To Look or Not To Look

Murphy HenryMark, who has been taking banjo about six months now, and I had an interesting discussion at our lesson tonight. Mark said he’d been watching clips of really good banjo players picking on U-Tube and he noticed that all of them look at their left hands and none of them look at their right hands. Mark, on the other hand (no pun intended, I swear), looks at his right hand exclusively. He told me that he thinks this is hindering him from picking up speed. He’s afraid he’ll never be able to play fast if he keeps looking at his right hand. I told him I knew what I’d be blogging about tonight!

Initially I wasn’t too concerned. After all, he’s still a beginning player and he’s really doing well. He’s a little over the one song a month average and he can vamp and come in off the vamp for his breaks. What’s not to like?

But then he told me that when he’s looking at his right hand he’s actually thinking of the strings he’s hitting, as in 4,2,3,1/5,3,4,1. (That’s the double square roll, usually in C chord.) Then I got concerned. Because if he’s thinking of the individual strings, then, he’s right: he’ll never be able to play fast. You don’t want to be doing the Cripple Creek lick and thinking 3,2,5,1.

So, of course, I then asked him to play something easy and NOT look at his right hand. He played “Banjo in the Hollow” and, while it was really hard for him not to look at his right hand, he could do it. Ditto “Cripple Creek” and even “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The songs even sounded smoother to me.

I told him that since he obviously could play the songs without looking at his right hand, what he was doing was pure habit. Is it a bad habit? I’m not sure. But since Mark was concerned, I told him to start out with easy songs, play them slow, and make himself look only at his left hand.

He told me that in just trying not to look at his right hand on those three songs he was already experiencing quite a bit of anxiety.

I told him that he shouldn’t do anything that would disrupt his playing, since even looking at his right hand he was already doing very well. I reminded him that this was supposed to be fun, not torture.

He told me that he thought he’d try not looking on some songs. But that for the rest of the lesson he was going to have to look.

I told him that would be fine.

So, I think Mark has a legitimate concern. I relate it to you as something to think about. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT get yourself all tied up in knots if you, too, happen to look at your right hand. DO NOT ruin your playing by trying to fix something that might not need fixed (as we say here in the Shenandoah Valley). In Georgia we say “might not need to be fixed.”

Although I have not run any kind of study, I suspect that most people who play banjo long enough eventually stop looking at their right hands.

Stay tuned to the Murphy Method Blog for updates on Mark and the question “to look or not to look?”

And me? I look at my left hand!

2 thoughts on “To Look or Not To Look

  1. MarkZ

    Hey, Murphy — it’s working! I haven’t looked at my right hand at all over the last 3 days, and my heart rate isn’t going up so much. I’m still making more mistakes than usual in my roles, but it’s definitely getting better. Some progress………..


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