Tag Archives: Practice

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 was originally published Monday, December 02, 2013.

I have been writing about playing the banjo for 30 years but I have never written an article about practicing. Why not? Well, probably because I hate anybody telling me what to do and also because most of the practice suggestions I read struck me as bombastic BS--idealistic, ivory-tower imaginings that seemed useless to me or, at best, not practical for adult students with lives and families. I never followed any set pattern when I was learning, I just got up, got a cuppa, and started studying Earl at 16 rpm in my pajamas! I thought my students would figure out what worked best for them and follow their own "rules," which many of them do. But finally I have come to understand that not everybody is self-propelled and that some people desperately want and need guidelines. With that in mind, I will present my own extremely general and hopefully not too bombastic suggestions in hopes that maybe a few of these ideas prove useful.

As I pull these thoughts together I have tried to take into account real adults with real lives so...... ...continue reading

Mark and Susan had lessons back-to-back today, so they jammed a little where their times overlapped. In the lull between songs we started talking about how no one ever seems to be satisfied with their performance. I told them about being at the Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Camp and how those amazing instructors would walk off stage after the faculty concert bemoaning the “fact” that they had played so poorly and had missed so many notes. These were performances that I—an instructor myself—had thought were flawless and wonderful. Mandolin whiz Butch Baldassari (God rest his soul) said, “Well, I hit more notes than I missed, so I count that a good performance!” (On the other hand, fiddling Fletcher Bright was always happy with his performance and was never happier than when he was stealing the show from someone else! I was always happy with him stealing the show too—as long as he wasn’t stealing it from me!)

Anyhow, the gist of our conversation was, as you have gathered, that no one ever seems satisfied with how they play. And does that dissatisfaction ever end? Perhaps when you are in the grave, Susan suggested.

Then Mark said, “I try to be happy with where I am while trying to get better.” Which Susan and I both acknowledged was an excellent way to look at things.

Then Susan said, “I like to hear a man saying things like that!”

To which Mark quickly replied, “I only apply that to banjo!”

And Susan and I just howled and rolled our eyes. Too funny.
And that, friends, is my short blog for today. Hope you have a wonderful last weekend before Christmas! I’m square dancing tonight so I am happy! “Oh, promenade that ring, take your girl home and swing, because, just because!”


Red Henry

In the last week or so, I've participated in three really different kinds of picking sessions. All three were enjoyable, all three were beneficial (read: good practice), and all three might have hints for Murphy Method students who like to pick.

The first jam, on Thursday evening, was the weekly event at Linda's Mercantile and Fruit Stand, a mile or two north of Winchester, VA on U.S. 522. As usual, by 7:00 p.m. we had a full crowd of listeners and a dozen or so pickers, and things got under way. Now, you need to understand that at this Thursday night event, the music is not just for the musicians. It's for the listeners too. And the musicians are not all experts (plus, we don't often have a bass player) so you need to hold the music together the best you can and let the audience enjoy the show.

There were about 9 guitar players, 3 fiddle players, 3 banjo players, two mandolin pickers, and a gentleman who alternated between harmonica and spoons. In this situation, holding the music together generally means finding the solidest guitar picker and putting my rhythm 'chunks" right between his down-beats, so that everybody can hear the rhythm. I have a mandolin which will be heard, and so that clear off-beat sound helps all the other musicians stay in time with each other. And then we have to play music for the audience. What do we do? Well, for one thing, before launching into a number it's good to check around to see if some of the other musicians know it. In fact, it's best to stick with well-known tunes and songs altogether, so that nobody's getting lost and everybody can play. Then, when playing or singing lead, you need to get to the front of the group and make sure that the audience can hear what you're playing and singing-- this is pretty important-- and take turns, so that everybody gets a chance to sing or play their favorite numbers, even if they aren't forward enough about it to say they want to. As many musicians and singers as possible, even the shy ones, need to be invited to play. And we did a whole lot of bluegrass and old country songs. It was a good session, and the audience liked it.

The second session was on Friday night. This was an old-time session, playing all traditional or traditional-style tunes, held in a primitive cabin over in West Virginia. We had about 12 or 13 players there: 3 or 4 each on banjo and fiddle, plus a couple each of guitars and mandolins, and a bass. We had a wide range of proficiencies in the group, but the players were all involved and paying attention, and knew what to do in a jam. This meant that we all knew many of the same tunes, and nobody was trying to show off, and nobody was holding the group back. We hit comfortable tempos right off on tunes we all knew, and the music was fun and comfortable to play. I had to quit early, but the group went on to a late hour, partly just because the music was going so well.

On Sunday night Murphy and I were invited to another old-time session, but this time the situation was different. There were about 9 people there. The majority of them had played bluegrass or old-time music for a living at one time or another, and they were mighty fine pickers. (The few "amateurs" were real good players, too.) Since we were playing old-time instead of bluegrass, though, some of the well-known bluegrass pickers switched off from their regular instruments. Murphy, for example, played fiddle instead of banjo. Cousin David played banjo instead of mandolin. And our friend Marshall was there, but he stuck with his usual instrument and played amazing-as-always bass. And two real pros at old-time music were there to inspire the rest of us.

