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Playing to Learn

Ever since the first caveman heard his buddy thumping out a rhythm on a mammoth bone and had to stomp along, jamming was a part of our very humanity. Wolves howl together, and city dogs cant resist chiming in whenever a siren wails in the distance. From the cro-magnon era to modern kareoke bars, folks have always wanted to play music with one another. It is as natural as getting up in the morning and wanting coffee. And if you could ask most of our folk music heros, like Doc Watson or the Carter sisters, they would probably say “well shucks, I just learned by sangin along!” Many of these folks never had music lessons, or often even read music, and developed their talent by singing in Church or jammin around the cook stove. So it really is a silly notion to assume that the only way you can learn music is my “studying”, by taking music lessons with a serious teacher who admonishes you to practice long hours by yourself. Sure, sometimes you have…

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When You’ve Had Your Banjo less Than 24 Hours

As Linus once told Charlie Brown, every baby should get a banjo! Here at JamAlong Music we believe this to be true, if for the only reason that it is impossible to play banjo and be in a bad mood! (disclaimer: your roommates and loved ones may very likely end up in a bad mood shortly, but the actual operator of the banjo remains in good spirits). This blog is intended for those of you lucky enough to have just acquired a banjo, and to you we say: congratulations and welcome! Now, before you go running off and buying instruction books, or worse, YouTubing “how to play banjo” and end up trying to learn Possum On A Gum Stump by the guy wearing suspenders and nothing else…hold on! There are some basic survival skills you need to have. First off, when you first pick up that thing it may very well be way out-of-wack. That is bluegrass-bonics for “needing some adjustment”, and with banjos the most common issue is usually bridge placement. That little wooden…

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In Praise of the Fiddle Tune

Every form of music has its ways of exercising. Classical music has “etudes”, compositions designed to focus on a particular technique, and jazz players are fond of musty books full of arpeggios and bebop phrases. Aspiring rock guitar players spend hours obsessing on the licks of their musical heroes, and piano teachers delight in inflicting scales on their students. And yes, all of these techniques eventually help one to learn how to play guitar or piano, but often give music lessons a bad name. Why? Because all of these practice approaches focus on mere exercises, that are only useful in the practice room. Sure you can play a Carassi etude at your guitar recital, but it still tends to be more stressful than fun. (Yes we know there are classical music teachers out there who will fly into a rage when they read this, and we invite them to call us up and set us straight 😎) But if you want to learn music, and don’t want to get stuck practicing scales or slogging through…

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Virtual Jamming!

When you are starting out learning to jam, there’s lots of scary things going on for sure. You can break a string moments into your first G chord, or maybe you ended up right next to a really grumpy banjo player, who keeps stabbing your eardrums with his twangs. Or the person who is supposed to pass the tune around to you is a fiddle player who seems to be engaged in a life or death struggle with their instrument, and you keep getting pulled out of time by the tortured noises emanating from his fiddle. Yes, it’s often a free-for-all, and the best you can do is just try to stay in time and keep a straight face. But probably the scariest part is when you hear your name, preceded by the phrase “pick it!” Or in other words, it’s your turn to take the lead! Oh sh**. Yep, this is where everyone is suddenly playing chords and there is an expectant hush over the jam, and through your red mist of adrenaline you…

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One Note At A Time

Everyone loves mountain climbers. Or explorers, or rugged captains who sail the high seas and discover new continents. We all worship large accomplishments, big leaps, and any kind of victory. But rarely, it seems, do we applaud the small steps. Or even notice  them for that matter. But the truth is, all of these big conquests have humble beginnings. The climbers impressive journey up Mount Everest is actually the result of thousands of steps, and each one equally important to reaching the top. In the famous words of the sage Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” As musicians (or those still learning to be) it is a similar process. We hear great compositions and yearn to play them, like a child gazing up at distant snowy peaks, and often become intimidated by the distance that lies ahead. But there is a secret path we can find, one that focuses our attention on our feet and keeps us from getting distracted. We can climb any musical mountain if we do…

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How to Play in a Group When No One Else Is Around

