Thoughts on improvising are on hold yet again. I just got in from teaching and I am zoned out! I did pick up one tidbit from a student that I want to pass along. Mark has been taking lessons for a couple of months now and is doing well on the current BIG THREE for beginning banjo students: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down, low and high breaks. He is also going great guns on his vamping, which is something I try to introduce as early as possible now so that students will have the necessary tools to play in a jam session. (If you can vamp, you can jam!) Once he learned to make those awful four-finger chord shapes (OUCH!), he really put in the hours of practice. And one of the tools he was using was our new Slow Jam DVD. He’s been playing along with that a lot.
So we’re jamming today at the lesson, both on banjos, trading breaks. S-L-O-W-L-Y of course. Mark is doing great but he keeps having trouble with the chord changes in Cripple Creek. I am concerned. I ask him what he’s doing differently from what he does when he plays along with the Slow Jam DVD. He thinks a minute and then says, “I usually watch Casey’s hands making the guitar chords.” (On this DVD we have one of those little inserts, that little screen-within-a-screen, so you can always see the guitar chords that Casey is making.) [Editor's note: Through the magic of video editing, the hand in the box is actually Murphy's.]
Aha! I think. He’s not really listening to the chord changes, he’s just changing when he sees Casey change. He was thinking the same thing. “I think it’s becoming a crutch.” You’re darn tootin’! And furthermore, it seemed to me that he might actually be COUNTING the number of beats for each chord. (Always risky because what if you get lost? And you will get lost, you will!)
So of course I told him to stop counting and to START LISTENING! And because he really does have a good ear for the chord changes (he plays some guitar), when he started listening, he did much, much better. It wasn’t perfect, but he could tell when he missed the chord and the next time through was more likely to get it right.
The moral of this story? Don’t let watching the guitar player’s hand become a crutch for you. Even on a DVD! Use it to get your bearings, but then stop. And start using your ear. I don’t call it learning by ear for nothing! Listen, listen, listen. (See Mark, I warned you. Everything is now fodder for The Blog! Tell Ellen heads up! Next time I might talk about Beginning Guitar!)