I think I got my first banjo back in the late fifties or very early sixties from a much loved uncle who owned a Whyte Laydie that he played with some skill when in a creative funk. Uncle Frank was a painter of limpid flowers and wonderful city scapes no-one ever bought. When stuck for inspiration, he played the banjo or the Martin dreadnought that also sat in his studio in
We first attended Merlefest, that quintessential bluegrass festival where 20,000 daily attendees can glory in the widest array of
The banjo is a strange mistress at best, but to start courting her at an advanced age makes mastering her even more elusive than the lifetime that many other players devote to her. I brought my new Goodtime home and started to read the book and practice the skills, slowly and laboriously picking away. My fingers hurt, I didn’t understand the picks, and everything was just so slow. Nothing I played sounded anything like what a banjo was supposed to sound like. I played alone in a practice room and occasionally pulled the banjo out to show our friends what I was doing. They were always polite and encouraging. Apparently they had no idea what a banjo was supposed to sound like or how a banjo ought to sound. I played “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” and “Good Night Ladies” along with repetitions of the banjo rolls, and there was very little progress.
How can you tell if the stage is level?
Because the banjo player is drooling from both sides of his mouth!
There have been two major turning points in my learning path. At Merlefest 2005, we heard the winner of the annual banjo contest play. His name was
Bruce is a small, wiry balding man in his early fifties whose entire life appears to have been devoted to making music and whose passion has been the banjo since he was quite young. While for many years he subsisted by playing rock guitar, he now is fully engaged in the banjo. At my first lesson, I brought along the material I had been studying for the past year or so. I particularly had been working with
Over the last eighteen months I’ve developed a pretty solid grasp of the rolls, am beginning to understand the way that chord forms related to the fret board to permit work up and down the neck, and practiced a series of songs, each of which is arranged to allow practicing a particular roll and then later a series of inter-related linked rolls. Bruce has emphasized listening and learning by ear as well as working on playing backup to both singing and instrumentals along with learning banjo solos. Recently, I’ve begun to try developing my own breaks for songs and Bruce has helped me take my rudimentary efforts and make them into real breaks by altering the rolls to fit the melody, adding pinches, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, i.e. turning them into real banjo playing. Each time I finish a lesson, I have plenty to work on until the next time we meet. Finally, the real pleasure of working with Bruce has been his patience in helping me to develop as a player in a direction that makes sense.
The other major turning point came when I signed up to attend Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp, this one held during the three days preceding Merlefest 2005. I had seen Pete’s Jam Camp students performing from the Cabin stage on Thursday at Merlefest for three years. This year I decided that I should attend and try to learn to jam from Dr. Banjo. Pete has actually earned this title, as he has an earned Ph.D. in sociology, but beyond the degree, his work has proven itself to be good medicine for a generation of banjo students, bands, and wannabe jammers. His writings about teaching and learning banjo make important contributions to the literature of the instrument.
Prior to attending Jam Camp, most of my experience had taken place in my practice room without the pressures of having to pick in front of others or having to work in the cooperative setting of a band. Within an hour on Monday morning, Pete had managed to push me way beyond my level of comfort without making me feel out of place or so challenged I couldn’t learn. Within a few hours we were divided into jam groups and began working on songs based on the skills we had worked on in large groups under Pete’s direction. Every time it came my turn to play, I totally melted, unable to perform anything approximating a song. Pete’s instructional strategies included direct instruction, large group practice, his recounting entertaining stories about the history of bluegrass that had direct relevance to what we were learning, small group practice, and directed practice from him and his staff, which included his wife Joan. The range of ability in the room ranged from absolute beginner, through moderately experienced, to a few near professionals. The better and more experienced campers assisted the staff in providing leadership and help.
Pete’s model works well from both the standpoint of social relationships and increasing individuals’ ability to develop themselves as musicians and part of a musical team, read band. By working with the campers on playing the lead, backup, singing, and harmony, Pete raised our ability levels and our confidence. His focus on ear training and de-emphasis on learning from tab required many of us to alter our learning focus. Much of what he taught was quite difficult for some of us, but the emphasis was on success and students provided lots of support for each other. Students’ level of confidence rose as the three and a half days passed, and by Thursday we were ready to present a song to the rest of the group. Later in the day, we repaired to the main performance area of Merlefest, where we sang a couple of songs for the several hundred early arrivals at the festival. Our first public performance had been at the largest festival of them all! Throughout the rest of the weekend, we kept running into people who had become our friends. As the summer wore on, we ran into people we had met at Jam Camp at other festivals, and one of our campers hosted a banjo workshop in his home in
As a result of band camp, I have begun designing my own breaks based on singing the song, hearing it in my head, finding the tune on the strings, and turning them into a break, of sorts. With