Hopping on the Carousel

Oct 26, 2022 | Welcome Column

I have a romantic notion that when I was a kid, merry-go-rounds (carousels) didn’t stop.  My memory is they just went round and round, and we jumped on and found a horse to sit on. In retrospect, that seems impossible, but that’s how I remember it.  I KNOW that when I was younger, the cable cars in San Francisco rarely stopped – it was normal to time a leap onto the cable car to get a ride, and you did a similar timing maneuver to hop off at the end of the ride.

When I got older and began to play music, especially in an improvisational situation, I perceived of the music as a moving ride and it was my responsibility to hop on board that carousel (or cable car, pick your metaphor) and recognize the repeating motif and rhythm and contribute.  This has been a useful and persistent impression for me.  

Repeating motifs seem, to me, at least, to be present in all forms of music.  Sometimes, the pattern is fairly long, but invariably, it seems most musical forms are circular in nature. So then, the trick to participate is to find a point to hop on the carousel. It does take some practice to do this well.

When a novice musician is learning a new song, it’s easy to perceive of the song as a linear series of notes or riffs, not tied to any binding rhythmical structure. Once, I got ahold of some tablature for “Blackberry Blossom” –  a bluegrass classic. I studied and practiced that tab for months. I couldn’t wait to show off my hot flatpickin’ skills at a bluegrass festival.  

Well, my chance came soon enough.  Eventually, I found myself in a pretty hot jam, and the choice circled around to me.

Let’s play,um, Blackberry Blossom,” I said, chuckling inward at the gasps of amazement I was anticipating. I hoped folks wouldn’t be too demonstrative in their admiration of my picking skills. After all, too many slaps on the back or too many high fives could cause injuries.  

What I hadn’t realized is, somewhere in my dogged practice from the tablature I had picked up a single extra note somewhere – early on in the pattern.  This rendered everything I had accomplished (If you can call it that) utterly useless in an ensemble. Everyone, it seems, knows how to play “Blackberry Blossom”, but no one on this blue marble played it the way I mis-learned it from tab.

i was humiliated.  I was exposed as a fraud within seconds of the song’s launch. To this day, I don’t play lead on “Blackberry Blossom”.  

 did learn a valuable lesson, though. songs are not just  a series of notes. They are musical statements within a rhythmical framework and that framework is just as important as the notes themselves. This simple notion has been invaluable to me, and that realization is liberating. Once you stop worrying about the notes and see music as notes and rhythm intertwined, you can make adjustments on the fly.  Your humiliations are greatly reduced. Not eliminated, though. Getting in a jam way over your head is one of life’s little spicy moments!

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