[Betty Fisher, a Tip Jar Jam regular, was kind enough to blog about her recent jamming experience. Betty has been having some problems with bats in her house, hence the blog title. She is also a very, very good sport!]

My friend and neighbor Stephanie is a beginning guitar student of Murphy’s.  She and I have been threatening--or rather promising--to get together and jam as Murphy has suggested.  Finally on Sunday we were able to do that.

A shining example to all! Betty, left, and Steph, right, jamming.

A shining example to all! Betty, left, and Steph, right, jamming.

We sat out on Stephanie’s beautiful new stone patio in the shade with a nice breeze blowing.  Steph warned me that she had not practiced for a couple of weeks.  She had also let Murphy know that things would be on hold for a short while, then she would get back in gear with her lessons.   ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I don't know what got into us last night but from the git-go, we were playing fast, fast, fast! I finally had to suggest we slow things down!

Dan, the prodigal son (for whom we killed the fatted calf, metaphorically speaking), started things off with Cumberland Gap. That's not a tune we play a lot (for some reason) but since last night's group comprised experienced jammers, I figured we could skip The Big Three. [I hope I used "comprised" correctly. That's a tricky one!] {Editor's note: yes, you did!} Since Ben and Kasey both went wide-eyed when I said we'd play Cumberland Gap I decided on the spot that the banjos should all play lead together to give them a chance to remember their breaks. I let Dan set the tempo, and buddy he blistered it! After a few fumbling fingers, everyone got on board and we were cooking! I mentioned afterwards that this is one of those tunes that really doesn't sound like much until you speed it up. That's when you can start to feel the guitars and the banjos coming together in that tight pulsing rhythm, which is the essence of the tune--and the essence of bluegrass. ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I trust you all had an excellent Thanksgiving. The Murphy Method entourage (Red, Casey, Chris, Dalton, and I) went down to North Carolina to be with all my sisters (four), nieces (four), nephew (one) and bros-in-law (three, one of whom was AWL [Absent With Leave] to be with his 90-something mother, a bluegrass bass player!). We ate turkey, drank wine, played Taboo, and watched The Best Little Whore House in Texas (with Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds) at niece Helena's request! Helena, who frequently wants to inject a little "culture" into the family, had gotten a recording on which Dolly sang her great song Hard Candy Christmas. Helena fell in love with the song and found out that the number was in the movie. Hence, her push to share her new-found joy with the family. The movie was a hoot and it was funny as "aitch-ee-double L" (as Tammy Wynette sang!) to hear my feminist nieces rip the ending to shreds. "Why did Burt Reynolds have to pick Dolly up and practically throw her in his pickup truck and take her off to get married? She was going to do just fine on her own!" I love my family!

But I digress....if one can digress before one gets started! I was trying to tell you why there were no blogs last week, but you probably already figured that out!

This week's Tuesday and Wednesday jams went great guns. The blog title is courtesy of Betty, our newest banjo player. We had already played Banjo In The Hollow which she had started. Well, in true jam session fashion, by the time Ben and Kasey had played it and it had gotten back to Betty, the tune had sped up considerably. Naturally, it was Ben's fault, since Kasey, our resident fashionista, can do no wrong! So when Betty kicked off her next tune, Cripple Creek, she said to Ben, in no uncertain terms, using her "hospital" voice (she's a nurse), "DO NOT SPEED UP!" To which Ben meekly replied, as he should have, "Yes, ma'am!" He didn't, either!

Wednesday both Kathy G (formerly known as Kathy Holliday--she consented to go by her birth initial "G" for this blog to avoid confusion) and Kathy H debuted new breaks. Kathy G play the low break of Foggy Mountain Breakdown for the first time, playing in unison with Kathy H and Scott, who both unobtrusively moved to vamping when they realized she would do just fine on her own. She did! The greatest thing about Kathy G learning FMB is that she now can use that last 4-beat D lick, the one that starts on the open fourth string, as an improvising lick! She did that, too, during the jam, pretty much adding it at will to her forward-backward roll breaks. Since she also uses the tag lick easily, her "simple" improvised breaks sound REALLY GOOD.

