Tag Archives: lessons

Back in January I got a call, pretty much out of the blue, from the director of the bluegrass program at Colorado College, Keith Reed. I had met Keith at RockyGrass last year when I was teaching at the Academy and he mentioned that he wanted to get me up to Colorado Springs sometime to teach at the college. It sounded like a perfect opportunity to get out to Colorado Springs, see some mountains, meet and help some eager young bluegrass enthusiasts, and pick with Keith at the faculty concert.

I left a sunny and fairly warm Nashville and flew to Denver, and Keith scooped me up and we rode through snow dusted plains up to the campus to have a meal and meet with a couple of Keith's students. Keith, an excellent and solid Scruggs style player who had picked with Open Road for years, started teaching at the college about eight years ago and grew the program into a successful enterprise with about 20 students and three different ensembles.

That evening about 7 pm, we met about eight of Keith's students in one of the many music study rooms and I commenced a workshop for about an hour and a half. I've been teaching for about fifteen years, so I have done many workshops and private lessons, but it had been a while and my muscle memory for the experience was a little lethargic. But nevertheless, I set up my webcam to stream the workshop onto my Facebook page and plowed ahead. I figured it would be appropriate to give some background into my own influences and how I came to learn the music and play it the way I do. I always enjoy younger folks in workshops because frequently they have had heaping helpings of more contemporary bluegrass but haven't really studied the classics too much. At least one had heard of Frank Wakefield, so that was encouraging. Keith and I picked a couple of tunes - Bluegrass Breakdown and Farewell Blues.

I have been playing a lot in Nashville and so I really didn't think too much about it when I kicked off Bluegrass Breakdown at close to 180bpm. The students seemed entertained with the offering. There are many great styles of hardcore bluegrass mandolin, so I demonstrated, as best I could, tones of Red Henry, Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, David McLaughlin, and how my style was a mixture of those influences plus some innovations of my own like the circus-style ascending and descending blurs of mandolin motion (cheap licks as I like to call them), also integrating some unusual intervals that are more likely to be heard in eastern European, Klezmer, and Middle Eastern music.

Before long, one student asked me what I thought about Chris Thile. I expressed that beyond the obvious - his formidable technique, creativity, and overall contributions to the awareness of the mandolin in popular culture, he has an outstanding dedication to what he pursues, be it classical, or nuvo-grass, or the blend of pop and acoustic music in his most recent band. I also told them that he also provides me with a great contrast stylistically. If there were hundreds of young mandolin pickers who were all super deep in studying Monroe, then what I do would not be as unusual, so I appreciate that.

After dusting off two or three original mandolin tunes, I invited the students to pick, and we had two guitars, about four or five mandolin pickers, Keith on banjo, and a bass player. There was an excellent contingent of four young women, all very sharp and capable, with mandolins and so the gender balance was quite respectable. We started with a blues number which I figured was a good place to begin to get everyone improvising a little bit. At first go round, everyone played well, although with a couple of exceptions, fairly quietly. I like it when pickers really bear down and get good volume and projection out of their instruments. So, on the second round I asked them to all play as loud as they could, and they really could be heard a lot better the second time, and by my estimation, the music itself was more engaging and interesting. We sang some songs and passed some good fiddle tunes around for about a half hour with various students having to come and go as their hectic academic schedules allowed.

I demonstrated a few different guitar styles as well. The strums or licks of folks like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Carter Stanley, and David McLaughlin were something that they had not spent much time studying, so I was happy to help them add a few tools to their toolbox in terms of different guitar strums for different songs.

We had a little pizza and then went to relax for a while. That evening a friend of some of the students offered to have us over to pick some. So Keith and I went over and joined a few early 20s fellows playing an ice hockey game projected on to a white wall. We picked a couple in the kitchen, running over Groundspeed, which was going to be one of the tunes for the faculty concert the next night. The video game was finished and so we moved into the living room to pick some more. I was playing guitar, Keith was on banjo, and the most proficient mandolin student, Charlie, was picking his mandolin. Before long there were about twenty young folks in the room sitting wherever they could, a fairly large but well behaved snake being passed around, and three more mandolin pickers. We picked for about two hours and had a great time.

The next day we got to the college about noon, and had a great lunch from the cafeteria before Keith went to take a swim and I went to teach some one-on-one lessons. First up was Charlie, and he was a true sponge and quick on the pickup which is always great for lessons. We looked at staggered sixteenth notes like Bill Monroe used many times. I showed him how to play one sixteenth note with a downstroke, and then continue up the arpeggio on an upstroke, then a downstroke on every next note, and then how to change chords at the top to go to a C chord from G, and then also how to go from G to D and back down. He picked it right up.

