From Banjo Hangout: Why By Ear?

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Murphy blogs every month over on Banjo Hangout, and we will be cross-posting these blogs so they'll be all here in one place. This first one was originally posted Friday, August 23, 2013.

Hi, I'm Murphy Henry! And welcome to my first article for Banjo  Hangout. You might have heard of my method of teaching--The Murphy Method. (I like alliteration!) We teach by ear. We do not use any tablature or written music, ever. We teach all the bluegrass instruments but, because I'm a banjo player, we are perhaps best known for our banjo instruction.

My bona fides? You want bona fides? Oh, ye, of little faith. (Yes, I was raised Baptist! In Georgia.) I am one of three women included in the book Masters of the 5-String Banjo by Trischka and Wernick. (The other two? Lynn Morris and Alison Brown.) I started playing banjo in 1973 and have recorded seven actual vinyl LPs (and numerous cassettes, eight-tracks, and CDs) with my husband Red and our band. I have taught at numerous banjo camps across the country including the Tennessee Banjo Institute and the Maryland Banjo Academy. And for years I wrote the On The Road column for Banjo Newsletter. (I still write the General Store column for Bluegrass Unlimited.) Will that do ya? If not, there's always Google! 

Right now I want to talk about one of my fav-o-rite topics: Learning Bluegrass Banjo By Ear.

If you are new to the banjo or new to Banjo Hangout, you may not realize that there is an alternative to learning banjo from tablature. Well, there is another way and it's BY EAR. Curious? I know this topic is frequently batted around here at Banjo Hangout. So let me share some of my thoughts with you. After teaching banjo for 40 years I have learned a thing or two in my own quest to turn students into real, live banjo players.

There are three main reasons to learn by ear:

  1. It’s easier. (OMG is it easier!)
  2. It will enable you to play with other people.
  3. It leads to improvising.

Now to expostulate. I’m gonna skip over how much easier it is to learn by ear because that's a hard one to talk about. You'll figure that one out for yourself!

But playing with other people: that is the goal of almost everyone who takes up the banjo. Maybe you want to play with a small group of friends or in a family band. Or maybe you’d like to jam with other people in the parking lot. Bluegrass is a friendly music. It wants to be played with other folks.

Now, think about the nature of Bluegrass Music as you have observed it. Bluegrass musicians do not perform looking at music. You do not see music stands on a bluegrass stage. (Okay, Ralph Stanley sometimes has to have the words in front of him now. But he’s Ralph. He can do whatever he likes!) Bluegrass music is, by its very nature, a “by ear,” improvisational music. If you want to play in a symphony you’ll have to read music. If you want to play church piano or organ, you’ll have to read music. Many genres of music call for note reading. But not bluegrass. It calls for playing by ear.

But I can’t learn by ear, I hear you saying. I’m not that talented. I don’t have a music background. I’m too old. I’m a visual learner, I learn better from paper. Phooey to all that. Almost anyone can learn by ear if you just take it slow, a few notes at a time, and start with easy stuff. (NOT Blackberry Blossom!!) Which is exactly what we do on all our DVDs. We teach it S-L-O-W. (To paraphrase Conway Twitty: I want a teacher with a slow hand....)

So, right from the beginning, learning by ear enables you to play with other people. Why? Because as you learn each song (one piece at a time, just like Johnny Cash got that car) you are actually able to HEAR what you are playing. It makes musical sense from the git-go. Your songs sound like songs. Your spouse or partner can actually recognize what you are playing. They might even compliment you. And it’s almost impossible to play out of time.

But if you are learning from tab, you don’t know WHAT the songs sounds like. So how do you know if you’re doing it right?

If you are a tab reader (a tab eater as my friend Bill Evans says), you probably have had the experience of learning to play lots of songs. At home. But when you try to play them with someone else, it’s a total disaster. Why? Usually it's some timing error that you don't even realize you are making. You don’t “hear” what you are playing. And if you can’t stay in time--and recover from your mistakes--no one can play along with you. It's a sad, difficult situation that I've seen way too many times.

Now, some of you might be saying that you don’t have these problems. You can read tab just fine, thank you very much, you don’t make timing errors, you can, in fact, play YOUR SONGS with other people. And maybe you can. But, I ask you, can you play anybody else’s songs? Can you improvise a break on the spot to a simple three-chord song that you’ve never played before, that you’ve never even heard before. Probably not. (But my hat’s off to you if you can!) Our students can do that! Just ask Marty, Martha, Ben, Kasey, Bob, Jon, Ruth, Patty, Claire...all Murphy Method improvisers.

The greatest thing about learning by ear is that it leads to improvising. Tablature will not get you there. (Hey, I understand there are exceptions to this, but I don't see too many of them in the student category. These tend to be super-talented professional-level players.) Learning by ear gives you the tools to start improvising. Is it easy? Well, for some folks it is, and some folks have to dig a little deeper. But most of my students, at least the ones who stick with it, and the ones that I see on a regular basis, have pretty good luck with improvising.

The other piece of learning to improvise is getting out there and playing with other people. And that is called jamming! But that is a topic for another day! To quote the Fabulous Flint Hill Flash: "Roll on, buddy, roll on!"

3 thoughts on “From Banjo Hangout: Why By Ear?

  1. Luke

    Riiiiiiightt !! I have improved since ordering Casey’s DVD..and it’s because I’m listening and playing by ear . Really like it . Thanks

  2. Dave Locatell

    Of the songs that I play fairly well, ALL have come from Murphy Method Lessons. After learning from Murphy, I can then go look at the tablature, and see it clearly, but NOT the other way around..I love Murphy and Kasey lessons.

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