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The Scarlet & Black

Buck’s Banjos Bring distinctive twang

By Ellen Pinnette

Grinnell students are fortunate that the College offers a wide array of music classes to its students, with orchestra ensembles, gospel choir and many specialized performance classes. Perhaps one of the most unusual options is the banjo program.

Fred Buck, the banjo instructor, has been playing the banjo for nearly 30 years. Sparked by student interest, Buck pioneered the banjo program when a Grinnell guitar instructor asked him to teach at the College. Despite the initial excitement, student participation varies.

“This year there are only four of us, usually there are about eight. We’ve had as many as twenty-four,” Buck said. Each student receives one credit per semester and the course may be repeated, as it is comparable to private lessons.

Buck is happy to take students with any music background. “If you haven’t had any lessons of any instrument … it really doesn’t hurt you,” Buck said. Most students come in with some musical knowledge, usually guitar or piano skills, “but it’s not necessary,” he said.

Instruction is typically one-on-one, resulting in an individualized course, with an accommodating schedule of just one lesson per week, each for about 30 minutes. Buck teaches old time and bluegrass styles, emphasizing enjoyment, not just instruction. Although there are no formal performances given by the banjo students, Buck encourages student jam sessions and applying what students learn each week to playing with people.

“When I have free time, I play the banjo with my friends,” said Julia Gerasimenko ’12, a first-semester banjo student.

For Grinnellians who haven’t delved into the world of banjo, it is made up of five strings over a surprisingly loud tambourine-like body is actually a percussion instrument. The banjo most often lends its twang to bluegrass, country, and folk music—the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” features the banjo. It also shows up in the hands of classic rockers like Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan, as well as in more mainstream alternative rock bands, such as Guster. That said, the banjo is hardly a secondary instrument—it has its connoisseurs. Béla Fleck, a frontrunner in the banjo world today, performed at Grinnell in 2009.

Whether as an exploration into a new instrument and unique sound, or as a respite from a heavy course-load, if the banjo calls to you, answer it! More information on the Grinnell College banjo program can be found through the music department’s website.

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    Carmel PinnetteSep 6, 2011 at 8:34 am

    The banjo program sounds like a very entertaining and pleasurable activity.It must encourage appreciation and sharing of the participating musicians.As for myself. I always feel energized by the music. It brings back the old time favorites.