Brennen Ernst – Banjo Teacher

Banjo, Guitar, Piano

Bluegrass, Jazz, Rock

15167554_10154834102954052_7853381165701987297_oI first started playing music when I was 5. Neither of my parents played, but my older brother had been taking violin lessons and at first I wanted learn violin. I didn’t show much enthusiasm, so I soon switched to piano, and I stuck with that for the next 9 years, taking lessons from a local teacher and becoming a ragtime specialist. To this day the music of Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb holds a very special place in my heart.

When I was 14, I started getting a bit bored of piano and out of the blue, I told my mom I wanted a banjo. An older friend of mine, though not a banjo player, happened to own a recording studio and was a bluegrass mandolinist. I started spending time with him at the studio, and going to bluegrass festivals and old time fiddle conventions, while teaching myself banjo. I picked up guitar and mandolin later that year, as well. Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Bill Monroe were some of my biggest musical heroes at this time. Music really began to take hold of me around then; I spent all my time practicing and decided that I wanted to be a professional musician.

A year or so later, I was introduced to the music of Django Reinhardt, and that was when jazz started to become a big love of mine. I picked up the basic swing guitar chords, from some friends of mine, and thereafter began studying the music of Django, as well as Charlie Christian, George Barnes, and Eddie Lang among others.

I started playing professionally when I was 16, starting out playing for swing dances with a pianist I’d met at a music camp in West Virginia. I also recorded my first CD, “Blue Skies” that year. When I was 18, instead of going to college, I tried out for a full time bluegrass band and started playing with them on the road. I’ve got to play bluegrass in some very interesting places, including The Netherlands and Switzerland.

I spent 3 years living in Franklin County, VA with local legend Fiddlin’ Billy Hurt playing old time music the way they have in the Appalachians for over a hundred years. I also started teaching a few folks in the area banjo, and this was my introduction to teaching. This was a special period in my life, but eventually I wanted to focus more on jazz and so in 2016 I moved to West Philadelphia, where I work playing jazz and bluegrass professionally, as well as teaching.

I’ve taught myself by doing a lot of listening, some thinking, plenty of practice, and a whole lot of love for the music! Having found success with this path, I teach my students using those four guidelines, and I believe that listening and thinking, in addition to practicing are fun and rewarding ways to learn!


When did you begin playing Guitar and Banjo, and why?
I was 14. I’d played piano for several years at that point, and wanted to change things up by learning an unusual instrument; I chose banjo. Guitar followed shortly thereafter.

What other instruments do you play, and what is your experience with them?
I’ve played piano for nearly 20 years, specializing in jazz and ragtime. I also play bluegrass mandolin and upright bass.

What are your personal goals as a musician?
To be able to emotionally express myself as honestly and completely as I am able.

Do you have a memory of a time when a musical concept or technique really clicked?  Something you’ll remember forever?
One time, when I was about 18, I was playing guitar with a band for a swing dance in Seattle. I’d played professionally for a couple years at that point, but was never quite satisfied that I was really making the whole band sound better. We had a great band that night and I was able to relax and suddenly were really swinging hard and I was fitting right in with everyone. That was the first time I knew what it felt like to really be “in the groove!”.

What is your favorite piece of advice from one of your past (or current) teachers?
To listen to music at least as much as one practices one’s instrument. Whenever I delve into a new style of music, the first thing I do is try to find the classic recordings of that kind of music and study and enjoy it.

What was your most challenging moment learning an instrument?
Getting a smooth bluegrass banjo roll down has taken years and years of sometimes frustrating metronome practice, right hand study, and lots of mental concentration. Totally worth it, though!

What is your biggest musical achievement?
Being satisfied with any of my own playing. Even now, it’s quite a rare pleasure!

Favorite thing about teaching?
Seeing a musician make a sudden connection and get excited about it. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing that excitement several times over the course of my musical study, and being able to help someone else have that feeling is very special!

What is a piece of advice you would like to share with anyone learning music?
Spend plenty of time focusing on having good timing. Practice with a metronome, play along with a (good) recording, or play with other musicians. Having comfortable and confident timing will go a very long way in making your music sound fluid!

Personal music projects
I am a member of “Five Mile Mountain Road”, an Old-Time band based in Franklin Co. VA, which I play guitar in. I also play banjo for bluegrass band “The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show”. I have my own jazz band, “The Roaming Tones”; we vary in size between a quartet and a septet and mostly play for swing dances around Southeast PA and New York. I also freelance and play solo piano and guitar in the area.

I spend a lot of time composing instrumental music, mostly for solo piano or jazz band.

I have three CD’s recorded, in order from oldest to newest: “Blue Skies” (acoustic swing guitar), “Brennen Ernst & His Hot Piano” (solo ragtime and early jazz piano), and “Had a Big Time Today” (Traditional bluegrass). All three are available from Patuxent Music.