Teaching Music Through the Back Door
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Brett Ridgeway
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 Brett Ridgeway - Anyone Can Make Music © 2017

Teaching Music Through the Back Door

Birth of a Banjo - Entry 1

by Brett Ridgeway on 08/07/17

I have commissioned a custom Banjo from Ryan Navey of the Carolina Banjo Company. Through the process of building my banjo he will send me pictures of the step-by-step process so that you can see my Banjo come to life!

The first step was picking the wood. He chose this large piece of cherry which will actually yield 10 to 12 banjos. As can be seen the tree was quite large and came from Davidson, North Carolina. It has been hair hacked, dried, stacked with spaces between the boards for over 15 years. Some of it is curly but I'll clean cherry with no dirty streets. This is where my banjo will originate.

It's Been Awhile...

by Brett Ridgeway on 08/07/17

I started this blog some time ago with the goal of submitting regular updates, but I also did not want to post for the sake of posting with endless blatherings or quick blurbs with nothing really substantive to say.


But I have been thinking, which can be dangerous. :)  So hopefully, I will be adding some additional content in the near future. But let me tell you what spurred this current post on...

A few weeks ago, a guy named Ryan Navey friended me on Facebook. Ryan is the owner and sole proprietor of the Carolina Banjo Company. I took a look at his Facebook page and was enthralled with some of the pics I saw. Yes...I said, enthralled. Enthralled to the point I wanted to see more...to know more and I went to his website. I scrolled through each banjo, listened to every sound clip, and returned to his page again and again.

Now you may not be into banjos. But if you are into fine craftsmanship, if you are into the simplistic beauty of any instrument, if you appreciate true artistry...the transformation of a rough-hewn piece of wood into a functional, beautifully sounding work of art...you will appreciate what Ryan does. But even at this point, what I was seeing had not yet registered in my mind.

I sent him a message and asked if I could call and talk about his banjos. I was literally drawn in to the point that if what I thought about the banjos was true, I would end up purchasing one of these instruments, but before I could make the investment, I wanted to find out firsthand if my hunch was right. I wanted to see, feel, touch, and play one of these instruments to see if it was what I thought it might be. So I planned a road trip.

I drove from western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh, to southern North Carolina, just east of Charlotte--nearly eight hours--to find out. Understand, NO instrument has ever pulled me in to the point where I would drive that distance...until this time. And I truly couldn't believe I was going to do this! I arrived Friday afternoon, got a motel room for the night, and Saturday morning I drove to the Carolina Banjo Company and the home of Ryan Navey. I spent over six hours visiting, playing every banjo he had, and touring his workshop as he talked me through his different building processes--and my musical perspective changed, and developed, and appreciated. His instruments surpassed my thoughts and expectations. I was easily lost in the tones--whether I was playing or Ryan was demonstrating. He had a wide selection of options and my head swam trying to decipher what I wanted...I wanted them all! I was stunned to be standing in his woodshed viewing the hundreds of boards of rough-hewn walnut, cherry, and other traditional hardwoods, and then see the beautiful works of musical art he transforms them into! It still boggles my mind! I was fascinated to play the instruments side-by-side and hear the subtle differential tones between the longer resonating walnut and shorter sustain of cherry. I listened intently as he explained how all wood banjos are more acoustic than banjos laden with metal brackets and tension hoops. And to be clear, Ryan has made both metal bracket and all wood; his statement was not one of "better" or "worse"--he was simply explaining the difference. 

I also fell in love with the hand-carved work on many of his banjos. To be honest, I was never a fan of fancy carving on other instruments I have seen...until I saw Ryan's. Even his resin's are his own design...no store-bought shellacs! And it shows. It reminded me of furniture built in the 1700's and 1800's--of traditional heirlooms handed down through generations.

So how did this get me thinking? As I was playing a cherry banjo with a rosewood tone ring (the same as I am having made) I got lost in the sound and even unknowingly wrote a new tune by noodling about (which I have named, "Carolina Wanderlust"). I began playing, feeling the tune differently...inspired by the tones pulled from the cherry-wood banjo with the rosewood tone ring, the minstrel strings, and the calfskin head wondrously fashioned into a beautiful instrument hand-carved by a true craftsman. On the way home, I had a lot of time to think. My mind began to flood with ideas and new perspectives...but that's another story, for another blog.

