Did you ever try to play music in a place that wasn't familiar, and found yourself so distracted by the room, or the people, or the lighting, or the phase of the moon, that you had trouble playing? Or did you learn to play music while sitting down all the time, and then try to play while standing up? It might have been uncomfortable at first. You were in an unfamiliar situation.

I was reminded of this two nights ago, when I flew my very first night solo (well, my first since 1971). I'd flown several times at night recently with my instructor, but hadn't tried it alone. So I took off about sunset and just practiced landings over and over, and kept at it as it got really dark.

Now, I've made about 400 daytime landings or so in the last 7 months. So I'm pretty familiar with them now. But now I was flying at night, and the situation was different. I really had to concentrate to find some of the same visual clues I'm used to in the daytime, and I had to adopt some new ones. But it worked. The results? 11 pretty good landings, including the last 3 in the pitch dark. But it did take concentration and practice in the new, dark situation (making those landings over and over). It was a gradual thing, but finally I was pretty comfortable with it. I really had to concentrate, but it just took some practice.

You can make the same kind of adjustment when you're playing music in an unfamiliar situation. If you're put off your stride (or even freaked out) by standing up to play, or playing in a new place, or playing in front of people, or playing in a group you're not used to, then don't concentrate on the unfamiliar stuff. Simplify what you're doing and concentrate on yourself and the notes you're playing. Keep your eyes on your instrument and play tunes you can play in your sleep, or your favorite basic backup licks, or just vamp until you have your hands and mind under control again. Let your brain assimilate the new variables a little at a time, and eventually you'll get used to the new situation. Play your same familiar tunes and licks over and over standing up, for example, and you'll get to where you can stand up in a group and handle not only your oldest material but new things as well. Practice at different places in your house, or your yard. Play when one or two family or friends are around-- not suddenly for a crowd, but gradually. Even if you're freaked out at first, it just takes some practice!


Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, I made a cross-country flight this morning, just to keep in practice. It wasn't a really long trip, but I flew solo from here (Winchester, VA) to Bedford, PA, then to Cumberland, MD, and then back home: 3 flights, 8 good landings (I used the opportunity to practice those, too).

And what does this have to do with playing music? Well, Chris, Jenny, and I are performing at the Daily Grind here in Winchester (the Jubal Early Drive location) starting at 7:00 this evening. And the flying seems as if it's gotten me in the mood to play.

This happened a lot during my first flying career, in the Air Force from 1972-75. Flying and picking just seemed to go together, one after the other. Have any of you gotten that feeling from these two activities? If so, I'd like to know about it.

Happy picking, and flying too, if that's what you do!


PS-- Local folks, if you can't make it to the Daily Grind this evening, we're also performing at Borders Books here in Winchester, starting time 7:00 this coming Sunday, the 23rd.

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!

Red Henry

Red Henry

A friend of ours has left a mandolin with us, just for a visit. It's a very nice mandolin but he hasn't been playing it much, so he wanted me to "play it in" and bring it back to sounding its best. I play it most of the time for my daily practice, and its sound is indeed improving. This is something that happens with most instruments. If you play them regularly, they sound better than if you don't.

Some folks don't believe this happens, and say there's no such thing as an instrument's sound improving from being played. But I believe that they ought to say, "I haven't heard this happen myself." Maybe they've never heard an instrument improve, but it sure happens, and folks all over the stringed instrument world are aware of it.

It's well known in the violin world that instruments sound better if they're played. A friend of ours was in a group which played a concert in Cremona, Italy, where many of the old master violins were made, long ago. He and his friends visited a violin museum there. Among all the beautiful old violins there was a little old man whose job it was to play them, each of them, every day, in order to keep them sounding their best. What a job, to play millions of dollars worth of violins every day of the week. Life is hard! But it did keep the instruments sounding great.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it applies to the instrument you play, whether it's a mandolin, fiddle, guitar, or banjo. Play it every day, and keep it sounding good. You'll have your own million-dollar sound.

Red Henry

Red Henry

Last night, my instructor Brian and I made a cross-country flight to an airport about 62 miles away. The flight was in the dark, it was over some pretty sparsely-populated Virginia and West Virginia mountains, and it was in a very small single-engined airplane. We navigated visually at night, and we were not flying on instruments. Were we scared? No, not even when one of the radios quit working. We didn't really need any radios at all. Did we have any trouble getting there and back? No. It was a lot of fun.

