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Sing, Sing, Sing by Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Tuesday, January 12, 2016

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Happy New Year, y’all! The Henry Family had a wonderful Christmas, welcoming Casey’s son Sean Maxwell Henry into the fold on December 11. Big brother Dalton, now 4, was a little wary of Sean at first but he is rapidly getting used to having a little brother around.

For this first blog of 2016, I have asked my long-time banjo student and friend Dan McCoig to share his experience about learning to sing. The Tip Jar Jam led us down this unexpected path, and Dan’s success has encouraged other jammers to give it a try. I’ll let Dan talk first, and then I’ll add a few comments.

What Dan has to say:

“I began taking lessons from Murphy more than two decades ago.  I worked my way through all the videos.  I memorized each and every song.  I played them slow.  I played them at a medium tempo.  And, some of them, I played fast.  I was one of Murphy’s early Misfits.

“Life intervened and I put my banjo in the case and left it there for about ten years.  Shame on me.  I had hit a plateau and doing the same old stuff again and again but not seeing any measurable progress was discouraging.

“Two years ago I called Murphy and asked if she had any openings for private lessons.  She did.  To say the least, I was rusty.  But, I had a plan -- happiness.  That’s it.  If picking put a smile on my face and nothing more, I would be good.  Yes, I wanted to progress and get better but in the service of happiness and not achievement.  As a Presbyterian, I can tend to make fun things look and feel like work.  I wanted to rejoin the fraternity -- Murphy would insist that it is a sorority -- of pickers.

“A lot of the songs I had learned long ago reemerged from their slumber.  To my surprise, there they were coming out of my fingers.  I discovered I had a pretty good vocabulary of licks after all, especially G position licks.  With a little work I developed a vocabulary of licks in C position.  Once I figured out a song’s chord progression I could jump in and contribute a reasonably respectable break.  But sometimes the breaks I played sounded mechanical, robotic, lifeless.

“With a little introspection and thinking out loud with Murphy, we landed on an approach.  It turned out I was spending too much time counting the beats in a chord and stringing together a series of licks in that chord to fill the time.  Although I thought I was hearing the song’s melody, I really wasn’t.  What if I learned to sing the song first and then vamp it before I even began to consider building a break to it?

“I was one of those kids in elementary school who got sent out to play during music class.  The teacher had each student stand by the piano and sing a C scale.  The sounds I made were not the sounds made by the piano.  “Out,” she said.  To the East of Eden I went, an exile from music.  As an adult I made several attempts to learn to sing but my teachers insisted on their methods and their songs.  Again, more failure.

“Thank goodness Murphy is convinced everyone can sing.  I was convinced that I was going to be the student to prove her wrong.  She suggested I take a straightforward song like “Do Lord” and just have at it.  In a lesson, I did and lived to tell the tale.  Then, in a jam session, I did.  And, I liked it.  It was fun.  It made me happy.

“At present I have more than a half dozen songs I can sing and play in a jam session without passing out or vomiting.  I selected the songs I wanted to learn.  I listened to them repeatedly.  I vamped them on the banjo or chorded them on the guitar and sang like no one was listening.  Murphy coached me through this process and corrected my rookie mistakes.  Then, once the song found its home in my voice, I started experimenting with banjo breaks.

“Really hearing a song and then singing it first has helped with my phrasing of licks on the banjo.  There is a musicality to my breaks that simply wasn’t there before.  They, I believe, now have life.”

Murphy’s response:

Oh, yes! Dan’s breaks have lots of life! And his singing has so much personality. It was a leap of faith for Dan to start singing and I appreciate his trust in me because, honestly, I was making it up as I went along. (And as I told him, I believe there is a special punishment somewhere for teachers who tell little kids that they can’t sing.)

I believe everyone can sing, as Dan said. The critical thing is finding the right key for the song. Equally important is making that first song an easy song. It has to be a song that the student already knows. The task becomes much, much harder if the student doesn’t “know” the words (and melody) to any songs. Being in the jam for over a year was a huge help to Dan. I don’t know if Presbyterians sing “Do Lord” at the drop of the hat like Baptists do, but in the jam we were singing it a “right smart” (as we say in Georgia!). So Dan had heard it many, many times. The melody is easy to sing, and the words are extremely repetitious, which helps! When Dan sang “Do Lord” in the jam, I was so proud I was about to bust. I was grinning all over myself.

And with that, the flood gates were open, so to speak. Dan has been learning song after song after song. He chooses the songs and brings them into the lesson to see what I think about them. I’ve only had to veto two: “Tell Me Baby Why You’ve Been Gone So Long” (the melody is too difficult) and “Old Home Place,” (the chords are too hard for our jam. I’ve tried using it in the jam numerous times and, even in the key of G, it’s just too hard.) I told Dan he certainly could learn it for his own amusement.

