Tip Jar Jam #41: I Like It When You Model For Me

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The above line was spoken by Kathy to Bob Mc as she was leaving the jam last night. Since I knew what she meant, it took me a minute to get the double meaning, which Bob was quick to point it out! What Kathy was referring to was the fact that Bob had helped her with her improvising by showing her his breaks and letting her copy him. In other words, Bob was Kasey and Kathy was Ben! (A totally inside joke for those of you who regularly read these blogs.) Or, as I said to Bob, when I returned to the jam after taking a call, "When did you start teaching?" I told Bob that I bet he never, ever in a million years would have thought that he would be teaching someone something on the banjo. He agreed. But he said he still didn't want to sit up front in the chair next to mine!

We had an awesome jam last night with just three students, Kathy, Bob Mc, and Bob A. Having such a small group made it possible to take more breaks (more chances of getting it right!) and also made it possible for me to offer opinions on what was going wrong and suggestions for what might make it right.

For example, Kathy had been working her butt off all week on polishing three songs: Lonesome Road Blues (low), Mountain Dew, and I'll Fly Away, which all have lots of similar licks. But, until you have played these songs many, many times in a jam, it's hard to keep them separate in your mind. You might start picking the low break to Lonesome Road Blues only to find yourself smack-dab in the middle of Mountain Dew with no idea how you got there! It's my job as teacher to pay attention and try to figure out where you veered off course, and to offer suggestions about how you might keep the songs separate in your head: Lonesome Road Blues goes to the C chord twice, Mountain Dew only goes there once.

Bob A got to do a lot of singing last night and instead of doing the SOS (same old stuff) we tried to hit some songs that we might not have tried in a larger jam. One of these was Foggy Mountain Top. It's a short song with an easy chord pattern, which makes it great for improv. Bob A already knew a guitar break, but Kathy and Bob Mc would have to improvise. Bob pulled off a really nice break, simple but effective. Kathy, who had all these C licks running around in her head from the three songs she'd been working on, was having trouble with the C lick. After we went through the song once, I was able to say to her, "It's a short C. Just two beats. So cut what you are trying to do in half. I just think of it as a 'short C.'" And that made sense to her.

Kathy had also heard Bob Mc use pinches in between his phrases: Forward backward roll (pinches), C lick (pinches), forward backward roll (pinches), D lick, and so forth and so on. She picked up on that idea. I said, "Oh, yes! Pinches are great for improvising. They kind of give you a little breathing room. A millisecond to let another lick come into your mind." So we played through the breaks again, with Kathy following her new mentor, Bob Mc, and voila! She had a good, solid break.

Later on when we did East Virginia Blues (same chord pattern as Lonesome Road Blues, but totally different melody), she was able to pick up on Bob's use of the Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms lick as a "long G" lick (8 beats). This is Kasey Smelzer's "go to" lick, but somehow it took Bob Mc playing it (and explaining it) for Kathy to really "grok" it (to use that excellent Robert Heinlein word).

TOTAL ASIDE: Using "grok" reminds me of the time when my Casey was little, maybe 3 or 4, and I used "grok" in talking to her. I made some sort of statement and then said to her, "You grok?" Meaning "Do you understand?" She looked up at me and said: I AM NOT A ROCK!" I love that story!

Later in the jam Kathy summarized what she had learned. "I have a long G lick and I have a short C lick. That will really help me in improvising."

Since we were small in number and the jam setting was more intimate, I told Bob A that this would be a good time to sing Life's Railway To Heaven which he sings in D. I had been uncomfortable doing this in the larger jam for several reasons: D is a hard key for students and there's not much a student banjo player can do except vamp. And it's a long, slow song which can sometimes suck energy out of a jam and cause banjo players to get restless. But last night was the perfect setting. Bob A was singing and picking well, and as I told Bob Mc afterwards, his quiet vamps were right in the pocket and added a lot to the song. In this setting, the song provided energy for the jam.

One more funny thing: along about 8:15 I need to take a bathroom break. It was that last cup of tea.....

ANOTHER TOTAL ASIDE: When I was little, Mama often scolded me for telling my playmates I was going to the bathroom when I had to stop playing and go pee. She didn't think I had to announce it to the world. I think she wanted me to say something more genteel like, "Would you excuse me for a moment, please, I'll be right back." Or maybe just, "I'll be back in a minute." That felt rude to me. I always figured that they would wonder where I'd gone. Anyhow, as you see, Mama, that's another lesson that I didn't learn! (But I still feel uncomfortable leaving this story in the blog! I almost took it out!)

As I was saying, I had to leave the room, so as I left I said, "I want to hear you all playing something when I come back." I should have known Kathy would take charge and rally the troops. But imagine my surprise when I came back to find them working on Bobby McGee, with Kathy singing and playing guitar while calling out the chords to Bob and Bob! "Busted flat in Baton Rouge/Waiting for a train..." I love that song! However, as they all found out, even though it's a three-chord song, it's still hard to play on the banjo, partly because the song stays in each chord for such a long time. Still, I totally give them  A for effort. [Editor's Note: Here's how I play it: http://youtu.be/bOPMKQzLXxc]

We closed out with John Hardy, one of our jam standards, and all declared this to have been a most excellent jam. Small but fun, as some of the best jams are.

I'm in deep prep for my upcoming trip to Raleigh. Today I got Casey to set up a Pay Pal app on my phone so I can take credit cards at my IBMA booth. Then I ran my car through the car wash and vacuumed it out myself (while vowing to stop cutting my fingernails in the car--they were all over everywhere!), and then I got my toenails painted! Purple sparkle! Whoo hoo! I am ready!

And now, off to square dance class! "Allamande left your partner, do-si-do your corner, come back and swing that sweet corner girl, promenade that ring, take that girl home and sing, because, just because!"






One thought on “Tip Jar Jam #41: I Like It When You Model For Me

  1. Valerie

    I sure wish I had a slow jam to frequent. The jam at home is just too fast for me to contribute. I am excited to see you in Raleigh and tell you in person how much I enjoy, and appreciate your book.I can’t wait to buy my shirt!

Comments are closed.