Learning By Ear

Red Henry

For those who haven't seen the announcements on various music lists, the great bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker died yesterday in Nashville. Kenny was probably the most influential bluegrass fiddler of our time, having played with Bill Monroe for over 15 years (in itself a record for Bill's sidemen). He played fiddle on all of Bill's classic albums from the late 1960s to the mid-'80s, a nearly-indescribable wealth of bluegrass music which included Bill's great "Uncle Pen" and "Master of Bluegrass" LPs. Kenny's tone, timing, and note choice were the best anywhere, proven not only on his performances and recordings with Bill, but also by the six or seven LPs he recorded on the County label.

Kenny was a grand gentleman, and he loved to pick. He said he learned from other musicians all the time. During his tenure with Bill Monroe's band, he often got out in the parking lot at festivals and played for hours with people like you and me. He said that sometimes people gave him trouble for that, saying "That's not professional!" -- and that got his dander up. He would reply to them, "Who's tellin' WHO here, what's professional?"

The first time I picked with Kenny was at the Lavonia, Georgia festival in July, 1970. I've forgotten just how the session started, but suddenly Mike and Polly Johnson and I were picking in a circle with Kenny. I think we'd just played Bill Cheatham when Kenny, always encouraging to young players, said his first words to me: "That's good mandolin pickin', buddy."

Top: me, Polly Johnson, Mike Johnson. Lower left: Kenny Baker.

I often picked with Kenny after that. I lived on the East Coast from 1972-74, attending as many festivals as I could, and during that time Kenny and I often closed out festivals on Sunday night by picking for hours at my campsite. He was a terrific inspiration for this young picker, and I learned a great deal from him. His talent was amazingly diversified--he could play jazz as well as bluegrass and old time tunes, and occasionally groused in private about being restricted to playing "this MON-roe stuff" for a living. On one occasion, Mike Johnson and I and some friends got Kenny away from a festival at Brasstown Bald, Georgia, and brought him to Mike's cabin nearby to pick. We played for a long time that night, and away from the bluegrass crowd Kenny played some real hot fiddle before we had to take him back to the show.

Kenny Baker left a huge legacy of music both on record albums and in our memories. Thanks, Kenny! Keep on fiddling.


Red Henry

In the last week or so, I've participated in three really different kinds of picking sessions. All three were enjoyable, all three were beneficial (read: good practice), and all three might have hints for Murphy Method students who like to pick.

The first jam, on Thursday evening, was the weekly event at Linda's Mercantile and Fruit Stand, a mile or two north of Winchester, VA on U.S. 522. As usual, by 7:00 p.m. we had a full crowd of listeners and a dozen or so pickers, and things got under way. Now, you need to understand that at this Thursday night event, the music is not just for the musicians. It's for the listeners too. And the musicians are not all experts (plus, we don't often have a bass player) so you need to hold the music together the best you can and let the audience enjoy the show.

There were about 9 guitar players, 3 fiddle players, 3 banjo players, two mandolin pickers, and a gentleman who alternated between harmonica and spoons. In this situation, holding the music together generally means finding the solidest guitar picker and putting my rhythm 'chunks" right between his down-beats, so that everybody can hear the rhythm. I have a mandolin which will be heard, and so that clear off-beat sound helps all the other musicians stay in time with each other. And then we have to play music for the audience. What do we do? Well, for one thing, before launching into a number it's good to check around to see if some of the other musicians know it. In fact, it's best to stick with well-known tunes and songs altogether, so that nobody's getting lost and everybody can play. Then, when playing or singing lead, you need to get to the front of the group and make sure that the audience can hear what you're playing and singing-- this is pretty important-- and take turns, so that everybody gets a chance to sing or play their favorite numbers, even if they aren't forward enough about it to say they want to. As many musicians and singers as possible, even the shy ones, need to be invited to play. And we did a whole lot of bluegrass and old country songs. It was a good session, and the audience liked it.

The second session was on Friday night. This was an old-time session, playing all traditional or traditional-style tunes, held in a primitive cabin over in West Virginia. We had about 12 or 13 players there: 3 or 4 each on banjo and fiddle, plus a couple each of guitars and mandolins, and a bass. We had a wide range of proficiencies in the group, but the players were all involved and paying attention, and knew what to do in a jam. This meant that we all knew many of the same tunes, and nobody was trying to show off, and nobody was holding the group back. We hit comfortable tempos right off on tunes we all knew, and the music was fun and comfortable to play. I had to quit early, but the group went on to a late hour, partly just because the music was going so well.

