Teaching Music Through the Back Door
Ridgeway Ramblings 2:
The very first time I ever heard a hammered dulcimer was at the Yankee Peddler Festival in Canal Fulton, Ohio many years ago. I purchased one the second year I attended, and am now performing there, hired to play. Another full circle.
I mentioned that our CD sales at the festival have double since last year, due partly to the addition of the banjo. I have played banjo there the last few years, but this year is different. In previous years, the draw was solely hammered dulcimer and we have always done quite well, but this year there are those wanting to hear the banjo and purchase the CDs that include the banjo..
I've become curious over the past few weeks as to what people like—what they are enjoying or wanting to hear and I have come to the conclusion it’s not a one-size-fits-all preference that pulls people in. For example, I played a ripping version of “Jerusalem Ridge” and immediately a man approached looking to buy a CD that included some "bluegrassy" banjo tunes. He DID know that what I was playing was clawhammer and not bluegrass, but he was drawn to the fast, hard driving essence of the tune. While playing “My Old Kentucky Home”, however, the entire atmosphere changed. I looked around and noticed several folks of all ages were sitting with their eyes closed and swaying gently to the tune. I am sure many knew the tune, but most likely several of the teens and kids had never heard it before and yet even they were caught up in the ambience. A couple who were passing by approached us and commented how very mellow not only our playing was, but also how mellow the audience and general area was because of the music...music emanating from of all things...a banjo!
I had mentioned that this November I will be recording my first clawhammer CD. Though I am not 100% decided yet, my idea is for it to be strictly clawhammer—something very natural and raw. No guitar, no accompaniment. Songs like “Cold Frosty Morning” played purposefully on the clawhammer banjo create pictures of true Appalachia…the hard, rugged life and the music drifting from a wooden front porch. My goal is to make a CD that is not about the banjo, but one that evokes emotion and draws pictures in the listener’s mind. My vision is to make a CD that would appeal to everyone who appreciates old-time music, whether they are banjo aficionados or not, and something that would transcend “type” and be enjoyed by dulcimer players, and folks who don't necessarily "like" banjo music. It is only a concept right now, but one for which I am giving serious forethought involving exactly how I will record it and what will be included on the CD.
So I have been thinking alot about banjo lately. The banjo was my first instrument when I started playing as a teenager. To most people, a banjo is a banjo is a banjo. There is no differentiation between bluegrass, clawhammer, two finger...it's just banjo. When I picked up the banjo my desire was to learn the fast, hard driving sound so many people are familiar with and to many people, the only sound they even associate with the banjo. Movies like "Deliverance" popularized the banjo, but at the same time, associated it with a rather negative connotation. By the way, the boy actor in "Deliverance" was NOT who played the banjo, he merely pretended to play. The song was actually played by Eric Weissburg. There are probably more jokes about banjos than any other instrument.
On the other hand, people like Steve Martin has brought the banjo into a more mainstream arena with a more positive light. People not normally exposed to banjo as a "real" instrument can see the range and versatility. Steve Martin plays both the bluegrass style and the clawhammer style, but again, to most people, they would not know or recognize the difference. A banjo is a banjo. But they still enjoy his music.
For me, it seems things have come full circle. I started with banjo those many years ago. From there I learned hammered dulcimer and mountain dulcimer, along with several other instruments. For years I have been hired as a hammered dulcimer and mountain dulcimer teacher and performer. And I hope to obviously be hired and continue as such. However, the banjo has definitely taken it's place in my music again. Every year we have sold CD's at the Yankee Peddler Festival, people always want the hammered dulcimer music and while that continued, this year, at least for the first weekend, we sold as many CDs for those purchasing for the CD's that included banjo. Our sales actually doubled! And, over the past few years I have had folk say when hearing a certain clawhammer tune, "I don't like banjo, but I like that!"
With all this consideration, I will be recording my first banjo only CD this fall. And while a banjo is a banjo is a banjo to most, I hope to show them a different side of the instrument. Something reminiscent of the past, the front porch, the music of our heritage...the sound of Appalachia. Music should take us somewhere...and I am anxious to go.
I have commissioned a custom Banjo from Ryan Navey of the Carolina Banjo Company. Through the process of building my banjo he will send me pictures of the step-by-step process so that you can see my Banjo come to life!
The first step was picking the wood. He chose this large piece of cherry which will actually yield 10 to 12 banjos. As can be seen the tree was quite large and came from Davidson, North Carolina. It has been hair hacked, dried, stacked with spaces between the boards for over 15 years. Some of it is curly but I'll clean cherry with no dirty streets. This is where my banjo will originate.
I started this blog some time ago with the goal of submitting regular updates, but I also did not want to post for the sake of posting with endless blatherings or quick blurbs with nothing really substantive to say.
