Improvising

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!

Mark and Susan had lessons back-to-back today, so they jammed a little where their times overlapped. In the lull between songs we started talking about how no one ever seems to be satisfied with their performance. I told them about being at the Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Camp and how those amazing instructors would walk off stage after the faculty concert bemoaning the “fact” that they had played so poorly and had missed so many notes. These were performances that I—an instructor myself—had thought were flawless and wonderful. Mandolin whiz Butch Baldassari (God rest his soul) said, “Well, I hit more notes than I missed, so I count that a good performance!” (On the other hand, fiddling Fletcher Bright was always happy with his performance and was never happier than when he was stealing the show from someone else! I was always happy with him stealing the show too—as long as he wasn’t stealing it from me!)

Anyhow, the gist of our conversation was, as you have gathered, that no one ever seems satisfied with how they play. And does that dissatisfaction ever end? Perhaps when you are in the grave, Susan suggested.

Then Mark said, “I try to be happy with where I am while trying to get better.” Which Susan and I both acknowledged was an excellent way to look at things.

Then Susan said, “I like to hear a man saying things like that!”

To which Mark quickly replied, “I only apply that to banjo!”

And Susan and I just howled and rolled our eyes. Too funny.
And that, friends, is my short blog for today. Hope you have a wonderful last weekend before Christmas! I’m square dancing tonight so I am happy! “Oh, promenade that ring, take your girl home and swing, because, just because!”

Murphy

I just wanted to share a picture with all of you. This was taken when Chris and I went over to a Frank Wakefield concert at Garrett Park, Maryland, several weeks ago. I had no idea this photo existed until a day or two ago, when I found it on Frank's Facebook page. Click on the pic:

...as you can see, we were having quite a time. Or, to "talk backwards" and put it in Wakefield-ese, Frank and "Leeroy" and "White" didn't play no music. We didn't have no fun. And you can't see it right in this picture!

Red

Murphy Henry

I’ve been reading with interest the comments about improvising on this blog, and thought I would try to outline my thoughts. I won’t try to answer the questions raised point by point, but maybe I will accidentally hit a few of the high spots.

I do remember the question “Is improvising an advanced skill?” That, as ever, depends on what you mean by “advanced”! What is hard to some people is a piece of cake for others.

At the most basic level, improv (on banjo) is simply playing rolls over the chord progression. The kicker here is that you have to be able to hear the chord changes. You don’t have to hear them all perfectly but you do have to be able to hear something—and to change at the appropriate time, all on the fly.

And that reminds me of another point: is it improvising if you create a break to song ahead of time? And then memorize that break? To me, that’s not exactly what we are talking about here. That is what I would call “composing.” A useful skill, perhaps, but not so much in the context of a bluegrass jam, which is where improvising is important.

(And, need I remind you, that if we played off of sheet music there would be no need to improvise! In fact, it would be frowned on!)

So, I guess we’re closing in on a “definition” of improvising. Making up a break on the spot, while under the pressure of a jam, slow or fast.

Again, I will reiterate (don’t you love that word?): an improvised break, at the simplest level, can be one roll—just one roll, the same roll—played over the chord progression. You could play Blue Ridge Cabin Home using nothing more than the Cripple Creek lick. Or a forward/backward roll. Furthermore, if you do this in the privacy of your own home, while humming the tune in your head, that’s improvising! And let me point out that if you play rolls against chords for non-bluegrass people—especially if someone is singing—they will love it! They will think you are great!

But already, even at that basic level, you run into the problem of hearing the chord changes. If you can’t hear the chord changes, then you can’t improvise. So, is hearing chord changes a basic skill or an advanced skill? If you can’t hear them, it seems advanced. If you can hear them, then it’s as easy as falling off a log.

In my own teaching it took me years to realize how important hearing chord changes was. Seems obvious now. It took me even longer to figure out how to teach that skill. (Still refining that!) What I do know is that it can be taught. Although sometimes, it ain’t easy. And it requires a lot of hard work from the student.

So hearing chord changes is fundamental. It’s the most basic building block for improvising. Is it an advanced skill? You be the judge!

