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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?

Red HenryA friend from our Florida days, Jinx McCall, has just sent us some remarkable photos she took between about 1977 and 1980. Here's a look at a short-lived group, the Florida Bicentennial Bluegrass Band:

Florida Bicentennial Bluegrass Band

The band was short-lived only because it existed just to commemorate the nation's Bicentennial. We performed from about 1976 to 1979.

The leader of the group was our friend Dale Crider. In the picture he's playing his fine old Gibson guitar, and no doubt singing one of his great original songs. On bass is Linda Crider, a good singer and musician, who was then married to Dale.

On mandolin and banjo you'll no doubt recognize Murphy and myself, a few years younger than we are now. We were primarily performing full-time with our own group, Red and Murphy & Co., but we took time to play any gigs that Dale had to offer. The Florida Bicentennial Bluegrass Band (like the Bicentennial itself) didn't last for many years, but we had a good time!

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 Henry(Line from a Jimmy Martin song.)

So, Steve and I are having our bi-monthly hour-long banjo lesson. We are in the Murphy Method studio where Casey and Red and I have just finished shooting the new DVD, More Easy Tunes For Banjo. We have cleaned up most of the DVD paraphernalia (chairs, lights, drop cloth, tuners, instruments), but we have left the black backdrop down, since it takes two of us to roll it up.

Steve makes some remark about the DVD shoot. I say, “Yeah, we used to use that black cloth there for a background. I think that’s what’s on our Beginning Banjo DVDs. Then we noticed that my hair seemed to disappear against all that black, and we didn’t know how to light it so that wouldn’t happen, so we switched to the blue background you now see in most of the DVDs.” (Including the Slow Jams and the newest one.)

Steve immediately says, “I guess you could go back to the black background now because the grey would show up pretty well.”

Me:

(Visualize open mouth and nothing coming out!)

Steve: “I shouldn’t have said that. I thought about not saying it....”

Me: “No, it was a perfect set up. You had to say it.”

And there were no hard feelings. I didn’t even make him play "Banjo in the Hollow" one hundred times for punishment! In fact we had a very good lesson. Steve is working now on the Improvising DVD and he is coming up with some really good breaks that don’t necessarily follow exactly what I taught on the DVD. I like that!

So I just chalk it up to one of the joys of being a banjo player and teacher for 35 years....Or as one of my former students said to me (and I reported in Banjo Newsletter), “You’ve been playing banjo longer than I’ve been alive.” Selah.

Murphy Henry(And yes, I am a big fan of Larry the Cable Guy!)

This past weekend Casey made the long haul from Nashville to Winchester to record our new banjo DVD, tentatively titled More Easy Tunes.

Working as fast as I’ve ever seen anyone and doing a superb job of teaching, Casey taught six songs in one long session on Friday. I sat by, mostly in awe, but was also in charge of making sure Casey’s bangs looked okay! Saturday I joined her on camera to play guitar and sing as we added the slow and fast versions of each song. Many times we ended up laughing ourselves silly over some small mishap. We both actually had tears of laughter running down our faces at times. Some of those moments should show up in the Bloopers.

During the shooting, we remembered to capture a few still moments to share with you on this blog. Here they are:

Casey Henry

Casey tuning up and getting ready to teach. She was not satisfied with her own tuner, so she asked for one of mine. Then she uttered these profound words: “I’ll just keep trying different tuners till one agrees with me!”

Red Henry

Red, our chief engineer, taking a brief moment of respite from his excellent camera work. Notice the Arrandem Music sign behind him. Get it? Arr-and-em. R and M. Red and Murphy.

Casey\'s banjo picture

One of Casey’s early works of art, which now hangs in our studio.

Casey and Murphy Henry watching playback.

Casey and Murphy watching what they’ve just recorded.

Casey\'s Banjo

We’re all done. Casey has left the building.

These are the tunes we recorded:

"The Old Home Place"
"Nine Pound Hammer"

Up-the-neck break to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" (which also fits numerous other songs with this same chord progression as we mention)

"Salty Dog" (simpler version than Earl’s)

"Amazing Grace" (two versions, both simpler than the one on our Gospel Banjo DVD)

"Ballad of Jed Clampett" (after many requests!)

Murphy HenryI was recently looking through some of the old stuff I’ve held onto for lo these many years (in various “keeping boxes” as we call them), throwing out things I can’t remember why I kept, and trying to organize the rest and date some of the letters (sans envelopes) that Mama started off with “Tuesday morning” or “Wednesday afternoon.” (Love the perpetual calendars on the internet!)

And why am I telling you this? Because I ran across two banjo books! One is titled Fun With The Banjo (Five String or Plectrum) by Mel Bay (copyright 1962) and the other is Modern 5 String Banjo Method published by M. M. Cole Publishing Co., (copyright 1941).

