Rob MacKillop – Classic Banjo BanjoCrazy.com Exclusive
Interview with Rob MacKillop by Paul Roberts 8/24/10
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It sounds like you're applying a historical approach to the banjo, as you've done with classical music. Do you also compose new works for the banjo? What about improvisation, like I've seen you do on some of your videos, when you're playing blues on the guitar?
I have not composed anything yet for the banjo, but I'm sure it will come. I want the instrument to teach me first of all what it likes to do, rather than impose something on it. As for improvisation, I do sometimes add little changes here and there as I go through a piece, but that is nothing like improvisation in a blues or jazz sense. But maybe that will come too. I've been playing blues guitar for a few decades, so that helps! I can make things up, for sure, and have done so while accompanying students, but I haven't developed it yet.
I have four ukulele books about to be published by Mel Bay, one of which consists of twenty studies for the development of fingerstyle technique on the uke, and most of them were worked out through improvisation. There again, I've played the uke since I was a child. The time will come when I can treat the banjo so freely, and I look forward to that day.
Tell me about your work in the field of music therapy and your take on the role music in the healing arts.
I once found myself unemployed. I hitchhiked to Spain and started busking, sleeping rough, eating what I could. One day in Cordoba, an American started listening to me, and suddenly he burst into tears. I mean he just fell apart completely. I've never seen a man lose it so much. He went away embarrassed. Later that evening he saw me and took me for a drink. He said he had worked in the nuclear industry for 35 years, worked long hours, and had no time for anything else. He was obsessed with his job. His wife insisted they take a holiday to Europe, and they came to Spain. He felt it was a nice country, nice food, pretty women, etc. But then he heard two notes from a guitar, which just punctured his entire world, did something to him which he had never experienced before. Now, I know I'm not THAT good a player, so there was something else going on.
Another story. My dad became a major alcoholic, which affected all our lives. He just couldn't cope with family, work, life. He fell apart completely, became a tramp and died on the streets. It's a tragic tale, but a not uncommon one. Years later his sister told me about something that happened to him when he was 19. He was obsessed with the sax, especially Charlie Parker. He saved some money and flew to the States. After some time doing I don't know what, he decided that he wanted to hear the purest note he could. So, what did he do? He hitchhiked to the Mojave Desert so he could play the sax surrounded only by the sounds of the desert. Some people found him a few days later, starving and exhausted.
Music is immensely powerful. It can tear people apart; it can make them do crazy things. It can also bring them an inner peace, which they can't find through anything else. It can be disturbing. It can be liberating. And it doesn't have to be a Beethoven symphony. It can be just two notes.
There was a time only a year ago when I needed some music therapy. I was sitting on an airplane before take-off. The plane reversed a few feet, and I stopped breathing. I had had no build up of tension. It just happened in a second. Picture the scene: doctor, ambulance, oxygen mask, etc, etc. They saw I wasn't dying of a heart attack, and, once breathing had been restored, they just sent me on my way. When I got home, I grabbed the first instrument at hand, which happened to be a fretless bass. So what did I play? Would you believe C major scale? Yes, over and over - maybe 500 times - up and down, up and down, quite slowly, feeling each note as I went. It brought order to the chaos. The room stopped spinning. It brought calm.
I've been working at a university as Musician In Residence, and one of my jobs was to teach improvisation studies to Music Therapy students. I wasn't there as a Music Therapy teacher, as I know practically nothing of the science and intellectual discipline that goes with it. But I was aware of what an amazing bunch of people the students were - deeply sensitive, and engagingly curious. But as they had all been given a classical music education of the limiting kind, they knew next to nothing about improvisation. So we spent many hours trying to free them from their shackles, to get back to the sound of one note, then two, and so on. I insisted that my classes not lead to an exam. I wanted them to experience but not intellectualize. There are two ways to do that. Either engage in something so simple that the mind has nothing to do, or make it so complex, the mind gets overwhelmed and gives up. We tried both approaches. I'm very pleased to report that almost all the students stayed the course, despite not having to for their exam results. And, of course, I am the one who learned most.