Still and yet, most students are not happy doing basic rolls while playing the chords. It doesn’t sound like improvising to them! So that’s why I teach improv using licks. Which moves it up to a slightly move advanced level. Because then you have to know some licks!
Which is where the whole “by ear” thing comes in. Short version: in order to “retrieve” licks for improvising—from your own brain--you have to input them by ear. If you learn them by ear, you can get them back out by ear. This—by and large—does not work with tablature. As many of you know. And I’m not gonna say anymore about that!

So that brings us to the basic Murphy Method roster of tunes, found on the Big Three DVDs: Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 and 2, and Misfits. Oh, yeah, and the songs Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. With these tunes under your belt (and chord changes!) you can begin to improvise.

So there’s the second piece: basic Scruggs licks, learnt (as we say here) by ear.

Now, the thing I’m beginning to realize (duh!) is that even those two pieces are not enough. You can’t learn to improvise in a vacuum. (Hmmm...that’s seems important!) You have to have some jamming skills. You have to take your tunes, the tunes you’ve learned by ear, and play them in the company of other people. You have to learn to trade breaks, to play what you know on the fly, without thinking.

But that is not all, no that is not all! (Dr. Seuss.....Cat in the Hat.)

Honest to Pete, you do have to be listening to lots of bluegrass music. I used to assume (yeah, I know....) that most people had at least a passing acquaintance with some of the more familiar bluegrass singing songs that might have crossed over into Popular Culture: Worried Man/Gal, Mountain Dew, Do Lord. (I do realize now that not everyone was Raised Baptist and knows I’ll Fly Away and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.) Most people do have some familiarity with You Are My Sunshine, This Land is Your Land, and Amazing Grace but that’s about it. And while those are good chording songs, they are not the greatest for banjo breaks.

So, you do have to do a little bit of Marty’s “total immersion” plan. Listen to bluegrass, go to bluegrass shows, seek out jams, start a jam, or do like I did and pay someone (my son, Chris) to play with you!

OK, I’m out of steam on this subject. I will say one more thing. I think playing the melody of a song while improvising is definitely an advanced skill. That’s why, to start with, I encourage using generic licks. That will get you going and provide the foundation for playing melody later. Questions? Comments? Bring ‘em on, y’all.

PS: If you’re really interested, I cover this topic extensively in my book And There You Have It. You can practically watch me develop my ideas on jamming and improvising and teaching chord changes. Fascinating.....to me! <Grin>

Casey Henry

Murphy’s post last week on improvising sparked quite a discussion, so I thought I’d add some further ideas. This same topic came in one of my banjo lessons on Saturday. Clay, who drives to Nashville from Memphis every now and then for a lesson, had been reading about improvising on this very blog. He broached the question of what counts as improvising and are there different levels of improvising. I assured him that of course there are different levels of improvising! He’s been playing seven years and can play a break to a three-chord song that he doesn’t know (that is, hasn’t sat down and learned a break for) fairly easily. But he was worried that at this point he should be able to make those breaks sound like the melody of the song.

“Absolutely not,” I told him. If he could improvise the melody at this point, he’d be some kind of intuitive banjo super genius! The first step is simply putting licks over the chords. And he can do that. The second step is refining those licks so that they sound more like the tune you’re playing. For instance, on a song like “On and On” that has a melody that starts high, start with hammers instead of a lick down on the fourth string because that follows the shape of the melody more closely.

In Clay’s lesson we went through a couple songs, chord by chord, finding the licks that sounded most like the melody. Almost 100% of the time they were licks that he already knew, he just hadn’t ever thought to pull them out of the song he had learned them in and use them in something else. Most people, when they’re starting to improvise, only use a small number of the licks that they know. It takes some thought and practice to put a wider variety of licks at your disposal—not by learning new ones, but by looking deeper into ALL the songs that you already play. Although going through that process is not technically improvising—strictly speaking it’s practice—it’s doing the groundwork that will help you improvise better next time.

