Thursday, February 12, 2009

makin' music

A reader asked me to explain how and when I started fiddling. In Scratch I tell this story in more detail, but to summarize here on the thrifty internet - I just taught myself. Now, for anyone who read that last sentence and assumes I have some natural talent and that's why I was able to learn - I want to stress that is definitely not the case. I don't know how to read music (I barely get by) and when people at jams start throwing around heavy musical terms I just nod and smile and listen. The reason I was able to teach myself was simply because I wanted to. I was bored and anxious when I first moved to Idaho. I missed Tennessee horribly, and how the culture, mountains, and people made me feel. I wanted to taste it again, feel it again, hear it again. Old Time fiddling was going to be my sensory passport. I would learn in the dead of winter by myself in the farmhouse. Since I didn't know anyone, I was spending all my time in this with the dogs, so after work I had this open window of time to dedicate to my studies. Since all the ingredients were in place, I just needed a violin. So I ordered the saddest student fiddle money could buy off eBay, and taught myself over the long weeks till summer came. I think the fiddle was fifty dollars (and that includes shipping) and the book/cd I bough to learn from was another twenty. Which means I taught myself to fiddle for less than what most people spend taking out their Valentine's this weekend. The main difference between me and them, I was certain to get some play that night. (GET IT!)

Seriously though, learning to play any acoustic instrument is like learning to drive. You don't just jump into a racecar on your first lesson. You start slow. You get some help along the way if you need it, but generally you learn by doing. Driving becomes second nature from experience. So much so that a few years down the road it's almost automatic. You don't think about shifting or changing pedals, you just do it. Which (I promise) is exactly how fiddling is. Sure, it starts out squeaky and lame, but you get better. Things start to become comfortable. And before you know what hit you - you're practicing for an open mic night with your first band. Which is what I was doing last night. The reality of that still shocks me, and I've been playing for years now.

So like I said, I'm not special, I just made it a point to practice everyday. I was also lucky to come across the right beginner's books that made teaching myself easy. Those "Ignoramus" books by Wayne Erbsen of nativeground.com are pure gold when it comes to self-instruction. If you pick up his old-time fiddle book and a cheap violin, you're set. You'll be playing by the campfire come June if you're willing to practice. Really. He also sells banjo (bluegrass and clawhammer) and mandolin ignoramus books as well.

The point of mountain music is enjoying it. I think a lot of recreational fiddlers and banjo players feel the same way. We're not in this game to win prizes or be the best - we're in it to keep a tradition alive and entertain ourselves while doing so. Personally, I'm also in it for the community. Pickers, pluckers, and strummers are some of the happiest, most laid-back, and interesting people I've ever had the pleasure to meet. Because of my dulcimer, fiddle and banjo I've been put in situations where new people and new experiences are always popping up. jams, festivals, lessons, campfires - thanks to music I get out there and learn people's names. Something that isn't always easy to do when your road has more horses than humans. I am even considering going to a banjo camp for a weekend this summer. You just don't get these kind of experiences when you take up scrimshaw.

So folks, if you want to learn, learn. You need no one's permission but your own. Start cheap and slow, and build on it if it makes you happy. Which, and I'm talking from direct experience here, it certainly will. See ya at the next jam, son.

14 Comments:

Blogger Darx said...

I want to find the Wayne Erbsen version of instruction for piano.

February 12, 2009 at 6:12 PM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

I've just started learning the accordion. I decided I'd learn whatever instrument I could get for free, and a friend let me borrow hers. I'm looking forward to being able to play at sessions this summer.

February 13, 2009 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger Thistledog said...

You have inspired me greatly, I want you to know. I've been toodling around on guitar since before you were born, mostly learning country chords and bluegrass backup, but never got to where I could dare join in on jams or play with anyone... then along comes Jenna all fired up about old-time music, and I've finally found my love. Yup, we CAN teach ourselves and it isn't rocket science, just need patience and doggedness. Thanks for the links to the websites, I've got some cds and books coming and am having a blast!

