By Matt Merta
Near the conclusion of the 2003 documentary Bluegrass Journey is a live performance unlike most others. The audience of hundreds intently watches a lone banjoist onstage. But they are not just passively listening to the performer. With guitars, mandolins and other acoustic instruments, they follow his guidance through a rousing rendition of "Roll On, Buddy." The scene looks like a bluegrass version of Zubin Mehta conducting a philharmonic orchestra, and the man onstage, Pete Wernick, is in his glory. "It's great to be on stage in front of thousands of people getting applause for your playing, but when someone tells you personally that you changed his life for the better with the way you showed him how to play music and enjoy it, that's a richer reward for me," says Wernick. "So I'm kind of hooked on that."
Known worldwide as Dr. Banjo (he holds a Ph.D. in Sociology), Pete Wernick has become one of the most important figures in bluegrass music over the past three decades. His resume is one to be respected: Member of the legendary bluegrass quartet Hot Rize; past president of the International Bluegrass Music Association; current leader of the jazz/swing/bluegrass project Flexigrass (the band's most recent album, What The, was released this past summer); author of numerous instructional books and videos; and a leader in the promotion and education of bluegrass music to the masses.
It is this last role that he has become so passionate about with each passing festival season. Since the early 1980s, Pete has motivated thousands of people to pursue an active interest in playing bluegrass music through his banjo camps and, more recently, jam camps.
"Over the years of doing banjo camps," he relates, "I saw there was a big gap between the way most people try to learn and what actually happens when people get together to play. One camper played a beautiful version of 'Earl's Breakdown.'Later, with other people, he played the same solo, then played it again during someone else's time to solo. I told him he needed to switch to backup, but he didn't know how to play backup. When I told him to just chop the chords, he said he didn't know the chords. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. When he soloed, he sounded like a professional player, but he only knew the one tabbed solo."
Though memorization has its value, Pete explains, it is not at the heart of the way bluegrass is actually played. "Bluegrass is not just reciting, it's more fluid and interactive. Supposedly, when you are at home practicing by yourself, you are preparing for that interactivity situation, but if you don't practice that interactivity, no amount of solo practice can fill the gap. You need a combination of practicing on your own and playing with other people to learn to play bluegrass."
In the late 1990s, Pete taught three-hour Sunday jam classes to mixed groups of musicians at H.B. Woodsongs Music Store in Boulder, CO. "People with all different instruments showed up, and I would teach in a classroom style as well as break them up into jam groups. I'd start with the basics of jamming and following chords, then learning to improvise simple solos and do some harmony singing. It went really well. In a town of 100,000, over 100 people came in for the classes. That meant one out of every 1,000 people was interested in a jam class." It dawned on Pete that the same proportion applied to the full U.S. population would mean 300,000 people in need of jam instruction! "After the successful classes in Boulder, I decided to convert one of my banjo camps, at Merlefest in 1999, to a jam camp. It was so successful that from then on, I have only done jam camps at Merlefest, and started offering them at other events as well. These days I do weekend camps here in Boulder as well as several-day camps at various festivals."
The typical schedule for a three-to four-day jam camp involves mostly ensemble playing, both in a large group and in smaller groups. The first day concentrates on two-and three-chord songs and the basics of working in an ensemble. The second day emphasizes ear skills, introducing vocal harmonizing, pick-up notes, turnarounds and key transposing. Following days cover practice techniques and further work on instrumental skills.
Mary Burdette, Associate Director of Grey Fox Bluegrass, has some thoughts about why Pete's Jam Camps are so popular. "I think some festival workshops aren't really very participatory, but are more like demonstrations with a wide range of questions from the audience about technique, equipment, etc. Many don't encourage the attendees to play their instruments at all, while others do. Pete, however, is all about making sure his students play, improve, interact with each other and have a ton of fun while learning. When class is over, students feel a real sense of accomplishment and joy. They can go out and jam with other pickers!"
However, there is always room for change. Pete allows his methods to evolve based on what seems to work best. "I use an evaluation form, and by now have read over 1,000 of them. We ask for suggestions for improving the camps. In 2008 at Merlefest, we will be introducing a camp track especially for intermediate players. We have had quite a few repeat customers who started requesting a more detailed level of instruction, and wanting the challenge of playing with more experienced players. At the 2007 Merlefest camp, I was able to experiment with dividing the class so I could work with these intermediates for a spell. Thanks to my experienced assistants--" his wife, Joan Wernick, and musician Scott Freeman--"working with the novices, that worked well and encouraged me to try expanding to meet the growing demand."
Ira Gitlin is a Maryland bluegrass musician who often serves in a co-instructor capacity at the Jam Camps. "I'm impressed with Pete's insistence that a complete beginner can jam at some level--even if it's just strumming simple chords," he says. "By making the structure of the jam, rather than instrumental expertise, the starting point for everything, he lays down a foundation that can support whatever students may want to add in the future. And his decision to focus on vocal songs, rather than instrumental tunes, is pretty uncommon."
Jack Tuttle, a California bluegrass musician who also occasionally serves as co-instructor, concurs. "Pete emphasizes the big picture of bluegrass by having everyone sing, including harmonies, and play backup, thus taking most of the focus off learning tabs for solos from paper."
