Practice

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

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 Monday, December 02, 2013.

I have been writing about playing the banjo for 30 years but I have never written an article about practicing. Why not? Well, probably because I hate anybody telling me what to do and also because most of the practice suggestions I read struck me as bombastic BS--idealistic, ivory-tower imaginings that seemed useless to me or, at best, not practical for adult students with lives and families. I never followed any set pattern when I was learning, I just got up, got a cuppa, and started studying Earl at 16 rpm in my pajamas! I thought my students would figure out what worked best for them and follow their own "rules," which many of them do. But finally I have come to understand that not everybody is self-propelled and that some people desperately want and need guidelines. With that in mind, I will present my own extremely general and hopefully not too bombastic suggestions in hopes that maybe a few of these ideas prove useful.

As I pull these thoughts together I have tried to take into account real adults with real lives so...... ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

As many of you know, breaking away from tab and starting to learn by ear is not easy. It’s scary (Can I really do this?) and it feels like you no longer have a safety net (What will I do if I mess up?). But, the payoff is BIG! You will actually learn to play the banjo. Your tunes will sound like tunes, and eventually, with lots of hard work on your part, you can learn to play with other people.

It thrills me when someone who is new to the Murphy Method takes that “leap of faith” and starts learning by ear. The series of emails below that I exchanged with Tom after our Beginning Banjo Camp in October seems to capture the start of that experience in a nutshell. With his kind permission, I am sharing them with you. As he said, “Hopefully the message will help others who have struggled with tab. As I say, if I can learn with your method and make some nice music with my banjo, anyone can!” Thank you, Tom!

November 10:

Dear Murphy:

Thanks again for the excellent camp. It was a great experience. I wanted to email you a question about the sequence of learning songs. I have always wanted to play Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I have tried to learn to play it for a number of years by using tab without any success. I do have your Gospel Songs DVD. I know you recommend doing the first two DVDs and Misfits DVD first. Over the past couple of days, I have begun using the Gospel DVD and starting to work on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I know this song is out of the sequence you recommend for learning and it seems to have some more challenging licks and it will take more time to learn. I wanted to see if you had any recommendations about trying to learn this song. It appears to be a more challenging song but it is perhaps my favorite song on the banjo and a song I really like to sing. Since I have tried to learn it by tab for some time, it is also a personal challenge for me to learn the song by your method. For these reasons, I would like to learn this song and I wanted to see what your thoughts were about working on it. I would appreciate any suggestions or ideas you have. Thank you for your time and response.

Hi Tom,

Glad you enjoyed the camp. So did I! I appreciate your asking for my advice about learning Circle. I can understand why it's a favorite of yours--it's also a favorite of mine! And it's a great song. Now, although this may seem counter-intuitive, I believe you can learn the song faster--in the long run--if you learn a few other basic tunes first. In spite of its seemingly simple roll pattern, it's really pretty complicated. You don't have to go thru Vol 1 Vol 2 and Misfits, but would you be willing to learn at least a couple of songs before tackling Circle? They will help you internalize some of the basics you will need to know so you can more easily tackle the specifics of Circle. If so, let me know what you already play from these DVDs and I'll pick two others that will help you specifically with Circle. Hoping this will appeal to you!

Murphy:

Thanks for your response. I feel I play Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down fairly well as far as the banjo solos go, but not necessarily the vamping at this point since that was very new to me. Your method really helped me with Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down since I had struggled with those songs for a few years with tab and now I am doing fairly well with the melody and timing. So here's a banjo salute to you and your method. It does work, even with an older musical misfit like myself. I would appreciate any suggestions you have about two additional songs to learn from the Volume 1 or Misfits. As I said, I really enjoy Circle and have been very frustrated with trying to learn it from tab. Truthfully, I was about ready to smash my banjo over my head (just joking). Let me know what you think about some additional songs.

November 11:

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your thoughtful, detailed reply. I believe if you learn I Saw The Light and Worried Man (from the Misfits DVD), those will GREATLY help your learning Circle. There is an important lick (slightly hard) taught in those--the Tag Lick--which will need some practice to get it down smooth before you go on to Circle. As I said, learning these will make learning Circle MUCH EASIER. No need to learn the vamping to these right now, altho in the future you would need to learn that. Each of these songs should take a least two weeks to get down smoothly, it not more. Good luck, Tom, and let me know how you are doing!

Murphy:

Thanks for your time and response. I really appreciate your help. I will plan on learning I Saw the Light and Worried Man before I take up Will the Circle Be Unbroken. After all of that, I will plan on resuming your recommended learning sequence from the Volume 1 and 2. Thanks again for your advice and time.

December 15:

Murphy:

I just hope you don't mind updates on my experience/progress with the Murphy method. I just wanted to let you know that the lights started to come on. I had been progressing slowly with I Saw The Light as you had recommended but was having some difficulty bringing out the melody when all at once last night it seemed to click and the lights came on and the melody was there. It is still not quite where I would like it, but I am clearly getting there with this song. I plan to polish the song very well and then move on to Worried Man. I just want to thank you for your method. I don't know if you realize how much frustration a person can have with tab and not being able to play a song and have it sound like the song if you know what I mean. It is a real pleasure to hear real music coming out of my banjo and not just a slew of notes. Thanks again for all of your advice, suggestions and the camp. I will keep you updated from time to time as I continue to make progress. I hope that you and Red, and Chris, Casey and Dalton have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Again, I thank YOU, Tom! Hearing your story will definitely help make my Christmas a Merry one!

