November - December 2014
On November 11, I was driving to my first banjo lesson. I was early, and I had a powerful hankering for a donut, so I stopped at a Dunkin Donut store. And the following exchange ensued:
"I'd like one maple frosted donut and a small coffee."
"Medium coffees are $.99 today and free if you're a vet."
"A veterinarian? That's odd."
"No, a veteran." ('What a frigging goof ball. He's not even blond.' He undoubtedly thought to himself.)
"Cool. I'm a veteran. Spec 6 Wells, US Army, 325th General Hospital, dental detachment, fighting dental technician at your service."
And I received a free coffee with the tasty donut thrown in along with a, "Thanks for your service." What a remarkable change from 45 years ago, when those wearing a military uniform were treated less kindly.
For those with a modicum of interest in one mature learner's musical journey, read on. Otherwise feel free to skip on to something else.
I'm closing in on the fourth anniversary of a life-changing event, the Christmas gift I received from Lucy and Fred in 2010 of a Washburn B-10 5-string banjo. I quickly became enamored with, and frustrated by, this challenging instrument. I've upgraded banjos and now own both an open back Ome model (for clawhammer style) and a Paul Hopkins resonator (bluegrass style). I've been self-taught, relying on instructional books and videos, but I am now concerned that I've reached a plateau and might be imbedding bad habits. So, I decided I needed human intervention and arranged my first solo lesson.
At the outset of the 30-minute lesson, he asked me to play a few songs for him and to describe my goals, strengths and weaknesses, and practice habits. Then I was hoping he'd say something like, "You've progressed well, just keep doing what you're doing, and you'll be semi-accomplished in a few more years." That was not to be.
Instead we talked about my deficiencies and how to remedy them. Here's a sample of his feedback:
- Your mechanics are okay, but your timing is poor. You need to work on being more musical. One half of your practice time should be spent playing with other people or with a recording.
This reminded me of the story about Earl Scruggs. When he was a boy, he and his brother would practice together on their front porch. Then they'd walk around opposite sides of the house, meet in the backyard, and check to see if they were on the same note.
- You've bitten off more complex songs than you are capable of handling and way too many of them. Concentrate on no more than six songs.
I had given him my playlist and told him I was 'off the page' (had committed to memory) for about 30 bluegrass and 30 clawhammer tunes. He suggested it's better to play six well than sixty poorly. Go figure.
- Consider taking up rhythm guitar. It will aid in your banjo development. You know the lead parts to a lot of songs, but you don't know the lyrics of the songs, how the music blends with the words, and you can't yet 'feel' the chord progressions. A lot of accomplished banjo players and guitar pickers all started with rhythm guitar.
I told him I couldn't sing and play at the same time. He said don't worry about that. Virtually no one can play complex, lead banjo parts while singing. That's why singers typically vamp chords during their singing parts. He added that I need to at least be 'hearing the words' in my head throughout the various parts of a song.
I had a second lesson the following week and we continued our constructive, but mildly dispiriting, chat. But at least I have a plan.
Where Have All The Hookers Gone?
Once again journeyed to NYC to celebrate Thanksgiving and Ben's birthday with the lad. We had a spare day while Ben was working, so I decided to explore several neighborhoods in Manhattan while Judy did her art museum thing. My travels first took me down to Chinatown and the new WTC, then I caught the A train up to Lincoln Center and the west side of Central Park. Twice I was asked for directions. The first time I was unable to assist owing to my lack of familiarity with Farsi. The second time, I provided useful information. I was surprised to be asked since I was wearing uber-non-New-Yorkish attire featuring a day glo fleece vest and a KC Royals ballcap, and I was constantly gawking upwards at the tall buildings saying things like, "Gee whilikers!" Perhaps it was my kindly face? Unsurprisingly, the most congested, anarchic sidewalks and streets were in Chinatown. This experience can be matched only by, you guessed it, being in China.
According to Ben, there are only two words incorporated into English from Chinese? Ping Pong and Tofu. He then added, "Almost universally Chinese speakers never use these words. Instead they will use alternative English versions, 'table tennis' and 'tasteless crap made out of bean curds.' "
Shortly after our return from NYC, we had dinner with friends who once lived in and have been frequent visitors to 'The' City over many decades. We shared memories, some fond some not, of trips to the big city in the 60's and 70's with stories of garbage strikes, filthy air, omnipresent dog droppings, graffiti on every imaginable surface, and most tantalizingly, the ubiquitous hookers. They were everywhere and obvious, on the sidewalks, in bars and restaurants, and most prominently in and around hotels. They were aggressive and irritating, and they did not look like anything remotely like those portrayed in the 1986 classic, 'Crocodile Dundee,' save the attire.
When Lucy was in eighth grade, and taking a health class, I was leaving for a business trip to NYC. Nonchalantly, she said, "Dad, make sure you don't have anything to do with prostitutes while you're in NYC. They have AIDS." I said, "Thanks for the health tip sweetheart."
Now they appear to be gone. Or perhaps, I made a more alluring, corn-fed target at age 43. Now they are as invisible to me as I am to them.
Sparks of Life
Just when I was thinking the wind might never again fill the sails of NNAOPP sales, I got an unexpected boost. I rode my bike past the Sanibel Bookshop and decided to drop in and check their stock. The attractive owner asked if I was looking for anything in particular, and I informed her of my quest. She asked my name and the title, and I told her. An older lady standing nearby said, "That's sounds interesting. Where'd you come up with that title?" And I told her.
We journeyed together to the local authors section and found one copy remaining. The proprietress then kindly told her prospective customer that the book was a fun read, and she could now get one signed personally by the author. Moi! The lady bought the last copy, I signed it, and the bookstore baroness said, "Bring me five more."
I pedaled away with a light heart.
The very next day I received an email from son-in-law Fred with the following photo. He and Waverly were shopping in the Rainy Day Bookstore, and, on her own devices, Waverly unexpectedly found my book. She went up to the counter to proudly proclaim, "That's my Papa." Learning of this vignette made my day, possibly my life.
Sales are now at 1,385 copies, short of my goal of 1,750, but still plugging. Thanks to all who made this happen.
I can't wait to start receiving Christmas cards and letters from friends. I greatly enjoy hearing about peoples' families, new grandkids, fun travels, obstacles overcome, and triumphs. Merry Christmas to all.