Being curious about how I approached tremelo, I demonstrated how I pat my foot and play down-up-down-up for every foot pat so it keeps the tremelo even and uniform. He's got a good handle on what I might call the spastic tremelo which is more haphazard but when used properly can be powerful. The spastic tremelo is basically playing as fast as possible but without an even regularity to the pick strokes in relationship to the beat. I employ that technique myself frequently as well, it's more along the lines of Buzz Busby's style.

Next up was Mattie, a young woman that wanted to learn some practice techniques that would help here clean up her playing while developing speed. So I showed her my usual regimen of three patterns of the major scale in G and A. I start off with the regular two octave scale with alternating up and down pick strokes. Then we played two pick strokes (up and down) for each note up and down the scale, then triplets, and finally sixteenth notes. We did that in both G and A.

The next pattern I showed her was a little more complex. It starts on the first note in the scale then jumps up to the third note in the scale, then back to the second, then up to the fourth and so on. She picked it right up and we went through the permutations of one pick stroke through four pick strokes for each note in the scale. We did that in G and A.

Finally, when she had a good handle on all that we moved on to the hardest pattern which, in my experience, is the most beneficial for developing speed. It, like the previous scales is all up and down, starts by playing the first three notes in the scale, then going back to the first note and playing the next four notes in the scale, then back to the second note in the scale and playing three more scale notes, then going back to the third note in the scale and playing three more scale notes and so on all the way up and down. It's a lot easier to understand if you can hear it! We did that in G and A as well.

My third lesson was with Nicole, who wanted to learn some alternate up-the-neck picking ideas for one of her singing songs, so we picked Blue Night. She had an outstanding ability to pick up what I was showing her and in about a half hour's time she had a great handle on a difficult Bill Monroe-style break out of what I call first position, up-the-neck C. It was bluesy and melody based and was a good complement for her usual approach down low. I was tickled she was picking Monroe style so quickly.

The last lesson was with Esther, a final year student, who wanted to learn a particular strum pattern. She had been at the workshop the day before and had seen me do a strumming/picking rhythm lick but she didn't exactly know how to describe it or remind me what it was. So, I played this one and that one and she made leading suggestions such as "it connects to itself" and "it's more rounded", until finally we hit on something that was at least fairly close to what she was looking for. It was a rhythm lick that was very similar to the syncopated way Bill Monroe would frequently play on Muleskinner Blues or Rawhide. So we worked on getting the nuances and pick strokes until we were playing the same thing, and then I grabbed the guitar and sang the Rocky Road Blues so she could play her new rhythm lick, which she did quite well.

That evening was the faculty concert which was the main reason Keith had me fly out. There were opera singers, a wonderful harpist, and a wind ensemble among the other performers, and then Keith and I were scheduled to close out the show. About an hour before the concert we sat down and picked the tunes - Groundspeed and Sally Goodin. The arrangement was that he would kick off Groundspeed, and we'd both take a couple of breaks and then he would finish it and a similar deal with Sally Goodin' except I was starting and finishing that one. It was an interesting experience playing for that academic crowd. I'm not sure they were too familiar with bluegrass, but they laughed supportively when I invited them to get up and dance the buck 'n wing if they felt to inclined. We picked the tunes and they went off without a hitch. I had one of the students holding my Macbook so I could stream it to my Facebook page like I try to do whenever I can these days. The stream went out, we got a rousing applause at the end and then several of the other performers were favorably complementary towards our efforts which was especially nice considering the diversity in our musical paths.

After the concert we went to a local pub where two of the students have a regular gig. It was a tight spot, but comfortable with so many enthusiastic young listeners who were responding well and exchanging some good energy with everyone who was picking. I used my iPhone to look up a lyric I had forgotten to Roving Gambler, and we had some good trios on Sitting Alone in the Moonlight, All the Good Times Are Past and Gone. Keith let me pick his nice pre-war banjo for a tune and I picked one of my favorites, Clinch Mountain Backstep. It was interesting because as I was starting it off I was patting my foot on the off beat as I like to do sometimes, and due to the volume in the room, the guys picked up on the foot tap more than the melody and came in backwards, but it was quickly remedied and we had a good time with it. We picked until about eleven o'clock and headed for the house.

As I look out the plane window right now I see a whole lot of what I reckon is Kansas on the way back to Nashville. I'll get to town with a couple of hours to spare before heading to the Station Inn to sound check with Shawn Camp and his band. Till next time!

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!”


