Rifle shooting and old time music
A student friend sent this article to me at my request a few years back. I want to put his name to it but am drawing a total complete blank. If he sees this and contacts me, I will forward his name immediately. He is a doctor from NYC who shoots in Olympic matches and practices his technique every day. This is in his own words after years of experience.
His point: there is a “way” which has been worked out and permits the best results leading up to the final instant when the bullet punches a hole in the paper. That is the “bottom line”. It is great to have the best equipment money can buy, but, at the end of the day, really good equipment is of little value unless the skill is developed in the area of having developed, through disciplined practice, a quiet, gentle position which directs a bullet explosively downward…sans a bunch of muscles clenching the rifle with a “gorilla grip”. A friend who was a helicopter pilot had the problem of grasping the stick when just a light touch, so i am told, is all that was/is needed. All this applies whether playing banjo, driving nails w/ a hammer, hitting a golf ball 300+ yards, preparing meals, typing on keyboard, or electric welding. Btw, I have been playing on a banjo for about 45 years. Have just figured out that I have played dull banjo music since autumn 1973. It had lost the ‘sparkle’, but my music has finally come back this year after 39 years ‘off the wagon’. The spirit of the Music, generally speaking, had slipped away and I didnt know it?
Separately, I began trying to play a fiddle in summer 1970 and have never been able to get my bow arm to move properly. So what has been wrong? I have wanted “it” too much which ended up in another “gorilla grip” situation. Many of these years, I knew that was the problem, but I just could not release the clenched muscles and relax. Couldn’t put out that raging fire to play fiddle blazing in my chest. Just in the past few months there as been a few occasions when the rhythm finally went over the top. A different rabbit path: I have always tried to keep the number of tunes on the fiddle to less than 20 tunes over these 42 years. As Tommy Jarrell sadly said about some folks who had just visited him, “They know a thousand fiddle tunes and cant play one of them”. His point was – knowing the melody counts as nothing if the quiet, gentle, controlled, explosive, violent, aggressive vector rhythm is not there FIRST.
If you need an example of what Tommy was talking about, go to YouTube and search for “TOMMY JARRELL ”. You’ll find something like this:
As I have pointed out before, Tommy is playing with some local men on a porch w/ many folks gathering around. He is 82 yr at that point and two years away from death, but still going strong. If you pay attention to those men playing with him, they have the same dialect as Tommy. I have discovered that our music runs along the same line as our dialect. That is not to mean that “one must have the same dialect as where the music comes from; it just means that there is a lot of discipline involved in internalizing the rhythm of the region. To think that melody is more important than anything else is a major trap to be avoided at all cost!!”. No proper rhythm, No Music; music here is ‘Music which has a life of it’s own’.
One more thing what I noticed was going on. Sitting there quietly was Ray Chatfield driving the music with his unassuming, quiet but extremely aggressive rhythm. He was giving the exact rhythm that does not kill the fiddler: never behind the beat, never even on the beat, but anticipating every single beat and being there microseconds in front with what the fiddler needs to float on top so as to climb that mountain. I have heard far too many banjo/guitar players who did not shape and explode their rhythm so as to support the fiddler properly. Ray was right there building steps up that mountain with his banjo. The fiddler can then put his/her own rhythmic dynamics and flourishes ON EACH AND EVERY NOTE shaping it to continue to drive the rhythm higher [and deeper] as s/he climbs upward in each and every tune. If I remember correctly, Ray was doing exactly the same kind of playing while backing up Greg Hoovan [still a teenager, I think] using that same explosive and exciting rhythm, but quietly w/o fanfare. Also, all music of the ‘folk’ in this world has it’s own set of cultural messages. IE: i have been listening closely to the old men from the Mississippi Delta since my stroke in October 2010 on youtube. They also have this explosive rhythm that I am talking about that Ray has. This is credit where credit is due. Btw, I have never met Ray.
My great problem on the fiddle has been the same as those folks Tommy was referring to. I have not been able to furnish the needed rhythm because I have kept my bow arm locked up. The exact same thing happens to folks who play this African down-stroke style of banjo. What I have learned is that one must learn to relax every voluntary muscle in the body. It is best to keep every muscle out of the mix…because muscles are too slow and can never ever provide the syncopation this music, to me, demands. The banjo is FIRST a percussion instrument and must be percussed…Never ever fiddle a banjo; fiddle a fiddle. What a silly thing to try to fiddle a banjo. Fiddles are not drums w/ strings. On the flip side, I have not permitted the relaxed muscles I use on the banjo to carry over to properly play this local old music from the Hammons et al on the fiddle.[Duh?].
Sherman Hammons, on his death bed, was asked, “Do you think Dewight will ever learn to play the fiddle?”. Sherman was quiet for a few minutes and then quietly said, “Well, sir, boys, I dont think he ever will”. [that was 1988; Sherman really like my banjo playing. But here he was just being coon dog honest.]
While reading through these rifle shooting basics, please, try to ‘read between the lines and think about or perceive how these principles can be and are applied to the playing a banjo or at least what I have tried to teach over these years. Some times I have not succeeded, and sometimes i have been able to get it across. Again, it is about finding a position whereby the skeleton is providing what is needed for that syncopated rhythm. Any use upper body muscle strength is a killer of rhythm. The only time I was ever at Tommy Jarrell’s home was in early 1972. The one thing he said that has stuck with me over the years “Your [right] hand has to be as loose as a wet dishrag”. I have only just recently been able to apply that on the fiddle bow, but have been using that for most of the time since the early 1970s.
My friend, Bob Sattler, has been helping with beginning rhythm in recent years. He took some of the approach I developed then took it far on past what I ever did. As I said, Bob has used his talents and gifts to explain the basics of the right/rhythm hand. And he has patience. After 41 years and the things which have happened, I am now better at interpreting what I sense is the essence in this old WVa music by presenting it through actual playing and teaching in a group session. As for teaching actual tunes, it has gotten hard to pull what I know about teaching the music up out of my spirit and plug it into my mind. There is a world of difference in playing: only music can come from the head; Music itself must come from the heart/spirit. Dots on a page cannot show the needed rhythm which makes up 96%-97% of the whole for this music. Melody = about 3%-4% of the whole.
Again, melody notes can come from dots on a page but they count for 3%-4% only. On the other hand[pun intended], what the rhythm/right hand provides is 85% of the whole BUT it must learn to dance to reach that 85%. The noting/left hand must learn to ‘counter-dance’ with the rhythm hand on the fingerboard. This counter-dance will ultimately = 12%-13% of the whole. Listen to the old musicians and you will find that they ONLY USE MELODY NOTES TO PROVIDE A VEHICLE FOR CULTURAL MESSAGES. Music of the folk all over the world is about “cultural messages”. Consider what “commercial music” is about. Probably about 99% of it will fit into that word “commercial”??
What all this writing was about, was to try to put what a man who shoots Olympic style of shooting .22 calibre [the smallest] rifles to punch holes in paper exactly where he wants them to go into possibly a different slant of how to engage this traditional music of the rural Appalachian region. Delta Blues is a music I love, but it would take a world of discipline before I could catch onto the essence needed to start to begin to learn. As Wilson Douglas, a fiddler from Clay County said to me back in the early ’70s, “It takes about 10 years just to start to begin to learn this old fiddle.” He was referring to the traditional music of his region as well as the actual instrument.
And in regard to the shooting technique, I think part of this approach might have come from what the Russian shooters also developed.