Thursday, December 18, 2008

Goal Setting

I think one of those most important things you can do during a practice session is to set a goal.  In my opinion if you're not setting a goal you're not really practicing.  But what does that mean?  We all want to play better and sure that's a goal, but when practicing we need to be very specific about our goals.  If your practice sessions consist of unfocused noodling or replaying of songs you've known for a long time, try something different.  Maybe this...

  • Narrow your focus
When goal setting you need to be very specific.  Not just, "I want to play better." or "I want to play this song."  Its better to say  "I need to work on this particular passage of this song."  And then stick to just that small section of song until you've improved it.  Maybe you have trouble with pull-offs.  Well spend your practice just working on pull offs or at least focusing on getting them right.  
Maybe, you play a song pretty good but always mess at this one part in the middle.  Narrow your focus to that part and figure out how to play it as smooth as you can.  ONLY THAT PART.  Practice only that part until you improve it.  
Narrowing your focus can be like a microscope you hold over your playing.  How narrow you focus it will depend on what you are working on.  It can be wide and cover a large section of song or you can focus it down to just a couple notes played over and over. 
  • Start small
Starting small applies to both your goals and how much of a song you try to bite off at a time.  Mucsle memory is best learned in small bits.  Therefore, its prudent to practice small sections of a song versus large swaths.  Over time, your ability and muscle memory will compile and it'll be easier to play the whole thing.  
Again, how small is dictated by how easy the piece is for you.  Difficult pieces take LOTS of work.  Don't try to force the music into your fingers.  It won't work.  Be realistic.  How much time do you practice a week?  How hard is the piece you're working on?  The harder the piece, the more work you need to put in.  
  • Go after your weaknesses
You won't get better unless you work on the things you're bad at.  Maybe you're bad at lots of things.  I know I am.  Don't get overwhelmed, just pick them off one at time.  
  • Set goals every practice
Its important to set goals for every practice.  If you do you, you'll see consistent improvement.  That's the point of practice right?  To get better.  
It may help to keep a journal of log of your practice routine.  This will help you keep track of what you've been working on and help you chart your progress.  It will also help you organize and focus your practices.
  • Be realistic
Everything I've read about great players, my favorite players, is that they've played forever and play all the time.  Bela Fleck used to practice like 6-8 hrs a day when he was in his TEENS.  Same for Eddie Van Halen, same for Leo Kottke, same for Clarence White, and Tony Rice.  All these guys practiced more in a week than most people do for a many months, or years.  
If you hope to play an instrument really well it would be wise to consider what the masters put themselves through to play really well.  Clearly it helps your playing to play tons.  However, I can assure you that an hour a day of focused goal oriented practice will improve your playing.  If you've only got ten minutes use it.  

Set a goal.  I hope that helps.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Buying a Banjo

I am often asked by beginners what kind of banjo they should get when they are getting started.  And more often than that I meet beginning banjo players who come to their first lesson with a banjo that's not much more than wall ornament.  Completely unplayable.  They've usually spent about $100-150 bucks and they're bummed it doesn't work.  I wish I met these folks before their first lesson.  If I did I'd tell them this...
  • Get the best instrument you can afford
If you start your study of music on a junky instrument you are immediately handicapping yourself.  Some people seem to think that by playing a junker this will somehow make them better.  These folks are really off the mark.  A junker will give you poor technique, sound bad, and fail to stay in tune.  Spend a few bucks more and getting something playable.
  • Expect to pay between $350-$500 for a good quality banjo
I am not familiar with everything that's out there for this price.  I started on a Johnson banjo I payed $450 for.  I got lucky.  I've seen several Johnson's that weren't nearly as good as mine.  Stuart Duncan once remarked that this banjo didn't sound cheap.  Deering Goodtime models are very consistent in terms of quality.  Gold tone makes great banjos that cost around $600-700.  Search around and get the opinion of an experienced player before you buy your first banjo.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Banjo Classes at Dusty Strings

I'm teaching beginning bluegrass banjo at Dusty Strings this winter.  The classes will meet every other Monday from 6:30-7:30pm.  The dates are January 12, 26 and February 9, 23.

I'm also teaching an intermediate bluegrass banjo class on the same dates with classes starting at 7:45 going to 8:45.  Each class is $80.

