Monday, May 17, 2010

Pete Wernick's Jam Camp

Main Building at Camp Harrison

“I’ve always wanted to play a banjo.”
“I love the sound of a good guitar.”
“I really like bluegrass music.”
“I’m not ready yet to play with others.”
“I play a lot at home alone, but there’s no one near me to pick with.”
“I wish there were a way I could learn to make music with other people, to jam like those people I see in the parking lot at festivals.”

Pete and Joan Wernick

Direct Instruction at Camp
People want to make music. It’s an integral part of the human makeup.  Bluegrass music, an invented form, synthesizes a range of American roots musics into a tuneful and exciting instrumental and vocal combination that’s difficult to excel in, but accessible to most people wishing to begin singing the songs and making the music.  Pete Wernick, known almost universally as Dr. Banjo, has been in the middle of this world since the first festival in Fincastle, VA back in 1965.  He attended both of Flatt & Scruggs historic concerts at Carnegie Hall and was a regular at the famous jams in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square.  As a pioneer of urban bluegrass during what became known as the “folk craze,” Pete became obsessed with the banjo and making bluegrass music, almost always involved with a band from high school on.  During his university career at Columbia, he also hosted a local radio program, where he had the opportunity to interview and come to know the early masters of bluegrass like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.  While he tends to deny that his graduate studies in Sociology had much effect on his life, in many ways he thinks like a plain-spoken scholar, seeking to avoid cant and jargon while viewing his music world through his advanced training and his down-to-earth contact with the real world of working musicians and the culture from which they come.  From soon after he completed doctoral studies, he has always been involved with trend setting bands like Hot Rize as well as his present fusion band, Flexigrass, and important educational efforts to teach the music and spread its values and joy.  His legacy will certainly include the impact his teaching, speaking, and writing have had on helping people to learn to play bluegrass music. He was also one of the founders of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) , serving as its president for fifteen years.

Jam Group Demo and Instruction on Opening Day

Break Out Jam Groups

Pete Wernick’s great passion in life has been to spread the bluegrass gospel far and wide among people who know the music and those who don’t.  His efforts to involve his friend comedian Steve Martin in recording  and performing have introduced thousands of people to bluegrass. His instructional tapes for banjo pickers, jammers, and band members have helped many improve their skills and knowledge.  He’s always thinking about ways to help new people become involved in bluegrass.  Arguably, his deepest impact will be seen as coming through the bluegrass Jam Camps, which he holds several times a year around the country, usually associated with major bluegrass festivals. He hopes to extend the reach of his approach to teaching during the next few years.

The Kruger Brothers Visit Camp
Jam with Pete and Steve Lewis
 Connie Hickey "Hears" Banjo for the First Time

Pete manages to adjust the details and flow of each Jam Camp based on the size of the group, the length of the camp, and the abilities of the individual participants.  Flexible in many ways, while maintaining focus on the goals and big ideas of his camp, Pete adjusts certain activities to meet the needs of camp and has learned to make many camp activities optional so that those who want an introduction to bluegrass history can stay for his deeply informed stories, while others, who may have heard this material a couple of times can go work on an element of the music more relevant to their needs. This means that each camper can tailor the experience to his or her particular needs. Special sessions he offers in classroom sessions include extensive instruction in harmony singing, faking a break, finding the tune and building a break around it for more advanced players, instrumental break-out hour, directed jamming, performing with a microphone, dealing with stage fright, and more.  Meanwhile, jam groups morph into a variety of configurations during the four day experience.  These groups may be self-chosen, assigned, or a combination.  Each group receives feedback and support from the Jam Camp staff as well as several experienced volunteers whose work with novice jam groups helps the beginners keep moving forward.  By varying large group instruction and demonstration with small group practice in varied configurations, Pete keeps camp an interesting and fully involving experience.

Harmony Practice

Harmony Instruction
Jam Camp is based on several assumptions about how bluegrass music is learned and played.  Pete believes deeply in learning by ear as folk have done throughout history; he’s not a fan of using tab, except in certain specific, more advanced situations.  He also has a major focus on the song and its lyrics, so his emphasis on singing and harmony are strong. Song books are allowed in jam groups to support the words, while the tune is expected to emerge through singing and ear training.  Many who come to camp have never sung or played their instrument in public, and the entire experience is designed to move them along to the next level in a supportive environment.  Critiques of group progress and individual performance from Pete, Joan, and other staff members are sharp and focused without ever becoming personal or destructive.  The emphasis is always on learning and growing by moving a just noticeable step outside ones zone of comfort.  Pete has demonstrated in class that even the most inept singer can learn to find a tune with help and support.  By the end of camp, almost everyone is singing with enthusiasm, and some have become adept at singing in three part harmonies, a particular focus of Pete’s.  The Jam-a-lot Opry, held on the last day of camp, allows each jam group to perform a song before the entire group.  This is always a happy and fulfilling experience. A good place to visit to gain an overview of how to jam and where to go for more information is the Jam-a-lot page on Pete's web site.