The more I work with students at these jams, the more I'm beginning to realize that these "simple" improvised breaks, based on forward-backward rolls, is a direction I'm extremely interested in exploring further. Having beginning banjo students taking improvised breaks to lots of songs in jams is flat-out wonderful. I'll keep you posted.

Kathy H, at my request, played Daybreak In Dixie for the first time and came through with flying colors. Since she was kicking it off, I asked her if she wanted to take that last third break. (If you kick it off, you get to end it.) She said, "There's only one answer to that: yes!" But, realizing she really might not want to take three breaks on a new song I said, "Well, you could ask everyone to play with you for the last break." Grasping at that suggestion as if it were a life preserver, she said, "Yes! Great!" The moral to that little story is there is always some way to save your butt, you just have to be inventive!

You may remember from a previous blog that I had recently asked Kathy H to sing tenor to a song she'd never even heard before, Purple Robe. Well, she went home, found a version of it on YouTube, and worked on the tenor part. Now, that is dedication! I was so impressed, not to mention happy. (The version she found was of the fabulous Margie Sullivan, whom I profile in my book, singing a solo lead with the Sullivan Family. Check it out.) So, we worked on it some at the lesson and I showed her how to go up higher with her voice when I went high and lower with her voice when I went low. Once we made those little tweaks, our harmony sounded really good. Naturally, Kathy wanted to try it in the jam, so we did. And naturally it was hard to recreate the same sound we had during the lesson because singing harmony, like everything else in music, takes lots of practice. But we got close and it was fun. After the song was over, we practiced the harmony and got it tighter again. Then Kathy had me record myself singing the lead so she could practice to my voice. Then I had her record us singing together, with her doing the tenor. (I love cell phones!) After we'd left the jam, she apparently was listening to the recording because she texted me (not while driving I'm sure!): "That harmony sounds freakin' amazing. It might be our best work yet!" I agree. I'm looking forward to trying it again at our Sunday jam (December 8 ) in Frederick.

Come jam with us. You can see what a good time we have! If you need more info on any of the jams, just email or call us. Beginners welcome! We always slow down so you can play your songs. And vamping through the rest of the songs is some of the greatest practice in the world! See ya!

PS: And you Portland People: Don't forget I'm coming out there in January 10-12 for a weekend workshop! And for the first time, on Thursday, January 9, I'll be holding an all-female jam. All levels, all instruments, all ages welcome at the jam. We'll do some "womyn singing" in womyn's keys. Bring a capo!! Check our website for complete details!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

One of the fun things that has developed in the Tip Jar Jams--at least for me--is the singing, especially the harmony singing. Tuesday Janet, Diane, Kasey, and I had some great three-part harmony going in the key of C. And how can we have three-part harmony with four people? Easy! Two people usually sing the lead or two people sing the tenor. We call that "doubling" the part. One time Janet even sang the baritone part along with me!

Harmony Singing DVDSmall diversion: In case you are not familiar with bluegrass harmony terms, "tenor" is NOT a vocal range, as it might be in church singing or opera. It's a vocal harmony part. Tenor is usually the harmony part that is sung right above the lead. "Baritone" is also NOT a vocal range, it, too, is a harmony part. It is usually the harmony part that is sung below the lead. So the three bluegrass harmony parts are: lead, tenor, baritone. They can be stacked in any order, but that's too much to get into here! Janet Beazley explains it all extremely well--and very simply--on our Harmony Singing Made Easy DVD. I highly recommend it!

In the Janet-Diane-Kasey-Murphy stack, Diane usually sings lead, Kasey doubles this part (sometimes so quietly I can't even hear her sing!), Janet sings tenor, and I sing baritone. These jams are really helping me improve my baritone singing! When Kasey takes the main lead, Janet and Diane take the tenor or double the lead (on the chorus only). This Tuesday Kasey brought a new song into the jam: Rocky Top! She sang it in A. Of course, Kenney had learned it in G on the bass, so as I told him, "You're [s-word meaning in trouble]!" Because his "off" minor chord was F-sharp. Nevertheless, we made it through and we will keep the song in the jam because our Fashionista wants to sing it! And she did her usual great job.