I am a little reluctant to poke fun at the Mel Bay book since the company now distributes our DVDs (and are wonderful people, let me add). Suffice it to say that both books were simply wrong for me because they were all about flat-picking the banjo which was tuned in “C.” I’m guessing they came with an el cheapo banjo I got one Christmas (and never learned to play). Since I could already play guitar, I could strum the banjo easily but it sounded awful, and I never really quite got the point or understood what it was all about. This was before I’d had my life-changing Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience at the Lavonia, Georgia, bluegrass festival in the early seventies where I finally “got it” about bluegrass and also met Red!

And you know, it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard bluegrass before that. I actually got to watch some of the Flatt and Scruggs shows on TV. I think they came on Saturday afternoons, along with other shows like the Porter Wagoner Show and the Wilburn Brothers Show. I liked watching them and enjoyed the music, don’t get me wrong, but they just weren’t any big deal. The thing I remember most is how funny I thought they all looked when they took off their hats to sing a gospel number. And the song I remember best is the Pet Milk commercial: “When you go to the grocery store buy the best milk you can get/You’ll start cooking with a golden spoon when you start cooking with Pet/Evaporated Milk.” I realize now that it was sung to the tune of “Boil Them Cabbage Down.”

I guess it just wasn’t time for the bluegrass bug to bite me then. I was content to play my baritone ukulele at various church and Girl Scout camps, singing all those great old folk songs like “Kum By Yah,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” “Stewball,” “The Cruel War” (a heart-rending fave especially for a tomboy like me who loved the lines “I’ll tie back my hair, men’s clothing I’ll put on and I’ll pass as your comrade as we march along”), and “Blowing in the Wind.” Eventually I graduated to guitar, continuing to play it like a uke at first (on the last four strings) because the chords were so hard to make. And finally I found my way to the banjo. But that story will have to wait until another time because this blog is long enough already! Thanks if you read this far. You could have been practicing your banjo!

Murphy HenryNews flash: This weekend Casey is coming home and we’ll be recording a BRAND NEW DVD of more easy songs for banjo. (Not sure of the exact title yet, but that’s the gist of it.) Casey will be doing the teaching, and I’ll be accompanying her on guitar. Songs that are slated to be taught include: "Ballad Of Jed Clampett"(after many requests!), "Old Home Place", "Nine Pound Hammer", "Bury Me Beneath the Willow", simple up-the-neck breaks to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" (which we’ve been teaching at camps for years) and "Salty Dog", and maybe a really easy version of "Amazing Grace". (The version on the Amazing Grace DVD is good, but it is really hard! As you may have found out.) So hopefully we’ll be blogging about that.

I now send you onto the blog I first wrote, before I remembered to mention the DVD!

Not Much Bluegrass Content

Good morning, folks! Sorry if you tuned in early and found no new blog. Entirely my fault. I was down in Georgia this weekend with my folks and didn’t get back till late. (Well, it was 8 o’clock, which after nine hours on the road felt late.) And then I had to send my weekend report to my sisters (we call it a “hotwash”) and I got carried away talking about how cute Mama and Daddy both are. (As you may recall my mentioning, they both have Alzheimer’s.) Mama, however, can still play Scrabble (although she does sometimes come up with unique spellings!), so we played three games in a row on Saturday and two more before I left on Sunday morning. I love spending time with her like this. Saturday night we all settled down on the couch in the TV room to watch a DVD of “Arsenic and Old Lace” with Cary Grant. What a weird movie! I’m sorta glad I watched it as I’d heard the title forever, but I certainly wouldn’t watch it again. I didn’t mind the dead bodies so much, but there was entirely too much yelling!

And then, too, after I got home last night, I had to watch the Academy Awards. (With Hugh Jackman!) I didn’t make it to the end, and I missed the first hour, but what I saw, I enjoyed. For some reason I really enjoyed seeing Joel Gray (who helped present Best Supporting Actor). I love him, not from Cabaret, but from the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer! (He played a very bad man....er...demon. And did a fabulous job.)

So, this morning I am headed over to Bluegrass Unlimited to write my monthly column, “The General Store.” If you’re not yet a subscriber to this fine publication, it’s still the Bible of bluegrass as it’s been for over 40 years! Great articles (Casey often writes for them), great record reviews, and even ads provide a wealth of information about festivals, instruments, strings, and other accessories. Many of you probably discovered The Murphy Method in the pages of BU.

And with that, I’m off. Hope you have a most excellent Monday. Don’t forget: Wednesday is Ralph Stanley’s birthday! And my sister Argen’s. And Pete Wernick’s. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ALL Y’ALL!

Murphy HenryI was thinking the other day during a lesson about all the things about banjo playing that I’ve changed my mind about and I decided to make a list. Many of these are things I was adamant about in my younger days! How time does mellow one....

