PWOP! Play With Other People!

And now for today's sermon...

I started playing in the mid 60s. That's 1960s, in case you were wondering which epoch we're talking about here. At the risk of sounding old cootish, there were obviously non CDs or DVDs around. Also, I grew up in far Northern Illinois, in an area of Norwegian corn farmers and cattle ranches that wasn't exactly a hotbed of bluegrass music. What few LPs I could find (that's LP as in vinyl 33rpm records played on an old fangled turntable) I'd slow down to 16 rpm allowing me to listen at approximately half speed. (Like listening to Earl Scruggs on Qualudes). It gave me some idea what was going on, but only a pretty rough one. I discovered tablature (The Pete Seeger book, "How to Play the Five String Banjo", as well as the "Black Book" - "Earl Scruggs and the 5 String Banjo". For more on tablature, check this out and come back.

I'd played for about 5 years before I ever got a chance to play with other people. I immediately discovered the following:
bullet I couldn't play standing up. This may sound strange, but I'd learned to play sitting down with the banjo leaned backwards so I could easily see the fingerboard. I put a strap on, stood up, looked down, and the fingerboard was gone. Not only that, but the whole architecture of man/banjo had changed so that I was almost unable to play at all.
bullet I had no sense of time. I'd learned how to play difficult passages by slowing down, then learned to speed up when I got to easy parts.
bullet I had no sense of the cadence of the song. I'd become competely narcissistic in my playing. I had no idea how what I did was supposed to mesh with the other instruments. In fact, the other instruments actually distracted me and threw me off what sense of time and cadence I had.
bullet I had a very primitive sense of tuning. I knew how to tune to myself, but not to others.
bullet I wasn't able to play anything but the banjo solo songs I'd learned. When people wanted to sing (which accounts for about 80% of what gets played in jams or by bands) I didn't know what to do. I could rip through "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", but kind of stood around sounding lost when all the others songs came up.
bullet I didn't know anything about song structure. Choruses, versus, sharing breaks, doing kickoffs, endings, all this was foreign to me because I'd never had to learn it.
bullet I had no clue how to play backup. It's very hard to learn to play backup in a room by yourself, for obvious reasons.
Eventually, after playing in jams and even a few bands, I looked back on my progress and reailzed that not only did playing with other people rectify these problems, but my learning curve jumped dramatically during these periods. It seems kind of counter intuitive to learn this way. I mean, at some point you do have to go off in a room somewhere and repeat the same lick a thousand times to learn it, but the point is that all the while you are doing this, you will also benefit tremendously by playing what you do know with others. You'll be amazed at how much you do know. There's a sort of synergy that happens, where the total is greater than the sum of the parts, and you all make each other sound better.

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