Saturday, April 5, 2014

Learning Banjo Tunes

One of the things my first clawhammer banjo teachers drove me to understand is that one cannot figure out a tune by staring at the hands of the banjo player who is banging it out.  Similarly, one can’t necessarily capture that tune by scrutinizing tab or notation.  There’s just so far one can get in music using the brain. 

Dwight Diller still talks to me --  and countless other students -- about hearing the music with one’s heart.  My first banjo teacher, Bates Littlehales, used to admonish me to listen to what he was doing, rather than watching what he was doing.  Old timers talk of “catching” a tune, not necessarily learning it or studying it, as though it is something ephemeral and hard to grasp, which for me is certainly true. 

Those early influences, and decades of wrestling with the banjo, convinced me that it is best for me (again, “best for me”) to try and figure out a new tune from a live player beating on the banjo, or more challengingly to try and figure out what the banjo should be doing by listening to a fiddler attacking the tune.

What that can mean nowadays is turning on a CD or DVD, or searching Youtube for a tune, and then sitting through countless loops of that tune until it is burned into the brain.

I will frequently tape multiple plays of a tune and then loop that recording endlessly while I’m walking the hounds in the morning.  My two hounds do about 5 or 6 miles in the A.M., so I get to hear an awful lot of whatever tune it is I’m trying to learn.

I need to know a tune “by heart,” and I need my brain and my fingers to work together, and communicate, in a way that let’s them put into music what I hear in my heart and remember in my brain. 

I’m not above trying to figure my way out of a problem area by looking at tab, or trying to dope out the musical notation.  I much prefer listening and then trying to find the best course of action on the fingerboard for me.  I don’t use too much technology, mainly because I don’t own “Slow Down programs” or tabbing technologies.  I try to get quickly from hearing the tune to playing the tune, without having t “see” the tune in writing, in any form. 

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.   

I start worrying when I don’t hear the music I’m playing but merely envision the tab and the fingering that derives from those instructions. 

I try to “memorize” the tune, usually in discreet parts, not merely “Part A” and “Part B” but sub-parts, and not necessarily measure by measure or lick by lick, but usually according to the pieces of the music that are most accessible to me.

And I try to anticipate which way the tune has to go.  Even in truly broken tune lines, there are predictable trajectories.  The music must resolve.  What does up must come down.  I try to internalize some of the routes these predictable paths follow, even if they don’t follow them that closely, and in this way remembering things becomes easier.  Or at least it seems easier. 

At the same time, I try to keep myself open to new musical possibilities, to revel in the surprise ending, so that this music stuff doesn’t get reduced to some kind of formulaic expression that follows rules.  That’s at least as important as being able to figure out the trajectory of a tune from the rules of musical gravity.

In the February 2014 Banjo Newsletter interview conducted by Jake Schrepps, Bela Fleck said, on page ten:

I listened to a bunch of string quartet music, and I can remember jogging on a trail in Telluride listening to some Shostakovich, which I did not know very well. What I found was that whenever I was getting ready to write something, I should listen to something great that I didn’t know very well. And not so much to get the influence of the music, but actually to open my mind up creatively. There were times when I was writing the concerto when I would go jogging on the beach and listen to stuff that I knew was great, but I didn’t have familiarity with, like Béla Bartók’s music, or some of Brahm’s material. It is all such fantastic stuff. Since I didn’t know it, it would open my mind up, and I would often get inspired and have to stop to leave myself voice messages with ideas. Usually they had nothing to do with the music I just heard, but had to do with being opened up. I always tell people that if they want to write music, they need to write when they are inspired. And a great time to write is just after listening to something by someone you know you love, but you haven’t heard it yet. For a long time I really loved Sting, and when he had a new album out I would wait to listen to it when I knew I was going to have some time to write afterwards. Because I knew it would open up my mind to some new musical ideas. I would never copy it; but it would just inspire new ideas in me. It’s like a window being open, but it closes so quickly, so if you go hear something and you are knocked out by it, you’ve got juice for maybe a few hours, a day at the most, then you go back to your normal closed up space. The flower opens up for a little while, and there is all this juice that comes out of it, but it’s going to close back up if you don’t perpetually listen to new and special things. It’s not so much that you have to love them all, they just have to be things that you’re not so familiar with so that you’re going to your same place all the time.

I thought this was a telling, apt and succinct encapsulation of musical creativity. 

To me, it will pay to remember the way to keep my mind open to musical possibilities while working hard to learn melodies that I can add to my inventory of playable tunes.  Just learning a new tune isn’t enough.  Learning the tune and seeing the possibilities implied by the trajectory of that music might be more important.

Play hard,


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