Banjo(y)

2 Aug

06-26-13 DON SOMERS 173F7719

Something magical happens when Donald Somers picks up a banjo.

He still owns the first banjo he ever bought – “a cheap one,” he says, for $125 – though it’s now sharing space with other less-favored banjos beneath the bed. The ones he plays regularly can be found in his music room: “The smallest room in the house with the most stuff in it.”

Don (’58 ag journalism) first played the banjo in 1978 when he was married to a folk singer.

“I was in my early forties, so I had a lot of catching up to do,” Don says. “I had played in my high school band only until I learned that football players got the girls.”

He found a “very patient” banjo instructor, and he practiced every night. He eventually joined a bluegrass band called Pickin’ Up Speed and for 10 years “played gigs nobody else wanted” in the Milwaukee area

Don and his wife split up, but he maintained his passion for the banjo. In 1996 Don married his current wife, Sylvia Maiuri, a professional pianist and piano teacher, and moved to Indianapolis.

He also changed musical directions, switching from the bluegrass style of play to the old-time clawhammer style. The style gets its name from the way you hold your hand, Don explains. It’s also called hammering, flailing, or thumping.

“I love the sound of the banjo,” he says. “I love the people you meet when you’re playing. They’re some of my best friends.”

Don plays in regular jam sessions every Monday night in Bloomington, Ind.,  sometimes with as many as 13 musicians. “The size of the room limits the size of the jam,” Don says.

For his “day job,” Don spent 38 years with the Brady Company in Milwaukee, starting as copywriter and working his way up to creative director, vice president, senior vice president, account supervisor, and board of directors. He began a phased retirement in 1996 and retired completely to a life of banjo in 2000.

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