On Sunday night Murphy and I were invited to another old-time session, but this time the situation was different. There were about 9 people there. The majority of them had played bluegrass or old-time music for a living at one time or another, and they were mighty fine pickers. (The few "amateurs" were real good players, too.) Since we were playing old-time instead of bluegrass, though, some of the well-known bluegrass pickers switched off from their regular instruments. Murphy, for example, played fiddle instead of banjo. Cousin David played banjo instead of mandolin. And our friend Marshall was there, but he stuck with his usual instrument and played amazing-as-always bass. And two real pros at old-time music were there to inspire the rest of us.

So what did we play? At a session like this, along with familiar tunes, we could bring out a good many fine but interesting and obscure numbers to play. And everybody there listened really well all the time, and kept their rhythm "tight" with the other players. It was a mighty enjoyable time, one of the best old-time sessions I've ever played in, in spite of the fact that the majority of the musicians were not old-time, but bluegrass players!

So what does this musical peregrination show? It shows that you can enjoy a lot of different musical situations. It doesn't have to be all bluegrass. You can have a great experience playing many different kinds of music. Just relax, keep your ears open, "play together" with everybody else, and have a good time!


Red Henry

Since I pick with people when I get the chance, and I've also taught a good many music lessons in my life, I've developed an attitude about listening and learning. It's this: If you can't or don't listen, you can't play. At least, you can't play right. You have to know what a tune sounds like before you can play it. And tab won't show you what a tune sounds like-- you can only learn that from listening. Sound obvious? It's not obvious at all to a lot of folks.

Murphy expresses this in a way when she says, "Listen, listen, listen, and play, play, play!" What does it mean? It means that you can't learn to play a tune right unless you've heard it, and preferably, heard it a lot. This is why tab won't help you to play a tune right, because tab can't show you what a tune actually sounds like. West-Coast banjo wizard Pat Cloud said in a recent Banjo Newsletter interview that he wishes his students would listen to a tune a hundred times before they looked at the tab. Well-known player Pete Wernick stated, also in BNL, that since students have to get away from tab eventually, it's better if they don't use it in the first place.

What does this have to do with you, the Murphy Method student? Only that you need to listen. Listen to the music you want to learn. Listen to the music on CD over and over, whether it's on Earl's records, or Murphy's, or Casey's, or whoever else's recordings, but get that sound in your head before you expect to learn the tune! Once you know what the tune sounds like, you're ready to start playing it! And you'll learn a whole lot faster, too.

Red Henry

Folks, we've had a terrific response to our first 6 DVDs offered as digital downloads (details here). We didn't know quite what to think of this new technology at first, but when we put these 6 up on line, the response from old and new students has been excellent. It appears that the downloads have a bright future for the Murphy Method. These are our titles available at present:

Beginning Banjo Volume 1
Beginning Banjo Volume 2
Slow Jam with Murphy and Casey
Picking Up the Pace: More Slow Jamming
Easy Songs for Banjo
Beyond Vamping: Fancy Banjo Backup

...so as you can see, it's a great bunch of titles. Now, we're working on 8 more DVDs, which will be available digitally in a few weeks:

Banjo for Misfits
Vamping: Beginning Banjo Backup
Improvising: The First Stage
Beginning Guitar
Beginning Mandolin
Beginning Bass
Beginning Fiddle
Beginning Dobro

These will occupy us for a while, as we take care of all the details about putting them on line. I'd estimate that it will take about 5 or 6 weeks to have them available. But from now on, we need to hear from you. Which of our DVDs would you most like to see available this way? We'll have about 25 more DVDs, and need to know which way to go. Please let us know, either through your comments on this post, or by way of the "Contact Us" button on the website. We can't promise that your favorite DVD will be on line soon, but your opinion is important!

Red Henry

Red Henry

Let's talk about playing music this time of year (and, as bluegrass aficionados may note, cop a title from the Stanley Brothers). Winter often seems to be a pretty dead time for performance opportunities and even jam sessions. Energy levels are low. In this part of the country, the weather may also prohibit travel to some events we'd like to attend. But it's important to Keep Picking, especially if you're learning to play.

Even if you can't get out to play with other people (or if, as in some parts of the country, the nearest pickers are out of reach), you can play a little each day. You might be surprised at how soon you can get really rusty if you aren't playing-- sometimes, four or five days can set you 'way back. But even 15 or 20 minutes a day can keep your skills up to a tolerable level.

That photo above was taken in 1971, when I was in the Air Force at Del Rio, Texas for a year. That whole year I never found anybody to pick with there, but I tried to play a little every day I could. And I not only held onto what I could play to begin with, but made some progress as well.

Of course, it's always easier to practice if you have other people to play with. But if you don't, our Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs are made just for you. You can also play along with Murphy at the end of nearly every lesson on our other DVDs. And I have heard of people even practicing with each other on the phone! However you do it, don't forget your Holiday Picking.


Red Henry

Folks, Christmas is coming fast, and we know you want your DVDs! So today (Tuesday) and tomorrow (Wednesday), as a special gesture of thanks for your orders, we will ship ALL ORDERS by PRIORITY MAIL (2-3 day shipping) at no additional cost to you.