So what did we play? At a session like this, along with familiar tunes, we could bring out a good many fine but interesting and obscure numbers to play. And everybody there listened really well all the time, and kept their rhythm "tight" with the other players. It was a mighty enjoyable time, one of the best old-time sessions I've ever played in, in spite of the fact that the majority of the musicians were not old-time, but bluegrass players!

So what does this musical peregrination show? It shows that you can enjoy a lot of different musical situations. It doesn't have to be all bluegrass. You can have a great experience playing many different kinds of music. Just relax, keep your ears open, "play together" with everybody else, and have a good time!


Red Henry

It looks as if this is a good week to talk about picking. That was a really good session Murphy had up in Martinsburg. And now I have a couple of old-time jams scheduled for the next two nights, both within 45 minutes of the house.

As Murphy has suggested over and over on our videos, one of the best things you can do, to help you learn to play, is to get out and play with other people. There is really nothing like it. Once you progress to the point where you can at least stand at the back of the group and play rhythm or vamp, you're in for a lot of great practice that's easy and fun. And it really doesn't matter what exact kind of music the session is playing. They may play bluegrass, or they may play older country music. They may play gospel music or folk music, or they may play music that's all over the place. Or, they may play traditional (old-time) music, like my two sessions this weekend. Whatever they're playing, it's still a great place to learn.

Now, I have heard it said that "There's bluegrass everywhere." Well, I admit that there is bluegrass in a lot of places, but it's definitely not everywhere. I once spent a year at an Air Force base near Del Rio, Texas, and that whole year I never found anybody to pick with within a three-hour drive. It took a lot of energy to practice that year. I REALLY wish something had been available then like our Slow Jam with Murphy and Casey or Picking Up the Pace DVDs. If you're in a situation like that (or even if you aren't), consider those slow-jam DVDs, because they're easy to pick with and you can use them anywhere.

I'm off to pick, and I hope you are too. Give my regards to Broadway!


Red Henry

Since I pick with people when I get the chance, and I've also taught a good many music lessons in my life, I've developed an attitude about listening and learning. It's this: If you can't or don't listen, you can't play. At least, you can't play right. You have to know what a tune sounds like before you can play it. And tab won't show you what a tune sounds like-- you can only learn that from listening. Sound obvious? It's not obvious at all to a lot of folks.

Murphy expresses this in a way when she says, "Listen, listen, listen, and play, play, play!" What does it mean? It means that you can't learn to play a tune right unless you've heard it, and preferably, heard it a lot. This is why tab won't help you to play a tune right, because tab can't show you what a tune actually sounds like. West-Coast banjo wizard Pat Cloud said in a recent Banjo Newsletter interview that he wishes his students would listen to a tune a hundred times before they looked at the tab. Well-known player Pete Wernick stated, also in BNL, that since students have to get away from tab eventually, it's better if they don't use it in the first place.

What does this have to do with you, the Murphy Method student? Only that you need to listen. Listen to the music you want to learn. Listen to the music on CD over and over, whether it's on Earl's records, or Murphy's, or Casey's, or whoever else's recordings, but get that sound in your head before you expect to learn the tune! Once you know what the tune sounds like, you're ready to start playing it! And you'll learn a whole lot faster, too.

Red Henry

Let's talk about playing music this time of year (and, as bluegrass aficionados may note, cop a title from the Stanley Brothers). Winter often seems to be a pretty dead time for performance opportunities and even jam sessions. Energy levels are low. In this part of the country, the weather may also prohibit travel to some events we'd like to attend. But it's important to Keep Picking, especially if you're learning to play.

Even if you can't get out to play with other people (or if, as in some parts of the country, the nearest pickers are out of reach), you can play a little each day. You might be surprised at how soon you can get really rusty if you aren't playing-- sometimes, four or five days can set you 'way back. But even 15 or 20 minutes a day can keep your skills up to a tolerable level.

That photo above was taken in 1971, when I was in the Air Force at Del Rio, Texas for a year. That whole year I never found anybody to pick with there, but I tried to play a little every day I could. And I not only held onto what I could play to begin with, but made some progress as well.

Of course, it's always easier to practice if you have other people to play with. But if you don't, our Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs are made just for you. You can also play along with Murphy at the end of nearly every lesson on our other DVDs. And I have heard of people even practicing with each other on the phone! However you do it, don't forget your Holiday Picking.


Red Henry

When you're learning to play, or even after you've been playing for a long time, there's a natural tendency to play your newest tunes. After all, they're new and much more exciting than your OLD ones. But you can get bored if you only play the tunes you learned most recently, and your musical skills can suffer.

When you're practicing, or even when you're picking with other folks, remember to play your old tunes too. This does several good things. Among them: (1) You keep your fingers playing a wider variety of licks and melodies. (2) Your friends will enjoy the variety when you dig up a tune from the past. (3) You have the pleasure of re-discovering a great tune or song you'd almost forgotten.

