Learn the Banjo with Songs or Exercises?

by Barry Hunn

I recently wrote an article about strengthening your fretting hand’s pinky and ring finger.   A common question that I have heard over the years is; “what good are exercises when I want to play songs?”

Three Aspects of Banjo Playing  

Mental:  This is the “understanding” of what you’re doing; having knowledge about the correct fingering patterns, chords, notes, etc.

Physical:  How your body performs.  Does your hand move smoothly, in a relaxed way?  Can you reach the frets required…. Play the proper picking pattern, at the right speed, etc.?

Emotional:  How you “communicate” the notes.  Are you creating a string of notes or are you communicating a “feeling” with “expression.”

First you have to understand (mental) what you are playing.  Then, you have to be able (physical) to perform it.   After you have accomplished these two aspects, the emotional part often seems to happen almost on its own.

Classical Music Training

Classical musicians often learn only a few notes when they begin training on their instrument.  After spending weeks, months and even years, it is common to learn a scale or several scales.

For example, classical guitarists will often practice plucking the first string only with all five fingers of the picking hand until the tone from each finger pluck sounds exactly the same as the other.  After practicing this on the first string, they will move to the second, third, fourth, fifth and then sixth.  Only after this long process will they proceed to working on scales.

The muscles used to play stringed instruments are the “small” muscles that are used in “fine motor skills”.  The bicep in the upper arm is a large muscle.  When you lift a big bag of potatoes, you are using mostly “big” muscles. These large muscles respond relatively quickly to strength training.

But the little muscles in the forearm and hands do not “learn” as quickly as the big muscles.  So, the training for small muscles takes longer.

This is why classical musicians spend so much time practicing extremely basic techniques.  The idea is to train the muscles so thoroughly that moving to more complex techniques is actually “easier” because the hands, arms, vocal chords, etc. are trained in basic techniques, which provide a “foundation of skill”.

In martial arts, a boxer doesn’t “run” while boxing.  But professional boxers run quite a bit to improve their stamina while boxing.   Boxers don’t do sit ups, per se, when they are boxing. They aren’t “runners”.  They aren’t “sit uppers.”  They USE the running and the sit ups to “condition their bodies” to better perform the techniques in their boxing.

Classical string players use “finger exercises” to condition their hands, arms, shoulders etc.  They don’t perform “exercises” at their concert.  The exercises serve to “condition their bodies” to better perform the techniques needed to play the music.

The challenge of this approach is that it “feels” tedious for some students.  It is often referred to as “boring” and many classical students become impatient with exercises and want to play a song.

Casual Musicians

With many “casual” musicians who are not full time professionals, and not “classically trained”, the focus in learning is often on learning songs.

We hear a song at a concert, or on television or on a recording and we are inspired to play the song.  We sit with our banjos and maybe we buy a book that has the song in it, and we learn the song.

The challenge of this approach is that students don’t always have the “training” to perform the techniques needed to play the songs they want to learn.  They often stumble at certain parts of the song and unless they work out the “rough parts”, with good training, they repeat mistakes over and over. Many casual players become impatient at not having the “skill” (read “training”) to play a song.

A Workable Compromise?

Since most of us learning the banjo fall more into the “casual” musician category, I think the best compromise for learning the banjo is working on simple songs, working with some exercises and approaching your song practice as exercise practice.

Approaching a song as practice means to focus on the mental and physical parts of performance.  Memorizing the music is helpful.  Practicing the same song, slow enough, that you have no stumbling blocks.  In other words, you can play the song through, very slowly, without making any note, timing or finger placement errors.  When the entire song is memorized, can be played very, very slowly all the way through with no stumbles, hesitations, sour notes, wrong picked strings, wrong fretted notes, and your hand, arm and body overall are very relaxed, THEN and ONLY THEN, can you attempt to SLIGHTLY INCREASE the speed.

Tedious Work?

But Barry, that slow practicing is sooooooo boring!

Is it?  Is being able to sit with your beautiful, sparkling banjo and working on rolls, or clawhammer or flatpicking even possible to be boring?

Is having the time to create beautiful banjo sound ever boring?

