This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Banjo Newsletter, and is also available as an easy-to-print PDF.
This month I host my 28th annual Winter Banjo Camps, three weeks of full banjo-immersion in Boulder, Colorado. These are about the only Banjo Camps I teach any more, mainly teaching Jam Camps instead. I was recently asked why. Simple: At every Banjo Camp, I kept finding that most students’ main need was to play more music with other people…. Yet many of them rarely if ever did that, and some had no clue how.
I always teach jam skills at Banjo Camps, even creating all-banjo jam groups—which can sound surprisingly good if they follow “good backup” ground rules (listen and don’t clutter the sound). In the mid-90s, at the request of some students who mainly wanted to jam, not perform or work on solo pieces, I invited in some not-banjo pickers…and found that they too lacked jam skills. So I tried some all-instruments jam classes, and went on to host my first Jam Camp, Merlefest week, 1999, replacing the Banjo Camp I’d run there for years. Soon I was running several Jam Camps a year, coast-to-coast.
By 2010, dozens of Jam Camps later, bluegrass teaching in general had still not been transformed around my ideas (Imagine that!). Students and teachers everywhere were still hooked on tabs or other by-rote teaching, pickers plowing through banjo tunes closet-style at quarter- speed, never taught jam skills by their teachers. Sometimes a teacher would tell them, “You should get out and jam.” But if they ever darkened the door of a jam, it was to watch enviously as the “good pickers” sped along, adding to their frustration and disappointment. Many would blame themselves and quit…many…quite sad to witness.
Opening the world of jamming to these folks is truly satisfying. But helping a few hundred people per year out of the “closet” was a drop in the bucket. I wanted to go bigger.
In January, 2011, after one “pilot” class (by Ira Gitlin, fall of 2010), the Wernick Method launched with the first of 36 bluegrass jamming classes in 2011. By now, about 500 students have become happy jammers and 25 certified Wernick Method teachers have started offering jam classes for both fun and profit. Launching a business in tough economic times has been daunting, but we are proud to have our “bluegrass stimulus package” at work in 22 states now!
I only wish we’d started this effort long ago, as I truly believe it has the potential to transform how bluegrass music is taught,comparable to the Suzuki Method in classical music. It’s not a fluke that both music methods start with ear skills rather than reading skills. Dr. Suzuki’s key realization in the 1940s was that if little kids could learn to speak a difficult language, with proper accents and grammar…before even being able to write…music skills could be built on a similar foundation: a close connection between the sounds you can “hear” in your brain and the sounds you can make with your mouth/voice—or your hands on an instrument.
This concept is clear enough for most people to “get it”. How do kids learn to speak French or Chinese with the right accent? It surely takes a lot of hearing it done properly, guided practice, and interactions using it, until the whole process becomes natural.
The Wernick Method likewise starts with ear skills, including getting everyone singing—yes, even “terrible” singers who insist, “You don’t want to hear me sing”—just to establish the mind/sound connection. Sure, the mechanics of playing an instrument are important, but the point of everything is the sound created, so building the ability to follow the sounds one *hears*—whether in a jam, or in a teaching video, or just the sounds in your mind—is absolutely fundamental to music making.
Representing sound in writing, such as written language conveying spoken language, or music notes or tablature standing for musical sound, are great conveniences. I hope no one thinks I am not “for” written music—both the ability to read it and to write it … what I’m against is its rampant overuse in the early stages of learning. I have this little joke:
“Can’t talk? Buy my book: Teach Yourself to Read”
In the bluegrass and banjo world, our icons (Scruggs, Monroe, Crowe, Osborne, etc.) are almost all musical “illiterates.” But they all had many chances to hear music and imitate the sounds they heard. Written music was never needed.
Now, classical musicians have no choice but to read music. Sooner or later, reading skills are absolutely necessary… you can’t just “watch the cello player’s left hand” and “fake” your part in a Beethoven symphony! But in bluegrass we have the typical verse/chorus/break format, usually-simple chord progressions, and easily-read guitar chords, so faking backup and even solos is not hard for those who practice the skills. Bluegrass also has “slow jams”, easy enough to help novices get comfortable… How long does it take to learn to follow along behind a G/D7 song, played slowly?
Wernick Method classes start with 2-chord songs in G, everybody contributing to a boom/chick rhythm, and banjo rolls fit in, one 4-note “T I T M” for each boom/ chick. Soon, almost everyone has a feel for when the chord is about to change, and that, friends, is “the Dawning of the Age of …” Ear Skills! Even the “terrible singers,” when directed to “at least move your lips,” find themselves singing, and… sometimes… actually carrying the tune! No, we Wernick Method teachers don’t mind pushing the limits of people’s comfort zones. We know they came to learn, and that stretching into unfamiliar areas is actually what they paid for, even if it’s daunting at first.
Unlike some jam classes, Wernick Method teachers don’t just stand in front of the room leading songs. Well, part of the time they do, teaching jam skills: chord changing, how to fake solos and find melodies, and fundamentals like staying in time, emphasizing the beat, and not overpowering singers or soloists. But key to our method are the small slow-jam groups that learn to survive on their own. Each group has a coach, but the coach doesn’t lead. The group learns to jam with different pickers rotating as song leaders.
Yes, it’s slow and halting, especially the first session or two. Weekly sessions allow the brain and hands the time they need to develop new routines. And they do! Our successful jammers include 8 year-olds and 80-somethings, who are not waiting to “some day” have some fun making music in a group—they are now!
What YOU can do to improve in 2012
The header of this column promises that. Okay… As you’ve no doubt heard before: nothing helps you improve like playing with other musicians. Depending on where you are on the musical “ladder”…
- Novice—If there’s a Wernick Method class near you, try it. Or if you have a friendly nearby slow jam, or a teacher who will help you jam, go for it. Lacking that, get one of my jam videos and play along— too easy to fail!
- Intermediate—Having trouble finding people to jam? Be proactive. Search on Google for “bluegrass jam” and your city or town. Or look on Craigslist or meetup.com, bluegrassmusicjams.com or folkjam.com. Call a music teacher who teaches the instrument you’d like to jam with; ask to be introduced to some of their students. For more tips, read the article “Can’t find people to jam?” on DrBanjo.com. It’s under “Favorite Pages” on the home page.
- Advanced player? Consider becoming a Wernick Method teacher! Click Teachers on the home page of DrBanjo.com.
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