"This was the most useful workshop yet. I've always described my style as "spare." Notey arrangements sound cluttered to me. I now have a much better idea of how to work up a tune so that my playing will blend with the fiddler."
- Connie Moxness
Included with the Purchase of this Workshop
- Three tunes to listen to, and optionally try to learn by ear, before the workshop (Adeline, Melinda, and Stony Fork). I'll be using parts of these tunes to illustrate the ideas that I talk about in the workshop.
- access to video of the Zoom workshop as it went down live on March 21/21
- a 21-page written overview of the subject which includes 6 tabs of the featured tunes.
- Video demos of everything that is tabbed.
There’s no one “right way” to play anything. On one hand, this can be totally liberating for musicians, on the other, it can be confusing as hell. Not knowing what to put in is bad enough, but not knowing what to take out can be even more perplexing! Ultimately, this will come down to an aesthetic choice that each musician must make for themselves, but there are some ideas that are helpful to consider before arriving at that point. In this workshop, I will look at several things that I’ve noticed tend to be “sticking points” for many of my students in this regard – some are conceptual, and some are practical “hands-on” techniques. I think they will all be helpful to your progress in this regard. Here is a sample of some of the things we’ll be looking at.
The difference between turning a fiddle tune into a “banjo piece” and arranging (often on the spot) a banjo part to backup a fiddle - A lot of people seem to have boundary issues here – They are two different things. This is a simple concept, but an important one to understand. I’ll make sure you do and give some examples.
Let the banjo be the banjo and the fiddle be the fiddle – Following the fiddle too closely can be a bit of a “fool's errand”. Trying to emulate some of the rhythmic syncopations of the bow, and the left-hand ornaments can be especially troublesome. It’s not just that they are often really hard to execute on the banjo, it’s that by doubling them, you are often erasing what was making them sound so good in the first place. I’ll give some examples of this.
Thinking of phrases in terms of contours – Focusing on the beginning and ending notes of phrases, and the general path they take to get from point A to point B, as opposed to specific notes, can be a great approach to fiddle tune backup. This is an especially useful approach when the arrangement is happening “on the fly”. It also can be a safeguard for not overplaying in a jam. I’ll demonstrate some specific examples of how this works.
Know how your tools work and don’t break the flow of the right hand - Understanding clawhammer banjo’s mechanics, its strengths and weaknesses, and using that knowledge to inform your note and fingering choices. The right hand has some rules it needs to follow. So often when I’m teaching and someone plays me a tune they are having trouble with, the problem is just one or two notes in a phrase that are causing them trouble. I point them out and for lack of a better explanation will say “that’s not how clawhammer works”. They are doing some note combination that is breaking the flow of the right hand – it usually involves the thumb – and the solution is often just taking out one or two notes that nobody will ever notice anyhow. I will demonstrate some specific examples of this.
Style is based on limitations – There’s no point in playing something you can’t play. I’m not saying don't practice and try to get better (that’s another subject), but being realistic about where you’re at as a player right now, and focusing on your strengths will tell you a lot about what you should play and what you shouldn’t.
Art is Subtraction – It can sound good when someone puts every little note of a fiddle tune in a banjo arrangement. It’s a very diligent approach, but I would argue, not an especially imaginative one. I’ll try to convince you that you’re not being lazy by leaving notes out, you’re being artistic. Having said that, to do it well, you need to have an “informed starting point”. We’ll look at how that works.
Pick-up notes, grace notes, and getting to the heart of a melody – Understanding which notes in a phrase are “pick-up” notes, and which are “grace notes” is extremely helpful for developing a sense for which notes in a tune make up its essence. When you strip these away, you are left with a very skeletal interpretation of the melody, which as banjo players, is often exactly what we want. Not sure what I mean by “pick-up” notes and “grace notes”? No problem, I’ll show you!
Chords – When and how to use them in tune arrangements. Putting chords into your arrangements can really fill them out and make tunes come to life. It’s often a bit of a “give and take” game – if you put a chord in, you might have to take some melody out. I’ll give examples of how I might add chords to a tune and also, in which situations I might not bother.