LONG BEACH — They file in from the parking lot on Tuesday evenings, carrying whatever instrument they want to play that night. Walking up the stairs or ramp into the Peninsula Performing Arts Center, they greet one another like the old friends they have become over this last year. Janet Clark, who teaches this Beach Grass Slow Jam class is usually there ahead of time, waving them in with a smile.
Out in the parking lot, a white car sports a “Bluegrass Rules” bumper sticker. And on the side of Clark’s sedan is a faded sign that reads Double J and the Boys. “That’s my main band,” Clark said recently, seated at a small round table in the arts center. “And it’s the first band I’ve ever been in. We’re still strong and we have a blast.” She plays fiddle, guitar and mandolin and her husband, Bill, plays bass and tenor guitar with the same band. But recently, he has been learning to play cello and takes advantage of his wife’s class to get in some time on this instrument. Sitting at the back of the room, with the cello positioned between his knees and the end-pin gently resting on his chest, he manipulates the bow for the sounds he wants. He has earned the nickname Yo-Yo (referencing the legendary Yo-Yo Ma) by the participants in this class.
Peninsula Performing Arts Center owners, Bill and Sue Svendsen, encouraged Clark to start this group. “They’ve been wanting someone to do this for a long time, actually. And this is a good time,” Clark said, commenting that it’s been a year since the class was started. Clark also leads Kitchen Music at the Long Beach Grange, which is “a circle of musicians and we take turns and go around the circle and pick the songs we want to do.” But that’s more like a straight jam, compared to this.
The Tuesday night group has instruction for the first hour. Then, they take a break complete with refreshments, fueling up for the second half, when individuals suggest songs they can play, singing along if they wish. The songs vary from folk to hymns, Celtic to popular, but they all have something in common. Chords.
This group has beginners through advanced participants. But especially when “Coach Janet,” as she calls herself, is teaching a beginner, she lets them know that extensive music theory is not part of her system. “The quote that I start with is, if you want Julliard, you’ve come to the wrong place.” She keeps her teaching techniques both simple and doable.
Most times, she can have a beginner playing a song on their first night of class. “With most of the instruments, they have to learn three chords. Once they learn that — just those three chords — they can play hundreds of songs.”
She makes sheet music for the class, printed with big, bold lyrics and the chords annotated above each line, such as Faded Love, which is in the key of D, with chords D, G and A. Most of the group members keep the music in binders and some bring in music of their own for the second half of each class.
One Tuesday evening last month, class member, Chuck Whittey, brought in a sheet with lyrics and chords for You Belong to Me (Pee Wee King, Redd Stewart and Chilton Price.)
Whittey is a friend of the Clarks and holds a sort of informal assistant to Coach Janet position. He and his guitar have been together since 1970, so he’s one of the most accomplished musicians there.
Coach Janet plays mainly by ear and encourages newcomers to do the same, keeping it simple. “I will give them names of people who didn’t read music, like Jimi Hendrix,” she said.
A simple Google search will build on that, listing others including stars like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Kanye West, Eric Clapton and many prominent folk singers. Even famed composers, like Danny Elfman, weren’t skilled music readers.
In her class, Clark said, “We can introduce tablature and some people like notation and want the music, but I tell them I’m going to each them to play by ear as much as possible. And I tell them to memorize it as soon as they can. Until you get away from the paper, you can’t play freely.”
The first thing Clark teaches her students is “steady rhythm. If you mess up a chord, it doesn’t matter as much as if you lose the rhythm,” she stressed, adding that keeping the beat is surely one of the most important aspects of musicianship.
At the class three weeks ago, there was a lot of toe tapping and head bobbing, evidence that the participants were really feeling the beat, no matter what they were playing. And the variety of instruments didn’t separate them, as the rhythm united the nine musicians that were playing that night, the class a little smaller than usual.
Clark explained that with a violin, the A is an open string, so a beginner could technically just play that note all through a song, keeping rhythm with the others, while they played their chords. A beginning ukelele player could just strum or pick in rhythm, to keep up with the group.
