What I have learned from you

Hello Dwight:

I wanted to take the time and thank you for starting me off in a new direction on the banjo. Since you had so kindly responded to a piece I wrote for banjo-l on the anatomy of playing clawhammer, I have made it my goal to learn what I can of your style. I think I have managed to cobble together some bits and pieces into a fairly good understanding of your style and work, enough at least for it to have dramatically altered my banjo playing of fiddle tunes.

I had told you previously how I was first puzzled by your playing and then, upon beginning to learn a tune on your site, how I had begun to experience your playing as sometimes contrapuntal in effect and always as an ensemble of two or more voices. I think I have unlocked this puzzle since I can occasionally, if unpredictably and unreliably, get the same effects myself (it kind of jumps out of the banjo at me most unexpectedly).

With fiddle tunes I had been in a rut, caught playing the tunes pretty much the same way all the time, a boring and lifeless approach. What has made a big difference to me now are the application of three elements, noted on your web site, as well as a fourth that goes unmentioned.

The biggest change but easiest to learn comes from developing what is called in pop/rock/jazz/country a backbeat. This seems to be a rhythmic development of the twentieth century and pervades our culture to the point that it is inaudible on a conscious level.  I missed hearing this in your playing until I set about trying to produce it in my own. The standard brush stroke on the off beat found in frailing isn’t enough to make the backbeat happen. At first I had to greatly exaggerate the offbeat stress in many tunes before it started to come out as a backbeat. One other piece of info found in a student’s writing on your site was critical to getting it right. It was simple enough setting up a background rhythm with a backbeat, but your playing goes beyond that. It is essential to get the melody to take up the backbeat, as odd as it seems, since important melody notes in fiddle tunes tend to occur on the on-beat. This took major concentration at first because the whole melodic structure is altered but in time it started to feel natural.

Still, some melody notes need to be stressed.  This brings into being a very interesting phenomena. If the music is played with a backbeat as its normal stress, a situation one might call a syncopated deviation from the norm, then a note that is played on the beat would be in syncopation to the backbeat. That is, a syncopated syncopation.  Now, I think there is a subtle difference in the way we perceive this note. Though technically it is the same note whether it’s played with or without a background backbeat, its impact varies according to its rhythmic context.  Played on-beat in a march rhythm, the note falls exactly where you expect it to in the context of rhythmic structure and in the context of melodic structure. But when played against the backbeat the note has two identities, it is counter to the backbeat, hence unexpected, yet it falls where it should in the melodic context. This makes a note that is stressed on-beat in a backbeat environment ambiguous. Syncopated but not really syncopated. I think it was this ambiguity that I sensed when I first heard your music that confused me. It also helps to create the illusion of a polyphonic environment (you create this effect in at least one other way I am aware of). Basically, two voices can be had for the price of one, one voice on-beat and the other off-beat. One thing this pseudo or double syncopation does for certain is make the music more interesting by adding uncertainty and surprise through its ambiguity. It creates a form of suspense that drives the music forward the same way suspense drives the plot of a book or movie forward. And this cannot be achieved without a strong backbeat.

Another element in your music that I am learning is more frequent use of the drone string. One thing is an attitude shift from thinking of it as merely a drone and sometimes melody note to employing it for rhythmic effect. Partly as a driver, adding energy to forward movement, but also as punctuation. (It’s funny how one note can have such a variety of purposes). The punctuation occurs not from the note played, but from the note omitted and adds interest to what would become an uninteresting stream of drone notes. The implication in having so many drone notes is it forces one to simplify the melody of a complicated old standard which in turn forces one to think more deeply about its music:  What few notes best expresses the melody? What can be omitted? And what can be altered, brought out or hidden? Also, shifting between a few melody notes and a few drone notes, even one or two, can provide for a quick improvisation, building interest instead of boredom as one cycles through the verses.

The third element, which is another rhythmic one, I find to be the hardest of the three to accomplish. I don’t even know what to call it, but it resembles (might even be the same thing, I can’t tell) what in jazz and blues is called swing. Nominally, it is playing a 2/4 or 4/4 time with a 6/8 feel. Note pairs become empty triplets which sounds as a delay on the second note (or pushes the second note into the first of the next pair as a kind of lead-in note). One of the main difficulties in executing ‘swing’ is speed. Somehow, playing too fast dissolves the triplet (one-___-three) feel of the pushed time into a uniform one-two. I think this is evident in jazz and blues as well, so the caveat to play slowly is vital if a pushed rhythm or swing is to be produced.

A fourth element, undiscussed on your web site is phrasing. Actually, I think phrasing is the result of the interaction between melody and rhythm so it could be seen as how these three elements impact on the melody to give it its particular shape and sound, the result of decisions one makes when one plays. Except for a few guidelines and riffs, I don’t think phrasing can be taught. It comes from physical and musical expression, a process rather than a collection of objects. One has to play and listen to learn it. Listening is critical to learning another’s phrasing. I find it is the most difficult element of someone’s music to learn, and the most personal. It defines one’s style. Only repeated listening will teach one the myriad decisions another performer has made to create a style. Repeated listening followed by repeated playing.

I won’t be getting the intricacies of your phrasing any time soon Dwight, you’re just too far ahead of me on this musical road. However, you have provided me with the tools to not only play a few of the tunes that you recorded but to recreate the tunes I already know from mostly static exercises into living explorations of music at once traditional and personal. Thanks to you, I now have many more choices when I pick up my banjo. I think I better understand now why you put so much emphasis on rhythm when you teach. For one thing, it really frees the melody and the banjo player who is a slave to that rigid melody. Rhythm, like the word ‘relax’ in Tai Chi, can take many years to understand. Just when you think you’ve got it, another understanding hits you in the head (or wherever,…….. the banjo perhaps?)

ric ferris


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