Tag Archives: portland workshop

Murphy Henry

I’ve been trying to work up to writing this blog all morning, but catching up on email has hampered me.


Just got back last night from the Murphy Method Workshop we put on in Portland, Oregon. It went super! First of all, a huge THANK YOU to Portland Patty and Portland Claire (!) for doing all the leg work that made this possible. All I had to do was fly in and teach—and square dance Saturday night—which makes it easy for me.


Second of all, thanks to all the students who showed up and worked hard for three days on their banjo playing. Since my workshops are always hands-on, the students have to do a lot of playing and thinking, which is exhausting! Many of them also were willing to “crash and burn” by volunteering to take solo breaks on various songs. Thanks for your courage! I truly think being willing to do that helps you learn to play better and think fast on your feet.


I loved everything we worked on—ending licks, kick offs, playing in C without a capo, using the capo in different keys—but I was especially happy with the work we did on improvising.


My approach to improvising on the banjo is simple: licks against chords. Which is to say, playing Scruggs-style licks in the chord progression of the song. At the simplest level you play Scruggs rolls in the appropriate chords. Which is where we started, using the song Bury Me Beneath the Willow. As we found out, that chord progression is used in many other bluegrass songs, so it’s a good one to know. (My banjo student Marty has been telling me that for years!)


So first, we learned the chord pattern by vamping, using either the open chords or the four-finger vamp chords. Then, as I said, we use one roll—the forward and backward roll (3215,1231)—to play through the whole song. Then we added a slide to the forward roll in G, then we added a pull-off to the backward roll in G with pinches on the end. Voila! We had an excellent Scruggs-style G lick that Earl used lots and lots. It immediately made the break sound 100 times better. This gave us a good-sounding basic break that just about everybody could do. Then, if the students already knew some other Scruggs licks—and that’s the crux of the matter, they had to already be able to play them—we added  the tag lick and the D lick (or an equivalent) from Foggy Mountain Breakdown. We left the C lick alone till Sunday, when we added a hammer-on.


And we played that break over and over and over, playing together as a class. I’ll bet we played that same break close to 50 times during the course of the weekend. And that—the sheer repetition--is what makes the break get into your hands.


Then Sunday, I threw another song at them, I’m On My Way  Back to the Old Home, not telling them anything about the chords or the break. As we played through it, me singing, them vamping and listening, a few of them realized that they could use the same break they’d learned to Willow. AMAZING!!!!! We also did the same thing with Your Love is Like a Flower. Exact same break. And then we ventured into I’ll Fly Away, which has a slightly different chord pattern, but still uses the same licks. So, basically, they got FOUR good solid Scruggs break for the price of one!


I hope to blog more about the workshop, but for now I’m out of time. Got to go teach!


If you would be interested in having the Murphy Method sponsor a workshop weekend in your area, all we need is a hard-working facilitator who can find the venue and do the local advertising. The Murphy Method assumes all the financial risk and pays all the expenses. So, if this is something that sounds fun and exciting, contact Casey, who handles the business end. I love doing these workshops and spreading the gospel of learning by ear!!!!

Murphy Henry

After a short (very short!) visit with Dalton this afternoon, I headed back to my house to teach my afternoon lessons. I am now resuming my previously interrupted blog!


So, we learned the chords to Boil Them Cabbage. Then I taught the high break. I love teaching that to a group because it’s basically one lick, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown Lick (2121/5215), played in different, up-the-neck chord positions. I will admit that I did modify the last lick of the high break so that the beginners would not have to try to make the Cumberland Gap position up the neck. We did 3-pinch/2-pinch down the neck instead. Which sounded fine. We spent some time moving from the vamp to the lead and back again and then it was time for lunch!


I was afraid that after lunch folks would be too sluggish to learn much but the students surprised me. We jumped right into improvising with my favorite first improv song Blue Ridge Cabin Home.

Murphy teaching Portland workshop

Murphy and Claire Levine (on guitar) at the Portland banjo workshop.


I had already given my spiel about improvising which is lick based, not melody based. That is, we don’t look for the melody notes first and then try to build a roll around them because that is MUCH TOO HARD. Instead, we learn the chords of the song and then use GENERIC licks to fit the chords. This is Improv 101. Later, when the students are much more advanced, they can begin to try to work in more melody notes, but not now.


