So much of playing music is an internal, mental process. Obviously, the physical aspect is crucial, but it all begins inside. If the music is not understood internally, it will never be articulated in a meaningful way on the instrument. You must be able to hum a tune or lick before you can play it well.
Playing the banjo—all joking aside—is no different! It is important to conjure a mental image of what we intend to execute on the banjo, before we play a note. To be sure, more advanced players have usually internalized more music than beginners, meaning that they often have less things to think about in a casual playing situation.
For the beginner, pulling any ‘musical’ idea out of the banjo may seem like a pipe dream. It’s all clanging metal between clenched fists! Many beginners will look at their tab, or watch their teacher’s fingers, and immediately get to work trying to emulate what they’ve read or heard. The musicality of the passage takes a backseat to the technical execution. Unfortunately for most beginner players, they are so eager to squeeze into their picks and start tickling the strings that they don’t take the time to put what they’ve just read or heard into their own musical memory first.
What is this musical memory stuff? Why is it important? How can a beginner student beef up their musical memory?
What we are talking about here is the process that comes before muscle memory. It’s the recognition in other people’s playing of what you’re looking to do. For the ‘bluegrass baby’ types, this process likely began in early childhood, affording these players the benefit of a deep, internalized understanding of many aspects of the music. Like a child learning a second or third language, the ‘bluegrass baby’ grows up with this other ‘language’ programmed into his or her brain. For the rest of us, we need to make up for lost time! Fortunately, many fantastic players didn’t start until adulthood, so there IS hope!
Let’s say you’ve begun learning one of the several iterations of the classic G lick. Good on ya. It’s an important one! You know the one—chances are good it starts with a quarter note pinch on the first and fifth strings, followed by two eighth notes on the open first and second strings, a quick third-second fret pull-off eighth note pair—perhaps with another open second string thrown in for color—all resolving to the open third string to start the next measure. Whew! Sounds more complicated in writing than it does on banjo.
Perhaps you’re watching your teacher patiently play this lick ten times in a row. Maybe you’re staring at the tab in your copy of “Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo.” Your eyelids gradually begin to lower; you have entered a dream-like state, wondering how this cute, sparking collection of notes relates to “Your Love is Like a Flower.”
This is where you must start behaving like a child.
Take that G lick you’ve just learned, and begin humming it to yourself. It’s pretty tough to hum a pull-off, so it’s ok if you choose a different form of phonation. Really, any sort of mouth noise will do. But you must create the sound. Thinking alone will not suffice. It’s like thinking about speaking Spanish. You’ve got to speak it.
Many people—players and non-players alike—sort of poke fun at bluegrass and old-time music by making a variety of ticky-ticky-deeky-deeky noises to emulate the sounds of the rapid-fire picking contained therein.
These people are on the fast track to banjo mastery.
Using some sort of percussive mouth noise to internalize the rhythm of a passage will help instill that passage into your musical memory, even if you aren’t accurately humming or singing the melody. The aforementioned G lick, then, could go something like this:
Tap your finger rhythmically—better, use a metronome—to understand how those notes relate to time.
I know. This sounds kind of preposterous. However, I promise that after just a few minutes of humming and ticky-tickying your target tunes and licks, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what you’ve been studying. Then, when it comes time to play this stuff at a jam, you will be much more familiar with your own bag of licks, and be able to play them much more convincingly. Furthermore, you will begin to recognize these licks and phrases in the playing of others, making transcription much simpler. The deeper your own musical memory goes, the more you’ll be able to contribute to and extract from musical conversations.
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