Letters from Camp: Day 3

Jim Gabehart is journaling his time at the Pete Wernick Dr. Banjo Advanced Banjo Camp this week.

In my teens and early twenties I regularly entered banjo contests, primarily as a money-making proposition, and did quite well, winning or placing in the money the majority of the time. As a self-supporting student through college and law school (and married at nineteen), I remember buying a washer and dryer with one of my bigger prizes.

Notwithstanding my success, I didn’t like the extreme anxiety, the occasional hard feelings and tension among some competitors, and investing money to travel to a contest and come home empty handed. Although I handled the tension reasonably well, I’ve always been more comfortable in front of an audience of 5,000 than a handful of people when three of them are judges with a pad and pen listening for my mistakes

As soon as I made it through law school and no longer had the same financial incentive, I ceased traveling to compete. However, a few years ago I entered a banjo contest in my hometown (Charleston, West Virginia) for “old time’s sake” and was struck by the stark contrast when the top five place winners were called on stage and there was an age gap of more than twenty years between me and the next oldest competitor.

I mention that because I knew that the other scholarship recipient, Jordan Alleman, from Portland, Oregon, is eighteen and I feared being the “old man” in a group of kids. I was surprised (and relieved) to find on meeting my fellow campers that in fact most of my classmates are closer to my age (some younger, some older). Several, like me, have reached the point in life where they have the time and means to devote to learning to play at a higher level and want to do so.

Much of the substantive material that has been covered thus far is familiar for me, but Pete’s insight and thought process, as well as his philosophy on learning has been much food for thought. He is a big advocate of using a metronome or a rhythm machine and much of what we’ve played as a group has been accompanied by a rhythm machine. He would start us at a slower tempo, gradually building speed, occasionally pulling the volume down and then back up after a while to see if we were still holding speed. I believe the fastest tempo we played was in the 150 beats per minute range.

I found it interesting that Pete credits John Hartford for getting him to practice with a metronome, quoting John as saying something like “if you’re going to practice, why not play in time.” I suppose because his music and personna seemed free-flowing and non-conformist, John Hartford didn’t strike me as the kind of musician who would utilize a device to force him to follow a beat. Among my career highlights, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with John once when he came to Charleston for a concert.

Another primary part of his teaching is based on the “loop method,” which is designed to maximum efficiency in practice and eliminate trouble spots in particular pieces. Rather than playing an entire song or solo over and over trying to perfect it, the loop method is to identify trouble spots and isolate them in the smallest possible section and create a repeatable loop which can be connected end-to-beginning. By taking this small section and repeating it like a roll, gradually building confidence and speed, the trouble spot can be ironed out and re-inserted into the song or solo with a smaller investment of time.

Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to chat with Pete about Hot Rize, what he’s doing now, and some advice for folks like Valerie and I who are trying to attract some attention and elevate our careers in bluegrass, all of which I’ll share with you.

Have a great day!

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About the Author

James Gabehart

Jim has been playing the banjo, and other string instruments for nearly 40 years. Since joining the musicians union and becoming a performing musician at the age of 15, he won five West Virginia State Banjo Championships, as well as dozens of other competitions, and has taught hundreds of students. Jim was elected as Prosecuting Attorney for Lincoln County, WV in November 2012, and is an active touring performer with his wife and musical partner, Valerie. Learn more about their music at www.JimandValerieGabehart.com.