A Banjo Teacher’s Diary

I just had my seventh year teaching at Banjo Camp North in Massachusetts, and it was, as always, wonderful.

Camp ran from noon Friday May 15, 2009 through Sunday afternoon May 17, and included dozens of classes for both bluegrass and old time banjo. There were close to 50(!) classes and workshops for bluegrass banjo plus over 30 for old time styles. Camp also offered instruction in banjo setup, recording techniques and fiddle and guitar workshops.

Mike Holmes and Phil Zimmerman did a fine job directing and coordinating this universe of banjo immersion. The dedicated teaching staff included banjo stars and some legendary players. We had Tony Trischka, Eric Weissberg, Janet Davis, Bill Keith, Casey Henry, Rich Stillman, Bruce  Stockwell, Dave Kiphuth and myself on the bluegrass side. Staff for old time banjo included Lorraine Hammond, Bob Carlin, Howie Bursen, Mac Benford and Alan Kaufman. Mike Kropp taught both styles, and Greg Deering, Glenn Nelson, Dave Reiner and Mike Rivers also provided instruction. The depth of banjo skill and knowledge was daunting. In the banjo world, it doesn’t get any better than this. I’m always thrilled to be teaching with these players, and campers (and I) can get “up close and personal” with them. You can hang out with banjo legends, and that doesn’t happen in any other type of music.

Instruction was geared to all levels, with classes for fledgling, beginner, intermediate and advanced players. I taught the Bluegrass Beginner Track, and I had several people that had not held a banjo before. By the middle of the second day, they were playing a version of the chorus of “Cripple Creek,” complete with slides, a hammer-on and a pull off.

Each class was one and a quarter hours long, and there were 10 classes to choose from in each time block. With the many blocks of classes over 3 days, guided beginner, intermediate and up to speed jams each night and two staff concerts, it was a whirlwind of banjo activity.

The camp is in a beautiful spot in northeastern Massachusetts with good and plentiful food, which stuck to our ribs to provide the energy needed for extended banjo playing. There was even a vendor area with banjos to try out and music supplies. One of the first timers at camp bought his first banjo right there.

I was up and running at full speed as soon as we arrived on Friday, doing the “find your level” session for players at the start of camp. Then it was off to teach classes, eat dinner, see the first faculty concert and run the beginner jam with Janet Davis. On Saturday and Sunday I did more classes and we had the annual panoramic camp photo of everyone with their banjos. I played at the Saturday night faculty concert with back up by Kelly Stockwell, Bennett Hammond and Dave Reiner. We rehearsed the original song a few times in the afternoon between classes, and it really came together at the performance. Rich Stillman and I ran the second beginner jam, and later on into the night I jammed with faculty and then joined a camper jam with some fine players. It was great fun and fine music.

I love to teach banjo, and it was really satisfying to watch people learn and improve their playing skills all weekend. We saw friends from previous years and new campers were welcomed into the fold. The 149 attendees included 60 first-timers. Camp feels like a large family, and each year is a family reunion. I heard nothing but good things about camp from campers, and how they would be back next year.

It’s always over too soon, and I came home inspired about banjo, music and the people that attended. Next year is the tenth anniversary, and I’m sure it will be a real celebration.

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