May 23, 2019

Spoon virtuoso plays Joplin> Retired surgeon keeps the beat

If you’re interested, Maynard Beach will tell you about playing the spoons. In fact, he’ll happily give you some tips.

For instance, if you’re going to be playing with a ragtime band as he was Tuesday night at the Bangor Grange, then you should use soup spoons. Silver are better than stainless steel. And if you have red suspenders and an arm garter, then you’ve got all the utensils for playing Scott Joplin.

Line the spoons up back to back. Hold them firmly in one hand and then play off the palm of your other hand. You can roll them across your fingers (front and back), pop them on your ankles and even walk them up your leg.

The knee cap gives you a high tone. The inner thigh, a bass tone.

“And if you’re fat,” added Beach minutes before the concert began, “then you can play off your stomach. I don’t think I qualify for that.”

The best thing about spoons, said Beach, who is a retired thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon, is the convenience.

“They’re cheap. They’re a novelty. They’re something that always fits in at a party or in a band and you don’t need to buy an instrument,” he said.

Beach’s own spoons came from his wife’s silverware cabinet. He keeps them in his bedside table, right next to his rhythm bones, another instrument from the clapper family. This way, if a song he likes comes on the radio, the spoons and bones are handy.

Beach, who is 62 and lives in Veazie, took up the spoons 30 years ago to teach rhythm to his three children. He hoped that they would be inspired to become musicians, and one did take up the piano, though Beach is not certain if that was a direct result of the spoons. He, too, plays piano, and although he took lessons, he doesn’t read music. He has been known to play in bars and hospitals.

He also has been known to play spoons, pilfered gleefully by nurses from a hospital cafeteria, to entertain patients.

Beach never went to school for spoon playing, although a friend taught him one stroke. He picked up the rest on his own. To the best of his knowledge, he is the only spoon player in Maine.

Tuesday, at the annual Arcady Music Society ragtime concert which included members of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra and professional musicians from all over Maine, Beach was the featured guest.

While the rest of the musicians were tuning up for the concert, Beach sat in the audience. Eventually, he climbed onto the stage, took his seat and began shifting his spoons in his hands. He wore an expressionless face, a bow tie and a smallish straw hat, and sat near the brass section. When the music started, he either stared blankly into the audience or intently watched pianist-director Masanobu Ikemiya — all the while playing the spoons. Beach seemed to be following Ikemiya’s beat, but afterward admitted that he didn’t know why he was watching the pianist so closely. “I guess I’m just trying to see if I’m bothering him,” he said.

Of the nine songs on the program, Beach knew one: “The Entertainer.” The rest of the numbers he heard and accompanied for the first time that very night. He doesn’t rehearse for shows, he said benignly, because “you don’t need to.” His unpreparedness did not seem to hinder his skill or his spirit.

What does hinder his spoon playing, Beach said, is his right hand, which lost some strength four years ago after he had a stroke. In addition to retiring from his work at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor after the stroke, Beach retired from the spoons. But in the past two years, he relearned the art. Now he plinks, taps, patters and pops whenever he can get the work.

His volunteer performance with the Arcady Ragtime Band was the first work he has actually gotten as a professional spoon player.

“I don’t play them until someone asks me to,” he said.

Then he nodded his head pensively and added with a wry smile: “Very infrequently.”

During the concert, Ikemiya introduced Beach as a “spoon virtuoso” and joked that it must be hard to tune the spoons. Later, Beach crossed his legs and relaxed in his chair while he joined an animated Ikemiya on a high-speed piano rendition of “Maple Leaf Rag.” When the piece was done, Ikemiya wiped sweat from his forehead. The ever-cool Beach merely shifted his weight on the chair in which he was sitting and readied his spoons for the next number.

At intermission, Beach walked offstage and began greeting friends in the audience. He shook hands and smiled.

But soon he was talking about spoons again.

He said he taught tap and ballroom dancing while in college, and that may have been an influence on his spoons career. He added that while he doesn’t know any other spoon player, he mildly idolizes the musician who played the bones on the Harlem Globe Trotter’s theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

And his only bit of advice to aspiring spoon players was: “Learn the grip.”

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