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I’m sure you all have heard by now of the passing of the great banjo player
Sonny Osborne. As a tribute to Sonny, I’m writing an article for Bluegrass
Unlimited magazine based on Sonny’s Banjo Newsletter column. It was
called “Keep on The Sonny Side,” and every month Sonny answered
questions that readers would send in.

So…… that gave me the idea that I could follow in his footsteps and do the
same thing. So we’re gonna give this a try. And since “Keep On The Murphy
Side” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, we’re just gonna call it, “Ask
Murphy.”

If you have a question you want to ask me, email it to
themurphymethod@gmail.com. If you do NOT want me to use your
name in my answer, please say so, otherwise I will assume that it’s okay.

Sonny said in his first column, “Any questions you would will ask, I’ll try to
answer.” I’m not sure I can be that bold, but I will try to answer any
questions relating to learning by ear, banjos, bluegrass, jam sessions, and
my book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. Looking forward
to hearing from you!

Also: I still have room for a few more students. Either online (Zoom or Skype) or in person. Email me at murphybanjo@gmail.com  or text 540-533-9685. Beginners most welcome. I also teach guitar and beginning mandolin.

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Seven people standing on stage playing fiddles, and one person playing guitar

Murphy (in the pink plaid shirt) playing fiddle with the Advanced Fiddle Class

Well, it’s been years since I blogged [Editor's note: it has actually been one year, four months, and ten days.] but since I just spend 5 days being a fiddle student at the Augusta Heritage October Old-Time Retreat in Elkins, W.Va., I thought I’d relive the experience by telling you about it. It was such a reversal, me being a student instead of a teacher. And on an instrument with which I have had such a tempestuous on-off relationship for decades.

Three of my banjo students were also going to go, but two of them couldn’t make it, so it was just me and Dano, who was going to take the vocal class.

I signed up for the Advanced Fiddle Class, not because I feel like I’m an advanced fiddler (I still call myself a hacker) but because I figured that, as a professional musician, at least I’d be able to keep up. However, I found myself hanging on by my fingernails! It was an odd feeling to be the slowest student in the group. (Although I’ll confess, I had already had that humbling experience when I started doing yoga 5 years ago.)

It was a small class, just 6 students, most of us over 60. On the first day, our teacher, the twenty-something Tessa Dillion (who is a fabulous fiddler), played 4 tunes for us (all very fast!) and said this is what we’d be learning during the 4-day camp. Yikes! Three of them I’d never heard, and the fourth, “Salt River” (known in bluegrass as “Salt Creek,”) didn’t sound anything like the version I teach. In fact, having the banjo version in my head actually made it harder to learn.

Luckily, Tessa was teaching by ear (yay!) and she broke down the tunes into small phrases and she played them slow and she even told us where to put our fingers. But, dang, even the names for the fingers were confusing! I use the words index, middle, and ring and she used the words first, second, third. So, when she said “third finger,” I had trouble making my ring finger move. By the time I figured out what my third finger was and got it in place, she had already moved on to another note!

Of course, if I really got lost, I had no trouble asking her to go over the phrase again, because that’s what I want my students to do. Tessa always did it willingly and graciously and slowly. I was, however, the only student who ever asked her to explain something again. After class she told me she was glad I spoke up. She said there were probably other students who needed to go over it again, too. That made me feel good.

So, in two hours of instruction I learned the whole of “Wilson’s Hornpipe.” I use the term “learned” loosely. Fortunately, at the end of class, Tessa played the whole tune slowly for us to record on our phones. And it was a good thing she did because, when I got up the next morning to review the tune before class, I had completely forgotten it! So there I am, standing in my room in my pajamas, ear buds in, listening to the tune and trying to pluck out the notes on the fiddle without using the bow because it’s 6:30 am and I don’t want to disturb anyone. It was slow going. I did have some muscle memory from all the reps in class, but there were many notes that I was still having to guess at. And that drove me crazy!

By 9:30, we were back in class, playing the tune together slowly. That helped. I was beginning to get a tiny feel for it. But now, it was time to learn another one! “Salt River”! The next day, we learned yet another whose name escapes me right now. And each day my brain was tireder and foggier because Dano and I had found a little spot where we could play some bluegrass (him on banjo and me on guitar) and we stayed up till about 11 every night jamming. A few students and even a couple of instructors slithered over to the dark side and joined us, and several folks stopped by to listen. The camp coordinator actually gave us a plug one morning and referred to that spot as the “Bluegrass Alcove”!

