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You've Got To Hear The Song In Your Head!

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, February 9, 2015

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There's a lot of background to this story, but hang with me:

For about a year now, I've been doing Skype lessons with "Sam." (I've recently been binge-watching the Lord Of The Rings and Samwise Gamgee is my favorite hobbit.) Sam, who came to Intermediate Camp last March, was what Bill Evans and I irreverently call a "tab-eater." His banjo teacher had taught him strictly from tab. To be fair, most of the songs he had learned were good ones and the arrangements were Scruggsy. But he had timing errors and, what was worse, he didn't realize it. (Don't get me started on why his instructor hadn't dealt with this.) This made for some disastrous jamming.  

But Sam was determined to play the banjo and at camp he saw Murphy Method students successfully jamming. He wanted to be a part of that, so he basically walked down the aisle and gave his heart to the Murphy Method. (All that was missing was the choir singing "Trust And Obey.") He signed up for Skype lessons. First, however, knowing how difficult it is for students to back up and start over, I laid down some ground rules. He had to promise to abandon tab, he had to stop playing his old tab songs except for a specified few that were halfway decent, he had to accept my "one song a month" rule, and he had to commit to a great deal of practice. Sam agreed to all of this. He said, "I feel like this is my last chance to learn to play the banjo. If I can't learn it this way, I'm gonna sell it." He meant it.

Then, being an engineer (!), he asked me to draw him up a six-month plan! A six-month plan? That's not the way I operate. However, there was something about Sam. For one thing, he called me "Miz Henry." I tolerated this because he was from Georgia and I liked the way he pronounced "Miz"--not "Miss" and not "Misses" or "Missus," and not "Miz-riz" as some Southern folk do. (Stern warning: Do not follow in his footsteps!)

What I put on the six-month plan is not important. What is important is that Sam kept up with his end of the bargain. He faithfully did one song a month. Then, as he got the hang of learning by ear, we sometimes did two songs a month. He practiced like a fiend. He played along with our Slow Jam DVD. And he found a jam session! He went every week. This helped his playing tremendously. He no longer had timing problems. (Okay, there was that one spot of trouble in Lonesome Road Blues which he tried to play too fast, but we straightened that out. I yelled at him and that scared him back into the fold!) 

One of the drawbacks of Skype is that I can't play along with Sam. We cannot trade breaks. So, in late summer of last year he came to Winchester for some private lessons. Sort of a "check up." Everything was fine. He had a long list of songs he could play, everything from Foggy Mountain Breakdown to Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms to Man Of Constant Sorrow (which his jam group was doing). He played them well, he played them in time, he could do the vamping, he could come in for his breaks correctly, and he could even use the capo to play in C.

Sam had "done good." I knew it was time for him to get into improvising. Time for him to start working on the Kickstart Your Jamming DVD. And this is where we ran into a Big Problem, a problem that, interestingly enough, Skype brought to light.

The songs on Kickstart Your Jamming are not hard. They are three-chord bluegrass, easy singing songs like Bury Me Beneath The Willow, Do Lord, and Somebody Touched Me. Sam had no trouble learning the breaks. "So what the heck was the problem?" you may be asking. "He learned them, he can play them. What else is there?"

Here's how the problem arose. We were Skyping. We'd done several songs for warmup and then I asked him to play one of the songs he'd learned from the Kickstart DVD. Since he'd already learned breaks to Blue Ridge Cabin Home and Bury Me Beneath the Willow from our Improvising DVD, I asked him to play Foggy Mountain Top. He started into it, but I couldn't follow it in my head. Something was off. I pounded my picks on my banjo head to get his attention. "Something's not right," I said. "Try it again." He did. Same thing. It didn't sound right to me. The C lick was too long. It sounded more like Bury Me Beneath The Willow.

Now, the whole point of the Kickstart Your Jamming DVD is to take one roll (the forward/backward roll) and use it to play a bunch of three-chord songs. This becomes the foundation for future improvising. In the beginning, however, these songs all sound pretty much alike. There is no melody. The only melody you hear will be in your head.

And that was the Big Problem. When I asked Sam to play one of these songs off the cuff, without me singing the melody, he couldn't do it. He could not hear the song in his head. He was trying to remember the chord pattern for Foggy Mountain Top--which is very close to the chord pattern for Bury Me Beneath The Willow--but it's not exactly the same. So he kept veering off into Willow. And he didn't even know he was doing it.

When you are jamming you can rely on the singer in the jam to provide the melody and you can watch her hands on the guitar to give you the chords. In fact, you have to rely on her if you've never heard the song. That's what the Kickstart DVD is all about. Getting you started. Providing the tools to jam. But once you have these tools clipped to your jamming belt, you must begin to build a repertoire of songs that you can hear in your head. Songs that you can play at home alone, when nobody but yourself is providing the melody.

And you know what? When you make that next gigantic leap into actually playing the melody of the break, guess what? You are going to have to hear that melody in your head. (I haven't figured out how to teach that yet, but I'm working on it!) 

Yes, I could have helped Sam out by singing the song for him but I realized that he had to start learning these melodies himself. So I told him that his assignment for the next lesson was to learn to hear the melody for Foggy Mountain Top. Furthermore, I told him that the best way to do that was to LEARN THE WORDS--just the words that go along with the break. I don't care if you're not a "words person." I don't care if you're not a singer. It's not hard to learn 29 words:

If I was on some Foggy Mountain Top
I'd sail away to the west
I'd sail all around this whole wide world
To the one I love the best.

The words don't have to be exact. You could be hearing something like this this your head:

Dah dah dah dah dah Foggy Mountain Top
Dah dah dah dah dah west
I'd sail all around this dah dah dah 
To the one I dah dah best.