This will give your packages their best chance to arrive at your house by Christmas Eve. So place your orders either on line or on the phone (800-227-2357), and we'll send them out today and tomorrow by Priority Mail!

Red Henry

Now, you may justifiably ask, what kind of title is that? Here at the Murphy Method we play bluegrass, don't we? But I do get into old time picking sessions sometimes, and last Friday we had one at Cousin David's house.

Now, this wasn't like the last session at Cousin David's. No, indeed. That time, we had 17 or 18 pickers in the Tater Hill Tavern. This time it was different. How many pickers were there? Three.

Three musicians usually make a pretty thin jam session, but this time we had a good combination of people. Cousin David played the banjo, in his own unique old-time style. Our friend Jamie played fiddle at first, switching off later to banjo-ukulele (yes, such instruments are allowed in old-time music). I played mandolin mostly, but Cousin David had suggested that I bring my fiddle, and I picked that up for the last several numbers. And anchored by Cousin David's supernatural sense of rhythm, we played for a couple of hours and had a good time. We PAID ATTENTION and PLAYED TOGETHER.

So what did we play? We played a few tunes that the bluegrass people know, such as Soldier's Joy and Red-Haired Boy. We played some old-timey classics like Cowboy's Dream and Old Mother Flanagan. And we also played some pretty obscure tunes, like Blake's March and The Squirrel Hunters. And why am I talking about all this? Because the basics of a good jam are the same in all kinds of music. You can have a good session with only two or three pickers, or with 20, as long as everybody PAYS ATTENTION and PLAYS TOGETHER.

You might see people in jam sessions who aren't paying attention to anyone but themselves. These people sometimes play too softly to be heard, not because they're shy but because, I guess, they don't care about being heard (so why are they there?), and others might be playing too loudly all the time. Either way, they're not LISTENING to everybody else and PLAYING TOGETHER. Or, you'll sometimes find people who try to crowd everybody else out of the center of the jam, or deliberately play so loud as to drown out other folks. What does that have to do with PLAYING TOGETHER? Nothing.

Most of the people reading this blog know what to do in a jam session, partly because many of you have been in jams directed by Murphy or Casey. You can also practice listening and playing at the same time with our Murphy Method Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs. But no matter where you are or whom you're picking with, always remember to LISTEN to the jam and PLAY TOGETHER!


This post comes from a Murphy Method student in Arizona, Dave Eisenhuth.

I am sure your have a library full of e-mails from frustrated students at different levels of instruction, however I wanted to share this with you. As my instructor you may appreciate it.  I do not know if it was divine intervention, the Murphy Mojo or something else, but I thought I would share.

Last week, I waited with baited breath as the next journey in the Murphy Method was about to begin.  I had burned through Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 so I went ahead and ordered Vol 2, Misfits, and Vamping dvd's and the Christmas DVD from Casey.  They arrived and I jumped right in.  After following your banjo track I decided that Sunday was to be dedicated to Misfits and Vamping.  I awoke early on Sunday morning and after mass, I came home, greeted the morning, and jumped right in.  After my usual warm up exercises going through all the songs from Vol. 1 I hit the Misfits and had a very good session of learning.  Feeling confident (where the fun began) I tore open the Vamping DVD and began, what would become a very frustrating day and evening.

After about 4 hrs and a break for lunch, I began to realize that #1 my fingers were not cooperating with my brain and not only was I having trouble with the chords, but also listening and hearing the chord changes.  That brings us to around 7:00 pm Sunday night and a constant spiral into bad playing.  Now I could not even play anything without major mistakes.  I should have packed the banjo away and left it for another day, however being a stubborn mule of a man I pressed on.  The constant thought in my head was, I am a college graduate with an advance degree, I am an insurance and financial business owner by trade, this can not be that difficult.  Well the Banjo Gods did not agree and the systematic failure in my playing continued. Around 8:30pm I had finally had enough and after many expletives and adjectives I  half jokingly told my wife I was going to take the truck out for a drive and  return the Banjo to the Gods since apparently a Yankee born and raised in Tucson, AZ  is not meant to play the banjo.

I packed the banjo in the truck with the full intention to either bury it in the desert or to see how well a banjo could fly as it was tossed out of a truck at 70 miles an hour.

We live north of Tucson near the base of the Catalina Mountains and I decided to head off and clear my head and say goodbye to my banjo with a quick and painless assassination of my newly found foe.  It was a full moon and the saguaros and mountains were literally stunning.  My wife had recently purchased me XM satellite radio and I just happened to come across a station called Bluegrass Junction. I figured I could not play, but at least I could enjoy the music as I drifted along the highway.

