Former professor continues to pass on what he knows
By HEATHER FAULHEFER, Evening Sun Reporter
What makes someone go from being a sociology professor to a professional bluegrass musician?
As one of the few people who has made that career change, Pete Wernick says it is a question he is asked often, but he is still happy to give the answer.
“The academic environment just felt stuffy, pompous and kind of full of itself, and even though the academics accomplish amazing things, I felt I was more at home in the company of people who love bluegrass because it’s so down to earth,” Wernick said. “I thought you can accomplish a lot teaching, but you can also accomplish a lot bringing people together with great music, and the bluegrass context brings people together in a very natural and wholesome way.”
Wernick started his musical career as a banjo player in Country Cooking in 1970 and later founded the influential -and internationally successful -band Hot Rize. He has also written instructional books, from banjo-playing instruction to tips on how to make a band work, and has released instructional DVDs.
Now Wernick leads his band, Flexigrass, and combines his teaching abilities and knowledge of bluegrass music and instrumentation in his jam camps, which have become a staple at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and other festivals across the country.
The jam camps are designed to teach students the ins and outs of spontaneous music.
“It’s a musical conversation, so people are learning the mechanics and protocols of stepping right in without knowing what’s going to happen and still knowing how to handle it,” Wernick said.
The idea for the jam camps came to Wernick while he was busy giving banjo lessons in Colorado, where he resides.
“I found that as much as people want to develop their individual skills, the biggest gap I would see was when people would try to play with others. They would be good at practicing, but bad at playing spontaneously,” he said. “The more (jam camps) I did, the more I realized I could provide a real service to people.”
Patsy Kline, a mandolin and guitar player from Lawn, Pa., has attended the camps for the past years, but said she learns something new every time.
“I’ve gone to some of Pete’s camps trying to learn the skills I need to find people to play with,” Kline said. “I come back because of Pete’s sense of humor and the way they help us learn to get along with each other. You end up making friends.”
Throughout the three-day camp, students learn how to harmonize with each other and jam together. Since spontaneous jamming is common at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, students are looking to get some practice in before the festival kicks off, making them more comfortable in the later jam sessions.
Wernick says he selects fairly slow and simple songs for the jam-camp sessions, so beginners will not feel too intimidated.
Most students are a little nervous to begin with anyway, he added.
“When people pick up a stringed instrument, they usually have a dream of playing with other musicians. When they go to a bluegrass festival, they see other people playing spontaneously together and they think, ‘I’d like to do that.’ A great many of these people bring their instruments, but they’re intimidated by the musicians and they never take their instruments out of their case,” Wernick said.
By guiding them through the process, Wernick said most people let go of their anxiety and learn how to enter the musical conversation.
“When we give them permission to make a few mistakes and play real slow, they flap their wings and fly,” he said. “I don’t know what a mother bird feels like when she sees her offspring take to the air, but that’s kind of what I’m experiencing.”
This year’s jam camps wrapped up today, but there will be a “No Star Jam” hosted by Wernick Friday at noon for musicians of all levels, followed by the much-anticipated “All-Star Jam,” at
5:30 p.m. Friday, which will feature some of the top musicians at the festival.
Contact Heather Faulhefer at [email protected].