Local guitar teacher and performer Derek Gove and jam leader Sue Malcolm have organized a festival primer for bluegrass beginners. Itís a Slow Pitch Jam on Tuesday, Aug. 29 in the Arts Centre Lounge.
All you parking-lot jammers and new pickers, here's the perfect way to get ready for the Chilliwack Bluegrass Festival on Labour Day Weekend.
Singer/guitarist Sue Malcolm is leading her tried and true Slow Pitch Jam on Tuesday, August 29 in the Arts Centre lounge.
It's aimed at guitar players, banjo pickers, fiddlers, mandolin players, bassists and dobro sliders eager to learn some tricks in a non-threatening environment.
"The jamming that takes place in the parking lot, campground or living room is just as important as the performances on stage during the bluegrass festival season," Malcolm said.
Her popular workshop slows down the tunes, and teaches some of the techniques using the Nashville Numbers System, which is like a musical shorthand.
Local guitar teacher and performer Derek Gove said he wanted to bring Malcolm and the workshop to Chilliwack after participating in one of her jams.
"I thought it would be a way to get my students exposed to other forms of music, the different instruments and playing in a group setting," he said.
It's also a way for local musicians to network with each other.
"Sue has been in the bluegrass community for years and I've been to her Slow Pitch Jams before," he added. "I thought it would be great opportunity for my students."
So who is the unique jam session really geared for?
"It's for people who want get involved with bluegrass music," Malcolm answered. "Bluegrass is a very organic type of music with lots of jamming and improvisation."
The key to a good jam is picking songs everyone knows. Malcolm's Slow Pitch Jam participants might learn a few well-known tunes like Dark Hollow, Will The Circle Be Unbroken? and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
"When you're learning by ear, repetition is the only way you can do it," she said. "That way they get to learn the sound of the chord changes. They can then anticipate and understand what's going to happen next."
Malcolm plays guitar and a little bass, but calls herself primarily a vocalist. She's a music teacher who also performs with the bluegrass band called False Creek. She's delivered this workshop at festivals across B.C., Alberta and Washington State in the past 10 years.
Whether you're just starting out in bluegrass, or plan to make your debut in one of the parking lot jams that pop up at the festival, you might need some jam "survival skills" first, Malcolm advised.
"The music is often played pretty fast and there are these blazing instrumentals," she explained. "The players don't generally have the music in front of them and it's all learned by ear. The songs get taken in and absorbed by the players over a period of years."
Not surprisingly, the most important jam skill of all is listening Malcolm said.
"People don't always come to the workshop with that awareness, especially if they've learned by playing by themselves."
Another key ability is keeping the lines of communication open between players.
"Sometimes people just don't think about it, but it's all about teaching musicians how to play so they complement the singers and one another.
"It's a very cooperative, egalitarian kind of music," she said. "It's about taking turns and supporting one another."
If the beginning players are shy at all, this is the workshop for them. "That's the main thing about my workshop, they will never find a more comfortable environment," she said. "I don't want anyone to feel left out."
She uses the Nashville Number System to teach players who are just starting out to learn to play by ear, in any key. Plus included in the $40 cost for the workshop is Malcolm's brand-new songbook and play-along CD that she's produced.
"If they've never been to a jam before it's a chance to meet and play with other beginning bluegrass players."
The good thing about a jam session at a bluegrass fest is that beginners and advanced players can all play together.
"That's what I like about it," Malcolm said, "the fact that it's so accessible. And while it doesn't always sound perfect, it always sounds amazingly musical."
Chilliwack Progress Article by Jennifer Feinberg - August 2006.
Bob Underhill and Sue Malcolm are bluegrass musicians and instructors in the Pacific Northwest who have conducted numerous training sessions and workshops in the area. They have now joined forces to create these two publications, featuring a total of 25 basic song lessons along with accompanying words and chords. Included with each volume is a compact disc enabling the student to practice right along with Bob and Sue as they demonstrate the structure of each song. The Slow Pitch Jam books can be used to practice on any of the bluegrass instruments, and use the Nashville Numbering System to designate keys and chord changes, explained in terms that are easily understood. There are also helpful tips regarding tuning, rhythm, timing, and participation in jam sessions. The lessons consist of familiar bluegrass melodies like 'In the Pines', 'Blue Moon of Kentucky', 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken', and 'Worried Man Blues', especially selected for students just starting out playing bluegrass. In essence, the Slow Pitch Jam Bluegrass Songbooks are ideal training vehicles to practice up for those impromptu jam sessions. Bluegrass Unlimited - August 2002.