Music is most effective when there is balance. That is, in one sense, balance between melody, harmony and rhythm - the three principle modes of music. But in another sense, it has much to do with the state of the player as well. I learned that from Bach. You have to be calm before you can his music. But for many of us in this hectic, often maddening world, that is a tall order. But music can help us get there. And it could be just one solitary note.
That’s a lot of meaningful stuff. Let’s shift to another subject and talk about banjos.
Banjos! Love em all. My first was a Thompson and O'Dell 'Artist' from c.1890, a nice banjo with a good pop. An SS Stewart Orchestra, a fretless model, which was a great looking banjo, followed this but I found it a bit thin. Plus, all the 'frets' had side-position dots - every one - and it was very difficult to know where you were once you ventured above the fifth-fret area. Both those instruments were sold after I got my first newly made instrument, an early Fairbanks copy by Luke Mercier (http://www.lukemercier.com/), to which he had added a Dobson tone ring. I can't tell you how much I love this banjo. Everything about it is perfect, but perfect for a specific area of music, although I'm sure it would also sound great in other contexts. As my understanding of banjo history and repertoire developed, I wanted an instrument that had some of the old minstrel banjo qualities, but was looking to the future, so from about 1865 to 1890. I call it the perfect parlor banjo, and for me the word 'parlor' carries no negative connotations. Something that is of a high quality in craftsmanship, though without any ostentatious inlay, coupled with an intimate voice, with great depth and subtlety. It remains my number 1 banjo.
I decided I needed a banjo for the English repertoire of Grimshaw, Morley, etc, and found a very good instrument by Parslow, with a neck possibly by Temlett. These are names maybe unfamiliar to American readers, but they are highly respected in England, and equal to the finest American models. It's a great instrument but is currently for sale as I have moved away from that repertoire. It is solid enough for steel strings, and on reflection I would not be upset if no one bought it!
I have a banjorine by Cole, which is great fun to play. I just wish I had a banjo ensemble to play it in. I also have a flush-fret English minstrel banjo, which originally had seven strings, now six. I feel there is a really good instrument in there, but I haven't given it the time yet to do the necessary restoration. I have a cheap fretless modern banjo for my tentative exploration of clawhammer. It's not a technique that comes easily to me, and the instrument doesn't get much play.
I'm very much looking forward to receiving the Boucher minstrel banjo currently being made for me by James Hartel (http://www.minstrelbanjo.com/) as I'm very interested in playing the earliest fingerstyle banjo music on it. In 1865, Frank Converse printed one of Tom Briggs' jigs. Now, Briggs' tutor of 1855 is arguably the most important Stroke style tutor (stroke playing is similar to clawhammer), but Converse indicates very clearly it is to be played fingerstyle, or what he calls 'guitar style'. So, the Boucher will aid me in my exploration of that area. It should arrive in my hands mid September, 2010.
I should state as clearly as possible that I do not at all believe in Progress, especially when it comes to music and musical instruments. Plastic heads and nylon strings are not an improvement on good-quality skin heads and good-quality gut strings. If Converse had had a modern high-tension banjo, he would have written different music. By recreating or restoring instruments to the what the composer used, then sitting down with his publication, using the technique he describes, you will get a very different effect from playing with a modern set up, using nails on nylon strings and plastic heads. Some people seem to be opting for convenience over tone, but that is not a musical choice. I also get a bit uppity when people try gut strings for a week or so, then take them off saying the strings are dead, or break too easily, or don't sound any different to nylgut. It took me about five years of playing gut strings on lutes and 19th-century guitars to fully appreciate the quality of good gut, how to touch it to get the most out of it, and only then after my fingertips had developed the suppleness to play them in an appropriate way. Gut strings are not for everyone. You need to live with them for a long time. Eventually, hopefully, you will learn, as I did, that there is a reason people played them for millenia. So, ultimately, I'm looking for respect for the instruments, techniques and composers of the 19th-century banjo. We wouldn't be playing banjo today without their creative energy.
Tell me more about your present musical pursuits and your musical aspirations for the future.
At the moment, I spend my days teaching privately from home. I have a good bunch of students, with a wide variety of interests and instruments, and that keeps me on my toes. My own research is with 19th-century fingerstyle gut-strung banjo, and the more I dig the deeper it gets. I have a new lute arriving in the spring of next year, with which I shall be exploring German baroque music, especially the music of Silvius Leopold Weiss. But I think that banjo will remain my first instrument for the foreseeable future.
