Peg tripped lightly up the steps to Jill’s teaching place, banjo in hand. She was feeling good about her practice this week. She hadn’t been able to play two hours every day as she had planned because of her “damn job” but she was excited about learning the first song on the DVD. She knew Jill would be pleased with her.
She was early so she sat down to wait in the adjoining room. She frowned when she noticed the velvet picture of Jesus praying on a hillside hanging on the wall. “I didn’t know Jill was religious,” she thought. “Not with that empty Stroh’s can sitting on the mantle. Who drinks Stroh’s?”
Settling down on the couch, she recognized the voice of Bob, the student she’d met last week, talking to Jill about something in the teaching room.
“People won’t pay 20 dollars to come to a jam session. Not when they’re taking lessons every week,” Bob was saying. “Most people don’t have that kind of money. And why pay when you can jam for free other places?”
“But this would be a slow jam so people could learn to trade breaks and vamp. They’re sure not learning that at home.”
“You got a point there. Most other jams are pretty fast. Hell, I have trouble keeping up sometimes.”
“What if I set out a tip jar? Then they could pay what they think it’s worth.”
“That might work. I might even come to that.”
“You damned old tightwad,” Jill answered with a laugh. “I remember when you quit taking lessons because I raised my prices.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Our big divorce.”
Peg couldn’t see, but Jill was smiling fondly. Bob had been taking guitar lessons for over 20 years. He had become a dear friend, one of her beloved “hillbillies.”
“Hey, Peg, are you here?” Jill called out toward the other room.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Come on in. We’re done. We’re just bs-ing.”
Peg came in and greeted Bob, who stood up guitar in hand, and said, “I got her wound up. Now, see what you can do.”
Then, after packing up, with a quick “See you next week” he was out the door.
“Still got a nice butt for an old man,” thought Jill.
Peg, having uncased her banjo while all this was going on, sat down, blissfully unaware of Jill’s salacious thoughts.
“How’d it go this week,” Jill was asking. “Did the banjo stay in tune?”
“I think so,” said Peg. “I didn’t try to tune it.”
“Good,” said Jill. “How about the chords? How’d you do on those?”
“I think I did okay,” said Peg, continuing on excitedly because she couldn’t stop herself, “I learned that first song on the DVD. I forget the name.”
Jill kept her face motionless, but inwardly she sighed. It never worked out well when a new student barged on ahead. In her 40 years of teaching Jill had seen too many students wreck their playing when they tried to learn too much, too fast. She considered it her sacred calling to keep them on the straight and narrow. And if she was going to have to listen to banjo playing all day long she wanted it to be good banjo playing.
She straightened her shoulders. She knew she needed to tread lightly, not wanting to squelch Peg’s enthusiasm.
“Ok,” she said. “We’ll look at that in a minute. First let’s go over your rolls and chords.”
Jill asked Peg to play each roll several times in each of the three chords, G, C, and D7. Peg did this smoothly. Then she asked Peg to keep the roll going while she changed chords, which was much harder. Peg couldn’t do it without stopping even when she played slow.
“This,” thought Jill grimly, “is what you should have been practicing.”
Out loud she said, “You need to keep working on this.”
Peg nodded. She felt bad. She had been so intent on learning her first song that she had forgotten to work on her chord changes.
Jill had planned to start Peg on the first song, Banjo in the Hollow, today regardless of how well she had done with her chords and rolls. Jill knew that students got bored if she asked them to work on the basics for more than two weeks. Peg’s jumping the gun meant she didn’t yet have the solid foundation necessary to start a song.
“Okay,” said Jill finally, “let’s look at what you’ve got on Banjo in the Hollow.”
Peg gushed, “I really like this song! I think I’ve got the whole thing!”
“I doubt that,” thought Jill. But, “Okay, let’s hear it,” was all she said.
Peg started out at the rapid pace she’d played the song at home but realized immediately that she had her fingers for the first chord in the wrong place.
“Can I start again?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Jill.
Peg started correctly this time, playing the rolls fast but stopping between every roll to remember what came next, with longer pauses when she had to put down the C chord.
As Peg played, Jill’s mind flashed back to Larry, who had told her at his first lesson that he had learned all five songs on the beginning DVD in a month. After listening to a couple of them, Jill had informed him that if he was going to continue lessons with her he’d have to go back to the beginning and learn the songs right. She’d been surprised when he’d said, cheerfully, “You’re the boss.”