The jam camps have proven extremely popular because the musicians can participate and learn at a comfortable pace. "On the evaluation forms I get all kinds of feedback on my teaching," Pete says. "However, the most common comment is that they appreciate the chance to play with other musicians. A great thing about doing a camp at the Y camp near Merlefest, or onsite at a festival, is that most [participants] are staying at the campgrounds the entire week, so they can get together and jam at night even if Pete Wernick is nowhere around. They're tentative for the first day or two, but by the third or fourth day, they become self-sufficient. I try to group people who live close to each other, so they can keep getting together after the camp, which many of them do." Jammers can stay connected through "jamcampers," a 300-member Web-based discussion list in the Yahoo! community groups, and a valuable source of feedback for Pete.
"One of the things that I study as a teacher is what motivates people. I look at what rouses them from a passive situation and makes them move actively. One thing I see is that they like to score some points in a social situation and to have fun as well. It's an ego-feeding thing. All musicians show off, but if you take turns showing off, you're not an egomaniac. Part of what is fun about bluegrass is that people take turns showing off."
Pete does come across a variety of different musical personalities while overseeing the jam camps. "I've taught probably over 3,000 people at the camps, and while everyone is different, they are so happy to be doing this that they are cooperative and easy to get along with. There are some super-shy perfectionists, and some hardcore attention-seekers, but I always keep the message focused on what the jam camp is about. Judging from what I see, and the evaluation forms, the positive messages are coming through."
The role of the teacher, he stresses, has changed profoundly over the past few decades. "I hate to sound defeatist about it, but a lot of teachers feel they don't need to learn anything more about teaching. Most all of them are very good players, but playing skills are not the same as teaching skills. To teach well, you have to have that 'bedside manner' so that the student isn't as nervous. However, the biggest skill is understanding where to set the bar for the student--the right amount of challenge." If a teacher assumes or expects too much, he adds, students can get mighty uncomfortable, and the learning situation can break down. But students who feel understood and encouraged tend to work hard and get great results.
"The technology available to students and teachers has led to important changes," Pete continues. "In some ways, a student with a DVD lesson and a laptop has a better way to be shown new material than with an actual teacher. The student can refer to the DVD at home whenever needed. Teachers can do a lot that a video can't, but compared to the past, they don't need to do that 'showing' as much. Instead, the teacher can assign specific material from the video, then review it with the student and work on the fine points."
One of the best things a teacher can do, he points out, is to connect a student with compatible musicians at the same level and work with them as a group. "A DVD can't do that! A good teacher puts a student in a situation where they believe in their heart that, with a little effort, they will succeed at something that means a lot while being fun. Putting them into circulation with other musicians continues the development and inspires an optimistic view of what can happen a few years down the line. My mantra is to find out what the person considers 'fun' while also being in the realm of something that they can do without a lot of effort. Whatever is fun, the student will continue to practice. So I tell people 'Do whatever gets you the most fun the soonest.' They like that!
"Putting the players together makes it more fun, and in that context more skills will develop. If teachers would do that, a higher percentage of beginners will continue to play bluegrass. Then perhaps five years from now, the ranks of intermediate bluegrass musicians will be much larger, and maybe ten years along, there will be a lot more advanced players. Then," he adds, laughing, "perhaps bluegrass can take over the world, which is what we all want!"
Some social factors involved in playing music with others are not always obvious. During his instruction, Pete shares tips with participants on how to find musicians to jam with. "At my first jam camps in Kentucky, two women who had been co-workers for a few years saw each other there and were stunned that the other played a bluegrass instrument. It's so typical that two people in a city could be living in the same apartment building, and unless one of them is carrying a guitar or fiddle case in the elevator, they may never know that they share an interest in bluegrass. I encourage students to wear bluegrass apparel, a shirt or hat from a festival, and just walk around the shopping mall or somewhere. Sooner or later, someone will approach you. I also tell students to go to bigger established jams and look for the wallflowers. Those are the novice jammers who are intimidated by the more skilled players, but who can go into a separate room and form a slow jam. And I recommend they get help from teachers, who are perfectly positioned to be great matchmakers."
Bluegrass people, he always reminds his jam campers, tend to be really nice people. "They are attracted to harmony and the teamwork of making music with other people. One of the reasons I love bluegrass so much is that there are so many levels of participation. You can play the music in a slow jam or a higher-level jam, sing along, provide refreshments, watch actively and clap your hands, or be the person dancing right next to the musicians. Bluegrass festivals have their great, unique culture."
Does Pete see himself as a sociologist who happens to play banjo? "I never attributed any of my interest in this way of learning bluegrass to my education at Columbia, but I do see how my sociology perspective helps me focus on what works in a social situation. I consider myself a problem-solver as well as a people-person. If I think I have a solution to a problem, I get excited and want to teach people what I have learned. It's that way with how I present the jam camps, and my wanting to see other teachers present it like that. Every time I have a camp, I know that we will be changing some people's lives, and it's a thrill." That's amazing, since Pete's been leading jam camps for almost 25 years! "After doing it so long, someone might think I'd be jaded, but I'm still psyched about it."
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