Here is Dan’s song list:

Do Lord
I Still Miss Someone
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke
I'm On My Way Back To The Old home
Midnight Train
Salty Dog
Lonesome Road Blues
Will The Circle Be Unbroken
Your Love Is Like A Flower
I Wonder Where You Are Tonight
How Mountain Girls Can Love
Mama Tried

And, yes, he has MEMORIZED the words to all verses of all these songs. There are no word sheets allowed in the Tip Jar Jam.

And now David is singing! Worried Man, in the key of G, was his first song. And Betty is also singing. She debuted with Blue Ridge Cabin Home in the KEY OF C! Heads up to you womyn and gyrrls: don’t forget that the most likely bluegrass key for you is C. I don’t care how low you think your voice is or how well you sing in G in your living room. THE KEY OF G IS TOO LOW.

Finally, let me give a shout out to my guitar student Bob Aitch, who started singing for the first time ever about four years ago and is now a stalwart singer in our jams. He, too, was told at a young age that he couldn’t sing and took it up only when he started playing guitar. He was my guinea pig for helping students learn to sing. Thanks, Bob! You’re doing great! (Tell Wanda I said that!)

I wish I could now pitch a DVD to you, saying that The Murphy Method can teach you to sing, too. Alas! Not yet! We do have an excellent Learn To Sing Harmony DVD (with Bill Evans, Janet Beasley, and Chris Stuart, and moi), but it doesn’t teach non-singers to sing. It will give you the tools to find the right key for your voice, and, of course, it’s great for learning to sing harmony. (Unless you are like my dear, departed friend Bob VanMetre who couldn’t learn to sing harmony to save his redneck hide. He could sing lead just fine, but not harmony. He even complained that the Harmony Singing DVD wasn’t helping him. I finally told him, “Dammit, Bob. Just sing along with whatever Bill and Chris are singing! That’s how you learn to sing harmony!” Then we agreed to let it go! Bless his heart, I’m guessing he’s singing harmony in the Heavenly Choir now! Miss you, Bobby!)

If you made it this far, thank you! We welcome your response! Especially any stories you have about learning to sing bluegrass.


4 comments on “Sing, Sing, Sing by Murphy Henry”

pickn5 Says:
Tuesday, January 12, 2016 @10:46:27 AM

Murphy, this is a very timely topic for me. Like Dan, in school I was told not to sing. I just sat there while all the others were singing. I am using your Beginning Banjo Track and for a couple of years now I would play for family at a yearly get together. Before last years get together, one of my sisters suggested doing a singing song so all could sing along. We did Boil Them Cabbage Down with me playing chords and square rolls. It was the version from your your video. I'm currently brushing up on that, revisiting I Saw The Light, and learning Tom Dooley. Picking and singing aint as easy as sneezin and fartin at the same time, but, I'm getting there. This years family sing along should be fun. I know, I know, Tom Dooley is off track a little, but, I know the words and melody. I'm having fun and your lessons are great. Keep picking.

RatLer Says:
Wednesday, January 13, 2016 @7:06:17 AM

My 7th grade music teacher told me I couldn't sing....guess she wasn't into showing kids how to sing...

Peanutscreams Says:
Saturday, January 16, 2016 @6:44:14 AM

I didn't have to have anyone tell me I couldn't sing, I just knew I couldn't carry a tune if it was in a bucket, stay in key, heck I was scared to even sing in the shower. But for some reason when I finally started attending jams a year or so ago I just started singing when ever it was my turn to play. Just didn't care how bad I sounded or how many folks got up from their bag chairs and took off. I wanted to be able to sing and play, and had to find out for myself if I could, plus It was fun. I just keep pluggin away at it. Don't run as many folks off as I used to and can at least somewhat vamp along with my songs now. It does improve a little each time, if it didn't I'd given it up by now. Just have to put fears to the side and believe, sing, sing, sing. I don't have near the song list that Dan has, my hats off to him and I'm sure I will eventually because like he says, it's fun! Here's my funny little story. First let me make a comment to pickn5 about Tom Dooley, that song isn't that far off tract, I started with that one and still sing it often, it's easy and folks love it. It's that song I was singing the very first time someone came up behind me and started singing harmony, startled the begeezers out of me so bad I emotionally lost it and started laughing. Sounded so odd to me because no one had ever sang at the mic with me before and I wasn't expecting anyone to, but wow it sounded good. So I may be in the market for Murphy's harmony dvd, this could open doors to a whole new world of fun and exploration.
Thanks for the blog, and congratulations to the entire Henry family on the new family member!

Butch B

jwens2 Says:
Sunday, January 17, 2016 @5:18:43 AM

I'm in the same boat!!! but slowly I am learning to sing even in pitch. but most importantly and strangely enough, I just started doing the very thing this article explains as a method for developing breaks.I used to just listen a few times and play a prescribed break, but now I sing and play then play the melody note for note then after its stuck in my head I then develope a break.

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