banjo newsletter

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

This article originally appeared in the pages of Banjo Newsletter magazine in December 2013. They kindly gave permission for us to reprint it here. Buy the CD here!

When I heard about the forthcoming CD project from Patuxent Music featuring Washington D.C./Baltimore/Northern Virginia-area banjo players I got super excited. The list of participants includes both legendary players and up-and-comers, bluegrass and old-time. Here, to whet your appetite, is a partial list: Tom Adams, Eddie Adcock, Paul Brown, Donnie Bryant, Bill Emerson, Cathy Fink, Joe Herrmann, Pete Kuykendall, Reed Martin, Doug McKelway, David McLaughlin, Mike Munford, Bill Runkel, Mark Schatz, Dick Smith, Roni Stoneman, Steven Wade, and Chris Warner.

I first heard of the project when my mom and I were both asked to participate. Co-produced by ace picker Mark Delaney (who plays with Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass) and Randy Barrett (president of the DC Bluegrass Union) the as-yet untitled project [now titled The Patuxent Banjo Project] will be released in the Spring 2014.  ...continue reading

murphybook_smallThis is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from Murphy's Banjo Newsletter Columns. This article appeared in October 1985 and is one of my favorites. You'll only have to read as far as the first sentence to figure out why! If you want to read the complete column, you'll find it in Murphy's book, ...And There You Have It!

Howdy! I am sitting here at the breakfast table, listening to my daughter practice the banjo. Did you get that? My daughter is practicing the banjo. I am, naturally, delighted, but I am also objective enough to know that it may not last once she gets back to school and her little cronies start whooping it up over Michael Jackson, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper. [Ah, those were the days...] Still, while she is at it, it will be an excellent opportunity to learn about learning, and, consequently, how to teach.

Casey is seven and a half years old, going into the second grade, and is practically perfect in every way (just like Mary Poppins). [Well, duh.] She has, of course, been raised on music---bluegrass, to be precise---with a good hefty dose of folksy kids’ songs thrown in on the side. But her interest in banjo had been almost non-existent until she met Stott.

Now, you don’t know Stott, who is also seven and a half, but he is the answer to every banjo teacher’s prayer. […] Actually, he is a born musician, whose passion is the banjo.

Stott and his parents came over to the house a few months ago, to buy his first banjo. Casey met him then, and he couldn’t play a lick. Then, just two months later, they were back again, consulting about the purchase of an RB-250 they had found. Stott just sat there on the couch, and calmly played through four banjo tunes, including "Cumberland Gap" complete with the up-the-neck break. It made quite an impression on Casey, and she requested banjo lessons immediately after their departure. [Nothing like a little competition to get me going!]

Well, I did not get all excited. I mean, I’d shown Casey things on the banjo before, and I’d shown her lots of things on the piano, but never did she practice for more than one day in a row. But, since I am a marshmallow, I said, yes, I would give her a lesson. Tomorrow. I was pretty sure that by tomorrow she would have forgotten. She did not forget. So, tomorrow found me scrounging around the house, looking for little banjo picks. We already had a little banjo---a 1925 Gibson TB-2 pot assembly, with a 10 1/2” rim, and a short, 18-fret neck that Red had made. When it is tuned up, it comes out pitched in C (just like putting the capo on at the fifth fret of a regular-size banjo.) So I put my capo on, and after the usual preliminaries about picks, hand position, and string numbers, I showed Casey some rolls---forward, backward, and square. She didn’t have too much trouble with them, so I sent her off to practice, and told her we’d have another lesson sometime, IF she practiced a lot and learned her rolls.

[…] Time went by, as it does in the summer, with vacation, swimming, movies. Several weeks passed, and then Casey said, “Can I have a banjo lesson?” “May I have a banjo lesson,” I said. “You haven’t been practicing very much.”

Casey: Sad Face

Me: “Well, okay.”

So we set up for our lesson in the studio. Casey does her rolls for me, but they are merely adequate.

“Casey,” I said, “if you were one of my real students, I would tell your mother that you needed to practice more.”

Giggles and tee-hees. “But you can’t because you’re my mother!” More giggles and tee-hees.

“No, but I can tell you, and I’m telling you that I’m not going to give you another lesson until you have practiced more. Now,” said the marshmallow side of me, “I’ll show you something new. We’ll learn a C chord.” [What is that if not a lesson? Marshmallow, indeed.]

I show her where to put her fingers, and tell her to press down hard, so the strings won’t sound muted.

“It hurts,” she says.

It hurts. Lord, how many times have I heard that? But never has it sent an arrow to my heart like it does now. Those tender little hands have never felt anything as rough and cruel as an old banjo string across the tips.

“I know it hurts,” I said, “but before long you’ll get (showing her my fingertips)…”

“Callouses,” she said. (She and Christopher have always been impressed and intrigued by Red’s huge mandolin callouses.)