The flight went really smoothly, and along with flying the plane I was able to do all the things I've been practicing: checking our course on the ground, checking our speed toward our destination, cross-checking our progress using the navigational radio that still worked, and talking when necessary to Air Traffic Control and other airplanes. Then, of course, I had to land the plane when we got where we were going and again when we came back. In the dark. Was all this complicated? Yes, a bit. Could I have done all this right after I started training? No, of course not. Why wasn't it overwhelming? Because I'd learned it all a step at a time.

I keep finding similarities between learning to fly and learning to play music. Learning to pick is something you need to do a little at a time. Our banjo students, for example, no matter how much they want to, can't launch right into learning "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", or playing "Dueling Banjos", or improvising in jam sessions, right off the bat. Nobody can (except maybe teenagers). Instead, the students need to go through our Beginning Banjo DVDs step-by-step to learn the building blocks-- the banjo licks-- which they're going to use. Then they need to go, step-by-step, into more advanced DVDs which teach them how to put those building blocks together, one step at a time.

Taking one step at a time, it all makes sense and becomes easier. You start with one thing and learn another, and then you aren't overwhelmed and discouraged by not being able to do it all at once! Learn to play step-by-step at your own speed, and after a while you'll be cruising over the mountains yourself.


Red Henry

Red Henry

Murphy had a good slow-jam session with her beginning students last night. I heard about it just after I came in from flying, and it reminded me that we often hear questions about how it's easier to play on some days than others, and about how a student might learn a tune pretty well and then (in spite of playing it every day) not be able to play it as well on some days as on others.

Well, I can testify that flying is sure like that. My latest flights with my instructor have been at night. Last week I was able to make pretty good landings every time, but last night I started off with a great landing but then, on the next three landings, I couldn't duplicate it for anything. Tonight we'll fly, and I expect I'll do better-- at least, on SOME of the landings! Getting them just right is only partly a matter of practice. Sometimes it's the situation, and sometimes you can't tell what it is. But I couldn't land at all unless I'd practiced it a lot. Practice helps!

Playing music is the same way. You can learn to play a tune and practice it until most of the time it sounds pretty good, but then there will be days when it just doesn't. Every time you play a tune, it's a little different. There may not be anything in particular you can point to as the cause, but you just simply play better on some days than on others. But practice helps! And it's a special help if you play along with other people, or (if there aren't many pickers near by) with our Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs.

This doesn't just apply to students! Professionals also find differences in their playing from one day to the next. Sometimes they'll get frustrated with that on stage, but their overall level of playing is so high that most of the listeners can't tell the difference. Sometimes it's a matter of practice, and sometimes it's the situation. Sometimes you can't see a reason for it. But after you play a lot on stage, you know to just keep playing and act as if the music's good-- because it is! You've practiced a million hours in your life, so just play. And the point of your being there is so that the audience can enjoy it.


Red Henry

Red Henry

Have you ever been in a jam session, and were taken by surprise by something? Maybe the other pickers asked you to play or sing a song. Or perhaps while the group was playing, you suddenly had the tune passed to you--and you didn't know what to play!

If you're new to playing in jams, things like that can take you by surprise. If it's all you can do to watch a guitar player to find out the chords, figure out where they are on the banjo, and then vamp or play some simple backup, it's hard to do anything else at the same time--such as think about a break to play before it's your turn. But you can have a plan of action.

Think ahead, and know ahead of time what you're going to do. If the chords to the tune are pretty familiar and you can use some of your familiar Scruggs licks to build a break, start planning for that as soon as you have the chords figured out. If, on the other hand, you don't know the tune and don't want to make a leap into nowhere with your banjo break, just tell yourself ahead of time that if the tune gets passed to you, you'll just nod to the next person and pass the break off before it's time to start playing. Whichever you do, the tune will go on smoothly, and you'll be more confident and better prepared for the next time.

"Be Prepared."


Red Henry

Red Henry

Many of you will recall that in addition to our musical activities, I'm learning to fly. I had a great flight last Wednesday. Snowstorms and high winds had prohibited flying for almost three weeks, so I needed some practice, especially landing the plane. So I took off solo and made 3 landings at the airport here at Winchester, then flew up to Martinsburg, WV and made 10 landings on the big runway there, then came back to Winchester and finished up with 3 more: total, 16 landings in a little over 3 hours.

How did it go? Well, at first the airplane seemed pretty unfamiliar (it had been 3 weeks!) and it took the first one or two landings for me to doing them again. Then, the first several landings at Martinsburg were the best ones I made. When I came back to Winchester I was beginning to get a bit tired, and the last couple of landings could have been improved on. But it took those 3 hours for me to reach that point, and I remember when a 1-hour flight exhausted me, not so long ago. Things are improving fast.

