Traveling Banjo Gal

Location of Bluegrass Banjo Camp 2014

Location of Bluegrass Banjo Camp 2014

Yes, I am still pickin and forging ahead on my goal to be a decent banjo player– and find a pair of blue cowboy boots!

Spring 2014 I attended my second Bluegrass Banjo Camp in Weiser, Idaho with workshops provided by Bill Evans, Jason Homey and Gary Eller.

Participants enjoyed a lively musical weekend of jamming, enjoying old friends as well as meeting new banjo players and other musicians.  Marlene and I walked on the wild side when we stayed up late (10 pm) one night for a terrific Bluegrass concert, and then texted our kooky antics to her husband, Jerry.

What! – After all that banjo activity and fun I ended up taking a three-month break from  playing.

The lull resulted from a flurry of work related traveling, dealing with a recurring health issue, and finally the labor involved in the decision to sell my house.  That involved sorting, packing, dumping, and carting off boxes of stuff to the youth ranch. While I contracted out for major repairs and painting the interior to neutral beige, I put in hours on yard work and miscellaneous tasks that involved multiple trips to Home Depot.

By late August, my life was somewhat settled as I relocated to my brother’s house during the selling process.  During that time, I realized I was close to setting the banjo aside as I had done in my early twenties.   At the same time those “quit” thoughts entered my mind, I received an email from Jason asking if I was ready to begin lessons again.  I scheduled one to get back to the pickin’ of my banjo.  I confessed to Jason I had not touched the banjo for three months and the purpose of our first lesson was simply my commitment to not quitting.

Finally the house sold and the weekend of December 6, I moved to a charming apartment.  Free from the do to list of home ownership that involved time, worry, and money, I continue to play, practice, and get to the Wednesday evening beginner jam.

I purchased a sturdy case for my Deering Goodtime travel banjo that got a test run when I flew to Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday.  The banjo case instigated smiles and conversations with people throughout the airport.  The baggage check guy, a guitar player for sixty years, spent a long time talking with me in spite of people in line behind me.  He gave me advice on technique,  music books to buy, and bluegrass festivals to attend.      banjo camp

I look forward to my banjo pickin life, adventures and Bluegrass Banjo Camp 2015 in Weiser, Idaho, and plan to get out to other festivals and camps throughout the year.

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Banjo and Blogging Mania

SAM_2666Bluegrass festival weekend at the cabin during labor day provide extra banjo practice and blogging time.

At a banjo workshop Marlene and I learned vamping variations, listened to good music, visited with friends, and then retreated to the cabin to unleash our creativity.

We had a wild weekend of letting the dishesSAM_2662 pile up in the sink, munched on chocolate, pie, tomatoes, and popcorn.  Free from cubicle world and the controlled environment found in offices, we enjoyed the unstructured time. We allowed the blogging, photography, banjo or napping whims to weave through the day in no particular order.

Sunday afternoon we strolled into downtown Cascade to feed our respective coffee and tea habits.   A couple of friends from Boise made a spur of the moment decision to drive to Cascade and we enjoyed lively conversation with Sharon and Sonya.

SAM_2664Fresh mountain air and trees framed outside the windows provided soothing incentive that encouraged creative genius to the keyboard to craft a blog or pick out a tune on our banjos.

Well, admittedly the use of the word “genius” perhaps is a bit grandiose.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the luxury of unencumbered time devoted to writing, playing the banjo, walking, taking pictures, and excellent conversation with wonderful friends.

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Fall 2013 Beginner Blue Grass Jam

DSC_0602nwsWednesday night I sequestered myself in the conference room to warm up before attending the reconvened Beginner Bluegrass jam sessions.   The jam is downtown and instead of driving the commute home, I used the time to practice.

As I packed up my banjo and exited the building, I encountered  the new building maintenance staff, and one of them is a young student.  We chatted, I learned he plays guitar and he remarked,  “Whoa, the banjo has many moving parts and action to master, good for you.”

Or did he really mean, “Good luck with that?”   No, that was my own negative voice.  He was enthusiastic and supportive of my learning to play the banjo endeavor.  All musicians I encounter are gracious, thrilled, supportive and willing to offer their time to help me become a better banjo player.

