September 18-24, 2000
Three time National Flatpicking Champion
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1 (November/December 1996)
by Dan Miller
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Although Steve Kaufman has been the only three time winner of the prestigious National Flatpicking Championships at Winfield, Kansas, I don't think that when the Flatpicking history books are written this will be listed as his greatest accomplishment. I think that the jewel in his crown has been, and continues to be, his tremendous teaching method and his ability to show aspiring flatpickers that this stuff isn't really as hard as our heroes make it look. If you have an efficient practice method and you work hard, YOU can get it - this is Kaufman's message. Working hard to achieve his goals in this music is something Steve Kaufman knows all about. His degree of determination, dedication, self-motivation, and self-discipline in achieving his personal goals when he was a young player and in teaching students over the past 20 years, would make even the staunchest Marine Corps Drill Instructor snap to attention and render a crisp salute of approval. His untiring work in developing and propagating his flatpicking instructional methods and techniques have made him one of the most widely respected and sought after guitar instructors in the country.
Steve Kaufman was born in New York City in 1957. His father was a jazz pianist who worked in the import business and his mother was a classically trained pianist who insisted the Kaufman boys begin piano lessons at a very early age. Although Kaufman's father passed away when he was only nine years old, he credits his father for giving him an awareness of improvisation at an early age. Steve says, "We used to say that we wanted to go watch a TV show and Dad would start spontaneously playing the TV show theme on the piano. Looking back, I knew it was on the spot improvisation, and so we had that kind of improvisational influence."
Kaufman's experience with the guitar began in Junior High School when his older brother, Mike, taught him his first chords. However, he soon became bored with playing rhythm and put the guitar under his bed. He says, "I had learned to play some songs out of an old folk music book. I learned the chords and the strum patterns, but I didn't sing, so it wasn't doing me that much good." Later, his younger brother, inspired by the Beverley Hillbillies theme, took to playing the banjo and asked Steve to back him up. Kaufman says that playing back up to a banjo was a bit more interesting, but he still had not become really hooked on guitar playing until his younger brother brought home the Flatt and Scruggs Strictly Instrumental Album which featured Doc Watson.
The first song Steve tried to learn was Black Mountain Rag. He says he picked it up by listening to a version played by Randy Scruggs on the Earl Scruggs and Friends album. A slight problem immediately arose because he was attempting to play the tune using his fingers in a classical guitar style. Using this method he couldn't seem to get the song up to speed, but he says, "I had heard Jose Faliciano playing Flight of the Bumble Bee at about 3 million beats per minute and I figured if he could do it with his fingers, so could I. I would just have to keep practicing." Steve continued beating his fingers to death trying to fingerpick Black Mountain Rag and make it sound like Doc Watson until one day his older brother came into his room and said, "You know they use a flatpick for that, idiot" and threw Steve a pick. That is how it all got started.
Steve Kaufman was 13 years old the first time he took a flatpick to a set of strings and it was then and there that he decided that playing the guitar was what he wanted to do when he grew up. Like most other teenagers who become fanatically interested in something, Steve spent all his spare time playing the guitar. However, the difference between Steve and most other kids his age is that he took his practice very seriously and stuck to a strict practice schedule and regime. Steve says, "I looked at playing guitar as my job. During the summer time, Monday through Friday, nine to five, I practiced guitar. I took one short break in the morning, a lunch break, and a short break in the afternoon. While I was in school, I still practiced whenever I had time. I was lucky that I went to a very liberal school because I barley got by. But I knew I was not going to go to college, I knew I did not want to be trained for any other job." Steve organized his daily practice routine so as to have a specific time dedicated to practicing songs he already knew and a specific time dedicated to learning new material. Within each of these practice sessions he had developed various techniques, exercises, and drills to work on in order to improve all of his fundamental skills. He even kept notes to chart his progress.
In the Summer of 1975, just after graduating from high school, Steve Kaufman began the contest playing phase of his musical career. He had read about flatpicking contests in Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine and Pickin' Magazine and felt that this would be a good way to test his skills. He says, "Where I lived there was no one around to compare myself to and I thought that I was a hotrod. I wasn't. I was just as green as I could be." From the information he could glean from the magazines, Steve figured that the contest in Winfield, Kansas, was the biggest and so he hitchhiked with his guitar and backpack to Winfield in 1975. He says that there were about 20 contestants that year and he placed in the top ten (a thirteen year old Mark O'Conner was the winner). Kaufman says that the biggest thrill about being in Winfield that year was seeing all of the other flatpickers. After spending all of his high school years practicing from records and learning from a few friends, here he was in a place that was overflowing with other flatpickers. Norman Blake, Doc Watson, and Dan Crary were there performing that year, so Steve not only got to meet many new friends who had the same interests, but he got the chance to watch his heroes play. He says, "My greatest influences on the guitar were Norman, Dan, and Doc, and there they were. This was the Mecca!"
