Home Learnin' with Happy Traum
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2003, Volume 10, #6
Written by John Metzger
Learning to play an instrument isn’t as easy at it might appear. It’s difficult enough to comprehend the proper manner in which to strike certain notes and chords, let alone how to put them together to form a song that sounds anything reasonably close to what one wants to hear. There was a time when music education was a regular part of the school curriculum throughout the United States, but with budget crises looming annually, arts-oriented programs are always the first to be cut. Not to mention, once one graduates from high school and moves on to other things, the options for learning become even slimmer.
Enter the burgeoning market for learning a variety of instruments at home via CD, video tape, or DVD. The products have been available for decades, circulating on a smaller scale, but any attendee of the roving trade shows for musical instruments can attest to the recent proliferation of these home learning products. There is, of course, the downside that the instruction is not personalized, but the upsides are tremendous — flexible scheduling and pacing, the ability to review lessons as many times as needed, and the instruction from some of the best musicians in the world.
One of the pioneers of the unique, home-learning market is Happy Traum, a veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, a former editor of Sing Out! magazine, and the founder of Homespun Tapes. Said Traum, "I have been a guitar teacher since my college days, and for about ten years, I made my living doing that in between gigs. I taught privately and in music schools, summer camps, guitar shops, and even started my own ‘New York School of Folk Music’ with Dick Weissman for a year or two."
"I have always loved the teaching process, and guitar was what I knew best," he continued. "I began writing books and articles about guitar techniques, so it wasn’t a big transition to putting lessons on tape. I started making lessons for students to work on while I was away on tour, but that wasn’t very time-efficient. It took me many hours to get a good one-hour lesson on tape, so I decided to make lessons I could sell to all my students."
Initially recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, Traum’s first audio lessons turned into a 12-part series based on his book Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar, which, 35 years later, is still in print. As technology improved, the lessons were transferred to newer formats. Said Traum, "Cassettes didn’t come on the market until the late sixties, so a year or two after we started, we had to use both formats — as we are today, with VHS and DVD. We sold those 5" reels well into the ’70s before we finally phased them out. Those first lessons are still in our catalog, and we are now transferring them to CD. They originally sold well enough to encourage us to try other lessons, so we gradually built up a catalog."
Traum began by recording the lessons himself, but he quickly turned to utilizing close friends from the folk scene who also had some experience in teaching, such as his brother Artie as well as banjoist Bill Keith, pianist David Cohen, and fiddle player Kenny Kosek. Since its meager beginnings, Homespun Tapes’ catalog has grown to include a variety of audio cassettes and CDs as well as over 500 video titles taught by almost 200 instructors. "I’ve been lucky enough to have had many talented friends through the years whom I could call on to work with us," said Traum.
Indeed, he has. Everyone from jazz guitarist John Abercrombie to harmonica player Norton Buffalo, from bass player Jack Casady to percussionist Tito Puente has recorded for Homespun Tapes. The lessons themselves cover a wide array of instruments, from the usual line-up of vocals, guitar, drums, and bass to more unusual offerings such as dulcimer, autoharp, concertina, ukelele, and bouzouki. The styles of music covered by the lessons are equally diverse, featuring everything from classical to jazz, from klezmer to rockabillly. Some lessons are geared towards children, others towards very advanced adults. Recent offerings include a two-DVD set titled The Sam Bush Mandolin Method for intermediate students; a comprehensive, three-DVD guitar course for beginners on bluegrass flatpicking taught by Steve Kaufman; Tony Trischka’s intermediate level course Classic Bluegrass Banjo Solos; and an absolutely terrific acoustic guitar lesson by Roger McGuinn (Basic Folk Guitar) that covers American folk songs like Delia’s Gone, Wayfaring Stranger, and The Water Is Wide as well as several McGuinn originals, such as Chestnut Mare and Gate of Horn. "I work with each artist in determining the material, level, and scope of the lessons, but I leave a great deal up to them. I choose artists strictly by those whose music I admire, and those who I think will have something to offer aspiring players," explained Traum.
Currently, Homespun Tapes is adding more than 20 new products each year, expanding its catalog at a rapid pace. Just on the horizon are lessons taught by Peter Rowan, Dr. John, and Pete Huttlinger, while still others are in the works, though not yet finalized. Traum, of course, couldn’t be happier. "It keeps being exciting for us, and hopefully for our many students worldwide as well," said Traum.
"The impact of the business on my life has been profound," he explained. "It started as a part-time supplement to my performing career, and gradually became my full-time occupation. Gigs are now a pleasant, but important, sideline, and I try to play out at least once or twice a month. It has been emotionally more gratifying than I ever could have imagined, since I have received innumerable letters and in-person meetings with people telling me how much our products have affected their lives in a positive way."
Roger McGuinn's Basic Folk Guitar is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 2003 The Music Box