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A Revelation

Posted by bj on Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last night I went to a jam. The folks were very nice and it was a pleasant enough evening overall, except . . .

It wasn't all that much fun playing. Why? If we weren't playing tunes from the jam list of the person whose party it was, there were only five of us out of ten of us who could play any tune played. The rest of the folks plunked the occasional wrong note, asked repeatedly what key we were in, and generally sounded awkward. Worse, they were mildly disruptive when we were playing stuff they didn't know. Instead of making the effort to try to grasp the skeleton of the tune, they plunked around without aim, talked, got up for a bathroom trip, or whatever.

The party was held as a CD release party for a band, and a few friends of each band member were invited, along with a few people who had helped with the recording. The band member who invited me is one of my Easton Jam jammers and a helluva fiddler. Another fiddler I know and her husband were also there. She and her husband are both regular oldtime players of pretty high caliber. They'd jammed with all these people in the past.

We four, and one other guitarist friend of my fiddler bandmember friend were the only ones who played every tune. It took me awhile to figure it out. Most of the people in the band never learned to play by ear. They can't pick up tunes on the fly. They can't improvise. They learn music by rote.

And I realized that the Paint By Numbers approach to music isn't at all what I wanna do. And it isn't what I do. Ever. More importantly, playing with people who play that way just doesn't work for me at all.

The only people in the room who were MAKING music were the five of us who could make it up as we went along. The rest were just parroting something they'd learned off some recording someone made sometime somewhere-- a frozen moment in time, probably never repeated by the recording artist ever again, but doomed to be repeated by people who Play By The Numbers. And the five of us who played tunes that the rest didn't know managed to do a good job doing so despite the rudeness of the others. And yes, it was rudeness. Why ask others to kick off tunes if you aren't going to respect their choices?

Back when I started the Easton OT jam, there was a guy who offered to "lead" the jam since I was inexperienced. He also offered to teach me fiddle. I blogged about that experience, but didn't quite give the whole story as I came to understand it in retrospect. This guy had been fiddling for most of his life and he is, I believe, in his 70's. When we had our "lesson" he first had a discussion with me about how he would happily "help" me lead the jam, and we could use His Tune List.

Then we started the playing part of the lesson. He suggested that he could teach me a tune and told me he'd play it up to speed three times, then we'd play it together slowly and he'd "break it down" for me. As he played it the first time through I started noodling it out and by the second time through I was playing a skeletal version of the tune along with him. He stopped playing and got really huffy about how I could have told him I already knew the tune. I didn't. He'd just taught it to me. I told him that. He refused to believe me.

That's when he switched to bowing exercises and started insulting and abusing me.

After that lesson, I thought back on the couple jams he'd come to. When a couple of our other really good fiddlers would introduce tunes this guy didn't know, he would look pained, try to watch fingers to try to catch the tune, which didn't work since he doesn't crosstune, and then he'd fake it and not play, but try to look like he was playing. It was somewhat bizarre, especially given his number of years playing. When we later had our "lesson" he had nothing good to say about our other good fiddlers at the jam, called them "showoffs" and said they "took over the jam" which was pretty funny, given what he was trying to do.

Anyway, after I told him that I wasn't taking any more lessons with him and he realized we wouldn't be using his tune list, I never saw him at our jam again. It's a shame he never learned. And I'm a bit relieved he decided not to come, because we're a better jam because of it.

The Easton Jam routinely learns at least one new tune every time we meet. Sometimes we play two or three new tunes, depends on who shows up and leads tunes. And the jam after a big festival event we might go hog wild with new tunes! When the jam first started we used to get 14-18 players. Since we always introduce new tunes every jam, that number has shrunk to between 5-10 players. But that's fine. Why? It's quality over quantity, put simply. The ones who come regularly are willing to learn to pick up tunes on the fly. And most succeed at it, at least to a degree that allows them to play stuff that blends into what's going on. And the more they do it the better they get at it. Yes, our members are at different places on the path, but all are real musicians. All make the effort. Almost everyone who comes to our jam Creates Music. Nobody plays by the numbers.

And that is AOK with me.