THE PACIFIC BLUEGRASS & HERITAGE SOCIETY
Sue Malcon and Bob Underhill's Slow Pitch Jam on the first Monday of every month (at the ANZA Club in Vancouver, BC) has become a tremendous success and usually brings in a full house. Their method of introducing bluegrass music to new players is easy to understand and makes an otherwise intimidated player feel very much at ease. I recently attended one of their sessions with a friend who is just starting to learn the guitar and his comment was, "They're geniuses. What a wonderful way of teaching people how to play music." One of the things I noticed was how the beginning players really appreciated having more advanced musicians participating. It's also a great place for an advanced player to practice at a slow pace, which is always very helpful to their playing.
Review By: Randy Goulding, Bluegrass Beacon Editor - March 2002.
THE PACIFIC BLUEGRASS & HERITAGE SOCIETY
I think the biggest thrill for all new bluegrass musicians is the first time they can step into that tight circle of pickers and singers to join in on a jam. It makes you part of the culture.
If thatís your goal, youíll want to get Volume Two of Sue Malcolm and Bob Underhillís Slow Pitch Jam Bluegrass Song Book.
Over many years of experience Bob and Sue have turned teaching the enjoyable practice of jamming into an art form.
Their latest book includes 12 standard bluegrass songs with words, chords and a play-along CD that will help you regardless of what instrument you play.
You will get the low-down on the Nashville numbering system, a kind of chording Esperanto, that makes communicating with other players a lot easier. You will also learn about the all-important etiquette of jamming which allows musicians of all skill levels to have a good time playing together.
What I like best about the clear and simple way Bob and Sue present their material is the fact you can keep coming back to it. Of course, itís great for just getting the words, the melody and the chord changes down. But if you want to challenge yourself beyond that, you can play along with the CD and learn to pick leads and fills or sing harmony.
Review by: Allen Garr, a columnist with the Vancouver Courier and guitar flatpicker of little consequence - Bluegrass Beacon, February 2002.
THE PACIFIC BLUEGRASS & HERITAGE SOCIETY
As we all know, the music world is divided into two kinds of people. Those who can make music, and those who wish they could. Those who are blissed out in a jam session, acting out their fantasies of Del McCoury, Laurie Lewis, Willie Nelson or Flatt and Scruggs. Then there's the guys like me listening with admiration and quiet envy ... the wannabes. With regrets ... If only I had learned to play this thing before life's interruptions ... sex, drugs, kids. Before 'stuff' took over our lives.
Well, here I am at 63. Hundreds of dollars spent on lessons. Countless hours spent in solitary practice. Zillions of chord change exercises. Calluses like horses' hooves. Three years invested in three chords and ready to make my leap into stardom ... with no net.
From closet crooner to concert performer. Ringing ears and glassy eyes. Sweaty armpits. Thumbs all over. Easy in private but impossible in public. Even the metronome makes me nervous. Too much pressure to perform. Maybe I'll wait for the next reincarnation.
If any of these feelings of trepidation feel vaguely familiar, the new CD release, 'Slow Pitch Jam' by Sue Malcolm and Bob Underhill was made for you. It has simple play-along tunes to build confidence, and an instruction book with the words and chords to many familiar sing-along songs.
The instruction book is a treasure of useful information for the music-making novice. It covers the basics in brief, clear and simple language. It shows how to play the tunes in any key that fits your vocal range. How to play in a group. What the job of each type of instrument is in the production of a song. How not to make a fool of yourself in a jam session ... i.e. what you should know about jamming etiquette. That may sound like an oxymoron, but you could be about as welcome in the group as another bad banjo player joke if you are picking when you should be strumming. The short explanation of the Nashville Numbering System, when and how to use it in transposing a song from one key to another is very helpful. I am personally grateful that the booklet was written with empathy for the 'Old Fogeys'. BIG TYPE. BOLD PRINT.