Red Henry

Red Henry

Since we've had so much interest in lesson discussions recently, I thought we might like to talk about students and teachers. First of all, here are sample behaviors of a few different teachers I've seen. Which teacher would you rather learn from?

Teacher #1. The teacher, who is a famous bluegrass musician, spends almost the entire lesson talking about music and music theory, going into intricate details about note relationships and chord structures and progressions. The student plays one or two tunes on the banjo, the teacher assigns a tab to learn the next week, and the lesson is over.

Teacher #2. The teacher, who is a fairly well known banjo picker, spends the lesson playing and talking and playing and talking and not giving the student much opportunity to participate. The student hardly gets a chance to play at all before the lesson is over.

Teacher #3. The teacher starts off by getting the student to play their tune from last week, going through it several times for repetition, warming-up, and encouragement, and then continues all through the lesson, teaching enough new material for the next week but having the student playing at least half the time.

Well, you may think that #3 may be a no-brainer, but I have seen enough examples of the first two lesson formats to know that those two teacher-types are quite common. Nevertheless, the focus of the lesson should be for the student to be learning to play, and I wish that all teachers would make it that way.

. . . . .

Okay, now let's talk about types of students. Here are a few examples:

Student #1. The student has canceled the previous two lessons on short notice, and now comes in late. He or she obviously hasn't had the banjo out of its case since the last lesson, almost a month ago. The teacher has to spend the whole lesson in reviewing material and getting the student to play, using up the lesson time for practice.

Student #2. The student arrives barely in time for the lesson, and something's always missing. They've lost their picks, or they've forgotten to practice their old material, or the dog ate their tuner-- but something has always gone wrong that could have been taken care of ahead of time. The lesson starts slowly, because the teacher has to do other things besides teaching.

Student #3: This student comes in on time and ready to play. Although their life is busy, he or she has played at least a little, almost every day. They may not have learned last week's lesson completely, but they're ready to sit down with the banjo and give it a good try.

Which student would you rather teach? I'm glad to say that most students I know fit the #3 category. The teacher and the student both need to do their part if the student is going to learn!


Murphy HenrySo, Bob (the golfer) and I are having a lesson. We are playing “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” (From the Amazing Grace Gospel Banjo DVD.) During the last month or so, we’ve been working a lot on coming back into a song when you mess up. And we’ve done much work on this specific song. Still, tonight, Bob keeps getting lost somewhere in the middle and can’t seem to get back in. (Okay, sometimes he makes it back in at the end of the song, coming in on the tag lick. And then he is able, sometimes, to start the song over. So we’re getting there. And he is both patient and determined so eventually this won’t be a problem. But tonight it is a problem.)

So after about ten reps of the song, I stop us.

Me: What’s happening?

Bob: I’m losing my focus.

Me: What do you mean?

Bob: My mind keeps drifting off and I start thinking about other things.

Me: Like what?

Bob: Well, at one point I was wondering, “What song am I really playing?”

Need I say more?

Murphy HenryThis Blog was inspired by Marty who read the following in the March Banjo Newsletter and sent me an email. This is a quote from a banjo player and teacher:

"All teachers occasionally get a student who has no musical promise at all. What do you do with them? I just keep trying to teach them until they reach their own conclusions."

Marty then wrote, “My heart stopped for a minute and I thought, ‘Hey, he could be talking about me.’ Then I decided that if he couldn't teach them, they should have tried a better way and used the Murphy Method....I still agree with the perspective that if a willing student can't learn it is more about the teacher than the student.”

I replied thusly:

Bless your heart (as we say down South). I'm sorry that article gave you even a moment's pause. You have plenty of promise! And I mean that. And what is more important, you have stick-to-it-ness and desire. Which, in the long run, is the most important. If, as the Good Book says, you have a talent and bury it, what good is it?

I agree with you about it usually being the teacher. In fact in my BNL article in 1983 (!), I quoted a professional tennis teacher who said that the attitude of many teachers is “If you don’t learn what I teach you, you’re a dummy.” His approach was, “If you don’t learn, I’m the dummy.” That’s the philosophy the Murphy Method is built on.

I have found that most people, regardless of age, have some musical ability if you just explore deep enough. For instance, if I encounter someone who really seems to "lack talent" on the banjo, I make things as simple as possible. In the beginning this might include simply strumming the open G chord and trying to play in time. In that regard the banjo is the easiest of the instruments to teach, because the string are so light (not like guitar or mando) and the chords (G, D7, and even C) are so easy to make. I then take that foundation stone and build on it.

