Author: Kuster, Ted

Bluegrass on Kids

I get to play an occasional fundraising party for our neighborhood school. Itís the most fun gig I do all year. The tone for the band is set by Mabel, a fifth grader who is as enthusiastic about her fiddle as she is about her iPod Touch.

Frequently she wants to play with both of them at the same time. I think the thumb strength sheís built up from texting must be helping her fingering and bowing, because sheís getting really good. At both of them.

Mabelís mom and dad do their best to channel the energy, but their hands are full most of the time, one with a guitar and the other with a bass, so it can get pretty chaotic. You havenít lived until youíve seen the fiddle played from a standing position on the back of a couch.

When my own kid was in grade school, the best place to practice my banjo was sitting on a bench in the schoolyard waiting for her to come out at the end of the day. Kids have a complex, ambiguous relationship with music. They love it, and itís kind of scary. It can be just one more part of the adult world, trying to make them conform, play it this way and not that way. But at the same time itís full of rebellious possibility. The banjo sits right at that border, mysterious and shiny and loud.

I would sit there running through my exercises until the bell rang, then Iíd have to stop because Iíd be mobbed by curious grade schoolers asking, ďWhat is it?Ē
There is no word for banjo in Spanish. That doesnít stop kids that donít speak English from asking you what it is. I tried different approximations; Iíve found ďAfrican guitarĒ seems to get it across OK.

IĎm sure Carlton Haney didnít think about this for a moment when he came up with the festival as the main way of participating in this music. We soak our kids in picking for days at a time; no wonder so many of them get the itch. Lots of other genres have festivals, but you donít see a lot of young kids picking up the oboe or the berimbau spontaneously and joining in jams with their parents and uncles and aunts.

I owe my own participation in bluegrass to a kid. It was her idea to pick up a mandolin and start singing; it didnít seem like there was anything I could do but get a banjo and back her up. Sheís moved on to higher culture now (Iíve lost her to jazz, for now at least), but the banjo appears to be a permanent condition.

And of course if I hadnít grown up required to sing in every church choir between Chicago and Lake Superior, I wouldnít have had the gall to take up this strange, scary practice in the first place.

My own kid has graduated from grade school and never had much time for bluegrass anyway. Iím OK with that, because I have a purpose in life. Mabelís going to be needing a banjo player for the next few school fundraisers, so Iíve got to go practice.

Posted:  9/25/2012

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