Why to start offering bluegrass jam classes

Almost every aspiring musician dreams of playing music with other people. Bluegrass music is a group form, blending the sound of several different instruments and several voices.

Yet very little music teaching stresses interactive skills. Most teaching focuses on “reciting” exact instrumental lead arrangements – not the skills needed for group music-making. The simple fundamentals of playing rhythm may be glossed over.

So there is an important gap in the way bluegrass is taught. Jamming is fun, jamming is fundamental.

Group playing skills are interactive:

  • Unfamiliar songs can be followed easily by watching others, and jams often include unfamiliar songs. But this skill is rarely taught.
  • In jams, factors such as controlling volume, transposing, using a capo, staying in tune, etc., are critical to the musical quality and smooth flow of the jam, yet these are rarely taught.
  • Jams depend on people knowing how to lead songs, offer breaks, start and end smoothly, etc. Again, these skills are rarely taught.
  • Harmony singing, a treasured part of bluegrass, is rarely taught in bluegrass. It can be taught to a group in a satisfying experience for students.

These interactive skills are among the essentials that Pete Wernick’s jam teaching has emphasized since his first jamming classes in 1995. In over 50 jam camps in 22 states since 1999, he has developed methods to teach these skills hands-on, using a combination of classroom instruction and coaching small jam groups as they jam.

Teachers can now offer their students a supplement to one-on-one lessons with classes mixing their own students with players of other instruments, for the powerful benefits of teaching “in context”, and the motivation that students get out of these situations.

Pete has summarized his teaching techniques for use by Wernick Method jam teachers. All certified WM teachers receive well-organized written materials as well as audio and video supplements, including excerpts of Pete teaching at a camp. The materials are intended for use by a bluegrass teacher who’s never before taught bluegrass jamming. Each class session is outlined with a lesson plan that guides the teacher, along with his/her own additions, in teaching that class.

With jam teaching still only rarely attempted by the many bluegrass teachers nationwide and worldwide, the Wernick Method has now trained more than 70 teachers to do this job as effectively as possible. The results have been extremely positive, with profitable classes, and happy students and teachers. Student satisfaction, as measured in detailed anonymous evaluation forms, is very high:

What are the advantages to students of attending a jam class along with individual instruction?

Students who decide to learn “an instrument” are in fact also aspiring to be part of bluegrass jams from time to time, that is, not just to become a “really good closet player”.

While the first chords are learned by rote practice, the very next skill is how to smoothly change chords along with simple songs. (For fiddle and bass players, the comparable skill is to play the right notes with the chords.) Nothing will build skill, confidence, and pleasure more quickly than jamming successfully following easy songs. Successful students are not likely to give up!

The ability to stay in time, to keep their instrument in tune, and to change chords properly, are the most fundamental skills a new player needs to function well at a jam. Playing solos by rote has no relevance at this point. Instead, Pete recommends students cultivate (with help from a teacher) ear skills such as the ability to remember and anticipate chord changes, and eventually to correctly guess chord changes, and to find melodies by ear. Most students recognize if they lack ear skills and understandably wonder how they will ever learn them. A teacher saying, “It comes in time,” may not be enough to overcome a building pessimism. However – a student who jams regularly gets ample evidence of their developing ear skills at every session.

Learning an instrument a la classical music (solo practice of set pieces) is a lonely pursuit. Often a student’s musical quest is known only to their teacher and family. But when students in a jam class pursue a common goal, they bond. They help and are helped by each other, building a camaraderie that we know is an appealing part of the bluegrass community. If they miss a week, they are missed. People start to carpool, and meet each other between classes for mutual help. After the series of classes, when the jammers are now “launched”, they typically continue to meet to jam and team up to attend festivals and concerts. The bluegrass community grows!

How students can benefit from private instruction along with jam classes

Students lacking the skills and confidence for jamming can work with a teacher on whichever problems are holding them back, so that their learning process has specific near-term goals with clear gauges of and rewards for success. It usually takes just a few sessions for a student on any instrument to learn how to follow along in a jam. If a student has trouble following along, a teacher working with a properly-amplified jam video can help a student follow the video, spotting and solving problems.

“The class changed my life.”

“I have been waiting to start playing real bluegrass, now I can.”

“I can hardly believe how much we learned in such a short period of time.”

“I’ve never tried to learn by ear before & it was so much fun.”

“I was so inspired, I organized a jam group.”

“I made a huge leap. I can actually sing!”

“I feel like I’ve made jamming friends for life”

Singing skills, while on the surface not of relevance to instrumental skills, are actually quite important to jamming and also help build general musicianship that applies to instrumental skills in many ways in the long run. The Wernick Method includes a specific and easy technique for a teacher to help a student learn to carry a tune with their singing voice. Many a Wernick student has been happily amazed to see that their 4th grade teacher was wrong: They are not “tone deaf” or have a “tin ear”, but just have to learn to pick a good singing key and follow the sound of an instrument making the proper chords. This method has never failed yet!

Another skill students usually want to address at an early stage is “what to do when someone says, ‘Take it!'” The Wernick Method includes ways of teaching students how to “fake” rudimentary solos on their instruments, by doing minimal moves while following the correct chord changes, or by applying scale notes in the correct key. This skill gets developed in the small jam sessions, and eventually leads to being able to find correct melodies, a critical and fundamental skill of bluegrass musicianship.

At this stage, the introduction of tablature to teach specific patterns and licks becomes useful. Rather than learning entire “canned” solos, students are encouraged to create their own solos using elements learned from others (whether from tab or being shown), and at that point embellishments such as slides, hammers and pull-offs enter the picture as enjoyable and “real” sounding moves that new students love to apply to their simple homemade solos. Again, these skills get exercised and developed in the context of small group jams.

Eventually, the learning of entire solos from tab has its place, and throughout the entire development of the student, a teacher is able to guide him/her in proper techniques, good tone, rhythm, and other essentials of musicianship in the context of hearing them play with other musicians.

What’s the advantage of being a Wernick-Certified jam teacher?

Along with detailed written lesson plans from Pete on how to set up, publicize, and teach a series of jam classes and how to coach small group jamming, Wernick-certified teachers also are provided:

  • a customized flyer layout and other publicity materials
  • printed study materials for students.

Each Wernick Method class:

  • has a customized page with its own signup button on Pete’s popular web site, DrBanjo.com
  • is listed on the home page of DrBanjo.com and on a Wernick Method classes list
  • is listed in occasional print ads in national publications

The teacher is saved the burdensome work of describing and selling potential students on the class, signing them up, and providing study materials. It’s expected that the teacher will do some publicity work using printed flyers, but the Wernick Method track record shows we have been responsible for 23% of our students hearing about the class.

The Wernick Method uses LetsPick.org, linking to the “Jamalot” page on DrBanjo.com, whose large “Classes” button links to a full class list, with links to each class page.

More information about the benefits for certified teachers are found here. The certification process is described here.

Web resources for Wernick Method teachers and their students, on DrBanjo.com

  • Individual pages for each Wernick-certified class, with full information and a payment button.
  • FAQs about the classes and Wernick-style instruction.
  • Pete’s Bluegrass Jamming Basics, the most accurate and thorough presentation of the ground rules, protocols, and fine points of bluegrass jamming.
  • A section in Ask Dr. Banjo specifically about jamming, with many questions and detailed answers.
  • Lists of common jamming songs, by category, and a special list of 81 two-chord songs.
  • A large section with many helpful hints (some unconventional) about finding compatible jammers, called Can’t Find People to Jam?
  • A Jam Skills Checklist, to help students determine what skills they need to work on
  • A page of preparation fundamentals for mandolin players, and a page for fiddlers.
  • A Jamcampers discussion group where several hundred former campers contribute mutually useful information about such topics as challenges in jamming and music learning and where jam opportunities exist.
  • Video clips of jamming instructional videos which can be ordered from the web site, along with songbooks and other instructional materials.
  • A four-page regularly-updated Resouces for Campers booklet, with suggested learning materials, songbooks, videos and books about bluegrass, and recommended recordings to expose new jammers to bluegrass repertoire and leading artists.

As a profitable option for teachers, we arrange for them to buy Homespun DVDs and Pete’s Bluegrass Songbook at half price to resell to students.

Since Pete’s popular jam-along videos are often used at home for practice by learning jammers, one or more of these videos are typically sold to a new student of bluegrass, and the teacher can reap a benefit by carrying a stock of these videos. Banjo teachers may also supplement their teaching with Pete’s basic banjo videos as well, or even plan their teaching around such materials as his 1985 perennial bestseller, Beginning Bluegrass Banjo. Other Homespun instructors such as Steve Kaufman, Sam Bush, Kenny Kosek, Jerry Douglas, and Mark Schatz also have popular and effective methods for learning the individual bluegrass instruments.

Pete Wernick recommends that ALL new students get his video Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner right along with their first instrument. It shows the four main chords jammers use (G, D, C, and A) on each of the six instruments, and then offers 17 bluegrass standards at slow speeds for students to play along with. The chords are shown right on screen throughout each song as a clearly-made guitar chord, just as people typically follow in actual jams. This video has an extremely successful track record of developing confidence in novice players, especially nervous ones who feel incompetent in even slow-jamming situations.