Improvising

We just finished up our SIXTH Beginning Banjo Camp here in Winchester. I had one of the best groups of intermediate beginners ever, and this was mainly due to their own hard work before the camp. They all had learned their prerequisites and they all knew their vamp chords which made playing together so much easier. Norman was one of those hard-working students. With his permission, I’m sharing our email exchange which began in August. These are real emails. I have lightly edited them to take out details about airplane flights and directions to Winchester and the price of eggs in Alaska!

Emails, August 2016 BC (Before Camp)

Hi,

I'd like to come to your beginner camp in Oct. and, since I'm from Colorado, would like to dovetail that with a lesson or two. Perhaps come on Thursday for a lesson, stay till Monday for another Sunday afternoon. If you have any energy left.

I've been picking away for some time but need direction, better practice habits and so forth.

I've not played much with others but know a reasonable break to the songs that you've mentioned, plus some back-up. I'm open to suggestions.

There are banjo teachers closer by but they're generally band members and not in the business of instruction.

Thanks for your help and I look forward to hearing from you. Norman  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

ASIDE: (Putting this first so you'll read it!) Dan and I have recently started working on playing melody-based breaks. (He had met my prerequisites: being able to play Roly Poly breaks in the jam in the key of G and the key of open C and knowing the core Scruggs repertoire and being able to play that in the jam.) But Tuesday, at our second lesson on playing the melody, we ran into a snag. His assignment had been to work up a melody-based break to the Crawdad Song. He tried and he came up with something he thought was "correct." He thought he was hearing the melody of the Crawdad Song but, in fact, he was not. Short version: I told him he needed to listen to the song more than 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 times. I told him he needed to listen to it 50 or 100 times. So, bless his heart, he programmed the song to repeat on his iPod and listened to that one song for the entire 45 minutes he was exercising at the gym. (Rowing, I think he said.) Then last night at the jam, one day after his lesson and his Crawdad Song-binge at the gym, he played his melody-based version of the Crawdad Song. And we heard it and, behold, it was good! When I congratulated Dan on his break he said, "What you said about listening was the key. I listened to it so much I got sick of it. But now I know how it goes." My reply? "YES! If you're sick of it, you'll know it!" And his playing showed that he DID know it and he DID hear it. Happy, happy teacher! I'm excited about this new teaching venture and will be sure to keep you posted!

Now, to the blog!  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I interrupt my playing with Dalton to bring you this blog!

Our Wednesday night jam was really different this time. Of course, all jams have their own flavour (to use Brit spelling!) but Wednesday we started off with just two jammers, Diane on guitar and David on banjo. So, guess who I'll be talking about? [Editor's comment: Yourself?]

My job, of course, is to figure out how to make the jam work no matter how many people are there. (I just realized that I actually got a lot of practice doing this early in life while trying to figure out how to get my four younger sisters involved in whatever activity we had going on--and still keep me interested!) So initially I thought David could play his banjo tunes in G and then we'd go to C and Diane could sing and he could do Roly Polys. It only took one pass through Banjo In The Hollow for me to realize that there was no way this would work for me! Boring! (No disrespect to David's playing, but bluegrass jamming is all about taking turns, something else I learned in childhood! Not one of my favorite lessons.)

So I said, "Diane, have you got the chords to Banjo In The Hollow?"

She said, "Yes, I think so."

I said, "Okay, you are going to carry the rhythm while David and I trade breaks."

And, by golly, she did it. First time. All by herself. And she was solid! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, here it is, December 31, the last day of 2014. And as Lester Flatt sang, "I've been sitting here thinking back over my life..." And what I was thinking this morning as I drank my coffee and read my favorite new author Louise Penny on my Kindle was, in fact, Roly Polys. 

For me, this was the year that all my attempts to teach improvising on the banjo finally came to fruition in the form of the Roly Polys. In addition to 40 years of teaching (and thank you Tim for that constant reminder!), several things fell into place to coax the Roly Polys into being: My wonderful teaching place in town, the Tip Jar Jams, and an amazing group of courageous banjo students.

The Teaching Place (TP) finally offered a room big enough for a jam session and plenty of parking right in front. I'd tried Misfit jam sessions before---twice in the Barber Shop and once at our house out in the country---but, frankly, I didn't have the skills or experience to make these really work. (And there was no parking at our house. In fact one of the students backed into a tree coming out of our driveway which is how I met Ben Smelser when I called him to come cut it down, but that's an entirely different story!) ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Last night's jam started off in a sedate fashion, with five banjos and two guitars circled up ready to pick. Then, while everyone was tuning up, I heard some thrashing around in the adjoining room. I did a quick calculation, ticking off students who I knew weren't coming and I couldn't quite figure out who it was. Then just as Kathy G was fixing to kick off Banjo In The Hollow (this time in G!), in walks......Bob McQueen! "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays!" Even though he "officially" lives in Florida now, I'm sure Winchester still feels like home sweet home. He was nattily attired in all things "Steeler" from his jersey, to his hat, to his tennis shoes! Go, Big Ben!

After the excitement of seeing Bob, things settled back down for a while. We did a bunch of G tunes and then Kathy H sang I Want My Dog Back, which is fast becoming a favorite. All the banjo players--which also included Ben, Kasey and Betty---tried Roly Poly breaks and they all got an A for effort but the odd chord pattern was really throwing them, even with me yelling "Short D! Short D!" So after the song was over we "workshopped" it a bit, with Kathy H singing the melody lightly while I called out the chords and everyone Roly Polied at the same time. I now know that the first half of the break has an extra two beats of G and, as Diane (on guitar) pointed out, the second half of the break does NOT have those extra two beats of G. Confusing! Especially when you're trying to play a break on the fly. Which is one thing that makes bluegrass so much fun!  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Wow! We had 12 people at the jam last night: Betty, Kathy G, Ben, Kasey, Steph, Diane, Gregg, David, Chuck (sitting on the floor!), Rhys, Drew, Amber, and Jason. This broke down into 3 guitars, 7 banjos, 1 fiddle, and 1 mandolin. Ben swapped his banjo for the bass early on and with me pounding my Martin we managed to keep folks in line!

