October 19, 2003

#63: Banjo jammer critique

Pete,

What weaknesses or areas for improvement in my playing are most evident? I very much value your opinion and appreciate any comments or criticisms you can provide!

As good a picker as you are (and nothing showed me different the whole time), you have a lot to learn about ensemble playing skills and general jam etiquette. I hasten to add, it's normal, and given your inexperience, it's nothing to hold against you. But though nothing was said about it (it's really awkward to do that at the time), you posed a few challenges. Your picking is so good that almost anyone would assume you've done a fair amount of playing in groups, and that might lead someone to conclude that you're insensitive (which indeed you are, but I chalk that up to inexperience). In other words, people might wonder why you're doing certain "clueless" things, since your picking itself makes you seem experienced.

Anyway, #1 is some of the between-songs stuff, such as continuing to play a variety of other songs while people are talking. The incessant banjo sound is a challenge for people. If you want to suggest a song, that's cool, but almost anyone who suggests a song is then expected to *sing* it. I strongly recommend that you make a point of practicing singing and getting over some of the shyness you have about it. A banjo-only person seems a bit geeky to most folks, and if you have a song or two you can sing decently, you can jump in with it when things are at a lull. Then you can sing only if encouraged, but it doesn't look like you're there just to sort of sponge off the ones who do sing.

#2 To just come in and start playing where there is already an established banjo player taking care of business in a small group, is an etiquette breach (at least in my book). This is something of a judgement call. If a lot of people are all playing, as in your previous jam that night, no big deal. But when you see a pretty small group going at it, and one is a banjo player, you'd best go really quiet at first, and wait to see if asked to participate. In effect, only one banjo player at a time really fits in a good-sounding bluegrass jam. If for fun's sake, you're asked to participate, be especially careful to *share* with the other, the proper total amount of banjo that the music calls for. We did offer you banjo solos, which were fine (except when other "clueless" folks were soloing at the same time, without having been invited). You could have chopped chords a lot more, letting me do more of the banjo work sometimes. I did that for you, and finally I realized I'd help the group more if I just switched to guitar. (The rhythm was sucking overall, and I helped fix it, though it took forever to rig up a banjo string to work on the guitar). That's my overall principle of backup, for everyone in the jam. Ask: "Of all the things I know how to do, what is the best thing I could do to help this group sound better?" Sometimes, often, in fact, that thing is to play more quietly, or just lay out. Sometimes the chop is a far better thing for a banjo player to do than roll, just for the relief of not hearing the full-bore banjo sound sometimes. Even quiet rolling is often not as good as the chop (in my book) because the chop has more pulse, and less "banjo sound". People need a relief from constant banjo sound. Check out any Flatt & Scruggs record. There are plenty of times where you can't hear Earl's banjo roll.

#3 As I think I mentioned at the workshop, we banjo players must remember banjos are loud, and make a point of controling them. I probably was excessive in my enthusiasm myself, and I think likewise, you could have controled your volume better.

A lot of the above is just based on listening to the ensemble and then using musical taste and common sense to guide you. In time, you'll get more tuned in to the subtleties, and show exemplary banjo behavior in jams (and in a band). It's even especially cool when a good banjo player plays a bit too *little*, and is content to wait for the most appropriate times to show what he can do. That sort of restraint is *really* valued, and your talents don't need a lot of exposure to be obvious to those you're playing with. In effect, one of the most important parts of good banjo playing is knowing when to roll/be loud etc. and when not to.

I hope the above doesn't feel too harsh. Though I had to adapt to your inexperience, in all I was glad to get a chance to play with you, and I can confidently reiterate my first impression of your playing, that you sound very good and have done a lot of productive studying. I think you'll do fine in the next phase. Keep me posted.

Sincerely,

Pete Wernick

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