Wednesday Kathy Hanson and I did some excellent duo singing, sometimes with her singing lead and me singing baritone and sometimes with me singing lead and her singing tenor. Why the different harmony parts? When Kathy sings lead, in the key of C, the tenor part is too high for me to sing, so I sing the baritone part under her. And when I sing lead in C, the baritone part is too low for her, so she sings tenor. As you can see, the harmony part is all about your own personal voice range AND the key the song is being sung in (to use bluegrass grammar!).

When Kathy was singing Will The Circle Be Unbroken I noticed that she phrased her words on the chorus a little differently from the way I sing it when I'm taking the lead. The particular part I'm talking about was "by and by, Lord, by and by." So since she was the boss of the song (the lead singer) it was up to me to try to make my phrasing match hers. I spent five choruses trying to get it right and finally the last time I got close. Not that it matters in a jam, but our harmony sounded so good I wanted to make it as tight as possible.

We were singing so well together that I decided to try singing a song we'd never done in the jam and that Kathy had never heard, Purple Robe by the Stanley Brothers. (Bobby and I sing this often in his lesson.) I knew the jammers could do it because the chord pattern is simple (I, IV, I, V or "criss-cross" as I have been calling it) and the tempo is slow. But here is the gauntlet I threw down to Kathy: See if you can catch the tenor on the chorus. Because, to me, this song is hardly worth doing if you don't have harmony. Now, remember, she'd never heard the song before and I'm asking her to sing tenor. But, as I told her, this is the way it's done in a jam. One person chooses a song and hopes that someone can jump in on the tenor part. And when that happens, it's magic!

I know Kathy is a good "words" person (remember "no sign of a bra!") and the chorus has some repetitive words, so both these things made the song doable:
Purple robe my Savior wore

Oh the shame for me he bore

As he stood alone forsaken on that day

And they placed upon his head 

Piercing thorns of blood-stained red

The man who wore the scarlet purple robe.*


That last line is also the last line of each verse, so Kathy would hear those words a lot.

So after I explained "catching the words and the tenor harmony" to Kathy, I said, "And, of course, you'll need to improvise a banjo break, too."

"Say what?" was the look on her face!

I am proud to say she came through with flying colors on both counts. (I'd be very interested to hear your take on this Kathy!) Did she sing every single word? Of course not, but she had some sort of "humming" tenor harmony going on and by the end of the song, she was getting a lot of the words, especially "purple robe." To me, this is the essence of jamming--creating something new, a new song with a new tenor singer. It is magic!

After the song, I see Bob Mc and Bob A conversing in low tones, like schoolboys. So, like a grade school teacher, I ask them what they are talking about. It turns out that they noticed that Purple Robe has the same chord pattern as Foggy Mountain Top, which Kathy had sung earlier. I hadn't thought of that, but I did notice that Bob took a really good improvised lead break.

Then Bob A, who plays guitar, makes a comment about Bob Mc's banjo improv saying, "It looks like you're only doing some rolls in some different chords." Naturally, his choice of words "you're only doing" got me riled up! Sure, it looks easy, but......! (When I think of all those hours Bob Mc and I spent on improvising!) Then we got into a fairly long conversation about the difference in improvising on banjo and improvising on guitar, which is too detailed to go into here. If I remember, I'll try to talk about that sometime. Remind me!

I mustn't fail to give a shout-out to Kristina for playing her new Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms break in A. It was perfect! As I keep telling you, mandolin players don't use capos so Kristina's breaks are "key specific" which means the key of A has completely different fingering and a much different feel. She's also working on Daybreak in Dixie in A and should be ready to unveil that after Thanksgiving. No pressure, though!

NOTE ON UPCOMING JAMS: We will be jamming next Tuesday, November 26 in Winchester but NO JAM on Wednesday, December 27, the day before Thanksgiving.

We will be jamming in Frederick, Maryland, this Sunday, November 24, from 3-5 pm. Call for directions and more info. Beginners welcome at all the jams!

