Broken Down But Still Running

We were all set for Songs for Sunday today. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. By showtime, I was too arthritic and postictal to be of any use.

For my entire life, in addition to the growing and aging we all experience, I have been adapting to my disabilities. More than once, like my current situation, new issues arise that force me to start all over again.

I am not complaining. While some aspects of my life are difficult, not many people are fortunate to have family and friends as I do.

That said, neuropathy, arthritis, and seizures are kicking my ass. I am always in pain. It keeps me awake until I have a seizure, and that can leave me a mess for days. I can’t walk or drive, leaving me with no way to get away and clear my head. It has been years since I have been to Brick Kiln on my own.

I can usually handle the pain, but seeing me in agony is hard on my folks. It doesn’t help that I can be a hard to be around when things get to a point where I am trying not to scream.

Over the next couple of weeks, Dear Old Dad and I will be working to get me a bit more productive on days when I am able to work. I will also be moving from the acoustic banjo to the electric, as it is easier on my hands.

To the folks asking things like why God would do this and whatnot, do not let your hearts be troubled. I am okay.

While it is a shock to go from being strong as I was to my current weakened state; perhaps I was too strong. Perhaps whatever comes next requires me to think before I throw a punch. I honestly don’t have an answer, but I have faith that this leads to something. So, I’ll keep going.

If you are willing to, please say a prayer for my folks. This can’t be easy on them.

I will get a video up during the week, as my hands allow, and post an update on Songs for Sunday and other projects soon.

God bless,
—Patrick

The New Book—Sneak Preview While In Progress

Zen in the Five-String Banjo or, What the uniquely American art of frailing banjo taught me about music, life, and love is well underway. As the title suggests, this is not your typical how-to book.

If pressed for a back-cover synopsis, I would write something like this:

If Hunter S. Thompson, Alan Watts, Winnie the Pooh, Rocky Balboa, and Charlie Poole were to collaborate on a book teaching the techniques and philosophy of frailing banjo, the resulting tome wouldn’t be half as wild as this.

I am known for celebrating the process over the final product. Rather than treat this admittedly odd work in process like Gollum guarding his Precious, I will be posting drafts as I write, Dear Old Dad edits, and I rewrite. Please, feedback of any kind is welcome.

Please don’t hesitate to share the file. The copyright notice on this draft is a nod to the 2003 draft of The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo.

As work continues, things will change. I will continue to post chapters and edits, if you are interested.

Oh, you may notice in this draft that I am reclaiming a teaching technique. Something that I had dropped after twenty-five years of relentless mocking from nitwits. The bump dit-ty is back, baby!

Essential Movies For Musicians: A Face In The Crowd (1957)

Movies about music and musicians are a tricky thing. Not many get it right.

This is understandable. The act of making music is such a mysterious and widely misunderstood discipline in popular culture. When you add in the addictive power of a mass audience and the egoist human foibles that both draw and repel us, it is understandable that we are often misrepresented in film.

A Face In The Crowd (1957) is the story of a singer who goes through a rags-to-riches story straight out of hell. Starting out in a jail cell that dredges up haunting memories of the dreadful Leadbelly newsreel, Andy Griffith plays a drunken lout who just happens to play the guitar, bray like a donkey, sing like a bird, and can weave just enough truth into his lies to become a populist worldwide sensation.

Seeing Griffith play one of the worst human beings to ever grace the screen is a shock. He chews scenery like a lawn mower, over-performs condescendingly to his audience, and transforms from kindly good ‘ole boy to a hateful monster as soon as he thinks the camera is off.

When people ask me why I don’t perform or get more into show-biz, I tell them to watch this movie. While some themes in the film have played out in recent news, almost all the backstage and marketing antics are things Dear Old Dad and I have seen played out, firsthand, in real life.

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah: Patrick’s Thoughts on Surviving Banjo Camps & Workshops

So, you bought a banjo. Good for you.

When undertaking any discipline, you can be effortlessly swept away from the actual craft and transformed from a potential artist to a lifelong consumer.

I witnessed examples of this happening while studying the martial arts. For every experienced instructor I encountered, there were fifteen guys who simply went and bought a black belt and a Bruce Lee poster.

