What this page is about: Shooting down myths about learning music, talent, personal achievement, what a good teacher is, does for you. How to find and recognize a good teacher. What is good teaching? These are things from my experience that I will share with you.
I won’t start at the beginning of the story. I’ll start at the beginning of my mandolin future.
I had played the piano for 20 years. Then a friend showed me a mandolin, soon I bought an inexpensive round back. The only mandolin book the music store had was how to learn classical mandolin. Since I had made music since age 9 only by reading printed notes, that is what I did to start playing mandolin. I read music on the mandolin for 2 years. I did not have a concept of playing by ear, so when I wanted to learn something, I wrote it down on staff paper, then read it!!!!
Many classical piano teachers forbid playing by ear, tapping one’s foot or moving rhythmically, improvising or composing one’s own music. That is the way I’d been trained for nine years on the piano. I did all these things naturally starting at age 8 when my family bought a piano. But was made to un-learn them.
It’s still a common belief that one either has the inborn ability to play by ear, or they don’t. If they don’t, there is no way the person will ever be able to play by ear, goes the myth. It’s also believed by some piano teachers that learned by ear will impede learning to read music. My experience: I relearned to play by ear starting about age 33, on the mandolin. The experience and skill at both ear playing and reading of several hundred of my piano students is another proof. I showed them how to play by ear and they learned fast. Learning to read music came almost naturally to the students who played by ear first. Many Old Time Music players I know, who started reading as classical players, show that playing by ear can be learned at any age.
In about 1973, I went to an organizational meeting potluck of a local Old Time Fiddlers Association. I made devilled eggs, and considered this dish to be a rather pedestrian offering. I was afraid to play the mandolin in front of people, so I left it in the trunk of the car. (Never a good idea, but I didn’t know that then, and nothing bad happened to it.) I ported my egg dish to the potluck table, where I was greeted by a bubbly young woman.
“Hi! I’m Joanie!” she exclaimed as she put out her hand. I shook hands as she said, “Oh! Devilled eggs! Everybody loves devilled eggs. Do you plan an instrument?”
“Well, sort of….” I said.
“Where is it?! Go get it!” Joanie sweetly demanded . “My husband plays the banjo! I’ll go get him while you get your instrument.”
When I got back with the mandolin, there were Joanie’s husband with his banjo, a fiddle player who was quite a bit older than the rest of us, and a guitar player. They asked me to play the mandolin for them. I played one voice of a Bach 2-part invention.
Mandolins were rare in the 1970s, and I think mine was the first one anyone had seen. A few more people came up to me then and said, “We hear you’re a really good mandolin player!” Well, I wasn’t and knew it, but fast friendships were soon formed.
The fiddler told us he had not played the fiddle for quite a few years, and had never played with other musicians. Some of the others had not played with other musicians, either.
The fiddler started to play. He played the tune “Redwing.” I light bulb – more like a happy explosion – went off in my head and ears! “I can play that!” I exclaimed, and then proceeded to play the whole tune. I did not read music again on the mandolin for many years. Only occasionally I’d decipher some small section of a tune I was unable to learn by ear.
Mandolin ear playing turned out to be an instantaneous experience for me. I figured, “My ear playing ability is back! I’ll learn piano by ear, too!” But it took me ten years to master ear playing, improvising, chording, and arranging on the piano.
Well, back to the potluck and what came from it. The small bunch of the Old Time Musicians who’d met at the potluck became fine friends. We decided to have a weekly Wednesday Night Jam at the fiddler’s house. At first, we’d “break down” — stop playing – in the middle of a tune. After a few weeks, we did play one whole tune one time through to the end – and we all let out a huge cheer!
A while after we got to playing tunes like “real musicians,” we were invited to sit in with bands that played for folk and square dances.
We eventually split off from a large group of musicians. I was instrumental in doing this. I chose a large park to jam in, and the Second Sunday of The Month Old Time Jam was born. It was all-acoustic. Frequently about 35 musicians would show up. We’d split up and move between various small groups. Groups went to different parts of the large open area and jammed on several styles of traditional music. That jam is still going on some 40 years later.