But I have been in a slightly frustrated place.  Yes, again!  What a whiner!   I often feel that I take 3 steps forwards and then 10 back. That I achieve a tipsy platform of technique and sense of how the various chords and rolls can interlock into spontaneous patterns throughout the songs, and then the sense of progress scurries to unknown, blank places in my brain.

I was nervous about the jam and felt that I “should” be further along.  My mind flitted across reasons not to go, but instead I stayed on task,  picked up Marlene and headed downtown.    The venue is charming, at an old historic building in downtown Boise.   I enjoyed greeting old friends as well as meeting new participants.

When it came my turn to call a song,  I started to default to one that one is a bit easier selection in my repertoire.  Jason, smiled and suggested another that he knew I had been working on and wanted to play with the group;  “Will You Be Lovin’ Another Man?”

New to the bluegrass genre, I was not familiar with this song.  The first time Jason introduced it during our lesson, I felt tears form behind my eyes, and declared, “That sounds like a soldier’s song singing to his loved one before headed off to war.”   A pretty song with heartfelt lyrics,  Jason had written tab out to specifically introduce the use of the reverse roll in a tune.

I took a deep breath, quietly reviewed the chord progression and opening  measures to set the tempo, smiled at the group and kicked off “Will You Be Lovin’ Another Man?”    It was the song of the week for the first jam of the season (which I missed), folks were ready to play it, and they all did beautifully.  I loved watching Jason and Renee sing with and to each other, and other voices joined as well.  I had practiced enough that I was able to look around and pay attention to the what the other jammers were doing, lean into the music and play my banjo break.

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Round Valley Festival 2013

Festival 2013, Performance by Tradition
Photo by Plaid Skunk

The true official year of learning to play the banjo occurred labor day weekend as Marlene and I once again attended  The Idaho Sawtooth Bluegrass Association Fall Festival in Round Valley located outside of Cascade, Idaho.   Last year marked our first public appearance taking our banjos out of the safety of our homes to the event and participating in workshops.

I recall looking forward to the event last year as well as experiencing a fair amount of nerves.  Therefore, it was nice to feel relaxed and as we loaded the car after work Friday to escape the ongoing heat of the Treasure Valley and trek on up to Cascade.  We made what is now becoming a traditional leaving town dinner stop that involves hamburgers, tator tots or French fries and chocolate malts.

After a refreshing deep sleep due to cooler air and mountain quiet land, I woke up optimistic with increased confidence about my foray into the bluegrass world.  Coffee, breakfast and a brief warm up on the banjo; we packed our gear and headed to the gathering for the 10 am banjo workshop.   An abundance of hawks perched on the fence posts provided impressive viewing as we made our way down the dusty road to the ranch.

Proof of arriving with our banjos.

Proof of arriving with our banjos. They are taking a break in the shade.
Photo by Plaid Skunk.

A few familiar faces greeted us, happy that we are still pickin and practicing.  Because we chased the hawks a bit attempting to get photos, we arrived a tad late to the workshop led by the banjo player from the Panhandle Polecats.  He reviewed hand positions, vamping backup technique and suggested learning to play Cripple Creek in a different key.

From a one-hour workshop, we received material we can work on for hours.  One of the emerging themes of the day from various players was to work on learning the scales.  Not only for finger dexterity, but also to know where the notes were – the infamous music theory discipline.

Relaxing and enjoying the music. Photo by Plaid Skunk

Relaxing and enjoying the music.
Photo by Plaid Skunk

We stayed for a couple of the bands, visited with old friends and struck up conversations with new folks. The valley was hot and we headed back to the cabin early afternoon.

We decided to stay at the cabin today and practice.  It is rare that Marlene and I have such a large gift of banjo time together and we plan to enjoy the opportunity.

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Enjoying the shade and music.
Photo by Plaid Skunk

All Photos taken by Plaid Skunk

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Still Pickin’

Alive After Five

Jason Homey, my banjo instructor, with the Clumsy Lovers playing at Alive After Five on the Grove – Boise Idaho.

A glance at the calendar informed me that we are more than half way through the year, which is rather shocking.  What happened to my weekly blog project!  Time to put pen to paper, keyboard to word document and post my progress on the ongoing learning to play the five string banjo project.

