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Those Pesky Prerequisites: I Love 'Em! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Thursday, April 12, 2018

Our latest Intermediate Banjo Camp has “come and gone now,” as Carter Stanley sang and, as I told the campers, it was one of our best camps ever. “Why was that?” I wondered. Then it dawned on me. Every one of the campers had learned the prerequisites!

It may strike you as odd that a banjo camp would have prerequisites. We started requiring some prep work from our campers a few years ago when we realized that we needed a common foundation to work from. If no one knows the same songs, then we’ve got a problem. If ten students know Cripple Creek but one doesn’t, then we also have a problem, unless we’ve made Cripple Creek a requirement and then the onus is on the student! Still and yet, we didn’t want to make the requirements too stringent lest students become intimidated and decide not to come to camp.

So for Beginning Camp we settled on Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, and the low break to Boil Them Cabbage Down. We also asked the students to be able to make the G, C, and D vamp chords in the F position. We did not ask them to know the vamp patterns. For the Hermiones in the group (surely that requires no explanation) we suggested the high break to Boil Them Cabbage plus the vamping to all three songs. We posted these prereqs on our website.

The first year, however, we still had a few students who showed up completely unprepared. Their comments were, “We didn’t know you meant it.” And “I didn’t see this. Can you make the type bigger?” So for a while we added: “WE MEAN IT!”

With this foundation in place we could now work on playing the songs together then trading breaks and vamping. This is what beginning players really need—they need to PLAY in a group. That’s what they can’t get on their own. Even playing along with our Slow Jam DVD, while helpful, cannot create the gut-clenching fear of playing with other people. Nor can a DVD provide the distracting sounds of other instruments in a jam. Yet, these are the things you have to cope with as you strive to become the Best Banjo Player You Can Be.

The prereqs worked so well at our Beginning Camps that we starting requiring them for the Intermediate Camp. At this next level up, we asked the students to know all three songs from the Beginner’s list plus I Saw The Light or Foggy Mountain Breakdown and the “roly poly” breaks to Blue Ridge Cabin Home and Bury Me Beneath The Willow. They also had to be able to vamp to all these tunes. (Or at least fake it!) Furthermore, they had to be able to capo in A and C and play and vamp the songs there.

I thought that was a lot to ask but this year’s Intermediate students came through with flying colors. And when I asked them about the prereqs, most of them said they LIKED having a goal to concentrate on before camp, that it helped them focus.

This foundation gave us six songs that everyone could play together. That’s somewhat unheard of in my teaching experience. So we spent a lot of time playing these, first as a group, and then trading breaks and vamping. Then we played the songs in A and in C.

Knowing the students had these skills also gave us the opportunity to venture “on beyond C” (I still like “on beyond Cebra!) and work on playing in “open C” without a capo. This concept is not just navel-gazing on my part. As more advanced students venture out into jams, they encounter folks singing in D and E and of course they want to play breaks. No banjo player worth her salt wants to vamp quietly while everyone else gets a chance in the limelight! (Whoops! Did I give away too much personal information?)

And while we all know that some of the most amazing banjo players have capoed up that high to play (Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Eddie Adcock) you lose a lot of sound capoed up that high. It also takes a lot of time to capo there and most jams will not wait while you tweak the tuning, which is always necessary. Furthermore, some capos won’t fit on the neck at the 7 th and 9 th frets, and most banjos don’t have spikes at 7 and 9. What do you do then, dear?

The solution: You learn to play out of open C position and then you can capo up only 2 frets for D and 4 frets for E. It’s still a pain and you do have to learn a different way of thinking about your rolls, but we’ve found a way to make it much, much easier. (New DVD now available: Key of C & Beyond: Improvising in C &D, taught by the magnificent Casey Henry!) So we learned simple breaks in open C to Blue Ridge Cabin Home and Bury Me Beneath The Willow. Then we put the capo on at the second fret and played them in D. After that we did some easy “upgrades” (the Doug Dillard walkdown was one) which instantly kick your playing into the “oh my gosh how did she do that” level.

These students had done their homework so they DID have the foundation, and they DID learn to play these breaks. And that is what made it such an extraordinary camp. We were all on the same page.

The icing on the cake was getting so many nice thank-you notes from the students after the camp. I will share the one I can get my hands on right this minute. It was an actual card.

Murphy and Casey,

Many, many thanks for all you’ve done! Many thanks for helping make playing the banjo FUN again. Your quiet, firm hands and hearts are excellent anchors in this learning journey. I’m so glad I found you.

Our upcoming camps include our Women’s Camp July 27-29, our Beginning Camp October 26-28, and our next Intermediate Camp in March 2019. If you want the comfort of coming to a camp that has prerequisites so you know what to expect, come ahead on! We’d be so happy to have you.

1 comment on “Those Pesky Prerequisites: I Love 'Em! By Murphy Henry”

eapogue Says:
Thursday, April 26, 2018 @7:23:57 AM

Thanks, Murphy and Casey. This recap was more than that - picked up a few more tips about playing in other keys. Appreciate you!

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