Tuners Are Hurting Our Ears

by Brett Ridgeway on 06/29/15

I remember once being in the presence of some older musicians and they were discussing the “good ole’ days.” They talked about the times when they would meet together at their local town hall to play, because it was the only place in town that had fluorescent lighting. One by one, they would climb atop a table close to the lights and tune their instrument to the “hum” of the fluorescent tubes. I found this fascinating and inventive, and it got me thinking…

Musicians today are both fortunate and not-so-fortunate to have electronic tuners for maintaining sound integrity rather than resorting to the old-time methods of keeping our instruments in tune. We now tune our instruments with our eyes rather than using our ears. Though I admit electronic tuners are a blessing…they are also somewhat of a curse and become a crutch. Like so many convenient technologies, they save us time, but they ruin (or at least hinder) our ability to train our ears and to gain the skills needed to play by ear. I’m no exception in this regard.

Yes, I use a tuner, but I have begun to greatly limit my reliance on the tool when at all possible. Some instruments have two strings per course (a “course” consists of two or more strings tuned identically): hammered dulcimer, mandolin, and some mountain dulcimers. On my hammered dulcimer, I now tune just one string per course with an electronic tuner, then I tune the second string by ear to the “already-tuned” string. I suppose I could tune the entire instrument by ear, but my ears are just not there yet…though at least it’s a start. Surprisingly, I also find this “old-time” technique a quicker method of tuning rather than using the electronic tuner for the entire instrument. Fortunately, this approach to tuning isn’t limited to just the hammered dulcimer.

Each instrument can be tuned to itself. As many mountain dulcimer players know, if you fret the bass string of dulcimer (D-A-D) at the fourth fret (A), you can tune the middle string (A) to the bass string. Similarly, if you then fret the middle string at the third fret, you can tune the melody string to the middle string, and if your dulcimer has double set of melody strings, simply tune the second melody string to the now-tuned first melody string. Although most players already know this, they recognize it’s a lot more convenient to use an electronic tuner to speed up the process…which is typically the case when it comes to using any technology. Yet we miss so much in life because technology speeds us right by so many wonderful things we’d experience if only we took the old time-tested approaches that those who came before us followed. With the electronic tuners, in the long run it’s the same—we are cheating ourselves, and impeding our learning and hindering our abilities. God gave us ears to hear. It seems counter-productive to use our eyes to tune something meant for our ears, and in doing so, takes away from a gift we often don’t fully appreciate—one that hearing-impaired people would cherish and likely make the most of if given the opportunity. I definitely don’t want to take that gift for granted.

Is it Worth it?

by Brett Ridgeway on 06/23/15

First of all, I want to explain a few things about me personally. I love music…and more than listening to it, I love making it. I love traditional instruments…the history…the music and emotions they evoke. Music is far more than a hobby for me…music is my life. I used to teach at the former GitterPicker String Factory in Twinsburg, Ohio.  I spent my working days surrounded by music, by instruments, and mostly as a teacher. I would spend hours with my students teaching a variety of instruments all day long. And after work, when I got home, kicked off my shoes, had dinner, I spent my evenings relaxing…playing music. It’s my life and passion.

I also love teaching. I actually love teaching this music more than performing it. I’ve taught students from age three to one student at around 90 years old. If I were self-sufficient, I have often said I would teach my music free-of-charge. But there is value to what I do. Don’t get me wrong. I HAVE taught numerous students free-of-charge, and, when it is laid on my heart, will continue to do so. I have free lessons on my site…no charge…no gimmick…lessons than take me hours of preparation and my wife hours of editing and publishing. But sometimes, you just give back…and need to give back.

Taking what you love, and turning it into a business is a tricky balance. I once offered the members of a church I attended free lessons to anyone who might be interested. What I found, is that because it is free, out of five or six students participating, only one was faithful and actually continued. She even used her music on a regular basis and played regularly in church every Sunday.

When I was a teenager, I wanted banjo lessons. My parents wouldn’t pay for a banjo or for lessons because I was one of those kids who quit everything he started. So I got a job. I bought my first banjo from a Service Merchandise store, which some of my readers will remember. And I paid for every lesson myself. And no one ever told me to practice. It had value to me. I worked for it. I paid for it. Just a few years ago, when visiting with my folks, my mother apologized that they had not paid for those lessons. I laughed and told her I really never thought about it in that they made me do it myself…but I am glad they did. And since then, I have worked and paid and worked…I have invested much of my life in music, far beyond any financial measure.

I have been fortunate enough to try and make a living out of what I love.  Some people teach…on the side. They have full-time jobs and teach for some extra cash. Others work part-time…and still others are retired. But myself, like many others, teach and perform full time. It’s our “paycheck”. It’s our income.  It’s a lot of work…and it has value.

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