Unfortunately the musical talent we all are born with sometimes gets buried by inattention or covered up by other life experiences. Or, worst of all, a well-meaning adult (parent or teacher) tells a child that she or he has NO MUSICAL ABILITY. Kids then carry that damaging—and false---belief into adulthood where it is very hard to shake. But it can be shaken!!! I make it my job to shake it! If any of you believe this about yourselves IT’S NOT TRUE! And it’s not too late! (I feel like I’m giving an alter call and we should all stand and sing “Just As I Am.” Perhaps in a former life I was a preacher!) 

I have taught many people who have come to music late in life and who get a great deal of pleasure out of being able to play a few songs. I get a reciprocal amount of pleasure watching them learn and hearing them play. I have also taught a number of adults who come to the banjo in their middle years and learn to play lots of tunes, learn to jam, learn to improvise, and even form bands.

The keys are: learning by ear, sticking with it, taking it slow, and never giving up!

So if you’re asking yourself right now if you have any talent, the answer is: YES!

Murphy HenryMark Zimmerman, one of my local students, has kindly allowed me to post his letter to Casey for my Monday Blog. I must say that I think Casey’s article in the February BNL, which he refers to, is one of her best!

Hi, Casey,

Great article in BNL this month, and very timely for me. I played at my "lousy level" during my last lesson with Murphy, and it really pissed me off. I've been working on Old Joe Clark, and felt I had the A part down
pretty well, and the B part coming along nicely. Of course, like an idiot, I announced that to Murphy when we sat down to play, and then I proceeded to barely be able to play the A part at all, even when I slowed it way down. Infuriating. My heart rate went up, I couldn't concentrate, and the more I tried the worse it got.

So we moved on to some older tunes in the repertoire, and when we came back to OJC I did a little better, but still not nearly as well as I was playing it at home that same morning. My version of stage fright is definitely
"teacher fright" and I know now that what I've got to do with new songs is slow WAY down when I'm sitting in front of Murphy, so I can get through them once or twice properly.

Best regards,


Comment from Murphy: Believe me, Mark, we all suffer from this! Many a time I have worked up a break to a tune at home—and I mean really worked on it—only to find that I could not replicate said break on stage. So, as Casey so eloquently described, I had to fall back on stuff I could play in my sleep. This was way harder when I was first learning because I didn’t have much to fall back on! Motto: hang in there! It does get better, and it does get easier!

Casey HenryI write this having just finished a long day of working first at the dentist office, where you'll find me three days a week doing paperwork, accounting, and making appointments, and then teaching for three and a half hours. At the end of Wednesday, which is my longest day, I'm always starving, so I was more than glad to be able to pull the Gypsy Soup and cornbread, which I made yesterday, out of the fridge for a quick and satisfying supper.

I've started two new students in the last month, both absolute beginners. One gal, whose husband is in the army and deployed overseas, is trying to find things to fill her time. What better than the banjo?! She got interested in bluegrass not too long ago, after getting Sirius Satellite radio and listening to the bluegrass channel. She found an instrument on Craigslist, that oh-so-useful source for so many things. The person she bought it from got it new ten years ago and never played it.

At her first lesson I did a little rudimentary instrument set-up---tightening the head and the tuners---and I reassured her that she had gotten a good deal. The I showed her the forward, backward, and square rolls. At her second lesson, tonight, I changed her strings for her---ten-year-old strings just don't sound very good---and gave her a set to keep in reserve in case she should need them. Then we went over the C and D7 chords and reviewed her rolls, which she had learned really well. These instrument maintenance basics took up a good bit of lesson time, but her banjo sounds much better now, and is easier to play, so I think it was well worth it.

Murphy HenryHere's something that came up at a lesson yesterday that I thought I'd share. One of my beginning fiddle students, who is taking up fiddle for the first time at age 71, bless her heart, was having a not-too-good lesson. Her playing was not as smooth as she wanted it to be and her bow was skittering around. Somehow, as she was talking, she mentioned that she'd been raking leaves all day. Well! There was the answer! I told her, "Suzi, you cannot do something strenuous like raking leaves---especially all day long---and then expect to come to a fiddle lesson and play well. Your fine motor skills have been shot! Your muscles are tired, your brain is tired. It's just too much!"

I learned this the hard way, thirty years ago in Florida. Sometimes before a gig, I would work in the yard for several hours. Mowing the grass, using the clippers to trim the edges, maybe even doing some weeding. (I was young, I had lots of energy! I think this was also BK---before kids!) When I got on stage that night, I found out my hands felt like LEAD. My fingers wouldn't move like I wanted them to. They felt clumsy and huge. I think I even remember them trembling after one particularly long afternoon with the clippers! I finally figured out: no yard work before a gig! (I later extended that to housework, too! No vacuuming!)

