|So You Want To Make Some Money With Your Banjo?
by Don Van Palta
I started out earning a living with the banjo working for others. First at the original Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Sacramento, California. I started
there in 1954. Then, starting in 1960, for 14 years, at the San Diego nightclub called Mickie Finn's. After that I played on many cruise ships
with many different lines for 23 years. When I left the cruises I started working I started working for myself by playing the retirement centers,
the assisted living centers and the Alzheimer units. By the way, don't be put off by these units. These people have been some of my best
audiences! I'm not kidding! Some of those folks know all the words to all the tunes I play and they'll sing along with me with much vigor. You'll
be moved as you see their smiles when they realize that they were able to remember all those words!
Every fairly good sized city has to have a great number of these facilities to take care of its older population. This is the method I've been
using to earn some pretty good money playing at these facilities.
I'm assuming that you've been playing for the public enough so that you have an interesting, varied repertoire and that you're able to play for
them without getting too nervous or scared. Almost everyone will get a little nervous and tight at the beginning of putting on a show. It
happens to me too! I've found that if I start out with three or four fairly fast tunes that I can pretty much play in my sleep, that will get me over
the "hump". What also helps is to get to the facility a bit early so that you can mix a little bit with your audience. Then, when you're in front of
them, or up on that stage, you're just playing for people you know, you're playing for some of your friends.
If goes without saying that your performance should be more than just banjo playing. To really reach an audience you need to connect with
them. You'll connect some with your banjo, you'll connect some more by talking to them or singing for them, or making them chuckle or laugh
Let's assume that you've got an interesting show ready to go! What do you do now? You need to advertise it to the right people. If your
repertoire is music of the '30's, '40's and '50's then a lot of your audiences will be in the facilities that I've mentioned.
I have a list of 120 of these facilities on my macintosh computer, on a software called "My Mail List". It lists the name of the facility, the
address, the name of the activity director, the phone number and an area for comments. You might already have such a mail list software on
your computer, or you can get one very cheaply. I also use a standard desk calender in conjunction with the computer.
I found a lot of these facilities on the internet. Go to "Google" and search for "retirement facilities". You'll find a lot of them in your town or
other towns in your area that you're willing to drive to. Most of these places advertise in several magazines exclusive to the trade. One of
them that I've used is called "SENIOR HOUSING". In these publications most of the prominent places in your community are listed, showing all
of their benefits. It even tells you how many beds or units each one has. That is a very useful figure for when you have to decide how much
money to ask them for!
The next thing you'll need to do is advertise yourself to this list. What I've done is make up a three fold brochure on my Dell computer, on a
software called "Microsoft Publisher". With this brochure you'll need to impress the various activity directors. They'll want to see your picture,
know your name, what kind of a show they can expect, where you have performed before and how to contact you. Don't mention prices in
It's also very useful to have your own website. It doesn't need to be a fancy, expensive one. I made mine using the Yahoo facility. It costs me
$12 per month. If you have any recordings of yourself or videos of a performance, you'd put those on your website and you would mention
them in your brochure. The activity director could then go to your website and preview your type of music or your performance.
The next thing is to mail your brochures to each one of the facilities on your list. Address it to the activity director. Your mailing list software
should make it easy to make these address labels. On your mailing list, show when you sent out each brochure. Wait a week or so, then
follow up on each one of them by calling the facility, ask for the name of the activity director, and then ask to talk to him or her.
If you get connected with the activity director, introduce yourself and tell her that you're following up on a brochure that you sent to her. Ask
her if she received it. If not, offer to send her another one. If she did receive it, than you can say to her that you'd love to come over there
and do some "pickin' and grinnin'" for her residents.
If you get her answering machine, that's OK too. Tell her why you're calling and leave your name and phone number. Sometimes they will
actually call you back! On your "mail" software make a note that you left a message. Find out from the desk person what would be a good
time to reach that activity director and then make a note of that in "mail". Then call them again at the specified time or day.
If she has received your brochure and seems interested she'll ask you what you charge. You can ask her what her budget is for
entertainment and what she would normally pay for a musical act such as yours. Very often they will tell you . . . "Oh, we normally pay $75 to
$100 for one hour. If it is a very large facility, I've had them say . . ."We can't pay more than $350 for one hour"!! I would then say . . . "That
would be just fine!" I have a minimum of $50 in Green Valley where I live. In Tucson, about 35 miles from home my minimum is $75. In
Phoenix, about 150 miles, my minimum is $100.
Some facilities change activity directors quite often. It's a tough job! Therefore it is important to call all of your facilities every couple of
months or so. If there is a new activity director, the desk person will let you know. This new person doesn't know you and probably hasn't
seen your brochure so you have to start all over with her by offering to send her one of your brochures.
Many of the larger facilities will have a retirement section, an assisted living section and possibly an Alzheimer section. You can then offer to
do two or three of them and give them a break in the price. For instance, if you charge $100 for one facility, you might charge $175 for two
and $225 or $250 to do all three.
A lot of the calls I make are long distance. That can become quite costly! Then I found out about "Skype". Skype is a phone method through
the internet using your computer mike and speaker. You can sign up with Skype at skype.com. It costs about $30 a year!! I've saved
hundreds of dollars on my phone bill using skype for my long distance calls.
There are always places that don't have a budget for entertainment. I play them too! They are great for practicing your repertoire and at the
same time giving those folks an entertaining hour of your music. Sometimes when I'm playing gigs in Phoenix which is a 300 mile round trip,
and I have a gig the next day also in Phoenix, I have an arrangement where I can spend the night at one of the facilities and they'll even serve
me breakfast the next morning! I always offer to play for them of pay them which they usually refuse. That sure saves on motel or hotel bills!
It's possible to make some pretty good money playing your banjo in these venues. There is really nothing complicated about it. You're
basically a salesman, selling yourself, and as any successful salesman knows, the secret of success is persistence, persistence and more
persistence! So give it a try! I'll guarantee you'll enjoy sharing your talent with these wonderful, appreciative audiences.
