I was driving home the other day when I saw these words written on the back of a car, “Good Habits for Life.” What a novel idea? OK, maybe not so “novel” but a good idea nonetheless. I began thinking about the banjo (no surprise there) and wondered; what are some good habits for the life of a banjo player? Try these…
1. Practice, practice, practice. SMILE. Practice, practice, practice.
a. Practice slowly. Some wise person once told me that if you practice slowly, you learn fast. Why? Because with slow practice you focus on clean and accurate fretting, crisp/clean picking, and even, exact tempo. You are teaching your body good muscle memory. You won’t have to break any “bad habits” because by practicing slowly, you won’t develop them in the first place.
b. I am sure we have all done it. We get the “urge” to play faster and faster.
c. While it feels like fun, the song usually will suffer if we push beyond our technical level of expertise. I am not saying “not” to do it…that is when you learn your limits. Just don’t make it a “bad habit.”
d. SAVOR your practice time with this slow even pace.
e. Use a metronome to help you keep your pace even and prevent you from rushing your movements.
f. Start slow…and eventually you will feel the need to move faster because your skill level has risen. When every note is clean, crisp, and at the right pace, move the metronome up, just a bit, and continue practicing at that speed.
Before long, you will be playing faster and better than you thought you ever could.
2. Record your progress.
If you have the ability to record, you should really do just that. We never notice our fingernails growing but are always amazed at how soon it is time to clip them again, right? The same is true of your progress with your banjo playing. But, if you can record yourself at intervals, you will be happily surprised at your progress!
3. Be aware of your ergonomics.
a. You really can hurt yourself if you are not careful!
b. Sit in a chair with a straight back, no sides, and your feet on the ground.
c. You want the banjo in the middle of your lap, not on the side like a guitar player.
d. Use a strap so that your hand does not have to do “double” duty…holding up the neck and trying to fret at the same time.
e. Keep the elbow of your fretting hand down, not out.
f. Put you the thumb of your fretting hand at the middle of the back of the neck. This helps it stabilize your wrist and give you a fulcrum point to pivot up and over the top of the strings.
g. Come straight down on top of the strings with your fretting hand; do not “lean” over the strings or you will get muddy notes as the pad of the finger
h. On your plucking hand, make sure your wrist is straight, not angled, when you pluck the strings. You will feel soreness in your wrist if you are doing this and if you aggravate it enough you could develop a carpel tunnel issue. To help you find out if you are angling your wrist, sit in front of a mirror and play. It will become quite clear if you are angling the wrist. Continue playing in front of the mirror and straighten up your wrist angle until it has become a “good” habit to keep it in a straight alignment when you pluck the strings.
4. Don’t compare yourself with others.
I have a great story to tell you about Earl Scruggs. We will all freely acknowledge Earl Scruggs as an icon in the world of bluegrass banjo and banjo players. One of Earl’s friends was a good clawhammer player. He would visit Earl and play for him. Wistfully Earl would say, “I wish I could play banjo that way.”
Folks, each of us have a special love for banjo. We can’t play like Earl, or Jens Kruger, or Mark Johnson but does this mean we can’t play our banjo?
No, of course not. Yes, we need to learn the basic mechanics of playing but that could be strumming, plucking, frailing, or any combination thereof. And we will get as good as we will get. The important thing is that we play and ENJOY playing banjo the best we can. We can admire other players, but we must never let that admiration stop us from enjoying ourselves at whatever level we are throughout our journey with banjo.
5. Maintain your instrument.
This seems like an obvious but we often don’t even notice what is happening with our banjos.
The other day I picked up my office banjo to tune it and it just didn’t “sound” right, especially the high G string. The quality control supervisor was strolling by and he said” Sounds muddy. How’s the head tension?” Well, it was soft.
Now, I could have taken it into “set up” and had the guys do it for me, but I told myself, “ You tell your customers to do this, you should do it yourself.”
And I did…with as much trepidation as you all may have. I tightened and tightened and checked the tuning and tightened…and got more nervous as I tightened some more. It was not just loose…it was amazingly loose! But I did it slowly,,,just as I tell you to do…and when I could no longer tighten the nuts, I re-tuned my banjo. WOW! What a difference. So, what am I saying here?
CHECK IT OUT!
Check your head tension, check your bridge placement, clean the hardware and banjo head, change your strings, and have fun when you are done learning YOU DID IT YOURSELF! You can, I did, and I know I was just as nervous as you folks.
6. Give yourself the freedom to experiment.
Just pluck or strum anywhere on the fingerboard and see what it sounds like. You could start with the fingerboard inlay positions, they are the most natural. Or, use any combination of chords you already know: G, C, D7 are the easiest and most of us already know these.
Have FUN…you never know what musical experiments could turn into your very own song!
I am sure there are many more good habits for life. I think the banjo itself is one of the best habits to cultivate. I hope you think so too.
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