45 comments on “A Revelation”

eerohero Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @9:54:26 PM

I Guess, every Jam should have "Jam Leader", just like in the Band, without a Band leader, its just a Bunch of individuals with bright Ego, each and everyone, no respect for others and to their levels of playings,

bj, you`re strong enough to become "A Jam Leader", no matter if theres better "Shiny Stars" among players, they need a Leader them also, otherwise their shitty Ego will explode on the walls. I know about this phenomena, Ive been a Band leader for half dozen times, and truly enjoyed of it.Go for it, You can ! and you will enjoy of it.(some friendly Soul may call you a Bitch at these occasions, that shouldnt stop You, only encourage You, and makes You stronger)

bj Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @10:12:02 PM

Oh, you're too funny. I'm just the organizer! I don't really lead, though I do occasionally start noodling a tune when the conversation has gone on too long when we're there to jam . . . ;-)

fiddleiphile Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @6:16:47 AM

You can dig yourself a very deep hole by continualy proclaiming what you don't need to know to be good. Some people believe music goes well beyond "old time" and learning to read and a few simple rules seem to have been the fastest route to playing any instrument. There are new comers to the site every day that know nothing and want to learn. I think slamming the door to formal instruction is a mistake. Learning by ear is a natural progression after your ear has an idea of what it is listening to.

OTJunky Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @6:48:43 AM

Yeah - those kinds of jams are my worst nightmare.

I think the current revivalist form of OT jam is a bit underrated. The form requires musicians to listen to one another, and then to play in such a way that the overall sound of the music is enhanced. This, in turn, requires the ability to play by ear and to modify one's playing in "real time".

There are a lot of OT players who just memorize tunes by rote and don't listen to others when they play in jams - missing the point entirely IMO. Many things attract people to this music. The "prestige" associated with being in a band is among them. And "tune collection quantity" is another.

But, in the final analysis it's only about the sounds you make and the music you play. I'm a bit surprised that you haven't run into these kinds of problems before now.


bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @7:31:46 AM

OTJ, I haven't run into these problems before now because I've been playing with people like Jane Gilday, and David Husic, and Rick Carlson, and Art Bryan and Fiddlejammer aka Terri Luckacko and others who have NO problem picking stuff up on the fly and improvising. The contrast between playing with the people I usually play with, and playing with this bunch on Friday night was stark and harsh.

In talking with Jane about it, I realized something. She says she won't go to jams at all, and she doesn't. She says she can't abide playing with people who can't make music. The folks I met last night are regulars at the oldtime jams down Jane's way. DOH!!!

When I made the choice early on in the Easton Jam to not let it be led by any one person, and to allow anyone to lead whatever tunes they want regardless of whether the group knows the tune or not (even though I end up leading a great many of them) it made the jam take on a character that encourages the type of player who can go with the flow. Which is probably why it hasn't come up with me much since I started playing fiddle.

I think the "prestige" aspect is the one that is operable for these people. The party was a CD release party and the music studio owner was there too. Funny, he kept trying to shove a business card in my hand, and talking about how he has to get these three fiddlers into the studio, which I found to be a mild annoyance.

I admit to being guilty of "tune collection quantity" to a certain degree, but I do go back and refine stuff after it's been learned in jam fashion. And in truth, as long as you do that and go back to the various sources (and not ONE source) I think it's a valid way to learn. Each tune teaches different finger and bow patterns. That becomes vocabulary. So the more tunes you learn, the easier it is to learn tunes. Refining them afterward and making sure they don't become set in stone is also an important part of the process though.

fiddleiphile, no matter which type of music you play, ear learning is critical, since it's the basis for improvization, no matter how much theory you know. Kenny Barron, my music professor in college, taught me that. Google him. You might learn something. ;-)

eerohero Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @7:43:32 AM

some real good fiddlers, doesnt read music at all, Bobby Hicks, the legend, is one of them. Kenny Baker wasnt too good at it either.By Ear, yet not before we`re ready for it. It took years for me.There may be a lot of opinions about this, maybe as many as players.

fiddleiphile Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @8:08:43 AM

B. J. I think you are making my point. Your music professor in college taught you that. Seems to me that learning what a note is and how it relates to finger position is pretty important. Pretty hard to do soley by ear.
"here kid, it's a fiddle, go play it"

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @8:24:20 AM

Are you saying you can't learn fiddling solely by ear? I call Bulldoody. People do it all the time.

And fiddleiphile, you totally missed MY point. People who learn to play by rote and never progress on to ear training and picking stuff up by ear will remain one dimensional players. They'll never create music, they'll only ever parrot it.

It's the most important skill you can learn if you're learning to make music. I never said it was the ONLY skill. You put those words in my mouth.

eerohero Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @8:44:22 AM

Very interesting discussion, and the point is that most of Us needs all kinds of learnings, otherwise were genius, some above mentioned legends didnt read music, I guess they were genius.

now, after years of playings from notation only, I got into improvisings on Jazz and Swing, and its a heavenly pleasure, a whole new world opened to me,and because it took such a long time, it makes me convinced that Im not a Genius, my friends may reinforce my opinions about this matter of Fact.