“Don’t worry. We’ll quit when your fingers start to bleed,” I said, being jocular. She is not amused.

The C chord does not come easily, and it will definitely give her something to work on. [But at last, after all these years, I can FINALLY make a C chord! 😉 ] I am about to end the lesson now, when it pops into my mind that we should try "Polly Wolly Doodle", since we’d been singing it a lot recently. After all, it only has two chords, G and D7. So I show her D7, and make a mental note that it is easier for her than the C. Then I tell her (and show her) that we will just do a strum with the thumbpick on the open strings. I tell her that the first two words, “Oh I . . .” are pick-up notes, and that we don’t start strumming until the word “went.”

[Blah, blah, blah, she teaches me to strum the song…]

The next day, as I am listening to her practice, I am curious to know if she can play the song all by herself---that is, find the correct pitch, and remember where to change chords. Sure enough, when she starts singing the song, she’s not exactly on pitch, but she soon eases into it. And, sure enough, she misses the D7 once or twice, but I hear her saying, “Ugh. That doesn’t sound good.” But she keeps strumming and singing and trying the D7 in one place and then another, until it does sound right. [These days Murphy would never, EVER use the word "but" in two sentences in a row!] Then she plays it through the right way a few times. Inside I am ecstatic! She’s doing it!!

Now, this singing on pitch and changing chords is the very thing that so many people say is intuitive, but now I have seen first hand that it is not, not intuitive, but it is LEARNED. Sure, some people will learn faster than others, but still and yet it is learned.

And this one song, "Polly Wolly Doodle", with its two chords, will become the basis for learning the chords to other songs. It will be the groundwork; it sets the pattern for learning to change chords, which is a huge stumbling block for so many aspiring pickers.

[And so began the ideas that eventually culminated in the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD. Apparently, not only did the Murphy Method teach me how to play, but I taught the Murphy Method now to teach! {Ha! Just kidding!} "Polly Wolly Doodle" is still one of my all-time favorite teaching songs. I betcha I'll sing it every day for the entire two weeks I'm at Kaufman Kamp.]

[I should also add that it, in fact, did NOT last. It was another seven and a half years until I actually started playing the banjo for real. I wonder if it lasted for Stott?]

murphybook_smallThis is the second 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 is from her August 1983 article, in which she talks about her approach to teaching banjo.

I know exactly why I teach. One: to make money. I'll be the first to admit that it's great to make money doing something you enjoy. Two: to keep the banjo in my hands five hours a day, twice a week. If I didn't teach, I seriously don't think I would take my banjo out of the case between gigs. Three: to keep me learning. I learn so much by teaching. Just last week I finally learned Earl's last "D" lick in The Ballad of Jed Clampett---the one with all those backward rolls. I was so excited. I played if for Red. He was unexcited but appreciative. Can you imagine how wonderful it is to say to your spouse, "Listen to this D lick out of Jed Clampett!" and have him not only understand what you are talking about, but also say, "You missed a note." I love it.

I started teaching banjo in 1974, which means I have been teaching for nine years. I started out with the Earl Scruggs book and one student. I had only been playing banjo for a year but I knew more than she did, so we went at it.

I had the makings of a good teacher. I loved playing the banjo. I loved teaching, and I had a lot of patience, but, with hindsight, I can see that I was not yet a good teacher. I had to teach myself how to teach. I am still learning how to teach. [...]

When I started teaching I was concerned only with teaching lead breaks. I was (and still am) a firm believer in three aspects of teaching banjo. One: students want to learn to play something immediately, so show them hand position, three rolls, and start them on a song! Two: students should learn the basic Scruggs style first, and learn it right. Three: students need to hear how the songs sound so record them on a cassette, both fast and slow.

My philosophy of teaching was summed up beautifully in the June 6, 1983 issue of Sports Illustrated. It was in an article about Warren Bosworth, a U.S. Professional Tennis Association teaching pro. The article said: He believes the standard teaching methods are so wrongheaded that they scare off thousands of beginners each year. "Generally," he said, "the attitude of teaching pros is, 'If you don't learn what I teach you, you're a dummy.' My approach is, if you don't learn, I'm the dummy."

I approach teaching from the standpoint that I can teach almost anyone to play the banjo if they have a reasonable amount of intelligence, dexterity, and dedication. (I only ask for thirty minutes a day---every day. I know my people have jobs and families.)

Then, if a student is having trouble learning, I must assume I am doing something wrong. And that is generally one of two things: the arrangement of the song is too hard, or I am trying to make him learn too fast.

There is more to this column, and if you have Murphy's book you can find it on page 4. If you don't have Murphy's book then, well...why don't you have Murphy's book!?

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!