by Brad Laird

Question: I play pretty good at home but when I get in a jam session I tend to fall apart. Why does this happen and what can I do to fix the problem?

That feeling of not performing well, whether in a jam session or on stage, is something everyone feels. I know I have. Let me give you some thoughts on this extremely frustrating issue that will hopefully help in some way. If your public playing doesn’t seem to come up to the level that you are able to achieve at home while practicing or playing, there can be many factors at work. Some of them are pretty basic and obvious and some are hard to put a finger on. To identify things that might cause the temporary degradation of playing ability, let’s try to list any environmental, physical, or mental situation that is different from the home practice/playing environment. One thing that is different is that most of us always practice while seated and then, about 80% of the time, we stand when participating in a jam session or while on stage. The stability of the instrument is not as good when standing. The relative locations of the body, even the visual line of sight on the fingerboard is all changed from what we are used to.
If you suspect this might be part of the cause try these things:
1. Spend a larger amount of time practicing while standing. 2. Practice, at times, with the eyes closed so that you will learn to rely less and less on the visual feedback. Another thing that is usually different from the home practice environment is the number of distractions. To practice effectively one must eliminate all sources of distraction. But, then we go out into a room full of people, laughing and carrying on, and it is a lot harder to think about what we are doing. Some people learn to “tune out” the distractions. I think it is very hard to do that. Imagine the performance that Sam Bush would give if he had to “tune out” the audience when he performed. That sort of disconnect from the people in the room or the audience would be felt. We have all seen musicians playing with their head down, staring at their fingers and utterly ignoring the audience. Focus like that might get your playing to improve, if you learn to do it, but it will not improve your ability to communicate and connect with listeners. I think a better approach, and perhaps the only reasonable one, is to become “over practiced” at home, expect a diminution of performance in public, and accept the end result. For example, let’s say you learned to play Snowshoes and the jammers tend to play it at around 100 beats per minute. If you work on it until you can do it at 100, you might only be able to make 85 cleanly with all those distractions at work. So, the solution is to practice until you can do it at 110. Then when the distractions and other factors do their evil work, you can coast along cleanly and precisely at 100. You might even want to find out the speeds at which certain tunes are actually being played. In a band, it would be pretty easy to do. Just get a metronome out and compare with the band’s preferred speed and write it all down. In a jam setting you might want to record little snatches on a small cassette recorder. Then go home and study the tape with a metronome handy. But, the concept of practicing to higher level of excellence than is actually required will do the trick. Dieters do a similar thing. I know, I did it. I wanted to lose 25 pounds so I made my goal 35. It worked. I ended up about 26 down I think. The principle is similar. Another factor at work is plain old nervousness. In a room full of musicians, who we want to impress or at least not reveal how rotten we are, the pressure can be intense. That is hard to simulate in the practice environment. But, I have found a similar experience that feels almost the same and a solution that has worked for me. I have played in front of some pretty large and attentive audiences. I remember being the opening act for Tony Rice or somebody like that once in 1984 or ‘85 and really feeling the jitters... big time. And my performance was off. Nothing felt smooth. I felt like I was constantly screwing up in hundreds of small ways. The room was full of musicians and they all were absolutely silent and watching everything we did. I thought there is no way to simulate that and become accustomed to the feeling other than by being up there doing it. Then came a trip to a recording studio. The fear that gripped me in the studio felt just like the big stage jitters. Recording can create the same feelings of fear and that is something you can do at home. Even a little cassette machine running can increase the anxiety level and the desire to perform “as good as possible.” Now if nobody ever listens to the tape it wouldn’t be as effective. I took a piano tuning course a few years back and one of the requirements was to make a series of tapes which had to be submitted for grading. I was already tuning for customers in their homes, but that didn’t come close to the anxiety of making those tapes. My heart rate went up. I couldn’t tune worth a hoot. I felt like a total idiot. Then, I would stop the tape. I would tell myself that I would practice tuning for a few days and try again later. I would be doing great and then try the taping again and just absolutely make a mess of things. Knowing that someone would judge the tape was the fear factor. Even making a little tape to send to your old Uncle Ed in Duluth would simulate the experience somewhat. I am not saying that we should all sit around inducing nervousness during our practice sessions. But we do need to learn how to deal with it. There are two ways of getting beyond the effects of nervousness. First is to know what you are doing so well that you are truly competent and confident. That eliminates fear. As you continue to improve, things that used to fall apart will stay together more often. The second way to get beyond fear is to keep putting yourself in fearful situations and you will learn that they are not nearly as fearful as they once were. Take snakes for example. Afraid of snakes? Get one and keep it as a pet. After a few weeks of just watching him, get up the nerve to pick him up. Do it everyday. After a while you might get out your mandolin one day and see old “Mr. Snake” poking his head out of the F-hole and it might not even cause you to stain your drawers. So, the moral of all that is just keep on. Don’t shy away from the situation. Desensitize yourself by immersion in the situation as often as possible until it becomes “old hat.” Another way to simulate the pressures of human observation is to sit your family and friends down and perform for them. Work up a little five tune program and put on a stage show at home. The pressure level goes up, not to dangerous levels like being called out onto the stage at The Grand Ole Opry, but it does simulate some of the feelings. Make it a formal little thing so everyone is really sitting there listening and watching your every move. All of those factors could be at work. But, it could also be that you simply haven’t learned it (the tune, the break, the improvising ideas) sufficiently to run on auto pilot. The act of thinking in a performance setting does get in the way of good performance. By that I mean there is often no time to think, to keep track, to recall, to think ahead. You must have done it enough so that the subconscious mind is able to do most of the work. And that does come with time if you practice correctly. Allow me to recap the main points. Practice to a higher level in anticipation of some performance failure. How many race cars running at 6,000 rpm are designed to explode at 6,001? They build them to take a lot more than 6,000 so they can just cruise along for hours without a problem. Find out what speeds the tunes are really being played at. What might feel “pretty fast” at home might be way under the ridiculous speed at the jam session. And, work on ways to simulate the experience of pressure.

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.