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'Jamming is Fun and Fundamental' - Dr. Banjo Getting Traction with The Wernick Method

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Pete (Dr. Banjo) WernickPete Wernick's latest project can't be faulted for being not ambitious enough. His goal? "We want to change how bluegrass music is taught." Wernick, known for four decades as "Dr. Banjo", a driving force behind the legendary Hot Rize band, and the creator of bluegrass books and videos with sales over half a million, has taken on his share of challenges.

Starting in the 1990s he developed what is now known as The Wernick Method, changing his established "banjo camps" over to "bluegrass jam camps" for all instruments. The Method helps people learn to jam and build ensemble skills. In 2010, with over 150 camps behind him, he began training and certifying instructors to teach jam classes -- now in over half of the 50 states.

The business has grown fast, with over 30 teachers including instrumental aces Jim Hurst (Kentucky) and Craig Korth (British Columbia), and 700 students as of early March. Pete cites students' evaluations proudly. "After the classes we ask them to rate their classes from 1 to 5 in satisfaction, value, fun, and learning. We've received 70% 5s, and 25% 4s. The surveys are answered anonymously, so we trust them and use the stats in our advertising."

What's unique about the Wernick Method? "For years," he says, "key aspects of bluegrass have been ignored in typical teaching… Most methods show students to play lead parts by rote, and not the skills they need to jam. We teach ear skills, how to follow and lead a song, learn chords quickly, fake simple solos on the fly, all sorts of stuff. The students learn hands-on, playing in small groups while we coach them."

Wernick knows how to read music and tablature but rarely does, and points out that the founding bluegrass greats such as Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin were essentially "musical illiterates". "They had great success going by ear and listening hard, through years of playing with others. We start people on that same path. We get them together and they jam in their very first session. Some of them are amazed. They've been struggling for months or years as 'closet players' and wondered if they'd ever learn to jam. They find out -- it's not that hard. We show them what they need, and it's not written music."

The by-ear, hands-on approach can start in the first week of playing, says Pete. "Our requirement is pretty simple: Four chords. Bluegrass is built mostly on three-chord patterns, so once you can recognize a few guitar chords and play chords with a boom/chick beat, you can participate and start having fun. When you jam with other people, you get motivated, since what you're practicing now has a context to fit into."

This spring and summer Pete will conduct his established jam camps in Colorado and at festivals in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York. The growing schedule of Wernick Method classes, and Pete's camps, can accessed on www.BGjam.com

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