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 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!)
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!