Life is easy, when you`re a Musician, dance on Roses....

richdissmore Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @8:55:52 AM

bj is rigth to learn to play by ear you must lisen to the tune being played to play it i have knowen some who keen read music take the music away there done can,t play with out the notes in frount of them.

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @9:19:25 AM

Eero, you may not be a genius, but you ARE a musician of the rarer sort, the kind who can create music. I can't wait to play a few tunes with you, I hope your trip here is still on the schedule! And Eero, I'll dance on anything that'll hold me. ;-)

Rich, you're right. Funny story about that though, and a way to show there are a lot of paths to get there. There's a woman I know who came to oldtime from the classical world. She could NOT pick up tunes on the fly. Just couldn't do it. She had to learn tunes from notation and then memorize them. One evening she started sitting there, in the jam, with a blank NOTATION book in her hand and notating them as they were being played. That she could do. Then she could play off her notation. Eventually she learned to MENTALLY notate and read the tunes in her mind as she was playing them, eliminating the actual paper, much as the grandmaster chess players will do when playing without a physical chessboard. Yeah, for most of us it would appear to be the long way around, but it worked for her. And she was using her ears. She's a very well respected OT player in this area now. She also took the time to LISTEN and learn the sounds of oldtime, and work against her classical training when it's called for in order to achieve the right sound. Oh, and she and her mate are publishing a book of all those tunes she's notated, should be out soon. Last I heard the book has over a thousand tunes in it.

fiddleiphile, it occurs to me that I've been insensitive to what you're really saying. I hope you achieve your musical goals, whatever they may be. And it's okay if they're different than mine. I always did set the bar pretty high.

ChickenMan Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @9:43:24 AM

Wow. This blog hit on what frustrates me about "Fiddle Club" - my monthly outing to actually play with other fiddlers. SO many of them are rote learners, even if they are 'learning by ear', they are being taught "This is how it goes" by an instructor (who is a club member) without any room for artistic expression. In fact, I think at least 75% of the people in attendance are or were his students. Plus, the 'back up' musicians rarely actually know the tunes they are backing (especially the tunes I play) which makes for a painful listening and playing experience. Which is why I am working up my own jam (as you know). It sounds like your 5-10 is a big enough number of players if they are like minded in their approach to music. Geniuses, if you will. :-) Great blog.

richdissmore Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @9:47:24 AM

the bar i set for my self to be able to play music once more and make people happy with my playing like i did be for my strokei can play a little fiddle i,m now work ing on my guittar playing . At the V.A. in milwaukee this is the first time they are offering a program called Guitars for vet,s like me may be this will help me play i,m in the program i think it starts end of the month jan .30 i,m trying every thing i can to be able to play i think i told you i use to play sim. pro. the stroke took that away I,m not going to let that beat me .going to keep trying i have tryed to read music i could read faster by ear i don,t know why i just can i will play some day lord willing and if its his will keep fildden

Ozarkian DL Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @9:48:25 AM

I read no music. I've often wondered & it best to learn music theory first, then by ear, or vice-versa, & its effect on tha learner ? Many good, better, & great fiddlers have no formal music education......especially tha area where I grew up.

As to tha old ( would be ) teacher.....maybe he knew he was a good fiddler, but did'nt know he was not a good teacher & not recognize natural talent. We do get set in our ways & more hard-headed with age. I KNOW ......LOL.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @9:56:43 AM

Love your stories, bj, and the subsequent commentary. I'm so glad you write this stuff. What can I add...there's this song we used to sing, "People come and people go/ Some say yes and some say no/ I just smile and shrug my shoulders/ That's the way it is" As we move about in our fiddled lives, we'll meet folks who just hear a different drummer, even with no drums in the room....

fiddleiphile Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @1:18:09 PM

"Dance on roses" abosolutely beautiful Eero

eerohero Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @3:09:39 PM

Rich, singing is an excellent therapy for Stroke victims,its accepted in the entire world as a treatment, theres a Movie made of it, Robert De Niro`s masterpiece, You just have to watch that one.

Hi Jerry, Kenny Kosek played live in Finland, and the audience wanted extra numbers one after another, He got tired of it, and said:" I dont have to play more, Life is dance on Roses, when you`re a Musician"

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @3:48:15 PM

Billy, yell if you need to bounce ideas off me about getting your jam rolling, I'll be happy to tell you how I got this one going. And I hope someday we get to play a few.