How can that be?  I understand that we want so badly to play the hot pieces like the professionals we hear.  I understand that our so-called, “instant gratification” culture gets instant results from pushing buttons on computers and other electronic devices.

But I still ask, how could sitting with your beautiful banjo learning to pick slowly and relaxed EVER be considered boring?

When you are learning rolls, or flat pick patterns or a new clawhammer pattern, that is one of the great “moments of discovery” life can offer.

It’s sort of like discovering a vein of gold.  You find the vein, (the roll pattern, etc.) and now all you have to do is un-cover it by digging it out with your shovel (practice the roll pattern).   This is why playing a banjo can be rather addictive…it puts you in a constant state of discovery.

Ok, the work starts when the gold vein is discovered…but that is light hearted work because you will become financially rich when you mine it.   The work might start when you find a new roll pattern, but that means you will be musically rich when you practice and learn the new roll pattern.  You will have a wealth of musical ability.

How can that process even remotely be boring?

Mechanics and Emotion

A classically trained friend of mine once said, “Technique is everything.”  A folk singing friend of mine once said, “Heart and emotion are what communicate the music.”

For the sake of this article, I consider “mechanics” to be the mental and physical aspects of playing rolled into one.

With that understanding, I believe that both of my friends were exactly correct….but only correct when combining both of their philosophies.

Having beautiful, natural, broad based and smooth technique, allows a banjo player to communicate more effectively than is possible with more limited technique.

However, beautiful technique without “emotion”, while impressive, is usually not very moving.

Being able to reach out with music and communicate emotion, does involve having enough technique to communicate effectively.

Before you tell me that more technique does not make better music, I already agree.  But even simple music requires a certain level of technique to “communicate.”

You must be able to play well enough to communicate what you want.  The definition of “well enough” is where much discussion occurs regarding technique.

If a casual player plays a simple song, with clarity, with an effortless flow of notes and with “feeling”, most listeners will not distinguish the casual musician from the professional musician.  But when casual players try to play beyond their ability, this is where the lack of “technical ability” shows itself.

It is good to reach for more difficult techniques and songs.  It is best to “work out” the difficult techniques and songs slowly and methodically, so the final outcome satisfies our artistic nature.   If we try something difficult too soon, we can be frustrated with ourselves.  This is usually not productive.

A good approach is to practice your songs and techniques thoroughly in private, and then when you feel extremely comfortable, then present them in public or among friends.  This brings up another related topic to technique development.

Every top musician I know will likely tell you, you might think you know something “inside and out” until you try to show it to someone as in a performance on stage like an open mic or even in the living room.  Your potential for nervous excitement is strong when you are performing in front of any audience and some new players say they “blank out” even the most familiar song lyrics, opening chords, picking patterns… everything.   This is why for professionals, there is no such thing as too much practice.

This is one reason teachers have always encouraged “recitals.”  Performing in front of an audience can improve your concentration. You must focus on the task while your nerves are constantly distracting you and the “social pressure” of the audience pressures you to “do your best”.

How does this relate to technique development?

The more trained your technique is, the less likely nervousness will have a debilitating effect on your performance.

But, more in line with our “expression” of emotion, the more trained your technique is, the more capable you are of expressing yourself through the music, despite distraction, etc.

So, honing your technique will not “train the feeling out of the music.”  It will do the opposite.  It will “allow” your music to be more accurately communicated because the subtly of expression will be more at your command.

Use The Song

A song can be your inspiration to work on pure techniques.  Rolls, chords, scales, licks and other techniques will enhance your song learning ability.

The most effective approach is to work your technical practice slowly and regularly.  If you are starting out, and can muster up the patience, spend the majority of your time on pure techniques.

Use the songs you know or songs you want to learn as inspiration to work on technique.  If you can keep the perspective that “being able to sit a play your banjo” is a great joy that fills you with happiness and every moment is bringing you closer and closer to your musical goal, you find it easier to be “patient” and work slowly and steadily in your training.

Every super banjoist I’ve ever met has lived a very similar approach in their learning stage.

So…..you’re in the BEST company.


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