Saturday, July 25, 2015

Three Year Update

The following text is a collection of random thoughts.  It's just a quick update that I've been meaning to do since May, but just couldn't form it up into something clever.  Consider it a rough draft.  Consider it a peek into my brain in it's disorganized state.  I just wanted to share.

tl;dr version: Despite the difficulties, I'd do it all again.


In May of 2012 I walked away from my day job.  I had a litany of reasons for doing it, but it was spurred by a desire to do nothing other than to play and teach music.  It wound up saving my marriage, building a relationship with my son and salvaging what was left of my own mental health.  You can read about it here: A Change for the Better

I knew it was going to be tough.  I knew our financial situation would be difficult.  It has.  We've given up a few conveniences and we've had to demonstrate some creativity in paying the bills.  Sometimes we get them paid, other times we get them paid later.  I do sometimes feel guilty about some of the things we've needed to sacrifice.  There's just not much money to go around, but that was the case when I had - what seems like - all the money anyone could ever need.  If I've learned anything, it's that I'm inclined to live just beyond the edge of my means.  I figure a lot of folks do that. 

Since leaving the day job I've learned many things.  I've learned to fix the washer and dryer; I've actually fixed bits that normally get replaced.  I've learned how to do some simple plumbing and home repairs.  I've also learned just how far I can go on a tank of gas.  I've learned to cook some of my favorite meals that I'd have normally eaten out.  I've learned to like the thermostat set to 76 in the summer and 66 in the winter.  I've also learned to ask for help when I need it.  I've learned about the kindness of strangers.  I've learned just how generous my dad is.

Here's a big thing I've learned.  You've heard the old saying, "Time is money."  It's a trap, a trick, and maybe even a lie.  Sure, you can sell your time for money, but you can never use that money to buy back time. 

I'm also learning to value myself.

I finally got to know my son.  He's a real gem.  I never knew.  See, that's a regret.  I regret giving so much of my time to an employer that I missed being involved with him.  Oh, I was home in the evenings, but the stress of the day job made me irritable.  I didn't want to associate with anyone, so I glued myself to the banjo and the internet.  How are things now?  I couldn't ask for a better relationship with my son.  Heck, I've even taken a position with the local Boy Scout District - I never had time for that before.

The relationship I have with my wife is improving, but there's a lot of mending to do.  It's comforting to know she still supports my decision.  We're just always struggling to pay the bills.  She's not been able to find full time work, and my work, such as it is, adds to the difficulty in making regularly scheduled payments.  Fortunately we don't have a lot of debt and the other folks that expect money from us have been understanding - so far.  We're both hopeful that things are bound to improve.  Keep her in your prayers that she'll find a full time job.  We don't have much hope in her current employer ever offering her a full time position.

Would I do it again?  Yes!  I'd do it again, and I'd do it sooner; I've learned that it's important to follow your dreams and do those things you really want to do, even if there's not much money involved. 

Spend more time with the people you love.  It's worth more than any amount of money.  It's important. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

You Can't Kill the Old Red Rooster

You can't kill the old red rooster anymore.  Don't do it.  You can have chicken and dumplings, but there will be no killing of roosters.  That's a lesson I learned this week.

A friend asked me to speak at her elementary school's career day.  I was more than happy to do it.  I may not be the model independent music professional, but I guess I'm pretty enthusiastic about it.  I like showing children (and adults) that you can be whatever you want.  Doing something that makes you happy is worth more than a big salary for something you dread daily.

My day started early - much earlier than most musicians, but duty called.  I arrived in time to carry in a couple of banjos and stands, meet some folks, and get set up.  I had a full slate.  My day would be filled twenty minutes at a time with children from different grades (kindergarten through fifth grade).  I braced myself for the first group.

