Never Stop Growing … have you listened to yourself lately?
I love playing music, and I don’t consider myself a great player, but I am always reaching for more. I am always looking within in order to improve myself as a musician. I spent a lot of time in my youth collecting licks and tunes. Anything I could get my ears and brain around I would then attempt to train my fingers to do. I had a problem, though … one that I didn’t even know I had. I had never trained my internal metronome so that I could play the things I was learning to play in time. Whatever wild or complicated lick or tune I was learning was a grab and clutch at the notes themselves without me considering them being evenly divisible by 2 or 3 in respect to their time signature. In other words, even though I could play music on a reasonable level, I had not yet focused on the one thing that would change what I was doing from a series of notes into music. I could play with reasonable timing – I wasn’t awful, I just wasn’t very refined.
I’m the type of person who is perfectly content in my little bubble. I don’t often consider what is going on around me until I catch something either by way of something someone said or by me actually stepping back far enough to listen to what I am doing, or both. I had sent a friend of mine a few songs from a live recording I was a part of a number of years ago. He said he loved it. He went on to say that he liked how I was playing right on the front edge of the beat. After I listened to the recording, really listening to it this time, I realized that he was not only right, but that I was more often just past that front edge! Not good, I thought.
I had taken for granted that my timing was good and that there wasn’t anything to work on, but I was very wrong! The more I listened to other recordings I was a part of the more I was horrified at my proclivity for really pushing the beat … I was a speeder-upper, and I was a good one! I must correct this I thought, so off I went, but into an unexpected direction that allowed me as a banjo player to move very far forward when I thought I was going to be taking a step back.
Until that point I was not only in love with melodic banjo, I wanted to play everything like by friend, Bill Keith. I wanted to be the next Bobby Thompson or Tony Trischka or Bela Fleck. I wanted complicated strings of chromatic things to spring forth from my banjo and wow people, because that is what wowed me. Unbeknownst to me, I had started building my musical house by putting the windows and trim on without having first built a good foundation on which to place the structure. After this epiphany I decided to go back and to work on that foundation. So, back to Scruggs and Crowe I went and I invited the arch nemesis of many an aspiring musician along… the metronome.
I thought at first that I would check off this whole forward roll, alternating thumb pattern, Cripple Creek, bla, bla, bla thing in a few minutes and be back in the chromatic saddle by lunch … that is certainly not what happened! I quickly realized that listening also involved feeling and even synchronizing myself with the little time-keeper that I wanted to smash soon after our introduction to each other. I couldn’t play with it … this should be simple, right? Just turn the little beeping, ticking, flashing or upside-down pendulum thingy on and start playing, right? … wrong! It must be broken, I thought. It can’t be right, can it? Well, it was.
After my initial shock, I was able to slow things down and eventually, with focused and regular practice, play right in time with the metronome. I was able to pull off some of the licks that I loved in perfect timing without leaping over the next 8th note while getting there. Oh, the joy … and oh, the improvement I discovered in my playing. I started getting compliments on how my playing sounded so professional. I started to really listen to my musical heroes in a whole new way. J.D. Crowe and his incredible ability not only to nail the timing, but after going back to revisit my foundational skills I discovered that I was totally missing some of the melody in my Scruggs style playing … Listening to how these two masters handled the melody was amazing to me. I started getting it, really getting it! I started singing the melody that I needed my banjo to “sing” and I got better. I got a lot better. I started really enjoying the whole Scruggs and Crowe approach to things and realized that they weren’t basic at all. They were at the top of their game. Timing plus control of the melody equals beautiful and professional sounding music.
Some of my musical heroes and friends over the years since my discovery of good timing have done nothing but reinforce this for me. Bill Evans and I have done several banjo workshops together throughout the years. He does a great demonstration on timing. I have seen Ron Block play with a metronome slowly and mythically one 8th note at a time. Tony Trischka asked me just before one of his performances after a workshop if he could have a room to himself so he could sit and play with a metronome for 30 minutes before his solo act. Perhaps the moment that stands out in my mind the most was the explanation I received during an after workshop session when Megan Lynch (Lori Morgan and Pam Tillis’ awesome fiddle player and instructor in Nashville) when she said: “Everyone has an internal metronome, but you have to periodically synchronize it with something that is actually in time.”
I have since learned to love good timing, but I tend to avoid jam sessions now …