Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pete Wernick's Jam Camp

Pete Wernick - Dr. Banjo

Pete Wernick should not need an introduction to people interested in or involved with bluegrass music. For a more detailed biography, take a look here. Suffice it to say that he grew up in New York City and early on fell in love with the banjo. He attended the famed Flatt & Scruggs concert at Carnegie Hall in December of 1962 as well as the first bluegrass festival held in Fincastle, VA on Labor Day weekend of 1965. Along the way, he has had time to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology at Columbia, thus becoming a true Dr. Banjo. Pete was a founding member of the legendary bluegrass band Hot Rize, which still performs, although it no longer is a touring band. He also has formed a bluegrass/jazz fusion band called Flexigrass, a very listenable and likeable band bringing together instruments not usually found in the same band. For many years Pete served as President of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). In recent years he has concentrated much of his energy on bluegrass education. His instructional tapes and DVD’s concentrate on jamming and banjo instruction. Other camps add band skills to these two areas. It’s in the area of jamming where Pete Wernick may be providing his most important and lasting contribution to bluegrass music.

Jam Camp Staff Registering New Campers

Joan Wernick

Scott Freeman - Staff

Steve Lewis - Staff

Jamming lies at the center of bluegrass music. It’s in the jam, a group of four to six or eight musicians sitting around in a circle taking turns leading the classic songs of bluegrass music, that the music is preserved and developed.
From the jams sometimes grow bands and professional musicians whose names become well known to bluegrass fans. But even the professionals learned their musical skills playing the old songs with friends and relatives in informal settings. The jam has a recognized etiquette and format. A member suggests a song and kicks it off. The rest of the people in the jam join in with their instruments, paying close attention to each other and alternating individual instrumental solos (called breaks), lead singing of the verses, and trio or quartet singing of the choruses. Generally, the instruments in a bluegrass jam are mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, bass, and, sometimes, resonator guitar. While not usually found in bands, sometimes there are accordions, harmonicas, or autoharps also playing in jams, but generally, the traditional acoustic instruments rule. Almost since the earliest days of bluegrass music, and perhaps into the days of mountain music before bluegrass emerged, the jam has been the central organized way to spread and learn the music.

Jam Campers in Class

Gotta Have a Bass in the Band

Lunch Time

Informal Jam

Jam Camp Hero

Pete has shown himself to be a versatile and creative force in bluegrass music, willing to include unusual instruments and create new sounds. In Jam Camps, on the other hand, he hews closely to traditional bluegrass sounds, styles, songs, instruments, and conventions. A typical Jam Camp is focused on novice and low intermediate pickers, many of whom have learned to play their instrument in a solitary setting, have little experience playing with others, and want to become a part of this vibrant element of the bluegrass community. Everything happening at a Pete Wernick Jam Camp operates in service of these people and desires.

Pete Teaching

Rapt Attention

Most participants arriving at Jam Camp have little or no experience playing with others and are justifiably nervous and uncertain about the experience they have committed themselves to. Early on the first day of Jam Camp, Pete begins with helping them to get rid of some of their anxiety as well as becoming accustomed to playing together in a large group. This eases the tension and begins to build the sense of group cohesiveness, mutual support, and personal confidence that makes Jam Camp work so well. Within a couple of hours, participants have divided themselves based on an assessment of their own skill level and then been divided into preliminary jam groups. Each group contains a representative selection of instruments and can count on having a staff member spend time with it during each session to provide support and feedback. In the novice groups, a more experienced camper also aids in moving the group along. By lunch time on the first day, anxiety levels have begun to drop and campers are actually making music together. Even though the music is sometimes tentative and a little rough, the atmosphere of mutual support and encouragement allows each participant to feel successful and welcome.

Pete and Joan Lead Class

Jam Camp Opry
Jam Camp Opry
Each day of Jam Camp begins at 9:00 AM and lasts until 5:00 PM with a generous lunch break. Campers are also encouraged to practice what they’ve learned in informal jams long into the evening. A typical day contains direct instruction on specific skills, Pete recounting personal experiences about the history and development of bluegrass music as well as the personality and influence of many of the early pioneers of the music, and large group practice sessions. Between large group sessions, the camp divides into jam groups to practice the skills that have been discussed and gain experience singing and playing songs. Some of these come from a list of widely known songs Pete provides as well as from suggestions brought by campers. Pete varies the pace of activities and the intensity to keep sessions interesting and lively. The days pass quickly. There’s learning going on all the time. During his studies in Sociology, Pete either studied group dynamics or he has enough wisdom to allow groups to develop during the four days of jam camp. Groups develop skills and support becomes increasingly strong, allowing campers to try out new skills in the safety of the group. Campers who had never sung in public or who were reluctant to play a solo on their instrument on Monday morning are singing solos and taking breaks by Wednesday.

