Christopher’s Colorado College Workshop

Back in January I got a call, pretty much out of the blue, from the director of the bluegrass program at Colorado College, Keith Reed. I had met Keith at RockyGrass last year when I was teaching at the Academy and he mentioned that he wanted to get me up to Colorado Springs sometime to teach at the college. It sounded like a perfect opportunity to get out to Colorado Springs, see some mountains, meet and help some eager young bluegrass enthusiasts, and pick with Keith at the faculty concert.

I left a sunny and fairly warm Nashville and flew to Denver, and Keith scooped me up and we rode through snow dusted plains up to the campus to have a meal and meet with a couple of Keith's students. Keith, an excellent and solid Scruggs style player who had picked with Open Road for years, started teaching at the college about eight years ago and grew the program into a successful enterprise with about 20 students and three different ensembles.

That evening about 7 pm, we met about eight of Keith's students in one of the many music study rooms and I commenced a workshop for about an hour and a half. I've been teaching for about fifteen years, so I have done many workshops and private lessons, but it had been a while and my muscle memory for the experience was a little lethargic. But nevertheless, I set up my webcam to stream the workshop onto my Facebook page and plowed ahead. I figured it would be appropriate to give some background into my own influences and how I came to learn the music and play it the way I do. I always enjoy younger folks in workshops because frequently they have had heaping helpings of more contemporary bluegrass but haven't really studied the classics too much. At least one had heard of Frank Wakefield, so that was encouraging. Keith and I picked a couple of tunes - Bluegrass Breakdown and Farewell Blues.

I have been playing a lot in Nashville and so I really didn't think too much about it when I kicked off Bluegrass Breakdown at close to 180bpm. The students seemed entertained with the offering. There are many great styles of hardcore bluegrass mandolin, so I demonstrated, as best I could, tones of Red Henry, Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, David McLaughlin, and how my style was a mixture of those influences plus some innovations of my own like the circus-style ascending and descending blurs of mandolin motion (cheap licks as I like to call them), also integrating some unusual intervals that are more likely to be heard in eastern European, Klezmer, and Middle Eastern music.

Before long, one student asked me what I thought about Chris Thile. I expressed that beyond the obvious - his formidable technique, creativity, and overall contributions to the awareness of the mandolin in popular culture, he has an outstanding dedication to what he pursues, be it classical, or nuvo-grass, or the blend of pop and acoustic music in his most recent band. I also told them that he also provides me with a great contrast stylistically. If there were hundreds of young mandolin pickers who were all super deep in studying Monroe, then what I do would not be as unusual, so I appreciate that.

After dusting off two or three original mandolin tunes, I invited the students to pick, and we had two guitars, about four or five mandolin pickers, Keith on banjo, and a bass player. There was an excellent contingent of four young women, all very sharp and capable, with mandolins and so the gender balance was quite respectable. We started with a blues number which I figured was a good place to begin to get everyone improvising a little bit. At first go round, everyone played well, although with a couple of exceptions, fairly quietly. I like it when pickers really bear down and get good volume and projection out of their instruments. So, on the second round I asked them to all play as loud as they could, and they really could be heard a lot better the second time, and by my estimation, the music itself was more engaging and interesting. We sang some songs and passed some good fiddle tunes around for about a half hour with various students having to come and go as their hectic academic schedules allowed.

I demonstrated a few different guitar styles as well. The strums or licks of folks like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Carter Stanley, and David McLaughlin were something that they had not spent much time studying, so I was happy to help them add a few tools to their toolbox in terms of different guitar strums for different songs.

We had a little pizza and then went to relax for a while. That evening a friend of some of the students offered to have us over to pick some. So Keith and I went over and joined a few early 20s fellows playing an ice hockey game projected on to a white wall. We picked a couple in the kitchen, running over Groundspeed, which was going to be one of the tunes for the faculty concert the next night. The video game was finished and so we moved into the living room to pick some more. I was playing guitar, Keith was on banjo, and the most proficient mandolin student, Charlie, was picking his mandolin. Before long there were about twenty young folks in the room sitting wherever they could, a fairly large but well behaved snake being passed around, and three more mandolin pickers. We picked for about two hours and had a great time.

The next day we got to the college about noon, and had a great lunch from the cafeteria before Keith went to take a swim and I went to teach some one-on-one lessons. First up was Charlie, and he was a true sponge and quick on the pickup which is always great for lessons. We looked at staggered sixteenth notes like Bill Monroe used many times. I showed him how to play one sixteenth note with a downstroke, and then continue up the arpeggio on an upstroke, then a downstroke on every next note, and then how to change chords at the top to go to a C chord from G, and then also how to go from G to D and back down. He picked it right up.

