(With apologies to Joss Whedon and Buffy The Vampire Slayer!)
I started my first jam session in 1990. I always knew playing with other people was the “shining pathway” and that the “Gates would open” for those who walked it, but time-wise and money-wise, I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work. But, in October of 1990, as I chronicled in Banjo Newsletter, all the pieces fell into place and boom! I was leading a jam. I thought it would be a piece of cake. HA! I had so much to learn. And 27 years later, I am still learning.
Lately I have realized that, down through the years (as George Jones sings), I have slowly evolved into what I can only call a “holistic” banjo teacher. I now see that all aspects of playing the banjo—including singing--are “intimately interconnected.”
I understand that it’s not enough to teach banjo tunes and it’s not enough to teach by ear, although I still believe with all my heart that that is the best way to become a “real” banjo player. I now also teach vamping, hearing chord changes, using a capo, and improvising. And this was a complete surprise to me: I now facilitate singing. I can’t say that I teach it, in the sense that Dede Wyland teaches singing, but I can put my students in the right key and suggest easy songs to start with. (Almost always Do Lord or I Saw The Light.) And to my great delight, every Jammer is singing now!
This has all happened because I decided to start a weekly Tip Jar Jam four years ago. Playing in a jam every week has given the students the opportunity to work on all the skills that I mentioned. We also laugh a lot! And eat Nutella. And occasionally drink wine and play in B-flat!
Becoming a “real” banjo player is not an easy road, as any of them will tell you. You might even say it’s the “road less traveled.” Instead of sitting around saying, “I really want to learn to play the banjo” these students are busting their butts to get to the jam every week. Seeing what the other students are doing at the jam pushes everyone to practice more, to keep up, to out-shine! And you know what the Good Book says, “Wanting to play the banjo without jamming is dead in the water.” Or something like that. I may have paraphrased. Actually I think it went more like, “Faith without works is dead.”
So now, I am immensely proud to say, I have students who are “playing out.” These are adult students, not child prodigies. Gregg and Chuck, on banjo and guitar, are now playing gigs and have bought a sound system. Three years ago, when I met them at Kaufman Camp, neither could play. Kathy and Kristina, banjo/guitar and bass, now have a group called Handsome Molly and have already played quite a few gigs. It was only a few years ago that Kathy asked me, “Would you listen to this song and see if I can sing?” Could she ever! But she almost “missed the boat” when, in her first-ever lesson with me, I told her that, yes, she did have to wear picks. As she says, “I put the banjo down for a year after you said that.” I think the blood on my banjo head was also off-putting. I had pricked my finger on the end of a string and had decided to decorate my banjo head with the blood. I didn’t realize it might look grisly! Luckily, as Kathy says, “The allure was just too strong. The banjo was calling me.” Kathy is now the late-night jam leader at our camps and also teaches the novice banjo class. Then there is our teenage fashionista, Kasey Smelser, who is now writing songs and belting them out! You can find her on Facebook. Her video of “Teardrops On My Pillow” has over 11,000 “likes” and 166 “shares.” Her history teacher even let the whole class watch it on the big screen during class!
And all of the Jammers have performed on stage at Dan’s church. They are all playing out.
Let me stress that these folks are pretty much like you. At some point past mid-life, they decided they wanted to play the banjo. And they did the work. Folks, it is possible. But, there are no short cuts. Just steady practice. And jamming.
I will close with a performance report from my good friend Marty, down near Raleigh, N.C. Although he started on banjo, he’s now veered off into guitar playing and singing.
I know you are always dying to hear of my progress. [Smiley face.] I was most of the music in my church today. I guess Presbyterians can be open minded. I sang Higher Ground with a Carter-style guitar break and Julie [Elkins] did a banjo break. Cheryl [Marty’s wife] played bass. Then, Julie did Footprints as a solo (no sense in me ruining a great song), then I sang Help Is On The Way (I think that might be my best song), then I'll Fly Away with the congregation joining in on the chorus, and then finally I Saw The Light. That is a lot of singing for me to have to do in a crowd. No one threw a shoe at me. There was a lot of applause, not so common in a Presbyterian Church. After all, we are the frozen chosen. Many thanked me for the music and a lot wanted to do it again. I sang mostly in B, C and D. You will notice how much of the music was Murphy Method standards. Your influence extends to the far flung reaches of Cameron, NC.
Thank you, Marty! I love the phrase “frozen chosen”! All the churches the Jammers have played for have been Presbyterian, and we have always found ourselves welcome. Of course, they do love Dan, the banjo-picking preacher man, who just wrote HIS first song: Does It Look Like Love To Jesus. He will debut it in Jam this week. Pray for him!
We still have a few opening in our Intermediate Camp, March 24-26. We welcome “newbie” Intermediates and well as mid-level and advanced Intermediates. (See our list of Prerequisites here.) Our motto is “less talk, more playing.” We will “work your fingers to the bone.” But instead of getting just “bony fingers” you will get an idea of how to stay on that “road less traveled” and become the banjo player you’ve always wanted to be.
Thursday, March 16, 2017 @6:46:05 AM
Murphy Method closet picker here, but, you make want to find or start a jam.
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'Nechville Atlas 12"' 12 min