Dr Banjo’s Jam Camp in Europe – for the first time

After over 100 Jam Camps in America, Pete Wernick (aka Dr Banjo), has organised his first bluegrass Jam Camp in Europe.

Pete’s first all-Europe bluegrass Jam Camp is scheduled to take place in Prague, Czech Republic, over three days; March 22-24, Friday to Sunday, at the 3-star Hotel Svornost. This is the weekend following the European Bluegrass Summit, at which Pete & Joan Wernick will perform; March 16.

Registrations are being accepted now. The total cost is 175 euros, a payment of 60 euros secures a place on the course.

As well has hoping to attract at least 20 musicians – players of all the bluegrass instruments – Wernick is looking to recruit some new teachers to help during the Jam Camp and become certified Wernick Method teachers.

More experienced players will be given many good challenges to work on while the newer players are addressing the fundamentals.

“I’m convinced that the best way to improve your music skills is to ‘get on a team,’ and start playing bluegrass… which means jamming! Even with different experience levels, a jam can be great fun for everyone. As we teach, each person gains skills as they play together. You don’t have to be “good” to be in a slow jam… just be able to play 4 chords (G, C, D, A; fiddles and basses need to know which notes to play for each chord).”

Here is more about the Wernick Method and Dr. Banjo’s teaching philosophy   …….

When and why did you decide on your approach to teaching people to play the banjo?

“It’s been in an on-going state of evolution. At the very beginning, when I was still in my teens, and trying to teach people Scruggs style, I just wrote out notes to play in tabs, but found that it was not the same as actually teaching a person how to play. So I developed ways of getting people to be aware of chords and timing, and overlaid rolls onto that, and then would help them put melody notes in there.”

What were the earliest indicators?  Did they lead you to making any modifications?

“By the time I was in my 20s, say around 1970, I knew something more than tabs was needed. A lot of people got the Scruggs book and were baffled by the sophistication of the tabs, and I knew it would take a more stepwise approach.”

One of your early successes was in bringing the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars together, in October 1993.  How responsive was that quintet?

“It was a joy to work with them. They were all so precocious, and still cute little kids… they didn’t need much in the way of individual mentoring. But I did help Josh Williams with his banjo break and had an especially memorable experience helping Cody Kilby get his G-run just right. I told him Charles Sawtelle would be listening closely, and that lick really mattered to him. Cody really focused and worked hard on it. The morning after the show I saw Charles at breakfast and the first thing he said was, ‘That kid’s got a good G run.’

Mostly they were thrilled with this opportunity—their first chance to play with other 12 year-olds who could play at their level. My job was mostly to focused them on putting together a challenging arrangement of Wheel Hoss, with harmony parts, switching instruments, and all. They jumped right in and got the job done. I still remember Michael Cleveland telling Chris Thile when he was working on his harmony part, ‘I’ll get it right, I promise!’

Most people don’t remember that they did a vocal encore, Heavy Traffic Ahead, with Josh and Chris singing harmony. They both became top-level singers, but at the time they were not too great yet. But they were game. We had a great time — the whole thing was over less than a day and a half after they met each other.”

Has there been any changes in your thinking through the years?

“Not particularly, just got into that philosophy ever more. Here I was teaching banjo camps every year, and for most of the players, their biggest problems went back to the fact that very few of them played with other people… even the ones who had developed really good banjo skills for playing lead were at a loss when it came to playing in a group. So I would teach the banjo players how to jam together and finally decided to try blending in people on other instruments.

To my surprise, people on the other instruments had the same need to play with others, and didn’t know the protocols very well. So I started running jam classes and jam camps, for all instruments, and figured out as I went, how to do that as effectively as I could. I even got into figuring out how to teach people three part harmony singing and other elements of bluegrass.

A key to all my teaching is that I’ve been using anonymous student evaluation forms for over 20 years. So I’ve seen over 2000 evaluations of the camps and my teaching. I get a lot of reinforcement for what I’m doing, but also some suggestions and definite criticisms. But I read everything and take it all seriously and let students’ impressions guide me in how I deliver my teaching.”

And, so, what is your philosophy now and how are you planning for the future?

“In a nutshell, I see bluegrass as a ‘team sport,’ where the interaction and cohesion is key, even when people are just starting to jam and dealing with slow-speed 2-chord songs. Once they can play with others, their musical commitment grows naturally, and if they start with a good foundation in rhythm and participating in the singing, their musicianship blossoms and they have a lot of fun too.

So many teachers teach ‘how to play lead,’ or ‘songs,’ and not how to play bluegrass, which is a multi-faceted thing. Playing lead-only tends to be a dead-end, a closet-picker thing, and I want them to discover what fun and fulfilment they can get playing real bluegrass.

So that’s why I launched the Wernick Method operation. We started recruiting in late 2010, and now we have a growing bunch of certified teachers, over 50 now, all over the country who are behind this approach, and it is definitely doing well. We are always looking for teachers, so any teacher reading this and thinking it makes sense, please go to my web site and check us out!”

So, your basic philosophy is that you believe the best way to learn how to play an instrument (say banjo) is to play with other banjo players of a similar standard and, even, to play with others who are playing different instruments. Is that right?

“Yes. The idea is not to find people playing the same instrument as yourself, but the complementary instruments. Bluegrass music is played by a team where each person has his/her part. So a person needs teammates.

‘The best way to learn to play’ should include jamming but there’s definitely also a need for private study — that is, practicing the necessary techniques for your instrument, such as smooth chord changing, playing melodies cleanly, generating smooth and consistent tone, etc. A teacher or beginner’s video can show you those techniques, and then the student just has to log a lot of time teaching them to their hands, to do them as well as possible!

For it all to make sense, the player needs to experience the teamwork of playing real bluegrass (even at slow speeds with easy songs and few chords), which includes singing, knowing how to follow songs, how to lead a song, etc.

If a student does all the above, not only will he/she learn how to play, but has a foundation for successful musicianship and fun for the rest of their life . It takes sustained effort to really blossom, but the rewards are obvious and enjoyable the whole way.

That’s what Wernick Method addresses, and why it’s my main teaching project these days.”

The Wernick Method; how is that different from what we have discussed so far?

“Since you asked about banjo players at first, I should make it clear that the Wernick Method is for players of all bluegrass instruments, not just banjos. A short way to describe the method is:

We get people together to play bluegrass music, keeping the tempos gentle and the challenge level manageable for people who have little or no experience playing with others. We don’t use written music, but emphasize ear skills, just as in real bluegrass. The goal is for every participant to develop skill and confidence in bluegrass jamming. The classes are intended to be fun, but also bring results, which is to be able to step into a bluegrass jam anywhere and have a good time.

If you go to BGjam.com, you’ll see a lot of info on the Wernick Method and what I do to promote jamming. I refer you to the page What Is The Wernick Method? and also, Wernick Method Essentials.

I should mention that currently we still don’t have any Wernick Method teachers in England, whereas we’ve already had classes in Canada and Australia. I’d love it if your article sparks some interest!”

Find full details on the Prague Jam Camp online.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.