Feel free to cruise over to Dusty Strings website and check their list of classes as well as a description of my banjo classes.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Free Music Lesson #4 (Alternative Practice tools and methods)

A person eager to learn a musical instrument has more opportunity than ever. The digital revolution has created a wealth of resources to choose from. I'd like to use this blog to point out a few that folks might not have heard of and discuss ways to make the most of them.

  1. Instructional DVDs
Regardless of your instrument I bet there's a DVD out there that teaches it. The DVD's usually feature a famous artist teaching their instrument and particular style. These DVD's are cool in that you can see your favorite guitarist playing up close and slow talking about their style. But, they don't always make the best teachers. I own many of these and have found them very useful.

2. The Amazing Slow Downer
This is the best tool ever. This is a music media player that you plug files (songs) into and you can slow them down as slow as you want. You can change the key of the song and even loop sections you want to isolate. Want to learn your favorite players licks, just slow it down and pick the notes out one by one. You can download them for $50 bucks. The cost of a lesson.

3. You Tube
Seems like everybody is on youtube. I've seen all kinds of lessons on youtube. Some professional, some not. If you can find something you're looking for on youtube great. But, you don't get the teacher/student interaction where learning can take place. Its often someone demonstrating a lick or song with no instruction on how to practice or what is happening in the bigger picture. There's no feedback. Maybe you don't care. No biggie but it takes more than seeing it done on youtube to play well. Find a teacher.

4. Online lessons
My wife bought a few of these for bluegrass fiddle. You order a video of someone playing a song you want to learn. Its the same sort of thing as youtube but more specific. It was basically someone playing a slow version and then a fast version of a song or lick. Helpful. My wife learned some cool licks from the downloads. Again, though they don't tell you how to practice or what they heck is going on musically.

So, you've tried one of these things how do you use them. Try this...

  1. The Amazing Slow Downer I can't say enough good things about the Amazing Slow Downer. I've learned lots of complicated songs and licks from it. Perhaps its best function though is when you play along with it. I'll slow a song I'm working on down to 1/2 or 3/4 speed and play along with the recording. Really great practice. Its like playing with pro musicians and getting them to play at any speed you want.
  2. DVD's When using these things its easy to get overwhelmed with all the info. Learn one thing at a time. Get it into your fingers solid then move on to something else. That goes for all practice for that matter.
  3. Youtube Get very specific about what you are looking for. Some of the better videos I've seen were teachers who could talk about what they are doing. I wouldn't waste to much time if the video doesn't make sense to you. Again, there's no feedback or Q&A with youtube.
  4. Online lessons Don't buy a whole bunch at one time. Get one and learn the material well. Then get others.
  5. Practice slow.

Hope it helps.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Free Music Lesson #3 (Coordinating the hands)

I'll start this blog by promoting my November 15th guitar workshops at Dusty Strings (   These workshops are called "Playing the Guitar with Ease."  Well, I'm not sure that's actually possible but by trying we can improve our sound.  The first workshop is Saturday from 10:30-12:30 and will focus on sitting positions, posture, and muscle tension (see lesson #1.)  The second workshop, from 1:30-3:30,  will look at exercises to help play relaxed and strategies to work on technique issues.  Come check it out.  Now, Coordination.

It's arguable that the most technically difficult aspect of playing music is the coordination of the left and right hands.  I once saw The Earl Scruggs movie and in it he mentions that this is really important and difficult. It is.  Take it from Earl.  Developing a seamless flow with both hands separates the good players from the great.  As my own playing continues to develop (hopefully) I am spending more and more time on this technical issue.  Especially as I try to push into faster and faster speeds.  How can we make the two hands work as one.

Maybe, try this.

