Interest in banjo picks up

Teacher: A Catonsville musician finds that bluegrass music's increasing popularity has spurred interest in learning the instrument.

November 28, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

While Ross Nickerson might not teach young wizards as in the popular Harry Potter movie, he does impart a sort of magic to the students who gather in his Catonsville basement apartment.

Nickerson is the proprietor of The Banjo School, where he teaches the five-string version of the instrument to budding musicians. The 44-year-old Massachusetts native has played all over the country, winning awards at regional competitions for his lightning-quick picking.

Now he spends his days teaching students from as far away as Texas and Kentucky. "They send me a videotape of them playing, and then I send one back," Nickerson said. "It's neat."

Since hanging his "school" shingle in the 100 block of Forest Ave., Nickerson has been picking up more local students. Recently, he held a jam session on his front lawn with about a dozen of his students.

"They come and see that they're not alone," Nickerson said. "They can commiserate, like, `Hey, you can't hit that chord, either.'"

Nickerson began playing banjo as a 16-year-old growing up in Westborough, Mass. A high school friend bought a guitar and persuaded Nickerson to buy a $50 banjo.

His enthusiasm for the instrument grew when he traveled to an annual bluegrass festival held in Union Grove, N.C. From that point on, Nickerson was hooked.

"The fast picking was really intriguing to me," Nickerson said. "It made me really curious."

He has played with bluegrass bands around the country, from Cape Cod to Tucson. He has played at Opryland USA in Nashville, Tenn., and in 1998 produced a CD titled Blazing The West, which was hailed by the trade publication Banjo Newsletter as "an excellent example of his flexibility."

"He can make a banjo sing," said Tim Jacobson, a Catonsville neighbor and student. "I brag about him all the time."

He has been playing for 28 years, and he has been teaching most of that time. Working with new students helps him keep in touch with the basics of the instrument, he said.

Stan Hyatt, a retired Pikesville dentist, started taking lessons from Nickerson about a month ago.

"The sound fascinates me, it's that twangy sound," said Hyatt, 66. "I hope that someday I'll be able to play bluegrass."

Nickerson said the bluegrass soundtrack from the recent movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? has spurred new interest in the banjo.

"It doesn't get great airplay," Nickerson said of bluegrass. "But when people get hooked, they remain loyal."

Jim Lewis became hooked about a year and half ago and has been taking lessons with Nickerson ever since. Students pay $25 for a 45-minute lesson.

"I was amazed at how these hillbillies could pick so fast with their right hand," said the 65-year-old Baltimore stockbroker. "It fascinated me."

Dave Nanney, 63, grew up on bluegrass music and went to Nickerson to learn to play.

"I just like the rolls you can make," said Nanney, referring to a method of picking.

Dana Kollmann of Catonsville wanted to learn to play the banjo ever since she heard the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies television show. Kollmann, a forensic technician with the Baltimore County police, is glad she found her way to Nickerson.

"When you've done well, Ross' enthusiasm just reverberates," Kollmann said. "And I'm just as excited to hear him play as he is to hear me."

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