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This review is intended for people who are interested in attending a Dwight Diller banjo camp at his Brown’s Creek training facility and home in West Virginia. The observations and perspective derive from my attendance at a camp in 2012. I am an experienced musician and attended the camp to learn Diller’s style, a style I consider more soulful than most contemporary banjo players.
Diller’s property consists of two acres along Brown’s Creek near the tiny hamlet of Huntersville, WV. It sits between two hills and backs up to Seneca State Forest. The nearest town of any size is Marlinton. The training facility is about the size of a double-wide mobile home, with six bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a open kitchen-dining-living area. The bedrooms are small but comfortable. Each is about 6x9 feet, with a single bed, chair, closet and small dresser. There is no cell phone service, but internet Wi-Fi is available. Perspective students should consider their stay a monastic banjo experience, not a vacation.
Dwight Diller is not the primary teacher at a Diller banjo camp. Bob Sattler, a 10-year student of Dwight’s, comes in and handles the basic instruction. “Baldy Bob”, as he is known, is considerably more affable and even-tempered than Diller, and the students with whom I shared time highly valued their interactions with him. Diller’s role is slip in and out to give perspective, offer demonstrations, play tunes, and tell stories as he feels necessary.
Every morning students get their own breakfast from a raft of cereal choices. Baldy Bob is always up early making coffee. A group class usually follows at around 8:30 or 9:00 am. The group breaks for lunch around noon or whenever they feel the time is right. Lunch meats and bread are available along with potato salad and cole slaw. Afternoons generally consist of practice, either as individuals or in small groups. Full dinners are provided, and everyone sits family style around a large table. Volunteers pitch in to wash up afterwards.
Evenings are spent listening to Dwight. While I was there, one evening involved him playing fiddle. Another had him showing YouTube videos of blues players, like Son House and John Lee Hooker. Another involved showing videos he had produced of the Hammons family, from whom his music derives. Yet another involved showing a movie (“The Fifth String”) in which he starred and a friend produced. We discussed all manner of West Virginia traditions, from the importance of someone’s personal hat and knife to his time with the Hammons clan.
As far as banjo is concerned, the Diller method consists of four steps: 1) moving the body in a specific way to express rhythm; 2) using resultant arm and hand movements to strike the strings; 3) fingering the fret board to sound notes coordinated with those string strikes; and 4) playing organized notes in the form of tunes. There is no shortcutting this progression.
Step 1 consists of sitting in a metal folding chair and moving your body in a way that ultimately gets your arm oscillating when held in the playing position. It is fundamentally important to understand that the intent is not to move your body to the music the way you do when you dance. The situation here is exactly the opposite – you move your body to create the music. If you read the last phrase 100 times, you’ll still underestimate its importance in Diller’s mind. You can’t fake it.
Step 2 involves holding the banjo against your body and on your right thigh with the neck nearly horizontal. The right forearm crosses the banjo head nearly parallel to the strings. The playing motion consists of moving your body to generate an oscillating arm which forces the hand over the strings in a whipping motion. Diller believes that no muscles are involved, and that the movement of your body and the weight of your hand are all that are needed to strike the strings.
As time goes on, attention will progress to focusing on the movement of the thumb. In Diller’s mind the way the thumb strikes and rolls off the fifth string is the most important technical aspect of his playing. This thumb movement is so important that Diller’s banjos are specifically setup to accommodate it, with strings higher above the drumhead than normal.
These motions will be practiced extensively while holding the banjo on your thigh and muting the strings. Attention will be focused on the specific “BOOM-a-lack-a” rhythm he wants to result.
Step 3 involves fingering the fret board to sound notes in coordination with the right hand. Diller considers this a “dance”, with the left hand moving in a coordinated fashion with the right. Because he does not espouse drop-thumb technique, the left hand fingers a lot of often-complex hammer-ons and pull-offs to catch the notes otherwise played by drop thumb.
Step 4 involves playing a tune. In Diller’s mind, tunes are simply notes organized to emphasize the rhythm, and he feels that they are the least important aspect of learning the banjo. One never loses focus on the right hand, and the student is told to avoid distraction by never looking at the fret board.
From personal experience I can say that no amount of prior banjo experience prepares you for the ponderous pace thru the training steps. The body movements, in particular, are described and demonstrated over and over and over. But, correct body movement and thumb position are totally central to Diller’s understanding of how to play the banjo, and he will not allow you to progress without mastering them.
Personally, I feel that Diller’s insistence on specific body movement stalls an otherwise useful learning experience. Beginning students might expect to leave a five-day camp learning how to play one tune, though some leave learning none. I personally witnessed two students who never moved past Step 2. They played “BOOM-a-lack-a” rhythm over muted strings for five days.
For all of his desire to avoid working with experienced students, I don’t recommend this training for a beginner. While I think this is an interesting way of introducing the instrument, Diller’s aggressively laborious teaching method and often wrong-headed personal style short-change the benefits. He grinds the topic of rhythm into the ground to a point that I found disheartening and counter-productive. He also delves into topics like “playing cultural references” to which beginners couldn’t possibly relate.
Frankly, I think Diller’s best student not a beginner at all, but someone who has considerable clawhammer experience and is willing to enter the training with a beginner’s mindset. For such a player, this banjo camp could be transformative. Imagine that you know nothing. Forget your previous experience entirely and spend a week learning something new. Don’t try to incorporate it into your existing technique while you’re on site, or Diller will deliberately stall your progress. Just give into the training while you’re there and integrate it into your existing technique when you get back home.
Fortunately, sufficient material exists to continue learning after camp. His DVDs are quite good, and his tab book is clear and extensive. Diller’s tab is not particularly difficult; it’s easily accessible to an intermediate player. What is difficult is incorporating melody into Diller’s percussive style to create a pulsating rhythm. But, only someone familiar with his tunes could possibly appreciate the task. Since beginners rarely get to the point of playing tunes while at camp, they rarely get to a point where they can appreciate the rhythmic challenge.
I recommend that prospective students buy and study Diller’s “Just Rhythm DVD before attending camp. It is available for $20 by emailing email@example.com and can be paid for via PayPal.
Finally, there are aspects of Diller’s personal style that prospective students should know before signing up for one of his camps. My views on this topic can be obtained by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overall Rating: 6
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