While driving around Atlanta recently, I was reflecting on how to explain the importance of focusing on fundamentals when learning to play the banjo. I imagined being in front of the clinic that Curtis Jones and I were going to do in St. Louis. I love analogies and was trying to think of an analogy to compare something to learning to play the banjo and in a flash it came to me: golf. Interestingly, I know very little about golf and have never actually played even one round. I hope to not say something that would be totally inaccurate. Basically, golf is like other sports in that to be successful, you have to master several techniques, including driving the ball, putting, using various clubs, and hitting the ball from various surfaces including short grass, tall grass, and sand. In learning the banjo you also have to master various techniques including right hand movement, left hand movement and efficiency, timing, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. You also have to work on clarity and speed. Back to golf. When playing golf everything you do is measured. You know how many strokes it takes to get through the course, how many strokes per hole, and how many strokes per putt. You know how long each drive was and the length of each putt. You know where the ball landed each time you hit it and can figure out the angle of each drive. You know if you made a bad drive because the ball is now in the rough or behind a tree. You can measure progress. If you work hard over a period of time, you can see your score go down. You may start a particular course at 110 and after hard work get it down to 105 or even 95. In learning to play the banjo, almost nothing is measured. If I ask a student how many pull-offs they did last week, they have no idea. If I ask how fast can you play this song two months ago vs. one month ago vs. last week, they probably would not know. If I ask them what their weaknesses are, they don’t know. If I ask them how they practice they usually say, “I play everything I know during each practice session or I start at the beginning of a song and play the song over and over.” If I ask what are you having problems with and what did you do to improve, they generally say, for example, “I practiced my pull-offs for five minutes each day or I used a metronome for 30 minutes last week but I cannot remember the settings and I think it may have helped but I can’t say for sure”. There is no planning or evaluation process for practicing. Now in the case of golf, answers to similar questions would be: I have a putting green in my office and I practice putting 15 minutes each day or I hit three buckets of balls each week at the driving range and can consistently drive for 250 yards, or I’m taking lessons and we are working on my follow through. Note that the lesson covers one thing and is very focused as opposed to covering several techniques. In each case the golfer can assign a number to what he is doing and therefore know how much effort is being expended for each technique and can measure progress. If he goes on the course and all of a sudden his drives are 20 yards longer because he has been hitting 100 balls a week at the driving range, he is aware of this and knows why it happened and can keep practicing in a way that will cause further improvement and progress. Ultimately the golfer will know if progress is being made because at the end of each round that have a score and probably can remember their scores for the last ten years. Basically, the golfer knows if he is getting better or worse, if his scores are getting higher, lower, or are staying the same. The golfer has the information as to why they are getting better or worse and can focus on the individual techniques that are working to help to improve their game. The golfer wanting to improve does not start at hole 1 each week and continue through hole 18 with no other practice. In fact the golfer that wants to improve spends most of his time intently focused on techniques. Driving the ball and putting over and over. He is at the driving range or the putting green and not the golf course. Although non-typical, a banjo player can use the same quantitative approach as the golfer by isolating their techniques and measuring them as follows: 1. A banjo player can isolate each technique and play it a certain amount of repetitions. 2. The banjo player can gradually increase the speed of each technique by playing along with a metronome. Just as a golfer would not expect to increase his distance hitting the ball from 200 yards to 250 yards in one session, the banjo player should not expect to play something at 100 beats per minute and then jump up to 150 beats per minute. By working really hard, the golfer may be able to increase his drives from 200 to 205 to 210 to 215 to 220 yards over a period of several weeks or months and the banjo player may be able to increase his playing from 100 to 103 to 106 to 109 bpm over a few weeks or months. 3. The banjo player can measure his progress with the metronome and then keep a log to show his progress and to help them plan for future sessions. This will enable him to know which techniques or parts of songs are slower than others so that he can know where to focus attention. 4. To determine clarity and timing, the banjo player can record himself or herself playing with either an audio recorder of video camera (or Smart Phone) and listen back to determine progress. A teacher or more accomplished musician can help the banjo player to refine their listening and evaluation skills. In summary, many banjo students invest considerable time in playing the banjo, but make little progress and are continually frustrated. This is largely because they have not isolated each technique, measured the performance, and come up with a plan to isolate and work with each technique individually. The student can decide how fast they want to progress. Normal progress would occur with 20% to 30% of practice time focused on drills. Extreme progress would result in 40% to 80% drills during practice time. If you feel the necessity to learn quickly, I would suggest that you review my articles on Relaxation, which is a big component of progress. “ A chain is as strong as its weakest link”. “A song can only be played as fast as its slowest measure”

Improve Your Playing

Geoff Hohwald is Master Banjo Instructor who has been teaching and playing banjo for over 40 years. Geoff wants you to become the banjo player you have always wanted to be. He has written numerous banjo instructional books, teaches one-on-one banjo lessons, and even hold regular banjo camps at his mountain retreat in North Georgia.