As several of my other learning to play the banjo buddies have noted, it is difficult carving out time during the summer.  Vacation, weekend trips, visitors, and gardening all compete for our time.  Last weekend I attended a conference in Seattle and I took my banjo with me so I could at least get a little time in practicing.  And I have decided that I am now going to take it with me in all my travels.   Let the banjo fully be part of my life.  Bold words to proclaim, and time will see how I am able to adhere to this goal.

And on the topic of time, I have finally reached a peaceful  acceptance that it will, in fact, take time and practice to become a stellar banjo player.   I have struggled  the last year through lessons, practicing and during jam sessions of getting a taste of the possibilities, seeing musically where I want to be, and occupying that in between place. At times feeling downright cranky and stressed. Lately I have experienced moments where I feel I am gaining a banjo skill set, learning songs, and enjoying the music.

As my instructor noted during a lesson, the goal is to take it from an intellectual exercise,(where I am literally thinking about every note or roll, or the next phrase to play) to a musical flow.  All the patterns presented in the last six plus songs contain interchangeable variations to use and weave into a variety of tunes.

The way to learn is to take the time and practice.  I started plucking at the banjo last summer, and already a year has passed.  Even with a sporadic schedule, I am further down the road to improving my banjo talent.  I may even be brave enough to post a recoding of a song I am learning on this blog in the near future.  A bold leap considering I used to break out in a nervous sweat simply unlatching the case of my banjo during lesson time. Furthermore, perhaps this fall, I will find that perfect pair of blue cowboy boots.

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Oh Ireland and Tenor Banjos

SAM_2552The late part of June included nearly three weeks in Cork, Ireland.  A gorgeous, fantastic trip full of lively conversations, endless green landscape, and incredible music.

Somewhere in the depths of my mind, I knew the tenor banjo was typically played in traditional music sessions, but I could not recall that last time I had opportunity to hear one. No worries though as Ireland presented endless venues and musical sessions to listen to tenor banjo musicians!SAM_2549

The last few months I worked on a song provided by my banjo instructor with the hopes of playing a song on the five-string banjo in a session.  Jason had told me that typically, you do not see a five-string banjo played in a traditional Irish music set, or if you do that the finger work is intricate.  Not that I doubted him, but his information was absolutely correct.

In a Tuesday evening traditional session in O’Donovan’s pub in the lovely village of Clonakilty, two tenor banjos players displayed their talent.  One five-string banjo player was present among the other 15 musicians, and true to Jason’s word, the finger work extremely intricate.  In addition, a six-string banjo/guitar musician joined the group.

Wonderful, incredible music that inspired me to come home and double my practice time, with the goal of eventually learning  the ways of the tenor banjo.  At a music shop in Dingle, Ireland, the owners absolutely enjoyed discussing music and various instrumentation.

SAM_2439As I considered purchasing an Irish low flute, the owner advised in that lovely lyrical Irish accent, “Master the instrument you are working on now a bit more, and then consider another.  In addition, it is important that the instrument you are learning, well, that you feel some connection with it. If you don’t then no loss, sell it and try another.  The important part is you are trying to play music.”

He gave me his card and further advised, “Go home and practice your banjo.  Meanwhile, see if anyone where you live plays the low flute. Give it a try to see if you enjoy the instrument, which I think you will because it has that low, haunting sound I have surmised from chatting with you that you love.   The same recommendation goes for a tenor banjo.  When you are ready, contact me and I will make sure you get a lovely low flute to play and or tenor banjo.  Or even better, return to Dingle when it is time to buy.”

I am sure it is not hard to guess the choice I will make when it is time to acquire a low flute and tenor banjo!

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Pickles Butte Banjo Camp

The ViewPickles Butte Banjo Camp 2013! My first intensive banjo workshop for 3 days was a great success. Packed full of excellent instruction, performances by local bands, great food and hospitality. And meeting other interesting and fun banjo players.

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I stayed in plush digs thank you to Jerry and Marlene hauling their spacious trailer on site.  Then Jerry headed back to Boise leaving Marlene and I to our wild banjo ways.

