Banjo Psychology

by Dan Walsh

I've been teaching banjo for about fifteen years and although I had the most fantastic banjo teacher I could ever have asked for (thank you George), I've been learning how to teach better throughout that period and am always learning. One of the biggest changes in my approach is moving away from simply focusing on technique and repertoire.

Those things are important of course - everybody wants a repertoire and everybody wants to play better. But what is music if it isn't emotional, psychological, therapeutic, and enjoyable? I realized that without helping that side of things, the most important aspects of music making are lost and, ironically, people usually play technically worse and have less repertoire they can play from memory as a result.


I hasten to point out I'm not claiming to be some sort of professional psychologist or anything but there are a few things that I noticed coming up time and time again. Chiefly, the outright terror of playing a wrong note! Timid and apologetic playing, particularly in front of others, is an understandable defense mechanism but it does NOBODY any favors. I know this is easy to say and harder to do - but fake it til you make it if you have to! Playing with conviction makes any performance instantly far far more enjoyable. There might be mistakes littered throughout but if there's confidence (even a manufactured confidence!) and an expression then it has something. If I were to play a piece and stopped to apologize every time I did something I didn't mean to, played so timidly and obviously scared that the audience felt on edge or stopped to check where my fingers were thus holding up the entire piece of music just to make sure I didn't play a dodgy note...would you pay to watch me? But if I play a tune all the way through with some distinctly questionable notes but it's got rhythm, expression, dynamic variation and I look like I'm enjoying it...

In playing timidly and apologetically and desperately telling oneself 'don't make a mistake, don't play a wrong note' you make it not only less enjoyable for the audience member but less enjoyable for yourself. And, ironically, you make it far more likely that you'll...make a mistake and play a wrong note! Play with conviction and a degree of relaxation and your playing will be much more likely to be accurate, in time, and enjoyable for you and the listener. Realize that a wrong note is not the end of the world and in the grand scheme of things matter not a jot.

Again, really not claiming to be a psychologist but...what I have figured out recently is that it isn't just a fear of making a mistake. I think the reason that people come into a lesson or an open mic slot or whatever it may be and start immediately apologising for the mistakes they're going to make before playing in a rather robotic and mechanical way through the tune stopping at every difficult bit etc is that what they actually fear is giving something of themselves and getting it wrong. If they get it wrong but they've not opened themselves up then they can live with that. But put some emotion and something of themselves into it without the defense mechanism of apologeticism and THEN play something wrong....that's just too far. It's a hard thing to do to open yourself up but ultimately, it's kind of what music is about. And as mentioned, there's nothing to fear from playing something wrong. It doesn't instantly make everything you play good or bad music. Crudely, it's almost about the maths! If you've got a good feel, spirited performance, most of the tune right, and a few wrong notes that's 3-1 to the good stuff!

I'm not encouraging people to be sloppy or lax in their playing - by all means, practice away until that troublesome phrase is tidied up. Loop a bar again and again until you're playing it smoothly and accurately. Memorize that tune by practicing four bars at a time repeatedly until you can confidently play it from memory. In fact, this plays into another big psychological barrier to your playing improving - harsh self-criticism and impatience. A lot of the time folks struggle to perform a tune/song as well as they want to (whether it be to a teacher, their family or an audience) because they simply haven't learned it fully yet. Instead of just making sure they've fully learned whatever it is they want to perform, they waste time saying things like 'I should know it by now', ' I should be able to just memorize a tune by now'. Why should you?! If you don't know it yet, you don't know it yet. Criticising yourself isn't going to help.

But when you come to perform, it's a lot more likely that it'll go well if you've really spent time making sure that you are ready to perform and you REALLY know it. When you play at home on your own and you forget those words, fluff that bit of the tune, or go to the wrong chord - you let yourself off the hook and think 'That'll be fine'. Remember if you're nervous, which most people are, it's quite likely that any bits of the song/tune that are shall we say a bit touch and go will escape your mind at that moment. If you've really really nailed it, then the muscle memory will kick in and you will most likely be fine. And if you're not - a key skill is learning how to soldier on! Pedal on the chord or play some rhythm while you retrace yourself and jump back into the song/tune at a suitable moment when you're ready. Don't just throw your hands up, apologize to everyone, and write the performance off. And start and end your numbers with confidence - that's a big thing you can do to help yourself. Make a deliberate decision to finish with a quick chord, or a slow down, or a rapid strum. If your start and end are done with gusto that is a big help to making your performance a good one. A recommendation from me is to film yourself playing - that might sound a bit cringey but it is a good way to replicate some of the feeling of playing for an audience. Pressing go on the camera is the nearest you'll get to the feeling of playing to real people. It also stops you from letting yourself off the hook on those dodgy areas of songs/tunes and will push you to put them right.

There's a lot of debate in the banjo world about the benefits or disadvantages of tabs. There are some folks who regard tab as the work of the devil and should be nowhere near any teaching. There are those who think it's the only way to learn. They're both wrong! Learning a tune from a tab is not in itself a bad thing - particularly when you're starting and you've got a lot to think about it can help to have a bit of a memory aid. It's also often a good way to sort out some problems - if there are some rhythmic errors then a tab can be a great way to do some counting and figure out where things should be. Maybe you're chasing frantically up and down the fretboard on one string when you could be playing that melody in a far easier way by finding some of the notes on other strings - again tab can help.

Much depends on the way you learn. Some folks can read a tab smoothly and easily, play it through, and get to grips with it then commit it to memory so they don't need it anymore. Some really struggle with reading tab to the point where they're actually better off without it - it simply takes too much of their mental multi-tasking to read it. I've taught lessons where I've watched people look at the tab, then look back to their fretboard to find the one note they've just read from the tab, they play it, they look back at the tab and realize they've lost their place...these folks are simply better off trying to learn it by ear and do things orally. It will genuinely take less time and the playing will have a lot more musicality.

What your playing should never be really is simply trying to remember a cold list of commands and reciting them robotically. Nothing wrong with tab as I say - but if you learn that way then still make the tune your own, remember to put that feeling into it. Experiment with playing different parts of the tune loudly or quietly, playing at different points on the banjo, pauses, and expressive brushes. Make it yours. And a recommendation from me to people who do involve tab in their learning is don't just rely on the tab. Use it to check things or for answers, you simply can't work out. But firstly use your ear - the notes you're trying to find are they going higher or lower? If so which direction do you think your fretting hand needs to move or do you need to go on to the next string? What's the timing and therefore should it be your finger, your thumb, or your fretting hand playing the note? Ask these questions to yourself and try and work out the answer - don't just panic! I empathize here because, in most areas of life, this is what I do! I decide I can't possibly figure out an answer to a practical problem so I just panic and wait for someone else to do it. But I could find the answer if I didn't give myself such a hard time and just gave myself a when it comes to music do what I do in music but don't do what I do in matters of DIY!

Above all remember that playing is fun! It's a hobby and at its best, it's an expression and an outlet. Don't turn it into something to beat yourself up with or to keep comparing your progress to others. Just concentrate on improving and expressing yourself - you, and your listeners, will have a much better time of it :)


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