Playing it Perfect

Murphy HenryRecently I fielded this question from Patty, a banjo player in Oregon who has joined group called Chickweed. Patty is 45, got her first banjo on her 40th birthday, and as she says “played off tab for a little over two years before I met you—and you know the rest of the story!” She has two sons, ages 14 and 11, and a husband who is “very accommodating when it comes to playing the banjo.” She also owns and runs her own business. (More about that at the end.)

Here’s what Patty said:

I'm getting positive feed back from the band and fans, but I don't feel like I'm doing as well as I want to! I know I'm not playing perfectly (or even close) many times, so how can I be the only one bothered by that? What I really need is some constructive criticism, but you know, everyone is so nice out here!

These girls like to play fast, and for a few songs that poses no problem. But “Driving Nails In My Coffin” clips along at nearly Rhonda Vincent's pace! I'm usually hanging on by my teeth trying to stay in time (during my breaks), no matter how much I work on it at home!

Any advice?

And here’s my reply:
I'm not surprised to hear that you don't feel like you are doing as well as you would like, and I'm not surprised that the fans and band members don't notice this (and don't care!). You know that you can be a perfectionist and you know how hard you can be on yourself. You’re a woman, it goes with the turf!

Now my two cents: There's no place for perfectionism in music! Not that you don't try hard, but basically it just ain’t gonna happen. CDs---especially digital ones---make it seem as if perfection is possible but it's all an illusion. You just do the best you can all the time---as I know you are doing---and sometimes you'll get closer than others. That's what makes the magic moments "magic"---because they don't happen often. Or often enough! [Read Casey's BNL article for February---one of her best!!! It sorta speaks to this.]

So if you can't get perfectionism, what do you get? You get the emotional impact, the fun, the challenge, the audience response, and the camaraderie with the band. And you also get the improvement I'm sure you are making. And every now and then you'll do ONE LICK that suits you!

Playing fast will come in time. It will get easier. Working with the fingering is good, as you found out. But basically, improvement will only come (IMO) with playing it fast on stage. There just doesn't seem to be any way to duplicate that situation at home. Maybe in practice sessions with the band.

I promise I used to feel this way a lot. It was hard to play fast, very frustrating, and I would get mad and then, of course, blame Red. (Very mature!)

Here’s one of the things I found out about trying to play fast. Sometimes I just had to let my fingers do what THEY wanted, what THEY were capable of doing at a really fast speed, rather than what my brain wanted to do and could do slow. That's how some of my licks "evolved" away from what Earl did. I just couldn't do his exact lick fast. Eventually (years later) I did learn to do some of those troublesome licks at tempo. But some I didn't. [That C7 lick in “Shucking the Corn,” for example!]

Here’s another illustration, this time from “Daybreak in Dixie,” that great Ralph Stanley tune. We recorded that on our first album, Riding Around On Saturday Night. In the B part, in that first D lick, the notes I wanted to play (and the notes I teach) are, in a two-finger D chord, 3,1,4,1, 3,1,4,1, and then into the slide. All sixteenth notes. Well, in the studio I just couldn't get all those first strings in---so I just had to leave them out! Did I like that? NO I DID NOT!!! But time, money, and the fact that I simply couldn’t play all those notes that day meant I just had to let it go. Now, of course, I can play them easily, but I tell you, it sure took a while!

Moral: Go with what you got, and try to be happy with it!

Or as one of my favorite spiritual authors says, “Once we stop demanding of ourselves that we be on course all the time we might being to look at our mistakes differently, giving them an impeccable attention and a frictionless response. They will not prevent us from reaching our dreams nearly so much as wanting to be right will.” [Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., in My Grandfather’s Blessings.]

About Patty’s business:

My business is MY business - I started it and I do everything to keep it running (all office work, marketing, hiring [I have a young guy working for me], and of course, all the repair work). I started it 10 years ago this April. Check out my website My elevator speech describing what I do is - "I restore the function of original double-hung windows in homes built in the 1940s and earlier." I endeavor to work between the school bells so I can drop and pick up kids from school and be there when they get home. And cook dinner, help with homework, drive them to and from sports and music activities, as well as all that "running the household" stuff.

Me: And in her spare time, she plays the banjo! You go, Patty!