Student reviews

Dobro: Sally van Meter by Rob Newell

OK. So we could get this over very quickly & I could get back to practising.

Several people had signed up for next year's class with Sally van Meter before this year's was finished, and before they even knew for certain she'd be coming back to do it all again. Still, you probably want a bit more detail than that. Well, I could tell you that those people represented a wide spectrum of ability, from near beginner to near pro (sorry if I'm offending anyone here!) & that's probably the secret of it all - that Sally's class was inspirational across that wide range of ability and experience.

But let's start at the beginning. Sore Fingers is the best kept secret in the music world. I came to study banjo five years ago (and came back every year since) and was blown away every time. I've been to other music workshops, mainly jazz, and all sorts of other stuff in my work life, but Sore Fingers is a phenomenon. In a boarding school in the Cotswolds, at a great price, people live and work together for nearly a week on music, taught by some of the greatest names in bluegrass. Better still, the whole thing is organised so that the music is there, centre stage, throughout. You come back home afterwards, limp as a rag, after about 6 hours of classes a day, a couple of hours band practice, plus socialising (with music!). Whatever your standard of playing there's always something going on you can be part of. On the debit side, you have to fit all your meals into about an hour and a half, so to get the most out of it, you have to be resilient. The accommodation is basic, but if you can't abide a dormitory and can't get a single room (these are at a premium, so early booking is essential unless you really love the sound of snoring and worse!), you can live off site, though, having done this once, I think you miss out a bit on the intensity of the 'Kingham Experience'. It's one chance in a year to be immersed in music. Don't miss it.

So back to Sally van Meter's dobro class. Well, for me, it had three major strengths: lots of personal insights, lots of practice till you understood what those meant, and everyone got to contribute. There was no sense that the real novices (and I'm pretty novice myself) were going to be left behind, yet, at the same time, the real hotshots didn't seem to find it old hat. Let's just take vibrato as an example. 'If you want to develop a strong vibrato, think about a singer you like - the vibrato they use. Now try and do that on the dobro.' A great insight, in my opinion - the dobro is a really vocal instrument, and likening its vibrato to a singer's is a great way to understand and develop that quality. Oh, and if you didn't understand it, we got to go round the whole class demonstrating our vibrato. This was also great because it came at the start of the class, and got everyone into the way of playing in front of each other.

This was just one of a series of important lessons well delivered. Here are some others:

  • hammers and pull offs (pull offs should follow the direction of travel to the next barred note - obvious, huh? Well not to me, till then.)
  • pick blocking (don't even ask, but the explanation was about as lucid as this esoteric subject gets and got me not only using it, but hearing and understanding just how it affects tone)
  • solo construction ( tons of practice of full and part solos with plentiful explanation and coaching from Sally)
  • backing up instrumentals and singers (more practical examples which we all practised on)

Sally really took her lead from us as a class, in terms of content, but it was pretty clear she had some central message she wanted to get across, and these would have come up whatever we said, since they were central to good playing.

I could go on till next Sore Fingers describing this stuff, but I've got to get back to the old metronome and carry on working on it. I have absolutely no idea how long it will take me to integrate this material and actually that misses some of the point. Of course, it's great to have direct teaching input from one of the leaders in the music and great to come away with lots of stuff to work on, but the other thing about this class (and a lot of the Sore Fingers experience besides) is that it has an inspirational quality - you go away wanting to put just that bit more time into the instrument & watch just that little bit less TV. It's also not that Sally has definitive answers for all your dobro questions. What you get is her way, which is what this master class kind of approach is about - an in depth look at aspects of playing as one person has interpreted the instrument over the years, up close, personal and patient.

So thanks Sally, I'll be back next year, and so it seems, will a lot of last year's class. Anyone reading this review and wondering if the class is for you? You'll only be disappointed if you miss it.

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