Since it’s not all about me, occasionally I will stand back and provide the accompaniment. In “Rolling Down the Neck Backup,” an article about the banjo as a backup instrument, Bob Altschuler writes, “The main goal of backup is to support and enhance the overall sound, which includes helping other musicians sound as good as possible and not competing musically with other instruments and vocals.”
The more I play banjo the more I appreciate its place as a backup instrument. I’m still not any good but I’m learning, and to learn anything well requires a good teacher. When I started playing a few years ago I took lessons twice a month for almost a year. Then I got distracted with something else and never went back. The internet and lesson books provided a temporary substitute, but I reached a point where my rolls began to gather moss and I began to fuss about my frets. Then along came Bob.
Bob, a friend of mine called me one day several weeks ago and suggested we get together and play some music with Wade, a mutual friend of ours. The idea sounded preposterous. Wade is an accomplished guitar player, and Bob is a retired high school band director; I had very little in common musically with these guys. True, I had been a drummer in high school with one accomplishment: One day, due to artistic differences with the band director, I was permanently dismissed, along with another drummer and the baritone saxophone player.
Bob, Wade, and I finally did get together in spite of my protests. Wade brought his guitar, I had my banjo, and Bob had his harmonica. Those two sounded good together and I tried to fit in. It was a pleasant evening, and we harmonized well, if not musically. Bob, being an astute band leader, was able to recognize the obvious shortcomings of the banjo section and suggested we meet regularly.
So, for the past few weeks Bob and I have been getting together at his place for casual conversation and music lessons. While avoiding any deeps discussion regarding music theory, I am learning chord progressions, the relationship between majors, minors, sharps and flats, how to recognize chord changes, and how to harmonize and follow patterns of rhythm.
I have much to learn and Bob has a lot of knowledge to share. In any relationship I always wonder what my contribution is. In my friendship with Bob, I feel quite inadequate. Clearly, he is the teacher, and I am the student.
Bob is a little older than me, and he is obviously keenly aware of something that, up until now, had escaped me. Sometimes in life it is a good idea to be the support, to be the backup. Bob is setting a wonderful example by reaching out to help me be as good as possible without competing for attention and recognition. Bob has taught me that to be a good companion is to provide the best accompaniment one can offer in life.