Being curious about how I approached tremelo, I demonstrated how I pat my foot and play down-up-down-up for every foot pat so it keeps the tremelo even and uniform. He's got a good handle on what I might call the spastic tremelo which is more haphazard but when used properly can be powerful. The spastic tremelo is basically playing as fast as possible but without an even regularity to the pick strokes in relationship to the beat. I employ that technique myself frequently as well, it's more along the lines of Buzz Busby's style.

Next up was Mattie, a young woman that wanted to learn some practice techniques that would help here clean up her playing while developing speed. So I showed her my usual regimen of three patterns of the major scale in G and A. I start off with the regular two octave scale with alternating up and down pick strokes. Then we played two pick strokes (up and down) for each note up and down the scale, then triplets, and finally sixteenth notes. We did that in both G and A.

The next pattern I showed her was a little more complex. It starts on the first note in the scale then jumps up to the third note in the scale, then back to the second, then up to the fourth and so on. She picked it right up and we went through the permutations of one pick stroke through four pick strokes for each note in the scale. We did that in G and A.

Finally, when she had a good handle on all that we moved on to the hardest pattern which, in my experience, is the most beneficial for developing speed. It, like the previous scales is all up and down, starts by playing the first three notes in the scale, then going back to the first note and playing the next four notes in the scale, then back to the second note in the scale and playing three more scale notes, then going back to the third note in the scale and playing three more scale notes and so on all the way up and down. It's a lot easier to understand if you can hear it! We did that in G and A as well.

My third lesson was with Nicole, who wanted to learn some alternate up-the-neck picking ideas for one of her singing songs, so we picked Blue Night. She had an outstanding ability to pick up what I was showing her and in about a half hour's time she had a great handle on a difficult Bill Monroe-style break out of what I call first position, up-the-neck C. It was bluesy and melody based and was a good complement for her usual approach down low. I was tickled she was picking Monroe style so quickly.

The last lesson was with Esther, a final year student, who wanted to learn a particular strum pattern. She had been at the workshop the day before and had seen me do a strumming/picking rhythm lick but she didn't exactly know how to describe it or remind me what it was. So, I played this one and that one and she made leading suggestions such as "it connects to itself" and "it's more rounded", until finally we hit on something that was at least fairly close to what she was looking for. It was a rhythm lick that was very similar to the syncopated way Bill Monroe would frequently play on Muleskinner Blues or Rawhide. So we worked on getting the nuances and pick strokes until we were playing the same thing, and then I grabbed the guitar and sang the Rocky Road Blues so she could play her new rhythm lick, which she did quite well.

That evening was the faculty concert which was the main reason Keith had me fly out. There were opera singers, a wonderful harpist, and a wind ensemble among the other performers, and then Keith and I were scheduled to close out the show. About an hour before the concert we sat down and picked the tunes - Groundspeed and Sally Goodin. The arrangement was that he would kick off Groundspeed, and we'd both take a couple of breaks and then he would finish it and a similar deal with Sally Goodin' except I was starting and finishing that one. It was an interesting experience playing for that academic crowd. I'm not sure they were too familiar with bluegrass, but they laughed supportively when I invited them to get up and dance the buck 'n wing if they felt to inclined. We picked the tunes and they went off without a hitch. I had one of the students holding my Macbook so I could stream it to my Facebook page like I try to do whenever I can these days. The stream went out, we got a rousing applause at the end and then several of the other performers were favorably complementary towards our efforts which was especially nice considering the diversity in our musical paths.

After the concert we went to a local pub where two of the students have a regular gig. It was a tight spot, but comfortable with so many enthusiastic young listeners who were responding well and exchanging some good energy with everyone who was picking. I used my iPhone to look up a lyric I had forgotten to Roving Gambler, and we had some good trios on Sitting Alone in the Moonlight, All the Good Times Are Past and Gone. Keith let me pick his nice pre-war banjo for a tune and I picked one of my favorites, Clinch Mountain Backstep. It was interesting because as I was starting it off I was patting my foot on the off beat as I like to do sometimes, and due to the volume in the room, the guys picked up on the foot tap more than the melody and came in backwards, but it was quickly remedied and we had a good time with it. We picked until about eleven o'clock and headed for the house.

As I look out the plane window right now I see a whole lot of what I reckon is Kansas on the way back to Nashville. I'll get to town with a couple of hours to spare before heading to the Station Inn to sound check with Shawn Camp and his band. Till next time!

3 thoughts on “Christopher’s Colorado College Workshop

  1. Martin Bacon

    Excellent post. Thanks, Chris. The Gibson Brothers were here just a couple of weeks ago and they sang your praises.
    Hope things continue to go well.

  2. Eric Baker

    Wow! I wish I had known about this Chris, I would have driven down from the mountains in a heartbeat! Your father Red is my mandolin hero and you’re no slouch either. Please let me know if you ever come to Colorado again!

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