(the following appeared in Pow'r Pickin', May 2004, www.coloradobluegrass.org)

Camping With Your Banjo
by Rick Sparks

Every once in a while in your life you get a chance to experience something that is so special that you know your life will never be the same from that point on. So it was for me when got the opportunity to spend a week with Pete Wernick in his Advanced Banjo Camp the first week in January.

I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from Pete and the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society, and the resulting experience was amazing. With only 13 pickers in the camp, there was ample time to pick Pete's brain (no pun intended), and his vast knowledge and years of experience -- I'm sure made everyone in the camp not only a better banjo player, but also a more complete musician.
I was surprised at the variety of ages and playing levels the campers brought to the mix, which included two teenagers ages 13 and 15 and on up to those of us who split our time shaving nose hairs and taking Metamucil .The kids were the surprise of the camp.. The first day our jaws dropped as we watched in amazement at how accomplished they were at such a young age. Out of 13 campers I thought it would be very hard for Pete to teach for such diversified levels of playing, but he managed to challenge all of the pickers to play beyond their limits. Also surprising was the fact that campers came from so far away. There were two students from Spain, who were also excellent players, as well as campers from Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, two from Illinois, one from Minnesota (who builds banjos for a living), a couple of locals from the Colorado area and myself from Nevada.

Pete began the week by warming us up with what he calls "Lick Dump", in which he picks a difficult banjo lick, teaches it to the class and in unison we begin to repeat it over and over and increase the speed as we become more adept at playing it. Along with this learning process, Pete made individuals assessments on each person's playing in order to fit the class to meet the needs of all the students. He taught us how to make "loops" on certain licks and problem spots in order to create a good solid break on particular songs. We did these exercises each day, expanding our knowledge of licks and up the neck positions as we went along.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the camp were the many stories that Pete told us about some of the greats of bluegrass, from Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs to Jimmy Martin and his former Hot Rize buddies. His knowledge of bluegrass history is impressive. Of particular interest was his ongoing relationship with Earl Scruggs over the years. As a highlight during the week, on Thursday Pete made a telephone call to Earl on his 81st birthday to wish him Happy Birthday, and we all played him our arrangement of Old Joe Clark over the phone. Earl was very humble and appreciative of our efforts. Since the conversation was on a speaker phone, many of us got it on tape, which I'm sure we'll cherish for years to come.

The end of the week brought an opportunity for each of us to perform in a showcase that Pete set up with an actual audience of very appreciative listeners. His purpose was to help us as performers to get past the "stage fright" that comes with playing in front of an audience. Everyone performed admirably and, even when mistakes were made, all of the pickers and singers managed to complete their individual songs. I got to play backup guitar with many of the performers, which was lots of fun.

The last day of the camp on Saturday was reserved for answering individual questions and problems that may have come up during the week. I know Pete helped me, along with others, to realize that while the technical aspects of playing are vital, a lot of what creates a good driving sound comes from within. It is a somewhat holistic approach to playing, but for me it was a great help and reinforced the fact that there is more to making music than just learning the licks.

Although we all started out as strangers, it didn't take long for us to establish that camaraderie that is so special among bluegrass pickers. With ample time to jam between class times, we all managed to have a lot of fun as well as teach each other new licks, new songs and how to play well together.

I came away from this experience both inspired and with a huge desire to expand my abilities as a complete player, and it is Pete Wernick's ability to encourage and impart his experience to his students that allowed me to take this new knowledge and run with it. Would I like to come back to another camp? You bet, but only after I absorb all of the new material I learned at the first camp. It may be next year or perhaps the year after, but as The Terminator once said "I'LL BE BACK!"


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