What happened next, I still cannot wrap my head around, and since I am not a drinker, nor a partaker of the herbal cigarettes (at least since college), but over the next 1/2 hour I began to hear all the licks in the songs that were being played and the vamping and the chord changes. Thinking that I had or was about to lose my mind I pulled over at a small turn out and realized I had been driving for about an hour and was well on my way into the mountains.  As I sat there for the next 25 minutes, it was if the songs themselves were trying to teach me something and the clarity of the licks, chord changes and vamping were amazing.

Then the epiphany happened. In 40 degree weather under a full moon I broke out a camp chair and camp light I had in the truck and took out my banjo and tried to follow along.  Amazingly I was able to vamp and my fingers were working making the chords, I could make the chord changes with the song and at least could recognize some of the licks begin played on the radio, although I could not play the lead, I could at least hear the chord changes and vamp along somewhat with a limp.

At this point, I again was happy and my banjo was safe from destruction.  I was so happy sitting there under the stars playing with the radio blasting,  I guess I did not realize that standing behind me was and Arizona Highway Patrolman.  After a near heart attack he simply stated that he had been driving southbound and noticed someone at a turn out with a camp light playing a banjo.  An oddity in Arizona to say the least.  I explained the entire day that lead up to this and we both had a good laugh and as it turns out he was a bluegrass fan and had dabbled in the guitar.  I told him of your teaching method and he said he would check it out.

I guess the moral to all this is in my mind is, Don't over practice to the point of exhaustion, Never give up, and most importantly your teaching method, although not always apparent immediately is actually re-programming you brain and ear to hear things the average player may not.

In the week since my ability has increased substantially from that night and my only complaint now is that when I listen to the songs it is hard to enjoy them because I am listening for chord changes, vamping and licks.  Instead of just enjoying the song.  For now I will take that trade off.

As to your method, based on that experience, is truly groundbreaking, or I am losing my mind LOL.  Either way I want to Thank You, Casey, Red and the rest of the Murphy Method Misfits and Monkeys for your teachings and instructions and looking forward in continuing my Banjo journey with you lessons and camps

Happy Thanksgiving to you all

A Very Happy and Devoted Student of the Murphy Method!

Casey Henry

One of our long-time mail order students, Bill Breen, received a question from a fellow member of Banjo Hangout asking whether he had used The Murphy Method to learn to play. In response Bill wrote a nice long email about how and why the method worked for him. He said that we could share it here, so, even though it's a little like preaching to the choir, here is his excellent testimonial:

Yes, indeed, Murphy Henry IS my banjo hero. She was able to teach me to play banjo using her "Murphy Method" when all other methods and books I tried failed me. I know there have been a number of threads on the BHO wherein some members claim her method doesn't teach by ear. I am living proof that she DOES teach by ear. I am grateful to her for that, because I can sit down and come up with a break for a song without resorting to "tabbing it out."

Her method initially involves learning songs by rote, but then one progresses to recognizing "licks" from songs previously taught by her from HEARING them. Once the student recognizes the sounds, they can apply their previously learned licks to new tunes.

Back when I was learning from her, her lessons were only available on audio cassette tapes. This, too, is further evidence that one is learning by ear. Yes, she did tell me on the tapes, 'put this finger on this string at this fret and pluck it with this finger of the right hand.' A student HAS to begin learning that way. As they learn, they also hear, remember the sound, and apply it in future lessons. Like building a brick wall, it's accomplished with building blocks: a foundation first. :^)

Sorry for being so long winded. But I felt it important to answer your question while responding to what I believe are some inaccurate criticisms of her teaching method. Now that her lessons are on DVD, the learning process is now even easier. :^D

I know different teaching methods work better for different people: some folks learn better with tab. I could not, so her way of teaching was absolutely PERFECT for me. As a result, I am comfortable playing in jams, performing breaks to songs I've never played before. That, to me, is what enjoying music is all about.

Yep, Murphy Henry is my banjo hero!

Thanks, Bill, for the glowing recommendation. We always love to hear student success stories. Happy picking!

Red Henry

When you're learning to play, or even after you've been playing for a long time, there's a natural tendency to play your newest tunes. After all, they're new and much more exciting than your OLD ones. But you can get bored if you only play the tunes you learned most recently, and your musical skills can suffer.

When you're practicing, or even when you're picking with other folks, remember to play your old tunes too. This does several good things. Among them: (1) You keep your fingers playing a wider variety of licks and melodies. (2) Your friends will enjoy the variety when you dig up a tune from the past. (3) You have the pleasure of re-discovering a great tune or song you'd almost forgotten.

But one of the best things about picking your old tunes, is that it keeps your brain working. If you play just half a dozen or so songs all the time, it's easy to get into a musical rut and stay there for years. Instead, consciously go back and find tunes and songs you used to play. Keep learning new tunes too. Go through our Slow Jam DVDs and remember some songs you used to like. Your brain will like it, and your picking friends will thank you for it!