I was in a workshop that Bela Fleck was doing one time and he was talking about improvising. He said that when you start out, you take big chunks from songs that you know and use them in other songs. (The biggest chunk being a whole break—like the break for “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” also works for the song “Will You Be Lovin’ Another Man.”) As you get better the chunks you use get smaller, a phrase, a lick, a part of a lick. Until finally each piece that you’re using is one note long. Even at the highest levels, improvising is not just making stuff up out of thin air. It’s built on the foundation of everything you know and have played before.

Murphy Henry

As you know we have a DVD titled Improvising: The First Stage. And when I first concocted that DVD (many long years ago) I had a fairly clear idea of what the second stage would be. However, that thought obviously did not pan out and furthermore I’ve completely forgotten what it was! Still and yet, as more students are beginning to improvise I’ve been wondering lately what the second stage might be. And I think Zac is guiding me down that path!

If you’ve been reading these blogs, you might remember that Zac, who just turned 16, started improvising a month or so ago. He’s been playing about a year and a half, went regularly to David and Linda Lay’s Fruit Stand Jam last summer and fall, and, of his own volition, is playing at nursing homes two or three times a month. (With his band of Susan and Bill Morrison and his dad.) All this to say that learning to improvise is a whole lot easier if you immerse yourself in the music and—this is a biggie—play a lot.

Zac is getting the idea of three-chord-singing-song improv down pretty well. So the other day, just on a whim, I thought I’d try him out on an instrumental. No words to cue on. I trotted out Daybreak in Dixie. (I actually teach this note-for-note on the Ralph Stanley Style DVD.) It’s a great tune, and while it does have a banjo “hook” (a signature lick that Ralph uses in the B part) it can easily be played with generic Scruggs licks.

Zac’s ever-supportive dad Todd was at the lesson playing guitar, so the first thing I did was show Todd the chords so he could accompany me while I played the tune for Zac on the banjo. It has a basic three-chord progression (I, IV, V, not in that order!) and Todd had no trouble picking it up. So Zac got to listen to us practice on that. Then I told Zac to vamp along while his dad and I played through the tune a couple of times. And I gave him this word of advice: “I wouldn’t ask you to try to play this tune if I didn’t think you could do it. I’m not trying to trick you. You can do this.”

And by Jove, he got it! Since he’s been improvising so much, he now has a standard G lick that he automatically goes to to start with and he also has a standard C lick. And, thanks to When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (on the Amazing Grace DVD), he has added Ralph’s most excellent D lick which happens to fit perfectly in Daybreak in Dixie! (Which is where I learned it!) Now I’m not saying Zac played the tune perfectly the first time. It took several passes through before he cobbled something together. But he did end up with a really good version of Daybreak in Dixie.

So at the next lesson we tried Bluegrass Breakdown. (Which I teach note-for-note on the Rawhide DVD, just in case you’re interested!) Again, Todd accompanied me on the guitar and Zac listened and vamped. Bluegrass Breakdown is not hard, but.......it does have an F chord it in, which Zac recognized early on. So before he tried to make up a break, he played through Old Joe Clark to see what he used for the F lick there. Then he used something similar (simular, as we say here) in BG Breakdown. It worked! Good thinking, Zac!

After we’d played it a few times and were taking a rest, Todd said the most amazing thing. He said, “Isn’t Bluegrass Breakdown just like Foggy Mountain Breakdown with an F chord instead of the E minor?” BINGO! It sure is. Then he continued, “And isn’t the part that has the C in it just like Lonesome Road Blues?” BINGO AGAIN! That’s one thing that makes this whole improvising thing work. The songs all sound alike! (See, I can say that, but them’s fighting words if someone else says it!)

As I told Todd, I was just fixing to show Zac how to substitute the up-the-neck break of Lonesome Road Blues for the last section of BG Breakdown. After a false start or two (no pinches after the tag if you’re going up the neck), Zac laid that break in there as pretty as you please. As he was leaving, I reminded him (not so gently!) that for our next lesson I still wanted him to learn the low break to Lonesome Road Blues from the Improvising DVD so he could add that C lick to his bag of tricks. Er, bag of licks! (Got ‘er done yet, Zac???)