Marriage Insurance For Banjo Players!
by Don Van Palta
There aren't any statistics, as far as I know, of how many marriages have survived or gone on the rocks because of excess banjo practice by
one or the other in these delicate partnerships. For the banjo player, especially the beginner, daily practice is essential. After some calluses
have been acquired this can actually be a very enjoyable pastime. The repetition of even one passage for a whole day, or even a week, until
flawlessness has been reached can be an almost religious experience for the dedicated banjoist. In contrast, for the partner in marriage, this
daily exercise can be excruciating. It can lead to heated arguments. It can escalate to the cutting of banjo strings in the dark of night or even,
in rare cases, an attack on the banjo by power saw! (The attempted breaking of the banjo neck over one's knee is not recommended and
can lead to extensive bruising!) We're not even considering the sensitive ears of close neighbors.
Carolyn and I have just recently celebrated our forty eighth wedding anniversary. I attribute this lengthy time-span for the most part to my
"Marriage Insurance For Banjo Players". It is actually a very simple operation and does not involve any monthly or yearly premiums. It is
merely a method of quieting the sound of the banjo sufficiently so as not to be disturbing to your partner without losing the percussive
qualities of the instrument. This is accomplished by the use of two commonly used bathroom products. First, take a regular hand towel and
fold it in such a way so that you can insert it between the rod or rods and the back of the head (of the banjo), but in front of the bridge. It
should be of sufficient thickness so that it exerts enough pressure on the inside of the head to keep it from moving in the direction of the
bridge while you're playing.
With just the towel in place the volume of the banjo will be cut down considerably. It might even be sufficient to keep your marriage intact. For
added insurance tear off a section of seven sheets of two ply toilet paper, fold it double lengthwise and then fold it double widthwise. Next
carefully and tightly roll it up until you have a cylinder the approximate width of your bridge. Slide the cylinder under the strings in front of the
bridge. Your marriage is now secure!
If you do any performing in retirement, or rest-home facilities having just the towel in place will be a relief to many of the resident with hearing
aids. They will now be able to enjoy the banjo without distortion from their hearing aids.
For your practice, with the towel and the toilet paper in place, your volume will be almost nil, but you'll still be able to hear yourself sufficiently
to have a very useful practice session. One of the side effects of the toilet paper in front of the bridge is that in effect you've moved the
bridge forward which will of course diminish the tonality of the instrument. This is a small price to pay for insurance that your marriage will
endure in spite of your incessant, continuous, annoying banjo practice.
Some Particular Poop On Picks
by Don Van Palta
Years ago my first musical experience was playing the banjo in a Dixieland Jazz Band in Sacramento called King Goodtime Pleasure Rag and
His Front Street Levy Loungers. One evening we were invited to perform for a local service club. Our performance got off to a rather slow
start because we were introduced right after the "minute of silence for the departed members". Then, about halfway through the
performance, while executing a hot lick during the Wolverine Blues, my pick shot out of my hand. Since I was the rhythm section, the band
came to a crashing halt. When I looked down I found to my dismay that the floor was covered with an oriental rug decorated with hundreds of
little flower blossoms in the shape of my banjo pick! I was in a panic, i could not find my pick! It had been swallowed up by that horrible rug.
Finally the whole band got on its knees and we found my pick in a bunch of petunias. The rest of the performance went by in sort of a daze. I
don't think we ever regained the attention of that audience.
Dropping my pick was a regular occurrence for me in those days. I tried to remedy it by various means like wrapping the pick with sticky tape
or buying those special picks with either a hole or a rough surface at the end that you hang on to. Then I got really serious and looked at the
problem analytically. The variables were, the pick, how it was held, and the angle in relation to the strings. All the time I knew that the pick
really was not the problem and that these special picks were just so many crutches. I'd also noticed almost every player had a different way of
holding the pick. I came to the conclusion that it didn't really matter if you held the pick between your nose and your big toe as long as the
angle between the pick and the strings was within certain limits.
By experimenting I found out a very interesting fact. When strumming, holding the pick loosely, perpendicular and parallel to the strings, I was
able to control it without having to hang on to it tightly. But, when I angled it slightly clockwise as in figure A, the tip would rotate between my
fingers in a forward direction and I would lose control of it. When I angled it slightly counter-clockwise as in figure B, the tip would rotate
backwards in the opposite direction, again with the loss of control. When I held the pick approximately parallel to the strings, I was able to
hang on to it without difficulty.
I found out there was a very important added benefit to holding the pick in this way. I now did not have to clamp down on it like a vise just to
hold on to it, and by varying the pressure I could now modulate the volume from a whisper to a roar.
If control of the pick is one of your problems I hope this information will help you play comfortably, even when playing on a flowery oriental rug!
My Most Expensive Banjo Pick!
by:Don Van Palta
It all started out with learning to fly! It must have been around the mid 1950's. On week ends I was playing the banjo at Shakey's Pizza Parlor
at 57th and J streets in Sacramento. My day job was working at a bank in west Sacramento as a teller. Right across the street from the bank
was a very small airport. During my lunch hour I would cross the street and watch all those take-offs and landings of small planes. I got so I
could recognize Air Coupes, Cessnas, Piper Cubs, Aeroncas and Piper Tri Pacers. I was thinking how much fun it would be to fly those little
planes. So I went into the building where the pilots hung out and asked a person behind the desk about flying lessons. She told me it was no
big deal. You'd be assigned an instructor and you could start right away. It only cost $30 for an hour for a plane and instructor. Well . . . . . I
was still living at home and didn't have too many expenses, so $30 sounded like a good deal to me and I signed up for those lessons.
My next day off I reported to the airport, was assigned an instructor and off we went. That first lesson was mostly on "stalls". Getting the feel
for stalls is important because that's the way you land those little planes. Practicing stalls was fun. We'd climb up to 1000 feet or so, put the
engine on idle and gradually pull the stick into your lap which raises the nose, until the nose finally drops because the speed of the plane isn't
able to keep the plane aloft. The following days and weeks we kept practicing those stalls and finally started doing them in actual landings.
The first time I landed I came in too high which cause me to hit the ground pretty hard and made me bounce a few times. That's embarrassing
because all those pilots in the office are watching your progress! After the landing I'd give it t he gun and take off, get some altitude, circle
around and come in again. I did that for a while until I was finally able to land without any bounces at a predetermined spot on the runway.
The following lessons covered spins and recovering from them . . . before you hit the ground! How to land in a cross wind, etc. etc. etc. One
time we were flying along at about 500 feet and my instructor all of a sudden cut the power! He then told me: "Look out your window and find
a good place to land!" I looked around frantically. I didn't see any good places because I didn't see any airports! I did see some pastures
with barbed wire fences and also a plowed field. I'd lost several hundred feet of altitude by this time. That was worrying me a little bit! Then I
finally saw a nice long pasture that had enough room for me to land. I prepared to land, but my friendly instructor gave me full power again so
I zipped back into the sky, having learned a good lesson to always be prepared to find a spot if you have to land somewhere. As I was gaining
altitude again, all of a sudden a large passenger plane practically filled my windshield! My instructor calmly said: "I'd try going under him!"
Finally the day arrived where I did a nice landing at a small strip and when I stopped the plane my instructor got out and said: "You're on your
own, just take off, go around and come pick me up. I was pretty nervous seeing that empty seat beside me, but I took off, went around and
made a perfect landing ending up right beside him. That was the day I "soloed"!!
Now I could fly by myself and even take a passenger up with me. My first passenger was Phil How, the clarinet player in our dixieland band. I
took him up and showed him a nice spin. He promptly threw up! We both learned a lesson that day. For me, no more spins with a
passenger. For him, no more flying with that dumb banjo player!
Now that I could fly I realized that I didn't really have any reason to fly. I finally came up with a reason. I'd fly to Stockton, about 75 miles or so,
go to the local music store and buy some picks. I got the plane. Enjoyed the flight to Stockton. Had to catch a cab to the nearest music
store, back to the airfield and fly back to Sacramento.
Those couple of picks cost me almost $80!!! I thought about deducting it as a business expense, but decided it probably wouldn't fly!
by Don Van Palta
|The Richelieu Banjo
by Don Van Palta
Like many banjo players I was always looking for that perfect sound and feel in an instrument. I frequented a lot of the banjo rallies around the
country to introduce banjoists to my lesson programs, solo books and the other ideas I’ve come up with over the years and also trying out the
various banjos on display.
At one of these rallies I met another performer by the name of Rich Richelieu. During our conversation Rich mentioned that he had an
extensive collection of vintage banjos. He told me his dream was to manufacture a superb banjo with the exquisite sound and ease of playing of
some of these vintage banjos but using modern techniques, tools and machinery. As we parted at the conclusion of the rally, I wished him
success with his dream.
The next year, at another banjo rally, there was Rich. He was very excited about a banjo that he had manufactured and wanted me to try it out
to see if I liked it. I played it for a short while and handed it back to him with the comment that it was OK, but didn’t have the sound or feel that I
was looking for.
The next year, guess what, there was Rich with another banjo. I played it for a while and really liked the tone of it. It had sort of a sweet sound,
but still with plenty of volume when you wanted it. I also noticed that it stayed perfectly in tune all the way up and down the neck. When I
handed it back to Rich I told him that I really liked the sound of this banjo but the neck didn’t have a good feel to it. It was a bit too thick and too
The next year, guess what, there was Rich again with another banjo. He let me play it and this time I wouldn’t give it back to him! I played it that
whole day at the rally. It felt great and sounded fantastic. I told Rich how much I liked it and would he please make me one!
The following year was America’s Bicentennial Celebration. I went to the San Jose banjo rally and there, on stage, with much fanfare Rich
presented me with a Bicentennial banjo. He and his staff had worked most of the year producing this one of a kind banjo. It had the tone and
the feel that I liked, but this one was decorated like you wouldn’t believe! Carved on the back of the resonator was the cracked Liberty Bell, the
Purple Mountain Majesty and the Fruited Plain, and above all this was the meanest looking head of a bald eagle. On the peghead, inlaid with
mother of pearl, were the words . . .” Two Hundred Years Of Freedom”. Well, it took my breath away!
The next few years I told my students about the Richelieu banjo and quite a few of them bought Rich’s banjos and loved everything about them.
The next step for me was to become a distributor for Rich’s banjos. So presently I sell these wonderful instruments and am permitted to give a
meaningful discount to my students.
Learning A New Song On The Banjo
by Don Van Palta
Learning a new song on the banjo for me is like a series of mind challenges. Maybe it’s the same for you. It starts out like this. I look the music
over carefully and think of some preliminary ways of tackling it. Then I decide it’s impossible to play on the banjo and put it aside. The next day
I give it a second look and think to myself, “mmmmm, I’ll just try a couple of measures and see how it goes.” I work out the technique to play
those couple of measures, an up stroke here, a down stroke there, followed by a couple of beats of tremolo, maybe change one of the chords
to a three string chord to make the passage a bit easier. Then I think, . . . “wow, this might be possible after all”. I work up a few more
measures the same way, and what do you know, the next eight measures are a repetition of what I just learned.
Here comes the bridge!! How am I going to play that? There’s no way! Hey, maybe if I just play single string for that impossible measure.
What do you know, it sounds pretty good. Gives sort of a contrast to all those full chords. Now I’m back to what I learned already. The melody
is changed slightly to bring the tune to an end, but it’s doable! Hey, I’ve got this thing licked!! Now all I’ve got to do is work out the kinks and
practice it until the whole thing is nice and smooth and up to tempo and I’ve got another nice tune to enjoy and share with the folks I know.
Do you see how you can easily talk yourself out of learning a new tune? It’s very easy to do that. It’s like anything else in this life. If you dig in
and grapple with whatever is confronting you, you’ll eventually tackle it and in the process you’ll learn all kinds of lessons that you can then
apply to other problems that come along.
So, if you are a banjo player who uses the “that’s impossible” excuse, maybe you should re-examine your learning methods and practice
routines. You’ll be amazed how much fun it is and what a wonderful high you’ll get when you overcome that “impossible” mind set. You’ll finally
graduate to playing the more challenging tunes and receive for your efforts that wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
The Importance Of A Balanced Set Of Strings
by Don Van Palta
Many years ago when I was still playing my banjo at the Mickie Finn nightclub in San Diego I met a violin maker and player who gave me some
very valuable information. He asked me if the strings on my banjo were a balanced set. I said: “Huh?” Yes, he said, it’s very important that the
strings be balanced or you
won't get the best tone out of your instrument. So I asked him how to balance the strings. This is how he explained it to me.
When a banjo or a violin or almost any stringed instrument is in tune - when the strings are balanced - each string will exert the same amount of
pressure over the bridge. When this is NOT the case, in other words, when the strings are not balanced, then each string exerts a different
pressure on the bridge and the bridge will wobble. When the bridge wobbles there is a disturbance in the vibrations that are transferred to the
head. The sound produced is then not optimum. When the strings are balanced, the bridge will be steady and the transfer of vibrations to the
head will be undisturbed and true.
The way to balance the strings is to check the tension of each string and compare it with the tension of the other strings. An easy way of doing
this, without getting a special tool, is to push on each string, with the same amount of pressure, right in front of the bridge. If one or more of the
strings is obviously looser or tighter than the others than you need to experiment with string gauges until the tension on all of the strings is the
same. I like an easy action so the gauges to achieve that balance for me are .010, .012, .015 and .022 wound. If you like a tighter action you
just need to experiment with slightly thicker strings.
I’ll never forget, after I balanced the string action on my banjo and took the first break after a set at Mickie Finn’s, one of the waitresses came up
to me and said: . . . “What did you do to your banjo? It always sounded good before, but now it sounds terrific!” So if you want to get a pretty
waitress to whisper in your ear . . . . now you know what to do.
What To Do About Those Butterflies
by Don Van Palta
Butterflies are lovely and fun to watch but the imagined species that interferes with our performance can be a real problem. These are the ones
we’re going to deal with in this article.
We’ve all had the experience of privately practicing a particular number on our instrument. Working on it until our fingers fly and land with
precision and without hesitation on all the right chords and notes. But the minute we want to share our new accomplishment with a relative, a
friend or a group it seems that all of that practice was for naught! It seems like all of a sudden time speeds up and we’re trying to catch up with
it. We stumble through the chords, miss some of the notes, forget portions entirely and feel as if we’re playing under water where our speed is
diminished, our breath comes in gasps and the perspiration gushes off our forehead. You’ve been overwhelmed by the dreaded butterflies.
Many an aspiring performer has been defeated by this butterfly phenomenon. They keep running into this seeming wall every time they think
they’re ready to give a performance. I’ve had this experience many times myself and still encounter it now and then when I’ve neglected to
prepare for it.
The answer to this phenomenon is really quite simple. It’s the same old practice, practice, practice! But it’s not what you think. It’s not just
practicing the music. That’s of course very important. The music needs to be memorized to such an extent that your fingers know just where to
go and what to do without having to actually think about it. The fingers actually move faster than the mind can think. This is called “finger
memory” and is well known by all accomplished performers.
The thing to be practiced now is the performing of the piece in front of someone or something. What’s different here is the addition of
distraction! You never had that when you were practicing by yourself in your study. But when you’re in front of an audience you have to be so
focused that when you look up and happen to see someone in your audience picking his nose, a cell phone going off or a couple of people
talking to each other and not paying the least bit of attention to you, you won’t be flustered and lose your place.
There are several ways to accomplish this. Basically what you need to do is gradually add elements of stress to your playing. At one point I
stacked boxes in front of me on chairs and tables with a set of eyes painted on each box. Some of the eyes just staring, some winking and
some cross-eyed! As I performed for the boxes I tried to make contact with all the eyes! Try that yourself. You’ll notice that now you’ve added
a certain amount of stress. Next you might play into an audio tape recorder. You’ll notice right away that that’s a little more difficult than playing
for the boxes. You’ve added a little more stress. When you can accomplish that without a hitch, then try playing into a video camera held by
someone. That’s more stressful because now you’ve got a real person looking at you.
If by this time you have a basic repertoire your next step could be to volunteer to play for one of those small rest homes with five or six
residents. They don’t get much entertainment so they are very forgiving. An interesting thing you’ll notice is that as you progress it becomes
easier to play for a larger gathering than it is for just one person or a few people. The reason being that it becomes difficult to keep making eye
contact with just one person or a couple of people. With a larger group that becomes much easier and less intimidating.
When I’ve worked up a new arrangement I still like to polish it up in the rest home circuit. It’s a real benefit to me because I’m smoothing out the
number and at the same time the residents are being entertained.
I wish you success in your journey to become a performer. By the way, you’ll probably never completely get rid of those pesky butterflies and
that, in a way, is an advantage because that little bit of stress or tension will keep you alert and on the ball during your performances.
|Diary Of A Cruise Ship Gig
by Don Van Palta
I'd been home for just a week from a seven day cruise on the ms Vistafjord from Tahiti to Honolulu when my agent calls. "It's the QE2 this time"
she says. "Next week you fly to Tenarife in the Canary Islands by way of Dallas, Miami and Madrid. You'll be on her for ten days, April 10th
through the 20th, while she cruises to New York by way of Madera, Lisbon and Southampton." I tell her I'll take the gig. She faxes me her
contract for her standard 10%. I sign it and fax it back. Two days later UPS delivers the airline tickets and the contract from Cunard, the
owners of the QE2. It is the standard two page Cunard contract that sets forth the conditions of the agreement. Of interest among them . . .
."The Artiste will ensure that the relevant travel documents are carried to join and/or leave the ship, i.e., passport, visa, and health documents
where necessary and Artiste's performances must be reasonably satisfactory to Cunard. If the quality of the entertainment fails to meet the
standards set by the Cruise Director, the Artiste may be terminated forthwith . . . .Payment to be made 10 days after completion of the
contract". I sign the contract and send it back to their office in Miami by Certified Mail as they required.
I've been doing these cruises now for over 23 years and there are certain things that I've learned about traveling during this time. The
amount of luggage I haul around with me is one of them. The basics of course are the banjo (with spare head and strings), costume (a tuxedo
has always been my preference), and charts for a six piece orchestra. On the sip the daily program tells you what to wear for evening attire.
It's either casual, informal or formal. During the day shorts and tee shirts are OK. At first I used to pack a bunch of clothes and shoes in a
separate suitcase. I'd take the banjo on the plane with me and the rest of the luggage would go in the baggage compartment. One time I
even put my banjo in baggage!!! That was a mistake!! The whole flight, 15 hours to Singapore, I worried whether the banjo was on the plane
with me or on its way to Alaska!! The banjo did get to Singapore with me. I was sitting at a window sear. I even saw them unload it. They
threw it on the cart!!! Later I found out the peg head was cracked and the nut was missing!!! I was able to whittle a new nut and do the
required shows but the banjo was not up to snuff!!
After that episode I decided there had to be a better way. Most airlines will allow you two carry-ons. So from then on it would be two carry-ons
and nothing in baggage to worry about. I got one of those suitcases on wheels that the pilots and stewardesses pull behind them, (this was
about 1975!!) and I got a garment bag that would attach to the suitcase on wheels for easy transport. The problem now was to get all my stuff
including the banjo in those two carry-ons! The breakthrough came when I found out that my Richelieu banjo neck could easily be
disconnected from the pot. The pot (with 9 cassettes and 7 CDs inside it), my dress shoes (with make-up and Fast Fret inside!), my laptop,
and some reading material all fit neatly inside the suitcase on wheels. My tux, sport jacket, slacks, and three shirts went inside the garment
bag along with the banjo neck minus the pegs and covered with six heavy socks. In the outside pockets went three tee shirts, an extra pair of
socks and underwear and my dop-kit. The big pockets contained the band chars and extra cassettes and CDs. Now I was ready! No more
worrying if my bags went to the same place I did, or that someone would throw my banjo around. No more waiting at baggage carousels. I
would be the first one through immigration and customs. The down side was that I had to do some laundry in the sink every night, but that was
a small price to pay.
On the morning of the trip Carolyn and I get up at 6:30 am and by 7:00 head out to the local Longview airport. She drops me off there at
8:00. The security guards don't even blink when they see the X-ray image of the banjo pot that looks like a bomb and the banjo neck that
looks like a sawed off shot gun. They've inspected them several times before.
At 9:00 I'm in my way to Dallas, a 45 minute flight. Because this is a shuttle my bags are too big to fit in the overhead or under the seat. A few
trips back they threw my bag with the computer in it and I had to have the laptop repaired so now, when I fly the shuttle, I take the computer
out of the suitcase and take it in the cabin with me. When I get to my gate at the Dallas terminal I stow my laptop back in my wheeled bag
because, from now on it will be under my control. I have a short one hour layover in Dallas before my flight to Miami.
Since I do approximately 100,000 air miles per year I am what you call a "platinum" member with American Airlines. That gives me certain
privileges such as early boarding and upgrades to first class. There is a first class seat available so I reserve it and enjoy a leisurely
breakfast on my way to Miami.
Two and a half hours later, in the Miami terminal, I'm looking the Iberia, the Spanish Airline ticket counter to make my seat reservation to
Madrid. On the way to my gate there is another security check point. I put my two bags on the rollers and step through the portal. I have
learned not to carry change, wear a big belt buckle or a pin in my leg so the buzzer doesn't go off. This time the security wants to see the
"bomb" and the "sawed off shotgun" and they ask me to turn on the computer to make sure it's not a bomb. After a careful search they send
me on my way to the gate. My flight doesn't leave until 7:00 PM so I have about 4 hours to wait. I get out my new Readers Digest Condensed
book and pass the hours fairly quickly.
It is now 7:00 PM. The flight has been delayed but they are finally ready to board. Boarding procedures are pretty standard with all the
American Carriers. They very sensibly board by row numbers. Starting at the back of the plane. Some other carriers, including this one,
board all rows at the same time! You can imagine the pandemonium because this of course causes pile-ups and delays. The plane is a big
747 but the overhead storage is not big enough for my garment bag so I am told to stow it in a closet all the way at the back of the plane. I do
that reluctantly because I'm thinking, when we land I'll be the last one off the plane because I'll have to retrieve that garment bag and I've got a
very close connection when we get to Madrid. When the door to the plane is finally closed I realize that this is not a full plane. I have three
seats to myself. I decide that when we get up to cruising altitude I'll retrieve that garment bag from the back closet and stow it under one of
the seats in front of me.
When we get up to our cruising altitude, drinks are served followed by dinner. I read a while and sleep intermittently and during the night I
finally go to the back of the plane, get my garment bag and put it under one of the seats in front of me. I alternately doze and read and finally
we land in Madrid 1t 6:00 AM local time. In Madrid airport the planes don't park at the gate. Stairs are driven to the first class section and to
the rear door next to that closet!!! When it's my turn to get in line to exit I try to get my suitcase out of the overhead put the door refuses to
open! One side is loose but the other side remains jammed! One of the buses waits for me; so off we go to the terminal. I'm last in line going
through customs and immigration. At the information booth I find out my flight to Tenarife leaves in 30 minutes from the other side of the
terminal, about a mile away!! I go through security. They take another look at the "bomb" and "sawed-off shotgun". They don't check my
computer. Off I go at a fast pace up and down escalators and moving sidewalks to gate F68.
When I finally arrive at the gate they are about to close the door to the plane. I'm the last one and I'm told to hurry down the ramp and get on
board. The plane is not full so there is no problem stowing my luggage this time. I sit down, relax and decide to finish the mystery story I was
reading. I can't find the book and realize that in the confusion of trying to liberate my suitcase I left in on the other plane!! Now I'll never know
if he gets the girl; figures out who killed the sheriff; or if he was really a vegetarian!
Two and a half hours later we arrive in Tenarife, Canary Islands. This being Spanish territory there is no custom or immigration check and
since I'm already carrying all my bags I bypass baggage and I'm the first one out of the terminal.
Cunard is really looking out for me because there amongst all the people waiting to greet the arriving passengers I see a sign with my name
on it held by a local taxi driver. I point to the sign, then point to me, he smiles and tries to take my bags from me. He doesn't speak English
and the only Spanish I know is "habla Ingles?" He finally realizes I won't let go of my bags and he leads me to his cab. After a twenty minute
drive we arrive at the dock where the QE2 is tied up. I tip the driver a couple of bucks because I know the fare is paid for by Cunard and I
finally take my bags up the gangplank.
What a relief it is to finally be on the ship! If I don't have to perform that night I'll be able to "crash" for a few hours. Since I've been on the
QE2 before I go right to the Pursers office and let them know I've arrived. They didn't expect me until Southampton and don't have a cabin for
me. They say they'll have one ready for me pretty soon. I then go to meet the cruise director. His name is Scott Peterson. I've worked with
him before, several years ago. I give him my new colored 8x10's. Well... the color is new, the pictures are 23 years old. I also give him my
bio. to put in the daily ship's bulletin the day I perform. Scott tells me that he didn't expect me until Southampton so I'm not scheduled to
perform until the 15th. That's in five days. He then would like me to be ready to do a 35 minute show on the night we leave Southampton and
a 20 minute show along with two other acts the night before we arrive in New York. He tells me to take it easy and just enjoy the cruise. By
this time my cabin is ready and I catch up on my sleep for the rest of the day and night.
The following evening the Grand Lounge entertainer is Neil Seduca. I of course go to see him perform and am delightfully entertained. I must
confess that as I was watching him I got a bit intimidated because I knew that I would be performing on that same stage a few nights later. I've
had these feelings before and I'm able to dismiss them pretty much because so far, during my show, nobody has as yet pulled me off with the
The next day I put my banjo together and decide to do a little practicing. Since I don't want to disturb the passengers on either side of my
cabin I always muffle the banjo by jamming a couple of socks in the pot of the banjo between the bridge and the metal rod. Very softly I
practice "Cabaret" while on my ear phones I listen to the band accompaniment. After about the third time through I hear a noise at my door.
The door bursts open and a very English gentleman tells me in no uncertain terms that if I still need to practice I ought to do it on deck
somewhere!! I of course apologize profusely as he retreats back to his own cabin and his interrupted nap. This has never happened before.
It really upsets me because the only reason for me to be on the ship is to entertain passengers, not annoy them! Fortunately later in the day
my neighbor knocks on my door again and says he is sorry for being so abrupt with me. I tell him that I didn't realize the bulkheads where so
thin. We visit a bit and then I invite him to come see my show on the 15th. He says he is sorry but he's getting off in Southampton. I tell him
that I guess three renditions of "Cabaret" are all he's going to get from me. He laughs and returns to his cabin. I am much relieved after that
encounter. A little later I decide to practice some more, so, with the socks in place inside the pot, I roll up some toilet paper and put it under
the strings just in front of the bridge. This muffles the sound so I can hardly hear it myself. I have no more complaints from my neighbor after
The next morning we're in Lisbon, Portugal. My excuse to get off the ship is to shop in the various ports for "floaty pens" and "souvenir caps"
for a couple of friends who collect them. I take the free shuttle bus to the heart of old Lisbon and after some determined searching I find a
couple of floaty pens and a cap. Then it's back to the ship and at 6:00 PM we're off to Southampton, England, a two day cruise.
I spend the two days alternately reading, practicing, eating and exercising. This morning Scott, the cruise director, calls me saying that he is
minus an act and wonders if I'd be able to fill in 15 minutes for a farewell show he is planning for the night before Southampton. I say that of
course I'm happy to do that. I ask him how many of the passengers are staying on to New York, He says about 175. In Southampton we'll be
taking on an additional 1500 for the Atlantic crossing. I need that information because I don't want passengers to hear the same tunes or
stories twice in a row. The same tune isn't so bad, but the same joke is a disaster!
I carry with me a list of my repertoire, all separated into "openers", "closers", "slow", "fast", "pretty", "classical" or "ovelty". Each one with the
timing which includes the introductory story or joke. I can then quickly put together a show of any length basically by starting with an opener
and a closer, one or two strong numbers in the middle; depending on the length of the show; and flesh it out with a novelty and something
classical or pretty. I then write out two rundowns of my show, one for the band leader and one for the sound and light technician. Next I get
out my pile of chars and pick out the appropriate ones for each instrument and put them in order. When I have all of that in order I call the
band master and set up an appointment to rehearse my show with the ship's orchestra.
I always enjoy these rehearsals. The musicians who make up the show bands on these cruise ships are consummate musicians. Most of the
material they just need to go through once. If they do have a problem with something it's usually because it has been written incorrectly.
They then pencil in the correction and that solves the problem.
At 10:00 PM on the night before Southampton I do my 15 minute show as an opening act for the "Shenanigans", a three man singing, dancing
and comedy act, who also do 15 minutes. The combined show goes over very well.
The next day I have to start preparing for my 35 minute "Welcome Aboard" show. This time I will be the closing act. The production show,
made up of four boys and five girl dancers and singers, will do a ten minute opening act. During the rehearsal I make a request to have the
sound technician check the drum monitor. There have been shows where the drummer had trouble hearing me and didn't indicate that
problem to the band leader or the sound technician. The consequence was that we had a real problem maintaining proper tempos. The
tempos would drag because the drummer was hearing my echo. I now always make it a practice to see that the drummer's monitor is plenty
The show that evening is well received. The only complaint I get afterwards from passengers is that my portion just wasn't long enough. I tell
them that's one of the nicest things they could've said. Early the next morning when the shops on board open I find out where I can put my
cassettes and CDs on display. All the ships will do this for the act and of course take a small commission. Sometime during my show I make
some kind of humorous mention of my cassettes and CDs and sometimes I sell a lot of them, sometimes I don't sell any at all.
The next couple of days we get into a pretty heavy storm. We are in the middle of the Atlantic and at this time of year it can get pretty rough.
We are plowing through 20 foot waves and occasionally a 30 footer! This causes havoc with anything that isn't nailed down. Like dishes,
glasses and silver ware at the table, or in my case a little table in my cabin that falls over in the middle of the night and dumps a bunch of
glasses that shatter. Since I don't feel like proving that I can walk barefoot on broken glass I get up and very carefully pick up all the scattered
pieces and then go back to bed.
The cact that is supposed to perform the next night is seasick and can't go on. At the last minute the cruise director has to substitute
someone also. The audience at that show is pretty sparse because quite a few of the passengers are also feeling the effects of the storm.
The act, a sinter/pianist, does a good job despite the moving stage and the small audience.
There are now five more days before my next and last performance. This will be the 20 minute show that I'll share with the act who missed last
night. The storm has abated somewhat so that he should be able to do his big show tomorrow night and then join me a few days later.
Five days at sea can run the gamut all the way from being very entertaining and interesting to boring in the extreme. Some acts have a real
problem with this. Fortunately there are several things I can usually do to pass the time. There is usually a well stocked library on board and I
love to read; or I'll have a game of chess with one of the passengers or a fellow entertainer; or if an adversary doesn't come forth I'll love
another game to my computer. Very often I'll use the computer during this slack time to write an article like this one or banjo solos for my
students. I also like to visit with passengers. You'd be amazed at the tings you can learn from other people if you ask the right questions.
The other day, at lunch, I was joined by a very interesting elderly gentleman. We got to talking about the stock market and how it just seems
to be going up and up. This gentleman was very knowledgeable about the subject. He prefaced his remarks with: ". . . Now I'm not bragging,
but just one of the stocks in my portfolio split five times since January of this year earning me a 40% increase. Which happens to be right
around two million dollars!!!!" He then gave me some good advice about starting my own portfolio. Another gentleman and his wife were both
pilots. Since I used to fly years ago we were able to swap some interesting stories.
It's the morning of April 18th. I got a note under the door last night reminding me to check with immigration this morning. The US immigration
officers boarded in Southampton and conduct this check in order for the disembarking passengers in New York to save some time. After the
immigration check I go to see the cruise director and suggest to him that he might want to do an "interview Don the banjoist" if he needs
something to fill in the remaining hours at sea. He says that he's got more entertainment than he's got slots for but thanks me just the same. I
like to do these interviews because they're fun, but also because they help my cassette and CD sales! Before I leave his office Scott says to
me . . . ."By the way, I'm glad you dropped in because my high priced act who's been under the weather and of a decided green complexion is
finally starting to recuperate. I'm sorry to tell you this, but I'll have to put him in your slot on the night before New York, so he can do his full
show. That is, unless we hit some more rough weather." I don't mind this change in schedule except for the fact that I've told a lot of
passengers, who enjoyed my other shows, that they would be able to see me once more before New York.
The next couple of days on board are uneventful. I see some movies in the theatre, watch some videos on TV, read a little, do some more
exercises and of course practice, practice, practice. When we arrive in New York at 7:00 AM on the 21st of April I'm one of the first off the
ship. My flight to Dallas isn't until 12:30 PM but I know that with a little luck I can probably catch an earlier flight and with the time change
maybe be home in time to take Carolyn out to lunch.
This diary will give you an idea what it's like to be a guest entertainer on a cruise ship. After doing this for all these years I must confess that
the hassles of flying and travel to get to all these foreign countries is not something I look forward to. On the other hand I love to perform. So
the way I look at it, they pay me very generously for all those hassles . . . . . the performing I do for free!
My "Shakey" Experience
by Don Van Palta
In 1954 I was the banjo player with a dixieland band in Sacramento, California called "King Goodtime Pleasure Rag And His Front Street Levee
Loungers". The leader, Burt Wilson, played the trombone in the band but he also played piano. On weekends he played the piano at the new
Shakey's Pizza Parlor at 57th and J streets in Sacramento. This was the original Shakey's! Sherwood Johnson, known by all as Shakey, was
the owner. He was a great lover of Dixieland Jazz and banjos so when Burt told him about this banjo player in his band Shakey had me come
out for a trial run. Shakey liked what I did and I started playing there completely by myself leading sing-a-longs and doing an occasional solo.
Very soon thereafter I met a piano player by the name of Willie Erickson. He was fantastic at the piano, borderline genius and borderline
nuts! We decided to team up and called ourselves "The Fingerbusters". Willie pointed out to me that the banjo was capable of a lot more
than I was doing. He's the one who got me started on things like Carmen, Beethoven's Fifth, Oklahoma, The Student Prince and many more
that I've forgotten over the years. We performed at Shakey's for almost seven years until I got the call from Fred Finn to join him at Mickie
Finn's in San Diego.
A Learning Experience
by Don Van Palta
The last part of April 1997 I performed on a cruise ship called the ms Vistafjord. It's one of the Cunard Line ships along with the QE2 and the
Royal Viking Sun. I boarded her in the Madeira islands. These are Portuguese islands off the coast of North East Africa. Ten days later I got
off in Venice, Italy. This would be my last cruise for quite a while because all of that traveling was getting me down. As a matter of fact I faxed
my agent and said "don't call me, I'll call you!"
To go out in a blaze of glory I fine tuned my act as much as I could and put in a great deal of practice to get my 50 minute show down to
perfection. The rehearsal with the six piece ship's band was scheduled for midnight the night before the show. The reason they do this is
because on this particular ship the big showroom is used for lots of activities all day long so it just isn't available until very late. The rehearsal
went fine but that night for some reason I could'nt sleep very well. Only got about three hours. I tried to nap during the day, but I'm not a
good napper. The show was scheduled for 10:45 on, /bt 10:00 pm I was ready to hit the sack but of course I had to get into my tux and go up
to do my thing.
Normally I don't drink any coffee. About the only time I do is when I have to drive a long distance at night. It keeps me awake and alert. I
didn't want to fall asleep in the middle of my show so I decided to have a cup of strong, black coffee! Well, that coffee really gave me a buzz!
It changed the way my brain worked and it changed the way my fingers and hands responded. It was quite disconcerting because I knew my
performance was not what I'd wanted it to be. I'm sure no one else, except maybe my wife, could have told the difference. Even so, the
response at the end of each number was still excellent.
Usually at the conclusion of my performance people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the show and the next day people will
recognize me and do the same thing. This time NOTHING!! Nothing after the show, nothing the next day!
The following day I was having lunch with a group of the dance hosts. Along with being responsible for dancing with the single ladies they also
go along on the bus tours to count the passengers to be sure the same number get back on the ship as left in the morning. One of the hosts
who looked a little bit like me (gry hair and a mustache) commented to me that he got so many compliments on "his" banjo performance the
previous evening that he finally just said "thank you very much" after each such comment.
I felt much better after he told me that story and I decided I'd learned two very important lessons. Don't drink coffee just before a show and be
grateful for any acclaim, even second-hand!
|ME . . . . . . PLAY A GIG!?!?
by Don Van Palta
Playing a gig can be very satisfying. Especially if the audience likes you and is entertained. Playing for the
public is like anything else. . . . . it takes practice! You’ll need a repertoire of material that you are
comfortable in playing. Don’t pick any tunes that you just learned yesterday! These have to be tunes that
you have played hundreds of times in front of your dog, a tape player, your marriage partner or friends. You
might never completely get over the jitters! But the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Let me tell you of one of my early experiences. I had been taking lessons from my teacher, Ray Ball, in
Sacramento, California. After a couple of years of lessons Ray suggested I play a gig for an Elks Club in
Seattle, WA. All I needed was about 25 minutes of music. Or about ten tunes. That was all I knew anyway!
I practiced those tunes by myself until I could pretty much play them in my sleep! I felt ready to do the gig, so
I drove all the way to Seattle, arrived at the club right on time, The MC introduced me and off I went!
Right away I got in trouble! I thought I’d start with St. Louis Blues. That was my most difficult number, but I
wanted it out of the way first! I was sweating like I was in the shower, my hands were wet. They were slipping
all over the neck. Big mistake! My hands and arms were moving in slow motion as if I was under water! I
finally had to stop about halfway through the song. I was so embarrassed I just put my banjo in the case,
picked it up and practically ran out of the club. Never got paid for that one!!
What did I do wrong? Well . . . . I hadn’t really experienced being in front of an audience all by myself
before. I’d played in a Dixieland band and just with a piano player and gotten used to that, but this was a
whole different experience.
So this is what I should have done, and this is what you should do: Have a program all planned out.
We’ll get into that a bit later. Start out with the number that you are most comfortable with. Something loud
and fairly fast. Just something to warm up with while your audience is warming up to you. I usually tell them:
“Let’s warm up the fingers a little bit with “Robert E. Lee” or “Strike Up The Band” or some other tune that
you can play without any major problems. Then I’d introduce my next number, another rouser, to warm up
some more. Your audience should now be comfortable with you because you’ve played two numbers for
them and they now realize that you seem to know what you’re doing. Now you can continue with the program
you’ve planned for them.
So how do you put together a program? A program should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s just
like writing a book or giving a talk. When you’re doing a program you should be able to play a variety of
numbers. Some rousers like we talked about, some slower, pretty tunes; some sing-a-long songs that most
people know without having to look at the words; something novel like an imitation of a grandfather’s clock or
of a steam locomotive or playing two tunes at the same time. Even some easy classical number like
Beethoven’s Pathatique Sonata or Franz List’s Liebestraum. If you can carry a tune, there are all kinds of
fun tunes to sing like: “My Gee Gee From The Figi Isles”, or “Hard Hearted Hannah” or something where the
audience can get involved with you like “Water Lou” or “Dueling Banjos”. You don’t have to have a voice like
Frank Sinatra or Louis Armstrong. As long as you can hit the notes you’ll do just fine.
OK, those are the different kinds of things you can do. This is how you put them together. You start out with
a couple of rousers, then talk to your audience about something, maybe tell them a joke about banjos. You
can probably go online and find lots of banjo jokes. Musicians have always made fun of banjo players so
there are lots of those jokes around. Then play something pretty like “Somewhere My Love”. Always say
something to say about the tune you’re going to play like: “Here’s a tune that’s a favorite of just about
anybody. It’s the theme from Dr. Zhevago. I always start with the verse . . . . nobody ever plays the verse!!”
While you’re playing this tune you might notice that some people are singing along. When you’ve finished
the song you can say: “I heard you singing along. I bet you know the words to this one . . . “ You start
singing “Five Foot Two” just playing the chords to accompany yourself and they’ll sing along with you. Now
you’ve really got their attention. Now it’s time to play another. Now it’s time to play another solo. I like to
play medleys from Oklahoma, Cabaret, Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, etc. When I’m going to play
Oklahoma I say: “any Okies in the room?” If there is no response, ask, “has anybody ever driven through
Oklahoma? Now you’ll get some hands in the air. Then you can say: “OK this is just for you, the rest of you
If you’re only required to do 15 minutes then Oklahoma or a similar rouser can be your finale. If you have to
do 30 minutes or 45 minutes, then, after Oklahoma or whatever, you can go into another slower tune like
“Stardust” or “San Francisco”. I do a medley of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, “San Francisco” and
“California Here I Come”. After that maybe throw in another song you can sing for them like: “What A
Wonderful World”. You can talk a little bit about Louis Armstrong singing that song in his inimitable way. He
had a certain way of growling a song. If you can do that without losing your voice, then do that! After that
you can say: “I feel a march coming on. Play “Under The Double Eagle” or “Strike Up The Band” or “The
Stars And Stripes Forever”. Or you can say: “I feel a polka coming on”. Now you can play: “Roll Out The
Barrel” or “The Pennsylvania Polka”. Sometimes I’ll say to my audience. “This is for all the ladies” and go
into “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, “I Love You” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams”. Then I might say: “OK,
this is for the guys” and play a medley of service songs, but I leave out one of them. Then I’ll say: “Did I get
all of them?” and somebody will always say: “The Navy” or “The Coastguard”. And then you’d better play
that one. The thing is, they’re having fun and you’re having fun too!
Here’s a little “bit” I use sometimes: I say to the audience . . .”do any of you remember the days before digital
cameras?” Let them respond. Then say: “Remember those box cameras? Remember, we’d take all the
pictures, then we’d have to wind them up, take out the roll, take it to the drugstore, and it would take forever
to get the prints . . . . . would you believe someone actually wrote a song about that? . . . . .” Start playing
“Someday My Prince Will Come”! I promise you’ll be rewarded with a good laugh!
Do you get the idea about putting a program together now? You have to have lots of variety and put them in
a logical order: fast and loud; medium tempo; slow and pretty; sing a song; medium tempo; fast and loud
closer. If you’re doing a longer show then, after the closer you can go through the whole routine again.
Maybe do a classical number; then a polka or a march; etc. etc.
After you’ve been doing this for a while you’ll be able to sense what the audience will want to hear next. You’
ll get more and more proficient in your playing and in your dialog with your audience. When you give
yourself “lines”, make them brief and to the point. When I’m doing a show I think of it as very informal. Like
playing for a bunch of friends in your living room. By the way, when I make up a show rundown, I type it out
on an elongated piece of paper that I can thread through the tension bolts of my banjo so that I can consult it
when I need to.
If you’re looking for some of the tunes or medley’s I mentioned here or just looking for other appropriate
numbers, go to my website: plectrumbanjolessons.com and click on solo books or arrangements. That will
give you lots of ideas. I hope this will help you to take that gig when it comes along. When you’re properly
prepared you should be able to say: “Me . . . . . You bet I’ll play that gig!!!”
| ARTICLE INDEX
#1. The Richelieu Banjo
#2. Learning A New Song On The Banjo
#3. The Importance Of A Balanced Set Of Strings
#4. What To Do About Butterflies
#5. Diary Of A Cruise Ship Gig
#6. My "Shakey" Experience
#7. A Learning Experience
#8. Marriage Insurance For Banjo Players
#9. Some Particular Poop On Picks
#10. Me . . . . Play A Gig?
#11. Putting New Strings On Your Banjo
#12. My Most Expensive Banjo Pick