Jam Report April 15, 2009

Murphy HenryWe had four people in the jam tonight. The mostly ever-faithful Bob on bass, Mark and Susan on banjos, and Ellen on guitar.
Our song list was as follows:

Cripple Creek
Banjo in the Hollow
I Saw the Light (Bob singing, me harmonizing)
Old Joe Clark (in G this week; no fiddlers!)
Blue Ridge Cabin Home (Bob singing, me harmonizing)
Salt Creek
Foggy Mountain Breakdown

If the list seems short for an hour’s jam, it’s because we got a little bogged down in “Old Joe Clark.” That song often gives banjo students fits when they try to come in off the vamp. The first notes of the break (hammer to second string and then open first) sound like they are the downbeat but they are not. They are the pickup notes. The downbeat is actually the fifth string. And none of this makes much sense on paper, or in a Blog. You just have to experience it. Which is what Mark and Susan were doing big time tonight.

And I hasten to point out that they each play “Old Joe Clark”  extremely well at their individual lessons--even when we are trading breaks on banjos. But there is something about a jam session that reveals the weak places in a break. That's why jams are so valuable! I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me. I practice and practice something (usually on fiddle now) and think I’ve got it, and then I take it to the jam and fall apart. It’s painful, but I know that jamming is where I will really learn to play the fiddle.

Now, I have to brag on Mark a little bit. At his lesson this week he started learning to improvise. To that tried and true improv number, “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” And, with basically no prompting, he came up with a GREAT BREAK! (Of course this wasn’t the first time he’d heard the song, which helped. He sorta knew the chords and melody from hearing it at Casey’s Banjo Camp last fall.) He based his break on the low break to “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” With tag licks. Never thought of that! And I’ve never seen another student do it that way. So, tonight, just one day after he figured out the break, I asked him to play it and he did—beautifully! I was so proud of him. He seemed to catch onto the whole concept of improvising, which is playing licks you already know against a chord progression. He said, with an amazed look on his face, “This means I could play almost any song if it had just G, C, and D in it.” I said, “Yeah, don’t tell anybody. I’d be out of a job!”

I will remind you that Mark has been playing less than a year. A key factor to his being able to improvise so early is that he has been jamming since November. Not every week, but probably once a month. And it also helps that his wife Ellen is learning to play guitar and they play together a lot. It makes a difference. You learn the songs at home, but jamming is where you really learn to play. What are you waiting for?