* Note to word sticklers: I know the last line of Purple Robe is really, at least in places, "His raiment was a scarlet purple robe," but the word "raiment" is extremely hard to "hear" on the fly and it's an old word that's not in common usage anymore and when I first learned the song I heard the last line as "The man who wore the scarlet purple robe" and, to me, that phrasing still makes more sense and is more singable. So since I was the boss of the song, not Carter Stanley, I got to sing it my way!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Casey and I are excited and proud to say that our first-ever women's banjo camp was a tremendous success! We had 18 women and 4 of these were young teens. I came away with a new nickname--AJ--for "Alpha Jammer" and Kathy Hanson was tagged "AJ Jr" for her outstanding leadership in the late night jams (which went on until 1 am on Friday and ended earlier, midnight, on Saturday!).


I was dubbed "AJ" after Casey and Janet and I did a Friday afternoon session on How To Jam. (This will become a standard Friday event at all our camps from now on.) This was more than just a "jam etiquette" session. We talked about "friendly" or "nice" jams and demonstrated what might happen there and we also talked about "not-so-nice" jams or "unfriendly" jams and demonstrated what might happen there.


Note: Many jams are not "unfriendly" on purpose--these are higher-level jams, often with seasoned players, who most always play fast, who know harder songs, and who don't cut newcomers any slack because they don't want the jam to be anything other than "top notch." Players assume other players will know the material so songs are often not even named--they are simply kicked off. You are expected to know what the song is AND THE KEY IT IS BEING PLAYED IN.


I got my nickname when I was demonstrating this "fast jam" procedure. I kicked off Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms as fast as I could play it without announcing the title. It was in the key of A which caused Janet to have to scramble for her capo. (Note: if a major player starts putting on her--or his--capo in a jam, it's a safe bet you are going to be playing in a different key! Get ready!) Of course, Casey knew the drill so she was totally able to come in singing the chorus with me right after I finished the kickoff. I also might have gotten the nickname because I admitted to actually liking some aspects of these fast jams! And for saying that I always wanted to be the only banjo player in a jam!


Casey and I mentioned that, in our experience, jams that featured mostly all women tend to be a bit more "touchy feely" with the drill being something like this. Everyone in the picking circle gets a chance to select a song. So the conversation often sounds like this:


It's your turn to pick a song, Casey.


Ok, what about Shenandoah Breakdown? Does everybody know that?


No, I don't play that one.


Okay, what about Daybreak in Dixie?


What key?


I do it in A.

(Mandolin player): Oh, I learned it in G. I can't do it in A.


Casey: Well, I can do it in G. Is that okay with everybody else?


Nods all around and the song gets played. And afterwards, the next person picks the song.


Some of the jam rules we mentioned were:


Whoever kicks the instrumental off is the one who ends it and puts on the ending lick. For anyone else to do this is rude.


For singing songs, most jams want only the three basic vocal parts: Lead, tenor, baritone. Don't sing along if the part is already covered.


If you are new to the jam and you get the nod to take a break, DON'T PASS IT UP. Even if you can't play something very good, at least play something! You might get one more chance, but if you pass up a break twice you are not likely to get asked again.


After our demonstration (which also included some jam session "role playing" by Martha and Susan), Casey and I were both worried that we had scared everybody off with too many rules and regulations! And these "unspoken" rules can be confusing when thrown at you all at one time. But afterwards, the women said they had really enjoyed the session and almost all of them felt it was better to be forewarned!


Of course our jams at the camp--with 18 banjos--were completely different from what we took to calling "real" jams. We usually had all the banjos playing the breaks together and we WELCOMED everyone singing all the time on whatever part they could sing.


Another highlight of the camp was our Harmony Singing Workshop which we did Sunday morning. Based on what I had learned about teaching harmony singing from the magnificent Janet Beazley (who is on our Harmony Singing Made Easy DVD), Casey and I were able to demonstrate all three vocal parts-- lead, tenor, and baritone--and have the women learn to sing each one. We all agreed that baritone was the hardest! We will definitely make this a part of our Women's Camps but it's almost impossible for women to teach harmony singing to men. (That's why Bill Evans and Chris Stuart are on our DVD!)