Oz, I learned by ear then learned the theory, first in choral singing class, then in guitar lessons, then in college music theory classes. Funny thing is I forgot most of the theory, but it really doesn't matter. It's internalized. I use it. It's there somewhere. I know people are different and learn differently, as my classical-to-OT gal illustrates, but in my case it's a whole lot quicker to just let it go in my ears and come out my fingers. When I first started playing fiddle I was playing off sheet music. Once I (rather painfully) figured out the tune from the dots, I threw the sheet music away. I found it was easier for me to just play along with recorded music.

Are our lives really fiddled, Humbled? I kinda like that.

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @3:51:27 PM

Rich, Eero is right. Will you get it all back? Maybe not all of it. Will you get enough back to totally enjoy it and to bring that enjoyment to others? I predict-- YES. You want it badly. You'll figure out the workarounds to make it happen. And working with a physical therapist is a great way to make that work! I am so happy you're in that program! Maybe you can suggest to the PT person that you use your fiddle for at least part of your time there.

richdissmore Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @5:23:21 PM

don,t know what the PT will bring if you want to know if i sing ask mud bug you to Eero then ask albert 57 i sent them a cd of me singing no one run away when i singthey stayed all nigthi sang at the moose club in racine wis . harber ligth yacht clubthey always asked me back and a lot of clubs dance,s wedings all over

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @6:02:46 PM

Billy, the term you're looking for is 'Heterophonic' for when different people in a jam play different versions more or less "in unison" so to speak.

janepaints Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @6:15:50 PM

in regards to jams--and many other musical situations--i often think it comes down to (for me) preferring to only play with others who are SERVING music, rather than those who seek to have music serve them. IE, i seek the spirit-driven stuff rather than the ego-driven stuff. It's not that I avoid all jams-but I that I avoid jams where everybody aint 'in the spirit.' I can have a great time playing with folks whose technical skills & theoretical knowledge are bare-bones, as long as they got the spirit. And can have a lousy time playing with folks with monster chops and zippy-doo-dah but it just feels like springtime for hitler in Living Stereo. All bonafide roads lead away from Rome and all those dang Ceasar Salud! creeps.

ChickenMan Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @6:51:41 PM

Jane, I think I need to come to your neck of the woods to share in some music with you and bj. I often talk with my 'peers' about "serving the song/tune" and leaving the ego out of the picture. Sadly, that is a big part of what makes it hard to find people to play with, especially in the rock and roll world where I play guitar.

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @7:00:29 PM

Billy, I, for one, would love for that to happen. I have a feeling that if Jane saw some of your vids, she might be persuaded as well.

janepaints Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @7:08:57 PM

Chicken man>it happens in any genre (tho I dont really believe in 'genre' but use the various terms for convenience-of-communication sake.) The issue seems closely related to playing music as a form of Instant (or Easy) Identity. "I'M A ROCKER, DUDE!"..."I'M A MOUNTAIN MAN"..."I'M A MYSTIKAL CELTIC MINSTREL" etc. Lotta them types tend towards the wearily irksome. I tend to flock with folks who are mad for music, period--not those who pursue music as some kinda t-shirt with a slogan on it. It's a good thing I don't own any weapons--there's been too many celtic jams fulla jersey-accent folks who, when singing, suddenly have the lilt o da old sod in their voice...or well-off white suburban guys who sing blues in some doofus vocal-blackface, or college professors who go all fake-appalachian every time they sing bluegrass...etc...lord sometimes I wanna holler at 'em (like the Eurhythmics' song advised) Be Yourself Tonight.

bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @7:15:36 PM

Oh my, you just brought to mind my "friend" who has an outrageous Irish accent even though he was born in East central NJ. Also the Big Belt Buckle Crew who all sing through their noses in high-pitched southern accents despite being born in Hoboken.

janepaints Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @8:05:40 PM


bj Says:
Sunday, January 16, 2011 @8:37:20 PM

Should we make Billy aka Chickenman an honorary Joisey Goil? Or does he haveta pass the four letter vocab test first?

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Monday, January 17, 2011 @6:36:54 AM

Oh this is fun! Yet danged if wedon't have it so good out West here, for in Northern California we're all perfect, playing within the spirity of the music, our collective ego set at a safe and sane level, the college professor lying down with the students and lambs, the Big Belt Buckle Crew sent back east...we do alright though.

eerohero Says:
Monday, January 17, 2011 @7:21:10 AM

for your records, at least you keep yourself busy, I think youre doing just fine, and feel good all over, isnt that enough....

bj Says:
Monday, January 17, 2011 @11:55:00 AM

College Professors lying down with the students? Geez, you Cal types are sure LIBERAL!

eerohero Says:
Monday, January 17, 2011 @12:31:14 PM

Jane, "Be Yourself tonight", I would like to ad to it, that "Be always yourself"
because you may never be able to copy anyone else fully, only parody about the person.

