Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Here’s the more-or-less straightforward account of what jam camp was about; there were deeper things going on as well, but I’ll have to write about them separately.

The idea behind the bluegrass jam camp is to gather musicians who, because of shyness or lack of opportunity, have had little or no experience playing with a group of people, i.e. jamming, and giving them a chance to do so in relaxed and unthreatening surroundings, as well as teaching some of the basics of jamming etiquette and technique. Camp was held at Wilkesboro Community College, home of MerleFest, for the four days prior to the festival. Just shy of forty people attended, Chris and me included. Maybe half of the folks had attended the camp previously, and were returning for the sheer fun of it.

And it was a lot of fun. Pete Wernick, a.k.a. Dr. Banjo, is a fine musician and a fine teacher, able to keep forty people interested and on track while staying very relaxed. After a bit of introductory stuff, he dismissed the more experienced alumni for the time being, then got the thirty-five or so of us who were left to start playing along with some simple two- and three-chord songs. By late morning he was ready to take those of us who were confident enough for it and form us into five five-person jam groups that would practice on their own, with occasional visits from an instructor; the rest formed an absolute novice group that received gentler and constant attention from Dr. Banjo or one of his assistants.

Those first groups were intentionally assembled to have a wide range of abilities within the group, something that happens often in real situations. We stayed in those groups through Tuesday morning; at that point, we were reassigned to new groups where our skills were much more uniform, and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the camp. Early Thursday afternoon each group took a turn at performing a song for the rest of us.

The pattern was roughly a couple of hours of everyone meeting together for a talk or some hands-on instruction, followed by a couple of hours of jam group practice. One of the topics covered with everyone was harmony singing; we turned out to be pretty good at that (or at least enthusiastic about it), and so Pete Wernick spent extra time working with us on it, incorporating it into the group performance which ended the camp.

Preparing for that performance was major fun. We spent some time working up two songs, “Love Please Come Home” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” both with three-part harmony on the chorus. I couldn’t tell you how it sounded at the performance, being one of forty nervous people crowded onto a tiny stage, trying to sing at three widely-spaced vocal microphones. But we sounded quite good during rehearsals.

Chris and I enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, we learned a lot from our time there, and we plan on returning next year. And we plan to spend the intervening twelve months practicing to be a lot more competent than we were this year.

posted by Rick Saenz

Friday, May 02, 2003

Excuses. One of the benefits of attending the MerleFest jam camp was that it put Chris in the midst of a much broader community than he is used to: forty people, mostly adults, whose only like mindedness was a love for playing and listening to bluegrass music. And it put him there with me at his side, to explain what he was seeing unfold, and to draw lessons for him when appropriate.

One thing that surprised him was everyone’s proclivity to make excuses for their mistakes. Not their proclivity to want to make excuses that’s something I don’t know if any of us ever get past but their proclivity to actually do it. These were adults, after all, and apparently they hadn’t yet mastered a lesson that he’s been being taught since birth. He’s been doing reasonably well at it, but it was good for him to know how embarrassing it is to watch full-grown folks make feeble and transparent excuses, rather than simply shouldering the responsibility.

On a related topic: though I’ve seen way too much of it to be surprised anymore, I never ceased to be baffled by people’s defensiveness against correction. Not rebukes, but simple correction. Here we were, a group of people who had invested significant time and expense to attend this camp, one run by instructors whose expertise had attracted us all to the camp. But when one of those instructors would try to give a camper individual criticism, the excuses and arguments would just come pouring out. I understand the impulse when I was receiving my own from Pete Wernick, it was a major effort for me to choke back my own defensiveness and simply listen but wasn’t the correction a major part of what I had come for? If I have a experienced, professional musician before me, one who has to divide his time among forty people plus the logistics of the camp, and he has taken the time to figure out what would be most beneficial for him to tell me in the five minutes available for me does it make sense to waste any of those minutes arguing, or dissembling, or making excuses?

Posted by Rick Saenz

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Jamming. Yesterday afternoon we hosted a pizza supper for the couples’ campers. Our house is situated about halfway between the Sproul homestead and the dance barn where the HSC Spring Dance was held, so it was a convenient location. We had invited campers and local residents Marc and Jamie Hays to show up early, so that we could spend some time playing music before supper; they asked campers and local residents Mark and Julie Osborne if they’d like to come along, since Mark also plays guitar.

So we had a fine half-hour playing music before it was time to greet couples and fetch pizza. After some mingling and quick eating, some of us headed back down to the basement and played some more. Other campers heard us and came down to join in, so we passed guitars around. All too soon it was time to head out to the dance, but we were good and didn’t linger.

posted by Rick Saenz

Monday, May 05, 2003

Pressure. One of the more unusual topics that Pete Wernick covered at jam camp was playing under pressure. It’s not exactly a matter of stage fright, though the two are related. Stage fright is a fear of performing in front of others, something that not only stage performers have to deal with, but anyone who has to play or sing in an unfamiliar crowd (e.g. at a jam), and it is a specialized problem with specialized solutions. Playing under pressure is a matter of too many details, too little time. What Pete gave us was a collection of tips, techniques, and attitudes that can help to manage such a situation.

He also gave us some real-world experience with such pressure. The first half of Thursday afternoon was spent having each jam group perform a song for the rest of the camp. It wasn’t exactly rushed, but he didn’t allow us to stall or mess around, and it was a good lesson learned in a short amount of time. While I had discounted the possibility of stage fright during the morning’s lecture, not being too prone to it and thinking that I was in a casual environment, it all came welling up as our turn approached and I was quite nervous as we took the stage.

Even more stressful was the way he handled rehearsal for the 4:30pm stage performance. He decided to spend only the last 45 minutes practicing the two songs we would perform, and they were the very last minutes towards the end we were all thinking about having enough time left to fill out evaluation forms, pack up instruments, and catch a shuttle down to the festival stage. He ran us through the songs as quickly as possible, pointing out mistakes and problems but not letting us run through things again to correct them. And during one run-through, towards the end of the song he started speaking loudly about something that none of us could really follow, partly because we were concentrating on singing and playing and partly because it didn’t seem to make sense and sure enough, we forgot to end the song properly. It was a lesson in dealing with distraction. He wouldn’t let us try it over, saying that it would be easy for us to get it right the next time, but that the real challenge would be to get it right on-stage, while dealing with a whole different set of distractions.

Earlier in the day, during the lecture on playing under pressure, Pete told a story about a dobro player who had just joined the Foggy Mountain Boys, headed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The band had a fairly intricate choreography involving a single vocal/solo microphone, where a singer or player would zoom in for their turn while the others moved away. When the dobro player’s first turn came, he zoomed in a little too closely to Earl Scruggs, and his guitar somehow knocked over the bridge on Scruggs’ banjo, sounding as loud as a gunshot and totally disabling the banjo. Afterwards, the dobro player (no doubt wondering if he still had a job) went to Scruggs and began to apologize profusely. Scruggs held up his hand to stop him, smiled, and said “Don’t worry about it. That won’t happen again.”

Right after he had made us blow the song ending, Pete held up his hand to stop us playing, paused, smiled, and said “That won’t happen again.”

posted by Rick Saenz