Next year is a big year for me in terms of output, although all the work has already been done. I have four ukulele books being published by Mel Bay. One is of arrangements of music by the Spanish baroque composer, Gaspar Sanz. Another is of Celtic tunes. Another is of arrangements of banjo tunes from Tom Briggs' book of 1865, which sound great on the uke. And another is of my own compositions, 'Twenty Fingerstyle Studies for Ukulele', which deliberately puts the uke into unusual musical styles from Minimalism to Serialism, as well as blues, jazz and folk music. It really covers a lot of territory. There has been a lot of interest in the uke in recent years, and I'm hoping that some of those players would grow tired of strumming pop tunes and look to playing fingerstyle arrangements. We shall see.
I also have the two Mel Bay banjo books coming out: The Early American Parlor Banjo, and The Early Irish-American Banjo. Each book has a CD of my performances on the Luke Mercier Fairbanks/Dobson banjo, strung of course in gut. And I have an edition called The Scottish Guitar coming out with Centerstream, again with a CD of arrangements in DADGAD, Open D and Open G tunings. So, seven books/discs coming out. I also have a CD coming out on the French Early Music label, Alpha, of Scottish music from the 17th century, played on baroque guitar (me) and viol (Jonathan Dunford). A viol is like a cello with frets and gut strings. I'm really pleased with this recording. The melodies I chose are so beautiful.
It's strange to think that all that is coming out, the work having been completed already. I'll have to think of some other projects to occupy myself with. I thought of doing online teaching via Skype, if there is enough interest. I don't play gigs any more. I can't fly - am terrified of airplanes. I can't even go near an airport. So, sadly, I will not be coming to the States, unless I can find funding to go by cruise ship, but that is very expensive and time consuming. So I reach my audience in cyberspace via videos, and sites like Banjo Hangout and the two Ning sites. These are very important to me, not just from getting my own stuff out, but for learning from others and enjoying their friendship. I have said before, and I'll say it again, I would not be playing banjo if it were not for the Ning classic banjo site, which opened up a new world for me. I have many friends there, and on the other sites too. My problem with BHO is that what I do doesn't fit neatly into any of the discussion categories. It's not Old Time. It's not Clawhammer or Bluegrass. It's not even Classical. And it's not jazz. Nor is it Minstrel. What it is is wonderful banjo music! File under Soul Music!
Regarding teaching, I have taught in schools but ran into problems with Heads Of Departments. Most of them, in fact all of them, have come from a classical music background of the worst kind. I was told in numerous schools to stop teaching improvisation, the reason being they couldn't examine it. I just cannot cope with that kind of mentality. It did me no good to point out that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc, spent every day of their lives improvising. So in my private teaching I introduce improv from day one. It is fundamental. Imagine only being able to converse in quotations from great literature? It would be funny for a while, but ultimately frustrating, no matter how expert the writers were. At some point we would want to utter something of our own, and thankfully we do from the start.
So I would have to sum up by saying I am quite happy at this point in my life. My wife writes dictionaries (!) and our daughter is a wonderfully positive 13-year old. I have enough students to make a basic living from, but not so many that I don't have time to play music myself. The banjo is absolutely central to my life these days, in fact I probably play three hours or so every day. I guess unlike most people, I came to the banjo from BEFORE its awakening in America (by playing lutes and early 19th-century guitar music first), whereas most people who get interested in 19th-century banjo work backwards from bluegrass and clawhammer. Consequently, I feel I am a student of the banjo, and I'm sure I always will be. I go to sleep hearing the sounds of the banjo in my head, and wake up early wondering what I will play on it that day. I'm reminded of how the creator of the Silver Bell tone ring, Henry C. Dobson, ''went to bed nights, and found it almost impossible to sleep, for the mellow notes of the banjo were continually ringing'' in his ears. Ah, The Mellow Banjo. That might be the title of my next CD!
Now I'm going to stop chattering, and will go play some banjo! Thanks for taking the time to interview me.
Thanks, Rob. This has been a great way to get to know you. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, insight and experience.
Visit Rob's website www.ClassicBanjoRM.com
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