Watching the Dark

15 May 2010

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from harmless avocation into the dark realm of obsession?  Perhaps when you come away from a three-and-a-half hour banjo concert thinking, “That was refreshing!”  Cousin Curly not only survived but actually enjoyed the five-string smorgasbord that was the “Banjo Extravanganza” last Thursday.  If admitting that is a cry for help, so be it.

While the performers were tuning up (insert your favorite banjo joke here), I got into a brief conversation with some of the folks around me.  Like me, several were fans of Jens Kruger, subject of my last post.  At least a couple had attended workshops with Kruger, and they provided some insight into his approach to the instrument.  Apparently, he really stresses staying relaxed and not focusing too much on what your hands are doing.  According to my sources, this explains why, when he’s playing, he looks off into the distance:  it’s his way of staying loose and “in the moment,” as actors say.

One of my informants offered this related bit of Krugeriana:  supposedly, when Jens and his brother Uwe were learning to play bluegrass back home in Switzerland, they would practice together in the dark, presumably as a way of staying entirely focused on the sound they were producing.  Or perhaps it was just because electricity is as expensive as everything else in Switzerland.

It is interesting how many of the real virtuosos across the musical spectrum make a point of not looking at their hands when they’re playing.  Several years ago, guitar god Richard Thompson (best known in bluegrass circles for penning “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”) released a retrospective collection called Watching the Dark.  It took me a while to figure out that the title was a reference to Thompson’s habit of closing his eyes when he started a solo.

I’m gonna try practicing tonight in the dark.  Don’t know if I’ll sound any better, but I’m gonna look fantastic.  Let us know if you have practicing or performing tips that your pickin’ heroes use or that you’ve tried out yerself.

Yer Pal— Curly

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