They were bright-eyed, inquisitive, and seemed to really like the banjo.  I talked some about how I work and earn money.  They asked questions, and I played them a few songs.  Before I knew it I was out of time, and those children marched out and more marched in.  After a few classes I was getting the hang of it.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

By the afternoon things couldn't be running smoother, until I had a class that was more interested in me playing than me talking.  That's fine, and they were younger kids (maybe kindergarten or first grade).  I asked them, "Do you know She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain?"  They screamed, "YES!!!"  I started the song.

She'll be coming around the mountain when she comes... Everyone sings

She'll be driving six white horses when she comes... Everyone sings

We will kill the old red rooster when she comes... Jaws hit the floor, eyes well up, and lips start to pout.

Wait just a minute!  Here I am, singing a song from my childhood where we killed that dad-gummed rooster every time - and with a big CHOP CHOP with hand motions!  These kids though?  They'll have none of it.  You just can't kill that rooster - not in 2015.  I immediately saw the error of my horrible rooster killing lyric.  How could I not, with the cute little pony-tailed blonde with the cute glasses and the big eyes welling up and her bottom lip stuck out?  With the help of the teacher in the room we segued to a happier song - "The ABCs" - as best as I could recall there are no roosters killed in that one.

Lesson learned: don't kill the rooster.  My childhood was horrible and I never knew it.

That's not all I learned.  No, the next lesson came with the next group of kids.  These were fifth graders - smart, with good questions.

"When you first started playing for money, how much did you get paid?" A boy asked.

"The first time I ever earned anything for playing was with the FFA Stringband in high school.  We would play for different civic clubs (like the Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, etc) and in return they would give us a pig for our pig chain." I told them.

"You got paid a pig?!?!" They all laughed.

Once they were convinced I wasn't just being silly, they had another question.

They inquired, "What did you do with the pigs?"

For whatever reason, there's this bone in my head that often just makes me blurt out the truth.  "We raised them and eventually ate them."

No sooner than I had said it the lesson of the rooster popped into my brain.  Not to mention the exclamation from the kids, "You ate them?!?!  You ate your piggies?"

Yes - yes we did.  Being older kids I figured I would just go ahead and let them go on that remark as time was up.  I started my last tune as they exited.  As the kids were leaving one lagged behind to tell me that his dad raised pigs to eat, and even killed them. He didn't seem to mind.  I was relieved.

Time have changed.  I'm not sure it's for the better.  I saw kids eating meat at lunch, but I'm not sure they have any idea where it comes from.  Except maybe for some of the more rural kids, they seemed to get it.  As I reflected on my rooster horror I tried to see the kids faces again and I recalled that almost none of the Hispanic children had a problem with killing the old red rooster.  We have a large Hispanic population here and a lot of these kids' parents immigrated here in the past decade, so maybe they're still pretty close to their cultures - whatever that might be. Maybe it's cultural?  I'm not sure, and I'm not qualified to even guess.

I just know that the old red rooster and pigs can roam free on the farm, and...

We'll all have kale and tofu when she comes...

Hopefully no one will need therapy.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Wind 'em up. Watch 'em go!

I've been teaching a long time - longer than I should have, most likely.  I've had all sorts of students; some good, some bad, some horrible, and some exceptional.  The latter ones are pretty rare.  Those exceptional ones are those that take what you show them, and assimilate it.  They don't just memorize an idea for a certain tune; they figure out exactly what that concept is and how to apply it.  They're the ones that modify the techniques to fit their own idea of how it works.  They're the ones that soon figure out how to play within the boundaries of their own limitations.  Sounds simple enough, but in reality that assimilation of knowledge is what separates the casual player from the ones that go on to be successful.  If I knew how to bottle that, I'd sell it.

Trevor is one of those exceptional students.  He's driven - motivated even.  I showed him some very basic clawhammer a few months back.  Last lesson he's already playing some fairly advanced stuff, and he did it on his own!  Also, not too long ago he expressed some interest in a couple of Reno tunes.  Admittedly, my Reno vocabulary is small.  I pointed him in a direction, the rest he did on his own.  I figure I need to get him to show me the Reno stuff he's learned.  ...and the student becomes the teacher.

