If the idea of sitting in with some fellow musicians and picking your way through "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" makes you want to ride the "Orange Blossom Special" out of town, don't worry. Sue Malcolm and the members of the Pacific Bluegrass and Heritage Society want to make you hit a home run when your turn to solo comes around. But before you can run the bases with Bill Monroe, you need to be able to walk.
That's what the Pacific Bluegrass & Heritage Society's Slow Pitch Jam is all about.
Started in 1996 by Highrise Lonesome guitarist and singer Sue Malcolm and Bob Underhill, the Slow Pitch Jam is exactly what it sounds like: A way for beginners interested in bluegrass and acoustic folk music to learn the basics of jamming in a structured, low pressure setting with experts leading the way but with a 'safety in numbers" setting" so you can get your chops honed free of any embarrassments.
"There is something about bluegrass music that just really grabs me and I love playing it, but I won't deny that it can be pretty hard to play," says Malcolm. "One of the biggest factors for me is the participation angle and how three chords and the truth can reach such a variety of listeners."
But before you can bring your interpretation to "In The Pines," it helps to have a foundation in the basic structures of bluegrass songs and soloing. That's where Malcolm and cohorts Vic Smith (mandolin), Don Fraser (guitar), Stu McDonald (upright bass) and Jay Buckwold (banjo) come into action. The half-speed jam/instructional workshop idea includes discussion around the history of each week's focus song, about the top performers and recordings of the tune and so on. Part history lesson and part musical expression, the tempo shift arose out of trial and error after a few years of less successful jams.
"We would get, on average, 50 to 80 people turning up of all different skill levels and it was pretty chaotic. So I had the idea of breaking away all of the different instruments into sections like an orchestra - all the banjos there, all the basses here - and make it more organized. Now in bluegrass, everyone takes a solo, but it would take a day for everyone to take their own break, so we had each section play it together."
That way, the beginners get a bit of a boost learning from the more experienced people and being able to 'fudge" their playing until they become more adept. All the training is done by ear and the Nashville Number System is used in lieu of actual musical notation. She notes that some of the genre's finest artists often are purely by-ear players. Musicians so familiar with the traditional repertoire that they can go to any session and sit in on the action once they've gained the confidence to do it. To help, Malcolm has released four volumes of Slow Pitch songbooks with play along CDs that she says take the concept of the big crowd session into your home.
"Each month, we post the song we do at the jam online too, so people can get some advance preparation if they want it."
And, in time, those slow-pitchers may find themselves knocking fast balls right out of the park. It really all depends on what you think the song requires. As she is quick to point out, bluegrass is about feel first and foremost. Take the slow pitch and decide how you want to hit it. As for catching some of the pros onstage, Highrise Lonesome plays regularly around the Lower Mainland. Of the more intriguing gigs coming up is one at the heritage 1926 Hollyburn Ski Camp on Jan. 16. This would be a slow ski jam of sorts, as the only way to reach the stage is to snowshoe or cross-country ski into the awesome old lodge on the snowy mountain.
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