Dr. Banjo » Banjo Newsletter » It’s About Jamming

It’s About Jamming

posted in: 2012, Banjo Newsletter, News 0

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Banjo Newsletter, and is also available as an easy-to-print PDF.

I love to jam. Jamming is truly “bluegrass in its most natural habitat”… more than performing (in a circle you can really see and hear each other). Bluegrass Heaven-on-Earth is when you’re in a good bluegrass jam. The teamwork and spontaneity are fun — bluegrass at its essence.

Almost all fledgling bluegrass musicians have a dream: being able to pick with others. Many new players start down the path of learning to play their instrument, and often get frustrated and quit before they ever reach their goal of playing confidently with other people.

Unfortunately, most bluegrass teaching is geared to closet picking, playing instrumental tunes, and doesn’t focus on jam skills — following chord changes, playing good rhythm backup, transposing, controlling volume, and leading songs. 

On a 12-hour train ride, St. Petersburg to Vologda, to Russia’s first bluegrass festival (2010). Aleksey, in the reflection in the train window, was the only English speaker in the band Fine Street. The Russians marveled at how we jammed for 2 hours with no written music or even a common language. Sergey led the jam, completely by body language.

And what about singing? Many new bluegrass musicians feel exempt, and teachers rarely challenge that. But to carry a melody with your voice is actually part of general musicianship and sometimes a needed ear skill, helps in finding melodies on one’s instrument. And make no mistake, singing and songs are central in bluegrass and jamming. 

Since 2010, over 100 Wernick Method teachers have presented over 1000 camps and classes, in 46 states and 10 countries. The Method continues to evolve and improve, based on student surveys. Students report high satisfaction. (See all current Wernick Method classes.)

What’s fundamental to the Wernick Method?

  • Two overall goals: First, help people have fun playing real bluegrass, right away. (I like to say “Fun is fundamental.”) As soon as a person can change from G to D and back, he/she can start jamming at slow speeds, like 60-75 beats/minute (see 2 chord song list). For our classes, G, C, D, and A are the only requirements. 
  • The other goal of the Wernick Method is helping people develop confidence in real bluegrass jams — anywhere they go. Slow jams are getting easier to find nowadays, and we teach how to find or even start them. And we teach the protocols used worldwide: the typical ground rules, signals, etc. that work from North Carolina to California, Hawaii, Japan, Russia, France, Australia, Israel, etc. (I’m lucky to know this first-hand.)
  • Our teachers don’t just lead jams. They do, but they also put together small groups that they then help to jam on their own. Coaches guide but don’t lead. They show how to lead a song, and how to easily follow a new song.
  • Bluegrass is song-centered music — distinguished by its instrumentation, but mostly focused on singing and songs — with many instrumental breaks. Instrumentals only work well at jams when a few musicians have the skill to pass solos around smoothly, with at least one guitar player knowing the chords. Only a few instrumental tunes are as manageable as a nice simple bluegrass song with the song leader inviting pickers to fake breaks over the chords.

This is key: If you don’t know the chords you can watch a guitar player’s left hand. To play bluegrass you need to stay with the chords at all times and stay in rhythm. And be sure your instrument is in tune.

Tab books or music stands at jams? Wernick Method does allow paper and stands… but for only one person — the lead singer, who may need help with the verses. Otherwise, it’s all by ear, just like in “real bluegrass”.

Fortunately for shy and unconfident folks reading this, you can start learning in privacy at home with play-along jam videos. I’m not only a purveyor of such things, but believe it or not, some folks have told me they think mine are the best!

There’s a choice of speeds, the most popular being “as slow as possible”. The videos are a great way to build your jamming skills at your own pace — you’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn what it takes to participate in a jam, and you’ll find that jamming helps solidify and grow your skills on your instrument!

So, get yourself ready to jam. Sign up for a Wernick Method class, or try one of our jam videos. Jamming will take your playing to a whole new level, and it’s also a lot of fun!

Note: See the full article as it originally appeared in Banjo Newsletter.

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