By Pete Wernick – October 2009 column, Banjo Newsletter (PDF)

Attendees of last January’s Basic Banjo camp recently exchanged emails about their progress. Keith P. from Maryland wrote:

The months after the camp were the most productive and fun I’ve had with the banjo. I spent a lot of time working out breaks for Will the Circle, Long Journey Home, Bury Me Beneath the Willow (a personal favorite), Jesse James, I Saw the Light, New River Train, Worried Man, and most recently, I’ll Fly Away. A few weeks ago I was at a jam in Baltimore and an older banjo player, pretty good, was incredulous when I told him that I wasn’t using tab for my solos.

My biggest challenge is to play the breaks in a full-speed jam without choking. It is really hard to play the banjo with both hands around your own neck. I’m not entirely confident enough to jump in when jams go at the typical blistering speed. But a few months back I decided to take matters into my own hands and organized a slow jam once a month where 6 or 7 of us get together. We’ve been meeting for the past 4 or 5 months on my back patio. I do OK there and we are all getting better. It’s a lot of fun, too.

Keith, Your e-mail makes a teacher proud. I think back to less than a year and a half ago at the Merlefest jam camp: You couldn’t keep time on the few breaks you’d practiced so much, clutched often and were quite understandably frustrated. But I noted you had served in the Marines and strongly suspected you had the determination to win the battle.

You’re very much on the right path, and your having organized a jam shows the kind of proactivity that is typical of those who see the quickest results.

Re the “choking in a jam” problem, I suggest you:

1. Practice going from back-up on a song into the solo, while vividly imagining you’re at a high level jam, and this is the time that counts.If you imagine vividly enough, you’ll give yourself an adrenaline jolt. Imagine being stared at by the best/ grumpiest picker in the jam, just as you’re starting your break, as that’s the kind of distraction that can derail you. Keep doing that exercise backup/break/back-up/break until the break becomes reliable.

But there’s more to do to make it “bulletproof.” Close your eyes and see if you can play it. Spell your name while playing it, and see if muscle memory and a decreased amount of available brainpower is enough to keep you on track. Naturally, this will be hard, so… Watch carefully for exactly what places the break is most likely to derail. Those are the places to work on.

To work on problem spots, the key is “the Loop Exercise Method” as I call it. It’s the central element of practicing for fast progress, both in my teaching and in my own practicing. The method is laid out in an article on DrBanjo.com, found in the Doc’s Prescriptions in the Instructional section (also in this column in the Jan., 2007 BNL). In short: by making a repeating exercise out of exactly the most-likely-to fail part, and rigorously perfecting it at slow speed, you can transform it into the least-likely-to-fail category. The steps in the article show how to bring it up to speed and beyond, while increasing your finger muscle power at the same time. It’s work, but it’s worth it!

Each problem spot in a break can be healed by this method, until the break can survive whatever stress you put it through. If you pick a song that’s in both the “most vulnerable to clutching” and “most likelyto- be-played” categories, you’ll soon have a chance to prove to yourself at a jam that you can learn how to not choke under pressure.

A great thing about learning to play under pressure is that once you do reasonably well once, the “scary bogeyman” of playing in front of others becomes a bit less scary. In time the challenge becomes less to overcome, replaced by confidence that you’ve done your prep and you have good reason to think it will go well. The nerves don’t exactly disappear, but they have less power over you. My full take on “Playing under pressure” is in an article by that name from BNL, also found under the Doc’s Prescriptions on my web site.

2. If you have the “Intermediate Bluegrass Jam Session” DVD, put it on, and try to stay with it (including two solo opportunities per song) right through the whole video. The speeds are typically a bit over 100 beats/minute, so will challenge you. If at some point that becomes “too easy,” it’s time to graduate to the “Music Minus One Banjo” CD set, first the slowed-down CD (mostly 100-120bpm). Once you can handle that one, switch to the not-slowed CD!

Or… put on any good bluegrass record, through a slow-down program or CD player, and adjust the speed, first to a pretty unchallenging speed, then raise the speed gradually till you start stumbling. Come back to that speed as often as you can (add in the “vividly imagine being under pressure” thing), and the results should come. Be sure to use the Loop Exercise Method when you discover repeated trouble spots.

Since you’ve talked about attending my Intermediate camp: The Loop Exercise Method is the main tool we use at that camp. Everyone will figure out what practice loops they need to work on, and that will put everyone on a fast track to upgrading and solidifying their playing.

Keith, I couldn’t be more pleased to hear how it’s going with your progress— especially considering where you were at, early last year! If the Keith of then could see the Keith of now, I bet he wouldn’t even believe it. Congrats, and have fun on the journey!—Pete


Thought for the month: Scruggs style is “linguistic.”

It’s too bad that so much banjo teaching is about learning verbatim pieces and licks that someone else makes up. I teach banjo with the understanding that ear skills and “linguistic” type playing are at least as important as memorization. Linguistic? In other words, truly playing Scruggs style is more similar to conversing fluently than it is to reciting memorized sentences as though one were in a play.

The basis of language is knowing how to combine nouns and verbs into coherent sentences. In Scruggs style, melody notes are woven into rolls to make “musical sentences” (melodies played Scruggs style). In both, the exact weave can and does vary while still making sense. Flexibility is necessary to handle new content and even to recover from a slip-up.

Memorization does have an important place: A well-practiced memorized break can become quite reliable and polished. But…knowing only one exact way to play something can spell disaster if even one move goes awry. Always depending on memorization at times means less ability to cope in a spontaneous situation.

What’s the practical point here? It’s good to get away from strict memorization and develop the flexibility to play something more than one way.