Some people that come to the class might be previously self-taught, learning at home by themselves. They’ve never played in a group. Clark encourages them to play with others and she teaches them the etiquette of jamming, such as not playing too loud. Also, “noodling” can be annoying to others — playing your own thing, basically just fooling around on a guitar or other instrument, while the others at the jam are concentrating on a specific song.
Playing in a group can be encouraging. Sue Hermanns, the group’s only banjo player on that evening three weeks ago, can attest to this. Though she had a music background, she had never picked up a banjo until “about four or five years ago,” she said. When she first started, she didn’t have any place to go and play with others. “I self-taught, because I couldn’t find a teacher.” This group has been good for her, she said, “Because when you teach yourself, you have your books, you CDs and DVDs, but you can only go so far. Being here has challenged me. It gives me the courage to press forward, but with no pressure. And if I don’t know a song, I can just stop playing and they don’t care. They’re O.K. with it.”
She also likes the social aspect of this class. “It’s a fun group, kind of like a family.”
Some people in the group have become familiar with one instrument, but are trying to learn more about another. Toni Macomb is an example of this. She’s been playing soprano ukelele, but has also had some time on a mandolin. She started playing a uke about 10 years ago, then quit for several years. “Then, I came here when Janet started this. I played ukelele for a while and then mandolin for a while, then back to ukelele. And now I’m thinking about going back to mandolin again.”
Scott Smith has a strong background in electric guitar, but is now playing bass. “That’s like a new instrument to him,” Clark said.
Cec Cohen of Nahcotta said, “I studied piano when I was five and I sang in choirs pretty much all of my life.” She originally joined Clark’s class last July, just to participate in singing along, but a string instrument seemed to call to her and she chose to learn the viola, which has a mellower and deeper tone than a violin.
“We already have two violins in the group and it compliments them. That was part of my decision, to move down one step and play the viola.” She likes what she calls, “the sexier sound,” but admits “it’s a slightly harder instrument to play the low notes on.” And it’s somewhat larger than a violin. But she’s learning quickly and keeping up with the group.
One year in elementary school, she played violin, but quit. “So, it’s not like I never held one before,” she said, “but it’s been a while.”
Choosing an instrument is a process. Clark assists beginners who are wanting to learn to play, but are not sure what. She usually brings three or four different instruments to the class, so people can pick them up, try them out and see what fits them, both in mind, body and ambitions. Some get loaned out for a while.
Clark said the ukelele is often a good choice for beginners. “It has a lot of two-finger chords,” she explained, adding that “a lot of people with arthritis sill come in with their big guitars and have trouble stretching.” She sometimes advises them to try the baritone uke, which is the largest of the four ukelele types, but requires less stretching to work the frets and strum.
Throughout her teaching, Clark encourages everyone to “play what they like. And play a variety of music and not become trapped into just one thing, because there’s beautiful music in all genres.”
The variety they all played at that class three weeks ago illustrated this. Home on the Range, St. Anne’s Reel, Tennessee Waltz and several others.
There was a lot of friendly bantering between songs, lots of laughing and often, bright smiles and head nodding, from someone who was pleased about being able to do a certain song. Clark stresses that, “It’s all about having fun.”
And best of all, it’s a no-pressure situation and an extremely welcoming environment. From the get-go, she tells her students, “When a person walks through the door, you need to greet them and welcome them. I had the opposite happen to me one time when I was learning and I went away for a year. So, I realize how important it is to encourage beginners of any age.”
Chuck Whittey seconds the motion. “A real effort is made here to put people at ease,” he said. “There are probably a lot of closets out there with instruments. People will buy it and try it, but have no place to go to play. A slow jam like this really provides that. The community — camaraderie — that’s an extra. You make friends here. And you’re part of something.”
The morning after a recent class, Clark said, “Two people dropped in last night, asking questions about the program. I told them they were welcome to stay and see what we’re doing.”
And if someone wants to join the class, “The first one is free,” Clark said. “After that it’s $10.”
For people who want to give this a try, Janet Clark can be contacted by e-mail at:
email@example.com. Or just show up at the Peninsula Performing Arts Center on a Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. and follow the music inside.