Keep Your Eye on the Melody

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

I’ve had a couple little students jams in the last month. After each jam I resolve to hold jams more often, but somehow I never do. This time, though, I really mean it. (Ha! How often has that been said?) Part of the problem is that at the moment I don’t have a group of students who are at the same level. I do, however, have two who are roughly compatible level-wise, and it only takes two people to have a jam, so I decided to go with it.

Ginny (the one who is now flatpicking the banjo) and Jean have enough material in common that we can jam for a good hour. Last night was an all-instrumental jam because my lingering cold prevents me from singing. We didn’t avoid the singing songs (Two Dollar Bill, Worried Man, Mountain Dew), we just played them as instrumentals.

I had a small revelation last night while I was watching them trade breaks back and forth. I’ve been thinking a lot about backup lately because I’m getting ready to film a new DVD teaching backup. Students are often impatient to learn backup because they find vamping boring. What I realized last night was that when someone else is taking a break, you shouldn’t be paying attention to your own vamping — that should just happen by rote (i.e. you should know the chords so well that you don’t have to think about them). You should be paying attention to, and watching, what the lead player is doing. The only reason students get bored vamping is that that’s all they’re thinking about. If you’re bored, then you’re not doing the right thing.

To use a sports metaphor (which I hardly ever do, but this one seems particularly appropriate): keep your eye on the ball. Keep your eye on the melody.

When I was in eighth grade, I played basketball for our middle school team. One particular game sticks in my memory. I played forward; I was never much of a ball handler. We were down at our end of the court, trying to score. One of my teammates had the ball and I was between her and the basket. She was dribbling, dribbling, then she shot. The moment the ball left her hand I turned and looked toward the basket, hoping for the rebound. Unfortunately, her shot was considerably short and instead of hitting the basket, it hit me in the head. Yes. Hit me in the head. Why? Because I took my eye off the ball.

If you’re playing lead, you’ve got the ball. If you are vamping, you should always be looking at the person with the lead, ready to take it at a second’s notice, or with no notice. When you hand off the lead, you need to follow it to its destination (the other player) and make sure it gets there. Once it’s there, what do you do? Keep watching! You don’t want it to come back and hit you in the head.

3 thoughts on “Keep Your Eye on the Melody

  1. Steve (in Japan)

    The backup DVD you’re planning to film will be a big hit. I for one am anxiously waiting for its completion and ready to order it asap! Thanks for the good news.


  2. Martin Bacon

    This is a really good post. For me what your are wanting to happen is as hard as learning to vamp reliably on the offbeat and I bet only comes with playing a lot with other people. Wish I could do more and more of that. Thanks for the Slow Jam DVD. It is the next best thing.

  3. Dennis

    I’m also looking forward to the backup DVD! I’ll even send my payment for a “pre-order” today if that will help get it sooner. 🙂

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