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Banjo Lessons

Posted by TedLehmann on Thursday, December 7, 2006

I’ve been studying with Bruce Stockwell for about 18 months and think I’m making real progress.  The only trouble is that the more I learn the more there is to learn and the harder it gets.  I want to try to trace the history of these lessons and my progress as they may prove to be useful in some way.  I first became aware of Bruce in 2005, when he won the Merlefest banjo contest.  Hearing that he was from Putney, VT, I decided to give him a call to discover if he taught.  When I asked him how much he charged, he told me $25.00 per lesson, and I arranged to meet with him at his home for the first lesson.

 Bruce is a small, wiry balding man in his late forties whose entire life appears to have been devoted to making music and whose passion has been the banjo since he was quite young.  While for many years he subsisted by playing rock guitar, he now is fully engaged in the banjo.  At my first lesson, I brought along the material I had been studying for the past year or so.  I particularly had been working with Tony Trischka’s “Essential Practice Exercises for the Banjo.”  Bruce took one look at these materials and sniffed, “Earl Scruggs never put his index finger there,” thus establishing the parameters and the nature of our relationship.  I was to learn to pick in Scruggs style in order to achieve a level of mastery that would allow me to branch out into other ways to approach the banjo.  As I’ve moved along, it has become increasingly clear to me that, in most ways, this was a good way to go.  I bought a copy of Bruce’s book and CD and tried to schedule lessons often enough so I would have goals for the next lesson.  I also discovered that a lesson with Bruce means putting aside about two to two and a half hours for work with him.  As the time drew to a close, I pulled out fifty dollars to pay for my two plus hours.  “Oh, no,” says Bruce, “I said $25.00 a lesson.”  Wow!

 Over the last eighteen months I’ve developed a pretty solid grasp of the roles, am beginning to understand the way that chord forms related to the fret board to permit work up and down the neck, and practiced a series of songs, each of which is arranged to allow practicing a particular role and then later a series of inter-related linked roles.  Bruce has emphasized listening and learning by ear as well as working on playing backup to both singing and instrumentals along with learning breaks.  Recently, I’ve begun to try developing my own breaks for songs and Bruce has helped me take my rudimentary efforts and make them into real breaks by altering the roles to fit the melody, adding pinches, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, i.e. turning them into real banjo playing.  Each time I finish a lesson, I have plenty to work on until the next time we meet. 

Finally, the real pleasure of working with Bruce has been his patience in helping me to develop as a player in a direction that makes sense.  Here I am, sixty-five years old with a tin ear and no sense of timing.  And yet each time I walk into his house, I feel welcome and know I’m going to be challenged to get better.  <

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