and I’m prepared to stand corrected on anything and everything I say about the fiddle and fiddling -- "cross tuning" simply means a non-standard GDAE tuning on the fiddle. My problem is that I’m never sure when to reach for the banjo I keep in standard G tuning or the one I keep cranked up to A. I can get from G to sawmill to Double C quickly on each of them, but I find it pretty hard to hear which banjo, and which tuning, works best with my fiddling friend’s instrument which he tends to keep in GDAE in this learning start-up phase.
It has been many years since I worked closely, on a weekly basis with a fiddler. Probably since the mid or late 1990s. Then she fell in love and moved to California, and friends and family discouraged me from kidnapping her to get back my fiddler.
My new fiddling friend and I are starting with some of the predictable tunes: Cripple Creek and Buffalo Gals and Old Joe Clark. Focusing on those tunes for a month or two or whatever it takes, that’s the recipe, at least in my view.
I’d love to hear some advice and guidance regarding the challenge of putting the banjo and fiddle together.