I kept practicing the fiddle tunes in my room, even using the bow after I figured everyone was awake. And it would be a great end to this story to have me say that I finally learned the tunes and could play them well. But the truth is, by Sunday morning, when each class went on stage to showcase a tune that they’d learned, I was still struggling to remember all the notes in the first tune, which is the one we were going to play. Sometimes I had them, and sometimes I didn’t. And I absolutely could not play it fast.

Still, I got on stage with my classmates, and with Tessa on guitar, I gave it my best shot. The thing that saved me was my joy of being on stage and my ability to keep going when I made a mistake. The strongest fiddlers pulled us through and we sounded fine.

It’s going to take a lot more woodshedding for me to be able to play those tunes! We’ll see if I make the time to practice them. If I don’t, well, I did play a lot of fiddle in the class and think I’m a better fiddler for that. And for now, that’s enough.

I don’t remember who sent me this photo of Janet Davis and me, but
apparently this was (or is?) an exhibit at the American Banjo Museum in
Oklahoma City, Okla. I knew nothing about it! I am honored, however, to
have been featured. If anyone knows anything about this, please let us
know! The museum includes banjos of all types, not just the five-string.
Here’s the link to their site: https://americanbanjomuseum.com/

By Red Henry

Ever since we founded the Murphy Method in 1982, one thing we’ve been proud of has been customer loyalty. Many, many of our Murphy Method students keep ordering lessons year after year, and we appreciate all that repeat business.

Some customers may take off several years, and then come back and order again. It often happens that people take off four or five years in their lessons before resuming them. Sometimes it is a ten-year gap. One day a man called who had ordered some audiocassettes fifteen years before, saying that one of them had gone bad. Fortunately it was still in print, and he was amazed when we replaced it for free.

But we recently had a record-breaker:

A customer in New England ordered some of our audiocassette series in 1989 and 1990. After that we did not hear from him until last month, when he called and ordered a DVD. That was an astounding gap of THIRTY YEARS between orders! But when he called us, of course we were glad to do business again.

Don’t wait 30 years yourself! Order any time. Murphy Method DVDs are waiting for you!

I thought I’d add a word or two here to Casey’s always-excellent newsletter, just to let you know how we’re faring at Murphy Method headquarters (aka Our House) during this stay-at-home time.

I’m missing my Tip Jar Jam! I miss hearing David sing In The Pines with the “woo woos” at the end, just like Bill Monroe done it. 😉 I miss singing Where The Soul Of A Woman Never Dies with Kathy. I even miss hearing Banjo In The Hollow!

Both Casey and I were bummed to have to cancel our Intermediate Camp this month. We had so much fun stuff planned: Geoff Stelling, The Fly Birds, Karaoke, Gregg and Chuck’s band (back by popular demand!), food from Bonnie Blue, a singing workshop with David McLaughlin, jamming, Murphy and Casey’s Sunday Morning Gospel Show. We still have our fingers crossed for our July Women’s Camp, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Like many of you, I am mourning the loss of John Prine. The Tip Jar Jammers are already planning a John Prine Night when we get back together. We were already occasionally doing Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, Souvenirs, Spanish Pipedream (aka Blow Up Your TV), and Paradise. Now some of the Jammers, having time on their hands, are learning other Prine songs so we can celebrate his life.

On the non-musical front, Red and I killed quite a few hours re-watching all the Harry Potter movies and now I’m rereading all the books. Just finished Goblet of Fire this morning. Now my TV time is taken up with the new season of Dr. Who, which I am somewhat ambivalent about.

I’m also trying to keep focused on the biography of Maybelle Carter I started writing in January. But, I’ll admit, it’s hard to find the energy. So, I try to be kind to myself and just do what I can do.

Also, like many of you, I’m getting really good at using the Zoom app! I’ve found the “mute button” and the “gallery view”! I use Zoom to take online yoga, which I love. Now if the poses are too hard (Firefly? Plow? Shoulder Stand?), I can revert to Child’s Pose and nobody can see me! I’m also trying to walk almost every day, which is easier now that it’s warmer. I’ve discovered listening to Podcasts on my phone with earbuds makes me more likely to get out the door, so I feel very “with it,” being able to do all these complicated techy things. Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Iris Dement and I remembered how much I love her music. Might have to download her latest album, IDK.

