Improvising

Red Henry

I'm just back from Hiawassee, Georgia, where I was one of the judges at the Georgia State Fiddlers Convention. There were contests for fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, Dobro, and other instruments, so we did probably 15 hours of judging over two days.

The judges, along with contest MC Barry Palmer and friends, played a set of music each day-- after all, since we were judging the contest, we needed to show that we could play! Our Saturday set went real well (no surprise, since the five people on stage probably had 150 or 200 years of professional musical experience between them), and afterwards I was talking with Chuck Nation, another of the judges, about how much fun our set was. Chuck expresses himself very well, and he commented about playing in a band: "The difference between amateurs and professionals, is that amateurs are competing with each other, and professionals are helping each other." Well said!

I've talked about it before on this blog, but Chuck's comment really put it down plainly where we can understand it. If you're playing in a group-- on stage or off-- are you listening? Are you trying every second to help the BAND (not just yourself) sound as good as possible? Are you playing so as to support the other musicians, not just to make yourself sound good? Your level of proficiency doesn't matter, and plenty of people who can play well don't play in a professional manner, in this respect!

You may be an amateur player, but you can play in a professional way. Think about it.

Red

Red Henry

Last weekend I went over to Nashville for the International Bluegrass Music Association convention. During the day I helped Casey with our Murphy Method booth, but both nights I went over to my uncle John's house to pick. John Hedgecoth is a banjo player with long-standing credentials including a stint in Bill Monroe's band in the 1970s. He can also play ANYTHING on a banjo, from bluegrass ro jazz to classical, so it was good to pick with him. He invited a few other folks over, and we played a whole lot of tunes. We picked quite a few Bill Monroe numbers. We played lots of traditional tunes. We also played some entertaining numbers like 'Sweet Sue,' 'Baby Elephant Walk,' and "When I'm 64." John played them all on banjo with aplomb. Nothing could be easier than picking with him, and it was all good.

Then last night, back here in Winchester, I went over to the weekly Thursday Night Jam. Playing music there was a different situation. About 15 local musicians were playing for an audience of about 50, inside a greenhouse. (It wasn't any stranger than it sounds, but the acoustics were not the best.) There were about 7 guitar players, three mandolin players, two each playing banjo and fiddle, and (thank goodness) a string bass. So I got near the bass player and played firm rhythm on Randy Wood #3-- a mandolin with unexcelled projection-- and the rhythm was there. Not great rhythm, but adequate. The on-beat was there from the bass and the off-beat was there from the mandolin, and everybody hung together adequately. And everybody had a good time.

Congratulations to Murphy's student Zac, who won the banjo contest at Burlington, WV last Sunday! Way to go! We had him play 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' at the jam, and he did quite well with both the low break and the high break. Good picking--

Red Henry

Last Saturday I had a good time playing music with family and friends in the gazebo. And, you may ask, just where is that particular gazebo? Well, it's some distance from here. It's on the town square in Clarkesville, Georgia. And, in spite of some rain, we all had a good time.

The band for this occasion included, along with myself on mandolin, my old friend and now brother-in-law Mike Johnson, on banjo; Murphy's #3 sister (and Mike's wife) Argen Hicks, on bass; Murphy's #4 sister, excellent singer/songwriter Nancy Pate on guitar; and our friend, multi-instrumentalist Barry Palmer on fiddle. What did we do? We just played music. Well, we did run over some numbers at Argen and Mike's house beforehand. That was fun, too. Then we went over to the middle of town and set up at the gazebo and played our first set.

Now, I've talked before about how good it is when people are really playing together. This can happen immediately, as is did at that party I talked about a few days ago, or it can happen because everybody listens and adapts. On this particular day we had a group that hadn't ever played together before, and I think we all played with slightly different natural rhythms. When we started practicing back at the house we sounded a bit loose, but by the time we started up at the gazebo, we sounded pretty tight. So how did this happen? It happened because everybody there was a very experienced performer and knew what to do. Everyone was listening and adapting to everyone else, one song after another, and in a short time we were really playing together well.

You don't have to be a professional picker to do this. You don't have to have played for 20 (or 30, or 40) years to listen to everyone else and adapt to their rhythm and play what sounds good.

As soon as you are able to play in a group, you can start listening to the other pickers (in fact, those two things go together). You can start listening to the other instruments and to the vocals, and follow your ears in trying to play (or not play) things that help the whole group sound good. If there's a banjo or guitar player drowning everybody out you usually can't help that, but if that player is YOU, then you can. Whatever instrument you're playing, try to play steadily and supportively to the others. (Sometimes this means scarcely playing at all, during other leads or vocals.) When it comes time for you to take a lead, think about it ahead of time-- stop playing for a few beats if you need to, to set up your hands and brain to start playing the break at the right time-- and then keep listening to the rhythm while you're playing your lead. That way, whether you're playing lead or backup, you'll be playing together with the others. And that can help them do the same thing (more on that later).

Happy picking!

