Accepting Your Babble

Cindy wrote:

Most fiddlers approach tunes as more fixed than you do: there are “right” notes and bowings and “wrong” notes and bowings. I sense that when they play they’re trying to replicate as precisely as possible what they [think they] learned from those who taught them the tunes. This is their way of showing respect for the music and those who made it.

You respect the old tunes and their players as much as any other musician I’ve met, but you’re much more interested in exploring and expressing the spirit of the music than you are in playing those particular notes. I’ve commented on this to you before — you often play different notes than are on the Hammons family recordings, and the way you play a tune (rhythm and even some of the notes) changes as you change and come to understand it differently.

I’ve experienced the interaction between time and understanding and the tunes myself, changing what I play to match my current “hearing” of a tune and my changing skill level.

Most of the time the skill follows the “hearing” — I can’t play things that I haven’t “heard” yet and even after I notice something new it takes me a while to figure out how to give my bow the freedom to play it.

The way you’ve taught me to approach the music reminds me of a child learning to speak. A baby just babbles, maybe getting one sound from a word, and unable to string more than that together. An older child speaks words more accurately, and can put together a complete sentence. A nine year old can recite simple poetry, and a college student can read complex poetry aloud and give it meaning that the poet may or may not have originally intended. I’ve actually watched you go through all of those stages playing Elzic’s Farewell on fiddle.

The difference between the way you think about the music and teach it and the way most of the rest of the world teaches it is that you don’t accept the idea that a tune is “finished” the way you first learned it or even the way you play it right now. The music is communication, not a set piece. For most adults, learning music is not as natural a process as learning to speak is for a baby. So you teach your students how to babble like a baby and help them progress through the stages of “language learning” with the hope that maybe someday they’ll mature enough to be able to make poetry out of those tunes and maybe even surprise you by expressing something that you never heard in the tune before.

What you pass along to your students is not so much notes as a way of learning to turn notes into communication. This is EXTREMELY powerful. Anyone can learn to play notes — you’ve seen that a zillion times with your banjo students, and I’m sure you know at least as many fiddlers as I do who play lots of notes. I think other instructors are missing the boat when they focus on note and bowing precision in their classes. There are many students taking classes at Augusta and elsewhere who can play the notes better than I can lots of the time, but most of them could benefit MUCH more from a week spent learning about the distinctive rhythm of their instructor’s playing.

What I’ve gotten from you is the ability to learn to hear a tune whole in my head, “babble” it with voice and then with fiddle until I figure it out, and eventually to find a way to let it express itself. When I play a tune I’ve learned from you it doesn’t sound just like the way you play it, but it is clearly the same tune and some of them are starting to have a unique sound that I’m beginning to appreciate. That’s better than the babbling I was doing a while back, and I’m sure those tunes will continue to change as I keep LISTENING and playing them.

The key is that you’ve taught me to appreciate my playing no matter what stage it’s at just as a child has no sense that its babbling is not “correct” and will continue to babble any chance it gets. The essence is in the striving, not in reaching a goal.


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