He's my current favorite windup toy -- wind him up, watch him go!

Anyway... here are a couple of videos of Trevor (one with his brother).

Thursday, July 31, 2014

the eighteen Moloney - A Review

Perhaps it was jet lag, or maybe it was the thrill of the moment, but when I heard David Power play at Dillon’s Bar in Dungarvan, Ireland I found myself holding my breath; I didn’t want to miss a single note. 

I admit it; I’m not an experienced listener of Irish music.  The only Irish bands I can think of are the Chieftains and The Masters of Tradition - oh, and Flogging Molly, but they’re from the USA.  Heck, I’ve never even seen Riverdance.  So, as you can see I haven’t the slightest clue about the music.  Sure, I’m not unfamiliar with music in general, and I have a great appreciation of musicianship.  Never-the-less, you’ve been warned.

A couple of weeks ago David sent me a copy of his newest CD the eighteen Moloney.  I’ve listened to little else since I got it in the mail.  It’s a solo recording with David playing the uilleann pipes - and what an exciting recording it is!

The title of the album comes from the chanter he’s using for the recording.  It was made before the Great Famine in Co. Clare by Andrew and Thomas Moloney.  From what I’ve read it’s been used by some pretty notable players throughout history, and it was referred to as the 18 Moloney.  So, it would be like playing a mandolin that had been used by Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns, and Dave Apollon. 

So, history aside, how was the recording?

There are places of peace in this recording.  There are places where you’ll tap your foot and want to dance.  There are, as well, melodies that energize me; I feel stronger - maybe even braver - just by listening.  It’s hard to explain, and maybe I shouldn’t try, but there are musical lines among these tunes that move me emotionally - not sadness, but it’s as if the music reaches ancient or genetic memories.  So, like I said, it’s hard to explain.  There are truly ancient tones on this recording. 

If you’re a fan of Irish music, then you will - without a doubt - enjoy the eighteen Moloney. If you're a fan of a skilled musician doing what he does best, you'll enjoy this recording. 

Check out the sample below, and then visit David's website to order your copy. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don't Miss Acoustic Kamp

Look, I know you're busy - me too, but you can't miss this.  It's a big deal, and I know you'll love it.  It is - in my estimation - the music camp that all others aspire to be.  Yes, it's that good.

Now I hope you'll sign up for my Old-Time Banjo Class.  I won't lie to you, I need the students.  I will, over the course of the week, share with you all sorts of ideas that you'll be able to use right away.  I'll share things that you can use later.  It'll be fun!  I promise.

I know you all don't play banjo, but there are flat picking guitar classes, fiddling, hammered dulcimer, finger picking guitar and old time singing - and that's just the week I'm there.  The next week there is even more to choose from.  Heck, go both weeks; a lot of people do that.  Really, I wouldn't pull your leg about it.

So, I'm just going to count on you being there.  Follow this link:  Steve Kaufman's Acoustic Kamp

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Spot - A Gentle Giant - A Brother

Meet Spot.  He showed up one day as if to say, "Hey, I'm home."  Just a puppy and mostly just a rambunctious ball of playful fur, he was home.  He found a place to live, grow and just relax; but most of all, he found a home in our hearts.

He grew into a giant of a dog.  At three years old he weighed well over a hundred pounds and his shoulders stood almost as high as my waist. Despite being partially lame in his front left leg due to some nerve damage from a vaccination, he was unbelievably strong and quick.

He loved people, attention, and riding in the car.  He loved the other animals and once even helped a rescue another dog that was trapped in a pen once (In his mind I know he thought it was for the best).  He became instant pals with everyone he met. There wasn't an ounce of meanness in him.

Monday, though, I got a call.  Spot had been shot.  Spot was dying.

What?  Who?  Why?

None of that mattered.  We all knew Spot wasn't long for this world.