I no longer think it’s imperative to bring your thumb down to the second string when doing the Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick. I used to teach IMTM religiously. Now I give students a choice!

I no longer think you have to anchor both your ring and little finger (right hand) on the head. I do it that way, but I’m okay with students using either one or both. (Bill Evans and I disagree on this!) I do still think you need to anchor at least one of them, though!

I’ve given up trying to teach the “right” chords to “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” (“Right” being code for “the way Lester and Earl done it.” They used four beats of D chord in the next-to-last measure. Words: “roll in my sweet baby’s....”) Today most people split that measure into two beats of G and then two of D. Not wanting to confuse my students, I now teach it that way. (But I still love the sound of those four beats of D!)

I’ve finally realized that other styles of banjo playing besides Earl’s are good too! In fact, I wish I could play some of Don Reno’s stuff. (And it’s not that I think I’m too old to learn, it’s just that I don’t have the burning desire that it takes right now. Maybe in my next life....)

I’ve finally realized that students need to learn to vamp almost as soon as they learn to play their first song. Sure, holding down four-finger chords is a pain but it’s the only way you’re gonna ever be able to play with other people, so might as well get started early.

I’ve not changed my mind about tab BUT I did show one of my students (Steve) how to use an Alan Munde melodic lick he’d learned from tab. I showed him how to put it into the B part of “Cripple Creek.” It’s a really cool up-the-neck lick. (And the only reason I did this is that Steve could actually play it. In time.)

Things I’ve Not Changed My Mind About

I still think learning to play by ear is the best way to learn banjo. Or fiddle, or guitar, or mandolin, or dobro, or bass.

I still believe there you should start off learning to play it like Earl—especially in the beginning. I’m not quite a fanatical about learning every little nuance of his every song though.

I still think the only way to really learn to play is to get out there and play with other people. You can only go so far at home.

I still don’t like to play “Blackberry Blossom” on the banjo! (I don’t like it on the fiddle either. Guess I just don’t like the song!) And I don’t teach it. I let Casey handle that!

I could go on and on, but I will save those thoughts for another day! (And how fun it is to write a whole blog where every paragraph starts with “I”!)

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,

Mark

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!

Murphy HenryRecently I fielded this question from Patty, a banjo player in Oregon who has joined group called Chickweed. Patty is 45, got her first banjo on her 40th birthday, and as she says “played off tab for a little over two years before I met you—and you know the rest of the story!” She has two sons, ages 14 and 11, and a husband who is “very accommodating when it comes to playing the banjo.” She also owns and runs her own business. (More about that at the end.)

Here’s what Patty said:

I'm getting positive feed back from the band and fans, but I don't feel like I'm doing as well as I want to! I know I'm not playing perfectly (or even close) many times, so how can I be the only one bothered by that? What I really need is some constructive criticism, but you know, everyone is so nice out here!

These girls like to play fast, and for a few songs that poses no problem. But “Driving Nails In My Coffin” clips along at nearly Rhonda Vincent's pace! I'm usually hanging on by my teeth trying to stay in time (during my breaks), no matter how much I work on it at home!

Any advice?

And here’s my reply:
I'm not surprised to hear that you don't feel like you are doing as well as you would like, and I'm not surprised that the fans and band members don't notice this (and don't care!). You know that you can be a perfectionist and you know how hard you can be on yourself. You’re a woman, it goes with the turf!

Now my two cents: There's no place for perfectionism in music! Not that you don't try hard, but basically it just ain’t gonna happen. CDs---especially digital ones---make it seem as if perfection is possible but it's all an illusion. You just do the best you can all the time---as I know you are doing---and sometimes you'll get closer than others. That's what makes the magic moments "magic"---because they don't happen often. Or often enough! [Read Casey's BNL article for February---one of her best!!! It sorta speaks to this.]

So if you can't get perfectionism, what do you get? You get the emotional impact, the fun, the challenge, the audience response, and the camaraderie with the band. And you also get the improvement I'm sure you are making. And every now and then you'll do ONE LICK that suits you!

Playing fast will come in time. It will get easier. Working with the fingering is good, as you found out. But basically, improvement will only come (IMO) with playing it fast on stage. There just doesn't seem to be any way to duplicate that situation at home. Maybe in practice sessions with the band.

I promise I used to feel this way a lot. It was hard to play fast, very frustrating, and I would get mad and then, of course, blame Red. (Very mature!)

Here’s one of the things I found out about trying to play fast. Sometimes I just had to let my fingers do what THEY wanted, what THEY were capable of doing at a really fast speed, rather than what my brain wanted to do and could do slow. That's how some of my licks "evolved" away from what Earl did. I just couldn't do his exact lick fast. Eventually (years later) I did learn to do some of those troublesome licks at tempo. But some I didn't. [That C7 lick in “Shucking the Corn,” for example!]

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