My Teaching Style

30 years ago, if you went to a teacher to learn banjo, he'd give you the tab to Cripple Creek, send you home with it, you'd muddle through it, come back in a week, and he'd critique. It probably won't come as much of a surprise that Earl Scruggs didn't learn this way.
Music comes to us through the ears, not through the eyes. Yet, we come to learning an instrument with a lifetime's experience in learning almost everything from Algebra to how to install a window air conditioner from paper, right to left, top to bottom. It's how we get through the educational system. Many folks think that it is the only way they can learn. I have softened my views on tablature in recent years. For my individual students, I now publish tab. I still discourage it in jam class (where it won't help much, anyway.) Follow the For Students link on the left to see a listing.

(My views on tablature)

By the time we get to adulthood, we have this set of abilities and disabilities drummed into us from our experiences. "I can't sing" or "I have a tin ear" or "I'm tone deaf" are labels we've assumed about ourselves based on some bad experience in 5th grade choir. It is my opinion that everyone has the ability to hear pitch. It's just not been exercised in many of us.
My style of teaching revolved mostly around "watch, listen, and repeat". I ask my students to buy a 3 gig or greater thumb drive and I will load it up with videos of songs I've recorded. We can also record them so that they can jog their memory using their ears (and not paper) when they get home.

In order of preference and effectiveness,
1 - Watch, listen, imitate - ear training
2 - Recording audio
3 - Recording video
4 - Tablature

For Parents of potential students

When I was about 10, my parents noticed that I'd been plinking around on the piano. Taking this for real interest, they signed me up for lessons. Every Saturday morning, I got dragged to the Presbyterian minister's house where I sat next to his wife as she put me through the paces to learn "Fra Diavolo"  from the John Thompson book. I would gladly rather have gone to the doctor to get a shot. I dreaded Saturday morning, and felt like an escaped prisoner when the lesson was over and my mom's car was outside. I begged to be let out of it, and my folks finally relented. Very soon, however, I'd finagled a cheap guitar from my sister who had it hanging on the wall in her room with dried flowers in it. My parents just shook their heads. I've been playing guitar since then.

I sometimes have to have an uncomfortable talk with parents of kids wanting to learn an instrument. In these cases, the child made the mistake of touching grandpa's guitar or banjo, and suddenly every adult in the room is asking him if he'd like to learn to play it. Of course the kid is going to say yes. He has no idea what it means to learn an instrument, but all the adults seem to think this is a good idea, and are pleased he showed the interest.

3 or 4 lessons later, after being forced to practice at night, and coming to lessons, staring out the window, petting the cat, it's clear that he doesn't really want to be here. Very often, when this happens, parents will go into the same mode they go into when a child brings home bad grades: double down on the pressure to practice. If the child was not enjoying the instrument before, his experience just got worse.

Getting kids to make a commitment is difficult, to be sure, and they tend to approach music lessons like a subject in school, where the goal is to perform some task that they don't want to do, get a grade, and forget about it. If you have to make your child practice, he doesn't want to learn. And, if you think that this is still in his best interest, ("He'll thank me for this some day") and want to force him to, this is not the teaching environment for him. (My one rule of teaching is that I won't teach anyone who does not want to learn.) The problem is, even after this talk with the parents, the kid will swear up and down he really wants to learn. He is telling you what you want to hear.

The example I use with parents is that of Johnny Mizzone, the banjo player in Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, a bluegrass band. The band got its name because his parents had to come in his room at night and take the banjo off him because he'd fallen asleep playing it. He'd nearly mastered the instrument by about age 8. Granted, this is an extreme example, but if your child really wants to learn, you will know. He will bug you to death about it. But even then, have a long talk with him about commitments. Learning an instrument isn't something that happens in a week or even a month; only after many, many hours of practice.

In our culture, especially with kids, we tend to see all sorts of lessons through the lens of the public educational system, with grades, quizzes, assignments, etc. Learning a subject at school may take a day, a week, a few weeks. Learning to play the banjo may take a lifetime. Bluegrass is folk music. It is done as a career by a surprisingly small number of people. We do it because it is fun, and that is the only reason we do it. Learning the banjo couldn't be any more different from the school classroom.

I remember hearing Mia Hamm, the US soccer all star on a call-in radio show. A woman called in and asked "What do I need to do to get my daughter fired up for soccer?" Ms. Hamm, somewhat bristling in her response, said "If she wants to do it, you just buy her the equipment, drive her to practice and get out of the way. You can't make her want to be a soccer star."

The Suzuki method on violin, even though it is very successful (depending on how you measure success) is very different from my approach, and much closer to the public school method of teaching. None of those kids are there because they want to be. They have all been told they are going to learn to play the violin, and they are approaching it as a task to be completed to get their parents approval. I have a friend who called me one day and asked if I wanted to buy a 5,000 dollar fiddle. It seems that after going through the Suzuki school as a child and progressing on violin throughout her school years, his daughter became quite good, winning some competitions. Then, the day she graduated from high school, the violin went in the closet never to be touched again. He asked her "How can you be so good at this and not want to do it anymore?" Her response said it all. "I never wanted to do it in the first place." It was an assignment to her. Something to be worked at to get a good grade, and to accomplish at. But still something she was forced to do.

I remember hearing an interview with an author some time ago. He was talking about having heard his brother's band somewhere, and going out for beers afterwards. He had been particularly impressed by the keyboard player. He told him "I'd give anything to be able to play keyboards like that." to which the guy answered, without intending to be rude, "No, you wouldn't." The author asked him what he meant, and the keyboard player said "If you really did, you would have been playing it for years like I have." There is a big difference between wanting to play and instrument and wanting to learn an instrument.

The banjo is very different from the violin or the piano, where the learning model is some form of western classical music. It is formal, serious. Playing bluegrass is all about having fun. None of us got into it with dreams of success and wealth. We got into it because we were compelled to, obsessed with it. I firmly believe that you don't choose your passions. They choose you.

Do a fearless and searching mental inventory and ask yourself "Does he want to learn, or do I want him to learn?" If the former and not the latter, I look forward to meeting him.

Update - 8-2016:
Over the years, I've come to soften my "no-paper" view of teaching somewhat. We all learn differently, and some folks just have to see things written down. I encourage everyone to bring a 30 gig or so thumb drive for us to load videos on. We can even video you playing so that you'll remember when you get home. 

I am now writing and sharing tablature. The only thing I ask is that you throw it away after you've learned a song. The more you use paper, the more you will become dependent on it. Ear training is still by far the best way to learn, but I'm willing to use tablature.

Note: One thing I can't do is teach you someone else's tab. (That would predicate me learning it first.) You're on your own there. If you want to use the Scruggs "black book" as a bible, you're welcome to. I can only teach you how I play, not how he plays, or anyone else for that matter. So, if you come to lesson having learned something from someone else's tab, there's not much I can do to help you. (And it kind of begs the question "Why come to me if you're going to learn from someone else's tab?")

Remember - tab is a snapshot of how one player played one break for one song one time. To presume that the "black book" is "how Earl played it" presumes that Earl played it exactly the same way every time. All you need do is watch some Youtube videos of him playing songs to see this is not the case. Lastly, if we all played "just like Earl", there would be no J D Crowe's, and Doug Dillard's, and Naom Pikelny's.

Joke: "How many banjo players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: "12. 1 to screw it in, and 11 to tell him that's not how Earl did it."