Banjo Player Béla Fleck Fiddles with Physics Students

October 07, 2008

Bela Fleck plays the banjo for Professor of Physic's Thomas Moore's class
World-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck (left) investigates the physics of the banjo with Professor of Physics Thom Moore.

In September, Rollins welcomed Béla Fleck, world-renowned jazz banjo player, to campus. As a visiting artist of Rollins' new Winter Park Institute, Fleck presented his documentary, “Throw Down your Heart,” and held a live concert during his two-day visit. He also immersed himself in the Rollins community. He played during an open rehearsal with the Rollins College Jazz Ensemble, and even took part in an investigation of the inner workings of the banjo with the physics department.

During the Student-Faculty Summer Scholarship program last year, Professor of Physics Thomas Moore and student Laurie Stephey worked on uncovering just how the banjo produces its sound. Fleck, one of the most celebrated banjo artists in the world, was invited to the physics lab. He entered the lab with an open and excited perspective, ready to see what the college had concluded about his favorite instrument for musical expression. Fleck said he was interested because “most people have a lot of superstitions about the banjo and how it works.”

The physics department uses a device called an electronic speckle pattern interferometer to measure the vibrations that occur when a banjo cord is played. Fleck did not hesitate to put his own Gibson Flathead banjo from the 1930s into the machine to be tested. The reading on the screen shows, among other things, how well the banjo is tuned. When Fleck’s banjo was placed into the device, observing physics student Ashley Cannaday (Class of 2011) said, “It’s amazing how much better he tunes the banjo just by sound compared to how hard we worked with a tuner!”

Fleck really delved into understanding the findings of the physics study and the workings of the interferometer. Using his experience as a guide, he also pointed out additional variables that have had huge impacts on the banjo’s production of sound.

"One must really look at the banjo as a whole, because every piece does its part,” Fleck advised.

Moore and Fleck discussed these new factors and, with students’ input, tested different variables to create different sounds, such as using the pick in a different manner. The exchange of knowledge and perspectives made the meeting an exciting experience for Fleck, Moore and the students.

By Casey Wilson (Class of 2009)

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