Two Kinds of Practice

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I was reminded of the two kinds of practice last week by a couple of my students. One is a brand new student who is learning Banjo in the Hollow. A bit of a perfectionist, he, of course, wants to play it, well....perfectly. And in his quest for perfection, every time he’d make a mistake he’d stop and correct it. So, while he’d learned all the notes, there was no music in his playing.

So I told him what I wanted him to do. I prefaced my remarks by saying, “I don’t think you’re gonna like this.” (He looked at me with wrinkled brow and wary eyes.)

“When you practice this week, I want you to play Banjo in the Hollow from start to finish without stopping to correct any mistakes NO MATTER HOW BAD IT SOUNDS. I don’t care if every note you hit is a clunker, DO NOT STOP. Keep going. And play it really slow.”

Feeling I had not laid it on thick enough, I continued.

“I know you want the song to sound good all the time, but that’s not what this type of practice is about. This is about learning to play through your mistakes. And if you can play through your mistakes, then other people can play along with you because you’re not stopping and starting all the time.”

We practiced doing this a few times before he left and he was giving it his best shot, but it was really hard for him to not stop and correct his mistakes. But he said he’d work on it.

This week when he came in for his lesson, BIG IMPROVEMENT! He could pretty much play the song through without stopping. (Okay, maybe he did stop a time or two on that D lick pull-off.) But it was much easier to follow him on guitar. I’m not looking for perfection, just a slight inching forward.

So that’s an important kind of practice: playing the song from beginning to end without stopping to correct your mistakes.

Of course, this can only happen after you do the first kind of practice, which is getting the notes down. And to do that you have to stop and start all the time. But as soon as you’ve got the notes, you need to start playing through your mistakes.

(I guess a third kind of practice would be trouble shooting your break, that is, noticing where you are making consistent mistakes and then taking that lick or section out and playing it over and over and over and then putting it back in the song. But that’s a subject for another blog!)

I saw playing through your mistakes pay off big time in the new Misfit jam we had last week. We were playing I Saw the Light and Judy was taking her break. Somehow her fingers got disarranged in her C chord and some really strange sounds started coming out. I could tell from her facial expression that she was not a happy camper but she bravely plowed on through and DID NOT STOP and thus the song and the jam continued on. And the rest of her break, once she got out of the C chord, sounded fine. Her recovery was excellent. I was so proud of her.

So, when you’re taking lessons from me, you get the Gold Star, not for playing it perfectly, but just for continuing on with the song. Hmmm.....that sounds a lot like life! And with that bit of philosophical musing I will head upstairs for my oatmeal! Yum!

3 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Practice

  1. Robert in the hills of Tennessee

    This is something I’m having to learn. I’ve found that Band In A Box helps. About once a week, I’ll crank it up & play along w/ the computer. Besides, when I play w/ BIAB, I feel like I’m actually playing music instead of just picking out the notes.


  2. Augie

    That advice helps a lot. I’m kinda like the guy you talk about, I have a tendancy to stop and correct rather than move on. Sometimes I’m so lost I have to stop, but I will try to keep moving.


    Four and half months into banjo in Pennsylvania

  3. Steve (in Japan)

    Well, I found out that Slow Jam with Murphy and Casey, and Picking Up The Pace, more than helps. When I spin those discs in the player and crank up my banjo I feel like I’m actually playing Bluegrass and preparing for a Saturday night jam at the Old Clubhouse in Tsujido.

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