So, do I have the beginning of Improvising: The Second Stage? Only time will tell, but perhaps just knowing Zac is doing it will inspire you to go and do likewise!

Murphy Henry

As you can tell, I’m on an improvising kick, and today’s report is on Bob Mc. Normally Bob takes late in the evening about sundown, by which time he’s too tired to pick and I’m too tired to write! But today he came in at, gulp, 9 a.m. Fortunately, I’m somewhat of a morning person. Bob, on the other hand, is NOT a morning person and today this worked to his advantage because, as I’ve told him time and time again, I don’t want him thinking! Especially when we do improvising. I want his HANDS to do the work. We have been laying this foundation for 4 or 5 years, and now, it’s paying off!

Bob’s biggest problem all along has been hearing the chord changes which meant when he got lost in his break he couldn’t come back in. This was seriously affecting his ability to jam. So lately we’ve been hitting chord changes with a vengeance. And somehow, that has led us straight into improvising.

We started our re-learning chord changes with good ol’ Skip To My Lou. Two chords. Hard to go wrong. Still and yet, there were moments.....

We then moved on to You Are My Sunshine. Three chords. Harder but familiar. For each of these songs, I had Bob strum it on the banjo while he tried to hear the words in his head. Sometimes I would sing along, sometimes I would play guitar without singing, sometimes I’d sing while he strummed the banjo, sometimes I’d make him do it totally by himself. (I’ve decided that it is of utmost importance to hear the words to the songs in your head. So I’m really pushing that angle now.) And maybe, after all this time, he was just ready, but something started clicking. He was beginning to hear the words as he played!

So, one night he comes in with a break he has improvised to You Are My Sunshine! Following my improv rule, he is NOT trying to play the melody, he is playing licks that go with the chords. And he’s got a pretty good break, all but the D lick. So we work on that till he comes up with something. But, as often happens, by the next lesson, two weeks later, he’d forgotten his D lick. No big. Instead of trying to recreate what he had originally, I asked him to go with whatever his hands wanted to do this time. It took some work, but he came up with something else. And today when he came in, he could still play a break to the song. Yahoo! I figured we were ready to move on to This Land Is Your Land, chosen because Bob already knew how it went and it only has three chords.

First, I had him listen to me sing the chorus (which is the same as the verse) while I played guitar. Then I had him vamp to it. Which he did pretty well. So, then, because I didn’t think banjo strumming would be useful in this instance, I had him to the two-square-roll pattern (3251, 4251) while he was using the first position chords. We did it a bunch of times, but he had a little trouble with this. I asked him what the problem was. He said it was hard to keep the rhythm going and change chords.

I knew what he meant. It was hard to keep alternating the 3rd and 4th strings properly. Too much thinking involved. It’s amazing how something so seemingly insignificant can pose a problem. He suggested he just use the 3251 roll, and I said fine. He did much better.

So, now he’s using the one simple roll and playing through the chords. This is the Most Basic Improv Break you can take. You can even impress your friends and family with a break like this. But, of course, as Bill Monroe so wisely put it, “You won’t be satisfied that way.” No indeed.

Knowing that, I asked Bob to now add the tag lick and pinches at the end of the break. Piece of cake, I’m thinking. Not! Just making this one little change was hard. I asked him why. He said it was hard to get out of the rhythm of the roll he’d already established. He knew what he was supposed to do, he could hear it in his head, but it was hard to make his hands change the pattern he had going. He said he needed to practice it to get it in his hands. Good answer, good thought.

So we pulled out the last two measures of the song (4 beats D, 4 beats G) and played them over and over in a loop. Which is what you do if you’re trying to familiarize your hands with a new pattern. When we then added this back into the rest of the song, Bob could do it pretty smoothly.

Now, thinks I, we need to use that tag lick and pinches for every G measure in the song! (I’m just making this up as I go along, because I’ve never done This Land with anyone before.) So I told Bob to try that, and by golly, it didn’t take him long to make that happen. I guess once his hand got used to the pattern, it was no harder to put it in other places.