And what does this have with learning to play music? A lot. When you’re learning to play, the instrument may seem pretty unfamiliar in your hands. It can take a while to get warmed up, and then you can get “max’d out” if you play for too long a time without rest. Your ability to learn and to play (and especially your endurance in playing) improves gradually as you go along. At first it might wear your hands and brain out to play for 30 minutes, but after a while you can play for an hour or two without feeling strained. Later, you might get with some other pickers and go all afternoon or evening, and not feel nearly as worn out as you did after a half-hour at first.

Practice, that's the key. What you're learning gets better, and easier, as you go along. Practice might not make perfect, but it sure helps!


Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, we've discussed practice several times on this blog lately. Some of my own entries have had to do with how to keep up with your practice when you don't have much spare time available. But there are other aspects of practice to talk about, including "What's the easiest way to practice?" and "What kind of practice is best?"

In my own case, I discovered in 1967 (about a week after I started playing) that for me, picking with others was the easiest and best way to practice. It's that way for others, too. When you are playing with other people, (1) you don't have to provide all the musical energy-- energy circulates around the group (even if it's only two or three people) and comes back to help you; (2) practice time passes so much more quickly that three or four hours playing music with others make seem shorter than one hour at home; and (3) it's a lot more fun. And you sure learn a lot, painlessly. This is why Murphy says over and over at the end of our videos, "Find some people to pick with!"

Now, I know that in some parts of the country (and the world) there are few other players of bluegrass, country, folk, gospel, or other similar material whom you can get with. For example, I spent a year at an Air Force base in Del Rio, Texas, and didn't find any other musicians that year. Nowadays, of course, things are a lot better: we have our Murphy Method Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs, and you can have a jam session any time right in your house!

So as I said, when you're picking with others, you not only have a better time than in solo practice, but you learn faster. You also begin improvising, and backing up other players, in a live setting where people are having a good time. Playing in almost any kind of group is not only the easiest kind of practice-- but the best.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The question: I just purchased a metronome and trying to figure how fast Casey and you are playing “Nine Pound Hammer” on Easy Songs for Banjo. In recent jams I seem to speed up and slow down and do not hold a constant beat. I am hopeful that purchasing the metronome will assist. What are your thoughts? Feel free to use this on your blog.  -Drew

Hi Drew,

Thanks for the question. I hope I don't put you off by saying I am not a fan of the metronome. I'm sure it has its usefulness somewhere---I know Lynn Morris used to use one to sharpen her picking skills to a fine point---but for banjo students, especially beginning ones, I don't find them useful. I have never suggested that my students use a metronome. And if they tell me they are using one, I just try to pretend like I didn't hear them!

The timing problems beginning banjo students have are usually related to timing in a way that the metronome cannot address (or fix). Their timing problems tend to be related more to not hearing a lick correctly or not being able to execute it properly or just flat out not understanding how the timing is supposed to sound. (Like that “D” lick in John Hardy, the one that has timing like “In The Mood.” Once you understand that timing in your head, once you can “hear” it in your head, you can play it. Until then, it’s just a series of notes. But the metronome cannot help with that.) Or their timing problems are the result of simply being a new student who doesn’t yet have the small-muscle motor skills to play smoothly or fast.

Sometimes, even with the help of the DVDs, a student will simply get the timing wrong. And easy example is the E minor lick in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Some students have been known to play those eighth notes too fast initially. We can usually straighten that out quickly by me playing along with them and/or playing guitar. But if you’re doing it wrong and don’t know it, that will sure throw you off in a jam!

Without hearing you play, it’s hard to know what the speeding up and slowing down in jams is all about. My guess it’s more likely a result of nervousness, being a new jammer, and/or having rhythm players who are not too solid. And a metronome can't help with that.

My guess is that you probably just need to play each song many, many, times over in a row (without stopping) until you can develop some solidity. And of course there’s nothing like jamming to help you learn to jam. Metronomes cannot help with jamming—that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Again, I think metronomes are for fine-tuning your timing, something a professional player might want to do. I’ve heard that Ron Block uses a metronome a lot.

And, lest you think this is a case of me telling you one thing and doing another, I confess that I have never used a metronome for more than the few seconds I needed to find out that I didn’t like them. They simply would not stay in time with me!

Hope this helps!

Murphy (Do you think you could get a refund on that metronome??? )