I feel like I have been playing music all my life but when it came to the Banjo, I realized I needed to put a lot of work into it, study it, practice it more then I previously did with the guitar. So, I started learning how to play the Banjo while I was still living in Italy.
In 1991, there were no tabs available in Italy and the internet was just in its infancy. The only sources available were a few borrowed books and my own ears listening to countless hours of cds and cassettes. There was no way to slow down a track at that time so it was literally stop/rewind/go for most of the things I learned (often close but wrong) and then later had to re-learn them as more resources became available.
To top it off, good luck being able to see an actual banjo player live in action in 1991 Rome, let alone a bluegrass jam session to attend!
Luckily, for me, I was welcomed into a small group of Roman bluegrass enthusiasts who also had a progressive Newgrass band called New Country Kitchen.
Music, and not just Bluegrass music, has always been a communal thing for me. I always loved being in a jam session, playing in a band or playing with others. With Bluegrass, because it’s repertoire is vast and most bluegrass musicians are familiar with many traditional tunes, going to a jam session has been, and still is, a great venue to play the tunes I have practiced at home and therefore being able to being a part of a musical conversation.
So, wether it is bluegrass, blues, folk or rock, I think it is of monumental importance to be able to carry on a musical conversation in a jam session or band setting. Imagine having a conversation with someone and having to use notes instead of words! Whoa! What a concept!
Sometimes, I found myself playing with a bunch of folks in a jam and not knowing their names, because all the sudden the music is the only thing that matters: names, age, gender becomes irrelevant to the song we are playing. Accuracy, timing, tone, attitude and our ability to listen become more important than our physical selves as we see our musical ideas find their way into a larger musical discourse. And let’s not forget, it’s incredibly fun!
Learning how to play in a group of people can be intimidating though and requires an open mind as well as a set of skills. Learning to listen to other players while we play our instruments is a skill in itself and it can only be learned “on the field”. It is also important to know that as we become better players, we will be able to contribute to the music conversation in a more meaningful way and we are able to “agree” musically on what is being “said” in a tune or song.
When I first moved to Colorado in December 1996, I was immediately exposed to a rich and vibrant Bluegrass music community. I started going to every jam sessions there was, often driving hours, sometimes in a snow storm, to get to the next jam session. I learned a lot from our local musicians and made great friends while at the same time, becoming a better musician.
Being fully immersed into the bluegrass scene in Colorado made me a better musician and a better listener. It was not uncommon to be in a jam session where I would be able to trade licks and songs with some of my music idols such as Tony Furtado, Peter Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and many new musicians such as Ross Martin and Ben Kaufman just to name a couple. I listened to every musician I came to meet as I was craving to learn that knowledge that was not available to me growing up on Italy. I still remember one time at a jam session in Nederland, CO, my friend Greg Schochet complimented me on my playing while also suggesting to focus on the melody and not so much in the fancy banjo licks. That was the first time someone mentioned playing the melody! It really opened my eyes! Thanks Greg! If you’re listening, thank you again for that advice! I think of it every day!
In South Florida, where I moved in December 2006, the bluegrass community was not as vibrant as in Colorado but I was still driven to find people to play with and I was lucky enough to have met many outstanding musicians and to make many new great friends. When I opened Penny Lane Music Emporium in 2010, one of my goals was to create a space for the local bluegrass musicians to be able to jam, attend a concert or a workshop or take some lessons on some instruments of the Americana and Bluegrass tradition.
Penny Lane now hosts a Bluegrass Jam Session every Wednesday and we have had many concerts and workshops here as well over the years.
This, in a nutshell, was my music learning path and I still use the same tools to teach all my students today. I cannot stress how important I believe that every musician and musician-in-training engages in playing with others and at the same time realize that, that too, is another step that has its own learning curve.
So, Jam on, my friends!