Jam Camp Staff
Scott Freeman

Steve Lewis

Most of the people attending the camp we go to appear to be from a pretty broad spectrum of society, while dominated by upper middle class professionals. Ages range from ten or twelve to seventy and above.  It struck me this year how many doctors and lawyers were there, but there is always sufficient range of background to allow anyone to feel comfortable  This year, two classically trained professional musicians attended jam camp, and had to cope with many of the same learning issues as others in camp, largely because the chord-based, ear training approach of bluegrass music is so antithetical to learning music by reading notes as classical musicians do.  Singing and playing at the same time is not a regular activity of concert violinists or chamber harpists.

Martha Linnell Plays Air Fiddle
Jam Camp has a strong effect on those attending.  A first time camper wrote:
"Before attending Jam Camp I took lessons at a guitar store and playedby myself in my dining room.  I wouldn't even play for my family, let alone sing.  Upon arriving at Camp, I was immediately taken out of my comfort zone and remained there until I walked off the cabin stage at Merlefest on Thursday.  Learning how to sing, play solos and hear chord changes in a small group setting helped me overcome insecurities with my playing that are now allowing me to seek other folks to play with.  In fact, tomorrow night I'm playing a campfire for my son's Cub Scout pack. Perhaps next year I won't be so far out of my comfort zone!"

This reaction is pretty much the norm for first time attendees, suggesting both the anxiety of attending Jam Camp for the first time and the growth experienced during the four days.


Typically a four day camp begins on Monday morning with all campers assembling for the initial business of getting camp going, introductions, and so-on, but within about 40 minutes, the assembled group is singing and playing a two chord bluegrass song.  In his preparation materials, Pete sends out a list of two chord songs that has currently reached seventy-four bluegrass and familiar campfire songs.  He’s also prepared a list of three chord songs people can learn to play esasily. Minimum standards for attending camp include a knowledge four chords and the ability to move smoothly between them.  Detailed information about the Jam Camp process  is available here at the Dr. Banjo web site, one of the most useful and comprehensive sites in all bluegrass.

Jamalot Opry

In break out jam groups, a daily feature, staff members sit with jam groups providing intense and supportive coaching.  Perhaps as important is the helpful and, yes, caring environment that develops within the fluid jam groups that meet daily and again in the evenings, although it seems to me the evening jams become a little more intense and competitive than those associated with the instructional day.  Pete Wernick is an excellent teacher, in the best professional sense of the word.  He neatly balances short, but intensely meaningful lectures, with activities punctuating and practicing the points he has been making.  His discussions of the history and personalities of bluegrass serve to create a context for the instruction he provides.  Brief video examples are presented, without ever seeking to rely upon secondary sources of instruction; Pete points to the relevant video and plays a segment before telling jammers where they can get whole thing if they wish to view it or own it.  At just about the point where attendees are becoming restless, there’s always a break, a change of pace, a chance to jam, or a meal.  In terms of structure and pedagogy, it’s hard to imagine a stronger instructional three or four day period than Jam Camp provides.

Jam Camp Staff Performs on Cabin Stage
If there’s a weakness in the overall jam camp structure, it lies in the need for intensive and ongoing follow-up.  Even here, Wernick tries to encourage former campers to seek out jam groups at home, stay in touch with each other through the Jam Campers mailing list on Yahoo, and keep on finding others to play with.  It’s no surprise that as many as half the attendees at the Camp we attend, associated with Merlefest in April, are returning for another dose.  Some people have attended as many as nine camps in this one location, as well as other jam camps and banjo camps.  Pete’s teaching principles have been carried as far away as Australia.

Pete's Home Made Ear Plugs
 From the opening get together on the first morning of camp to the camp performance before a festival audience on the first evening of its run, Pete Wernick’s Jam Camps provide participants with a highly professionalized and thoughtfully conceived opportunity to improve their skills in making music together in a jam setting.  Other more specialized camps, some offered by Pete himself for banjo players and for entire bands, as well as other camps focused on specific instruments offered by others, meet other goals, but Jam Camp is for helping people playing bluegrass instruments to develop skill and confidence in making music with others.  It usually succeeds beyond the wildest expectations of those attending, many of whom will return for more.

Jam Camp Performance at Merlefest
on the Cabin Stage

And It's All Over

Jam Camp Google Album

I've posted a Picasa Web Album for people who wish to see more pictures from the North Carolina 2010 Jam Camp held at the YMCA Camp Harrison in Boomer, NC.  These pictures are downloadable and are large enough for any on-line use or for printing in sizes up to 8x10.  If you use any of these on line, please give me a photo credit and provide a link to my blog.  Here's the key: