by Brenda Hough

(The following article appeared in Bluegrass By The Bay Magazine, April 2005)

Well, I’ve got to admit it, I’m a closet picker. My guitar sits in the closet a lot and when people ask how long I’ve played, I ask if I have to count the time the guitar was in the closet or under the bed. I probably only play 45 minutes a week and unfortunately that doesn’t help me deal with festival jams or pretending to play guitar when the chord changes happen faster than my eyes can blink. With this sorry background in mind, I signed up for Pete Wernick’s Jam Class held in Los Gatos over a beautiful March weekend. NCBS and the Brookdale Festival have been holding a series of Jam Camps and Professional Band workshops with Pete over the last few years, but this was the first time the Jam Camp was held over a weekend. Thirty five would-be jammers met at 7:30 Friday night at the spacious “Great Room” in the home of Robert Cornelius and Suzanne Suwanda. Suzanne’s fine cooking and snacks kept all the jammer tummies happy and there was plenty of indoor and outdoor space for each jamming group to use. During the next 17 hours of class and practice, we would all bond together in that great fellowship of bluegrass jammers under the careful coaching of Dr. Banjo, Pete Wernick, “Nurse” Joan Wernick and our Gryphon music guru, Jack Tuttle.

Pete believes in starting with simple two chord songs and our first play-along was “You Are My Sunshine.” From the beginning, he stressed keeping in time and watching the guitar player’s chord changes. His encouraging words about singing and developing an ear to hearing the notes of a song led to matching notes to chord changes. Carefully interwoven with details about chord progressions in different keys were comments about bluegrass history and the themes of “lost loves” or “blue ridge cabins.” Building songs through singing in a group is the preferred method over tablature and practicing alone. Several brave and talented folks in the group took turns playing instrumental leads, including our two young “prodigies” on banjo and mandolin. Jack also found some of his Gryphon jam students in the crowd and they were called on to show off their fiddle and mandolin skills.

Our next step was to meet in small groups. Each group of 5 or 6 had different instruments and each person was encouraged to sing and present a song they had brought. For those who weren’t sure of songs, Pete had provided a list of bluegrass songs with two or three chords and some information on how to change the key of the song to match a singer’s vocal range. There were audible sighs of relief as each one took a turn, but the approval and support of the group grew with each song and soon it wasn’t as hard to try singing solo for the first time or trying to lead a jam by nodding across the circle.

Additional group classes covered harmony singing and how to “avoid train wrecks” with pointers for improvising a break based on the chord changes in a song. Further practice in our small jam groups gave us a chance to learn new songs or relearn old ones with a bluegrass twist. As each group worked through some songs, the coaches would stop and visit and offer words of encouragement, praise for progress and suggestions for future practice. Sunday afternoon came too fast and we said our farewells after a group picture by Robert’s pond with the beautiful Santa Cruz forests and mountains behind us.

Pete has developed a workshop that meets the needs of the many closet pickers and newcomers to bluegrass. He carefully sets the stage by raising the comfort level with singing in a large group, changing chords and keys in familiar songs and finally putting this knowledge to use as a leader in a small jam. He has made jamming techniques and skills his personal crusade and as he passes the skills on to new groups he has helped forge social and musical connections to make strangers friends, and the world a happier place with music.

For anyone who is interested in Pete’s techniques, check out his web site to get instructional materials, DVDs on jamming and banjo playing, hints for starting jams and Pete’s schedule of upcoming workshops.

While I can’t say that I am now an expert jammer, I do have a plan for improvement, and a new sense of confidence!