Red

Red Henry

The title for this blog may seem strange, but it's pretty important. As I mentioned before, Christopher and I played a party Saturday night before last, and we had two fine musicians with us-- Mike Munford and Ira Gitlin. All four of us fit together perfectly, and our band dynamics-- making the instrument leads stand out, putting the vocals out front, adapting the backup every moment to make the lead sound its best-- were excellent.

During our first set break, Ira commented on this. He knew how rare it is for everybody in a band to be paying attention and always playing so as to make the lead instrument or vocal sound its best. He knew how very often, even with good musicians, the guitar player will be showing off his fancy bass runs, or the harmony singers will pay little attention to the lead singer, or the lead singer will be drowned out by a banjo player who's playing lead all the time, all over everybody else's vocals and instruments. But the four of us were playing TOGETHER-- not just playing the same song at the same time, but listening to each other and playing together. And it was good.

You can pay attention to this too, whenever you're playing music with other people. Is someone else singing a song? Make sure you're not the one drowning him (or her) out. Is somebody else playing a lead break? Listen to that person, and play some gentle backup as appropriate to make the lead sound good. LISTEN all the time, and do whatever your ears tell you to, to make the music always sound as good as it can. That way, you won't be just playing the song at the same time-- you'll be playing it together.

Did you ever try to play music in a place that wasn't familiar, and found yourself so distracted by the room, or the people, or the lighting, or the phase of the moon, that you had trouble playing? Or did you learn to play music while sitting down all the time, and then try to play while standing up? It might have been uncomfortable at first. You were in an unfamiliar situation.

I was reminded of this two nights ago, when I flew my very first night solo (well, my first since 1971). I'd flown several times at night recently with my instructor, but hadn't tried it alone. So I took off about sunset and just practiced landings over and over, and kept at it as it got really dark.

Now, I've made about 400 daytime landings or so in the last 7 months. So I'm pretty familiar with them now. But now I was flying at night, and the situation was different. I really had to concentrate to find some of the same visual clues I'm used to in the daytime, and I had to adopt some new ones. But it worked. The results? 11 pretty good landings, including the last 3 in the pitch dark. But it did take concentration and practice in the new, dark situation (making those landings over and over). It was a gradual thing, but finally I was pretty comfortable with it. I really had to concentrate, but it just took some practice.

You can make the same kind of adjustment when you're playing music in an unfamiliar situation. If you're put off your stride (or even freaked out) by standing up to play, or playing in a new place, or playing in front of people, or playing in a group you're not used to, then don't concentrate on the unfamiliar stuff. Simplify what you're doing and concentrate on yourself and the notes you're playing. Keep your eyes on your instrument and play tunes you can play in your sleep, or your favorite basic backup licks, or just vamp until you have your hands and mind under control again. Let your brain assimilate the new variables a little at a time, and eventually you'll get used to the new situation. Play your same familiar tunes and licks over and over standing up, for example, and you'll get to where you can stand up in a group and handle not only your oldest material but new things as well. Practice at different places in your house, or your yard. Play when one or two family or friends are around-- not suddenly for a crowd, but gradually. Even if you're freaked out at first, it just takes some practice!

Red

Red Henry

Red Henry


Folks, I just ran across a photo and wanted to share it with you. A few years ago, a member of the "Co-Mando" mandolin email list held a gathering at his house in Maryland, a couple of hours' drive from here. Our friend David McLaughlin rode over to the gathering with me, and we joined nine or ten other mandolin players for an afternoon of visiting and picking.

At one point, we lined up our mandolins on a soft couch so that everyone there could try all of them out (it's called a "mandolin tasting", and someone took a photo. Here it is:
Mandos104

Seen here at the party are 11 mandolins, my mandola, and my home-made mandocello conversion. Among the mandolins are the two I brought (Randy Wood #1 and #3), as well as the one David brought (a 1923 F-5). Others seen in the photo include two Rigel mandolins, one late-1950s Gibson, and a few other makes. The other pickers were especially excited to have the chance to play that 1923 F-5, after David generously put it on the couch for "tasting." They were also amused to play Randy Wood #3, the one formerly owned by Bill Monroe, and get themselves a few molecules of Bill as they played. (My four instruments in the picture are distinguished by their light-colored maple bridges.) See if you can pick out David's Loar in the photo!

As you can guess, a good time was had by all. And we've got the pictures to prove it!

Red

Red Henry

Red Henry

At the Florida Folk Festival, Chris, John, and I were picking at our campsite, warming up to play a set. Since John knows a great many of Bill Monroe's tunes and plays them on the banjo, we were exploring the Monroe "deep catalog." We did play 'Jerusalem Ridge', but we also played 'Old Ebeneezer Scrooge' and 'Come Hither to Go Yonder' and 'The Old Mountaineer' and 'Crossing the Cumberlands' and 'Right, Right On' and more.

A person who was new to this kind of music stood by one side and listened. When we finished one tune she asked, "Who wrote that music that you're playing?" I replied, "Bill Monroe." She asked, "Is it authentic?"

