It is more than 30 minutes past closing time on a Tuesday evening at High Strung Violins and Guitars, yet its front doors remain open to passersby because inside the “Old Time Learning Jam” is underway.
Beneath a wall display of candy-colored ukuleles for sale, a performance of the double-entendre folk song “Greasy Coat” turns round and round, like an engine cobbled together from spare parts: Five fiddles, four banjos, three acoustic guitars, and a harmonica, whose owner is playing so timidly that it cannot be heard at all.
Jam leader and fiddler Bob Herring, 64, of Chapel Hill signals to the circle of players around him that they are on the final lap of the melody. The song ends – not quite on a dime, but good enough for a pocket of silence to sneak in – before being filled by a player’s “noodling.”
“It’s gonna happen, and it should happen,” Herring said of the errant picker. “It’s the only way … people get better.”
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Unlike “noodling” for catfish (fishing with bare hands), noodling on a musical instrument – casual picking, playing, strumming or drumming – is an activity that can test the patience of those in the company of the noodler.
Herring, who has been playing and teaching folk fiddle for decades, said dealing with noodling at the learning jam “can be a delicate dance.”
“A lot of times when you do this, you have to be careful of (the player’s) feelings,” Herring said. “There is a time, though, to put the hammer down.”
Herring has seen the hammer swung. He recalled an incident he witnessed at a folk music retreat in the Catskills decades ago, when a young student invited herself into a jam circle of experienced players.
“One of the players told the student, ‘Put your fiddle down, you’re messing things up,’” Herring said.
The young woman left in tears and struggled for the rest of her time at the retreat over having been “squashed” at a jam.
“When you play music like this, your heart is open,” Herring said. “You’re at a very vulnerable place.”
Matt Stutzman, 34, of Durham, general manager of High Strung on West Markham Avenue, carries a display model washtub bass down a set of stairs and joins Herring’s jam. Stutzman worked for 10 years teaching strings to middle-school students around Durham, and admits to having a habit of noodling on the guitar while watching television.
“Adults are just as bad as kids,” Stutzman said. “How would I address it? Just a little eye contact and stop speaking.”
Despite the noodling that evening, Herring, who is built like a rugby player, manages to be both soft-spoken and commanding at the same time.
“I just find that patience is the best thing,” he said.
When you play music like this, your heart is open. You’re at a very vulnerable place.
Charles Gabriel, in his 60s, said he and his acoustic guitar have been attending the Tuesday night learning jam for the last five years. Gabriel, who lives in Cary, said the jam is “worth driving for.”
“Where else in the Triangle do they open up a store for free for teaching music?” Gabriel said.
Between songs with Herring and the rest of the group, Gabriel showed no penchant for noodling. He said he suspects that he has yet to experience the true speed and exhilaration that comes with a group of players working as one.
“There is a certain critical mass to learning to play an instrument,” Gabriel said.
The following week, Herring, Gabriel and seven others warm up with a run-through of the standard “Li’l Liza Jane.” The performance sounds brighter and more polished than the week before. Herring then suggests the group try “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek,” another holdover from the previous session.
“This is gonna be a challenge,” Herring tells the group, his eyes resting on a banjo player seated to his right.
“We played that last week,” the banjo player reminds Herring.
“It’s still gonna be a challenge,” Herring replies.
The owner of High Strung, Lee Raymond, 60, of Durham, has led learning jams, and has been filling in as leader for the store’s Thursday evening Irish Learning Jam. Raymond believes most of what musicianship is all about is listening.
“If you don’t listen constructively, it’s a lot harder to play cooperatively,” Raymond said. “In other words, listen to the group so that you can be part of it, not separate from it.”
Meanwhile, Herring’s learning jam cycles, augering into “Brushy Creek.” With the melody established, Herring quietly lets go of the steering wheel by resting his fiddle on his lap and watching the group take control.
“You have to take risks,” Herring said later. “Because if you don’t take that risk, you’re never gonna get better.”