February 13, 2009 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

cathy - that is awesome, really!

thistle! that is fantastic, last nigth i got an email from a women in Kentucky who ordered her first fiddle online. I was beaming, you readers are amazing.

February 13, 2009 at 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a strumstick on it's way :). I thought I'd start with something foolproof to bolster my confidence. A fiddle is definitely in the near future though. I checked prices on ebay and couldn't believe how inexpensive they were. Almost bought one just then.
-Mountain Chicken

February 13, 2009 at 1:03 PM  
Blogger j.c. said...

I'd love to be able to play banjo or mandolin, but I don't know if I have it in me to teach myself. A strumstick looks interesting and might be right up my alley.

February 13, 2009 at 3:16 PM  
Blogger sara amber said...

dude, i still want one of those mountain dulcimers.

February 13, 2009 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger j.c. said...

Hi Jenna,

I'm seriously looking at the McNally Strumsticks. Which would you suggest - the Original or the Grand? I can get the Grand for just about $10 more. From what I can gather, the Grand is a bit longer and has a deeper sound. Any advice for a total beginner?

February 14, 2009 at 10:32 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I have the grand myself, it's in G i think. but i would get a grand in D if I were to get another.... either way it'l be worth it. i have no preference really, but a G stick will be deeper, and better if you're playing by yourself and a fire.

February 14, 2009 at 12:40 PM  
Blogger j.c. said...

I just checked, the Original is in G, the Grand is in D.

From what I've read the Grand strings are tuned to DAD, which is the same as a mountain dulcimer...so you can use it to play music written for the mountain dulcimer.

I am really pretty clueless about these things, but the sound clips on the McNally website are helpful. The Grand does sound richer. The Orginal sounds higher and more tinny.

February 14, 2009 at 4:10 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

Just a side note. Jenna came to a spring Farm Jam at our place a few years back with her dulcimer and fiddle in tow. My 16-year-old-son was fascinated with the dulcimer and bought one online that night. Seemed like he was vibrating while he waited by the mailbox until the thing arrived. He played it that summer with glee and then began learning the guitar. By Christmas he had taught himself Greensleeves so he could play with his dad. It's a couple years later now. He now owns a classical guitar for playing flamenco, an electronic acoustic and and electric guitar. The original dulcimer is displayed with fondness and pride is still played. Music his favorite pastime (besides WOW) and he spends a great deal of time learning new pieces from friends and using the How-to videos on Youtube.

So fair warning... dulcimers are a gateway drug. ;)

February 16, 2009 at 7:45 PM  
Blogger LisaZ said...

That's a great post, Jenna. You are inspiring to me! I am teaching myself to play banjo, with a Deering Goodtime banjo and Jack Hatfield's Beginning Banjo book (folks can google his website). I love, love, love Jack Hatfield's banjo book, better than any other. (So in other words, I highly recommend it.) Knowing there are other adults out there doing this is just the thing to keep me going. That, and attending our state's Bluegrass and Old-time Music Festival every August here in Minnesota. It's a wonderful event.

February 19, 2009 at 9:24 PM  
Blogger LisaZ said...

For those interested in Mountain Dulcimers, look up Warren Mays in Berea, Kentucky. My family and I had the pleasure of meeting him in his shop this past October while traveling through Kentucky. He's a wonderful man, and he sells beautiful dulcimers he's made himself, at reasonable prices. I want one of those, too!

February 19, 2009 at 9:27 PM  
Blogger j.c. said...

I got my Strumstick yesterday!!! It's so incredibly cool. My husband was a little shocked at first when I took it out of the box - but he quickly came around and proclaimed it "beautiful" and "cool". He even tried his hand at it a bit. I'm able to pick out some basic melodies and I'm hoping that I'll have enough musical talent move up to some of the advanced stuff, because it just sounds so awesome!! Currently my fingers just don't work fast enough.

February 21, 2009 at 10:34 AM  

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