As I have often stated in my blogs, I write to affect change and growth. In my wildest dreams, these changes would be in the banjo world itself. I am a realist however; I realize the only entity that I can successfully affect change and growth in is myself. I sincerely hope that my musings will strike a chord with readers, thereby affecting change.
The issue I am writing about here is not so much a “problem” as it is a “limiting condition.” I have recently come to the full realization that I am not a particularly creative banjoist; I am nothing more than a very good “re-creative artist.” In this sense–as a musician–the banjo is a perfect fit! Because it is a historical instrument–playing a type of music that was first created long ago–if you play it you are automatically recreating music of the past. Unless of course, you create truly new music on it.
In the strict sense of actual “creativity” only musicians who make music that has never been heard before fit the bill. Composers create music, and improvisers create music; the rest of us merely parrot what has already been done. For the most part, this is a good thing; banjo fans like to hear favorite old tunes!
To a small extent, if you play an “arrangement on the fly,” you are creating, but that is probably based on old things that you have done many times before; “new to you” and “new to the world” are usually two different things.
This is partly the reason I have in the past advocated for playing “standards.” To fill the void created by the absence of true creativity, I believe we would all benefit from playing a standardized historical repertoire, and being somehow judged for how well we play it, through either competition or certification testing. In the Classical world (and Military bands, for that matter), this is how musicians prove their skills and advance their careers. The crucible of standardized competition makes for better musicians (in both the professional and hobby worlds); wouldn’t the four-string banjo benefit from this too? I think so! But that’s another subject.
Anyway, the only methods that I have found to improve my own playing involve copying old music in one form or another. I have memorized jam session songs, transcribed recordings, learned old Parlor Banjo songs through sheet music editing, and created my own arrangements (which I play exactly the same way every time, thereby negating any creativity that may once have gone into them!).
Through this learning/improving process, I still hope to someday develop the skills/mindset necessary for jazz improvisation; only then will I consider myself to be a “creative artist.” This will be the subject of a future blog.