The Immanuel Baptist Church Bluegrass Band
L to R: Sam, Debbie, Karen, Shelia, Gay, Tanya.
(you can see from the picture that classical musicians and band directors are still a little “tied to the tab”!)
What was it that first got you interested in playing the guitar, mandolin or banjo?
I’ve been playing basic chords on the guitar since I was eleven or twelve, so I have always liked the guitar but never did a lot beyond singing some folks songs and chording. I picked up the mandolin around 2012. I happened to hear some bluegrass playing on the radio, and thought “wow, that’s as technical as a Bach invention! I’m a retired school band director and trumpet player so, after hearing that mandolin performance, I thought the mandolin might be challenging, different, and fun to try. I received the mandolin as a Christmas gift and got right to figuring the thing out. Since I’ve picked up the mandolin, I’ve also started doing some flat picking on the guitar.
How long have you been playing and what’s your motivation to play?
YoYo Ma once said that having performances kept him motivated to practice. I guess if Yo Yo Ma needs that, so does everyone else! So performances are real motivators, even if it’s just playing for someone else. However, I actually enjoy practicing, and I practice a lot of music that I never perform publicly. I guess one of my motivations is our “Sweet Home Girls” Bluegrass group that we put together shortly after I started playing mandolin. My band director friend, Shelia, had an electric bass and I said to her “If we only had a banjo and guitar player we would have a Bluegrass band!” Her reply was that our other band director friends Debbie and Gay had a guitar and banjo. Debbie had played guitar for years (mostly chords like me) and Gay’s grandmother left her a banjo.” Well, we gave them a call and got together, and Gay’s first words were “How do you tune a banjo?” So, with a little bit of playing experience and no Bluegrass music experience we were basically starting from scratch. We enlisted our instrument repair friend Karen who plays guitar to join us and we were officially a group! We looked for some internet resources and downloaded some terrific free bluegrass tabs and accompaniments for every instrument and got started with some simple songs. Pretty soon we were even recording some Christmas songs for our friends. The only problem was, they were so slow that I had to cheat a little by speeding up the recordings with the computer! We were pretty “green” (actually if there is a color before “green” we were probably that).
Although the free tabs and accompaniments were great, they didn’t include instruction and we definitely needed more guidance! Our banjo player Gay is quite the researcher and she found Banjo Ben online and things looked up from there! She showed me the site, and I signed up for a membership too. We were all benefiting from the great teaching of Banjo Ben.
Fast forward a few years and we have done demonstrations at elementary schools and played with guitar classes at middle and high schools. That has been very gratifying—particularly as we are retired music teachers. It’s also been fun to work with kids who are not part of school bands and choruses but are learning music in school through guitar. One of our church orchestra members is a music teacher who is a terrific percussionist, guitarist and mandolinist, and he has started several guitar classes at his school. So, we add him to our group for church gatherings and call ourselves the Immanuel Baptist Church Bluegrass Band. We’ve also played with that group at nursing facilities. We aren’t great, but we aren’t bad either and folks seem to enjoy it and be blest by it. So we all get motivated to play when it can be something positive for us and fun for others.
What’s your favorite lesson on Ben’s site and how has it helped you improve?
Some of my favorites are Salt Creek and In the Sweet By and By. I like the lessons on general maintenance and technique like replacing strings, picking, etc. The “bag o licks” are really great, too. Most of all, Ben’s lessons are just really good teaching. His sequencing of the lesson is great. First, he provides you with sound and sight of what the finished product should look and sound like. Then he provides you with the tab, while modeling with the video of actually how to do it. He takes each piece slowly in chunks, and then puts them together and gives you a little guided practice time on it. Once it’s together, he provides different speeds of accompaniment so you can get a lot of reps to polish it. With the teaching experience our group has, we know he’s using a really sound teaching process. It’s really so superior to a lot of online videos that are more like “you lost me at hello.”
What’s your goal when playing?
As a group, we just to have fun and get a little better every time we practice. Of course part of the goal is to make sure we can do our part in the bluegrass group—that we are not holding others back because of something one of us can’t do. That’s a good accountability motivation.
Are there any other instruments or genres of music that you enjoy playing?
Everyone in our group enjoys all kinds of music. I am primarily a trumpet player and you can usually find me in the flugelhorn or cornet section of the Lexington Brass Band or directing our Immanuel Baptist Church Orchestra. Our other group members play trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and percussion, and they also play in the church orchestra every Sunday.
If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
I can think of lots of things. I enjoy working in the yard, and of course playing music, so I’m sure if it didn’t disturb the neighbors I would be doing a lot of that. Our group does a lot of things together like traveling and fishing.
How long have you been a Gold Pick member?
I’m not for sure. I started out with a six-month membership a while back, and now I’m doing it by the month in case I have a month when I won’t have a lot of time, then I don’t sign up. One of these days I may just do the lifetime membership because I don’t think I would exhaust the resources Banjo Ben keeps adding. Gay joined with a lifetime membership a few years ago.
Do you have a favorite technique? What is it?
Not really, but I do have fun doing those slides.
What do you do for a living?
Everyone in our group is involved in music education and have been life-long music teachers, or in the music education service industry.
What would be the most amazing adventure to go on?
Several of us just did a vacation cruising and touring Alaska and it was truly amazing. I love traveling and seeing our beautiful country. Sometimes you don’t have to go far to experience some amazing things. Actually about a year ago we took a pretty amazing trip to Nashville to the country music hall of fame and visited Gruhn’s guitar shop and Carter’s Vintage Guitars. We spent a big part of the day in those shops and then heard Alison Krauss at the Grand Ole Opry. We really got a bluegrass music pickers education! It was a terrific experience.
Who are your favorite pickin’ heroes (bluegrass and country artists)?
I get a lot of inspiration from Chris Thiele, Alan Bibey, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice on guitar, and Bela Fleck on banjo. I’ve had a lot of fun seeing many of these people in concert. That’s one thing nice about picking up this interest after I’ve retired from my day job.” Our whole group just stays on the lookout for who’s performing where next and living in the Bluegrass state of Kentucky we have a lot of opportunities to see good bluegrass performers. We have a great show every Monday night here in Lexington called Woodsongs which is done live and broadcast on PBS. Michael Jonathan does a great job of bringing in some of the greats and interviewing them.