Friday, October 9, 2009

The banjo factor

In 2000, my husband gave me a banjo for Christmas. His mother's side of the family is from Appalachia (though no one in it plays the banjo, as far as I know), so we do a bit of kidding about hillbillies around here. Maybe this gave him the idea. In any case, he had gone to the House of Musical Traditions and picked out a nice little open-back banjo. I loved my new toy. It was nicely made, with a sweet tone. Unfortunately, this is not going to be a story about how I mastered the banjo. I did spend some time with it and learned a few simple tunes, but it didn't seem quite the right instrument for me.

However, this got my instrument-playing juices flowing again. After several rough years of being caregiver for my mother when she had a brain tumor and then taking care of her estate, I wasn't playing much of anything and wasn't enjoying what I did play.

When I was a teenager, I taught myself (in addition to the cello) the guitar, the recorder, and the flute. I used to spend hours playing chords on the guitar and singing, both alone and with my younger sister. We even worked out a harmony part to "Sounds of Silence." So I suppose the banjo experience stirred some pleasant memories, devoid of critical teachers.

It somehow came to me that I wanted to learn to play the viola. My reasons:
1. I love the sound of it. It's possibly the mellowist instrument of all.
2. Good violists are in demand, so I figured if I got reasonably good at it I would have plenty of playing opportunities -- most viola parts are pretty easy.
3. It would be kind of like the cello, only a lot easier to carry around.
4. I was smart and more talented than a lot of violists.

Then followed several years in which I seriously pursued this idea. I tried teaching myself, but the posture and hand position were mysterious and not intuitive, so eventually I took lessons, first at a community college and then at a private music school. Both of the teachers were decent, but I was frustrated. Playing was fun, but I could not get a good vibrato. I practiced it all kinds of ways, but it never became natural. So much for being smart.

I also discovered that amateur groups were full of violinists who had decamped to the viola. There were always too many violists and not enough cellists. When people found out not only that I played the cello but that I played it well, they started asking me to play cello instead of viola.

Toward the end of this time, I noted how when I played the cello, it felt so easy.  It became harder and harder for me to make myself practice the viola, even though I was committed to a set number of lessons so I was basically wasting the opportunity. Part of it was that the teacher would assign me a new piece or exercise, and I would work on it for a week and go for my lesson, expecting to get to the nitty gritty on how to master it but would get assigned a new piece instead. I finally decided to stop going to the lessons before the semester was over. I received a written evaluation in the mail later, and I was touched that the teacher expressed disappointment that I had stopped my lessons because I was one of his most advanced students.

If I had only taken up the accordion next, I would have hit the music joke trifecta. I suppose it's never too late . . .

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