10 Practice Habits of Highly Successful Banjo Players

by Bennett Sullivan

Bennett Sullivan is a performer, composer, and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY. He has developed several music-ed apps for iOS and Android using his “Listen & Learn” method, as well as online programs such as the Practice Strategy Checklist. Bennett was recently hand-picked to play in the newest musical by Steve Martin, called “Bright Star”, which premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, CA. The show has plans to go to Broadway in 2015.

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This list is a brief documentation of what I do to stay at the top of my game, and what many artists I know like to practice to maintain their chops and keep progressing. I hope you find it interesting and useful, and you can implement some of these suggestions into your own practice routine.

Play Fast

Whether your a fan of Earl, Bela, Noam, Tom Adams, Charlie Cushman, etc., you know that all of these guys have incredible facility and can play at blistering speeds without blinking an eye. What practice contributed to these players’ impeccable technique?

Lots of playing fast. Most likely, they were just thrown into bands that played high tempo material. Learning to play fast gives you a completely different perspective on everything you play.

Slow tempos will feel easier, your form and solo awareness improves, and you basically obtain more command and control in your right hand.

Play with the metronome at fast tempos every day, and strive for cleanliness and good tone.

*this is only really beneficial after you have somewhat of a repertoire and can play through many songs without stopping. If you’re a beginner and you want to play fast, take lots of time to learn the right timing and right notes before speeding up. Beginner musicians should always play slow before playing fast to learn the nuances of bluegrass style playing.

Tenbrooks-Jens-300x250Record Yourself

Recording yourself gives you an “outside” ear. From that perspective, you can take mental notes on what needs to be improved, hear sections that sound unclear, and take action on fixing the issues from there. There’s too much going on from behind your instrument for you to pay attention to everything that your playing.

Things to listen for:

  • Intonation/Pitch
  • Timing (speeding up or slowing down)
  • Clarity of ideas(when improvising or writing a solo or song)
  • Rhythm (note placement)

Imitate

Every great banjo player practices imitation. You’re doing this whenever you learn a song from one of your favorite musicians’s recordings. If you’re a beginning banjo player, think of yourself as a baby. Baby’s take in so much information when they enter the world, and they learn from imitation. As they watch and listen to their parents speak and interact, they quickly learn how to communicate.

As a baby banjo picker, you should listen to lots of music, hang out with musicians that are better than you, ask lots of questions, and try to copy whatever you can(without using tab of course :).

Write

It doesn’t matter what level your at, you can write music. Yes, the more experienced a musician you are, the more technical you can make your songs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be more musical. As long as you’re putting your heart into the music, it’ll sound “right”.

If you a beginner player, experiment with putting notes together one at a time. Play a note, then what do you hear coming after it? Do you hear a melody in your head? Can you reproduce on your instrument?

If you’re more advanced, write some chord changes, and then improvise. Record yourself, keep what sounds right to you, and build on top of that.

Another reason writing is important is that it helps you develop your own vocabulary on the instrument. More time with playing with your instrument = a deeper connection to what YOU want your music to sound like.

Jam

Pretty self explanatory :). It’s good to mix it up. Don’t always go to a local jam session with the same people. Find one person to play with, but also play in a large group. Start a band, and come up with song and solo arrangements.

Depending on the situation, you’ll be required to step into different roles. Playing as a duo with someone is much different than playing with a 6 piece bluegrass band. As a duo, there is more pressure to contribute, but this also makes it more flexible. It’s all about perspective though, so I encourage you to play with different formations as much as possible for your development.

Use the Metronome

Yup. Do it. Just do it. Every amazing musician has, and probably still does play with a metronome. You can even put it on when you don’t have your instrument, and practice singing the song in your head.

Don’t be afraid to go really slow or really fast. Vary the tempo as much as you can, and be sensitive to what feels good for you and what is challenging - then practice what is challenging :).

Set Goals

Without knowing where you want to be, it’s hard to practice the right material. My recommendation is to set goals for the week, and list three ways you’re going to achieve each one.

For example, if I wanted to learn Blackberry Blossom, I would list these three actions:

  • Learn song and chords by ear with slow down application
  • Play along with recording using slow down application
  • Play with metronome and slowly speed up the tempo

These actions aren’t very specific, but the more specific you can be, the clearer vision you’ll have for what action you need to take to accomplish your goals.

Practice vs Writing vs Play

It’s so easy to get caught up in playing that you forget to practice things that actually need work. However, its good to play as well. And how do you fit writing into the picture? A schedule helps, or some sort of structure designed to allow you quality time doing each activity.

Engage Your Ears

Listen to tons of music - All the time. Sing. Transcribe/learn by ear. Set a goal to learn half of a song by ear, then use the tab to see how accurate you were. Switching from tab to learning by ear is a crucial step in the development of banjo players, and is absolutely necessary to feeling freedom and comfort on the instrument.

Challenge Yourself

Objectively listen to yourself everyday, and practice things that challenge you. It’s comparable to lifting weights/putting on muscle - if you don’t make the load any heavier on a daily or weekly basis, you’re just going to stay the same weight. No progress will be made.

It may be a little painful to your ego at first to listen to recordings of yourself over and over again, but try turning that pain into inspiration. Remember, you aren't supposed to sound good when you’re practicing :).

Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope it has been helpful to you. If you would like to hear more from me about learning banjo and what I am up to in teaching and performing head on over to my website or follow me on facebook!

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