With the addition of 4 tag licks and pinches, Bob now had a pretty decent break. And one other interesting thing happened: as he was working up this last version, his hand started adding a different D roll! He was using the forward/backward roll instead of the square roll—completely without thinking about it. (This is a lick he already used in another song.) His hand was operating on its own! Which is what often happens when improvising. I was SO HAPPY. And Bob was happy. It was a good morning all the way around. I told him to go home and see if he could come up with some other licks for the C and D measures. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. “This land was made for you and me....”

Zac report: At our last lesson he improvised breaks to Bury Me Beneath the Willow and Mountain Dew. It really, really helped that he had heard these songs many times at the Thursday Fruit Stand Jam.

Murphy Henry

Okay, so this is about me. (Fancy that!)

Red and I had an opportunity to play some gospel songs for a friend recently. I had the banjo and Red had the mandolin so we were guitarless, but who said you need a guitar to play bluegrass?

The last song we did was Jesus Loves Me which I, of course, having been raised Baptist, have known since I was a wee bairn. (Somewhere along the line I also accumulated all three verses, but that’s just what I do, memorize lyrics without even realizing it.) All this to say I know the song Very Well.

Still and yet, I’d never played a lead break on the banjo. I’m not sure I’d even vamped it on banjo. But I wanted to sing it so, since I don’t regularly sing Jesus Loves Me, the first thing I had to do was figure out what key might be good for my voice on that day, at that time, which happened to be before noon.

I started in G (a very good place to start) and since that seemed too high, I backed it down a notch to, gulp, F. Now, unlike the great Alan Munde, I don’t play a whole lot in F. And if I do have an occasion to play in F, I almost always capo up three and play out of D or capo up five and play out of C. (Don’t ask!) Casey, on the other hand, brave soul that she is, is more likely to play in open F. That is, without a capo, using the natural, open chords F, B-flat, and C. (1, 4, 5.) So, on this day, for whatever reason, I chose the Casey way. Open F.

As Red was kicking it off, playing the simple melody on the mandolin, I found myself playing the melody along with him. I have NO IDEA how I was doing that, it just seemed like the melody notes were right there under my fingertips. Of course, I did know the chord progression inside and out, so I wasn’t having to think about that. And I do know, somewhere in the back of my brain, that usually the melody notes can be found somewhere on the strings that are being held down. But still, I have to tell you, that playing a straight melody on banjo is not my forte. Rolls, yes. Melody, not so much. And I was really pleased when the song shifted to B-flat that I was even able to find the melody notes in that chord. (I think there were only two, on the first and second string. I was using the barre at the third fret.)

By the end of the song Red and I were twinning the break, verse and chorus. He, of course, was doing the harmony and I the lead. Simple but ethereal. If I do say so myself.

So, all I have to say, again, is the Murphy Method works! Even for Murphy! Whoo hoo!

PS: This is not about improvising but I have to tell you. Bill Morrison, who is taking bass lessons from me, is progressing very nicely on the instrument. He jams a lot with his wife Susan on banjo, and Zac on banjo, and in a Sunday jam some of the original Misfits hold fairly regularly. And let me add, because it is relevant to the story, that he can play Rocky Top in the Key of G pretty well.

So last weekend he and Susan went to a new jam where one of the singers did Rocky Top in the key of B-flat. Well, Bill has ventured into the key of B, but we haven’t done much, if any, work in B-flat. And Rocky Top, as you may know, has a tricky progression and several “off” chords in it. (F, Em) So what did Bill do? As he told it, “So I just played it in G.” I thought I was going to bust a gut laughing. He went on to explain that he did play very quietly and that there were lots and lots of guitars. So it wasn’t likely that anyone heard him anyhow! Never would have thought of that, Bill! That brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Whatever you do, don’t stop playing!” You go, Bill!

And a great big Happy Birthday to my youngest sister, Laurie. I’m heading down to Charlotte, N.C., this weekend to celebrate with her and two of my other sisters. We’re going hiking! And shopping! And I’m taking my fiddle so we’ll also be playing music! Christmas carols! I can’t wait.....

Murphy Henry

I am always so excited when students learn to improvise because improvising is, in the long run, what the Murphy Method is all about. Learning all those songs from the DVDs is just the starting place.

