Glowing Hot Review from Banjo Newsletter

Fri, 11/06/2009 - 12:39pm
Written by Andrea

The just out November '09 issue of Banjo Newsletter carries an insightful, powerful review of Tony’s online banjo school. Jake Schepps wrote the review, starting off with: “First and foremost, I should begin this review by stating that I think the world of Tony Trischka as a musician and as a human being. But setting this bias aside, I believe that as a contemporary instructional device the Tony Trischka School of Banjo is nothing short of brilliant.” Schepps goes on to thoroughly explore the topography of the site: how it works and feels. “Tony’s feedback is always gracious, and yet honest as to areas where the student should work. He then piles on several ideas for variations of the music.” Go to the link below to read the entire review. Schepps sums up by stating, “And I share Tony’s excitement over this resource. The possibilities are endless, and there is really no one better then Tony to provide the scope and breadth of information, personalities, and musicianship. Overall this a total bargain for what you can get out of it and I’d unequivocally recommend it to any banjo student.

Here is the whole review:

First and foremost, I should begin this review by stating that I think the world of Tony Trischka as a musician and as a human being. But setting this bias aside, I believe that as a contemporary instructional device the Tony Trischka School of Banjo is nothing short of brilliant. Tony’s reputation as a world-class musician, author and dedicated educator is well deserved. Tony can easily bridge the gap between a modern and progressive approach to ideas and techniques, while recognizing and embracing the banjo as a folk instrument. He is also ardently devoted to the personalities, the history and lore of the banjo. My opinion is that Tony’s impact on modern stringband music is unequalled. If you read Darol Anger’s comments in the liner notes from “The Early Years” and draw some lines, Tony’s impact leads through members of the David Grisman Quintet and obviously Béla Fleck and his Nashville cohorts. Therefore, Tony is one of the fathers of new acoustic music. Yet he is a highly regarded purveyor of older styles ranging from Scruggs, minstrel, classic, and clawhammer.

How it works: The fee is $60 for a 3-month membership. Upon entrance there is an introductory Student Orientation video, and then the banjo student can browse to his or her respective level of skill. From that point, you can watch a short video on any topic (ranging from Scruggs to Melodic to Single-string, and Basics to Bluegrass to Bach) and then click and print up the tablature for the specific musical ideas presented by Tony. After learning the tablatures, one can make a video of their own playing, be it an exercise or tune, and upload it to the site for Tony to watch and respond. These are called Master’s Classes. These days a web camera is quite inexpensive and many computers have a built in microphone. Tony does not need perfect hi-definition video and audio of the example to get an idea of a student’s strengths and weaknesses and what needs work. All members can view these Master Classes submitted for evaluation, and therefore gain knowledge from Tony’s feedback for these videos. Also Tony’s mastery of orally explaining tablature (“14th fret, 2nd string,” etc.) on the fly is impressive.

I watched several Master Classes and Tony’s responses, material ranging from a user’s original tune, to beginner and intermediate versions of tabs from the website, to near flawless renditions of bluegrass tunes. Tony’s feedback is always gracious, and yet honest as to areas where the student should work. He then piles on several ideas for variations of the music. One particular Master Class I enjoyed was a student playing Earl Scruggs’s Groundspeed. Tony’s response included an astonishing amount of detail of what Earl played and how he fingered it from his lifetime of study of Earl’s playing. This singular 4-minute response alone offers so many hours of worthwhile study. Another Master Class of note was a user submitted a version of Roanoke. In response Tony transcribed Bobby Hick’s version from the original recording with Bill Monroe from the 50’s, arranged it on banjo, and offered it up for a variation on the tune. I think that is just one of the coolest things.

The members can comment on videos, they can message each other, and there is even a chat room. There is a forum where members can offer feedback, ideas for Tony’s new lessons, and advice on all things banjo. The community building aspect is impressive. What is brilliant in this marriage of technologies is that the banjo student can feel a part of a class setting while getting individualized instruction. Books and DVD’s are static, but the dynamic nature of this is quite exciting, and seems limitless.

Tony has posted a lengthy interview with Bill Keith, and has completed but not posted material interviewing and playing with both Steve Martin and Pete Seeger. Armed with a laptop and Tony’s Rolodex (or his iPhone), the future opportunities for fascinating perspectives, guest teachers, and scintillating conversation with banjo luminaries seems boundless.

My specific path through the site began in the advanced topics and worked backwards. Guest teacher Noam Pikelny offered some brilliant ideas on triplets and single-string playing, and I browsed Tony’s ideas for fiddle tunes, a Bach partita, arpeggio positions, and other interesting melodic ideas. As I worked into the intermediate material, Tony explores a variety of musical personalities including Dock Boggs and Carroll Best. He covers leads and backup playing, and a host of other ideas for making music on the banjo. He goes into detail on improvising in a Scruggs-y way, in a bluesy way, and a variety of other techniques. For Beginners, Tony has a tried and true method, and the Beginner Section includes this with a bunch of other ideas for making music early and often on the banjo.

One concern I have is that some members may be shy to share their playing. All members may not feel comfortable submitting a video for everyone on the site to see. I believe there is significant value for all banjo students in both recording oneself and facing fears or performance anxieties. Yet maybe an option for some private videos is needed. An idea might be that a new user gets 2 or 4 private Master Classes before embarking publicly. Or they can start publicly, and save the private ones for specific times.

And from Tony himself: “I just want to convey how completely excited I am about the site. It’s building wonderfully and there’s a great community here already, after just a couple months. If someone posts a question on a forum people chime in to help. There’s a lot of communication going on. There is a section where people just ask me questions and I respond. And of course, the Master Class format is great as I can get to know people. I can see them, listen to them, and build relationships. Plus I can take my laptop with me on the road and respond and upload video responses from there. The idea is just a thrill.”

And I share Tony’s excitement over this resource. The possibilities are endless, and there is really no one better then Tony to provide the scope and breadth of information, personalities, and musicianship. Overall this a total bargain for what you can get out of it and I’d unequivocally recommend it to any banjo student.

—Jake Schepps