In the spring of 1984 I was a student at Virginia Tech. I discovered Mac Traynham was not only one of my classmates but was an award winning banjo player. I had always wanted to learn to play the banjo so I asked Mac if he would be my teacher. He said he would if I agreed to attend the "Mount Airy Fiddler's Convention" first. I agreed to attend but had no idea what to expect. I arrived carrying my Sony hand-held tape recorder and wandered around listening to and recording some of the many jam sessions. Years later I realized I recorded a jam session with old time music greats Tommy Jarrell and Ralph Blizard. Richie Stearns was playing banjo. Listen to the recording:
While attending college at Virginia Tech I discovered old time music. I quickly realized I absolutely HAD to learn how to play clawhammer banjo which is the style of banjo played in old time music. I was lucky to find Mac Traynham (also a student at VT at the time) who would become my banjo teacher.
I was not an easy student to work with but Mac was patient and always positive and encouraging. The banjo was my first instrument and I knew almost nothing about music. It took me forever to learn how to tune my banjo (I had to train my ear). Daily practice for six months is what it took for me to learn my first tune.
I was challenged learning how to play the banjo all by myself. After learning my first tune ("June Apple") I was excited to play it with other musicians. This is when I went to a deeper level of learning about my instrument and the music.
When I first started playing with other people I regularly rushed the tempo due to my excitement. It seemed like an impossible task to play in time with a metronome. I so focused on me that I had trouble paying attention to others. Playing in time with others required a new level of sensitivity. I had to listen to my own playing while listening to how everyone else was playing. I began to realize that I needed the same skill in everyday life. I was too self-centered and always thinking about what I was going to say when someone else was done talking. Playing music helped me be patient and listen.
Old Time Music is dance music. A long time ago (before iPods even) fiddle's and banjos provided the sound track to life in the Southern Appalachians Mountains. Old Time Music is the predecessor to bluegrass music. Bluegrass musicians will "take a break" during a song much like jazz musicians do - - featuring a particular musician. Old Time Music is different. Old Time musicians don't take "breaks". The goal is to create a driving, danceable sound. The experience, for many musicians, is like a meditation. The meditative nature of the music requires me to address (experientially) my feeling "separate" but realizing the greater truth that I am part of the "whole". This experience has helped me become a better team player in other areas of my life.
One of the things I love most about playing this music is the opportunity to meet wonderful people and make music with them. I've made music with people from all walks of life. Our love of the music is what brings us together.
On July 11, 2011 I had the opportunity to play music with my friends John Engle (fiddle) and Amy Hobbs (guitar) at a camp that serves autistic kids and adults. Luckily, one of the camp staff took some video while we were playing. The tune is called "Soldiers Joy" and is sometimes called "Love Somebody" (a tune in the key of D).
One of my favorite banjo players is Bela Fleck. I've had the opportunity to see Bela live a couple of times back in the day when he played with New Grass Revival (pure awesomeness). I just watched this documentary called Throw Down Your Heart which follows Bela as he travels through Africa playing with various musicians. This video clip is one of my favorite moments in the documentary.
My daughter's first grade class is studying "sound" and the teacher invited all parents who play an instrument to come in and share. I invited my friend John Herrmann in to join me for a couple of tunes and to talk about our instruments and the music. The teacher captured the tunes only on a Flip video camera.
Steve Martin is one of my favorite comedians. I loved his book "Born Standing Up" which supports the theory Malcolm Gladwell shares in his book "Outliers" - - to become REALLY good at something (comedy in Steve's case) you must get 10,000 hours of experience.
Here's a video of Steve playing banjo on the David Letterman show: