Oberlin Blogs

Reimagining Utensils

January 21, 2011

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

In which Oberlin still, completely and fully, surprises me.

One of those little things that my family taught me along the years (not limited to botany and biology and other things on the farm in Kentucky) is to appreciate music of all shapes and sizes. One of my grandparents debuted with the Detroit Philharmonic when she was 10, another grandparent was a financial manager for the Israeli Philharmonic and supplied a music collection to a budding radio station in the newly created State of Israel. My dad plays guitar, my mom tickles the ivories, my brother rocks guitar and ukulele. One might say that my blood is studded with grace notes and familial ties are gilded with ornamentations.

I started playing flute in middle school, and my first thoughts about attending Oberlin way back in the day were as a flautist in the conservatory (I mentioned this briefly in my Oberlin essay). I had a lot of people backing me up, parents, relatives, musician friends of the family, my flute teacher, my flute choir. Everyone around me thought music was great and that I should continue pursuing it in whatever form I chose: band, classical, education, what have you. I truly loved playing, much like Ida (I swear, our two most recent posts were not planned together, but they coincided nicely), though I started at a older age, and my trajectory took a slightly different turn.

When we moved to Hawaii, many of the things I valued about my life in Kentucky were not things I could easily find in Hawaii. I traded my textbooks for chef's equipment, my flute for a camera. It was a strange shift, for me and for my family, from such a music-centric academic life to a more creative and competitive practical life. It was a bit of a struggle at times, as many life shifts can be, but it has definitely turned out for the best.

I brought my flute with me to Oberlin, hoping that the musical scene that drew me to Oberlin in the first place (long ago and at my more present interests, with my desire to be surrounded by musicians, much like Ruby) would reel me into playing again. I ended up in different circles, with different people, with different interests, and to this day, I still haven't touched my flute here in Oberlin. I'm in the process of trying to sell it, since it's a beautiful beautiful instrument that really needs to be played. (Aside: If anyone's looking for a semi-professional flute, get in touch. I have one that you will love.)

Even though my flute sits in my room, and has for many years, I have not forsaken pursuing music in my life. My current relationship with music is that I am an enthusiastic and appreciative audience member. You want to play? For me? And these other people? OH JOY!

I LOVE live music. I get fabulous thrills from hearing solo recitals, ensembles, student performers, visiting bands, famous folks, yet-to-be-famous folks, at the Cat, Finney, or Slow Train.

I have always had friends in bands (I'll elaborate on this more later, in an epic post that I've been working on for several months) and I thoroughly enjoy watching a jam session begin and end in the wee hours of the morning. I'm there, singing along when I know the words, or taking photos. (Live music inspires me oh so much creatively. The craziest and most beautiful photos I think I've taken have all been in the presence of great music. It's great.)

For some reason, though, the first time I realized a small shift in my now-established musical relationship occurred recently. My friend Erin (bassist for the Outhouse Troubadours and the Black River Belles, plus... fellow camper from almost 11 years ago! Kentucky ties go way way back.) invited some folks over for an evenin' of pickin'. For those unfamiliar with bluegrass and terms related to the Appalachian foothills, that's a jam session.

Student playing the base

This is Erin. I love her to bits.

Things that occurred over the pickin's, in short form:

- Desserts ranging from derby pie, black forest cake, chocolate chip cookies (and garlic-roasted brussels sprouts, though that's not exactly dessert... we ate them like candy, they were so good).

A white frosted cake with cherries on top

Sara's black forest cake.

An eaten pie that looks much like a cookie

Erin's derby pie. Secret: substitute bourbon for vanilla. It'll taste like Kentucky.

- Hank Williams recordings piped from Erin's computer.

- Pieces of the Troubadours rocking out with pieces of the Belles.

Student playing the violin

I love this photo of Sara. She and I have done several shoots together.

- Singalong to I'll Fly Away.

- An explorations of a variety of lenses.

So, here's the deal. Lenses are awesome. Framing is awesome. With some encouragement from my friend Mike and trading off glasses and lenses as things to frame and "see" through my camera with, I came up with some butt-kickingly awesome photos. (These things are prettier large, so I'm linking to my Tumblr. Click on the images here to see them larger elsewhere.)

Picture taken through glasses of someone playing the mandolin

Through my (someone else's?) glasses; Harry on guitar and Nathan on mandolin.

Student playing the banjo, seen through a lens

Through another lens that I had on me; Doug on banjo.

- A head-count and follow-up of a string-count in the room: a grand total of 51 strings. There were four fiddles, two guitars, a mandolin, an upright bass, and a banjo.

Group of students playing various string instruments

Most of the strings. After I took this photo, two more fiddles showed up.

- A call for a percussion section, which led to me being handed a set of spoons.

Photographer holding two spoons

Spoons. These are important for the rest of this post.

This last one is a big deal. Listen closely, readers. Especially you, Abba, and related relatives who have always regretted my leaving the flute behind for a camera. You will be proud.

In addition to guitar, my dad greatly appreciates alternative percussive instruments. Somewhere along the way of his playings and musical endeavors, he picked up a set of spoons (this may or may not have involved him testing spoons at a variety of locations throughout his life, and liberating a pair that he liked as his tapping utensil of choice) and learned.

Being the children of people who love music, there were always attempts to get little bits of rhythm into my brother's and my hands. These things included pots and pans with chopstick drumsticks (when we were little), real drums of all shapes and sizes, a guiro, and a little hand-maracas that we called a Chicken Shake (egg-shaped, filled with seeds, and definitely not from any chicken I've ever seen). Also, I don't know where a kazoo fits into the mix, but we had several of them. They're so much fun.