What a feeling, when we find out that, that we are able to be ourselves, and doing great, noone else can copy Us....

ChickenMan Says:
Monday, January 17, 2011 @5:13:18 PM

I can speak a little Joisey - been there once in '95. Stayed in Wildwood for a week in a tiny 3 bedroom cottage with my eventual wife (drove there after dating a couple of months - talk about a test of compatibility) and 11, count 'em, 11 folks from Ireland who were working so they could party when they weren't working. One of them was my wife's friend who invited us out. We arrived at midnight and most of them were just waking up to go drink until 4 or 5, then they slept til about 8am, went to work "chamber maiding" till noon-ish, then off to "sleep on the bitch" (Irish for 'beach') until about 4pm when they went to work on the boardwalk somewhere til about 8pm and back to sleep until midnight....what a weird vacation that was. Drove to Atlantic City one night but didn't even get out of the car because of the uncool vibe that town had. The seagulls flying around the hotel lights, way up in the air there, look like moths flying around a porch light.
By the way, I know a LOT of four letter words. Some with more letters than that.

bj Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @11:15:28 AM

It's not just the four letter words. It's the artful way that Joisey Goils creatively and profligately add them into EVERY spoken sentence. They trip off the tongue in ways most people just would never think they'd fit. But they do.

Wildwood, land of the mile wide beach. I used to spend childhood summers there, back before the hurricane that dumped half of Cape May's sand onto Wildwood's shore. Back then the water actually lapped at the pier pylons. That "weird vacation" is fairly typical of Jersey Shore Life In The Summer.

ChickenMan Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @4:48:59 PM

I was JUST saying to my wife, "They were basically living 'The Jersey Shore'!!" Crazy Irishters.
Oh here's another: one morning while getting breakfast at an outdoor porch diner, I asked, "What's scrapple?"
And the grandmotherly waitress smiled and said, "Honey, if you don't know, you don't want to order it."
Friggin' classic.

Andah1andah2 Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @5:00:43 PM

When I was in high school, going "Down the shore" meant Seaside (or Sleazeside) Heights.

bj Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @5:02:56 PM

Oh sheesh, Jane and I just had a long conversation about Jersey and Pennsy cuisine growing up (many people who lived in central Jersey were Pennsy coal mining transplants.) Scrapple, SOS, Spam, and canned "vegetables" and recipes involving Campbell's canned soups figured loudly in our memories of "Mom's Home Cooking" which is why neither of us remember our Mom quite as fondly as most do.

bj Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @5:04:00 PM

Sleazeside Heights! That was my teenage years . . . Plastic peace symbols won on a dime's spin, and tye dyed everything . . .

janepaints Says:
Wednesday, January 19, 2011 @5:21:20 PM

Jeez. I only got as far as Keansburg (hee hee, I'll leave it to BJ to try to adequately explain the Wonder That Is Keansburg.

bj Says:
Wednesday, January 19, 2011 @5:27:32 PM

I can't explain The Wonder That Is Keansburg. I can do an adequate job on The Wonder That Is Asbury Park though . . .

tarheel Says:
Friday, January 21, 2011 @5:55:53 PM

HaHa Dang Gal I caint see the merit in loosing attendance at my jam to tell the truth it's all going to sound purty rough I imagine, But I do have a strange attraxtion to yankee gals so I will cut you some slack in this instance

bj Says:
Friday, January 21, 2011 @6:11:56 PM

You southern men always want what you can't have . . . ;-)

C'mon up this way, tarheel, and play a few with us.

icecream Says:
Tuesday, January 25, 2011 @4:07:42 PM

All of you seem so talented. I'm a beginner and have the hardest time putting my left fingers on the right notes. It seems impossible at times. Does this mean this instrument isn't for me after all ? I started September 2010.

bj Says:
Tuesday, January 25, 2011 @7:44:29 PM

It takes about a year before you can play anything you actually can stand to listen to, and two years before you actually like some of the stuff you can play. That's if you play every single day for at least an hour or two. So the answer is it depends on how badly you want it. One thing I will say. Since I actually learned how to play this thing I've turned into a guy magnet. Not that I wanted the ones I attracted, but I did manage to snag one good'un. :-D

icecream Says:
Saturday, January 29, 2011 @9:07:47 AM

That's great BJ. You go girl !!!!

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