Some miserable soulless minion of evil shot Spot through the gut with what could have only been a round from a hunting rifle. Yet, despite being mortally wounded - despite losing so much blood - he made his way back to the only home he had ever known.  I'm convinced he knew his time was over. He kept his eyes on my mom the whole time - as if maybe he was worried about her, or maybe hoping she could somehow fix his horrible wound.  He died there in the arms of those that loved him.

It was truly a senseless act that has affected all of our lives - none more than my son Samuel's.  Samuel was Spot's boy.  They were brothers.  They loved each other with no conditions.  Hours were spent running, wrestling, playing hide and seek and just lying together to rest.  How is a boy that's only thirteen to begin to forgive someone for taking the life of a best friend?  Did the shooter realize, or even care, that a brave child would be the one to cover Spot's eyes when Animal Control administered the injections to release Spot from his agony caused by such a cowardly action?  Only time will tell how this horrific event will change my son.

How am I supposed to guide my son when the very core of my soul is enraged? It's all I can do to channel my emotion to remembering Spot's contribution to our lives.  He was just a big old goofy dog. He wasn't a lick smart, but he was one of us.  I also realize that no amount of retribution will bring him back to us, but I'm still angry enough to admit that I'd immediately return the action to the contemptible miscreant that took Spot's life so ruthlessly if I thought for a second that it would return Spot to us unharmed.

We're heartbroken.  

---A letter to Spot---

Dearest Spot,

I know you're happy.  I can only imagine how strong and fast you are now with your leg all fixed up.  Oh, I'm also sure you've found Kat and Nibbles.  Tell them they're thought of often.

We all miss you.  

Your little buddy Wally-Dog won't know what to do without you taking him on hikes through the woods.  Molly and Callie (those silly cats) are going to miss you being around.  Dad probably won't get much rest for a while, because you won't be there beside him, and Mom will miss your company during the day.  Tina will certainly miss you poking your big head in the car when she was coming or going.  Samuel is missing you quite a bit - I think it will be a long while before his heart heals.

Please try not to worry about us, and most of all, don't feel guilty.  I know you were probably thinking you messed up, but this wasn't something that you had any control over.  We all know how frightened you were of guns, and would have run at the very sight of one.  So it's okay.  You didn't do anything wrong.  You were just playing in the woods.

We still love you.  We won't forget you, and soon our thoughts of you will be of all the good times we had.

Oh, and Spot, next time I see you I promise that we'll take a much needed nap.  Yes, with you on my lap; I wouldn't have it any other way.

Love Always,


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Preparing for a Banjo Contest

Recently I had an opportunity to judge the Smithville Jamboree.  After sitting through nearly two hundred entrants' performances I decided to resurrect an old post I had made on the Banjo Hangout.  I've tweaked it a little and cleaned it up.  Hopefully, you'll find something useful when you're preparing for a contest.

Once upon a time I had written and saved a couple of long diatribes regarding things not to do at contests.  However, because of your apparent good fortune, they seem to be lost in cyberspace.

One day I might try to recreate some of that, but until I get really bored I'm not going to even try. However, I can offer some common sense ideas that may or may not make a difference.

Before I start, I'd like to preface this with the information that I have, indeed, played quite a few contests. I've won a handful, and totally stunk up even more. In the process I learned some things. I've also had several opportunities to judge quite a few contests too, and hopefully I can offer you something from the judges perspective.

Choose some songs from your repertoire (four or five would be ideal). Make sure those tunes are ones you know upside down and backwards.  I know that seems obvious, but I've seen contestants play tunes they just didn't know well enough to play under the scrutiny of judging.

The question regarding what songs to play comes up a lot. There's no right or wrong here, but there are considerations. Have the judges heard this song a blue-zillion times? If so, I'd probably skip that one. Is it something you don't already know? I'd skip that too. The last thing you need is to have a tune that is "new". I look for tunes that are "different" but not strange. I want the judges to be able to identify it. There are plenty of other things to think about here - and as you get more involved you'll think of plenty reasons to ditch tunes, add others, etc.. Again, I'd hope that the songs you select are ones you're already very comfortable with.

