I’ve been taking banjo lessons for 2 1/2 years and I’m definitely making progress. So far, I’ve learned a bunch of songs – Scruggs style bluegrass mostly, but also some classical and a few others. It’s fun being able to play the songs, and they’ve helped me learn some chords and some licks, plus develop my dexterity. But there’s a lot I don’t know, and I want to get better faster.
So I’ve started thinking about the way I practice. What I usually do is a bit of warmup with a couple of songs I know pretty well, and then I work on the song I’m trying to learn. I break it down and memorize a bit at a time until I can play it all the way through. Sometimes I use a metronome or record myself. I try to focus more on the harder parts. If I can find a recording of the piece, I’ll usually listen to it once or twice early on, and sometimes if I’m really struggling I’ll either track down sheet music or laboriously translate the banjo tab to notes and play it on the keyboard. Sometimes I watch t.v. episodes on Netflix while I run through parts of the song over and over.
I wouldn’t call it deliberate, mindful practice. It’s pretty haphazard.
I decided to create a practice plan. I went looking for a template on the web, and stumbled across a terrific website called The Musician’s Way http://musiciansway.com which is the companion site to Gerald Klickstein’s wonderful book.
This is exactly the right book at the right time. Even though it’s written for people who’ve been playing longer and have loftier ambitions than I do, it’s packed with practical information I can use. It inspired me to create a better practice environment, with fewer distractions and with everything I need close at hand. It encouraged me to take it more seriously, mentally and physically preparing before I pick up the banjo.
Klickstein advocates scheduling regular practice, with plenty of breaks, and using multiple short stints instead of marathons. Hours of sloppy run-throughs will produce nothing of value. Make it your top priority to raise the quality of your practice. He recommends choosing material that you like and that’s within your ability to play, using etudes and exercises to improve your technical ability, and regularly attending performances and listening to recordings to widen your pool of possibilities.
He advises breaking practice down into 5 parts: learning new material, getting better at older material, preparing for performance, improving technique (scales & such), and musicianship (including studying and listening). I don’t have any performance plans but the other four are spot on for me. I see now that I’ve been spending almost all my time in the first box, which is why I’ve felt like I’m spinning my wheels.
That advice to listen and study reminded me of a story I heard from a banjo teacher I met in Flagstaff at Pickin’ in the Pines last year. He talked about a student of his who wanted to play bluegrass but only listened to rock music. I write fiction, and I would never attempt writing in a genre I don’t read, but I confess I haven’t listened to enough of the kind of music I’m trying to learn to play. At my last lesson, my teacher turned me on to a guy named Bill Keith who developed something called the melodic style of banjo playing, and I really think this is going to be a breakthrough for me. Turns out there’s a whole boatload of YouTube videos like this one:
With Klickstein’s permission, then, I’ve started watching these videos and seeking out a bunch of different versions of Arkansas Traveler (the song I’m learning right now – you know, I’m bringin’ home a baby bumblebee, won’t my mommy be so proud of me) and, although I feel weird about it, visualizing playing before I touch a single string. And this week I’m focusing my technique block on the G, D, and C scales and converting major chords to minor chords.
And I’m only in Chapter 2!