We were sorely missing our buddy Bob Van who has landed his butt in the hospital. In his honor we set up his picking chair and put a roll of duct tape in it. The duct tape is in honor of Bobby always saying something like, "I hope we don't play Salt Creek." Which forces me to say, "Why don't we play Salt Creek!" At which point he growls, "Where's the duct tape?" meaning he needs to have his mouth taped shut so he won't say anything else stupid! We will keep your chair and duct tape there, Bobby, until you get back. We love your ornery old hide!

We started off gently with our "party pieces," Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, I Saw The Light, and Blue Ridge Cabin Home, all in G. And thanks to Chuck for being our "G" singer! Then we moved on up to C, for some womyn singing: I'll Fly Away (Kathy), Two Dollar Bill (me), and Circle (Diane). Then I realized, once again, that I had cheated Kasey out of singing her song, I Saw The Light, which we'd already done. (Girl, you gotta get a new song!) But Diane reminded me that Kasey used to sing Rocky Top in C. At first I demurred, saying the chords were too hard for the whole group, but then I thought, "Why not let Kasey sing it as a 'show' piece?"  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our first Tip Jar Jam after Beginning Banjo Camp showed a marked improvement in the jamming skills of campers David and Gregg--especially when it came to improvising on the fly. During camp we had hit the Roly Polys pretty hard since the new DVD, Kickstart Your Jamming, is coming out soon. (Two weeks, we hope!) So last night, David and Gregg, flushed with enthusiasm, were more than willing to try Roly Poly breaks on most of the singing songs we played: Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Circle, Two Dollar Bill, I'll Fly Away, I Saw The Light, Katy Daley, When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, and the Crawdad Song, which is new to us. ("You get a line and I'll get a pole, honey...").

One of the things that shook out of this post-camp jam was, again, how important it is to pay attention to the chord progression. For instance, many of you know from working with the Misfits DVD that I Saw The Light, Do Lord, Worried Gal, and Two-Dollar Bill sound very much alike. (In bluegrass-speak we'd say they sound "sim-u-lar." Or perhaps, eschewing extra syllables, "sim-lar.") However, when you're getting ready to improvise a break with the Roly Polys, if you fail to pay attention to the chords while the singer is singing, you may not notice that Two-Dollar Bill has only two beats of C, NOT SIX! That's a pretty big difference!  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Murphy blogs every month over on Banjo Hangout and we will be cross-posting these blogs so they'll be all here in one place. This was originally published September 25th, 2014.

I've been trying to figure out how to teach banjo students to improvise for almost 40 years. And it's only in the last year that I've finally figured out a teachable technique that worksAs always, I used my own students for guinea pigs and now every week in our Tip Jar Jams I get to see them playing breaks to songs they've never even heard before. It's pretty fantastic! (I swear this sounds like one of those unbelievable, too-good-to-be-true TV ads! I feel like I should be saying, "And wait! If you order now, we will send you two of everything. All you have to do is pay additional shipping and handling!") But I digress....

Pause For Shout Outs: Before I go further let me give some shout outs to my guinea pigs: Kathy G, who challenged me to come up with something simple for her to play on the singing songs that she loved; to Julie for showing me that this technique would also work for  instrumentals; to Tim for naming this technique the "roly polys," and to Kathy H, Kasey, Ben, Pam, Dan, Betty, Gregg, and Drew who almost never pass up a break to a song anymore! Why should they when they can make something up on the spot? ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I just realized I should have taken a picture of the three Bobs: Bob Mc, Bob A, and Bob V! In lieu of that, I will paraphrase a nursery rhyme: 

Murphy, merry, quite contrary
How does your jamming go?
With Silver Bells and three-ply shells
And three Bobs all in a row.

Not my best effort, to be sure, and no one in the jam plays a Silver Bell banjo, but I'm guessing there are some three-ply rims!

We welcomed back banjo-picking Bob Mc who now lives in Florida but still makes the occasional foray back to God's country! With Bob A and Bob Van on guitars, that was quite a collection of Bobs. And, for a time, they were all sitting in a row. And then they were sitting in a row with Kathy G in the middle, a rose among the thorns, as we say here. ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

And thanks to Diane for the lovely blog title! It's one of those sayings that makes sense, only you're not quite sure WHY it makes sense. She said it to Gregg toward the end of the jam after he'd been valiantly trying to do the Roly Polys all night long. She called it "jamming by fire hose" and I wrote it down. We all knew exactly what she meant. 

Gregg, you might recall, started taking lessons from me and coming to the jams in July, right after Kaufman Kamp. At that time he sorta knew two songs: Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down. I let him keep his version of Cripple Creek, but finally told him I never wanted to hear him Boil the Cabbage like that again. It was confusing his hands.

Anyhow, I was telling you all that to tell you this: Since he was coming to the jams, I had to give him a crash course in Roly Polys so he could play on more songs. So he didn't get the slow, let's-ease-into-it-one-song-at-a-time version. He got: "Here's a G Roly Poly, here's a C Roly Poly, here's a D Roly Poly. Let's play Bury Me Beneath The Willow!" Which is a song that Chuck was learning to sing.  ...continue reading