But one of the best things about picking your old tunes, is that it keeps your brain working. If you play just half a dozen or so songs all the time, it's easy to get into a musical rut and stay there for years. Instead, consciously go back and find tunes and songs you used to play. Keep learning new tunes too. Go through our Slow Jam DVDs and remember some songs you used to like. Your brain will like it, and your picking friends will thank you for it!


Red Henry

Last Saturday I had a good time playing music with family and friends in the gazebo. And, you may ask, just where is that particular gazebo? Well, it's some distance from here. It's on the town square in Clarkesville, Georgia. And, in spite of some rain, we all had a good time.

The band for this occasion included, along with myself on mandolin, my old friend and now brother-in-law Mike Johnson, on banjo; Murphy's #3 sister (and Mike's wife) Argen Hicks, on bass; Murphy's #4 sister, excellent singer/songwriter Nancy Pate on guitar; and our friend, multi-instrumentalist Barry Palmer on fiddle. What did we do? We just played music. Well, we did run over some numbers at Argen and Mike's house beforehand. That was fun, too. Then we went over to the middle of town and set up at the gazebo and played our first set.

Now, I've talked before about how good it is when people are really playing together. This can happen immediately, as is did at that party I talked about a few days ago, or it can happen because everybody listens and adapts. On this particular day we had a group that hadn't ever played together before, and I think we all played with slightly different natural rhythms. When we started practicing back at the house we sounded a bit loose, but by the time we started up at the gazebo, we sounded pretty tight. So how did this happen? It happened because everybody there was a very experienced performer and knew what to do. Everyone was listening and adapting to everyone else, one song after another, and in a short time we were really playing together well.

You don't have to be a professional picker to do this. You don't have to have played for 20 (or 30, or 40) years to listen to everyone else and adapt to their rhythm and play what sounds good.

As soon as you are able to play in a group, you can start listening to the other pickers (in fact, those two things go together). You can start listening to the other instruments and to the vocals, and follow your ears in trying to play (or not play) things that help the whole group sound good. If there's a banjo or guitar player drowning everybody out you usually can't help that, but if that player is YOU, then you can. Whatever instrument you're playing, try to play steadily and supportively to the others. (Sometimes this means scarcely playing at all, during other leads or vocals.) When it comes time for you to take a lead, think about it ahead of time-- stop playing for a few beats if you need to, to set up your hands and brain to start playing the break at the right time-- and then keep listening to the rhythm while you're playing your lead. That way, whether you're playing lead or backup, you'll be playing together with the others. And that can help them do the same thing (more on that later).

Happy picking!


Red Henry

You know, there are some things in early bluegrass recordings that are impossible to beat. One of our favorites is on Flatt and Scruggs's early version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, where the whole band (except for Earl) is playing the "wrong" chord.

Let's review the chords in FMB: you start out with eight beats of G, and then you go to an E chord for a certain number of beats. Nowadays, most folks change to an E-minor chord for four beats, to match what the banjo is playing. That's how Murphy teaches it, because it's what almost everybody plays now. But on that old Flatt & Scruggs record, the band plays SIX beats of E-MAJOR! It's a wild and woolly sound. It's incredible. It's a hair-raising moment. It's lions and tigers and bears...

Murphy and I have played FMB with that 6-beat E-major chord for over 30 years. The first time we played FMB that way was at Diamond Jim's, a bar in Gainesville Florida. When we heard how the E-major sounded, we both about fell off the stage. Oh, my.

Not many other people play Foggy Mountain Breakdown that way. However, Christopher and I found a couple of people who do, when we were playing for a party in Baltimore last Saturday night. I was playing mandolin. Chris was playing guitar. Our band for the evening was a couple of outstanding area musicians, Mike Mumford on banjo and Ira Gitlin on bass. And guess what? When Mike kicked off FMB and hit that first E chord, EVERYBODY went to the E-major chord. For six beats. Automatically. It was a wild and woolly sound. It was incredible.

Listen back to that old Flatt & Scruggs record a few times, and then try it yourself. It's great. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Red Henry

Now, some folks may think that I've just written either a commonplace or a conundrum in that title: Playing Helps. Helps what? Explain yourself, Red.

Well, most of you have already found out that practicing your instrument helps your playing. Practicing may not make your playing perfect (the old saw is not literally true for anybody, in fact) but time spent playing your banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, or other instrument does usually pay off in your ability to play better music.

But I'm also talking about the instrument itself. Except for banjos, the instruments we play are primarily delicate, precision wooden boxes designed to produce sound. This means that if they're not played, they stiffen up and don't sound as good. But if they're played at least a few times a week, they'll give their best and sound as good as they can!

This works two ways. If you don't play very much, your mandolin or guitar may sound pretty dull when you pick it up, and you might not feel like playing it at all. But if you keep the instrument "played in," it sounds really good when you play the first few notes, and those encourage you to play more. Much more.

It doesn't take a lot of playing to keep your instrument loose and sounding good. Just as with your own practicing, even 15 minutes a day will be enough to do some good and help the instrument stay in good sound. So don't spend a lot of time analyzing your playing or your instrument. Just play!