Jam Camp Opry

Jam Camp Opry

Jam Camp is typically held before a large music festival in a convenient location. Schedules vary from camp to camp. Out experience has been at the camp preceding Merlefest. It begins on Monday and culminates with the campers giving a brief performance before the festival audience on Thursday afternoon. Tuesday and Wednesday at camp are typically the days when the greatest progress takes place. Pete deals with topics like learning to fake a break, singing in harmony, the niceties of jam behavior, learning how to watch the guitar for making chord changes, playing in different keys, and more. Some teachers develop a set approach and then roll out their old scripts as time passes. Pete Wernick, a thoughtful and creative teacher, constantly tinkers with his instruction and the structure of the jam camps. As a three year veteran of the Merlefest Jam Camp, I’ve observed the evolution of Pete’s teaching of harmony. He has worked to find new metaphors and ways of describing harmony and each change develops the idea further and brings it along more quickly. Similarly, at our most recent Jam Camp before Merlefest, Pete inaugurated the division into ability groups, and tried instrument instruction breakout groups for a couple of hours. Both these innovations worked for us. Whether they become a staple of future jam camps remains to be seen. Meanwhile, people become better on their instruments; the groups make better music, and become increasingly cohesive while their playing sounds more and more like bluegrass.

Maria and Heri - Jam Campers from Spain

Jam Camp Opry

On Thursday the intensity increases as two events loom. Campers are aware they’ll be performing in front of the festival audience that afternoon. Perhaps more important, at the Jam Camp Opry each jam group will perform a song for their peers. As noon approaches, microphones are set up, groups spread out around the area to practice their songs, and the pace accelerates. Pete calls the camp together, and one after another each group comes to the front and performs their song to the acclaim of the other campers. The progress that’s been made is truly astounding and even the most reluctant campers have had an opportunity to feel the thrill of playing bluegrass in public.

Jam Camp Opry

After a pause for a camp picture and lunch, the group reassembles to practice the two songs that will be sung for the festival. Pete has been working these songs in for a day or so, but in one afternoon soloists are chosen, harmonies refreshed, and the group prepped for the adrenaline rush only performance can create. Promptly at 3:00 PM everyone leaves for the parking lot at the festival, vans transport them to the stage, the campers troop on-stage to introduce themselves, Pete says a couple of words about Jam Camp, the two songs are sung to the applause of the willing audience, everyone leaves the stage, and Jam Camp is over. Almost everyone has had a positive experience and a group of novice jammers is ready to go out into the world and spread the word.

Pete and Camp Staff on Cabin Stage

Jam Campers Perform on Cabin Stage

Jam Campers on Cabin Stage

Currently Pete Wernick, usually working with his wife Joan (a skilled teacher, rhythm guitarist, and singer in her own right who deserves more attention than she’s had here) and one or two assistants, offers about a dozen Jam Camps as well as several banjo camps and a couple of band camps. It’s worth remembering that our experience with Jam Camp has been limited to the one associated with Merlefest. Others certainly differ in some ways, and your mileage may vary with regard to success and sense of accomplishment. There’s a schedule here as well as much more information at the Dr. Banjo web site. The cost for jam camps varies depending on the length of camp, the available facility, and other factors. Check out each individual camp for precise costs, early bird discounts, and possible scholarship aid. Jam Camps provide a rich learning experience for anyone seeking to improve or develop jamming skills, become more comfortable playing and singing in front of others, or simply have a good time with bluegrass music.

Jam Campers on Cabin Stage

Jam Campers on Cabin Stage


  1. Hi Ted, It's me, Neil, mandolinist from Green Tin Roof! Enjoyed jamming with you at camp, hope to see you and Irene next year. I've got our performance digitally recorded, but I haven't edited it down & cleaned it up yet. I'll send it to you when I get chance to work on it. Take care!

  2. Good description, Ted. A couple of other observations from my perspective (this was my first jam camp):

    It was truly a vacation. No need to go anywhere, no keys, no wallet, no TV, no dirty dishes to wash, nothing to worry about (well, I did have to sneak away to drink a few beers). All I had to think about was music and I was learning enough to keep my mind 100% occupied.

    Even more valuable to me is that camp taught me how to practice so that I can enjoy jamming more.

    An aspect that I was pleasantly surprised by was how much I learned from fellow campers, especially those who had previously attended.

    It is an experience I hope to repeat.