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.
Brad


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.