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Midwest Banjo camp, day one

Posted by Kevin G on Friday, June 4, 2010

It's been a long, good day of banjo immersion. I arrived on the campus of Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan just before noon, checked into my dorm room, had lunch in the college cafeteria (by the way, college cafeteria food hasn't really improved much in 30 years), participated in the orientation (where they tell a few banjo jokes, tell you to turn your keys back in at the end and not to jam in the dormitory after midnight. Highlight: Pete Wernick sat down next to me. I thanked him for writing his BNL column); then I went to my first class. Thanks to your suggestions, I brought both banjos and went to a beginning clawhammer class with instructor Terri McMurray so I could use the Deering Vega Old Tyme Wonder. Because it was a beginners' class, none of us really knew what we were doing, so there was little pressure. We worked on the basic right-hand technique, and of course, I'll need to keep working on this if I hope to remember what I learned. Originally, I had planned to start my day with review of bluegrass banjo techniques with Murphy Henry, but since I'm a complete beginner with CH, I felt as if I'd better start at the beginning if I wanted to jump back in to any of the other lessons later. The class was small (maybe 8 people), so I Ms. McMurray was able to spend a little time with each of us individually working on the right-hand stroke. Extremely helpful.

Next, I went to a Jens Kruger class that was extremely interesting, but a little beyond my capabilities. I'm still working at an advanced beginner's level, and many of the people in the class seemed more musically educated and more banjoically skilled than me. Nonetheless, how often does one get to sit in a class taught by Jens Kruger? He demonstrated how a few basic chord shapes (D, F and bar) can be moved up and down the fretboard to make virtually any chord. I can't wait to practice this when I get home, because F and D are not my strongest chord shapes anyway, but now I'm motivated.

Dinner was ok, but mostly forgettable (how can a college campus not have an ice cream machine?), although I laud their push to become “greener.” (There are no trays, so they waste less food, and use much less water and detergent in clean-up). But that was followed by a faculty concert, in which half of the instructors take turns playing on stage. Phe-no-me-nal! The diversity and range of these players blew me away (please forgive the cliché, but I don't have a lot of time to write this). Songs ranged from a beatles melody to traditional clawhammer, from Miles Davis tunes to Joni Mitchell. A nice, long version of Cluck, old Hen was performed by Joel Mabus, during which he told a wonderful story: “If you try hard enough, you'll never play a song the same way twice!” The concert ended tonight with a short performance by the Kruger Brothers—also terrific.

After that, I went to my first jam—a slow jam for beginners hosted by Mike Sumner. I was only able to play along for about half of the songs, and when I suggested “Cumberland Gap”, he asked me to lead it off, at which point my mind was erased entirely, and I struggled through a few bars of it until he rescued me. But everyone seemed to enjoy it, and I caught back on after we all started playing. But it was a lot of fun, I played pinch chords (mostly just G) for the songs that I didn't know, and since any mistake you make gets swallowed up by everyone else, it's a pretty low-pressure experience until your turn to solo comes around. But like the other instructors so far, Mike was great at putting people at ease while still pushing them a little.

Now it's just before midnight. I'm back in my dorm room (they also haven't improved much in thirty years; one of the guys at lunch said he thought he may have his old mattress from the 80's!) But it's been a long day, and the bed, though, narrow, is horizontal and flat, and I don't think I'll have much trouble sleeping. We kick off again tomorrow first thing, so I need to upload this, brush my teeth, and hit the hay. I still haven't decided which track to take tomorrow, though I'm thinking maybe a little more Claw. We'll see. Spur of the moment decisions are the best. Like deciding to come to Banjo Camp.

(PS. I took somephotos at the concert. I'll see how they came out and maybe post a few tomorrow.)



3 comments on “Midwest Banjo camp, day one”

TopCat Says:
Saturday, June 5, 2010 @12:41:07 PM

Thanks for posting this Kevin; a very enjoyable read about your latest banjo adventures! Looking forward to the next instalment....

WesBrown Says:
Saturday, June 5, 2010 @12:59:33 PM

My appreciation as well for your comments, Kevin. Kruger bros are favorites of mine as well. Ive been thinking about CH as an "addition." "I'll wait for your final evaluation. Thanks

Kevin G Says:
Thursday, June 10, 2010 @5:53:14 PM

Ah, Clawhammer. It's been haunting me since I got back. I still don't have the right-hand motion down smoothly, but I've been practicing a little each day. I have a couple of tunes we worked on in the workshops (Skip to my Lou, and Old Joe Clark), and I've been trying to work on striking the right strings without flicking my right finger. It's like learning roll patterns all over again. But fun. And I like the sound.

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