Although Kaufman had been primarily a self-taught player by the time he reached Winfield in 1975, he is quick to point out that he was not completely self-taught. He had been to a few festivals in New Jersey and says, "I had actually been copying quite a bit from a friend of mine. I think anyone who says that they never had instruction is either not being square with you or they haven't reflected. My instruction came from the streets and I learned from everyone." Other than the professionals who where playing on the records Kaufman listened to, one of the individuals who he credits as being an early influence was his friend Mike Scappatulio. He says, "Mike is the one who got me to play with a bounce and a lift. A lot of the other guys had a straight ahead, sewing machine sound. But Mike had a jazzier background and a bouncier sound. I would follow him around with a tape recorder and tape everything he played. When I started sounding like him he finally said, 'No more tapes.' He played some with Pete Wernick and he could just flat wear it out. He was the best guitar player I had ever heard."
After Kaufman got a taste for big festivals and contests that first year at Winfield, he spent the next several years working in the winter to save money and then traveling to festivals and contests all summer. He hitchhiked everywhere he went and slept by the side of the road. When he arrived at a festival he would tell the promoters that he did not have money but would like to work at the festival in trade for attendance to the festival and an entry in the guitar contest. They would usually allow him to perform odd jobs around the festival in trade for admission. He says, "That first year I didn't even have a tent, I strung a shower curtain between two trees and that was it. I woke up in the morning, ate a can of beans and headed down the road."
In December of 1976 Steve settled in Maryville, Tennessee and has been living there since. When he first moved to Maryville, he began teaching and was playing in some local clubs. He says, "That was a fun time. You had no debt, no car, no nothing, but you are so happy, without a care in the world, because you don't owe anybody anything. I was living off of about eight or ten students a week, living in the basement of a house that had no windows, sleeping on a water bed that leaked. The room I rented had no bathroom, but there was a Texaco station down the street, and who cared!" Steve says that he was fortunate at that time because he met Red Rector and his wife Parker who took him under their wing. Steve and Red did local shows together, Red was on every cut of Steve's first album, they toured Europe together and Red had also invited Steve along on some tours with Jethro Burns. Steve credits Red with teaching him a lot about dealing with people and about how to perform on stage. Steve said, "Red was a real veteran in the business, and like any veteran, he had a lot he could show you."
The first instructional book and tape project Steve put together was the first of a series for Homespun called, Bluegrass Guitar Solos That Every Parking Lot Picker Should Know. That project, completed in 1990, worked out so well that Homespun asked him to do several other flatpicking videos as well as further volumes of the "Parking Lot Picker" series. Currently, there are three volumes in that series and Kaufman is working on the fourth. In addition to the Homespun material, Steve has also completed a number of projects for Mel Bay. (Those who are interested in a complete list of Steve's instructional books, videos, tapes, and CDs can call 1-800 FLATPIK and receive a catalog, from outside the U.S. call 423-982-3808.)
By 1992, Kaufman was teaching nearly 85 students a week in Maryville. About that time a music store in Washington state called Steve and asked him what it would take for him to get out on the road and teach. In order to cover his expenses, Steve arranged to teach and perform at several locations in Washington during that first trip. The trip was so successful that Steve began booking other similar workshop/performance trips to various parts of the country. As word of Steve's teaching and performing abilities spread, his weekend workshops have become so popular that he is now out on the road about 40 weekends a year.
Typically Steve's weekend workshops begin with a two hour introductory session on Friday evening. In this session, Steve introduces his teaching method, passes out some written material and tabulature, gets a good feel for the ability level of the group he is working with, and solicits feedback regarding what each individual attending the workshop wants to learn.
