Bluegrass: Simple or Not?

Murphy HenryMarty came this weekend for another marathon lesson. We played for many hours Saturday, and many more hours Sunday. In between songs we discussed the problems of the world. Didn’t solve a single one.

One of the topics we meandered onto was the conundrum that banjo (and bluegrass) is not as easy as it looks! Bluegrass appears simple, but, as all you students know, it ain’t! On the other hand, if you know G, C, and D chords you can actually participate in making music. So, it’s not like classical music or jazz or even playing hymns on the piano where you have to have years of training to be able to play music in any of those styles.

So bluegrass is simple, yet it’s not simple. What a paradox! Marty and I decided that best way to describe this apparent contradiction is thusly: bluegrass (particularly banjo!) is not simple, but it is accessible. Not simple, but accessible. Which means if you want to play it, you can. It’s not so hard that the average person—with a ton of “want to” and a lot of practice—can’t play it at some level.

The two operative points are the “want to” and the practice. As I told Marty, persistence trumps talent. If you’ve got all the talent in the world, but you don’t practice, then you you’re not likely to accomplish anything musically. On the other hand, if you have a lot of “want to” and a modicum of talent (which I think we all have), then with persistence and lots of practice, you will learn how to play. (And if you have a lot of talent and a lot of practice then you become Kristin Scott Benson or Alison Brown or Bela Fleck!)

Marty has given himself the goal of learning to play reasonably well in five years. I think that’s doable. He heard somewhere that he needs 2000 hours of practice and he has been most diligent in “putting the thumb to the five” as Alison Brown once said.

In less than a year’s time he has learned:

Banjo in the Hollow
Cripple Creek
Cumberland Gap
Boil Them Cabbage (low and high)
I Saw the Light
Do Lord
Worried Man/Gal
Two Dollar Bill

And, to be fair, he can play most of the notes to “Old Joe Clark” but I can’t brag on him about that because, against my advice (!), he learned it out of sequence, so I did not have Total Control which makes me crazy! (As he knows! Grin.)

Marty can vamp to all of these (except OJC), although hearing the off beat is still hard. (We worked on that a lot!) On Saturday some of the Misfits came over (Susan, Bill, Mark, Ellen) and we jammed on all of these. Marty held his own admirably!

I sent him home to North Carolina with the assignment to learn “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (the low break) and to polish up OJC. I figure that will hold him till July, when he’s off to camp at Augusta Heritage in Elkins, WV, and will come under the tutelage of Casey.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of you Marty! (Although I guess I just did!) Way to hang in there. Looking forward to hearing what you sound like with your new Stelling!