Improvising: Zac’s Story

Murphy Henry

I am always so excited when students learn to improvise because improvising is, in the long run, what the Murphy Method is all about. Learning all those songs from the DVDs is just the starting place.

Soooooooo, when Zac improvised his first tune Thursday (Blue Ridge Cabin Home, of course!) I called Casey to say, “It works! The Murphy Method really works!”

As always, I feel compelled to tell you about the careful foundation that was laid that led to this breakthrough. And it’s not just me doing my thing, it’s also Zac (and his devoted parents) doing their part.

Zac is fifteen and has been taking almost a year and a half now. He has followed the basic Murphy Method program: Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 and 2, Misfits, Jam Session Standards, and a couple of gospel tunes from Amazing Grace. He has learned to vamp to these tunes. So, that’s my part, setting him on the right path and only occasionally kicking his butt.

His part, which his parents facilitate, has been playing at the weekly Winchester jam sessions at Linda’s Mercantile, playing regularly at a local nursing home (with Murphy Method students Susan on banjo and Bill on bass and his dad on guitar), and attending numerous bluegrass concerts and festivals. He is even—and this just blows me away—learning to sing so his nursing home shows will not just be an unending string of instrumentals. And did I mention that he entered a banjo contest and won first place?

So it’s not too surprising that he caught onto improvising so quickly because, with this much playing under his belt, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Still and yet, the gratification for me is ENORMOUS.

This is how it went down: We have about ten minutes left at the end of the lesson, so I say, “Let’s try some improvising.” Fortunately, Zac had heard Blue Ridge Cabin Home and could already easily chord to it. So I give him my standard improvising spiel and say, “All I want you to do is play licks that fit the chords. This is NOT about playing the melody.” He obviously understood because during his first pass through the break, he came up with a great G lick, most of a C lick, and then got stumped on the D lick. But we kept trying and pretty soon he had something that fit the D chord.

As I also told him, “There is no wrong way to do this as long as you play a lick that fits the chord and you stay in time. It may not be the greatest sounding break in the world, but we’re not looking for great, we’re just looking for something. This is where we start. We’ll get to great later.”

Pretty soon he had a very creditable break. And I could have left it there. But we still had a few more minutes so I said, “For that D lick, you could also use the D lick in Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” And just as I was saying that he was saying, “I could also use the Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arm lick.” Oh, yes, you can, Zac, you clever boy!

I had him play through his break using the Roll in Arms lick, then I had him play it using the FMB lick, and then—and I loved that he could do this—I had him play it using one of these licks for the first D and the other for the second D. His choice. He came through with flying colors. I was, to use a bluegrass phrase, sitting on top of the world. And I think Zac was pretty pleased with himself, too.

It will be interesting to see where we go from here. I’ll try to keep you posted.

2 thoughts on “Improvising: Zac’s Story

  1. Augie at Common Ground Stable

    Yes, congratulations Zac. Great information. It gives the novices hope.
    There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to TMM for turning it on.

Comments are closed.