Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Lesson on Lessons

As most of you know, I led a banjo lab at the St. Louis Tionol in mid-April (2014) recently whose purpose was to help intermediate players improve their playing and learn to set goals for improvement.  While this may be a cliche', the teacher learned a lot too.

My main teaching points were three: you don't need to play triplets, you don't have to play fast, and you have to know the tunes.  Put another way they could be characterized as: Simplicity, Tone, and Knowledge.


Irish music (or any music, for that matter) is not a sum of its diddleys.  I believe that for a beginner ornamentation is a distraction and for the intermediate player an incredible distraction from the music.  The problem, of course, is that the triplets/trebles are what attracted many players to the music in the first place and especially with banjo players who tend to be oriented to the spectacular to begin with. (Or at least it seems that way, we have a loud dominating instrument that can overwhelm a session that doesn't have a piper and is a hell of a lot easier to play than the pipes or accordion.)

But if you listen to the great players you will quickly realize that they are musicians first and that their technique is only a way to express style and not the music itself.   Here is a lesson using the tune "Mountain Road" that Gerry O'Connor gave at the 2012 Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School:

We all know Gerry as the triplet king, but what a lot of banjo players don't know is that he is also a very good traditional fiddle player (not to be confused with Gerry "Fiddle" O'Connor who does not play the banjo.)  If you look past his technical abilities you will find a sensitive and creative musician who is capable of great performances.  He is a true master of the banjo and his style is impeccable.

What he shows in this video is that he can play a simpler style and make it sound good.  The message here is that the tune is the most important thing and learning to play the tune is what any musician has to do  before you can perform. 

One of the things I emphasized in the lab was that every player will develop a style eventually.  There are impediments, however, and we covered a lot of them.  Not having a good base of technique was one of them and once you play within your technical ability, you can produce real music even if you don't know a lot of tricks or your technique is just starting to produce a cogent product.

But keeping it simple is more than that.  One of the true signs of a style being produced is realizing that you are not using the every technical trick that you own but are selecting those aspects of your style that please your inner critic.  You start producing what the voices in your head tell you about the music.  But this takes practice and beginning with the simple tune structure until it becomes part of you.

As you advance technically, you will find that there are other directions you can go in.  The journey to a personal style starts with how you make the decisions about playing music.  If you start with all the ornamentations then you miss the music.  If you start with the music, then you can build on that simplicity until you have a sophisticated style, trebles and triplets included.


I've heard this time and again from the very best players: you can't play music well if you don't have good tone.  You'd think that this is obvious, but as a beginner or intermediate player I was fascinated by the incredible abilities of the very best and it never occurred to me that I had to work my way to the top by applying he basics, especially when producing tone.

Tone is a product of learning your instrument, consistent technique, and learning what the limits and peculiarities of your instrument are.  I get told that the very best break the rules all the time when it comes to technique and still produce good tone.  What those who tell me forget to acknowledge is that they are talking about the very best.  The reason that the "rules" are broken is because these individuals apply a sum total of experience, talent, and hard work to their music and they are constantly on the edge of the music looking for new ways to perform.   They know what has to be  done to produce goodness (including great tone) and are "breaking the rules" because their vision calls for it and they expect great results. 

On the other hand, if you can't produce a good consistent tone from your instrument, you are not ready.   Roland White once told me that he can't listen to the Kentucky Colonels album (for those of you not familiar, the Kentucky Colonels were a breakthrough bluegrass band  many years ago) because while he had wonderful ideas, his technique was not solid.  It was only after Roland worked for Bill Monroe that he learned how to use his right hand and to produce good tone.  Andy Statman, Gerry O'Connor, John Carty, Angelina Carberry, and a host of other great players/teachers all say the same thing.  Tone First.

The problem is that "tone is boring"  but it is the microcosm of great style.  As you improve you become more consistent, more idiosyncratic (i.e. you develop style) and you are more efficient.  All of this can be developed as you try to produce great tone.  So far no diddlys, but they come along with speed as you  lay down a base of good technical skills.

Here is an example of my trying to develop a style using "Lark In The Morning" which I tend to play slowly in order to let the tune ring out according to what I hear when I sing it in my head.  Your mileage may differ:


One of the hallmarks of any expert is a thorough knowledge of the subject.  In the case of Irish tenor banjo it not only includes a nearly encyclopedic survey of tunes but also an intimate knowledge of the instrument plus the techniques needed to play the banjo.  Since this journey takes years of inquiry, practice, and exposure to the music, it is not expected that most intermediate and beginning banjo players have that extent of knowledge.  What is expected, however, is the desire to learn as much as possible about the music and the banjo itself.

Interestingly, most Irish professionals know very little about the mechanics of the banjo whereas most American players tinker constantly with their banjos.  As a rule, if you have someone who can setup your banjo for you, you don't have to have that primal knowledge about setup,but it does help if you are comfortable with minor tuneups.

More important is knowing the tunes and how to work with the music.  This is another aspect of the learning that can't be avoided although I am not sure why anyone would not want to learn as much as possible about how the music sounds and how it relates to the banjo.  Part of this is true because if you really want to play Irish music on the banjo you have to eventually decide how you are going to do it.  Most of the time this is not a conscious decision, rather it is an amalgamation of what you hear and what you can do, in other words it's your style.

Style and knowledge go hand in hand since the more you learn about the music and how you relate to it, the more likely it is that you will have a comfortable arrangement with the music.  Listen to all the great Irish musicians and you will be able to tell who they are in a few notes by their style.  This is not an accident, the great ones have a personal relationship with the music and they each have a unique take on  how to express the music.

The bottom line is that in order to develop as an Irish musician you need technique, a love of the music, and a strong knowledge that lets you develop over the years of playing.   That meme of 10,000 hours is true if you go about it correctly and learn to play in a layered logical manner that sets the stage for more sophisticated methods and also allows you to play in a style that suits you - in fact it is you.

Mike Keyes

May the Fourth (be with you), 2014