Cameron DeWhitt – Banjo Instructors

B.A. in Music Theory and Composition, George Fox University
Banjo
Clawhammer Technique

 I started as a classically trained pianist, got my B.A. in Music Theory and Composition at George Fox University, and now spend most of my time playing the music mountain people from the 19th century. Life can be funny sometimes. I’m a clawhammer banjoist, old time musician, songwriter and podcaster. I’m also a husband, and more recently, a dad. When I’m not doing domestic or banjo related things, I help run Rock to the Future as its Assistant Program Director.

 

 

When did you begin playing banjo, and why?
I started playing banjo in 2008 for the same reason a lot of other young folks picked it up: the instrument was having a bit of a pop renaissance. Everyone wanted to hop on the Sufjan train! If you were a straight, cisgendered white guy in suspenders, you probably wanted to be one of Mumford’s illegitimate sons or at least an Avett stepbrother. For a brief moment, sincerity was desirable, and no instrument seemed more sincere than the banjo; have you ever seen anyone play a banjo ironically? Of course! Just not on purpose.

So I began my own personal journey of banjo appropriation. I quickly discovered that, even though it looked cooler to play a banjo, I really didn’t know how to make it sing! And upon closer listening, none of the indie-folksters I liked to listen to seemed to know how to really play either. So I took a few clawhammer lessons; I learned the basic “bum-diddy” stroke and I coasted on that for a couple years. Somewhere along the way I picked up a tab book of melodic clawhammer banjo music. The banjo was starting to have its own voice in my hands; it wasn’t just an aesthetic distraction from the fact that I was just another hipster singing about my precious feelings.

Then, the final straw: my fiddler friend could tell that I was looking for something more, and said, “Do you want me to teach you a few Old Time tunes?” The rest is a blur. Now I spend most of time playing traditional Appalachian music outdoors and in the homes of my friends, drinking homemade corn liquor. I still write songs, but nothing is more musically and socially fulfilling than the immersive, communal experience of an Old Time jam. I now can safely say: the banjo has appropriated me.

What other instruments do you play, and what is your experience with them?
While banjo is my primary instrument these days, I’ve played other instruments with varying degrees of seriousness:

  • I studied classical piano from 5th grade until I graduated college.
  • I’ve played my share of guitar in my songwriting.
  • I’ve studied classical voice.
  • I played upright bass for concert bands in high school and college.
  • I developed chronic back pain playing the sousaphone for marching band.
  • I had a brief fling with the alto recorder in a renaissance ensemble.
  • I’m currently learning to play the fiddle in order to further enable my Old Time habit.

What are your personal goals as a musician?
My primary goal is to connect with other people, whether through playing together, performing, listening, or teaching. More specifically: I want to someday do all of those things exclusively on the banjo.

Do you have a memory of a time when a musical concept or technique really clicked?  Something you’ll remember forever?
When I was a freshman in high school I was learning “The Snow is Dancing” by the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. There’s a part where you have to play sixteenth notes in the left hand and eighth note triplets in the right hand, simultaneously, and at a considerable clip. I remember agonizing over that section for 7 months, thinking I would never be able to play it. One day I sat down and it just spilled out. I about cried. I do not think I would have been able to figure it out if I hadn’t wanted to play it so badly. I try to remember that when I face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my playing.

What is your favorite piece of advice from one of your past (or current) teachers?
I had a classical voice instructor tell me that I sing out of tune when I clench my toes. The best musical teachers are more like yoga instructors; you need someone to explain how your whole body should feel when you’re doing it right.

What was your most challenging moment learning an instrument?
There are hurdles in every instrument. For banjo, the biggest hurdles are learning the basic clawhammer stroke and learning to “drop-thumb.” Any technique that your ears understand before your hands can catch up can be demoralizing because you know how it should sound but you just can’t get there! I had to put in some metronome time to get these two techniques down; it was a bit grueling, but worth it.

What is your biggest musical achievement?
I recently started a weekly Old Time jam and interview podcast called Get Up in the Cool. It combines my two favorite things: playing old time music and talking about why I like to play Old Time music. I get to play and chat with influential members of the Old Time community and more and more people are giving me money for it.

Favorite thing about teaching?
I like demystifying music for people. Most folks think that great music is pure inspiration, but it’s more like a carpentry project. You just need an idea for a project and a well-stocked toolbox. I want my students to get to the point where they’re no longer stumbling into great music making, but doing it on purpose, on their terms.

What is a piece of advice you would like to share with anyone learning music?
My original plan at college was to double major in piano performance and music theory/composition. I decided to drop the piano performance major when I accepted that, because I didn’t enjoy practicing alone for hours, I would never keep up with my peers. Some instruments demand more than you have the will to offer; I had to let classical piano go because it wasn’t worth the effort I was putting into it. You need to have a sustainable reason to want to learn. You can’t just like the idea of being able to play. Do you want to play in the church band? Go to open mics? Maybe you just want to be able to hang in an Old Time jam. It’s important to find a reason; playing alone at home is satisfying enough for some people to continue taking lessons, but those people are rare.  

Personal music projects: i.e. bands, groups, shows, recording, etc. (if any):
My podcast Get Up in the Cool is available on the iPhone podcast app, the iTunes store, Stitcher Radio, or my website. My most recent album of original songs is available on bandcamp. I also like to gig around the Philadelphia area with my Old Time band Hell Among the Yearlings.