How does memory and learning work, anyway?

I’ve been playing clawhammer banjo for close to two years and I’ve been working on learning new tunes and at the same time improving my technical skills. I find that some songs are much easier to remember than others, even though they are require a similar skill level to play them. Perhaps it’s because some melodies resonate with me more immediately than others. I’m not really sure.

When I started playing, I learned primarily from tabs, and I suspect that sometimes my brain gets lazy and uses the tab as a crutch. I can play certain tunes reasonably well if I have some music in front of me, even if I only occasionally glance at it, but when I take away the written notation, I sometimes have trouble. Once I learn a tune, I tend to try lots of different things with it and after a while the way I play it becomes somewhat different than the way I learned it. I like to watch videos of other players doing the same tune and sometimes I’ll try to add in some of the things I see them doing. When I was playing a lot of button accordion, I found that certain licks were key to remembering a whole song. In other words, if I remembered how a particular part is played the whole tune would fall into place.

I know that being able to hear the song in my head is key. I have poor vocal control so I don’t try to sing much. Some players learn to sing a tune first then try playing it. One of my goals is to wean myself away from using written notation. I’m going to try learning tunes by watching and listening to videos. There are plenty of videos on the YouTube in which a player goes through a tune slowly and I think those will be helpful. I think that hearing it slowly, having some visual clues by watching the video and really listening to what’s going on in the song will help. I suspect not having a tab to be dependent on will help as well. Once I’ve managed to learn a dozen or so tunes this way, the next step is to try to learn it from a recording without the visual aid. I think that’s a good goal to set, even if it takes me some time to get there.

When I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp, I was very nervous about jamming and starting in a slow jam helped build my confidence quite a bit. I surprised myself by being able to contribute to a jam on some tune I hadn’t heard before. Of course there are lots of things going on in a jam that help. I found that hearing the guitarist’s chord changes helped, and in a jam you know the tuning at the get-go and that helps too. Old time tunes aren’t that complex, even if they sometimes sound that way at first blush. I found if I could pick up some of the melody, and I could figure out the chords I could recognize licks that come up over and over in old time music and next thing I knew I was more of less playing along. Sometimes I would get in the weeds and play something that sounded horrible, but I think that’s part of the learning experience. I wonder if regular jamming would accelerate my learning on the incident or just my learning in jams. I’m not sure.

One thing I learned playing button accordion that holds true for clawhammer as well is that many shorter sessions cause me to learn more and faster than fewer long sessions, although that doesn’t make long playing sessions bad. Any way you look at it, practice is at the heart of learning an instrument. It’s true that for some people this kind of learning appears to come effortlessly, but I think most people have to work at it to get good. When my brother and I went to see the Kruger Brothers’ last performance in Toronto, Salvelinas had an opportunity to chat with Uwe Kruger, who mentioned to him that when they weren’t touring, they worked in the studio all day every day. It seems those guys play effortlessly, but I suppose it makes sense that they too work hard at it and practice all the time.

Frank Caught a Woodchuck

I really like Dave Landreth’s banjo playing. He posted this original on the YouTube the other day and this tune simply makes me smile so I thought I’d share it here. It’s got a lot of stuff going on in it.  If you like it, check out his other videos.  He also has a CD available online that I also like a whole bunch (just ask Mr. Google, that’s how I found it).

Sawmill tunes

My brother and I were exchanging emails about tunes in modal or “sawmill” tuning. I like a lot of the modal tunes but I don’t play them that often on clawhammer. One I particularly like is Bonaparte’s March. Here are the Indian Creek Delta Boys.

Another great tune in modal tuning is Cluck Old Hen. Here’s Aubrey Atwater having a go at it. She also plays it slowly to teach the tune.

For a while I was playing Boatin’ up Sandy quite a bit – also in modal tuning. I went looking for a version on YouTube and realized that I posted me playing that tune quite a while ago….here it is.  For some reason I stopped playing this one – not sure why – it’s got a wonderfully hypnotic melody. I’ll have to add it back into my tune list.

On banjo, when players say they are in Sawmill tuning, they mean that tuned in standard G tuning, they tune the second string up a half tone from B to C.  That’s G modal tuning. To make it A modal, you can capo up to the second fret.

Mark Twain on the banjo….

The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
- “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865


My experience at the Mid-west Banjo camp kick-started my learning and since I returned home I’ve wanted to play and play and play. With that kind of immersion experience you get exposed to a lot of ideas, but most of them require plenty of practice to make those ideas part of your playing.

I’ve been learning clawhammer in isolation and suddenly I was exposed to jamming. Wow, was that ever fun! It really changed my whole experience of the music. I’d love to play with other people more often. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on adding some new tunes and ideas (to me at least) to my little repertoire.

I love learning new things, and when I take on a new challenge I like to jump into it with a lot of effort and enthusiasm. I started playing music – button accordion – in my early 40s, and now over the past year and a half I’ve jumped into playing clawhammer banjo. I’m encouraged that I can hear my playing improve and the more I improve the more I want to learn.

