Peter Wernick reasons that tunes have been around much longer than the development of formal writing. During a workshop he led at the Merlefest music festival earlier this year, he pondered how the in the moment feelings of a performing artist could be expressed in written form.
Dr. Wernick poses a good question. How does the euphoria and passion associated with a beautiful melody translate into the cold hard ink on a sheet of paper?
I learned to read music in the sixth grade, but I had my ears pinned to the speakers blaring out the hit songs broadcast by am radio before I learned how to play the clarinet in my middle school band. Being able to translate written notes into the fingerings on my second-hand licorice stick enabled me to produce some good vibrations.
In fact a pal and I used to hang out in the band building after school picking through the marching music library for the parts that transcribed the melodies of our favorite songs like “The Theme from Exodus,” “Horse,” and, yes, even “Good Vibrations.”
Peter says a love of music isn’t obtained by reading about it, but by listening to it and playing it, preferably with others.
But can we take seriously the ideas of someone who plays an instrument that is the butt of jokes? (How can you tell a banjo player is not in the right key? His fingers are moving.) After all, this guy plays a banjo for goodness sake. (My pal Jim Huskins refers to his as the hillbilly saxophone.)
However, Peter Wernick is no joke. His title is not honorary, but earned the conventional way through class work and conferred by an accredited institution of higher learning (a sociology doctorate from Columbia University.).
As a master musician, he is a founding member of several influential bands (Hot Rize is just one), an innovative songwriter, and former president of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). He is also a best-selling author, who teaches and inspires other musicians and has earned the respect of performers who are at the top of their fields.
Dr. Wernick bolsters his argument by citing a banjo legend – Earl Scruggs who never played the same piece the same way twice. Peter even can point out inaccuracies in a popular Earl Scruggs method book, not out of any author envy, but because Dr. Banjo knows Earl would have never played it that way.
I’ve got a shelf full of songbooks, but I learned many of the covers and licks I play by ear. Before there were tablatures online and You Tube tutorials we used to wear out a vinyl record or a cassette tape playing a part over and over again to discern a chord progression, lyric, or guitar solo.
So I can attest to both playing by notation and the heart.
But really, who am I to argue with Dr. Banjo?