Since Red and I are some of the “olds” (a term my niece came up with and I have embraced), we are being extry careful about going out and when we have to go out, we wear our masks and carry hand sanitizer. And when we come back in, we wash our hands like crazy. Thankfully, we are able to limit our trips to town because my former banjo and guitar student turned singer/songwriter Kasey Smelser is doing our grocery shopping. She leaves them on the front porch and then we visit from six feet away! Thank you, Kasey!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go online and order a T-shirt that says, “May Birthday 2020. The one when we were quarantined.”

And then it’s time to Maybelle. I hope. Well, maybe after lunch. Or after my nap…

Stay safe, y’all.

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout. This is the third installment in The Adventures of Peg and Jill. If you need to catch up here are part 1 and part 2.

Peg tripped lightly up the steps to Jill’s teaching place, banjo in hand. She was feeling good about her practice this week. She hadn’t been able to play two hours every day as she had planned because of her “damn job” but she was excited about learning the first song on the DVD. She knew Jill would be pleased with her.

She was early so she sat down to wait in the adjoining room. She frowned when she noticed the velvet picture of Jesus praying on a hillside hanging on the wall. “I didn’t know Jill was religious,” she thought. “Not with that empty Stroh’s can sitting on the mantle. Who drinks Stroh’s?”

Settling down on the couch, she recognized the voice of Bob, the student she’d met last week, talking to Jill about something in the teaching room.   ...continue reading

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Thanks for all the favorable comments on my story, “The First Banjo Lesson.” I’m glad so many of you could relate to it. As you know, learning to play the banjo, especially as an adult, is no easy task. Here, in this second installment, we follow Peg as she continues her banjo lessons with her teacher Jill. Comments welcome.

The Further Adventures of Peg and Jill: Banjo Lesson #2

Slowly Peg walked up the steps of the old house where she took her banjo lessons. She had not had a good week of practice and she was afraid Jill was going to yell at her.

She didn’t feel any better when she heard Jill saying to the student in front of her, “Dammit, Bob, you missed that C chord again. How long have we been working on this?”

“I just can’t hear it,” came the reply. “There’s no damn melody.”

“I don’t care if there isn’t any damn melody. Memorize the damn pattern. Come on in Peg. We’re done.”

Peg cautiously entered the room to see a man with a thick head of grey hair putting his guitar in the case.

“Peg, this is Bob. Bob, Peg,” said Jill, getting up out of her chair. “Go ahead and sit down, Peg, and get your banjo out. I’ll be right back.” ...continue reading

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Preface

I've been teaching banjo for over forty years and based on what I’ve seen most students go through many of the same experiences when they first encounter The Murphy Method. They walk away from that first lesson believing that they are the only ones who have trouble remembering things, or that they are the only ones who question my way of teaching. In the following story, I decided to get creative and explore the inside of a student's brain. Let me know what you think. There could be more….

The First Banjo Lesson

Peg was sixty years old and had never played an instrument before. Now she found herself sitting in a large, funky-decorated room, awkwardly holding her new banjo and facing Jill, a woman she’d only talked to on the phone.

From the woman’s short grey hair, Peg guessed they were about the same age. As she looked at Jill across the small space between them, Peg’s stomach churned with fear. Why in God’s name had she thought she should learn to play the banjo?

She was startled to hear Jill say, “What made you want to learn to play the banjo?”

How could she explain the thrill she had felt when she first heard a banjo at Girl Scout camp? There were always plenty of guitars around but one year an older camper had brought a banjo. Peg was smitten with the girl—her first and only girl crush—and the banjo. The crush had faded after camp but her fascination with the banjo had remained. Why had it taken her almost forty years to gather up the courage to try to play it? Life, thought Peg. Life got in the way.

“I’ve always liked the sound,” she said. That was lame but it seemed to satisfy Jill who said, “Oh, okay. Do you have any picks?” ...continue reading

The release of the new Murphy Method HD-DVDs prompted the following conversation between Sweet Murphy and Grouchy Murphy:

Sweet Murphy to Grouchy Murphy: Aren’t you excited about the new DVDs? In HD? They look great!