The songs were chosen with a great deal of care and presented with thoughtful intention. We start with slow simple songs and gradually are introduced to songs with a slightly faster pace. The increase in difficulty is gradual. The songs demonstrate how to play in a variety of rhythms, keys and styles. They are all bluegrass standards with only two or three chords in each song and lots and lots of repetition.
The first song on the CD, 'In the Pines' is an 'oldie' in every bluegrass player's repertoire. The chord changes are clear and easy to hear and tied together with a solid base rhythm from Sue's guitar. Bob's mandolin solos stay with the melody, which gives lots of open space to improvise as you play along. Bob and Sue add the vocals with simple, ear pleasing two-part harmony and an invitation to participate. Sue's strong, clear, articulate style contrasts and complements Bob's down-home prairie twang. Easy listening. My favourites are #8, 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' and #13 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken'. I can put my best hillbilly and spiritual vocal chords into those two.
The opening commentary on the CD repeats the basic concepts described in the preamble of the book. How the Nashville numbering system works and why and when it is useful. The importance of listening when playing with others. How to use the capo to change keys using the same chord formations. The CD is recorded so that you can skip the introductory instructions when you want to go directly to the songs. Set your CD player to 'repeat' and you can play the same tune over until you get it right, or at least until you drive your mate into an altered state of consciousness.
The beauty of the CD is that you can play along with Sue and Bob (much better than a metronome) and work on the part of your own skill that needs work. Bass runs are my current hurdle and hearing them on the CD gives me a chance to practice in a dynamic song-playing environment. The songs you learn to play from the CD are the same songs you will hear and play at bluegrass jam sessions.
So what is a Slow Pitch Jam anyway? It was news to me to learn that slow pitch softball is the biggest participant sport in North America, but not hard to understand why. When you pitch slowly, everyone can play. That idea was not lost on Sue and Bob. With this CD, slow pitch softball may lose its status.
Well, I ask - could this be it? Could this be the private jam session that takes Willie to that next level of confidence ... puts him on the road to the Grand old Opry? Carnegie Hall? Maybe even to jam night at his local bluegrass club?
See you there.
Review by: William Spearman - April, 1999.
THE OTTAWA VALLEY BLUEGRASS MUSIC ASSOCIATION
OK ... Iím at my wits end ... Iíve been searching endlessly for a method of teaching pickers how to jam together without resorting to fisticuffs and weaponry, and Iíve just about given up hope that it could actually be done...what to do?
Order a copy of Sue and Bob's Slow-Pitch Jam book and CD, thatís what!
Now Iím a practical kinda guy, and I appreciate a system that looks good, is easy to use, and is well laid out - which this book IS, but the happiest surprise is that IT WORKS!
More in a minute, but first letís look at the production of the book itself. Obviously Sue Malcom, Paul Norton, and Joanne Neighbour took a good long look at what was needed and came up with winning solutions to make this system work beautifully. For example:
- Soft covers - wonít scratch your instrument in the case
- Spiral bound - small rounded spirals - no scratching here either
- Big print - easy to read at a distance
- Table of Contents - up front where you can flip to it easily
- One Song per Page - excellent when you put the book on a stand - no turning pages
- CD sleeve in the book - no bulky case, everything is together in one piece
Inside the book things get off to a great start, because just after the TOC and an introduction page comes a page that outlines one of my favourite topics (and pet peeves): Jamming guidelines. Even before they get to tuning up, Sue and Bob remind everyone to be aware of your instrumentís purpose and your responsibility in playing it appropriately. They also stress the importance of developing good communication skills during a jam, and the ability to tune your instrument properly. All necessary skills to get the most out of a picking session!
The songs in the book progress from simple to hard, so you can build on skills developed in earlier songs. A nice mix of keys and tempos keep things interesting.
As Sue says in the book, the songs on the CD are played SLOWER that usual, and the mix of the instruments is louder than usual so you can easily hear what they are doing. The simple arrangements allows you to play along confidently with the songs. Once you have mastered playing along you should start to speed up your playing to reach the tempo at which the song would normally be played.
One good feature of the CD format is that you can easily repeat the same song over and over until you are satisfied with your progress. A multiple CD changer then allows you to switch over to a version of the song at regular speed for practicing up to speed.
Review by: Steve Hanes - April, 1999.