So, first of all, we went over the chords, because you can improvise if you don’t know the chords. I choose Blue Ridge Cabin Home because it is a “real” bluegrass song and the chords are so simple: GCDG/GCDG, four beats of everything.


Once we had the chords down, I showed the class the simplest form of improvising: playing a forward and backward roll (3215/1231) in all of the chords. That way, the beginners would always have something to fall back on if the rest of the licks proved to be too hard. We called that our “lousy level,” which is a term John Hartford used to denote the foundational level, the bottom-most rung of the ladder that you can come back to if all else fails. (And they could also vamp.)


Then we started “spicing” up the break by adding a 2-3 slide to the forward roll, then a 3-2 pull off to the backward roll. This gave us a classic Scruggs lick that fits two beats of G every day of the week. We added pinches (3 pinch/2 pinch) to fill out the “measure” of G and then we had to stop and have a conversation about “measures.”


I always think in four-beat measures (when I think of measures at all, which is not often!) but some people think in two-beat measures. It’s no big deal, so I didn’t let us linger here long and get side-tracked from what we were doing which was PLAYING!


So already we had a pretty good-sounding break. And now came the time to venture into more advanced territory. I asked those who played Foggy Mountain Breakdown already to take the “tag lick” (and the pinches that follow it) and drop it into the song as a substitute for those last four beats of G. Bingo! They were able to do that fairly easily. So we played that for a while.


Then I asked them to now take the “D” lick from FMB and drop that into the song as a substitute for the four-beat D lick we were already doing. I told them it would hook right onto the tag lick, that they would share that last third string note.


That proved to be a little harder as not everyone “hears” that open fourth string as the start of the D lick. But with students asking questions and showing me what they were doing, we got it all straightened out.


So now we hard a darn good break, chock full of hard-core Scruggs licks. We left the C lick as it was (forward/backward rolls) because by now the students were getting pretty mentally exhausted. We put everything we knew together and played Blue Ridge Cabin Home as a real song, using our newly-constructed break for a kickoff and then, after the verse and chorus as a break. Whoo hoo! It sounded great! And let me not fail to add that during all this time our faithful guitar player, Claire, hung right in there, playing slow, slow, slow. It was a huge help.


We finished out the rest of the class time with another unrehearsed performance from Patty and Claire and me. I kept referring to Patty as the “poster child” for the Murphy Method because she has done so well, but I think she got a little tired of that, so I stopped. (Did you notice that I stopped, Patty??) It’s just that I am so proud of her. She demonstrated everything that I preach as we played. If she didn’t know a break, she improvised one. If she made a mistake, she kept on playing. If I said, “What do you want to play?” she immediately came up with a tune. (Always be prepared!)


Group Photo

Murphy (center) with all the Portland workshop participants.

Sunday morning, we met again bright and early at 10 a.m. for three more hours of picking, playing, and singing. And improvising. Tommie had already taken the improvising licks she had learned yesterday and had tried to apply them to Bury Me Beneath the Willow. But she had had a problem: Since the chord progression of Willow is GCGD/GCG-DG [and I use G-D to represent a “split measure” of two beats G/two beats D] she couldn’t get the licks to fit. Did they, in fact, fit?


I told her that was exactly what we were going to work on! (And really, I had planned that in advance!) So we did. In addition to plugging in all the licks we had learned yesterday, I showed them how the “tag lick” (and pinches)-- which is usually used to end a phrase--now could be used to fill out that third G measure. (And believe me, I hate to be “talking” about this on paper—so to speak—because it rarely makes much sense. SEE THE IMPROVISING DVD! It’s all there!)


And my goodness! That was a hard concept to get across! It was hard for the students to adjust their ears to “hearing” the tag lick in the middle of the song. But we worked long and hard on it, and many people did, in fact get it.


But by that time, the students had pretty much reached the saturation point when their brains simply couldn’t absorb anything else new. So it was Patty and Claire to the rescue, to play a few more tunes including Sally Goodwin. We also had a question and answer session and a general wrap-up. And then, the workshop was over. My how time flies when you’re having fun!


We all took our banjos inside the car repair shop and had our pictures taken along side this lovely old car. We are all smiling because someone said, “Say TAB!”


But the day was not over for me. No, it wasn’t. Claire had told me about a square dance that night that was featuring a live old-time band. Patty bravely offered to accompany me so off we went, via a coffee shop to caffeine up! Since I have spent the last year learning to dance the man’s part (so I will never lack for a partner!) Patty was able to be my partner. We had a wonderful time!


