Thursday, June 6, 2013

Metronomes, John Hartford, and doing things right.


                  What is it about the metronome that can cause distress in music students? So often I’ve brought the metronome to start working on a musical passage and you can immediately sense the discomfort. The worry and perhaps even fear that creeps up on the musician new to the metronome is unnecessary. Maybe its just a fear of the unknown. When I first started working with the metronome I was excited. This is what real musicians do I thought, they practice with a metronome. Its to bad I had no idea what I was doing back then but, at least I was trying I guess.
         Its been so long I can scarcely remember what I did when I used a metronome when I was first starting out. I’m pretty sure I was playing too fast. Most folks do. This is one of the most common mistakes of metronome practice. If there’s nobody around who knows to tell you to slow down chances are you are going to play to fast. And too fast equals what? That’s right, poor muscle memory and sloppy music. I know I like to belabor this point. You’ll thank me one day.
         I’ve become so accustomed to practicing with a metronome I can hardly live without a steady beat. During solo performances I often find myself tapping my foot to help lock in the groove. One of my newest musical pursuits has been learning to play old time fiddle, as if I didn’t have enough to work on already! I’m finally starting to perform with the fiddle on a few tunes I can play pretty well. Learning the fiddle has been a dream of mine for years and years. If you’ve ever picked up a fiddle and tried to coax a few sounds out of one you know how difficult it is to make a fiddle sound like anything other than a dying cat, much less sound like music. But as if learning to play fiddle wasn’t difficult enough I decided I wanted to learn to dance while I played fiddle.
          I never felt like I had the time to get serious about practicing fiddle but a few years ago something happened and I resolved that I couldn’t wait any longer. I found myself traveling alone and listening to lots of John Hartford’s music. A bootleg of John Hartford’s from 1988 had ended up on my mp3 player and I hardly listened to anything else for about 2 months. Hartford often performed solo and switched off playing banjo, guitar, and fiddle during his performances. Hartford’s ability as a entertainer and performer are legendary and listening back to this bootleg its easy to see why he was such a beloved figure in the Bluegrass/Old time music community. The music I heard on this bootleg absolutely knocked me over. Hartford’s virtuosity was astounding.
         He danced a shuffle rhythm on a piece of plywood while he played jaw dropping fiddle and banjo music of the highest caliber. And that shuffle rhythm was locked in and just as tight as a bolt holding up the Golden Gate bridge. I couldn’t believe something like that was even possible. I had read an article in the Fretboard journal where Jamie Hartford, John’s son, had mentioned that after a show his father would get the metronome out and work on his timing some more (Fretboard Journal). AFTER a performance. This was a person who knew how to use a metronome. After listening to that music constantly for 2 months I resolved that I had to at least try to learn how to play fiddle and dance. I loved it so much I had to get closer to it. Now if I hoped to do all that I’d better be sure I knew how to work with a metronome.
         As you might expect, it would prove even more difficult than I imagined. I purchased a video where Hartford explains how he danced while he played. He slowly broke his moves down literally step by step. I poured over the video time and time again but it still made no sense to me. And that was just the dancing, the fiddle seemed equally impossible. Dragging the bow across the strings produced sounds only the deaf could appreciate and getting my fingers to find the right place to play notes in tune was like trying to nail a small tack with a sledgehammer. I’d miss every time. This was going to be much harder than I thought.
         I was going to have to accept that I was a complete and total beginner, despite getting accomplished on the guitar and banjo. The fiddle/dance thing was a whole ‘nother beast. I was going to have to learn to really slow down, not just musically speaking but in terms of how fast I was going to learn to play. If I hoped to have any chance of pulling off this fiddle/dancing thing and not embarrassing myself I needed to not make the same mistakes I had made with the guitar and banjo. I realized that instead of feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, instead, I had a golden opportunity. Here was an opportunity to really do things right. This was a chance to really put to work all that I knew about how to practice. I would have to really walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I also knew that the metronome could help me if I would be patient enough to slow it down and really listen to it. The wise man’s words came back to me once more but this time I felt no fear in the words, “It will be very difficult for you, the ego always gets in the way.” Not this time I decided, not this time.

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