From the Archives: A Day of Banjo Teaching

murphybook_smallThis is the first entry in a new series of posts called "From the Archives." They will be pulled from Murphy's many years of monthly Banjo Newsletter columns. Some of these are collected in her book ...and there you have it! This excerpt comes from the very first column she wrote in June of 1983. [Editor's note: I was five at the time. She was younger than I am now! Yikes! -Casey]

2:30 I leave our house on the outskirts of the Hawthorne, Florida, metropolis and head toward Gainesville, where I teach at Modern Music Workshop. Do I have everything? Two notebooks---one for book-keeping, one for writing down snatches of songs that might occur on the twenty-minute drive to and from Gainesville (the ones I jot down at night are the best---car weaving from one side of the road to the other---pen weaving from one side of the paper to the other as I try to write in the dark). [Editor's note: and we think texting and driving is dangerous?!] Cassette of Ralph Stanley to listen to in case someone doesn't show up. Pocketbook. Checkbook. Money. Banjo? Banjo! Expletive deleted.

As I turn the car around and had back home, I remark to myself that this happens only about twice a year, and why does it have to happen today when I'm late already?

Five minutes later, banjo safely ensconced behind the seat of my 1971 Pinto with the bumper sticker that reads, "Scruggs Do It Earlier," I am on my way. [Editor's Note: If anyone has ever seen an actual bumper sticker that says that, please let us know.]

I arrive at the studio right at 3:00 to find my first student waiting. I teach ten students a day, two days each week, running half-hour lessons back-to-back from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m.

3:00 My first student is Freddy. He is seven years old and has been taking banjo for nine months. He has an El Cheapo banjo which we have to capo up to the fifth fret in order for him to reach the fingerboard. Freddy started with me and can play nine songs: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, and so forth. For today he was to learn the second phrase of the low break to Foggy Mountain Breakdown---that's the E-minor part.

We tune up and he plays Foggy Mountain Breakdown. he does a good job and I can tell he has put in a lot of time practicing. You can always tell. I remind him again to be sure to use his thumb the second time he does the FMB hammer-on. We go over that a few times, and then I record the last phrase of the tune for him. I don't use tab, so I play the tune onto a cassette tape and explain it note-for-note. Then I play the whole tune slowly so that he can play along. We spend the rest of the time playing together, with me on guitar. I am amazed at how well he can play--not perfectly, but he seems to have the knack. Then the time is up. See you next week, Freddy.

3:30 My next student is Mary McEntyre. She doesn't show up. She does that a lot.

4:00 My next student is Bill. He is a transfer from another teacher who taught strictly by tab. This is his second lesson with me. Hill knows a lot of songs, but he plays too fast and his playing is really sloppy---I've told him so. But I've learned that it's best not to try to correct the tunes a student already knows. Instead, we start on new ones, get them right, and hope that the new technique transfers. I had put down Groundspeed for him last week; it was his first experience learning from tape. "Did you have any trouble?" I ask. "No." he says. "Okay," I say. "We'll see." he has learned all the notes, and can play them, not as cleanly as I would like but okay. I correct his right hand fingering on all those "G" positions moving down the neck. For next week, what shall we do? "Do you know Cumberland Gap?" "Yes." "Then, for next week we'll do Sally Goodwin." (I'm to find out later that he only meant he knew the low break to Cumberland Gap---not the high break, which is essential to learning Sally Goodwin. This will result in a frantic phone call to me late one night---"I can't get it!"---whereupon I will talk him through Sally Goodwin over the phone, and listen to him play until he gets it right. Fortunately, it's on his nickel. See you later Bill. [Editor's note: You can tell these were Murphy's early days of teaching. These days she won't give Sally Goodwin to anyone unless they've been taking from her for years!]

Tune in next week for more of Murphy's exciting adventures in banjo teaching!

5 thoughts on “From the Archives: A Day of Banjo Teaching

  1. Patty

    I love Murphy’s book! Should be required reading for all banjo students.(Note, this was an unsolicited plug!).

  2. martha carlton


    I think you should give more exerpts from your book, and it would be interesting to know what methods you have changed over the years. I re-read your book last summer, and I was shocked to learn how hard it was to teach improvising.

  3. Susan

    “Well I had a piece a pie and I had a piece of puddin’ and I gave it all away just to be with Sally Goodin’…” And what a great tune it is too!

  4. Jim Hand

    I agree it should be required reading at least for Murphy Method students. I am on my 2nd time reading through it.

  5. J. Riley

    i think she should have left student mary’s last name out of this. Very unprofessional.

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