The square dancing was not exactly what I’ve been doing which is called Modern Western Square Dancing where you have to take classes to learn all the moves which have weirdo names like Relay the Deucy and Spin the Top and Spin Chain and Exchange the Gears. But we did square up four couples and then the two callers taught the moves right there on the spot. (They were excellent teachers). The moves weren’t too complicated, but they were somewhat involved and you did have to pay attention to what you were doing. It definitely wasn’t square dancing for dummies. We must have had 7 or 8 squares going all night long. And lots and lots of young people, twenty-somethings, all dressed in funky Portland clothes, lots of cowboy boots, and leggings, and some short skirts and some long skirts, and one man in a skirt. So much young energy in the room! It was great!


A few of the moves were the same ones I had been dancing: allemande left followed by right and left grand is pretty standard, as is do-si-do and swing your partner. But we also did Box the Gnat and Grand Square. Which are way cool.


So my weekend in Portland ended on a high, high note. My flight back Monday morning was uneventful (if long) and now here I am, back at the old homeplace.


Thanks again, Patty and Claire, for all your hard work and many thanks to all you wonderful students for turning out and giving the Murphy Method whirl. Hope we can do it again!


And if you’re interested in a Murphy Method workshop, don’t forget we’ve got our Intermediate Camp coming up in Winchester on March 23, 24, and 25. Check it out on our web page! Hope to see some of you there!

Murphy Henry

Wow! Just back last night from the weekend workshop I did in Portland West (Oregon!) and just had to blog about it. (The heck with The Darn Book today!)

First of all a huge shout out to Patty Spencer for coming up with the idea. Then kudos to both her and Claire Levine for all the hard work they did in publicizing the event, rounding up students, finding a venue, putting me up for the weekend (that was Claire), and treating me like royalty (which I loved!). And an “extry spatial” thanks (as Lester Flatt would say) to Patty for going with me to the square dance Sunday night and being my partner! We had a ball, dancing to a live, old-time band. And, of course, thanks to all you students who came out and worked so hard at everything we did.

Claire, Patty and Murphy

Claire Levine, Patty Spencer, Murphy Henry

And what did we do? Well, as you may know by now, Murphy Method workshops are HANDS ON! “Less talk, more playing” is our motto. So our Friday evening “meet and greet” included an impromptu concert by Patty (banjo), Claire (guitar), Matt (Dobro), and me; a rather long explanation of the philosophy behind The Murphy Method; an answer to the question “How did YOU learn to play?”; and a few tunes played together by the whole group.

Then Saturday morning, at the civilized hour of 10 a.m., I was ready to dig in and go to work. When I’m working with a large group of students (23) that range from beginner to advanced, I always try to start at the beginning level so that no matter where we go from there, the beginners can still VAMP! I ask the more advanced students to be patient with this review of material they already know, and I am happy to say that I have never had any complaints about this approach.

And I have learned over the years that when teaching vamping to a group it is best to let the beginners use the simplest chords possible which are open G, first position C, and first position D-7. Or if they prefer, they can use the barre C at the fifth fret and the barre D at the seventh. But everyone can vamp! So since the high break to "Boil Them Cabbage Down" was my Song Of The Day, we learned the vamping to that. I sang it, I played it low, I played it high, I sang it some more, I played it some more, I called out the chords, I pointed out the pattern (all chords are two beats except at the last), and we did rep after rep after rep. And, sure enough, after all this playing, pretty much everyone could vamp to Cabbage. (And many, many thanks to Claire for serving—willingly—as my guitar player. Or guitar slave, as we sometimes call it. We call it other stuff too, but I got that idea from Sex in the City so won’t mention that here in this, more or less, family blog!)

Then Rachel asked a question. The arrangement of Cabbage that she was familiar with included another part, a B part. What about that? Whoops! I knew exactly what she was talking about, having been surprised by that B part ON STAGE at a festival by the great Florida fiddler George Custer. Yes, fiddlers to tend to put in a B part, which, yes, does have a slightly different chord pattern. (I had to make up a break on the spot. Fortunately it was not too hard!) So, I told her I had patterned this break as if Cabbage were a singing song (which it also is) and so I didn’t teach the B part. I told her she could either try to make up a B part (as I had done) or just brazen it out by playing it her way and letting everybody else adjust to her!