Yes, yes, we know, we’re always bugging you here at JamAlong to get out there and jam with folks. “It’s the only way to learn!” we say, “It’ll get you there quicker than music lessons” and the the like. And although it is true, to be completely honest there are a few problems with this idea as well. For starters, not everyone has a gaggle of jammer friends they can call up whoever they feel the urge to play music. And, if you’re a beginner, sometimes it’s hard to convince your more adept pals to put up with your painful guitar strums or banjo plinks. Yes they’ll try to sound excited, but you can hear it in their voice: “hey, um, sure! That sounds….fun…” And you know they’re just thinking “jeez why can’t this kid just take some guitar lessons like everybody else!” And to tell the truth who can blame them, when that last time you invited yourself over it took 45 minutes to get through Wagon Wheel. Or maybe you DO have friends that play…

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The Jammer’s Journey

If we learned to swim like we learn to jam, we would have one lesson and then be pushed off a cliff into a stormy sea. It’s true. There is a ton of material on how to operate your given instrument, and then plenty of chances to attempt what you learned in a group setting and watch it fly to pieces, raining down burning shards of your expectations. And that’s one of the primary motives for our study of jamming, is to get a clearer picture on where we are in our jamming  abilities, as well as set goals so that each jam becomes a learning experience for us. In other words, there is a big difference between showing up and struggling to get through the chords to a song, or being able to have fun while playing them and add your own licks and tricks. But the question is, what exactly is this difference? Well, beside simply countless hours of practice time (and that doesn’t sound terrifically fun) the secret is this: having a clear…

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Stop, Children, What’s That Sound – “Nada Yoga” and Conscious Listening

The idea that sound is an essential part of the universe, and of our very self awareness, is not new. Humans were in fact fashioning musical instruments as far back as Paleolithic era, as evidenced by the discovery of bone flutes in southern Germany that are over 40,000 years old. Yes, we humans have been fascinated with sound and music making for quite some time. One of the oldest traditions involving the mystical nature of sound is Nada Yoga, an Indian metaphysical system teaching that the entire cosmos, including human beings, consists of sound vibrations, called “nāda”. These teachings are found in the Rig Veda, an ancient religious text going back three-and-a-half thousand years. As is often the case, it is fascinating to note that modern quantum physics is now echoing this same view, centuries after the yogis first observed it. Much of how quantum physics describes our world could be boiled down to “at it’s core everything is simply vibrating energy fields”. Once again, science has finally caught up with mysticism! What is even…

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We Don’t Strum It Till You Order It

I’ve been teaching music for quite some time now, and although there have been highs and lows and challenges of all sorts, there has always been one beacon of consistency: I was teaching what I knew! In other words, I knew each student fairly well and made a point of preparing for each lesson so I could be confidant that every student was getting what they needed. Lesson prep was my savior, and having songs ready to go made the sessions run smoothly. And yes, there was a certain sense of control there too, after all I was essentially creating the curriculum and setting the course for each of my underlings. Sure I would gladly take suggestions and always encouraged students to pick songs, but in general folks seemed to like being led along, and so it went. All that changed when I began the Custom eLesson program with JamAlong.org. It all started with a caffeinated conversation with some of my music teacher pals while hanging out at Old Towne Coffee. “Dude” enthused Bo, “I…

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Practice Makes Perilous

It seems that most folks learning a new hobby find numerous ways to make the process more difficult. I was no different. Not long after I had mastered the “baby steps” of the banjo, I made the dubious decision to tackle harpsichord music from 17th century composer J.S. Bach. I’ve never been able to explain exactly why, but for some reason the labyrinthine complexity of Bach’s melodies fascinated me. So of course I had to learn them on the banjo. Now this was no small feat. First of all the range of the harpsichord was four times that of the banjo, and, there were completely separate parts for each hand. But I stubbornly invented fingerings measure by measure, even though many parts were physically impossible. Teeth clenched, sweat beaded on my brow, I would hurl myself against the music over and over again. One particular phrase giving me grief was a five fret stretch somewhere around the 11th fret, during one of Bach’s many key changes. Eventually I realized there was no humane way to play…

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