It was a fleeting thought last night:
Twenty years ago, I would most certainly have assured you that I would not be sitting here tonight deciding whether it would be easier to transpose “New River Train” from the key of D to G or to tune my banjo to an Open D.
Those who knew me then would know it’s not just because I don’t own a capo yet…
Perhaps it’s always been a trivial matter for the anyone who grew up with a guitar or the like, but for me it’s all still new. I found a simple melody and I wanted to hear the banjo sing it in the clawhammer style, but the banjo was tuned to Open G and the song is presents in the Key of D. Finding the melody’s notes would not be a problem, but hitting the D, G, and A chords between those notes might be, what with my lack of experience and all… But you just know that that banjo can sing that song and you also know that you can make it happen. Without taking the time to master playing D songs in Open G tuning, I could only see two choices: Change the instrument’s tuning to D or shift the song into the Key of G.
It only looked like a dilemma to me, of course: changing tuning and transposing keys are both trivial matters for the experienced–happening without a second thought. For a novice, there are obstacles to either solution–neither or which, by the way, will guarantee that I’d be able to make an intelligible presentation of the tune in the required style anyway! Still, it seemed to be a necessary intermediate step on the way to a solution, at least from where I was standing.
But 20 years ago, I did not foresee this; looking back, it would be hard to even see its beginnings. What I do have, though, is some vague sense that suffering through this awkward fumbling is worth the effort and a sense that it’s a necessary step on the way to something I can’t quite describe.
I can tell you, though, that it just feels right if not unavoidable.
Sounds as clear as a bell that you’re about to strike… once you find a mallet, that is!
Now, why is it that when there’s a keyboard on my lap and a mandolin resting on its stand beside me that this banjo story would come to mind at all?
As usual, feel free to read once through for the novice musician’s path and maybe another time through in case there’s an application to your own situation. You can even put off finding the koan within it indefinitely, or at least until the time is right–it’s up to you!