She pulled her thoughts back into the room where Peg was finishing the song. Before Jill spoke, she reminded herself that Peg had thought she was doing a good thing.
Jill said, in the kindest voice she could muster, “Okay, we need to slow everything down. It doesn’t matter how slow you play as long as the song stays in time. So let’s try just those first two rolls. It’s basically a forward and backward roll, 5215/1231.” She played the rolls slowly to show Peg what she meant.
The numbers meant nothing to Peg. Jill might as well have been speaking Vulcan. Peg had been tempted to write them down but remembering her promise she had not.
What really confused Peg was that, in this song, the three-note rolls she had learned had somehow morphed into four-note rolls. So the only way she could remember the roll—without writing it down—had been to think “first roll plus a fifth string, and “second roll plus a first string.” It pissed her off to have to add that extra note. Why hadn’t Jill taught her that to start with?
Jill, having encountered this problem before, would have answered Peg’s question in today’s lesson, but now Peg was too distracted to ask it.
As Jill requested, Peg played the two rolls slowly, forward and backward, doing them over and over at Jill’s command.
“Do it again.”
“One more time.”
Peg felt like Mary Lou Retton being whipped into shape by Bela Karolyi.
Finally Peg heard, “That’s better.” She was surprised at how happy those two words made her feel.
Then they did that same roll pattern in C. Again, and again, and again.
“Now let’s put these two patterns together,” said Jill. “Just do it slow. Like this.” She played the pattern slowly so Peg could hear it.
Peg found that, miraculously, her hands remembered the patterns without her thinking of the numbers. And furthermore, where she had heard nothing musical before—why had she not noticed that, she wondered—she now heard a melody emerging. She felt her excitement rising.
“Let me get out the guitar,” Jill was saying. “Let’s play it together.”
With a “one, two, ready, go,” the two women played this first part of the song together, slowly, over and over. Peg was stunned by the beauty of the rolls played against the simple rhythm of the guitar. Her heart filled with a wild desire that was close to ecstasy. “I have to learn to play this music!”
“Let’s try it just a tiny bit faster,” said Jill. She set the tempo with her guitar, and off they went.
At this slightly faster pace Peg couldn’t put down her C chord quick enough, even though she was playing the “cheating C” and not fretting the fourth string. “Damn it to hell,” she thought every time she missed the C. “I will not let this fracking C chord get the best of me. I will beat you into submission even if my fingers start to bleed.”
Unaware of the drama going on in Peg’s mind, Jill brought them to a halt with a “Let’s stop right here.”
“So that’s what you need to work on this week,” Jill said. “Don’t ever stop the roll, even if the C chord sounds like crap. It’s better to keep the roll going. Your hands will figure out what they need to do to make that C chord. And that’s all I want you to work on, don’t go any further on the DVD. That next lick is much harder and I want to go over it with you first. It’s got what we call ‘pull-off’ in it and it’s easy to get that wrong. Are you good with that, just doing the first part of the song, and not going on any further?”
Peg, thoroughly chastened by her performance yet filled with a burning desire to go home and play, said, “Yeah, I can do that. I’ll just work on what we’ve been playing and I won’t go any further.”
Jill added, “Okay. Also, next week, we’ll be looking at a four-finger chord, it’s called a vamp chord. Do you have an iPhone?”
“Right here,” said Peg, patting her pants pocket.
“Great. Next week we can video what that new chord looks like.”
“You did good today, once you slowed down. You just can’t rush through the songs. About one song a month is a good goal.”
“One song a month,” thought Peg, with dismay, as she walked out of the house. “That’s not many. Still, it would be twelve songs in a year. That’s not bad. It’s a start. I just hope I don’t die before I learn to play the rest of that damn song. What IS the name of it? Banjo Something. Banjo Somewhere. Banjo…..banjo…Banjo in the Damn Holler! That’s what it is. What the hell’s a holler?”
Leaving that question for later, she put her banjo in the trunk and got into her car. As she pulled away from the curb she didn’t realize she had forgotten to turn on the radio. And she didn’t hear herself humming, “Dah duh, dah duh/dah duh, dah duh/Dah duh, dah duh/dah duh, dah duh….” The melody to Banjo in the Hollow.