Banjo Newsletter

December 2003: Monroe's Maxim
By Murphy Henry

I just finished reading the excellent interview with Butch Robins in the November issue of BNL. I'm really into The World According To Butch right now-the first thing I do when I get out of bed is read a few paragraphs in his book-so I was really taken with one of the Monroe stories in the article. Butch said he was trying to learn Old Dangerfield, because he was getting ready to record it with Bill, and he was having trouble with one spot. When he got to the troublesome spot he says, "I would stop and work on the intricate noting the phrase required." Monroe, who was listening, said irritably, "Why do you keep stopping in that place?" Butch told Big Mon he was working on his technique. Bill replied bluntly, "The music don't stop just because you made a mistake."

Which is what I've been trying to tell my students for years. Not with such poetic phrasing, however. I'm thinking about having a banner made up for my teaching spot in the barber shop: The music don't stop just because you made a mistake. Monroe's Maxim.

A banner would be useful because my current crop of "live" students and I wrestle with this concept every Thursday. Yes, I've started another student jam! Because of my limited time (I'm writing a book on Women in Bluegrass!), we do this in lieu of individual lessons, not in addition to. The current victims are Bob on bass, Jean on banjo, her husband Greg on rhythm guitar, J. P. on banjo, and Annie, our token teenager, on lead guitar. I also play guitar. But I keep hoping I can break out the fiddle soon.

I've written about Bob and Jean and J.P. before. Bob, a West Virginia good ol' boy, has been around so long he now says, "Yes, dear" whenever I correct him. He was a guitar student who is now learning bass. Jean was an original Misfit from the '90s who began taking lessons again a few years ago. Greg, her supportive husband, started learning guitar so Jean would have someone to practice with. (Isn't that sweet?) Annie, 16, has been taking guitar a year or so and is now able to play a number of leads solidly. J.P. had gotten to the point in his playing where he desperately needed and wanted to jam, but the long-established jams he went to were over his head-he couldn't play fast enough. He was very discouraged. In fact, I think he wanted to quit. I didn't want him to quit. We had put way too much time and energy into him learning to play. Or as the old gospel song says, "I'm too near my Heavenly Home to turn back now!"

So, J.P. and I started working on trying to develop some speed at his lessons, but we weren't having much luck. Even I, with my fierce demeanor and fiery eyes, couldn't put the kind of pressure on him that he would experience in a jam session. He also needed to work more on vamping, using the capo, ending licks, and improvising. All of which we would hit from time to time, but there's only so much you can cover in an hour.

And then there was Bob. A bass player needs to be accompanying someone. It's a little hard to practice Foggy Mountain Breakdown on the bass by yourself. All these students were at the point where, in order to get better they were going to have to, all together now, play with other people. I simply provided the location and some gentle guidance. "Bob! If you'd get your head…Sorry, Annie. I mean, if you'd been listening to what I said, you'd KNOW that off chord is an F." "Yes, dear."

Communication about the songs is often a problem. For instance, Jean and J.P. wanted to play Bluegrass Breakdown, but Bob and Annie didn't know it. So how do you explain the chords to Bluegrass Breakdown to intermediate pickers? (You know I'm not gonna write them down!) They already played Foggy Mountain Breakdown, so what I said was this: It's like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, except you use F the first two times through and C the third time through. Blank looks. Me, trying to clarify: Use F in place of the E minor the first two times through and use C in place of the E minor the third time through. More blank looks. Finally I just said, "The hell with it. Sorry, Annie. Let's just play it. Kick it off, Jean, and I'll call out the chords." And that's the beauty of a jam session, especially with a teacher. You can skip the talk and go right to where the learning is: The playing. The playing. The playing. The learning is in the playing.

And one of the first things you learn when you're jamming is Monroe's Maxim: The music don't stop just because you made a mistake. When-notice I said "when" not "if"-you make a mistake, the rest of the group keeps right on trucking. And I know it's hard to believe that everyone is not listening with bated breath to every note you play, but they probably won't even know you make a mistake unless-unless what? Unless you stop playing.

But what happens when a student makes a mistake and falls out of time and keeps playing? Often they don't realize they are out of time. One of the hardest things in the world for me to do as a teacher is keep my mouth shut and keep the rhythm going when someone has fallen out of time. And even though I know it's only going to last 30-45 seconds at most, it seems like an eternity. Sometimes, with a great amount of effort, I can block out the out-of-time lead and power through. But sometimes I break the rule and stop the jam so we can start over. Sorry, Bill!

Sometimes when a student makes a mistake and stops, I encourage another student to jump in and help out. (This is easier when the students know exactly the same breaks.) Often if the first student can hear the banjo break, she or he can find their way back in. If not, then the jam continues on, the energy stays high, and the first student can try again the next time around. The question then surfaces, if I finish out someone else's break, do I still get my own break? (Maybe that only occurs to me, raised with four younger sisters and always anxious to get my "fair" turn.) The rule is, if you came in before the halfway point, you don't get another break. If you come in after halfway point, you get to take another full break. Then question then becomes, where exactly is the halfway point? I've seen some awful arguments break out over whether a person came in before or after the halfway point. And if you'll buy that, "I've got some ocean-front property in Arizona…" Sorry! I couldn't resist.

Christmas is just around the corner. Hope you've got your shopping done. (Right!) Remember what George Morgan sung, "Candy kisses, wrapped in paper." I always envision Hershey's kisses when I hear that. What Mama calls "silver bells." Great banjo tune, great stocking stuffers. Happy holidays!