Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pete Wernick's Jam Camp at Merlefest - Tuesday

Second Day

Today camp settled into something of a routine. This is probably a good thing, because in most instances people’s anxieties have been sufficiently lowered to allow them to work on and develop new skills. At the same time, it’s Pete Wernick’s philosophy that in order to increase growth people must move somewhere out of their comfort zones, trying out new approaches to making music. This means that we are all expected to sing, play solos, play as part of a bluegrass band, and participate in class activities. Practically no one in class is fully confident of their singing or soloing skills. Many of us have only the vaguest acquaintanceship with harmony. The idea of leading even a small group in singing and playing a song, passing solos around the group, singing the verses and leading the choruses can petrify. Nevertheless, people seem to be willing to try to do things that yesterday, or in the weeks preceding the event, would have seemed overwhelming.

At the opening large group session this morning, Pete, Scott, and Joan functioned as a band, quickly deciding how to apportion parts in a song, which parts each person would sing, and how the song was structured. They then swung into a song which sounded smooth and effective. Between verses Scott and Pete switched singing parts and, they thought (I couldn’t tell the difference), they had done a better job. Essentially, the three of them were modeling how a group might prepare. After this demonstration, Pete talked about the history of bluegrass, with particular reference to the roles of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs in the history of bluegrass music. One of Pete’s goals in this workshop is to inculcate participants with a sense of the history and culture of bluegrass music. By telling personal stories about his relationships with these icons of our music, he brings them into closer proximity and makes them seem more real. He says that bluegrass music is “something that is still alive and with us.” He takes it out of being a sort of sterile museum piece and gives it real life.

We then divide in jam groups. For some reason, the person playing guitar with us has packed up and gone home, leaving us without an important component of a bluegrass band. Since each instrument plays an essential role in the band, the absence of one is serious. Because other players watch the guitar player’s left hand for help in selecting the right chord, the guitar plays several roles. He also gives a strong rhythmic boost to the band’s sound. Without a guitar, there is definitely something missing. We’re missing twice, one because a fellow member has apparently become so discouraged he’s felt it necessary to head home and because he’s left a hole in our group. Fortunately, Joan Wernick fills in for the rest of the morning, giving us solid rhythm, constant monitoring, and caring help. The trade is pretty good, even though we’re sorry one of our number has gone home. We all get to sing leads, lead songs, and play solos, and, while they’re not always very good, they show progress and willingness to risk the trying.

Irene has become a wonder. Usually quite reluctant to be in the forefront of anything, she was originally reluctant to attend Jam Camp. She truly only enrolled because her friend Connie decided she would attend if Irene would. She’s been working with me for months, sometimes not too patiently, but I’ve mad progress because she’s practiced with me and even sacrificed some of her own progress to stay back with me. She’s been reluctantly taking small breaks and singing the solid harmony she does so well. Today she needs to take some leadership to help the group work more effectively and she jumps into the role with what appears to be humor and enthusiasm, being supportive of others and effective in her own playing. Her mandolin breaks are played with greater assurance, her rhythmic chops are solid and set a clear beat for other instruments, and her harmonies are excellent. I think she’s enjoying it all, too.

After a tasty and restful lunch, Pete talks to the large group, absent some of the intermediate players who opt to stay outside and jam, about his approach to teaching. He tells of one camper who sat in the front row for a couple of days and finally said, “Oh, I’ve figured your teaching out. You’re about results.” Pete agrees; he’s about results. And I do, too. By moving people slightly off their comfort zone, he achieves results. Whether those results last, as always, depends on the student, not the teacher. During this session he also deals with how to “fake” a break and the skill of kicking off a song. We practice both and see some improvement. As Pete is talking the skies open up and it begins to pour. I check the computer and the forecasts don’t look too good for the coming week.

After a break, we divide into jam groups again. Joan continues as our guitar player, even after a volunteer arrives and joins us. On consideration we think this has been a mixed blessing. We like Joan and she’s really helpful and supportive. At the same time, Pete and Scott have spent considerable amounts of time with the intermediate groups and we feel somewhat deprived of their help. Nevertheless, we have a productive afternoon, singing lots of songs and moving ahead. Today is the last one for these jam groups. Tomorrow we’ll be reconfigured into groups that will stay together until the in-house concert early Thursday afternoon. Each jam group will perform a song or two for the rest of the camp as if they were a bluegrass band. More about this activity later. As the afternoon winds down, we stand around and chat, eager to head for dinner and reluctant to leave at the same time.