New Group of Misfits

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Last week four of my students participated in their first-ever jam. Each student has been playing for about a year and, amazingly enough, knows roughly the same songs. (Guess which ones?) They all have been introduced to vamping (F shape only, following my latest inclination to teach vamping that way first). And they all know I’m blogging about them! Zach and Matt are teenagers, while Judy and Randy are in what we might call middle part of their lives. Previous to the jam, they did not know each other, although Judy and Randy have back-to-back lessons and have played a couple of songs together as sort of a trial jam.

Zach had his hour lesson before the jam so he was well warmed up. Folks started coming in on the tail-end of his time and I told them to make themselves comfy while I took a short break. When I came back into the studio, everyone was sitting in the chairs I’d lined up but it was weird. It was completely quiet. No talking, no noodling. All four of them looked like deer caught in the headlights. Terrified is perhaps too mild a word.

As I got my banjo out, I assured them that everything was gonna be okay. That’d we’d play through the first song, Cripple Creek, all together so everyone could relax (at least a little) and no one would feel like they were on the spot. Then I had them practice their vamping together--which they all knew—while I played the banjo. Everything was smooth, so I put down the banjo and got out the guitar. They were going to fly solo.

I asked Zach to start, since he was already warmed up. My original idea was to take turns with the starting but everyone did so well with Zach leading off that I decided to let him start all the tunes and sort of preserve an order they could depend on. One less thing to worry about.

Everyone played the song one time through, and cleanly passed to the next person. In clear violation of my own stated policy (what are rules if not to be broken?) I told them that if they absolutely could not keep going when they messed up that we would stop and let them start again. This being their first jam, I thought nothing would be gained by having them sitting there, embarrassed, and not being able to recover from a mistake. That can come later. (The embarrassment and the recovering!)

They were lined up in this order, Zach, Randy, Judy, Matt, and for the first couple of songs we just stopped cold after Matt got done. Later on, I had Zach pick back up when Matt finished his break. But at first I was trying to make things as easy as possible.

We played though Cripple Creek, its sister song Banjo in the Hollow, then Cumberland Gap, and Boil Them Cabbage Down. Matt was just learning Cabbage, and didn’t quite have it down, so he just vamped. And seemed content to do so.

This was about the smoothest first jam I’ve ever been a part of. Of course they are all excellent, serious students who practice and do their part. But I like to think that I prepared them better than I have prepared students in the past. (Check out “We Are Jamming” from my book if you want to hear how my first-ever student jam went! I had so much to learn!)

One thing I am doing differently in my teaching is that I am encouraging the beginners to memorize those first few chord patterns. We’ve been starting with Cripple Creek and I show it to them a measure at a time (four beats) and get them to memorize it. Of course they are memorizing it WHILE THEY ARE PLAYING IT, which is considerably different from trying to memorize a chord pattern from paper. We talk about the “off” beat, find that, and then I tell them the first measure is GGCG and we vamp it. Then we do the next measure—GGDG—the same way. Then we put the two together. At this point, I’ve not even played the banjo with them. But now, I bring out the banjo and show them where to come in, and off we go! (Note: all these vamp chords are taught on the Vamping DVD!)

We learn the B part the same way, then put the two parts together. After they are comfy with that, then I show them how to come in after the vamping. (Leave off the last beat of G and get in there!)

I follow Cripple Creek with Banjo in the Hollow, because the A part chords exactly the same way. I used to think the B part was too hard to chord—CGCGCGDG—all that flipping back and forth between C and G, but the students seem to do fine with it. Boil Them Cabbage, Cumberland Gap, I Saw the Light, and Do Lord all follow and, so far, everybody is doing really well.

And this is the neat part: as some point they stop counting and start listening and hearing the changes. And you know I love that! I’ll keep you posted on future progress, but right now I am one happy teacher! Happy, girl, that’s me!

3 thoughts on “New Group of Misfits

  1. Martin Bacon

    I like the ideas of learning to vamp all in the F shape. Then you aren’t fighting trying to learn to switch shapes while you are learning chords while you are trying to internalize what the h*** is the offbeat (this coming from the rhythmically challenged of your Misfits). I also think BITH sounds great vamped that way. Being good with the F shape down the neck should really help with OJC too. Very good thinking. You deserve to be a Happy Girl.

  2. Steve (in Japan)

    Your “Misfits” blogs are always good reading with a lesson included. Thank you.

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