Tag Archives: practice tips

Casey HenryOne of the comments on Murphy's last practice tip hinted at today's post. And, in a way, this is the same tip as #9, only a different aspect of it. It all comes down to practicing how you are going to need to play. If you're going to have to play in a public situation where you are standing up---be it at a jam or at a gig---make sure you have practiced all your songs while standing up! When you stand up the whole angle of the banjo changes; you can't see your hands as well. You need to practice what that feels like.

There was an instrumental, a fiddle tune, one of the bands I used to play with performed. My banjo break was almost all melodic-style, which is not my forte. I practiced it a lot at home, but invariably when I played it on stage it would sound tentative or shaky, even it I didn't make any actual mistakes. For the longest time I couldn't figure out why that was, until one day I realized I always practiced it sitting down, but always played it standing up. After I started practicing it standing up my performance of it improved greatly!

Murphy HenryIt is best to practice sitting in a chair.

Preferably a chair shaped something like the chair you’re going to be sitting in during your lesson. A chair with a reasonably straight back that will allow your legs to rest comfortably on the floor.

I’d not given much thought to this, but lately several new students have had problems playing their best when they are seated in front of me. (Yes, I know, it’s a common occurrence, and not just with the newbies!) This is when the “I can play it fine at home” syndrome firsts rears its head. In trying to troubleshoot some of the possible reasons for what’s going on (other than “I’m scared to death!), it has come to light that these beginners often practice sprawled out on the bed. (Isn’t “sprawled” a great word?) Or in some other ungodly position that is impossible to replicate in a teaching studio. Like on the couch in front of the TV with one leg tucked up under them. Or with their stocking feet resting on the coffee-table in front of the couch. Or kicked back in a Laz-E-Boy-type chair.

Thus, when they move to an upright position their hands—both right and left---are going to be a slightly different angle.  Things are not going to feel the same. And this one little change is more than enough to throw their playing off track. Hence the suggestion: practice sitting in a chair! And don’t slump!

That reminds me of my high school band director, Ann Alford. She taped thumb tacks—points out—to the backs of the chairs so that the clarinet section, especially Jimmy Holbrook, would have to sit up straight! (I just put Jimmy’s name in there so that if he ever Googles himself, he might find this mention in a banjo blog!) Thank goodness I was not a “real” musician in the band. I was in the color guard one year and played the bass drum the next. If I had a chance to do that over, however, I would most definitely play an instrument. First choice: snare drum. Second choice: that other drum. The one that’s not the bass drum. Tom-tom? After all these years I still want to be the loudest instrument in the band! Now you know why I play the banjo!

Murphy HenryOK, folks, this is gonna be short and sweet. I’ve got to get back to the football game. (End of first quarter: Pittsburgh Steelers are ahead! Go Steelers!)

Here’s something you might not have thought of, especially you beginning banjo players: Be sure to rotate the order in which you practice your songs. Don’t just start with BITH (Banjo in the Hollow), then CC (Cripple Creek), and on into either BTCD (Boil Them Cabbage Down) or CG (Cumberland Gap) and so forth.

Why not? Because this is what happened to Marty when someone asked him to play Cumberland Gap: He froze. He’d been so used to playing his songs in a strict order--BITH, CC, and then BTCD--that he honestly could not remember how to start Cumberland Gap without running through (at least mentally) all those other songs. After that experience he decided he needed to shake things up. I agree!

One more cute story on Marty: He was playing Cumberland Gap and I noticed he was failing to fret the third string at the second fret during the next-to-the-last lick in the first part. He was playing the string open, which actually didn’t sound terribly wrong. (In the backward roll of 1, 2, 3, 1.) So I told him that he needed to fret it at the second fret.

He looks right at me and says, “Really?”

Like he doesn’t believe me!

Then he says, “I don’t think that was on the DVD.”

So I said, “Right, Marty. Yours was the only DVD out of the whole batch didn’t mention that the third string should be fretted at the second fret!”

He did have the good grace to look sheepish!

That’s all for now. Back to the ball game! Casey is even now down in Tampa, Florida, getting ready to start helping our friend and banjo player Cap Spence coordinate volunteers for the Super Bowl half-time show. I’m sure she’ll be sharing her experiences on the Blog! Be sure to tune in!

Murphy Henry(I’ve Lost Count! Being a banjo player, it’s hard for me to go above five!)

Anyhow, here’s the tip: Wear your picks!

I’m not kidding. One of my students was not wearing his picks to practice because he has a young daughter who was usually trying to sleep when he was playing. So, like a good father, he tried to keep the noise level down. By playing with his bare fingers.

The trouble was, when he came to his lesson I made him wear his picks. So he’d spend the first fifteen or twenty minutes just getting used to them. Naturally, he was not playing his best during this interlude. (Of course it gave him a wonderful excuse!)

Yesterday he came in and was playing great right from the start. What’s up? I asked him. Are you practicing more?

He allowed that he was practicing more, but, he said, I’ve started wearing my picks to practice. He controlled the noise by seriously muting his banjo—with a homemade bridge mute and a towel in the back. Viola! Little to no banjo noise, even when he used his picks to play. Daughter happy, student happy, Murphy happy. We had a very good lesson!

P.S. (After I saw his banjo mute I asked him if he’d seen the T-shirt with the picture of a sledge hammer on the front and the words “Banjo Mute” underneath. He had.)