I remember once being in the presence of some older musicians and they were discussing the “good ole’ days.” They talked about the times when they would meet together at their local town hall to play, because it was the only place in town that had fluorescent lighting. One by one, they would climb atop a table close to the lights and tune their instrument to the “hum” of the fluorescent tubes. I found this fascinating and inventive, and it got me thinking…
Musicians today are both fortunate and not-so-fortunate to have electronic tuners for maintaining sound integrity rather than resorting to the old-time methods of keeping our instruments in tune. We now tune our instruments with our eyes rather than using our ears. Though I admit electronic tuners are a blessing…they are also somewhat of a curse and become a crutch. Like so many convenient technologies, they save us time, but they ruin (or at least hinder) our ability to train our ears and to gain the skills needed to play by ear. I’m no exception in this regard.
Yes, I use a tuner, but I have begun to greatly limit my reliance on the tool when at all possible. Some instruments have two strings per course (a “course” consists of two or more strings tuned identically): hammered dulcimer, mandolin, and some mountain dulcimers. On my hammered dulcimer, I now tune just one string per course with an electronic tuner, then I tune the second string by ear to the “already-tuned” string. I suppose I could tune the entire instrument by ear, but my ears are just not there yet…though at least it’s a start. Surprisingly, I also find this “old-time” technique a quicker method of tuning rather than using the electronic tuner for the entire instrument. Fortunately, this approach to tuning isn’t limited to just the hammered dulcimer.
Each instrument can be tuned to itself. As many mountain dulcimer players know, if you fret the bass string of dulcimer (D-A-D) at the fourth fret (A), you can tune the middle string (A) to the bass string. Similarly, if you then fret the middle string at the third fret, you can tune the melody string to the middle string, and if your dulcimer has double set of melody strings, simply tune the second melody string to the now-tuned first melody string. Although most players already know this, they recognize it’s a lot more convenient to use an electronic tuner to speed up the process…which is typically the case when it comes to using any technology. Yet we miss so much in life because technology speeds us right by so many wonderful things we’d experience if only we took the old time-tested approaches that those who came before us followed. With the electronic tuners, in the long run it’s the same—we are cheating ourselves, and impeding our learning and hindering our abilities. God gave us ears to hear. It seems counter-productive to use our eyes to tune something meant for our ears, and in doing so, takes away from a gift we often don’t fully appreciate—one that hearing-impaired people would cherish and likely make the most of if given the opportunity. I definitely don’t want to take that gift for granted.
First of all, I want to explain a few things about me personally. I love music…and more than listening to it, I love making it. I love traditional instruments…the history…the music and emotions they evoke. Music is far more than a hobby for me…music is my life. I used to teach at the former GitterPicker String Factory in Twinsburg, Ohio. I spent my working days surrounded by music, by instruments, and mostly as a teacher. I would spend hours with my students teaching a variety of instruments all day long. And after work, when I got home, kicked off my shoes, had dinner, I spent my evenings relaxing…playing music. It’s my life and passion.
I also love teaching. I actually love teaching this music more than performing it. I’ve taught students from age three to one student at around 90 years old. If I were self-sufficient, I have often said I would teach my music free-of-charge. But there is value to what I do. Don’t get me wrong. I HAVE taught numerous students free-of-charge, and, when it is laid on my heart, will continue to do so. I have free lessons on my site…no charge…no gimmick…lessons than take me hours of preparation and my wife hours of editing and publishing. But sometimes, you just give back…and need to give back.
Taking what you love, and turning it into a business is a tricky balance. I once offered the members of a church I attended free lessons to anyone who might be interested. What I found, is that because it is free, out of five or six students participating, only one was faithful and actually continued. She even used her music on a regular basis and played regularly in church every Sunday.
When I was a teenager, I wanted banjo lessons. My parents wouldn’t pay for a banjo or for lessons because I was one of those kids who quit everything he started. So I got a job. I bought my first banjo from a Service Merchandise store, which some of my readers will remember. And I paid for every lesson myself. And no one ever told me to practice. It had value to me. I worked for it. I paid for it. Just a few years ago, when visiting with my folks, my mother apologized that they had not paid for those lessons. I laughed and told her I really never thought about it in that they made me do it myself…but I am glad they did. And since then, I have worked and paid and worked…I have invested much of my life in music, far beyond any financial measure.
I have been fortunate enough to try and make a living out of what I love. Some people teach…on the side. They have full-time jobs and teach for some extra cash. Others work part-time…and still others are retired. But myself, like many others, teach and perform full time. It’s our “paycheck”. It’s our income. It’s a lot of work…and it has value.