Lynn Morris was kind enough to drop by for lunch on Saturday. She mixed and mingled with the women there and I everyone was honored by her presence. We gave her one of our "Pick Like a Girl" T-shirts and she put it on and had her picture "took" with the rest of us. I gave her a copy of my book Pretty Good for a Girl because she has a whole chapter in it. She is truly one of the pioneers in bluegrass and I admire her so much.


banjo campers

Murphy Method Women's Banjo Camp Campers

Friday night Casey and I showed off the playing of our local women with an hour-long concert. Participating were: Kathy Hanson, Kathy Holliday, Kristina, Kasey Smelser, Barbara, Janet, Casey Henry, and moi. Did it go off without a hitch? No it did not, but the hitches were small (although I'm sure they didn't seem small to the hitchees) and I was so proud of everyone for being willing to be up there in front of a crowd giving it a shot. The audience responded enthusiastically and I thought Ben Smelser was going to swoon with pride when Kasey was singing I Saw the Light. Kasey said she even got a compliment from her brother who said, "Good job." She was ecstatic over that!


Saturday night mandolin player Tracey Rohrbaugh joined Casey and me for a concert. After only 7 minutes of rehearsal (!) we managed to pull together 9 or 10 songs that sounded really good. Tracey is an awesome singer and we were able to get some really good three-part harmony. Casey's Skype student, Sydney, one of our teenagers, was our special guest. She kicked off and sang Rocky Top and Blue Moon of Kentucky and did a fantastic job. Sydney actually has some stage experience because she plays in a band with her father and uncle. But I believe she said this was the first time she'd played with any other women. (I did notice Kasey watching Sydney like a hawk, so I'm thinking Rocky Top is likely to be a singing request soon!)


I'm totally out of time to say more if I'm gonna eat my oatmeal and take a shower before my teaching day starts.


Let me close by saying THANK YOU to all the wonderful women who came to the camp. Thanks for making it a success. I think there was a whole lot of bonding going on, and being a woman myself, I liked that!


And a special thanks to my totally awesome daughter Casey who came up with the idea for these camps to begin with and who shoulders the lioness's share of the detail work which I abhor. Couldn't do it without you, Case! You are the woman!


See all y'all next year. And don't forget our Mixed Gender Beginner's Camp October 25-27, 2013.



Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The regular crowd met again last night, May 15, for our 23rd Tip Jar Jam. Amazing! Pickers present were: Bob Van, Janet, Kathy, Barbara, Kasey (resplendent in pink shorts with matching pink scarf), Ben, Kenney and Bob A. We sorely missed Scott and Bob Mc who were obviously letting less important things like work interfere with their picking!


As you may have noticed from earlier blogs, more students are stepping up to the plate and singing now! Which I think is wonderful. Here's an easy-to-read list of who sang what:


Kasey and Ben: I Saw the Light

Ben: Old Home Place

Kathy: I'll Fly Away

Bob A: Beulah Land (a Do Lord clone) and New River Train

Barbara: Somebody Robbed the Glendale Train

Bob Van: Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms


If you are a wannabe bluegrass singer, the most important thing is finding the right key to sing in! You will not sing all songs in the same key, but there is usually one key where you will sing most of the songs. Generally speaking, most women sing most bluegrass songs in the key of C or D; most men sing in G or A. Since the "default" key for beginner bluegrass jams is G (no capoing!), way too many women think they can't sing bluegrass! NOT TRUE! They just need to sing in higher keys. (Our Harmony Singing DVD explains all this in more detail.)