Spending time with other banjo players, hearing similar tales of progress, frustration, feeling stuck, to use tab or not use tab, and all with a desire to become good banjo players was exhilarating. I left the camp with tons of material to work with all summer and ideas of what to better focus on.

I plan to spend time listening to the songs, hearing the melodies, work on my timing, and practice my technique.  An ongoing challenge is to get over myself, not be tentative about letting go and introducing flexibility as I learn to play with other musicians.

SAM_1993The practice, jam sessions and banjo camp are starting to produce exciting results. On a recent jaunt the Chicago, Indiana, Wisconsin area, I even had an opportunity to play with some folks. Finally, to join in the music, even with my beginning banjo pickin fingers.                                                          SAM_1994

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Still Pickin’

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Practice, Practice and more Practice

Short post this week as I continue to struggle with visions of the level of playing I want to master, and doing the time to move on down the pickin’ road.  Practice continues daily with extra hours on the weekend.  This week I spent time downloading songs and listening as Bluegrass is a new venue for me to learn.  I hope that hearing the songs will help me play along without being so sheet music dependent.

Marlene and I had a fun practice session earlier in the week complete with another gourmet dinner provided by Jerry and good laughs around the dinner table.   I still feel stuck in this weird interim place and try to have confidence that practice will eventually un-stick me and then a new challenge will emerge.

I read another article on the topic of keeping one’s brain healthy while aging.  The researcher recommended learning a language or a musical instrument.  Spanish is a language on my list of things to attempt, but for now, the banjo is the primary goal.   My brain will remain active, now if I can just get my fingers to pick a bit faster and remember the variety of positions they are to land on – get that muscle memory happening!

Until then, I will keep on pickin’ and look for that perfect pair of blue cowboy boots.

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Banjo Practice and Spam Alerts

Hmmm, Another pair to consider.

Hmmm, Another pair to consider.

Three day weekends are always wonderful to look forward to, but now take on extra tinges of gratitude because of the bonus time out of office cubicle world to practice my banjo.  Marlene and I marvel that we while have progressed over the last year, we feel caught in this interim place now.  A place that we are gaining skill, finger strength, muscle memory and yet not landing exactly where we hope to play sooner than later.  Only practice will breach the gap.

On a slightly different, humorous note, I learned in the blogging world that titles do attract a “spam” audience that has nothing to do with banjo playing.  Recently when I logged into the administrative page for my WordPress sites, I noticed that the Banjo post site titled “Playing in the Conference Room” had attracted a certain reader audience and queries that had nothing whatsoever to do with bluegrass music, learning how to play the banjo, or suggestions on where to go to find that perfect pair of blue cowboy boots.

Thank you WordPress for the spam filters as well as the ability to moderate and decline or accept any comments before they publish on my site.  The search engines, data miners are interesting to observe as each internet site visited now, contains an advertisement for blue cowboy boots on the side menus.   But I digress from the learning to play the banjo journey.

My lesson Wednesday left me with a repertoire of songs to work with, speeds to strive for, and two weeks before the next session.  Jason is on the road again with the Clumsy Lovers.  Unlike the frozen lull from practice experienced during the Christmas break, I spend time each day on the banjo.

Jason is an incredible mix of compassion, love of music, patience and taskmaster.  I want to progress and trust his teaching methods and expertise to forge a road to follow.  One of my favorites lines of his are, after playing through a song, “Oh, I see what is happening here.”  That is typically in reference to a muted sound caused by a finger laying on a string, not holding a note long enough, or resting my thumb against a string.

Last week the emphasis returned to mastering certain chords.  I find the “D” chord shape feels awkward and my hand, fingers hurt a bit.  I asked him, “Is it because I am older and my hands are stiffer, will my little finger quit flopping around, bend correctly and position solidly on the string?”    His response, “Nope, your hands and fingers will get stronger.”  No reference to age at all from Jason.

Marlene and I practiced a bit the other night and realize that we want to start meeting again.  Playing together we push each other to keep moving through the song in spite of our mistakes and work on our speed.  And the lovely hospitality provided by Marlene’s husband Jerry was stellar.  His feedback was encouraging and the tasty salad and pizza dinner he prepared while we practiced hit the spot before I headed home.

Happy Pickin!

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