A Week of Fun and Learning

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I just finished my second year as a coach and instructor at Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp in Boomer, NC in conjunction with MerleFest. This year the camp was even larger than last with a total of 75 students and 10 instructors ranging in age from 8 to 79. It was also nice to see a larger group of young people at the camp this year. The days were filled with instructor led jams, individual instrument and vocal classes and the nights where filled with jamming until the wee hours of the morning. Of course the moms and dads of the younger campers enforced a bed time and some adults managed to find sleep in between, but most played music late only to get up and start all over again the next day. Similarly, some instructors stayed up and played with the groups or provided one on one instruction as well. The camp culminated with all of the students playing a couple of tunes on the Cabin Stage at MerleFest.  

It was nice to see some familiar faces from last year and to meet new folks attending for the first time. Aside from individual campers, there were also three bands that attended as a group to hone their skills and to have fun; some of them actually met and formed at the camp during previous years. I had the good fortune of working with some of the so called “novice jammers” again. It was also quite rewarding to see the progress some of the returning students made from last year. For example, one student last year could make the chords, but had difficulty changing the chords fast enough for the song. The same student was also not willing to sing or lead a song at the beginning of camp. However, on the last day of camp this particular student, after much coaching and encouragement, AKA arm twisting, led and sang a song at a jam. This year the student showed up with a repertoire of songs prepared to sing and led many songs during both instructional jams and free jams in the evenings while also working out some basic melody lead breaks. Although arm twisting sounds negative, the student had nothing but thanks for the staff that provided the tools and the encouragement to make that leap. Similarly, the intermediate and advanced jammers returned with new breaks, vocal arrangements, and songs. It is always nice to see folks making progress towards their goals and having fun along the way.

I say novice jammers because that is an accurate description. Sure, there are some folks who just decided to learn an instrument and they are novice musicians as well as novice jammers. It may not sound like it on the surface, but they have it easy by comparison. They know they are beginners and have no expectation that they will suddenly be the next Jerry Douglas. However, it became readily apparent this year that in some cases there are some very experienced and sometimes accomplished musicians that have taken an interest in bluegrass. Although they are accomplished musicians in another genre, they are new to bluegrass and jamming. Imagine if you will that you are a member of a symphony, you play several instruments well, and provide musical instruction as a profession, yet you show up to a bluegrass jam camp and now you are a novice. Not only are you a novice, but you are playing a hammer dulcimer instead of a traditional bluegrass instrument. There are several levels of discomfort and some things to learn from this situation.

First, an experienced and accomplished individual could find themselves a beginner simply by changing the application. The experience and skills will certainly help, in this case we are talking about music, but think of others; a professional cabinet maker who decides to become a luthier; a small engine repairman wants to become a jet engine mechanic or the jet engine mechanic wants to open an automotive repair shop. The cabinet maker is a very experienced wood worker, but will still be a novice luthier. The wood is the same, but in many ways everything else is different. Similarly, the member of the symphony will likely encounter some challenges when they venture into a bluegrass jam. At the symphony everything is spelled out precisely; the composer wrote the music for each instrument and the only person interpreting the composition is the conductor. The musician will likely be fired if there is any deviation from the composition as there are ten others waiting to take the seat. This person may have some difficulty making up what notes to play at a jam.

Second, there is the issue of having years of musical study, knowledge, and expertise on several instruments, yet now being “relegated” to novice status. There is a track record of success in music and playing the wrong note is not only unexpected, but is completely unacceptable based on this background.  Again, playing the wrong note is grounds for getting fired. Years and years of practicing various pieces so that they can be played perfectly every time is the norm. What is this play the melody and fill in around it whatever you want? Play it differently each time if you like and in fact, that may be preferred; if you mess up just keep going and stay in time. These are alien ideas for the member of the symphony. Oh, and swallow anything that may resemble pride in the significant musical accomplishments you have achieved previously as you are a novice on the bluegrass planet you have decided to visit.

Finally, there is this idea of integrating an instrument that is not typically part of bluegrass music. I know at least one person who has played a banjo with a symphony to record a song, however imagine a banjo as a permanent part of the symphony. It could be done by a very talented banjo player, but it would require the player to figure out how the banjo could be played to blend with and add something to the overall arrangement, by a composer of course – not the banjo player. Similarly, a hammer dulcimer player has to figure out how he can make it blend with and augment the music being played. This may require developing new techniques or modifying others. However, a hammer dulcimer can play bluegrass music. I saw it develop throughout the week and one even played a solo to “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” on the Cabin Stage at MerleFest complete with the Lester Flatt run at the end.

Each camp or workshop is a little bit different based on the students, experience levels, and student goals. The camp at Boomer this year was similar in some ways, but also different than last year. Students never believe this, but I do learn a lot from watching them and listening to them throughout the camp. This year was certainly no different. Some of the above is just a small part of the things I learned at camp from students this year. Sometimes folks have difficulty making the leap, but when they do, they end up having a lot of fun. In this respect it all becomes the same; the beginner who makes the leap to lead a song and the symphony member that takes a leap from the printed music both end up having fun. Sure folks come to learn more about music, but hopefully they are also coming to have some fun. I suspect next year will be even better so perhaps you can come teach me something and we can have a lot of fun making some music together.  

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