  1. Go Slow!  You can't hear this enough.  The only way we can make the hands do what we want is by very deliberately telling them what to do.  This can only be done by going slow. Play something (slowly) you know very well and focus on getting the smoothest cleanest tone you can.  This is where we get the hands to work together.   
  2. Consider the details.  For example, should this finger stay down a little longer, should that one lift sooner.  Should you shift the position of your arm a little bit to reach that note over there.  Play close attention to the way your hands feel as you play.  Try to remember that feeling and recall it the next time you play.  
  3. If you're making lots of mistakes ask why.  This is important.  If you don't figure out what went wrong with a wrong note you can't fix it by just trying to play it again.  Analyze what's going on with the hands.  Find the sequence of movements you're looking for and play that section over and over.
  4. Play scales.  Learning scales is a great way to get to know your instrument.  Its also a great way to build technique.  It happens to be a great exercise for getting the hands to work together.  Maybe some of you know a couple of scales but how well do you really KNOW them.  If you know one scale learn another in a different position, key, or place on your instrument.
  5. Go slow.
Hope it helps,

Friday, October 24, 2008

Free Music Lesson #2 "Working with a Metronome"

Working with a metronome is a common problem that occurs with new music students.  This is understandable.  A new students may be doing well just to get his/her fingers to move at all, much less in time with a relentless machine.  However, there are several reasons that working with a metronome can make you a better musician.   Here's a few:

  1. If you plan on playing with other musicians the ability to keep time is IMPORTANT.   It could be the most important thing.  If you can't keep time, other musicians (who can) won't want to play with you.  Boo-hoo.  Work on your timing!
  2. The metronome will very quickly tell you how fast you can play and is a great tool for developing speed.
  3. Playing with a metronome forces you to LISTEN while you play.  This is an invaluable skill when playing with other musicians.
  4. Telling people you're practicing with a metronome makes you sound cool.

So, you're convinced.  Now what.  Well for starters:
  1. Go slow.  Play slow.  Learn to lock in with the metronome and play "One note per click."  Play each note directly on the beat.  Playing this slowly will really improve your muscle memory on a piece and the spaces (between clicks) will allow you to get things right.  Try a slow speed 60-80 bpm (beats per minute.)  
  2. Don't try to play continuously.  If its to hard to play a long series of notes just play a few but, make sure you get those few notes exactly right.  If 3-4 notes is to many just learn to play 1 or 2 EXACTLY right.  Once you get those locked in try to add a few more.  This works for scales too.  Strive for ease at all times.
  3. Work up to playing a "two notes per click" at slow speeds.  Counted as (1 and 2 and)As your ability on a piece gets better you'll be amazed at how much faster you can play it if you've mastered it at a slow speed.  Eventually, try working up to "four notes per click."  That's four notes played for every click.  Counted as ( 1 e and ah, 2 e and ah )  That's for 4/4 time.  If the timing thing is confusing don't sweat it.  Just try getting in sync with the metronome somehow and you'll be better for it.
  4. Listen to the metronome.  This is the most important thing.  Go slow!
Hope that helps.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Free Music Lesson #1 "Unwanted muscle tension"

This will be the first in a series of weekly music lessons I hope to post on this blog.  I'm a guitarist and banjo player so it will obviously lean in that direction but I hope to get into practice strategies as well as technique issues.  In fact, I think I'll start it off on that note... terrible.   

One of the biggest issues with my students and one that I strive to continually refine in my own playing is unwanted muscle tension.  This is not a very easy to define issue but its basically as it sounds.  Your muscles are tense blocking your ability to play what you want to play.  Most people are unaware of it even happening as they play, but I assure you 99.99999% of the students I see have a significant problem with this.  Several accomplished musicians I've seen have it to.  The great players realized this early on and worked to fix it.  

Watch a great guitarist of any genere.  Doc Watson in folk/bluegrass, John Williams in classical, Eddie Van Halen in rock.  These dudes play really, really, light and relaxed.  You can too.  How?  Try this...

  1. Slow down!  Way down, slower than you think.  Most unwanted tension develops as a player struggles to get the notes out before they've actually learned the music.  Every finger movement must be memorized.  And it must be learned SLOWLY.
  2. Play the music as slow as you need for it to feel smooth and effortless.  If you screw up ask why, don't just plow ahead.
  3. Try working with a metronome at slow speeds while playing scales or an exercise.  Play as fluid as you can.  Strive to feel what its like to play as loose as possible.  Go slow!
  4. Speed, Speed, Speed, we all want it.  How do you get it?  By having %100 control over what you're doing.  If you can't play it slow, you'll never play it fast.  BTW, the highest levels of speed take years to devolpe.
Hope that helps.  Check back next week.