Learning Tunes Is The Easy Part!

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.

Mark was also working hearing the chord changes to CG. Now, Mark hears his chord changes pretty well. And CG is a two-chord song with a simple pattern: GGGGGGDG.  But since I discourage counting the chords, Mark was trying to hear where that D came in, which is difficult. Again, no distinct melody.

But the primary thing we were working on was moving from the vamp to the lead. And to do that, you leave off that last beat of G. Which means the D chord pretty much has to be in the right place to make it all work. Sometimes Mark would miss the D entirely. Sometimes he was early. Sometimes he was late. And all of these mistakes ticked him off. “I know how to play this!” he would say. And I knew that he did. But it’s the old bugaboo of playing under pressure, playing in front of the teacher. If you think playing in front of a (sympathetic) teacher is hard, wait till you try a jam session where “nobody loves you, nobody cares!” (To quote an old Flatt and Scruggs song, which is always appropriate!)

So, it was my job to pound into Mark’s head the idea that it doesn’t matter if you miss the D chord. The important thing is to come in for your break at the right time. That is all that matters. If you do that, the jam can keep going. If you drop the ball there, the jam will pretty much grind to a halt.

We played through CG for a solid 25 minutes by the clock, working on all these things. And by the end of the time, Mark had pretty much gotten it. He was playing through his mistakes, he was hearing the D chord, and he was coming in at the right time for his break.

Like I said, learning the notes is the easy part! This other stuff is the grunt work, the work in the trenches. This is the stuff that students who play at home alone don’t get to do. And this is why, when they come to banjo camps, they can’t play with other people. Please! I beg of you: find someone to play with!

And here’s one of the things I like about Mark. After we finished what I thought was be a fairly grueling session he said, “That was fun!” And he meant it!

(Note for the nervous: Mark gave me permission to use his name and tell this story. And, BTW Mark, if you want to tell your side, bring it on!)