Grouchy Murphy: Hell, no. Do you honestly think I can get excited about teaching all these songs again, on camera? At my age? The first time I taught ‘em my hair was still brown.

new beginning banjo 1Sweet Murphy: But your white hair looks so……so, uh…..so fetching! That’s how it looks! Fetching!

Grouchy Murphy: Bite me. One thing I was happy about was moving Foggy Mountain Breakdown to Volume 2. Why I EVER thought Foggy Mountain Breakdown was a tune for a beginner I’ll never know.

Sweet Murphy: Well, you were young at the time and all excited about this new way of teaching. And everybody wants to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Grouchy Murphy: Well, now they’ll just have to wait till they have a little more experience, won’t they? They won’t get it till Volume 2.

Sweet M: You do know that they don’t have to wait, don’t you? That they can actually learn the songs in any order they choose?

Grouchy M: DON’T SAY THAT! I HATE THAT! They are supposed to learn the songs in the order I teach them on the DVDs.

Sweet M: Calm down! You do realize that you can’t control everything. You’ve done your job. You presented the songs in the best way possible. Now, let it go.

Grouchy M: But it will be so much easier for them if they just do what I tell them.

Sweet M: Why you old softie! You do care!

Grouchy M: Of course I care. Did you ever doubt it?

Sweet M: Well, yes. It wasn’t looking real good a few sentences ago.

new beginning banjo 2Grouchy M: It just makes me mad that I’ve figured out this way for people to actually learn to play the banjo. Yet, they can’t even stick to the simple program of learning the damn songs in order. Why are you laughing?

Sweet M (still chuckling): I’m sorry but you know we were raised Baptist and the picture of Jesus chewing out his disciples for not being able to watch with him for just ONE HOUR popped into my mind. Not that I think you’re Jesus…

Grouchy M: Very funny. Like you’re some saint.

Sweet M: Well, it just doesn’t upset me when people act like people. Of course they think they know better than you. You’re just the teacher. OMG, remember that time, at banjo camp? When this guy came up to you? After the faculty concert? And said he was surprised to see that you could play so well?

Grouchy M: OMG yeah! That was weird. What did I say to him?

Sweet M: Oh, I remember. You were in your best grouchy mood. Probably hadn’t had much sleep. You said, “Now, why would you think that?” He said, “Because we only get to hear you play slow on the DVDs.”

Grouchy M: Just shoot me. Do you think he would have said that to any of the guy teachers? Tony Trischka?

Sweet M: Don’t get started on that. I might have to join you. But back to the new DVDs. We’re supposed to be celebrating their release. I know you swore you’d never re-record these, and here they are, re-recorded. By you!

Grouchy M: Ha! I guess that old saying is right. “If you want to make God laugh, just tell Her your plans.” All I know is that it just came to me one day that I should do this. If you believe in Divine Intervention or a Guiding Light or Putting Your Hand In The Hand, this was it. So I done it.

new beginning banjo 3Sweet M: Stop talking that way. It’s silly. I like the way you worked in some of the new stuff you’ve been teaching, like the Roly Polys.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that worked out well. That IS one of my best new discoveries: how to teach improvising to beginners. I’m rather proud of that.

Sweet M: As you should be. And I like the way you pointed out the tricky spots in the songs. Those places where your local students have shown a remarkable tendency to screw up.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that will probably help some of the students. The ones who don’t write the damn stuff down. That really makes me mad. They are just shooting themselves in the foot.

Sweet M: Yeah and I know you wanted to say, “They’re just pulling a Gene Wooten.” But that wouldn’t be nice and besides Gene, bless his Dobro-picking heart, is gone.

Grouchy M: Well, thanks for saying it for me. Gene’s probably Up There Somewhere laughing his ass off. All I can say is, the ones who write the stuff down cannot play. It mostly makes me sad. I’m usually their last chance, for some reason, and they blow it.

Sweet M: Softie, softie! Are you turning into me? What’s that big word? The one we’ve been trying to remember? About how everything turns into its opposite?

Grouchy M: You’ve been watching way too much American Pie! You’re starting to talk like Band Camp Girl. I can’t remember that fracking word. Let me Google it.

Sweet M: And you’ve been watching way too much Battlestar Galactica.

Grouchy M: Got it. It’s “enantiodromia.” I can’t pronounce it.

