april 2009

Ron Block: Connecting the dots between passion and technique

Ron Block
AcuTab Video
Running Time: 3 hours, 45 minutes on two discs

If anyone wants to know what the ideal instructional DVD should contain, Ron Block's A Fresh Look At Bluegrass Banjo is a textbook example of a comprehensive, accessible, smart short course by a master of the art. Block, of course, is one of the vital components of Union Station, Alison Krauss's band since 1991. Interviewed by AcuTab's Jerry Lawless at the beginning of Disc 1, Block's answer to a question about the key influences on his approach to the banjo pretty much sums up what happens once he gets into the instructional parts of the disc.

"The Bluegrass Album was really big for me," he says. "When I heard J.D. [Crowe], he went (strikes a hard chord), he just went, Pow! It was one of those epiphanies. I played with that record and other records with Crowe, and the Jimmy Martin banjo players and Flatt and Scruggs. I played with those so much, and I still do. So there are things that I've internalized about their playing, but I've always liked to improvise. So while I would study their playing and learn everything they did, and I would go through the Bluegrass Album, let's say 'Blue Ridge Cabin Home,' and play it as close to J.D. as I could and try to play his backup all the same, the whole deal, then I would go through it again and try to play it my way, play it a different way, but still playing the melody. Try to play it in a different way, with different rolls, different emphasis. I wasn't going off and going crazy."

That is to say, Block does a thorough job of teaching banjo fundamentals, as he learned them, and then showing the viewer new ways to get inside a song, as he's developed them. For the young player, Block's humility is an instructional tool almost as valuable as his hands-on demonstrations of technique. For instance, in discussing his dynamics, he admits he's still working on getting at an ideal right-hand level. "I'm working on that more," he tells Lawless. "In the past my dynamic level, if you think of a scale of one to 10, you know I've played about a seven a lot of the time. When we're on stage it's an eight, and on a bad night it's even more. I'm playing too hard. But what has to happen, and what I'm working on, I haven't quite fixed it firmly in my hands yet. That is to play at four. I want to play at four or five. Then you have all that room dynamically to get quieter or get louder. But if you're playing full volume, you can't get any louder." Block consistently engages in this sort of self-analysis, and it's good teaching that addresses intellectual, emotional and technical matters all at once in showing how to make an instrument an expressive musical tool. He demonstrates the exercises he uses to keep his playing sharp, discusses the use of a metronome when practicing and on some of the demonstrations the producers make use of a split screen effect to show Block's right and left hand fingerings at the same time. His method is illustrated in service to several beloved songs—"Every Time You Say Goodbye," "Bright Sunny South," "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Cluck Old Hen," "I'll Remember You Love In My Prayers," et al.—played first by a full band, then systematically broken down lick by lick, then, using the split screen device, depicted in medium and slow segments, with screen orientations optimized for both left and right hand players. In addition, the songs are available in a full band mix and a banjo-heavy mix. If there's something missing here, one would be hard pressed to say what it is. Block and the folks at AcuTab have covered so many angles of the banjo in and out of a band context, and addressed so many issues of style, tone and execution—and made sure to emphasize the importance of practicing—as to make the title of their effort indisputable. In fact, Block does such a good job connecting the dots between passion and technique that even non-players might want to check out the DVD, if only to gain a greater understanding of what they're actually hearing when a good bluegrass band engages a song fully. It's a terrific music appreciation course in its own right. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
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