I know it's not always possible to avoid doing heavy work before a lesson (or even your own practice session). But, if you have a choice, put off the strenuous activities till later! Or as one of my banjo students said (when I told him this story), "I just think I'll take a nap before my lesson!" That's not exactly what I had in mind, Bob! Always a smart alec.....

Murphy HenrySandy, who is about my age (the best age!) has been taking fiddle lessons from me now for two or three months. Maybe even four. She's never played an instrument before. Knowing that if she invested a lot of money in an instrument, she'd feel obliged to stick with it, she bought a good new German fiddle.

We started out slowly, as I always do, just learning to pull the bow across the open strings. Then it was on to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." We just took it in pieces and Sandy had it down in about a month. She's very dedicated to her practice. This tune is on our Beginning Fiddle DVD so she had a reference. During this time we were also working on the A major scale.

Because Sandy is an adult and is not clamoring to play in a bluegrass band or even a bluegrass jam session, I veered away from the DVD at this point. I don't think "Cripple Creek" makes a whole lot of musical sense to someone who had never heard it. Instead, I started her on "Are You Sleeping Brother John." Since this tune is not on the DVD, Sandy had to memorize each section during the lesson. (I'm not sure why we didn't use a cassette player. Maybe she doesn't have one anymore.) Again, we took it in sections, doing only four notes at a time. In addition to playing the song on her fiddle (and since I told her not to write anything down), Sandy would sing the song to herself when she took her daily walk. Again, we had it down in about a month. And "Twinkle" kept getting better.

It was when Sandy was learning her next song "Mary Had A Little Lamb" that the ear training started to pay off. Sandy had mentioned that "Twinkle" was easier to learn than "Brother John" because you stayed on the same note for more bow strokes, so I'd picked "Mary" for exactly that reason. So I showed her the first phrase "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and when she had no trouble with those seven notes, I'd added the rest of the line. Then I told her the first part of the next line was the same as the first phrase. She played that easily. Then she did the most astounding thing: on her own, and never having played this song before, she played the last part of the song ALL BY HERSELF, "its fleece was white as snow." I was SO HAPPPY! And so proud of her. And she was happy and pretty pleased with herself. As she should have been.

And like I told her, this is how it's supposed to happen. When you learn by ear, especially if you've never played anything before, the first tunes almost have to be learned by rote---with the teacher showing you the notes. And if you stick with the "by ear" part of the program and don't write anything down, then your ear starts to develop and, sure enough, you start to hear where the notes are yourownself. And then you are on the road to being able to pick out other tunes---whole tunes---by yourself without the aid of a teacher. This is not to say that Sandy will be picking out "The Star-Spangled Banner" next week or even "Old MacDonald" but I'm sure the tunes she'll be learning will be much easier (we're fixing to start on Christmas carols from our "Christmas Fiddle Tunes" DVD) and she will be able to pick out parts of them by herself.

So to all of you out there, struggling with the fiddle (or any instrument), I hope Sandy's story encourages you to hang in there!!!!!!

Murphy HenryI spent part of yesterday giving a banjo lesson to Mark, a fairly new student who has been with me since the end of May. Mark is about my age (the best age!) which is to say the kids are grown, leaving time for things like banjo lessons.

Mark is into his second week of working on “Cumberland Gap,” so we spent the entire lesson trading banjo breaks and vamps to CG so Mark could learn to move from the vamp to the lead. As we are playing, I am blogging in my head because many things are becoming apparent to me as Mark plays. The main one, as the title here indicates, is that learning the tunes is the easy part!

First of all, it struck me once again how hard it is to learn to play through your mistakes. Particularly in a song like CG which is not a familiar tune to most people and doesn’t have much of a melody to boot! And the thing I realized, from watching Mark’s reaction, is that mistakes are just so startling! I mean, he’d been playing the tune hundreds of times at home, and I am convinced that he was playing it correctly, so he was used to hearing the same string of  notes over and over ad nauseum. So when he hits a wrong note, it’s just flat out weird. His ears aren’t used to hearing that note. So he reacts with surprise and that causes a tiny hesitation which causes him to lose not only his place in the song but his concentration. And all the other notes go flying out of his head and the song abruptly ends.

As I told Mark, this is one of the reasons our playing the tune together is so important. He needs to make every mistake possible so he can learn to recover from them. He needs to hear all the wrong notes he can hit so they won’t surprise him.

So that was the first thing that was going on: learning to play through the mistakes.

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