I pointed to John and said, "That man right there was playing banjo for Bill when he was writing and playing these tunes, and yes, it's authentic!"

Red Henry

Red Henry


As you may recall if you've been a MM blog reader for some time, I'm taking flying lessons. Over and over, I find parallels between learning to fly and our students learning to play music.

In the last several weeks I've made a lot of progress in flying. I've flown solo to some airports over a hundred miles away and returned home easily. Flying solo, I've made some difficult landings in crosswinds and tailwinds, and had gotten pretty confident of my ability to get the plane on the ground safely in nearly any situation. But recently, the quality of my landings deteriorated for no reason that I could see. All of a sudden, just getting on the ground solo was a problem. Safety was not an issue-- it's very easy and safe to keep trying landings over and over until one is right and you land-- but the landings were much more difficult. Practice didn't help, as my landings got more and more awkward. So in search of some insight I took a flight with the chief instructor, and he gave me some new angles, exercises, and tips on landing the plane, and now my landings are back to normal.

Is this connected to learning to play? You bet. Whether you're learning your first tune or your hundredth, you'll have ups and downs in your learning. You'll play a tune well one day, and suddenly be unable to get through it the next. You play in groups and jams with no problem, and then one day you find that your fingers don't work right in front of other people. This is normal!

This happens to professional players too, but you usually can't tell when they're on stage. Some days (or weeks) we just can't play as well as other times. Practice helps, but sometimes, like golfers and baseball pitchers, we can get into a slump, though the audience won't usually notice it. Professionals just let it go, perhaps giving themselves a break by taking a few days off, because they know that the music will come back.

When you're in a slump, try something new. If practice isn't helping, you might even take a few days off from playing. If playing in your usual jam group doesn't help, try taking a week off from the jam, or playing with some other folks for an evening instead. Listen to some banjo music that's different from your usual fare. Relax and play along with our Slow Jam or Picking Up the Pace DVDs. Ask your instructor to just spend a lesson playing, trading breaks on your familiar tunes, instead of trying to learn any new tunes for a while. Everybody needs a break!

Red

Red Henry

Red Henry


Murphy, in an old Banjo Newsletter column, talked at length about how people want to become Independent Banjo Players. They want to be able to get in a group and play tunes, play backup, and pass the breaks around to others just like "independent" pickers do, who don't need a teacher's guidance to participate. And they need to be able to do all this while standing up!

I thought about this yesterday while I was on a solo cross-country flight. As you learn to be an independent pilot, you learn to fly the plane and land it, communicate with other pilots in the air, and to navigate from one place to another-- and eventually, you do all this without an instructor's help. So I took off yesterday morning by myself and flew about 75 miles to an airport I'd never seen before (Somerset County, Pa.), landed there, took off again, and found my way right back and landed here at Winchester. When I got back here, I felt like I was learning to be an Independent Pilot. Could I have done this without a lot of training from my instructor? Of course not. But is it good to feel like an Independent Pilot? Oh, yes.

It also feels good when you learn to be an Independent Banjo Player. You know that you can stand up in a group, play the tunes, do backup when someone else is playing, take breaks and pass them off when you're through playing yourself, and start and finish the tune at the same time as everybody else. Can you learn this all at once? No. And like everything else, it takes some folks longer to learn than others. But when you reach your goal, it feels good. You know you're an Independent Banjo Player.

Red

Red Henry

Red Henry


Last night, my instructor Brian and I made a cross-country flight to an airport about 62 miles away. The flight was in the dark, it was over some pretty sparsely-populated Virginia and West Virginia mountains, and it was in a very small single-engined airplane. We navigated visually at night, and we were not flying on instruments. Were we scared? No, not even when one of the radios quit working. We didn't really need any radios at all. Did we have any trouble getting there and back? No. It was a lot of fun.

The flight went really smoothly, and along with flying the plane I was able to do all the things I've been practicing: checking our course on the ground, checking our speed toward our destination, cross-checking our progress using the navigational radio that still worked, and talking when necessary to Air Traffic Control and other airplanes. Then, of course, I had to land the plane when we got where we were going and again when we came back. In the dark. Was all this complicated? Yes, a bit. Could I have done all this right after I started training? No, of course not. Why wasn't it overwhelming? Because I'd learned it all a step at a time.

I keep finding similarities between learning to fly and learning to play music. Learning to pick is something you need to do a little at a time. Our banjo students, for example, no matter how much they want to, can't launch right into learning "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", or playing "Dueling Banjos", or improvising in jam sessions, right off the bat. Nobody can (except maybe teenagers). Instead, the students need to go through our Beginning Banjo DVDs step-by-step to learn the building blocks-- the banjo licks-- which they're going to use. Then they need to go, step-by-step, into more advanced DVDs which teach them how to put those building blocks together, one step at a time.

Taking one step at a time, it all makes sense and becomes easier. You start with one thing and learn another, and then you aren't overwhelmed and discouraged by not being able to do it all at once! Learn to play step-by-step at your own speed, and after a while you'll be cruising over the mountains yourself.

Red