Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pete Wernick's Jam Camp at Merlefest

Although Pete Wernick has been holding jam camp before Merlefest for nine years, this is the first year the camp has been moved off the Wilkes Community College campus. Camp Harrison is a YMCA camp at Herring Ridge, a 1400 acre preserve about ten miles west of Wilkesboro, NC. The facility is set among lovely rolling hills with a mature apple orchard just turning green. There are playing fields, a rope course, a picturesque little lake, with the foothills of the Smokey Mountains framing the scene. The Camp Harrison campus consists primarily of a multi-purpose building used as a cafeteria as well as a conference room and four bunkhouse buildings. Jam Campers staying at Camp Harrison may remain there for the Merlefest after camp is over.

Pete Wernick has a well-deserved reputation as both a player in major bands (Hot Rize, Country Cooking, and Flexigrass), a leader in bluegrass music as first President of IBMA, and a teacher of jamming, banjo, and band development. He holds seminars, workshops, and camps around the country. Last year there were eleven jam camps. He is called Dr. Banjo and comes by the title deservedly as he holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is ably assisted by his wife Joan and Scott Freeman, an able multi-instrument player and teacher from North Carolina. This year there are thirty-six jam campers at this camp, and there is a maximum enrollment of forty. There seem to be a lot of banjo players in attendance and, unusual for any jamming situation, something of a shortage of guitar players. For me this is the second year I’ve attended Jam Camp, but my wife Irene and her friend Connie, a novice bass player are also attending for the first time.

We arrive as the resident campers are finishing breakfast and Joan is enrolling people who have not paid their entire tuition up front. Last evening we had come over for the traditional Sunday evening get-together and informal jam. This is an intimidating experience, because many of the participants appear experienced, the pace is fast, and some people are really eager to show their stuff. It’s nice, on the other hand, to see people who were at camp last year and begin to get to know the other campers. I had left the evening jam with a sense that once again, as last year, I was in over my head. This morning, Pete assembles the group and establishes a set of guidelines for support and encouragement that reduces the level of threat. Furthermore, this year he has decided to break the camp into two groups, self-selected, of beginner and intermediate jammers. This turns out to be a good idea, as people aren’t as anxiety ridden when they feel less pressure from players much better than they are.

Jam Camp is advertised as an opportunity for novice players to learn to play together. Since most people who take up bluegrass instruments spend lots of their early playing time alone in the proverbial closet, a lot have little experience playing with others. As Pete says, however, “Bluegrass is a team sport.” The very center of the music involves players of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and sometimes Dobro singing and playing together in a complex interaction of song and instrumental playing. Early bluegrass musicians grew up in homes where there was little money or electronic entertainment with the music in their bones. Today’s more urban and suburban lifestyle suggests other ways of learning. For many people Jam Camp provides the bridge from playing in the closet to beginning to feel comfortable playing and improvising with others.

The first singing is slow and emphasizes playing rhythm, getting chords right, and singing together. After a few short minutes almost everyone has experienced success and we have made sounds that are something like music. We then break into two large groups for further instruction based on our experience and perceived ability. We, the beginner/novice group, work with Joan and Scott, while Pete goes off with the more advanced people. The session proceeds comfortably, with these two pros leading us in a comfortable pace through a series of easy songs. When the leaders exchange places, Pete comes in and begins dividing us into jam groups and working though at least one song with each group while providing direct instruction. He is supportive while, at the same time, providing corrections that are direct, helpful, and non-threatening, or at least as non-threatening as instruction based on performance can be.

We break for a tasty and satisfying lunch and reassemble for instruction covering picking out the melody and singing harmony. Both of these skills are necessary in bluegrass and tough to master. The harmony illustration Pete has developed since last year worked for me better than anything else has in explaining how harmony works, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to do it. We then break into jam groups for the rest of the afternoon. A signature of Pete’s design for his camps is a thoughtful and pretty carefully timed mixture of large and small group practice, direct instruction in the music, and tales about the history and personalities of the music. Changes in pace are frequent enough and breaks come at the right time, making the day go quickly and reducing the risk of inattention or boredom. Pedagogically the program is right on target.

In our jam group we proceed to sing a number of songs with varying success. Pete drops by to listen to one of our songs and provides good (that is helpful) feedback to each of us. For me, his advice provides me with a breakthrough on playing instrumental breaks. He tells me that if there’s a choice between playing melody and keeping my banjo rolls going, the rolls take precedence. I try to remember this through the rest of the afternoon, and even though my breaks aren’t great, they do roll and keep up. This represents a great success for me. Irene sings lead on several songs, since she knows the words. She also played some mandolin breaks, which she says she hates to do, but is quite good at. At 5:00 PM we head home from the first day. It’s been a learning day withk plenty of good stuff for all of us. Jam camp is off to a fine start!