Now that you've picked out your tunes you'll need original arrangements. No, not from that tab book... no, not that recording either - put the video away too. You didn't think you could sneak that note for note arrangement of Sammy Shelor's Earnest T Grass by a competent judge did you? The judges will know. They do listen to stuff. Most of them are students of the music - just like you. That means they're still admiring and listening to all the cool players. Uh oh, can't use someone's canned break... now what? Create your own. Sorry. No easy answers here. You just have to do it. It takes time, it takes effort.  It takes getting around players much better than you and listening to their arrangements and figuring out what you can assimilate without being a clone.

Now... do that 3 or 4 more times.

Once you've got the tunes arranged and practiced, keep polishing. Play them a lot - it's more than you think - once a day ain't nearly enough. You need to play them over and over. Record them. Listen to the recordings. Practice with the metronome. Listen. Practice, practice, practice. Play for friends, neighbors, the cat, play them for anyone that will listen. Heck, come play them for me; I'd be glad to make you nervous and critique your playing.

Day of the Contest

Sign up and get a copy of the rules. Read the rules. It's a good idea to follow them - enforced or not. I've seen players win and lose on technicalities. Don't be a technicality. Know when and where you're supposed to be. Relax - whatever it takes here is fine by me for the most part.  Hopefully you'll have practiced and played enough that you won't be worried or nervous about the songs. You will be nervous about the contest though; that's to be expected. Try not to barf.

Some people like to check out the other competitors; I never do. Last thing I need to do is psyche myself out. I generally stay by myself and warm up. If you have someone accompanying you, warm up with them.

Draw your number. Get called. Go pick. Play what you rehearsed, and try not to bore, irritate, or annoy the judges. You're done now. You can exhale. Go hangout with the other folks. Check out the jams, watch the contest, whatever.

Did you win? Did you place? Did you bomb? Who cares? What I hope you did was have fun. That's that main thing. Play the contests because they're fun. Play them because you like to play. Don't worry too much about the outcome. That sort of thing isn't too productive. There's not a contest that goes by that someone doesn't complain about the outcome. It's not always like you expect it, but if you went in expecting exact science from a banjo contest, well, shoot, you get what you deserve.

Oh, don't be a whiner - especially to the judges. I love talking to the competitors after the contest - especially when they're genuinely looking for help or advice. Do remember that judges are people - like you. (I remember an event where a mother of a player gave me serious grief because she was convinced that I didn't have a clue about music, because if I did I'd have certainly given much higher marks to her kid... sigh.)

Just be a good sport.  Make friends with as many people as you can, and practice a bunch for next year!

tl;dr - Play Something You Know!

About Me

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Short version: With over 30 years of experience performing and teaching banjo I am eager to share my music with you. I'm also available for your school or community event where I can introduce the banjo and present a fun program that demonstrates a variety of banjo styles. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------- More Detail than you probably want: I started playing banjo in 1977. I'm self taught... the old fashion way.  I'm a firm supporter now of the listen and learn approach. I've ruined many records and needles by trying to hit that particular spot in a tune I was learning. From the beginning I loved teaching others to play the banjo. I've had as many as 50 students a week. One of the greatest opportunities as a banjo teacher came when some of my articles were accepted and used by Banjo Newsletter in an article titled "The Workshop."  I've taught a variety of banjo workshops including The Maryland Banjo Academy, Steve Kaufman's Acoustic Kamp,  and Banjo Newsletter's SPBGMA Workshop. While in college in the early 80's I took up playing the clawhammer style of banjo playing. I worked from a book I got from Grandpa Jones. I learned the basics and then spent hours trying to figure out Soldier's Joy from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken Album. Years later and many hours of practice I think maybe I finally understand the style.