Frailing, Frailing

I’m pretty much the world’s most untalented aspiring musician. My problem is I love music, and I can play it juuuuust well enough to think I’m decent at it.

I’m not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not always trying.

In elementary school, we were given recorders — though in my day we called them “song flutes” — and I was good enough at playing it by ear to be selected as one of five kids from my school to appear on a TV show . . . where I learned to my horror that I was going to have to sing. The song we performed? “Up With People.” Good lord.

In third or fourth grade, I took up the clarinet. It was another instrument I played by ear, and it was fingered enough like a recorder that I could do a reasonable job faking my way through songs like “Do-Re-Mi.” But for some reason, I don’t ever recall my elementary school band teacher teaching us to read music. I think it’s because band was more of a voluntary activity, in which those of us with instruments left class for thirty minutes to go to band practice in the cafeteria, and not a part of the formal curriculum.

Consequently, when I moved to a new school in the middle of my fifth grade year and enrolled in band at a school where they took band seriously, I found myself immediately in over my head. I was relegated to third clarinet status, which meant I wasn’t carrying the melody. And when I couldn’t play the melody by ear and actually had to read music, the jig was up. I was finished. Embarrassed, I gave up the clarinet.

In sixth grade, I went into the embarrassing phase that so many boys go through — that phase where you want to be a rock musician more than anything in the world. Oddly, I was attracted to the bass guitar, probably because of Paul McCartney. While Brian Wilson had shown that the bass player could be a front man, McCartney made it cool to be a bass player, paving the way for players like Roger Waters and Geddy Lee.

Well, I never was cool, but for the next three years, I was a decent bass player. I learned to read bass clef, albeit barely, and I got good enough at it that I was recruited to play in the school jazz band — a gig I loved so much that I still annoy my wife talking about it.

Then I moved again. I briefly considered playing bass in the jazz band at my new school, but the thought of being subjected to an audition — in which I might be required to sight read — was too intimidating. I put the bass aside, and got into journalism instead. I didn’t pick up an instrument again for twenty years.

In the late 1990s, with my hands itching for another stringed instrument — one that could carry the melody (the bass, while fun, is usually backbone, not melody) — I turned to the banjo. An odd choice, I know — I mean, why not the acoustic guitar, right? — but there was something about the thing that just seemed to be so much fun. Besides, if it was good enough for Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog, that was enough for me.

A decade later, I’ve learned to play only somewhat decently, but it’s an instrument I love. I can’t play in the Scruggs or fingerpicking styles that sound so cool and take real skill (no “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Dueling Banjos” for me — at least not yet), but I’m a competent frailer — that bum-diddy style so distinct to the banjo.

I play on a beautiful Deering Boston banjo — pictured just above — a banjo that’s far more deserving of a better player than me. It’s sorta like giving a Porsche to someone who hasn’t the slightest idea how to drive. Me, I’m just hoping not to wrap it around a pole.

4 responses to “Frailing, Frailing

  1. A friend of mine once said “Everyone should learn a new instrument as an adult, when they no longer feel they have to be great.”

    There’s something about the pressure you get in the academic music environment that burdens your playing with too much weight, too much sense that you’re not allowed to mess around, to screw up. That environment helps make competent musicians good and good ones excellent, but it has a way of driving out the dabblers.

    Having spent ten years as a formal music student (and becoming good, but not great), I find myself now longing for amateurism. I believe everyone should have an instrument they know enjoy playing, not for performances and recitals but with friends and family.

    Which reminds me — next time we see each other, make sure you have your banjo and I’ll make sure I have a guitar, which I don’t play well and don’t take seriously.


  2. I played oboe and mandolin in elementary school. Let’s just say it wasn’t my coolest phase.


  3. I LOVE your stories about Jazz Band. The funniest thing about them is the fact that I heard them for a year without finding out that it wasn’t A jazz band (images of you with cool shades in a smoky old bar) – it was THE Jazz Band…as in Junior High!

    Just another thing I love about you…each and every moment has equal weight. (Well nearly every one).


  4. Kudos to you for choosing the banjo–instead of the cowbell.