Sweet M: Me neither. But it’s a cool idea.

Grouchy M: I don’t want to turn into you!

Sweet M: And I don’t want to turn into you! Hello! We are supposed to be talking about the New High Def DVDs.

Grouchy M: All I can say is that I’m glad it’s over. And I’m very happy they turned out so well. Some of my best work. Those are probably the last DVDs I will shoot. Turning it over to the Next Generation.

Sweet M: I did notice you said “probably.”

Grouchy M: Well, saying “never” didn’t work out too well, did it?

Sweet M: Got any parting words? You know folks don’t read long blogs like they used to.

Grouchy M: I am glad we included the vamping to all the songs. Glad Christopher was around to help us out. He definitely raised the glamor factor.

Sweet M: He’s also a rather good picker. And singer. He was playing with Peter Rowan at Merlefest this past weekend, wasn’t he?

Grouchy M: Oh, yeah. He’s walking in High Cotton.

Sweet M: What the heck does that even mean?

Grouchy M: I guess if the cotton is high, that means you’ve got a good crop. You know our Granddaddy was a cotton farmer, don’t you?

Sweet M: Yes, I know that. Focus, please. DVDs. Tell them about the counting off.

Grouchy M: Oh, alright! I counted off each song so the students can hear better what beat to come in on.

Sweet M: And THAT is a convoluted sentence.

Grouchy M: Oh, shut up! It’s hard to talk about that crap. That’s why I teach BY EAR. I counted the songs off. The End. (Stephen King ref.) It never occurred to me to count off before. It seemed too “hoity toity.” And I’m a terrible counter. Just ask Casey. Or Chris. I thought the students could hear what I was hearing in my head. My bad! All better now.

Sweet M: Thank you. And now go do something that makes you less grouchy. I don’t know what that would be.

Grouchy M: I do. I’m going back to my other writing. I’m digging into my college history and writing about that. That’s when I found bluegrass. Or, it found me.

Sweet M: You make it sound like it was a religious experience.

Grouchy M: I guess it was. It changed my life. I didn’t get the Name Change though. Guess I’m no Saul of Tarsus….

Sweet M: We are so out of here. Thanks for reading this far. And there you have it!

Grouchy M: Hey, that is MY line….

Sweet M: Go, go. We’re done. Buy the DVDs. Selah.

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.

Last week, we undertook one of the biggest projects in our business lives and re-recorded our Murphy Method Beginning Banjo DVDs in high definition (HD), with amazing sound. I never thought I would be doing those again in this lifetime! This makes the third time Red and I have recorded these tunes, starting with our first cassette series in 1982.

One of the reasons I wanted to reshoot these lessons was to put the songs into the order than Casey and I now use in our teaching. Over the years, we have both learned how to teach more effectively and our current “best order” is what you see on these three DVDs.

Our “team” this time included not only Red and me but our son Christopher who played guitar, sang, and helped with the sound. The fourth member of the team was sixteen-year-old Kasey Smelser, my banjo/guitar/singing student, who also proved to have great skills with wardrobe and makeup. When I first taught these lessons I recorded them in our house in Florida wearing only two things: corduroy cut-offs and a tank top. When you first saw me, on our videos, I did buy a new turquoise shirt but other than that, nada. But now, being well into the “autumn” of my life, I realized I needed help. What goes good with grey hair? Kasey figured it out. She also did my makeup. And when her school duties called and she couldn’t be there to apply the “paint and powder,” Christopher stepped up to the plate and did my makeup! Is that teamwork or what? Bill Belichick would have been proud!

I was not familiar with the phrase “Teamwork Makes The Dream Work” until Christopher used it during the shooting. One of his jobs was being on the lookout for Mistakes Mama Makes. So, in the middle of Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I heard, “Excuse me, Mom, I think you forgot to mention the pinch at the end of that C lick. You played it but you didn’t explain it.” After using a few choice expletives (which my mama would have whipped me for!), I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you, Chris. I’ll add a little clip talking about that pinch. Thanks for noticing.” To which he replied, “Teamwork makes the dream work!” I loved the phrase, and asked him if he had just made it up, and he said no. (I later Googled it to find out that the phrase comes from leadership expert John C. Maxwell.) So, thanks to our whole team for a great week of shooting DVDs!

So what’s different about the lessons this time? What improvements have we actually made? ...continue reading