Which points to one of the great things about this workshop, something that elevated it to “excellent” in my book: the students asked lots of questions, questions that were relevent to what we were doing and showed a real understanding of what I was trying to teach. The students were also very good at asking for further explanation if they didn’t understand what I was talking about, and asking for more reps if they couldn’t quite play what we were working on.


Okay. I’m at Casey’s house and Dalton is awake!!! I’m gonna ask her to post this as is, but I PLAN to continue after I teach today. Stay tuned!!!!!

Murphy Henry

Well, now it’s officially official. I made my plane reservations for Portland so I guess I’m really going! (Not that there was ever any doubt. It just seems more concrete now!)


Thanks to prodding from two mail order students and friends, Patty Spencer and Claire Levine, I will be teaching a banjo workshop in Portland (that’s Portland West, not Portland East!) January 27-29, 2012. The workshop is open to all comers but you will certainly get more out of it if you can play a few songs and do some vamping.


As always, I will adjust the teaching to fit the crowd, but you can guarantee that we will be doing A LOT OF PLAYING. We will play slow and we will play fast (if there are students who want to play fast). We will be working primarily with the  vast Murphy Method repertory of songs and tunes, so hopefully most of the students will know the same material. (Note to potential attendees: No need to brush up on Blackberry Blossom! We will not be playing that! Even from the Murphy Method list, I doubt that we will be playing Salt Creek, certainly not as a group! Why not? The chords are too hard!)
Other things we may cover (no guarantees!) are: using the capo, basic improvising, jamming, playing in C without a capo, playing in ¾ time, and maybe one of those fancy Scruggs backup licks Casey teaches on her Fancy Scruggs Backup DVD.
One thing the students at the recent Winchester Banjo Camp seemed to enjoy (I use the term lightly!) was playing a solo in front of the others. There was no pressure to do this, but almost everyone participated. And this seemed to be the one area that everyone mentioned having trouble with: playing in front of others. Well, a Murphy Method banjo workshop is about the safest, most supportive atmosphere you will find for taking that Leap of Faith. And as I told everyone, you don’t get the Gold Star for playing it perfectly, you get the Gold Star for PLAYING THROUGH YOUR MISTAKES  and keeping the timing going. But actually, at a Murphy Method camp, you get the Gold Star just for trying. Because I know that it takes tremendous courage for an adult to put themselves on the line like that. Every person who played was scared to death. But they did it anyhow! Brave souls! I hope they gained some confidence in their playing and learned that making a mistake was not the end of the world.


In fact, our motto for that weekend could have been: Nobody’s listening, nobody cares! Which sounds harsh and is, of course, an exaggeration, but what I mean is that people who are “listening” are likely thinking of something else at the very instant you make a mistake, so they literally don’t hear it. And if their ears do catch a mistake, they forget in the next millisecond. Because, again, they are likely thinking, “Wow! I wish I could do that. I wish I had that much courage.” Or, “Oh, my gosh. It’s my turn next. I hope I can do that well!”


I’ve told the story before that when I first started playing banjo regularly on stage (at the ripe old age, I thought, of 22!), I was playing in Red’s Charleston, S.C. band, Low Country. Which usually played in bars. At first, like you, I thought everyone was listening attentively to my playing and could hear every mistake. But then, I realized they were all drinking heavily and basically heard nothing except a wall of music. So I decided I would have a beer or two (not more than that) and then I “heard” more like they did, and was less focused on my mistakes. Nobody was listening (to me) and nobody cared (if I made a mistake). No, I’m not recommending you drink before you play, I’m just trying to make the point that I’ve been there.


My partner in crime, Casey, is handling all the financial and logistical details for the Portland workshop, so if you have questions, please direct them to her at 615-513-8620 or email her at themurphymethod@gmail.com.


Hope to see you out there in Portland West! I’ll be bringing plenty of Murphy Method merch so you can look it over and load up. No shipping charges!


And if you’re wondering where the phrase “Portland East and Portland West” came from, here ‘tis. That great song, Eight More Miles To Louisville. Thank you Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones!


I’ve traveled over this country wide

Seeking fortune fair

Up and down the two coast lines

I’ve traveled everywhere

From Portland East to Portland West

And back across the line

I’m going back to the place I love

That old hometown of mine.


Eight more miles and Louisville

Will come into my view

Eight more miles to Louisville

I’ll never more be blue

I knew someday that I’d come back

I knew it from the start

Eight more miles to Louisville

The hometown of my heart.