Now we come to Bob Mc’s adventures in backtracking. Bob came to me about four years ago with absolutely no musical background. We’ve often remarked to each other that he started “below zero.” But tenacity he has. In spades.
After four years, Bob has lots of tunes that he can play well: All of Beginning Banjo Vol. 1, Old Joe Clark, the high break to Foggy Mt. Breakdown, and Lonesome Road Blues from Vol. 2, all of Misfits, all the Improvising songs, plus Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I’ll Fly Away, and When the Roll is Called up Yonder. That’s a lot of songs.
Now, as I told him at his Tuesday lesson, if he were taking banjo lessons from just about anybody else, he would be a Star Student. Would get an A Plus. Why? Because he can actually play the tunes.
But Bob is having problems hearing the chord changes to the songs. And because of that he has trouble with vamping, trouble with coming in for his break in a jam, and trouble recovering when he makes mistakes in his own playing.
And since my goal is to turn out students who can jam, Bob and I have been actively seeking a solution for this difficulty for years. I can’t tell you how much work we have done on vamping. I’ve had him try to do it by ear, I’ve had him try to do it by counting, I’ve had him memorize chord patterns. Frankly I thought if we just played the songs enough, he would just “get it.” It would all fall into place. The light bulb would come on. There would be joy in Mudville.
Alas, no joy. Because there was big part of problem that I wasn’t understanding.
Over and over I’ve told him Bob that when he’s vamping he he should be hearing the tune in his own head. But it’s taken me until recently to realize that he can’t keep the tune in his head when he’s away from the music. That was a bit of a shocker to me. I have no idea how he’s done as well as he has without being able to keep some version of the tune in his mind.
Finally on Tuesday, grasping at straws, I asked him if he knew the song Skip to My Lou. Yes, he seemed to recall it from grade school. There now, I thought, is a simple tune that he surely will be able to keep in his head. So I sat there and played guitar and sang the chorus over and over while he vamped. He picked up the chords fairly quickly, although that last measure gave him a bit of a problem. I asked him to then tell me what the chord pattern was. He was able to do that. We talked about how the last chord had to be G, since we were playing in the key of G. He wanted to know if that were true for all keys. I said yes. That was a revelation to him. He’d never thought of that before. He was extremely happy to been given that piece of information. It was like he had found another piece to this endless puzzle he is trying to put together.
I told him to sing the song, hum the song, think about the song all the way home. And to try to remember it in his head every day this week. And to try to vamp to the song he heard in his head. And, if he couldn’t recall it, to get out the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD and listen to it to refresh his memory. And if he dreams about it, so much the better!
I think we may be on to something. I can only hope so. I’ve got big plans for Bob and Skip to My Lou. I figure that we can start simple and then build up a repertoire of songs he can hear in his head. It may not be easy, but I do think it will work. There will be joy in Mudville!
P.S. I welcome suggestions from any of you who have dealt with this problem in your own playing.