Last weekend, reading the Guardian Review, I was struck by a comment of Joe Moran’s about having learned to play the spoons in lockdown.
I was vaguely aware of spoons as musical instruments, but a bit of research put me in the picture: spoons have long been used to produce percussive rhythm in folk music – British, Irish, Canadian, American as well as Russian, Turkish and Greek. And it seems that ancient cultures – Roman, Egyptian – used spoons in various kinds of music-making.
The basic technique is to turn two spoons back to back and hold their handles in one hand, hitting the spoons against your knee so that their curved surfaces clack against one another. Then you hold your free hand a few inches above your knee and hit the spoons down against your knee, and up against the palm of your free hand. The effect is not unlike that of castanets in Spanish flamenco. From simple rhythms you can gradually build up to sophisticated effects, and some spoon players – like the Scotty brothers – have brought the skill to a high level of artistry.
Mastering the basic grip is the hardest part. There has to be a space between the backs of the spoons or they won’t ‘clack’, and the space has to remain consistent. If you relax your grip in the wrong way, the spoons splay apart and the sound is lost (as well as your temper). But with a bit of practice, you can soon be clicking and clacking delightful rhythms to your favourite songs.
In some traditions, spoons (perhaps wooden) are manufactured with the handles joined together so that the precise gap is controlled. But most players just use two ordinary metal spoons (they should be identical) from the kitchen drawer. It’s easy to find YouTube videos on how to learn the correct grip. I find it pleasing that anyone could join in with a folk music session with just a pair of spoons rather than an expensive instrument.
Here I am after the first day’s practice, demonstrating my new hobby to someone I couldn’t invite into the house because of Covid restrictions. Playing spoons on the porch made me feel like an authentic American folk musician.