In my last blog, I wrote about simplicity, arguing that the banjo’s simple image has kept it and its players from being taken seriously. Now I want to write about simplicity’s opposite; complexity.

The banjo is infamous for being “theory resistant”; believe me, it’s not the instrument! It is the banjo player who is theory resistant, and who blames (credits?) the supposed “simplicity” of the instrument for their own weaknesses and irrational fears. There is a certain stubborn pride that goes along with “I play just fine without that stuff, thank you!” Can you imagine how much better you’d play with it?

Yes, there is a strong attraction (for players and listeners alike) to the banjo’s down-home simplicity and sing-along fun; this simplicity may be exactly why you play the banjo, and I would never try to minimize that. I also recognize that for many folks, the banjo is a welcome and simple respite from the pressures of an otherwise complex life; who wants to take yet another thing seriously? Isn’t that what hobbies are for? If either of these situations is true for you, then you are excused from class. All I ask is that you understand and support my efforts to raise the image of the banjo.

As you may be aware, if you’ve ever cracked open a theory book, doing so without a teacher/interpreter present is a sure-fire invitation to frustration! If you have made that innocent error in the past—and that’s your reason for avoiding it—then I invite you to try again with me as your guide. I struggled a bit with college theory—and that was with a teacher, and the pressure of having paid tuition—so I feel your pain. There are still parts of it that mystify me (and some that absolutely befuddles me); de-mystifying it is what keeps me moving forward.

I also understand—from first-hand experience—the difficulty of applying serious theory to the banjo (with few legitimate learning resources available), but I’m getting it figured out now. The key is using the banjo (or whatever instrument you play) as a theory learning device; theory without application means nothing!

This is not a judgement call on “ability level”; we all have our limitations (believe me, I am painfully aware of mine!), but I believe that we all have the ability to improve if we want to. We also all have the right to enjoy the banjo at whatever level we can muster—another truth I would never try to minimize. If you want to truly improve though, study and practice will naturally lead you to increasing complexity, a sure sign of “improvement.” Or should I say, the pursuit of complexity will naturally cause you to improve. In short, complexity is necessary for improvement; they go hand in hand.

So, do you learn a new song today, or do you learn a little music theory, and make the next several songs easier to learn? It may seem more time consuming to study now, but it will save a lot of time in the long run. One of my favorite paraphrased quotes:

“Teach a person to play a song and they’ll play for a day; teach a person to play music and they’ll play for a lifetime.”

One of my missions—as an avid banjo musician/teacher/nerd/advocate who is concerned about its future—is to maximize the potential and attraction of a misunderstood and mostly-forgotten instrument. The banjo may naturally attract those who want simplicity, but it can also attract those of us who want and thrive on complexity; as a real musical instrument, it can support and reward whatever level of complexity you want to throw at it. Many great musicians—who could be great banjoists if they tried it—frankly consider the instrument to be a joke. For most, it is probably not even on their radar, being attracted to instruments that better fit the serious-minded and complex image they desire (and avoiding instruments with a simplistic hick image).

I don’t know about your motivations, but the continuing discovery of complexity has kept me playing the banjo (the possibilities are endless); otherwise, I probably would have become bored long ago, and switched my focus to a more serious instrument to satisfy my musical needs! If I had never heard Buddy Wachter—and realized what could be done on it—I probably would not be a banjo player today; his inspiration and influence is also the reason I went back to school for a Music Education degree 30 years ago (an education that I’m finally applying to the banjo). He once told me that he plays the banjo because he enjoys the challenge of making great music with it.

Adding complexity to music is akin to adding color and/or texture to a painting or a home décor plan! It makes music much more interesting, if only for that minority who understands and appreciates it. Imagine you are walking down a hallway in a strange building that you have never been in. All the doors are closed and have no windows, so you have no idea what’s in the rooms; you’re just in a plain-old hallway for all you know. That is a good metaphor for simplicity in music. Next, imagine that you have gotten a grand tour of the building and it turned out to be fascinating. Now, when you walk down that hallway, you know—and can visualize—what’s in the rooms. That is a good metaphor for complexity, except in the case of music, it’s auditory and not visual. 

A couple examples of the educational value of complexity: I have had great success improving a student’s sense of rhythm and time by introducing them to more complex rhythms (syncopation, especially). Complex rhythms require more concentration and effort; isn’t that natural human reaction—to put the nose to the grindstone when challenged—what we want for learning/advancement’s sake? Can we expect to improve if we keep simplifying the banjo? Seems a bit counterproductive to me! Music at a high level is difficult and complex; that to me sounds productive, and conducive to improvement.

I had a student who was convinced he was “tone deaf” (and his singing seemed to prove it!), and couldn’t even hear the differences between the strings; I don’t remember the exact path we took to get there, but the subject turned to the overtone series. To make a long story short, by the end of the one-hour lesson he was able to tune his banjo without a tuner, and his singing voice has improved dramatically since (“Not typical results; your experience may vary”)! Those are the kinds of things available through increased complexity.

“The mind, once stretched to a new idea, never returns to it’s original dimensions.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

And my musical paraphrase of it:

“The ear, once stretched to a new sound, never returns to it’s original dimensions.”

For example, once you have learned to hear and appreciate the dissonance in a colorful chord (whether you know anything about it or not), everything short of it seems kinda plain-Jane (because it is). Now, imagine learning to understand the musical context in which that chord is properly used—and learning to use it yourself! You would probably kiss simplicity goodbye too, just like me; once properly bit by complexity, there’s no going back to your original dimensions.

In my internet research, I have found many comments by folks who are afraid that if they learn “too much,” they will no longer enjoy their favorite music. I have to admit that I innocently enjoyed simple banjo music more before I met Buddy than after. The discovery of just how much there is to learn about music and the banjo can make you feel inadequate (and thus spoil the fun); I feel inadequate enough without that kind of help! I have learned though that these feelings also keep me motivated; now I worry when I don’t feel inadequate! Is your enjoyment derived from settling for the same thing over and over again, or is it derived from improvement? While part of me would love to feel good about my playing, I realize that feeling like something is lacking is what keeps me focused (I get bored easily). I hope to never fully “figure it out” and “arrive”; what would be left then?

I’m not reinventing the wheel; I’m simply trying to recreate the banjo’s forgotten past and help to return it to its former glory as a musical instrument-to-be-taken-seriously. I am using that ulterior motive to inspire myself to practice and improve; I want to be part of the image restoration! The historic banjo canon contains a lot of complex music, in addition to the simple, fun stuff we all know and love. Also—moving forward—the banjo is capable of a lot of newer non-traditional music that would serve to “modernize” the banjo and raise its image in the larger music world.

If you have no interest in adding more-complex music to your repertoire, that’s okay, but I would ask that you appreciate it for what it is, and support it by appreciating and encouraging those of us who like to play it. Realizing the hard work and sincere dedication that went into learning it, I ask that you give at least a nod of approval or a thumbs up, if not a rousing ovation.

“Too many notes” you say? No wonder Harry Reser was disillusioned.

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