The thing about inexperienced trainers, regardless of discipline, is that they can and will get you hurt. Sometimes badly. When I was twelve, I had my ribs kicked in by a fake black belt. I tried different schools and received multiple injuries that are plaguing me to this day. It took me a solid year to find a qualified instructor. It was only then that I could truly begin training.

Music is no different. Badly written guitar manuals led me to injuring my fretting hand to the point where I had to teach myself the instrument all over again. I paid to attend guitar and banjo workshops hosted by legends who proceeded to fail in every way a person can in public while remaining both sober and clothed.

The name on the marquee is unimportant. The legends and press releases have no bearing when people are sitting knee-to-knee making music. A person can cite any influence or refer to traditions until the cows come home. The only purity in our craft is when flesh meets wire in a way that produces music. Nothing else matters.

A lesson is not a show. While seasoned instructors can make learning fun and even entertaining, there must be an emphasis on doing the work. There also must be realistic and honest discussion regarding the learning process, rather than some feculent sales pitch promising banjo wizardry in one month or less.

This all begs the question of how to sort out the musicians from the people playing the role of banjo teacher. After a great deal of thought and reflection on my own experiences and failings, I boiled it down to three things: Competency, Fluency, and Comfort.

Is the teacher competent?

In other words, does this person have working knowledge of the instrument, the technique in question, and basic musicianship? Is this a workshop where you learn to use the instrument, or are you going to be led brainlessly through a tune note-by-painstaking-note and measure-by-agonizing-measure? Does the teacher understand the time and work involved to master even basic skills, or are they selling the banjo equivalent of patent medicine?

Is the teacher fluent in music?  

Can this person improvise? If you were to call out a random song from a random genre, would this person be able to break the song down and work with you to discover an arrangement? Can the teacher change genres, keys, rhythms, and more without losing composure? Flop sweat is a sure sign that even the musician in question isn’t buying their own shtick.

Is the teacher comfortable?

Weaklings are afraid of questions and interactions, so they tend to put on shows when they should be teaching. Can the instructor speak clearly, free from verbal placeholders? Is this person willing to admit when they don’t know something? Is this person here to share or show?

The thing about competency, fluency, and comfort is that you can’t fake them. So, accept nothing less than the real thing. The craft deserves better, and so do you.

