Paul writes:

Over the past few months I’ve joined the ranks of the non-band-affiliated banjoists of the world, so, except for the occasional jam, I’m playing with myself (so to speak). I think playing with others on a regular basis is in my near future (next few months sometime), especially if I can find a fiddler.

The sooner this happens, Paul, the better for your focus. You will start to work on *the stuff you do with your regular picking partners*. Whether in a band or just a regular jam, the critical advantage is that a regular repertoire gets developed, and then you are naturally motivated to focus your efforts on improving on your ways of playing that repertoire, both lead and backup.

My energies are dispersed among trying to keep sharp with the songs I already know and improve my technique with them; learn every break from the Foggy Mountain Banjo album; learn a lot of Alan Munde’s fiddle tune breaks from the Festival Favorites album; learn JD Crowe’s breaks and backup from the first JD and the NS album; practice scales; learn how to play in the keys of C and D; learn how to play up-the-neck backup … and the list goes on and on. I’m doing something differently virtually every day, and it’s getting a little chaotic. Well, at least I’m playing …

The fact is that at the age of 48 and without any hope of becoming a star banjo player, I still want to become a killer picker. And I don’t have time to waste. So I end up doing a little of everything, and end up getting nowhere fast. My middle name is now “Plateau.” I’m tempted to dump everything and just focus exclusively on one song, like Ground Speed or Munde’s Bill Cheatam, but I fear I’ll bore myself to death, as well as drive my wife to drink.

Without having to have a plan, you’ll find that your efforts go into the songs you are expecting to play in front of others. Cleanup work is at least as important as memorizing new stuff. When you really look at it closely, almost everything needs cleaning up. Good, clean, tasteful playing, even with a limited repertoire of licks and moves, is what most people look for in a banjo picker — not knowing every song and lick in the book. Licksters do well in competitive jam sessions, but good players have the best leg up in band situations, or jam situations where good sounding group music is rated above individual accomplishment.

I’m looking for some sage advice on a practice plan that embraces both focus and variety. Classical musicians in many conservatories are required to learn certain classic pieces in a set order of increasing difficulty. Is there a good standard progression in bluegrass banjo — not just what I like (I like too much) — but say, learn FMBanjo to speed one tune at a time, then move onto JD Crowe? What’s the best way to learn an incredible amount incredibly fast and (incredibly) not forget it all?!

The answer to the last question is to get in a group (again!!) and gig as much as you can. You’ll sure end up learning those songs. If you have time to work really hard, use it for cleanup. Same if you jam a lot on a large repertoire. But face it, you haven’t been playing since your teens, and you can’t make that up in terms of repertoire in a very short time, not when you also have a day job and otherwise busy life.

As for a gradation of difficulty, go ahead and grade them for difficulty if that helps. Clear playing at high speed is difficult, as are correct and good-sounding executions of all sorts of licks. There is no standard progression. Just play what you know, and discern for yourself what you find hard. You can play any song an easier or a harder way, your choice. But if you’re working on tabs of other people’s breaks, you can judge what’s easy or hard.

Now, what is “cleanup”? That’s my term for eliminating flaws in your playing. Not just some, but all, if you are really serious about playing. If you can’t play a certain piece perfectly at the required speed, then you can constructively occupy lots of practice hours. The Loop Exercise Method I taught at the camp you attended (which can be found on this site under The Doc’s Prescriptions under Instructional), is my most streamlined method of conquering technical or memorization problems.

I have often pushed one hand or the other to pain, trying to conquer physical limitations on what I’m trying to play. When I hit pain, I stop that move and work on something that might give pain to the other hand. Then switch again later.

I keep a list of up to 10 things that are the highest priority for me to work on. I can soon enough start crossing things off the list, but then of course I always add, too!

I hope all this helps, Paul. Definitely part of what will settle you about this is to accept that wants are not needs, and that if you really do want big improvements enough to put in the time, they will start happening.

But most important of all — Find some people to play with regularly! And have fun!

Pete