The role of the amateur player

When I entered graduate school, I was interested in all forms of American vernacular music (though I probably wasn’t calling it that).  I grew up playing music with my family in our living room and around the campfire.  My dad would lead songs on his weathered D-18, and my sister and I would follow along, eventually bringing others into the family band, and learning and leading our own songs. Between our family members, we played guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, autoharp, harmonica, bodhran, bones, and Dobro. We take turns, pass instruments back and forth, and work up songs as best we can.

My father always took the Pete Seeger route towards community music: everybody sings, regardless of talent.  This was the ethos I was raised with, which is also why I continue to sing along despite not being able to carry a tune worth a damn. I appreciate participation and amateur music making and find real meaning and purpose there. Consequently, I also never really got good at any instrument.  I can make my way on guitar, and can fake my way through a break on the mandolin (if no one’s listening too hard), and can boom-chuck along on the banjo – but I’ve never really become what I’d consider a serious player.

In graduate school this became a strange phenomenon, as I made friends with some AMAZING players, including some of the best fiddle, guitar and banjo players I’ve ever heard. Over the years I played often with my friends and I think got a little better because of it, but I never really got the chops I was looking for.  Either school work, social life, or lethargy took over.

As I developed as a scholar with particular interest in old-time music, I didn’t always follow the playing routes that were available to me. I took a couple of clawhammer lessons, but nothing more. I attended jam sessions, but more often equipped with a camera and notebook than a banjo. Playing wasn’t my path, documentation and scholarship was. I enjoy bearing human witness to the amazing art that is often made in living rooms, in school gymnasiums, small pub session, and around campfires. But I came to realize I’d left the world of those who just made music for fun, entertainment, and community involvement, and I’d entered the world where people elevated their music to art. I was now witnessing players who had serious dedication to their craft: technique, tone, repertoire, style, etc.

As I continue my research in old-time music, and I encounter both types of players (professionals dedicated to the art of the music, and amateurs dedicated to the art of the community) and many who walk that line, I feel that lack of ability more and more.  My new Canadian friends are as welcoming as my grad school friends, but still, I’m feeling the need to step up my game as a player.

If the first step toward improvement is admitting you’ve got a problem, I’m going to do what I’ve never done before, show off my level of playing.  Here’s my version of “Barlow Knife,” as I’m learning from Chris Coole’s DVD Elements of Clawhammer Banjo, without (much) practice beforehand.  I should say that the DVD is great, and any faults belong to me as student, and not to Chris as teacher.

One response to “The role of the amateur player

  1. Hi Thomas – I can definitely relate to feeling rather behind the musicianship curve with my ethnomusicology colleagues. I have never had classical/art music training – I limped through the piano requirement for the BA in music as my poor instructor winced bravely – all my musical experience has been of the pick it up on the fly, teach myself, go to music camp workshops variety. I have never wanted to play anything but what I now call vernacular music (the f word shall not be invoked save in explicatory disquisitions on Herderian folk romanticism). In any case, I pretty much never met a stringed instrument I didn’t like and before I took the grad school vow of poverty I indulged my predilections by acquiring an array of vernacular instruments. I managed to accumulate four (very nice) guitars, two mandolins, two Irish bouzoukis, a hammered dulcimer and a mountain dulcimer, an unknown number of banjos (both 5-string and tenor 4 string), a dobro – and just to be diverse, an English concertina. I can play something on all these instruments but am far far far from anywhere near accomplished. I often feel seriously outclassed by the talent and accomlpishments of my grad school colleagues.

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