Now, over to Casey’s house to see Dalton! Whoopee!

Murphy

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

Red Henry

Folks, what's the easiest and most enjoyable kind of practice? Naturally, it's the kind that doesn't seem like practice at all: PLAYING music. So I got a lot of easy practice last weekend.

Friday night, there was Old-Time picking at the Cabin. That's the "Cabin" with a capital C, the one where the Old-Time pickers play. And how do you get there? Well, it's way out in the woods on little crooked roads. In fact, in order to find it, you need to already know how to get there. (That sounds like circular reasoning, doesn't it? Well, we do play around with the tunes. Stop it, Red.)

The Old-Time pickers (call them OTP's for short) generally like to play a lot in one key before changing. When we started Friday night, we were in the key of A-- all three of us. In fact, I wondered if I'd come there on the wrong night. But people kept drifting in and in an hour or so, we had ten players-- all pretty good players, too-- three or four each of fiddle and banjo, plus guitar, bass, and two mandolins: a good mix. And what did we play in the key of A? Good stuff-- not only the familiar tunes, but also some oldie goodies like Old Mother Flanagan, Pretty Little Dog, and June Apple. After a couple of hours, we got into the key of D and played some there too-- more good stuff.

On Saturday the music was a hair more serious because I was playing a party gig, with a three-piece band including my friends Scott and Cousin David. We played a mix of bluegrass songs and old-time tunes for a delightful outdoor event in Clarke County, Virginia. Scott played guitar and sang, and David switched off from banjo to lead guitar, while I picked a little mandolin. Everybody had a good time.

Cousin David is a very versatile musician. Between sets, he was playing some new-age music on his old-age guitar. A mischievous band member said, "Play 'Wipeout'! and he did. Then the same person said, "Now play 'Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud!'", but David wouldn't play that. Spoilsport.

Sunday afternoon's music was back in the traditional groove, playing with the OTP's at a country church in West Virginia. There were  eight of us there, again a well-matched ensemble, with three fiddles, three banjos, bass, guitar, and mandolin. We played in the key of D: Cowboy's Dream. Yellow Rose of Texas (not the one you know). Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine. Mississippi Sawyer. Hard Times Come Again No More. More good stuff.

When the Sunday music was finished, it was time to go home and collapse for a while. As one of the OTP's said as we packed up, "Now I've got to go to work this week to rest up for the weekend!"  But you know what? I was in practice.

It was easy.

Red

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

Red Henry

It looks as if this is a good week to talk about picking. That was a really good session Murphy had up in Martinsburg. And now I have a couple of old-time jams scheduled for the next two nights, both within 45 minutes of the house.

As Murphy has suggested over and over on our videos, one of the best things you can do, to help you learn to play, is to get out and play with other people. There is really nothing like it. Once you progress to the point where you can at least stand at the back of the group and play rhythm or vamp, you're in for a lot of great practice that's easy and fun. And it really doesn't matter what exact kind of music the session is playing. They may play bluegrass, or they may play older country music. They may play gospel music or folk music, or they may play music that's all over the place. Or, they may play traditional (old-time) music, like my two sessions this weekend. Whatever they're playing, it's still a great place to learn.

Now, I have heard it said that "There's bluegrass everywhere." Well, I admit that there is bluegrass in a lot of places, but it's definitely not everywhere. I once spent a year at an Air Force base near Del Rio, Texas, and that whole year I never found anybody to pick with within a three-hour drive. It took a lot of energy to practice that year. I REALLY wish something had been available then like our Slow Jam with Murphy and Casey or Picking Up the Pace DVDs. If you're in a situation like that (or even if you aren't), consider those slow-jam DVDs, because they're easy to pick with and you can use them anywhere.

I'm off to pick, and I hope you are too. Give my regards to Broadway!

Red

Red Henry

Today we'll talk about what may be an unpleasant subject: PRACTICE. While some learners find it easy to play one or two or six or seven hours a day, some can't get the energy or time for 20 minutes. But it's important.

I can talk from my own experience. As I get older it's harder to get up the energy to practice, but sometimes there are special events coming up that make it easy. Right now, I'm practicing mandolin and singing every day, to get ready for a CD which Christopher and I plan to record in a couple of weeks. And you know what? Practice helps, even if you've been playing a long time. I'm playing and singing a whole lot better than I could a month ago. I was pretty rusty, but now I'm getting back into shape.

Is it hard for you to practice? Remember that it's a lot easier to start practicing and sound good after just a day or two off, than it is if you haven't played for a week. That by itself is a good reason to play a little every day-- you'll sound better when you play again. In fact, play every day if you can, even if it's just for 20 minutes. Or 15 minutes. Or 10 minutes. Then when you get a chance to practice for a longer time, it'll be easier to play and sound better!

As I've said before in these pages, 20 minutes a day is better than 2 hours on Saturday. If you go from one weekend to another without practicing in between, it can be hard to even pick up your instrument and play! So even if your schedule is rushed, when you have a few minutes in the morning or evening, play a tune or two. Your fingers will be glad you did.

Red

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.