Banjo Newsletter

May 2007: Get Out There and Do It!
By Casey Henry

This article is, without a doubt, the first time the sport of curling has been mentioned within these pages. "What is curling?" you ask. I'm about to tell you. "What has curling got to do with banjo playing?" Don't be so impatient! It's coming!

Curling is a sport you play on a long sheet of ice. Two teams of four take turns sliding stones down the ice, trying to get them in the house, a bullseye-like target painted on the ice at either end. You may have seen it on television; it's an Olympic sport. The only reason I know about curling is that my friend Sally Jones (singer, songwriter, guitar player) (banjo content: Ron Block is her brother-in-law) is Canadian and curling is huge in Canada. For years Sally, who lives in Tennessee but winters in Canada, has been on me to try curling and I did attend one curling open house just to see what it was all about.

In March I went to visit Sally in Grande Prairie, Alberta, for a weekend of curling immersion. I flew up from Nashville with Sally's sister Sandra (banjo content: she's married to Ron Block). They were competing in a tournament at the local curling club. Their team was rounded out by Sally's husband Chris, and Drew Tasker, their friend from Scotland via California, who flew up for the occasion. Sal's brother-in-law Kurt Balderston also had a team in the tournament. Kurt is an amazing curler and he and his wife Marcy once were on the team that won Canadian nationals. It happened that on the first day Kurt's team was short one player. Everyone told me I should jump in there and play, even though I'd only curled once in my life. (I didn't have the right shoes, but that's beside the point.)

I did not take them up on their offer, but, in retrospect, I think I should have. The tournament was all in fun, so it didn't matter how well or how badly I played. I am enough of a perfectionist that I don't like doing things I'm not good at, but I missed a golden opportunity to curl on some of the best ice around. Also, I was a bit intimidated by Kurt, who, as I mentioned, is a top-notch curler. But that, too, was wrong. I should have jumped at the chance to play with someone who I could learn so much from. And since he's so good, he could easily make up for any bad shots I might make. People wouldn't have remembered how I curled, just that I did curl.

And now ("Finally!" you say.) I come to the parallel with banjo playing. Many beginning students are terrified at the prospect of playing with other people. They're afraid they'll mess up, or forget the song, or look awkward, or any number of things. At curling I was like a beginning player who only knows a couple songs. I know, without a doubt, that I would encourage that player to go and play those two songs with other people. And of course those other people are going to be better than her, but the best way to improve is to play with people who are more advanced. If you always play with people at your level, you all will have a lot of the same problems and issues-timing irregularities, lack of repertoire, lack of jamming experience.

A beginner in a group of experienced players is in an ideal position, since the other players can provide a steady and solid base for her to play with. I should have jumped in to curling with both feet. I would have had fun, learned a lot, and even if I fell on my butt on the ice (which I did the first time I curled-at least you don't have to worry about that in banjo playing!) it's the same thing everybody went through back when they were learning to play.

I can't say enough about playing with other people. In fact, Murphy and I just (between this paragraph and the last one) had a conversation about this very thing. It is truly the only way to learn. Practicing at home by yourself is one thing, and it's possible to be able to play a song fine in your basement and not be able to play it in front of your teacher at your lesson. (Everybody plays better at home…I know!) You first learn it well enough to play by yourself, but you have to know it better in order to play it in front of someone. You have to know it even better to play it with another person. And you have to really internalize it in order to play it in a jam.

A jam session is the only situation in which you have to synthesize all your playing knowledge and use it at once: kicking off a song, vamping, trading breaks, and not getting distracted by all the other instruments playing around you. It always amazes me that a student can be quite good, learn fairly advanced breaks and play them in her lesson, yet still be utterly undone when put in a jamming situation. It takes just as much practice to learn to jam as it does to learn to play tunes.

One of my students, John, plays with a group of people on a regular basis. They get together on their lunch hour at work and pick. These people are better than he is (for now) and that's the best possible scenario. Recently they made the jump from jamming to public performance when they came up with a band name-Three Piece Chicken Dinner-and played at a local nursing home. John thoughtfully recorded the show and put it on a CD for me. (He even made track numbers and everything!) He did quite well for someone who doesn't often play in front of people. Some songs he plays well, some less so. Sometimes he gets all the notes, sometimes there are holes. On one song, "Nine Pound Hammer," he couldn't manage to play the kick off, but it is a song he only learned a couple months ago.

What stands out about the performance for him, and what stood out to me when he told me about it, was his excitement and sense of satisfaction at having done it. Sure it was scary, but he called me right after they finished just pumped about the whole thing. He said one of the elderly audience members was weeping, not tears of pain, thank you very much, but because his son plays guitar and the group was so good he wished his son could have been there to hear them. That heartfelt appreciation is a large part of what makes playing music so rewarding. And as John said, "They didn't care that I couldn't play 'Nine Pound Hammer'!"

You'll have that sense of accomplishment after any jam, regardless of how well you played or didn't play. It's the feeling of being part of something…taking part in the larger tradition of bluegrass, of making music as a member of a community. And that right there is what I missed out on by not curling on Kurt's team when I had the chance. Timidity will get you nowhere in life and just leave you thinking, "I wish I'd…"