On Saturday, the group will attend two sessions, both three hours in length. During these sessions the material Steve covers usually depends on the ability level of the attendees and the questions that are asked. Although this may seem like a loose structure, there is never any "dead" time. Steve has the ability to fill up every minute of the allotted time with valuable information. For every question that is asked, Steve presents a very detailed explanation of his approach, complete with practice exercises. If the group begins to run out of questions, Steve never allows a moment to be wasted. He takes control and begins to present something from the tab he has handed out, or suggests (after explaining the ten "jamandments") that the entire group jam on a given song. The written material or the jam will usually inspire more questions.
After Kaufman has given the group an information packed eight hours worth of seminar, he will usually conclude his trip with an evening concert. Sometimes he performs solo, other times he brings up a local musician to help him out with the show. Those who have attended Steve's workshops, from beginners to advanced professionals, will be the first to tell you that it was time well spent. I don't think anyone walks away from a Steve Kaufman workshop without having collected enough new material to keep their practice time filled for months.
One of the nicest things about working with Steve Kaufman, as the people who have attended his workshops know, is that even after his tremendous success as a competition champion, performer, and instructor, he still thinks of himself as being, "Just one of the guys." Even though he has played on stage with Norman, Dan, Doc, Tony Rice and other greats, he still holds these individuals as his heroes. He is approachable, open, and is willing to sit and talk about guitar playing with anyone.
Through his hard work, dedication and over twenty years of experience teaching, Steve has developed a very practical and effective approach to teaching students how to flatpick the guitar. In the remainder of this article, we will present a few of the teaching concepts and techniques he uses in order to help students get over some of the difficult aspects of flatpicking. However, please keep in mind that this is going to be an introductory article. In future issues of the magazine we will present Steve's ideas on other topics, such as right hand technique, crosspicking, learning breaks from recordings, and learning to improvise, in more detail.
What is the most important recommendation you could make to someone who is learning to flatpick a guitar?
What I tell people is to learn material for their level. If I was going to college to study math and my goal was calculus, or beyond calculus, and I didn't know algebra, I cannot get to my goal the first year. People have to learn to structure their time and take things at a pace that is easy for them and they will see progress. It does not take many years to do what we do, but you also have to realize that you cannot have it today. With my students, I gave them a new song every week that was not much harder than the song they had learned the previous week, but it incorporated the difficulties that they had with the last song. In doing that for twenty years, I was able to become proficient at teaching at the different levels.
I noticed this is the approach you used in your "Parking Lot Picking" series for Homespun.
Yes, "Parking Lot Picking" was the first book that I did. It was designed just as if you were taking private lessons. There are beginner, intermediate, and advanced breaks to each song. The majority of the time on the tapes is spent on the beginning level break because it is the beginner that needs the work. The intermediates need less time, but they still need to be knocked down to the beginner's level for a little bit just to get the motor skills. The advanced people just need the licks, so we don't stress the mechanics as much. It is designed to bring you all the way through the course if you do it systematically. If someone where to learn all 20 beginners breaks and then go back to learn the intermediate breaks, they will see how to overlay an intermediate measure onto a beginners level measure and see how the run is interchangeable and melodic at the same time.
Would you recommend that a beginning student work through all of the tunes at the beginners level before they try to play any of them at the intermediate level?
I think it is important for someone to first learn a large repertoire of songs at their current ability level before they learn more difficult material. Here is the example, a guy calls me up and says, "In your newsletter, I got through your break to Blackberry Rag, so what level am I?" I said that it was written for an intermediate level. He said, "Good, that means I'm an intermediate player." I asked him how fast he was playing it and he told me he could get through it in about two minutes. I said, "Well, that is a 30 second break." At that point he realized what we were talking about. If I gave him a beginner version, he could probably learn to play it up to speed fairly quickly. I feel that if someone can play something up to speed so that they can play it with people in the real world, they are going to feel better about themselves and they can move on from there.
A lot of people come to me and they say that they have been working with the "Parking Lot Picking" books for nine months and they have made it through the first three songs. Right away I know that they are learning the beginning, intermediate, and advanced versions of the same songs and in doing that they are shooting right up the side of a mountain. It is too hard. I would rather have them spiral around that mountain by going through all of the songs at the same level before they move on.
How do people know how to judge their own level?
If you cannot get a song off of a piece of paper and committed to memory in about 20 minutes, then it is too hard for you. If you can get it in twenty minutes, then you can practice it for a week and have it up to full speed. If you devote enough time to that one song, then you don't have to practice it any more. You just know it. I recommend that once my students get the song off of the paper and committed to memory, they play it 50 times in a row without stopping. If the break is only 20 or 30 seconds long and you play it 50 times, it will only take you 25 minutes of practice time. After twenty minutes of continuous practice on that one song, you will know it and can move on to another song.
Once a beginner has memorized a beginner's level break, should they immediately try to get it up to speed, or are there some other things they need to practice first?
First they should play slow and work on sustain, otherwise they will always sound choppy. Lack of sustain is one thing that makes a beginner sound like a beginner. A beginner can sound like an intermediate once they get the trick of sustain. To get good sustain, you have to hold the notes down long enough to get harmonic triggering and let the instrument actually get activated so that you can hear the sound of the wood and not just the sound of the strings. What happens with the beginner is that they think of the next note and they worry about getting their finger to that next note in time and so they don't hold any of the notes long enough to achieve good sustain. Of course they have enough time because they are playing slow, they have just not built up the motor skills. So, if the beginner can learn to sustain each note as he is practicing the song slow, it will sound a lot smoother.
The best thing I can tell you about sustain is to listen to the way you play. It doesn't matter what level you are at. Learn to play very slowly. There are several phrases used, one is, "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast." It is frustrating because everyone wants to play faster, and we can talk about that in a minute because there are some easy drills to practice if you want to learn how to play faster. But everyone should first learn how to play slow. For one thing, if you play slow and you have a tape recorder on, it is merciless. Every error that comes up is on that tape when you listen to it. I've used tape recorders and played slowly when I was working on my contest stuff. When you slow things down, you can hear all of your little buzz notes, you can hear when your timing is out, and many other details that you might not catch if you are playing fast. If you play slow enough and have a timing error, you can go back and play along with that tape, catch when the timing is out, which is usually a right hand error, and figure out the problem. Playing slowly, and really concentrating on it, is one of the ways to learn how to play with sustain. Don't give yourself any slack.
What technique do you offer your students for them to learn how to play a tune up to full speed.
As I said before, you first have to work on playing a break which is at your level. You then take the one song that you know best and you practice your break to that song at about twice the speed at which you can comfortably play it. You play it in the privacy of your own home with no one else around so that you are not inhibited. You know that you are going to make mistakes, but don't worry about it. You are going for raw speed in this exercise. You play the song at least six times through at this speed. Each time you go through the song, you "bubble sort" out your mistakes.
I recommend that my students make a rhythm track of themselves playing at this double time speed on one of those answering machine loop tapes and practice the lead along with that rhythm track. Of course this speed will be different for everyone. If you are just a beginner and can only play a song comfortably at 80 bpm, then you make the rhythm track of yourself playing at 160 bpm. More advanced players can play faster. When I demonstrate this at my workshops, I'll play a song like Old Joe Clark up at about 400 bpm. That is faster than I would play it in the real world at a jam session, but that's OK in the context of the exercise.
After about a week of practicing like this for 5 or 10 minutes a day, you will be able to play that song up to the speed of your rhythm track. Once you can play the song up to speed, you can then go back and work on timing, tone and technique to clean those things up. But in the meantime you have raised your average speed and you can eventually get comfortable playing at the higher rates.
How do you recommend flatpicking students use their practice time?
If someone had an hour to practice, I would recommend that the first half hour they work on old material and the next half hour they work on new material. The "old" meaning that you are going to first start off very slowly with a wide right hand overswing to loosen up everything, get your tendons moving, and develop your power. Start playing a simple version of a song you know well at about 50 beats per minute. Do that for about three minutes, that is your warm-up. After that, you start going through your old material. What I did was I had a list of the songs I knew how to play and I would close my eyes, let my finger fall randomly onto the piece of paper, and wherever my finger landed, that is the song I was going to play. I would play through that song at least ten times and then move on. You randomly go through all of the stuff, otherwise, you will only end up playing the songs you like and not the things you need. I also used to make a tick mark in my notebook for every time I played each of the songs. That way I could scan my list and know which songs I needed to work on.
The other half of your practice time is spent learning new material. You can sight read standard music, read from tab, or learn from records. Start by learning breaks to fiddle tunes which are at your level. I don't recommend beginners concentrate on scale work. If you are not ready for it, it is too hard. If you are ready for it, and you are playing fiddle tunes anyway, your scale work is found within your fiddle tunes.
For information on Steve's instructional items, his flatpicking camp, and his performance schedule, visit his web page at www.firebottle.com/flatpick/.
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