Oftentimes, when you are singing at home by yourself (and not using your full voice), you may think you sing in a lower key than you actually do. But in a jam session, you have to sing above the instruments which create a lot of noise even when they are playing quietly. Here's an example. Kathy and I both thought she sang I'll Fly Away in A. So she sang it in the jam last week in A but that was too low. So she worked on it at home this week and thought maybe she sang it in B-flat or B. We tried it in those keys at the lesson, but as it turned out, she really sang it best in C. She has all kinds of power there. She did a great job of singing it in the jam last night. And she realized--as we all do--that this bluegrass singing is not as easy as it looks! "Does everyone's mind go blank when they have to sing solo?" she asked, after we finished the song. "Yes!" was the resounding reply. Especially if you are new to singing solo. Or if you are doing a new song for the first time. I pride myself on being a real "words" person, but even I sometimes go blank if I am singing a brand new song for the first time.


Barbara, who has turned the bass playing duties over to Kenney and is now playing guitar, sang a song that was new to the group, Glendale Train. I had kinda forgotten about Glendale Train--which I love--but it was one of my stage songs when I was first getting into bluegrass. (And I borrowed liberally from its melody for my own song, Just Remember Where You Could Be. I'm not sure I realized that at the time I was writing it!) It's basically a three-chord song with one off chord, A, in the verse and chorus. It's different from most of the songs we play at the jam in that chorus and verses are quite long--about twice as long as the verses and chorus of our other songs. So, I used it to demonstrate the concept of the "split break"--where one person plays the first part of the break and then hands it off to the second person who plays the last half of the break.


Bob Van was my guinea pig for this demonstration, even though I had just sprung the song on him during his lesson right before the jam. He came up with an excellent guitar break on the spot after hearing me sing the song through one time. I was proud of him for that! We then worked out splitting the break which he and I had done on a few songs previously. The thing about splitting a break in a jam is that pickers rarely, if ever, announce that they are going to split the break. So you have to be aware of the concept of the split break and realize that, hey, this is a pretty long break I wonder if the person who is playing right in front of me is going to hand me the second half. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But you have to be ready! (Note: this is an intermediate-level skill so don't get all hot and bothered about this if you are a beginning player!) But in the Tip Jar Jam, which is a teaching jam, we will work out the split breaks beforehand. (I can hear your sighs of "Whew!")
Glendale Train also enabled us to talk about a "turn-around."


Actually, Bob Van had opened that can of worms earlier by asking if he could kick off Blue Ridge Cabin Home with a "turn-around." I told him in no uncertain terms that he could not. (He knew that, he was just baiting me!) When Kathy asked why not, I gave her the answer that has no room for quibbling: "That's not the way Lester and Earl did it!" Then Bob A asked, "What's a turn-around?" So I said to Bob Van, "That's your question. You can answer that!" And he did, after a fashion. Upon which I turned back to Bob A and said, "Aren't you glad he's not your teacher?" Bada bing!


Actually Bobby gave a good answer. A turn-around is a short kick-off or a short break. Usually it's the last line or last two lines of the verse or the chorus. And, again, in a "regular" jam, folks often don't announce that they are going to do a turn-around. They expect you to know it, or, at least, to be able to follow it off the cuff. If they are feeling charitable they might say, "I'm gonna turn it around" and then, boom! Off they go.


Anyhow, Glendale Train has such long verses and choruses that using a turn-around for the kickoff makes good sense. So I kicked it off with a turn-around, Barbara did a good job of singing it, and Bobby and I split the one break. We'll keep that one in the repertoire!


We also did Old Home Place, which we had worked on last week. Since Ben is singing it in C, the song, with its two "off chords," provided its usual amount of confusion what with some folks being capoed (the ones who were going to play the breaks they had learned in G) and some not (the one who were just chording). This is one area  of teaching that still frustrates me--having to call out or go through two completely different sets of chords. No wonder Casey called this one a "jam buster"! But we survived and Ben did a good job singing. And I know it will get better and easier. And maybe, just maybe, I'll learn something about how to teach the chords in a better fashion. I hope so!


Being able to introduce harder songs like Old Home Place and Glendale Train into the Tip Jar Jam is a good indicator of how much the students have grown as players--and singers! No way would I have tried these last year. I'm looking forward to seeing what these next few months will bring.


If you are traveling through the Winchester area this summer, come by and jam with us. We'd love to have you. We jam every Wednesday night from 7-9. Call or email for the location.