By Chris Pandolfi
A few weeks ago I was up in Boston as a guest teacher at the Berklee College of Music, and I’m happy to report that the banjo is cool again. I was there for two days, working with students in the American Roots Music Program on everything from right-hand techniques to strategies for young professional musicians. Compared to my time there as a student roughly ten years ago, much has changed. These days there is a clear acknowledgement of the importance and popularity of traditional music. Acclaimed faculty are attracting talented students, some of whom will surely be a part of the next wave of exciting acoustic bands to hit the scene. Berklee is playing its part in the string band boom with a program that’s barely five years old, but already significant. It was great to go back and check it all out.
I was a student at Berklee from 2001-2003. I started playing the banjo only a few years earlier as a freshman at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I was relatively inexperienced compared to other players my age, eager to keep learning and working on my craft. I wanted to go to music school, and my main goal was to work primarily on banjo, rather than choosing guitar as a principal instrument, a workaround that other banjo players had used at in the past. Tony Trischka, my teacher at the time, suggested the Berklee College of Music as a place that might welcome the banjo, given its growing popularity. Tony introduced me to Matt Glaser (then chair of the Strings Dept.), and Matt was a big help in making this happen despite the fact that banjo was not part of Berklee’s curriculum. I started in the fall of 2001, working mainly with guitar teachers but taking all my proficiency exams on banjo, as well as my ensembles, etc. I was a banjo principal, but the instrument was still relatively obscure in the grand scheme of things.
In 2001 we were still well before the wave of Mumford madness that is now reorganizing the hierarchy of popular musical styles. But the beginnings of that movement were well underway. Bela Fleck was finding big audiences for his ultra-progressive take on the banjo, and the Avett Brothers were creating a buzz as they played bars in the Southeast with their own brand of banjo-driven punk-rock. The bluegrass world seemed to be thriving in its own way, heavy on integrity but still somewhat protected from mainstream appeal. Young players were coming out of the woodwork and promising new bands were starting to form. We were playing banjos and fiddles, some of us internalizing the lessons of bluegrass music, but all of us striving to find a more modern voice with these old wooden instruments, a voice that reflected the world around us. After all, that is the natural order of musical evolution.
With no true banjo principal available to students, I flew under the radar at Berklee. At one point, a high profile guitar teacher refused to teach me, and he hadn’t even heard me play. There was only one acoustic ensemble, with little direction, and I always got some curious looks from students and teachers alike when I broke out the banjo in a new class. Some thought it was cool, but most didn’t know what to make of it. I was relatively inexperienced, but I was dedicated and eventually I found my place there, working with David Newsam–amazing guitarist, great teacher and good friend. I left Berklee equipped with a lifetime of theoretical knowledge and poised to pursue a career as a player. I made the most of it, and in 2004 I was off to Nashville to live the dream and start a band.
Several years later, as the Stringdusters were getting established in Nashville, I heard that the new President of Berklee, Roger Brown, was coming to the Country Music Hall of Fame to give an honorary degree to the great Earl Scruggs. Earl was at the helm of the original bluegrass revolution, when bluegrass was new and popular in the 1940s and ‘50s. He was the original innovator, and though bluegrass has seen long swings of more “traditional” strains dominating the genre, Earl’s progressive spirit is more alive now than ever before. Honoring him 60 years later was a clear sign of the times. A few years after that, in 2009, the American Roots Music Program was born at Berklee.
Today banjos are everywhere, from small festivals to the Top 40 chart. Roger Brown, along with Matt and other acoustic-minded faculty, have embraced this trend and created a great environment for young players to flourish. The program is thriving; it’s wonderful to see. My recent trip included private lessons with all nine banjo students as well as coaching sessions with several acoustic ensembles. There are some very talented players there, as well as established resources that will help them thrive. Wes Corbett and Mark Simos are among the acclaimed professors that will be a big part in drawing talent to the program, and Matt Glaser, with his eclectic acoustic background and deep ties to the various different ‘roots’ traditions, is an ideal Artistic Director. On a side note, the acoustic music community will always deeply miss John McGann, a genius musician and committed teacher who was a big part of this program in the early going. We love you, John.
So the bluegrass secret is out, and leading institutions like Berklee have opened their doors to the aspiring pickers of the world. And rightly so–this music is as real as it gets, and the influence of almost 70 years of bluegrass is finally bleeding into the bigger musical picture. Programs like American Roots will be a part of that growth moving forward, connecting students with teachers and each other as they prepare to make music for the world. It’s official: the banjo is cool again, and a new crop of talented young players are on the way.