Every so often, my dad would pull out his spoons and whip off something super cool. Our small hands couldn't really get the hang of it at the time, but here's the thing: apparently, I didn't need to be spoon-fed, I only needed to wait until the proper opportunity arose.

So, when the call for a spoon player (I assume partially in jest) came up at Erin's jam session, I piped up that I knew how to play spoons. Brandi noticed her cue, ran to the kitchen, and came back with three soup spoons. (Why three? I'm not sure... It only takes two spoons to play them.)

Either way, it took me about half a song to figure out how to actually hold and play them again. It was sweet! I kept up, simply, with a song, then several, and I spent the whole time grinning. I usually inwardly grimace when the thought of jamming with people comes up, since I would rather smile and laugh along from the sidelines. I always wished that I'd have that same elated grin that I saw on my friends when they slipped into their musical mindsets.

Ta-DAH. I had it. I will forever be the vaguely giddy spoon player at an evening of bluegrass. Even if I can't do the crazy washboard-finger thing my dad does, or know how to do ridiculous rhythms, or if the sterling silver sometimes pop out of my hands, I now know why my favorite utensil, in every situation, is a spoon.

As an amusing sidenote, Will popped into this music hour, and after a bit of time of me floundering in remembering how to hold my utensils (not unlike a Miss Manners etiquette class), he asked me to teach him how to play spoons. I only assume that most connies love collecting sounds and skills (it's the same I WANT TO LEARN EVERYTHING ALWAYS mindset that most college students have, but with musical themes), so I was happy to share what little I knew with someone far more skilled in percussiveness than I.

Actually, it was a little unnerving. I have never explained something technically musical to someone with far more musical understanding that I can begin to comprehend. A mental challenge, to say the least, but it was totally cool to see the results. After a bit, Will started just drumming around on my spoons, an empty bottle, the couch arms, for fun, in rhythmic patterns I can't even begin to explain. Will, educational trade? Teach me things!

So, moral of an eye-opening evening of music: my musical tendencies may pop up again, conservatory students like learning interesting things about obscure musical objects for fun, and yes, I will be a teacher one day.

Responses to this Entry

I'm a pretty big fan of that bass lady myself...

I'm so glad you blogged about this! That night was so fun. I'm much more used to jazz jams, which I actually do not typically enjoy: I find that they are (perhaps inherently) ego-driven and the results are usually less than the sum of their parts. Plus, they take for-EVER. Who wants to hear a 25-minute long version of "Oleo"? Unless it's Miles' second quintet playing, I'll pass.

But bluegrass was so much more chill! Songs top off at a respectable four minutes, they're fun, most of the songs are about whiskey and having a good time and having a good time with whiskey...it was a different scene and I liked it a lot.

plus, cake and cookies.

plus, I'm going to keep practicing those spoons like you showed me. (and I'll happily teach you everything I know about rhythm. it'll take about six minutes.) word on the street is that these jams will be a semi-regular thing so I gotta get my chops up before next time.

or I could take erin's suggestion and work on my hambone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnrlzc39edM

Posted by: Will on January 21, 2011 12:07 PM

Will, I love jam sessions so desperately under the right circumstances. Like you, most jazz jam sessions weird me out a little, but I love swing dance jam sessions or a combination of jazz dance and music sessions when everybody's feeding off of one another. I absolutely love live bluegrass jam sessions, but I get pretty confused that the other people who don't have instruments in their hands can somehow resist clapping along. Maybe I'm just stuck in the 30s, but audience participation is so essential in my mind to music like bluegrass and the sort of jazz I really enjoy. I will continue on the mission of teaching others to clap along enthusiastically!

Posted by: Brandi on January 21, 2011 1:42 PM

P.S. That hambone video is absolutely brilliant.

P. P. S. Erin, thanks so much for letting so many bloggers come to your pickin' session!

Posted by: Brandi on January 21, 2011 1:46 PM

@Will - If you whip out hambone at future session, I will die of happiness. Right after I video it.

@Brandi - I grew up as a foot-tapper, not a clapper. Now, I'm a spoon-clanker!

@Both y'all (and Erin, when she reads this) - Bluegrass is just made of pep and happiness. I can't wait for this to happen again!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 21, 2011 2:18 PM

Finally back in the game huh? So spoons it is. I will show you how to do some of those tricks I do. I have been told I am the best spoons player on this island, but who knows.

BTW I learned how to play spoons when I played weekly with an Irish drinking band in a pub in Jerusalem. I went on a search for the best set of spoons I could find, stealing/borrowing spoons from every hotel in the mideast searching for the best combination of sound and playability. I settled on a pair from my mother's (your grandmother's) drawer which I also eventually had to steal/permanently borrow because she did not want to give them up. And I have used them to this day, 30+ years later. Having spent so many years in the Kentucky bluegrass environment, I actually opted not to drag my big heavy guitar along to many jams. Have spoons will travel!

Posted by: Abba on January 21, 2011 2:52 PM

Great pics, Ma'ayan, I'm so glad you posted this! I hope to see you all next week, same time same place. What dessert should I make? I can't wait until it warms up and we can move this to the porch!

Will, if you learn to hambone you will be an unstoppable force. Also I'm bringin that washboard back just for you.

-The jug is for Joe. Only Joe may play the jug. Because it makes Joe jolly. Did you see what I did there?
-Not all the songs I call for are about whiskey. Some are about trucks, trains, and Mama.

Posted by: Erin on January 21, 2011 11:31 PM

@Abba - For the record, people who read the comments, this is my dad. He called me this afternoon and gave a spoons lesson via Skype. It was most wonderful. I have better directions on how to hold, play, and procure utensils.

@Erin - Porch music means we need to be wary of neighbors in the late hours. Just means we need to make twice as many desserts to keep them happy!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 22, 2011 11:38 PM

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