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!


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.


Casey Henry

I got an email question the other day regarding warming up. This student said that it takes him about half an hour to get up to speed, and he wondered if this was normal. He also inquired about a good warmup routine.

A thirty minute warmup is absolutely normal, especially for adults who aren't as limber as the young whippersnappers (a.k.a. teenagers) who can just pick up their instrument and start playing full speed right off the bat. (The questioner was a little disappointed to hear that, actually. He was hoping there was something wrong that he could FIX!) It just takes a while for your fingers (and the brain) to get into gear and to start working simultaneously. If you're a long warmer-upper, it's important to make sure your practice session is longer than your warmup period. If you need 30 minutes of warmup, practice for at least an hour, because if you only practice that first half-hour, you've only shaken off the dust and cobwebs and you won't progress on your new skills or tunes. Anything you play within that warmup period, whether it's your new tunes or your old tunes, isn't really being practiced, it's just being reviewed.

Now, on to what you should warm up with. I'm in favor of warming up with old, familiar tunes. Play through "Banjo in the Hollow," "Cripple Creek," and all of those first tunes as your warmup.  Start out playing them slowly and then gradually work up to your normal tempo. Some people like to do rolls as part of their warmup, but I've always found that boring. I do not have the patience to practice rolls. I've always figured that you use all of your rolls while you're playing tunes, so unless you're trying to work out a specific roll or a fingering problem, roll practice gets thrown in for free along with everything else. Your warmup period is also good for playing through all your old material. It is SO important not to let your older tunes slide in favor of piling on new material.

One further thought on warming up. If you know you need a long warmup, make sure you warm up before your lesson. If you only have a 30-minute lesson, then you barely have time to get comfortable with the banjo/guitar/mandolin/fiddle in your hands before, boom, time's up. Even ten or fifteen minutes in your car before you go inside will make a big difference when playing what you learned last week, and learning whatever is new for this week.

Red Henry

Some of you may have entered a music contest from time to time. A few of Murphy's students enter contests as often as they can. If you live in a part of the world where there are contests, you might consider entering a few yourself.

There are several benefits from entering contests. The first reason (and maybe the biggest) lies in the preparation. This works into the "Quality" theme of Murphy's post yesterday. Your tunes need to be thoroughly learned, as smooth and good-sounding as you can get them, so that you could play them without thinking about them-- because at first, when you get on a contest stage to play, your mind may go blank and you've got to just PLAY. As well as you can. Without thinking. This simply takes a lot of practice, and practice is good for you!

At contests you get to play in front of different audiences, in different places and situations. You might be indoors in a poorly-lit school auditorium. You might be on stage in a big music hall with good lights and sound system. Or you might be playing on a flatbed trailer outdoors in 45-degree weather. If you can play your tunes well in ANY situation, its good for your music.

And why can you win some contests without being the best picker? It's because of the judging. Some local contests simply do not have musical experts available as judges. So your job at those contests is not to play the most advanced tunes you can. Your job is to play a tune that sounds good, and to look like you know what you're doing. If on stage you LOOK confident of being a winner, you'll have a better chance of actually being one.

At a lot of contests, the best player does not win. The judges may pick their favorite based on looks, facial expression, posture, gender, age, or other un-musical considerations. On the other hand, there are contests where the judges are excellent musicians and very well qualified to judge, in great and accurate detail, how well the contestants can actually play.

But no matter how the judging goes, you accept it and roll with the flow. Playing contests is not about the judging, it's its own reward. You endure the waiting and the drawing for playing-order, you go out in front of the people, and you play your tunes as well as you can. (The first one or two contests, your playing may not exactly be your best. But keep at it.) And when you've played some contests, your music is so much more solid than it was before. If you're placed a few times, your confidence is too.

So if the judging seems weird, don't take it seriously. At a contest, the judging is not the point. Winning prizes is not the point. Your music is.


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 Henry

Last night, we picked at the fruit stand. That's Linda's Mercantile in Winchester Virginia. The proprietors are well-known bluegrass performers Linda and David Lay, and they host local musicians for a couple of hours of music each Thursday evening from 7 to 9.

On this occasion, the usual schedule was interrupted for an excellent square dance exhibition: after we'd played music for twenty minutes or so, Murphy and her square-dance friends put on a set of mighty fine dancing for the folks.

The crowd really liked the dancing, but when it was over, all the energy had gone out of the picking. Quite a few of the musicians had departed, and most of the others didn't seem to want to play. So Murphy and her student Zack and I started playing to get things going, kicking it off with "Cripple Creek" and then the old Lester Flatt favorite, "Will You Be Loving Another Man." Sure enough, musicians started playing along: guitar players, fiddle players, and a bass and dobro. Now the music was shaping up. We kept it up with "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Wabash Cannonball," and other old favorites. Soon the jam was rolling along. We went for an hour or so, and then Murphy and I finished up our own part of the show and headed for home. But by that time, we left a dozen or so pickers carrying on.

When a jam is falling apart, sometimes you've just got to put some energy in there. Often as not it'll be contagious, and you'll have plenty of company soon!


