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When somebody asks me where I learned to improvise on the banjo the first thought that pops into my head is my mother. Mom doesn't play the banjo. She does play the dulcimer and she sings. Her voice is so pretty that I've seen road-weary country guitar pickers break into tears listening to her sing an old hymn, but she never was interested in the banjo.
I know, right about now you're wondering how somebody who never touched a banjo taught me how to play. Well, Mom never taught me anything technical about the banjo, but she did show me how to see the world around me.
When I was growing up she could take absolutely nothing and find a way to turn it into something. A pack of construction paper might turn the living room floor into a giant board game. Some Queen Anne's lace pressed between the pages of an old phone book would become amazing Christmas tree ornaments that, to my eyes, put the fancy displays at Longwood Gardens to shame. A reading of Robert Frost's "The Witch Of Coos" on a stormy night could turn our home into a haunted mansion more exciting than anything Disney could dream up.
I used to watch her piece together intricate quilts from fabric scraps. She would also spin raw wool into yarn and then send me into the woods to gather the plants used fo r making colorful natural dyes. She encouraged me to paint, draw and explore every creative idea that came into my head as long as I didn't blow up the kitchen. It was an environment where improvising was an everyday fact of life.
When I started studying karate the habit of thinking outside the box that I had picked up from Mom wound up being a pretty big asset.
One of the concepts Ed Parker built into his Kenpo Karate system was that it made more sense to learn one movement and then look at twenty-four ways to use that movement than to learn twenty-four individual movements.
I took to that idea like a duck to water. One of my instructors would show me a block or a strike and I would spend days or even weeks looking for ways to blend it into what I already knew. I looked for opportunities to utilize and incorporate the technique.
It was Ed Parker himself who pointed out to me that these ideas could be applied to learning a musical instrument. It's too long a story to tell here, but to sum it up I was sitting on the curb waiting for my ride after a martial arts seminar. It turned out that the guy I was sitting next to was none other than Ed Parker. We wound up chatting for a little while and he asked me what I wanted to "do" with my life. I wasn't even thirteen at the time. All I could do was shrug and say that maybe I would stay with karate, but I wasn't sure.
He just laughed and said that what I had learned up to this point and the way I had been taught could be applied to anything I wanted. Even music.
I perked up at that for a second, but it sounded too crazy. I couldn't see how that made any sense. How is learning to fight the same as learning to play music, or anything else?