Your first musical instrument was the piano?
Yes. My parents got me started young with classical piano lessons beginning around age four, and probably would have even if I had not expressed interest in the organ. While music in general clearly made sense to me even back then, this particular music was always somewhat of a struggle. The classical form was not intuitive, and reading music never came easily. Also, the sort of regimented practicing that was expected (and, truth be told, probably necessary for any serious student of classical music) quickly became something that I dreaded and avoided.
Early on, I figured out a trick to make my piano studies go a bit more easily. When my teacher introduced a new piece of music, I asked her to play it through for me a time or two. As she did this, I was able to internalize enough of the sounds to be able to play most new pieces primarily by ear, only referring to the printed page in a pinch when I simply couldn't remember the sound of a given passage. This strengthened my ability to learn by ear but certainly did nothing for my sight-reading. After many years of this, my teacher caught onto the fact that I had a hard time reading-on-demand.
It was around that time that I was getting seriously into folk music so these lessons were not long for the world anyway. By the time I was thirteen and had been playing the banjo for a couple of years, I convinced my parents to let me discontinue piano lessons.
Tell us about your journey into folk music.
I was first made aware of folk music by Don Paden, my homeroom teacher in a Saint Paul, Minnesota public school. Don played several folk instruments: mandolin was his favorite but he also played fiddle, guitar, autoharp and others. He regularly brought these instruments into his classroom, to show his students an art form that we had likely never known.
While Don's genre of choice was bluegrass, he wasn't especially picky, and a lot of the stuff that he played in those years I later came to recognize as the sort of “chestnut” tunes that appear in both bluegrass and old-time, tunes such as “Saint Anne's Reel,” “Soldier's Joy,” “Ragtime Annie,” and the like.
There was something about this folk music and these instruments that immediately spoke to me; it seemed more real somehow than the comparatively contrived-sounding piano music with which I had never fallen particularly in love.
Sometime in late 1993, during my fourth-grade year, I asked Don to show me a few things on the mandolin, which I liked the best of all. I took to it pretty quickly, and once I had a cursory understanding of the essential techniques, Don soon had me playing real tunes, the first of which was “Old French.”
After my father bought me a mandolin of my own in April of 1994, I began taking lessons with another teacher, Brian Wicklund, a local bluegrass jack-of-all-instruments. Brian is an exceptional teacher of young people and he taught me, from then until about 1998, when I set the instrument aside to focus entirely on the banjo.
Brian led me through numerous bluegrass standards but periodically he would teach me a fiddle tune, something I immediately recognized as different from - and in my opinion preferable to - the flashier material on which we spent the bulk of our time. Over and over again, I begged for more tunes from this category, and soon Brian clued me in to the related genre of old-time, suggesting that it might be more to my liking than bluegrass.
It was around that time that Brian showed me a new thing that he was tinkering with - a five-string banjo. He was playing not with fingerpicks, as I had thus far always heard it played, but in a manner that he called clawhammer. I was immediately smitten by that sound! This was in late 1994.
In addition to continuing bluegrass mandolin lessons - and asking for as many fiddle tunes as Brian would give me - I started clawhammer banjo lessons with Marianne Kovatch, who was one of very few people in the area playing this style and perhaps the only one in a position to teach.
At the same time, my parents (believe it or not) insisted that I try my hand at bluegrass banjo lessons, with yet another teacher. They were worried that I had inadvertently - and out of inexperience - chosen a style of music, or playing, that would ultimately prove limited, undesirable, or both.
While the clawhammer style immediately made great sense, the bluegrass approach never really did. I was allowed to discontinue those lessons once I had convinced my parents that there really was something to this clawhammer stuff, around the end of 1995. Marianne and I met for weekly lessons for a little over a year and then she sent me off into the wide world of old-time music with lots of recommended listening.
Could you say something about your approach to old-time music and how you evolve your material?
I learn the majority of my material straight from fiddlers. My favorite historic musician is Kentucky/West Virginia fiddler Ed Haley, whose home recordings have yielded some incredible tunes that I have enjoyed making suitable for the banjo while keeping intact as much of Haley's singular style as possible. I also dip my toes occasionally into the bluegrass and Celtic canons, seeing which tunes might translate well to the clawhammer banjo. The genres aren't that distantly related, after all!
On the banjo, I continue to define my sound through arranging unusual material from various traditional sources. I have listened to old and new recordings of fiddlers much more than banjo players, and I always enjoy the challenge of adapting the banjo to very fiddle-centric music that other banjo players might tend to avoid.
So, you tend to go straight to the fiddle renditions?
Yes. Long ago, I got tired of listening exclusively to other banjo players both live and on recordings. As the clawhammer banjo can have its limitations, it has been my impression that a tune translated from fiddle to banjo tends to get watered down in the process; we simply cannot capture every note and nuance of the fiddle’s version. Once the tune goes through several banjo players’ filters, it might bear scant resemblance to the original fiddle melody.
You also play fiddle.
Yes. For the past few years, alongside the banjo, I have been learning to play old-time fiddle. This has been much more challenging than I expected, but it’s been loads of fun! I've really been getting into the bowing lately. It's incredible to me, how much subtle changes in bowing can impact the overall sound. And, developing a better understanding of a fiddler's end of things has definitely affected my banjo playing.
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