Red Henry

Yesterday afternoon we had a real good picking session. The participants were what made it work. Besides Murphy, Chris, and myself, we had a teenage banjo player, a forest ranger, a deaf banjo player, a singer converted from hip-hop, and an out-of-work bass player. A well-matched group, huh?

Okay. I guess you are wondering who these people were and why they fit together so well musically. Well, the teenage banjo player was Murphy's student Logan, a good student and up-and-coming player whom she's blogged about before. And the party was for Logan's 18th birthday. The forest ranger was local guitar picker and singer Gerald C., who happens to be Logan's scoutmaster. The deaf banjo player was our Cousin David, about whom you've heard before. (Just kidding about the "deaf" part.) The convert from hip-hip was our friend Chris L., a new Stanley Brothers/Flatt & Scruggs/Reno & Smiley freak who used to be in a rock band with our Chris. (The band was called, appropriately enough, The Bends.) And the bass player was Murphy's long-time student Bob V., a fine picker and witty person.

So why did we fit together so well? Well, aside from Murphy's formidable skill at leading a jam session (as amply demonstrated on our Slow Jam and More Slow Jam DVDs), it was because everybody knew a lot of the same material or could pick up on it well. You do find jam sessions where the players all have their own favorite songs but can't really play anyone else's. In this case, everybody picked up on what everyone else was doing, and it worked out fine.

Sometimes you find the strangest combinations of folks in jam sessions... and the music still works!


Red Henry

Now, some folks may think that I've just written either a commonplace or a conundrum in that title: Playing Helps. Helps what? Explain yourself, Red.

Well, most of you have already found out that practicing your instrument helps your playing. Practicing may not make your playing perfect (the old saw is not literally true for anybody, in fact) but time spent playing your banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, or other instrument does usually pay off in your ability to play better music.

But I'm also talking about the instrument itself. Except for banjos, the instruments we play are primarily delicate, precision wooden boxes designed to produce sound. This means that if they're not played, they stiffen up and don't sound as good. But if they're played at least a few times a week, they'll give their best and sound as good as they can!

This works two ways. If you don't play very much, your mandolin or guitar may sound pretty dull when you pick it up, and you might not feel like playing it at all. But if you keep the instrument "played in," it sounds really good when you play the first few notes, and those encourage you to play more. Much more.

It doesn't take a lot of playing to keep your instrument loose and sounding good. Just as with your own practicing, even 15 minutes a day will be enough to do some good and help the instrument stay in good sound. So don't spend a lot of time analyzing your playing or your instrument. Just play!


Red Henry

That's right. Record yourself. That is one of the best ways to hear exactly what your playing sounds like, and to find out what you need to work on.

In years past, recording yourself was very easy and cheap to do, with the inexpensive cassette recorders that a lot of folks had. Modern technology makes recording almost as easy (but not cheap) by using video cameras or small high-tech audio recorders. Even most digital cameras can take a movie--with sound-- of your playing. But whatever your favorite device is, just record yourself playing a couple of tunes. Then play them back and see what you sound like.

When you hear your music played back, it might not sound quite as good as you thought it was going to. (My band-leading, banjo-playing brother-in-law Mike says that for him, recording music-- and listening to it afterward-- is as pleasant as having teeth pulled. But that's just his opinion.) Now, I'm not saying this trying to discourage anybody from playing. If in the playback, you don't sound like Earl, or Ralph, or J.D., or Murphy, that's not a reason to give up playing, or even recording. The point is that you can really hear what your playing sounds like. You can hear all your notes, and your timing, and your rhythm. And if you are playing steadily enough on the tape to play along with yourself during the playback, that's excellent! You've come a long way, and are ready to play with other people, whether you feel like it or not!

Sometimes when you hear yourself for the first time, you might be discouraged. But this doesn't mean that your playing normally sounds the way it does on the tape. Any time the tape is rolling (or any other recording is going on), you're going to have it on your mind, either consciously or unconsciously. And it might affect your playing. But the more practice you get recording, the better you'll play each time you record, and when it comes time to listen back to the tune, the better you'll sound. Recording and listening is great practice, and can sure help a person's playing!

Record yourself!


Have you ever taken several days (or weeks) off from your music, and then tried to get back in practice? Every musician I know has done this. And as you have found out, sometimes it isn't easy!

As many of you Gentle Readers know, I've been learning to fly and recently got my license. I've been flying regularly for several months, when the weather permitted. Flying takes practice, just like music. But I recently took several days off, and so now I'll start getting back in practice-- I have a short flight scheduled today to practice some landings, and then I'll make a cross-country flight on Sunday to freshen up my ability to navigate to airports far from home. I didn't want to take off on that cross-country flight "cold," as you might call it. I wanted to get a shorter flight to warm up with first.

Music's the same way. When you've taken several days off, don't expect to dive in for several hours and get it back all at once. That can lead to a lot of frustration. Instead, "gentle" yourself into it by practicing a half-hour or hour each day for a while. You'll find your playing ability coming back without having to strain. And when you've had a few of those short practices, your fingers and brain will be ready for longer sessions when you can really start soaking up music again. Don't worry-- the music will come back. Just take it easy.