Jam Camp Report Here’s the more-or-less straightforward account of what jam camp was about; there were deeper things going on as well, but I’ll have to write about them separately.
The idea behind the bluegrass jam camp is to gather musicians who, because of shyness or lack of opportunity, have had little or no experience playing with a group of people, i.e. jamming, and giving them a chance to do so in relaxed and unthreatening surroundings, as well as teaching some of the basics of jamming etiquette and technique. Camp was held at Wilkesboro Community College, home of MerleFest, for the four days prior to the festival. Just shy of forty people attended, Chris and me included. Maybe half of the folks had attended the camp previously, and were returning for the sheer fun of it.
And it was a lot of fun. Pete Wernick, a.k.a. Dr. Banjo, is a fine musician and a fine teacher, able to keep forty people interested and on track while staying very relaxed. After a bit of introductory stuff, he dismissed the more experienced alumni for the time being, then got the thirty-five or so of us who were left to start playing along with some simple two- and three-chord songs. By late morning he was ready to take those of us who were confident enough for it and form us into five five-person jam groups that would practice on their own, with occasional visits from an instructor; the rest formed an absolute novice group that received gentler and constant attention from Dr. Banjo or one of his assistants.
Those first groups were intentionally assembled to have a wide range of abilities within the group, something that happens often in real situations. We stayed in those groups through Tuesday morning; at that point, we were reassigned to new groups where our skills were much more uniform, and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the camp. Early Thursday afternoon each group took a turn at performing a song for the rest of us.
The pattern was roughly a couple of hours of everyone meeting together for a talk or some hands-on instruction, followed by a couple of hours of jam group practice. One of the topics covered with everyone was harmony singing; we turned out to be pretty good at that (or at least enthusiastic about it), and so Pete Wernick spent extra time working with us on it, incorporating it into the group performance which ended the camp.
Preparing for that performance was major fun. We spent some time working up two songs, “Love Please Come Home” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” both with three-part harmony on the chorus. I couldn’t tell you how it sounded at the performace, being one of forty nervous people crowded onto a tiny stage, trying to sing at three widely-spaced vocal microphones. But we sounded quite good during rehearsals.
Chris and I enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, we learned a lot from our time there, and we plan on returning next year. And we plan to spend the intervening twelve months practicing to be a lot more competent than we were this year.