Raw Materials

DSC04495After finding that beautiful maple syrup can recently, I ordered up a neck from ebay. My other canjos have been “A” scale but this is a full length neck. It’s in pretty good shape and I think it will make a nice instrument….once I get around to finishing up the mountain banjo waiting in the workshop for my attention.

Soldier’s Joy

Back in late September I posted a few versions of Soldier’s Joy on this blog. I was watching a bunch of performances of it because I was starting to learn this one on clawhammer banjo. Tonight I recorded a bit of a practice session, so here’s me playing Soldier’s Joy (in all it’s clunky glory)

Just when I thought I was making a bit of progress….

….on banjo, I came across this video featuring the amazing Jens Kruger, which makes me seriously consider chopping up my banjo to use as kindling for a blazing accordion fire.

I am so looking forward to seeing the Kruger Brothers at Hugh’s Room here in Toronto on December 2!


Old Time vs old time

The musical focus of this blog has shifted somewhat this year. Although it has long reflected my general interest in what I jokingly call folky-dolky music, I had been focusing on the button accordion, because that is the instrument I was playing. Somehow or another I began romancing the banjo, and back around Christmastime, I made my first oil can banjo and started teaching myself to play in the manner known as clawhammer or frailing. Since that time, the music I’ve shared and written about here has had a lot more to do with banjo than button accordion. This isn’t to say that I have lost interest in button accordion music – not at all. It’s simply that my current infatuation with the banjo, particularly the open-backed banjo, is infectious and I can’t help but share it.  It could be simply coincidence that this shift has coincided with a decided drop in interest and comments on this blog (that’s my story folks, and I’m sticking to it).

I realize that I have thrown the term Old Time music around freely in the past several months, and some people may think I mean old time, without the caps. I should be clear that by Old Time, I’m talking about a genre of music, one that was called Old Time, even when it wasn’t so very old. I don’t mean old time in the generic sense, like this is music that old timers enjoyed, although this is sometimes the case. So what is this Old Time music anyway?

If we are to believe Wikipedia, the label dates to 1923, a record company called Okeh and a performer named Fiddlin’ John Carson. It figures that a record company would be involved. To quote the entry in Wikipedia, “Okeh, which had previously coined the terms “hillbilly music” to describe Appalachian and Southern fiddle-based and religious music and “race recording” to describe the music of African American recording artists, began using “old-time music” as a term to describe the music made by artists of Carson’s style.”  Old Time is dominated by rural dance music, music for clogging or buck-dancing or flat-footing, or square dancing. It also includes some ballads and solo or band music not specifically for dancing, but let’s not make things seem even more confusing. Old Time is often played by groups called string bands on instruments including fiddle, banjo (usually open-backed rather than resonator, but not always), mountain dulcimer, acoustic guitar, and sometimes bass.

All that said, it is a loose genre. Is Ottawa Valley fiddle music Old Time? I’d say so. Is Newfoundland button accordion music Old Time? That’s harder, but I’d say no. How about Cajun music? Let’s keep that separate, even though there are plenty of similarities. There are lots of regional styles that have their own characteristics. Some people will tell you that Old Time means Appalachian but it would be hard to exclude New England Contra Dance music or Texas Old Time music and so on. There are folks who will tell you that Old Time music is more strictly Appalachian or that the centre of the Old Time universe is Mount Airy in NC and Galax in Virginia. I love that music, but I choose to stick with a broader definition.

Here’s a fun video featuring some Old Time clogging or flat-footing.

Now here’s April Verch demonstrating Ottawa Valley step-dancing – a little different, but I think we’re talking the same language here.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I go on about Old Time music. I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of the Old Time standards on banjo. There is quite an extensive catalog of tunes that lots of players know and these have become the basis of jams. Within the broader matrix of this music, there are a variety of approaches to playing the banjo. I’d say that some of these are regional, and some are more individual. These styles have to do with how you pluck or strike the strings. I’m learning clawhammer, but there are also two-finger and three-finger approaches.

Clawhammer is a style in which you make your picking hand into the shape of a claw (more or less), and attack the strings by striking them with the nail of your index or middle finger, downward. Clawhammer is played on a 5-string banjo. The fifth, or short string is normally played as a drone, and you use your thumb to pick the drone string.  When I started learning this, I found it to be very awkward and I thought, man I’ll never get this. If you look at teaching videos on YouTube, some teachers will strongly urge students to do nothing but try to sound a single string and the drone string in a simple rhythm (known as bum-ditty) for a week or two until the student gets it right. That is probably a good approach. Once you get used to the basic way of making sounds, it gets a lot easier, but it takes time to get your hand used to the motion.

Here’s Kurt Sutphin, a player from North Carolina. In this video, he’s interviewed by David Holt and then plays a tune called Sugar Hill. He’s playing a fretless banjo here. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless.

I think it would be really interesting to study all the different styles and tunes that fall under the broad Old Time umbrella, but I bet it would a mind-bending life’s work. I’m learning as I go, and I’m having a great time listening to many players and approaches.