Banjo Newsletter

May 2006: Listening Deeper
By Murphy Henry

A few months ago the Boston Globe ran an article on the Berklee College of Music in Boston. (History lesson: the school was founded in 1945 as a college for contemporary music, particularly jazz.) You have to be a top-notch musician to get into Berklee. This year, for the first time, bluegrass stepped out of the shadows to become a "sanctioned subject of study." Students can major in banjo and mandolin!

But the sentence that really caught my eye was this: Bluegrass is not easily mastered. I feel like I need to put that in all caps. BLUEGRASSS IS NOT EASILY MASTERED. Or perhaps bold. BLUEGRASS IS NOT EASILY MASTERED. And from personal experience, I'm sure most of you would agree. It looks easy, but it ain't. I can only surmise that since much of the world still associates bluegrass with hillbillies and furthermore associates hillbillies with being dumb that they think, by extension, that if hillbillies can play bluegrass, it can't be that hard. That is, until they try to learn to play an instrument themselves! So, the next time you're beating yourself up about not learning to play any faster, remember: it's hard!

The article goes on to say that bluegrass, with its emphasis on improvising, can be difficult to teach. Yeah, buddy! Still and yet, I love my job! I myself learned a valuable lesson from one of my students recently. Wayne, sixty-something, has been taking about five months. He can competently play the Beginning Big Ten, including Boil Them Cabbage, Old Joe Clark, and Two Dollar Bill.

Wayne, who practices a lot, is a determined, meticulous learner. In fact, he sometimes gets a little too meticulous, worrying about licks that sound wrong to him--"It doesn't sound like you play it on the video!"--but which sound fine to me. If they're in time, they're fine. I'm not worried about nuance-I'm concerned with the big picture. All I want him to do is play the song from beginning to end without stopping, to keep going when he makes a mistake, and to play in time. Attention to detail such as crisp slides, snappy pulloffs, and particular inflections will come later. And we don't play anything fast. Recently we've undertaken the challenge of vamping, hearing chord changes, and swapping breaks.

So for several weeks Wayne had been coming in and saying that he was having trouble hearing the chord changes to D. I was always sympathetic and usually said something supportive like, "Well, those are hard changes to hear." Or "A lot of people have trouble hearing the D changes." Then we'd move into the lesson, which always included some vamping, usually to I Saw the Light and Do Lord.

The other week Wayne came in and said, "I'm getting to where I can hear the C changes pretty well. Those seem to be easier to hear. But I'm still having trouble hearing those D changes." I said, "Well, learning to vamp is hard and D changes are hard to hear. Now, let's warm up with Banjo in the Hollow."

But before Wayne started to play, he launched into a story. He said, "You know, I grew up around race cars. I didn't race myself, but I was always around them. Always going to races. And when one of those cars would come in for a pit stop, the driver would say to the crew chief, 'Chief, I've got a problem. And the crew chief would tell him what to do to fix it. You see?' " And I, listening to the story, did not see. I thought, "How interesting. I had no idea that Wayne had this whole racing background that I knew nothing about." I started to ask him if he'd ever seen Richard Petty race.

But somewhere deep inside, a still, small voice heard something different. This was not a story about racing. This was a story about hearing D chord changes. Finding the front door locked, Wayne was coming in through the side window. He was patiently and gently trying to reach me a different way. And then, thank goodness, I did see. I said, "You've been wanting me to give you some advice about hearing those D chord changes, haven't you?. Every week you've been coming in and telling me you've got a problem, and I haven't told you a thing."

"Well, yeah," he admitted.

"I'm sorry, Wayne, but I don't know what to tell you. I don't know what to do other than what we've been doing. I don't have any magic formula for learning to hear D chord changes. You keep practicing at home and we'll keep playing in here, and one day you'll get it. One day you'll hear them."

He was so gracious. "That's all I needed to hear."

Me: "That's all you needed to hear? But I didn't tell you anything."

Wayne: "Yes you did. You told me to keep working on it. That if I kept working on it I'd get it. That's what I needed to hear."

Me, stunned: "Oh."

Sometimes I need to listen deeper.

All this segues nicely into Go Tell Aunt Rhody, our song of the month. How so? The Berklee College of Music knows that bluegrass is all about improvising, the bedrock of improvising is hearing chord changes, and that's what Wayne is working on. All those threads come together neatly.

Go Tell Aunt Rhody, the sad saga of the old grey goose who died and left six little goslings, is another two-chord song in the key of G. It perhaps is slightly less familiar than Skip and Polly, which I trust you can now play with ease, but no harder. The first verse goes like this:

Go tell Aunt Rhody
Go tell Aunt Rhody
Go tell Aunt Rhody
The old grey goose is dead.

Pretty easy words to remember! Now, there is one place where you could possibly hear the chord change differently from how it is usually played. And I understand how you could hear it that way. It actually sounds fine. All I can say is that's not the way it's usually done. That's not the bluegrass way, and we're doing it the bluegrass way. (Helpful hint at the bottom. Don't look till you've tried to play the song-lots!) I'd love to hear from those of you who are working on these songs. Email me at Put "chord changes" in the subject line so I won't delete you!

I would also like to tell you that writing about hearing chord changes has inspired me to make a DVD about the subject. We're in the process of finishing it up now. Learning to Hear Chord Changes (VHS format) should be available now. The DVD will follow soon. Deep discount on the DVD if you've already bought the video! Happy strumming! Remember: if it sounds wrong, it is wrong!

Helpful hint: The first D chord comes in at the beginning of the second line. But you only do four strums (two beats), changing back on the "Rho" of "Rho-dy." It is possible to hear it staying in D for six strums, changing back on the "dy" of "Rho-dy." But, that's just not the way it's done!