Soooooooo, when Zac improvised his first tune Thursday (Blue Ridge Cabin Home, of course!) I called Casey to say, “It works! The Murphy Method really works!”

As always, I feel compelled to tell you about the careful foundation that was laid that led to this breakthrough. And it’s not just me doing my thing, it’s also Zac (and his devoted parents) doing their part.

Zac is fifteen and has been taking almost a year and a half now. He has followed the basic Murphy Method program: Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 and 2, Misfits, Jam Session Standards, and a couple of gospel tunes from Amazing Grace. He has learned to vamp to these tunes. So, that’s my part, setting him on the right path and only occasionally kicking his butt.

His part, which his parents facilitate, has been playing at the weekly Winchester jam sessions at Linda’s Mercantile, playing regularly at a local nursing home (with Murphy Method students Susan on banjo and Bill on bass and his dad on guitar), and attending numerous bluegrass concerts and festivals. He is even—and this just blows me away—learning to sing so his nursing home shows will not just be an unending string of instrumentals. And did I mention that he entered a banjo contest and won first place?

So it’s not too surprising that he caught onto improvising so quickly because, with this much playing under his belt, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Still and yet, the gratification for me is ENORMOUS.

This is how it went down: We have about ten minutes left at the end of the lesson, so I say, “Let’s try some improvising.” Fortunately, Zac had heard Blue Ridge Cabin Home and could already easily chord to it. So I give him my standard improvising spiel and say, “All I want you to do is play licks that fit the chords. This is NOT about playing the melody.” He obviously understood because during his first pass through the break, he came up with a great G lick, most of a C lick, and then got stumped on the D lick. But we kept trying and pretty soon he had something that fit the D chord.

As I also told him, “There is no wrong way to do this as long as you play a lick that fits the chord and you stay in time. It may not be the greatest sounding break in the world, but we’re not looking for great, we’re just looking for something. This is where we start. We’ll get to great later.”

Pretty soon he had a very creditable break. And I could have left it there. But we still had a few more minutes so I said, “For that D lick, you could also use the D lick in Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” And just as I was saying that he was saying, “I could also use the Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arm lick.” Oh, yes, you can, Zac, you clever boy!

I had him play through his break using the Roll in Arms lick, then I had him play it using the FMB lick, and then—and I loved that he could do this—I had him play it using one of these licks for the first D and the other for the second D. His choice. He came through with flying colors. I was, to use a bluegrass phrase, sitting on top of the world. And I think Zac was pretty pleased with himself, too.

It will be interesting to see where we go from here. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Red Henry

I went over to the local jam last night. Why do I go to that jam? I've said it before in these pages: PRACTICE. But on some Thursdays the practice is easier than on others.

Now, when you get into real life jams, some of them aren't as easy to play along with as (for example) on our Slow Jam or Picking Up the Pace DVDs. Sometimes, you have to work. And at first, I thought this would be one of THOSE THURSDAYS. We kicked off the jam a bit after 7:00, when five guitar players, two fiddlers, a banjo picker, and one mandopicker (me) had arrived and tuned up.

At first, it was heavy slogging. Few of the pickers besides myself wanted to take the lead in playing or singing songs, although Murphy's banjo student Zac was an exception and played a creditable version of 'Cripple Creek'. I sang a couple of songs, and it looked like it'd be a long night.

But at that point, help started arriving. Jam hosts (and excellent pickers) Linda and David brought in their bass and guitar, and joined the jam. Guitar picker and singer Gerald came in and added his talents to the mix. Fiddlers Wayne and Stormie arrived and got out their fiddles. Suddenly we really had a jam.

Right away, David and Linda wanted to sing 'Your Selfish Heart'. That's an old Stanley Brothers number that we get a good high trio on, and we always have fun singing it. Then Linda, who has one of the finest voices I've ever heard, sang 'I'll Go Stepping Too'. Things went on from there, and it was all very satisfactory.

With all that talent coming into the jam, we couldn't miss. All the songs and tunes sounded good. It was fun.

Good practice, too.

Red