Patrick’s Frailing Banjo Precepts

  • Frailing banjo is a musical discipline based in rhythm.
  • The right hand strikes down on one or more strings for a quarter note.
  • The strike, when possible, should be accomplished with the middle fingernail.
  • The motion of the strike comes from the forearm.
  • Your forearm should make minimal contact and pressure on the rim.
  • The thumb plucks the fifth string as either a rhythmic device to halve struck quarter notes into eighth notes or as the occasional single quarter note.
  • The rotating motion of the thumb plucking the fifth string also creates the opportunity to hit or brush the banjo head. This effect can be useful in some situations and overbearing in others. Control comes with practice.
  • While drop-thumb is a valid and sometimes useful technique, it should never be deployed at the expense of rhythmic drive.
  • Embellishments must flow naturally.
  • A desire to impress others will only make you self-conscious. Put the song and the audience above your ego.
  • Posture and fretting technique are essential skills that must be practiced with good form from the start. Your fingers should come straight down on fretted notes like a piston. Do not reach across the fretboard. Do not apply pressure with the thumb.
  • If it feels like the frailing rhythm and chord changes are impossible, give it a few days. You will feel better. Then give it a few more days, and you will be pulling your hair out again. There is no destination. There is no trophy or Standard Rich & Famous Contract at the other end of the rainbow. Growth comes from training, and that growth always leads to the discovery that you need more training. I have been pursuing this craft for most of my life. I find myself challenged and learning, sometimes the hard way, every day.
  • Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes familiar. Perfection is an illusion. Familiarity leads to fluency – the key to expressing yourself through your art.
  • Any idiot can rent Carnegie Hall. An accomplished frailer can make any venue or moment seem grand.
  • Musical literacy matters. To play with others, to express yourself, and as a representative of your discipline, you must be fluent in the language of music. The better you understand, the better you will be understood.
  • Teaching others is both vital to the longevity of our discipline and your own understanding of the craft. Once you can explain the art clearly to a child, free from jargon and presented in a way that both empowers and inspires, you will have attained mastery.
  • When playing, there should never be a Lady or the Tiger scenario when it comes to choosing between rhythm and melody. With practice, frailing allows the two to coexist as equals.
  • The rest is a moment of silence with a note value. Any part of the frailing motion can be played as a rest, as long the hand stays in motion to avoid falling out of rhythm.
  • A dotted note increases the duration by half of its original value. There is great power in this, so it bears thought and practice.
  • Banjos are loud. Learning to control the volume of your instrument through technique rather than mechanical means is essential.
  • Where you strike the string will have as much impact in the resulting volume and tone as how hard you hit. Do not lock your hand in one position. Use the entire string if necessary.
  • Initially, you should play simple rhythms while you sing. This serves as training in maintaining rhythm and chord progressions while training your ear. Your goal should be to sing and play without falling out of rhythm or timing to change chords. Failure to work on this will make future attempts at playing melody futile.
  • When learning songs from banjo tab, be aware this is a singular arrangement in an improvisational medium. It’s the equivalent of trying to match two Robin Williams stand-up comedy performances. He never did the same thing twice, and neither do frailing banjo players.
  • You cannot play from memory. Music is a flowing medium. You must accommodate yourself to it, like a leaf on a stream. Learn to maintain rhythm and composure through mistakes. Do not allow your egoist desire for perfection ruin the moment. Let go. Be free. If you are in rhythm, there are no mistakes, only opportunities.
  • Early fretless banjos led to a myriad of ways to tune the instrument. Be fearless in your explorations, but always be aware of the need for practicality and fluency. You can’t tune the banjo all over again for every song. You also cannot reasonably expect a jam or performance to stop for you to turn tuning pegs every time a key change comes along. Master one tuning, then use insights from that to guide your explorations.
  • Learn all aspects related to repair and maintenance of your instrument. Find old-timers to teach you skills like fashioning nuts from soup bones, installing skin heads, or even the old trick of making new heads from discarded drafting Mylar. Stuff breaks, sometimes onstage, be prepared for yourself and others.
  • Frailing is more than the banjo. Look for ways to carry what you understand of the banjo to other instruments and disciplines. Learn to use your voice so that you can entertain or comfort even without your instrument.
  • Fame comes from self-promotion, and true artists rarely have the funds for a publicist. Nothing onstage is real. Most of what you will read about or hear whispered about artists is just marketing. The masters are off on their own. Do not be a fan, be an artist. Go find the real teachers at jam sessions, bus terminals, and around campfires. This is what I did, and where you are likely to still find me.

Videos

Currently, we have our video archives from 2006 to the present available on YouTube, patrickcostello.org, and Vimeo.

Our friend Bo has taken on the Herculean task of wrangling the files on patrickcostello.org into shape. It’s been fun working with him because it helped me put my work into some kind of perspective.

It’s easy to say that there are over one thousand videos on YouTube. Putting the sheer amount of content and its depth into some kind of visual analogy is impossible.

To complicate matters, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

My father and I started generating content all the way back in 1997. A lot of it is still in our archives, some is still out there circulating, and some of it lost to the whims of data storage. As old performers, we treated the work as disposable. As artists, the work was not only the entire goal, but a form of practice. Go far enough back, and you will notice that we were learning along with you. Teaching is, after all, part of the craft.

Bo could use your help with the archives.

I could use help getting the rest of the site back in shape.

Please, for me, use the forum to connect and organize if you would like to pitch in.

There are other ways you can help. As tacky as it sounds, clicking the subscribe button on YouTube will help us. We are back to almost 18,000 subscribers. If we can get the number past 20K, there is a chance for sponsorship and other things. So, please, hit the button and encourage others to do so.

We have also started up YouTube memberships as a way to bring in some financial support for the channel. As a perk, we will be hosting live members only Q&A sessions on the third Thursday of every month at 2:00 PM Eastern.

If you have other ideas, don’t keep them to yourself. We can use the help. The site, graphics – if you see a need, fill it!

In other news, there is a new book on the way. I would share excerpts and such, but this one took an unexpected direction. I will be keeping it close to my vest for a bit. This one changes things as much as The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo – and that’s sayin’ something.

Weather permitting, we will be livestreaming Songs for Sunday tomorrow at 2:00 PM Eastern. We hope you tune in and sing along.