Author: Martin, George

The Learning Curve

How does one learn to play music? I recall reading somewhere that in Portugal (or maybe Greece?) when a kid gets to be six or seven years old, they put a balalaika in his hand and plunk him down in the band, where his initial dissonant efforts are drowned out by the other instruments until eventually, musical abilities develop.

Of course, learning bluegrass isn’t that easy, since there is usually only one of each instrument in the group. I remember back in the Stone Age putting Flatt & Scruggs 33 1/3 rpm vinyl records on a 16 2/3 rpm turntable and trying to decipher the growling “music” to figure out what Earl was doing. I eventually developed an ability to play the banjo, but I have a lot of licks that sort of rose organically out of my fingers, so that, alas, my playing doesn’t sound all that much like Earl’s, or Ralph’s, or pretty much any well-known bluegrass picker.

There weren’t any learning resources at all that I could find when I was a sprout. It was just trial and error. Of course as a certified Old Fart, I should remind my younger readers that I also walked miles each day to school. In the snow. And uphill both ways. We had it tough.

The other day I got an e-mail from Banjo Hangout, wishing all the list members a merry Christmas, and reminding us of the web site’s sponsors, who help keep it up and running. There were eight sponsors, and five of them were sites that teach banjo with books, DVDs, or in one case a music camp. And of course our own has a long list of teachers for all the bluegrass instruments.

This past Sunday I got a look at another music study method when I went to Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Coffee House to see the Take the Stage students do their “recital” performance. Take the Stage is a program started a year or so ago by Hilary (Nell Robinson) Perkins and Lou Ponticas. People sign up, pay a fee, and are coached for eight weeks by experienced performers/teachers, then play a set on the Freight’s stage.

(I should add, parenthetically here for our Bay Area readers, that Hilary/Nell is having a CD release party at the Freight this very evening. And I noticed when using The Google today that her CD got a nice mention on SF Gate, the Chronicle’s web site.)

This year two of the bands were coached by Dave Zimmerman, who in his professional musical life is mandolin player for San Francisco’s Homespun Rowdy. Zimmerman coached the bands from the San Francisco-Oakland area. This year a South Bay group was added, coached by Lisa Burns, CBA board member, bassist for Sidesaddle & Co., and a frequent instructor at the CBA’s music camps.

You gotta admire the courage of these folks, getting up on the Freight’s hallowed stage at such an early stage in their musical development. I only played the Freight once in my life, and it was three decades and two stages ago, and I still remember my extreme nervousness at standing on the same boards where Ralph Stanley had played. However the Freight crowd is absolutely supportive, and the bands had mostly practiced not only with their coaches, but in separate band-only rehearsals, so they had their sets organized, order of breaks established, and were as ready as they could be.

There were no displays of stunning virtuosity, but everybody acquitted themselves well. There were a few collisions of strings on microphones, which makes a disconcerting jangle, and at least one vocalist needed to move a little closer to the mike (which might have looked to the nervous singer like a coiled rattler), but the show was thoroughly enjoyable.

It was a particular treat to see, when the first band, 39 Strings, took the stage, that one of the guitar players was Joel Sidney. Grass Valley festival goers (in fact, all Northern California festival goers) will remember Joel as the young fellow who has sat faithfully in the crowd for hour after hour, soaking up bluegrass since he was about nine years old.

Despite having been diagnosed with autism, Joel was graduated from UC Berkeley with a nearly perfect GPA in May of 2008. His baccalaureate is in American Studies, and his senior honors thesis was titled, "Innovation and Tradition in Bay Area Bluegrass: Historical Review and Analysis of Distinctive Regional Features." The document was accompanied by a 20-track CD Joel produced, including pieces by Laurie Lewis, David Grisman, Sandy Rothman and Rich Wilbur.

Besides playing guitar, Joel sang a creditable version of Flatt & Scruggs’ classic “Baby Blue Eyes.” It occurred to me as he was performing that Joel is probably more knowledgeable about bluegrass music than all but a handful of Bay Areans. It was so satisfying to see him up there, enjoying himself immensely.

Other members of 39 Strings are Steve Height, bass; Les Plack, banjo; Steve Eckert, mandolin; Tony Shen and Glen Tripp, guitars; and Heidi Raine, fiddle.

Next band on stage was the Dubious Pilgrims, consisting of Rusty Liggett, Trent Tornabene and Clara McLean, guitars; Lew Williams, bass; and Dennis Chowenhill, mandolin. Chowenhill has been writing a blog about his experiences with the band. It is very entertaining, and can be found on the web page.

The San Jose contingent was called Tidewater Flats: Dan Wadleigh, mandolin; Jeff Magill, guitar; Lynn Magill, bass; Pete Hallesy, banjo;
Lisa Ratner, fiddle, and Virgil Stanford, Dobro.

Had the show been a band contest, this group would have won; they seemed more advanced musically than the others. After the show I talked with Lisa Burns who said the other bands had been put together by staff from solo applicants, whereas “this band selected itself.”

Summer Freight, an “alumni band” from a previous workshop series, filled out the show. They were Chris D'Andrea, guitar; Les Plack, banjo; Andrew Gootnik, mandolin; Ari Kelman, bass, and Doug Norman and Trish Johnson, guitars.

Take the Stage is planning another series with practices beginning in February and an April date at the Freight. You can find the details at

In the meantime, there are still openings in many classes for the CBA’s first winter music camp, Feb. 15-18 at Walker Creek Ranch in the country west of Petaluma. It looks like I’ll be assisting Avram Siegel in his banjo class. That will be a treat as I have always admired his playing. See

Posted:  12/10/2009

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