DIALOGUING WITH THE PULSE: Part One

Nov 16, 2012 by

What I have tried to do in recent years is give my students some basic tools they can use to develop their own style of playing. It is so very important that the Music they play be matched to their own internal pulse. This approach is what most of the old mountain musicians (as well as the old blues musicians, and other musicians from around the world) chose, who were playing their home-made music, usually ‘’sans’’ the currency which denominates power.  The inner rhythms of each person were amplified and then applied to each individual song or tune.  This is why my hope is for each student ’seeking this Music,’ to go to the place which is operating deep inside all humans.  This place is often referred to as the heart/spirit. This is the arena where ‘’Music’’ comes from; ’music’ being all that can come from the mind/soul.  I also advise my students to keep this search within ONE tradition and ONE instrument while combining them with the student’s own pulse.

The following letter is long, and will be sent out in installments.  In it, I have tried to sum up what I have learned from teaching and playing the Music of my culture and heritage. A short bit of my personal history: I have lived most of my life in, around, up and over and down, the crooked creeks and roads, the valleys, hills and mountains of east central West Virginia almost all of my 66 years [Aug ’46 – Nov ‘12]. My mother’s side of the family goes back to the 18th century when they first settled in these mountains of Pocahontas County. I was raised by six different kinfolks’ families here in this county.  Pocahontas County has a third of million acres of National Forest, eight State Parks and Forests, plus thousands of acres of privately owned forests and fields.  As my uncle said: ‘’most of that land you couldn’t hardly raise a fuss on.’’

To cut to the chase….

The rhythm that I have described in my classes is what came to be called by my class of 1989, the ‘Boomalaka’ rhythm, which contains the following dynamics: BOOM-ah-LAK-ah. Remember “THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD” with it’s “I Think I Can…I Think I Can:…” This is the rhythm furnished by the right hand. The task of the right hand is to ‘dance’ with this rhythm, and this will provide approximately 85% of the whole.

This rhythm can be described as elliptical or egg-shaped, as it is not round or circular. This approach is called syncopation.  [“A shift of the usual rhythmic accent away from a strong beat onto a weak beat. From Latin to ‘shorten’; from Ancient Greek to ‘cut’ etc, etc, etc…].  Too often the music is played with completely even beats, giving a sound with no dynamics: a ‘’polka dot’’ sound. This polka dot pattern is made up of dots of equal size and shape strung together in an even and regular way. Fast or slow circular playing can be technically demanding, but will still remain just a series of notes, with no rhythmic dynamics. Circular rhythm is rather like a machine gun delivering a round of bullets. This circular style of playing leaves the music dull and ultimately unsatisfactory for listening or dancing.

The right hand must learn to develop a way of keeping a strong syncopated external rhythm, while allowing the internal rhythm room to express itself. The external syncopated beat must be considered ‘elastic’ if it is to be able to be expanded and contracted internally. Important to remember: ‘Music’ not ‘music’ has an external and internal life of its own.

The technique for training the right [or rhythm] hand to develop this light, explosive drive came to me many years ago. The left [or noting] hand is gently laid over the strings 8”-16” up the neck. These dampened strings will make no ringing sound; all that can be heard is the thump from the right hand hitting the strings. However, what the student must do is gradually learn to produce a steady, light, but explosive, syncopated driving rhythm.

Explosive here does not mean loud or heavy; it is a dance on the strings so that the fingernail can strike the string with a extremely quick snap. The dance must be close to the strings.

Up to this point, the talk has been about the right hand and that elusive syncopation followed by the internal rhythm working within the external rhythm. The ongoing process needed to bring all the above under one roof is a complicated one. What I would like to point to is the hardest aspect of grasping this rhythm. It is the dance of the body.  The closer the student can get to denying the use of voluntary muscles to play the music, the more opportunity the body will have to give room to the internal pulse.  In this way, the syncopation will be ‘light on its feet’.  Yes, I have heard it for years “It is impossible to play the banjo/fiddle without using muscles!”  Remember the previous newsletter stated that “Olympic-style shooting has to have the support for the rifle resting on the skeletal structure and not the muscles.”  When I am able to deny my muscles an opportunity to grab hold of the energy generated in my torso, the dance of my whole body can bring out the syncopated rhythms in my ‘heart.’  The word ‘pulse’ can be substituted here.

At this point, the student can begin to grasp what is required to generate the ‘dance’ which will ultimately encompass at least 85% of the Music. This right hand rhythm has at its centre and most important part, the use of the thumb as it addresses the fifth [5th] string. Although this manipulation of this string might be slightly different for each individual, it absolutely must be exactly in place or there can be no ‘Music.’

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