The words can have "holes" in them. It's the melody that's important. 

How do you learn words? One song at a time. As I told Sam, don't try to learn too many, too fast. (I've already written a BHO blog about how to learn words so I'll not repeat that info here.)

Sam has a Skype lesson tomorrow. Maybe I'll let you know what happens next month. Stay tuned.

And just so you know, Sam gave me permission to use his experience in this blog. "If it will help somebody else, I'm fine with it." Thanks, Sam. And may you always have a bit of Elvish rope handy!

7 comments on “You've Got To Hear The Song In Your Head!”

dbrooks Says:
Monday, February 9, 2015 @3:33:03 PM

Casey, I agree with you 100%. I do write a lot of clawhammer tab for people, but I always stress that they should use that only to push the canoe away from the dock and that they need to play from memory and have the tune in their head. There are good lessons in your post for all of us.

bart_brush Says:
Monday, February 9, 2015 @5:54:55 PM

Absolutely, you have to know the melody before you play it. I suggest that after you can sing it (to whatever words), you pluck just the melody notes on the banjo with your thumb. Pluck the melody in the correct rhythm and sing along. This is one more way to reinforce that framework of melody on which you "hang" the rolls.

gclaunch Says:
Monday, February 9, 2015 @7:42:38 PM

Interesting article, and I feel that your point is valid. You have to hear the song ( words in ) your head before you can play a break with any part of the melody in it. For me, when learning a new song, I simply vamp through the chord progression while singing the song (usually just one verse and a chorus). By the time I have that memorized. I've got the chord progression down and a pretty good idea as to how I want to do the break. I did that with about 3 or 4 songs off of your "Picking Up the Pace" DVD...nothing too fancy, but it works, have used them in jam sessions and fit right in....Also one important fact is that if you get lost during your break and the words are in your head, you can usually pick it back up right away or at least on the next chord change.

Meles_Meles Says:
Monday, February 9, 2015 @7:44:56 PM

I always tell my students, "Don't play the instrument; play the music."
Whether learning guitar, banjo, ukulele. charango or whatever, they
usually come to me knowing how to strum a few chords, which they
learned many years ago. The first thing I teach them is some simple
melody with which they are familiar, and then show how the notes
'fit' into the song's chords. Only then do I go into scales and chord-
building. (It usually works.) The choice of song depends on the student's
age anf taste, but I've found that it has to be something with which
he or she is very familiar.

I can see that you're doing the same thing, but approaching it from a
different angle. In your method, the student might also have to be
learning a song as well as the instrumental part, be it solo or
accompaniment. I'd guess that the success rate might depend on how
well he already knows the tune.

LaurenLK Says:
Tuesday, February 10, 2015 @5:50:50 PM

Wow! This rings some bells. In a recent lesson, Casey kept telling me, "you MUST hear the song in your head". Well, I thought I *knew* the song she referred to, and at first I wasn't too serious about that -- but I have been playing the "Kickstart" DVD over and over and over, as advised -- and she is right! Goldarn! I did think I knew the song, and I was mostly right, but there were some subtle changes in there that I had missed -- so I missed chord changes. We *think* we know something, but the advice to keep listening is good -- because maybe we need to listen more subtly, more clearly.

And hi to Meles Meles -- I see where you are coming from. What I would say is that you appear to assume that a student comes in already knowing some melody. Many of us do! So you are right, in that regard. But the step that is taken here by the Murphy Method is that NO assumptions are made -- the melody of a song is stressed, over and over, and students must clearly listen, hear it, hear it in their heads as they play -- these are all quite finite steps, which very few teaching methodologies take into account.

One of the cardinal rules I was trained to use was to "chunk" things into "learner-sized" bites: a learner cannot go faster, achieve more, than what he/she is ready for. A learner sized "bite" can vary on past experience, as you have clearly defined -- if you have a novice learner, the bites are quite small. But when you are teaching something to very experienced learners (in this case, banjoists), then the "bite" becomes much larger -- your audience has a much greater framework to work from. You are quite right -- a learner's success depends on how much he/she*already* knows. YOUR job, as instructor, is to see that a person gets from A to B and then to C -- and the Murphy Method is the best I've seen, in getting novices to be improve their skills to at least intermediate.

My second instructor was somewhat like you, I think -- he seemed to believe that a student's former knowledge forged their future learning. Lucky for me, I found the Murphy Method. I am a much better student today because of this. :-)

Keith Freebairn Says:
Thursday, February 12, 2015 @8:20:31 AM

When I started out in the 70's I had a few lessons and then went on my own because we moved way out in the sticks but I listened to tapes I made from records. I had them in my car and played them at my work and listened till I was blue in the face. The tunes were cemented in my mind including the rolls and licks and in about a year I was doing a good handful of Scruggs instrumentles and rolling through song type tunes. Listen and examine and listen some more.

bart_brush Says:
Thursday, February 12, 2015 @10:15:32 AM

I also use Keith's method of learning by listening, going back to when I started in the late 1960s, teaching myself from Art Rosenbaum's excellent first book "Old Time Mountain Banjo." Each song or tune in Art's book was taken from a recording (Folkways, etc.). I would buy the LPs, and record the selection I wanted to learn on my "hi-tech" reel-to-reel tape recorder--not just once, but 5 or 6 time....even fill up the whole reel with that song repeated. Then, I'd just let the tape run as background music, once or twice a day.

If there was a section I was having trouble with, or if I was trying to learn a solo lick, I would make a tape loop, and let it run endlessly, sometimes at half speed. I mounted my tape recorder vertically on top of my 4 foot tall dresser, and some of my loops reached the floor. Some modern devices have "start" and "end" buttons you can push to create an electronic loop.

However you do it, repetitive listening makes this essential step of "internalization" easy.

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