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Dr. Banjo has Cure for Beginner's Blues

By Shawn Bingham

Most people dread visits to the doctor, but the "waiting room" for Pete Wernick's (AKA Dr. Banjo) week long banjo camp was full this year. For several years now, Pete has been holding his beginner and advanced camps at the Sandy Point inn, in the scenic and musically active town of Boulder, Colorado.

Pete's learning and teaching theories begin with the well-known proverb "Give a man a fish and eats for a day... teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life." (This verse later showed up as an original GCD tune written by the students during a late night jam in honor of Pete.) It is this simple idea that sets Dr. Banjo's method apart from many other banjo teachers. For example, most of the students in the room at the beginning of the week had never jammed with other musicians. In fact, their instructors (whether a live person or tablature) had taught them only how to play prearranged solos, The dilemma was evident: students knew only how to play their several prearranged solos, but not how to jam, play adequate back-up or arrange their own material for a solo,

There are the two goals for the basic skills camp: learning to jam, and how to create simple solos. Pete gives hands-on instruction of jamming skills on the first day by coaching several small group jams right in the classroom. Four students are brought up to the front in a circle--one might strum, another rolls, a third may vamp and the fourth could solo. A four banjo jam session may sound like a bad dose of medicine but Pctc's point is to get everyone participating at their own level and together as a group. He teaches the students how to get a song off and running (first deciding on a song and who will sing), where solos go, and how to follow and anticipate chord changes. These lessons are crucial to participating in festival jams, but they are generally not covered in instructional books. After this intro session to jamming, which covers jamming etiquette, Pete assigns each student to a 4-person group. Once or twice a day the groups break off to a separate room in for an hour or two at a time. Just as any good doctor does "rounds," Pete visits each room and does some at each session. More jamming takes place into the night.

Pete's mission for the week, then, was to successfully jam with others by breaking several students reliance on tablature, teaching students how to pick out melodies and then get them to into solos, These smaller objectives were accomplished via Pete's "divide and conquer" attitude of breaking practice and tasks into useful, small and attainable steps. Students were strongly encouraged to choose a well known song from Pete's jam list and be able to pick out the melody notes on the banjo. Then, each student was instructed to make a rhythm track of himself/herself playing backup and singing the song. The final step was to make up an arrangement with the rhythm tape playing in the background. Other lessons during the week included backup, timing, new rolls and useful licks.

Though a large portion of the camp was spent on technique and jamming, Pete covered other subjects, particularly issues relevant to the social situation of "jamming". These included how to "stake out" an inviting jam at a festival, jamming etiquette (including the dreaded "jambusters"), stage anxiety, connecting with other musicians once students return home from the camp and setting up a practice routine. Pete is well schooled in the history of bluegrass music, so he also spent time during the camp discussing key figures in bluegrass, as well as a new player/student's place in the legacy of bluegrass. He has an extensive video collection of some of the pioneers of bluegrass and students were encouraged to take advantage of the film library during after-camp hours. Nighttime was spent taking in the local music of Boulder or jamming with other students who stayed at the Inn. Pete even arranges for students to take a free tour of the nearby Ome banjo factory, where they can see how a variety of different banjos are made and try them out.

Several months before the camp Pete sends registered students some basic tasks to learn before coming to camp. These include several basic chords and basic rolls, as well as some basic GCD songs with which they should familiarize themselves (She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain, Worried Man Blues, etc.) It is very likely, then, that beginners can come in with only basic knowledge and leave able to jam successfully with others, with a clear sense of direction where their learning should progress, and also well socialized into bluegrass as both musicians and fans.

Dr. Banjo makes a successful attempt during the week to heal tablature "addiction" and gives students the building blocks of successful long-term learning. Forty-plus hours with a premier banjo instructor (in addition to the many night time jamming hours) could run students over $1,400 dollars ($35 per lesson x 40 hours of instruction), so Pete's camp is a steal, costing less than $300 dollars.

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