By Pete Wernick – April 2012 column, Banjo Newsletter (PDF)

Amber Waves is a talented Colorado family band (www.amberwavesband.com) that I started coaching last summer. I met them when one of the teenage twin daughters, Katie Costello, attended my banjo camp on scholarship from the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society. The Costellos are living a version of “the American dream”— traveling as a family (4 kids, the youngest is 6) in an old converted school bus, hitting mostly RV parks in the Sun Belt this winter, busking for a living…and making it!

The mom, Cheryl, is a proactive lady (though not an obnoxious “stage parent”), trained in opera but aware of the multiple benefits of kids being into bluegrass. She is also a good writer and recently shared some observations—which I hope get you parents-of-talented-kids thinking. She starts with what I think is quite an understatement:

There may be a slightly untapped market in the “busking” style of entertainment, especially for talented youth and families. What we have done for the past two months is to find a nice RV park, one with regular travel through it and an activity center where they offer everything from ice cream socials to hot dog roasts for the guests.

When we arrive at the park (calling ahead gives far more mixed results—people are more interested when they actually see you there), we tell them we are passing through, a family bluegrass band, and ask if they would mind if we set up and play a show at their activity center.

We will jump in on an event people will already be there for, if it is one where entertainment would be welcome, or we simply borrow the activity center and create our own. We post flyers and [husband] Michael accompanies Sean and Mary [the littlest kids] around to the RVs with a little flyer of the time and place. Activity directors like this because it provides entertainment at no cost or extra work for themselves.

I have 8 1/2 x 11 posters already made with an empty space at the bottom. We write in location and time, then hang it where people see it, by the laundry, club house, etc. One activity director gladly made half-sheet hand outs for us on her own copier. 90% of it is word of mouth though. The younger kids are not afraid to tell people what we do, then the flyers become simple reminders. Buzz takes care of the rest at that point.

I haven’t had a park refuse us yet and instead of having our limited budget keep us at tiny and boring parks, we are picking the better parks where the kids can swim, play mini golf, nature hikes, and other events. The tips we get always pay for our lodging (sometimes they offer it free in gratitude), plus extra for other expenses, and connections to more parks the activity directors know about. In turn, this turns into formal gigs on the schedule for later times.

At one park we were only there overnight—we simply wanted a break. They had a indoor heated pool, but we wanted the kids to practice before they got their fingers all soaked and soft, so we stepped out of the bus, messy hair and clothing from two days of long travel, and practiced. Next thing we know, someone poked his head around the corner, excited to hear the bluegrass music. I told him we were just practicing but he was welcome to sit and listen. He did. He brought his wife, a few neighbors, and their lawn chairs with their drinks! We had an audience of about 20-30 people with their chairs in the middle of the RV park, right in front of our bus. We turned around, played music for them, chatted, sold several CDs, and got some generous donations because it was a personal setting, not random on the street. Total donations were literally 10x what we paid for the park for the night.

We had a successful opportunity booking for next winter in the Rio Grand Valley. We got in on a couple showcases and many RV parks booked us so we have steady work next winter, though this first year we are winging it, and so far with good success.

Some of this may be the kind of thing you can suggest to other young players. Tell them to always bring their instruments on vacations and just watch for opportunities.

Learning how to be ace buskers, as Katie Costello and her family are discovering, is some of the best education a music entertainer can get, and it doesn’t cost money—it makes money! Others who’ve discovered this include banjo notables Béla, Jens and Noam, and many more including yours truly. I devoted a whole column to it here (look up August 2009 on DrBanjo.com).


Advice to an Advanced Beginner

Dave, a former camper, says he’s working his way through my list of 55 titles of songs relatively easy to make up a solo for.

My goal is to develop a solo for all 55 by the end of the year. I am working to perform these at 70-80 bpm (per your recommendation for beginner speed), but curious as to what might constitute the next level of speed so I am not always resigned to the “slow” jam sessions?

Dave, First, I don’t recommend you work out breaks to “all 55”…many are good jam songs, but some aren’t common in jams, so there’s less point in having breaks for them.

What’s really good is that you’ve figured out 15 breaks. I’m sure you’re now much faster than before at that important skill, so you’re on a good track.

It would help to work on songs that you have on tracks to play along with. For example, put on a jam video and play good backup until the place where we leave a space to take break, and practice coming in smoothly at the right time—or scramble to get in synch. Those are common jam skills worth practicing—at least as much as many solos played at sub-jam speeds.

Most jams vary between 90-120 beats/minute, with our Intermediate Jam DVD mostly slower within that range. The songs are well-known, and tempos and keys are “realistic”, so playing along is good practice.

If keeping up is hard at first, you can still work up the solos on your own and work on the speed, toward being able to play them in time with the video. If you still can’t keep up, a new program allows you to slow down a DVD. Here are details from banjo camper Martha Carlton in Florida:

The Ultimate DVD Player is put out by Roni music, who also sells the Amazing Slowdowner. He is in Sweden and is very cooperative. He always answers emails within 24 hours.

I use this software all the time. You cannot imagine how wonderful it is with your DVDs. You can speed them up very fast or slow them down to very slow without changing the pitch. There is an opportunity to change a key, but it is not very much. The program costs $40 and is worth its weight in gold.

I hope that’s helpful, Dave. Please stay in touch and let me know about your progress. Above all… try to keep jamming with real people! —Pete