By Pete Wernick – October 2010 column, Banjo Newsletter (PDF)

October 28 in Berkeley, California, Hot Rize will kick off its first tour in 12 years. The group’s full-time run was January, 1978–April, 1990. After disbanding, we’d reunite for a handful of gigs each year. Now in our 33rd year, we’ve recently done our first recording together since 1990 and are gearing up to revisit fans from the west coast to New York and Charlotte, NC. Bryan Sutton has been on guitar since 2002, replacing late great original member Charles Sawtelle. We’re working on new material, and will even let Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers out of the bus for the shows. Go to DrBanjo.com or hotrize.com for the schedule.

I feel extremely fortunate to be in a bluegrass band with the likes of Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and Bryan Sutton. The bar is set high, and I’ve been working hard on my bluegrass chops, just as I did in the 1980s when we were gigging all the time.

In the early days, as we tried to rise from unknowns to “knowns”, my goal was to work out and master the very best breaks I could, for every one of our songs. With so many great players out there to be compared to, I figured I’d have best results if I settled on an exact break, and relentlessly practiced it at speed and even above, to make it “bulletproof.”

I like the concept of “bulletproof” as a performance standard. Performing something consistently perfectly is a lot harder than practicing it perfectly. As the saying goes, the amateur practices something until he/she gets it right; the professional practices it until he/she can’t get it wrong. Why the paranoia about getting it wrong? As anyone who’s ever performed knows, what goes smoothly in rehearsal can easily hit bumps on stage. Why is that?

First and foremost is our old friend (whoops, I mean enemy) performance anxiety a/k/a stage fright, butterflies, the willies, etc. No surprise that a top-drawing page on my web site is the article “Playing Under Pressure” (originally published right here in BNL, now linked from the Visitor Favorites box on DrBanjo.com, home page).

As the article says, performing and even jamming can be fraught with distractions compared to closet playing. Let’s review:

  • People are watching/listening intently, possibly including respected musicians, your teacher, spouse, or ex (teacher or spouse), etc. For some reason these folks make you nervous!
  • The other band members may be nervous too, and speed up, or forget stuff… yup, distracting.
  • The band is all facing the same direction, a way of playing only done on stage. You don’t hear or see your fellow players as well as usual.
  • You’re playing standing up, which you rarely do at home. The neck looks different. You have to go by the dots on the side of the neck, not the inlays.
  • On songs for which you capo, the neck may suddenly look unfamiliar. When practicing you may not bother with the capo, but on stage those songs in A and B require it, and now the inlays (er, dots) are all in “new” places!
  • More distractions: random sounds from the audience (even the positive ones), and possibly from the sound system. Playing through live microphones sounds different from purely acoustic playing. How you sound amplified is probably quite different from rehearsals… Distracting!
  • There’s a show to do. Only one try at each song, even when fluffs and stumbles happen. There’s m.c. work going on, and tuning, and more tuning… and sometimes out-of-tune playing (especially for the banjo, as addressed in depth a few columns ago).

Is that enough distractions? That’s where “bulletproofing” comes in—especially for the shakiest solos or the ones early in the set, with things at their least stable. The goal: You’re impervious to distractions, so confident that you’re actually having fun. Each solo is so locked-in, you “don’t know how to play it wrong” (you know, like saying your phone number).

A big part of the challenge is, it’s about “the one time you get to play it.” If you goof while practicing, you may go back a time or two and if that comes out better, move on. But that’s not bulletproofing. You only get one true test per practice session, and that is: On your firsttry on any given day, does the solo come out just right? No? Then it’s not bulletproof. Practice it a bunch more, and see if next day’s first try comes out just right. A few days in a row with a perfect first try means “probably bulletproof.” Once it’s coming out right on stage, consistently, despite pressure and distractions, that’s bulletproof. Consistency brings confidence, and confident playing always sounds (and even looks) better. For an example, check out your Flatt & Scruggs videos!

Unfortunately, bulletproofing takes a lot more focus and time than regular practicing, as the standard is higher. As always, I recommend the Loop Exercise Method (see Instructional section of DrBanjo.com) for nailing down anything that might come loose on the bumpy road of playing under pressure.

An essential practice tool here is our old friend the metronome, or rhythm machine. So here’s a question from Paul in NC:

Pete,

What are the pros and cons of practicing with a metronome vs. a drum machine. I have found that since I am practicing religiously with both, that the drum machine seems to force me to stay in time, no matter what and with little effort on my part. Whereas, with a metronome I have to concentrate more, listening for and trying to stay on the beat. It seems like the latter might better simulate a band situation, where I would really need to concentrate on the beat.

Your thoughts, when you get a minute, please. —Paul

Paul,

Work with either rhythm box is of course a great guide and reality check. Even if the perfect regularity comes from a machine, not you, playing with it a lot builds a good habit of steadiness. The goal is to internalize that steadiness so it’s your tendency even without the help. Also, as you say, it’s good to cultivate the ability to hear and play to a beat. In real life situations, staying with a pulse is sometimes more important than simple steadiness.

Comparing metronome vs. rhythm machine is really about how loud the guide should be. Metronomes are usually quieter than banjos, and many pickers have trouble hearing them enough to be guided. I like how my rhythm machine can be set as loud or quiet as I want. The louder the beat, the harder to miss or ignore it.

But as your question implies, it can be too easy to rely on a good crutch—that loud beat that just won’t let you wander. Is that the best way to train yourself? I think not. Try less volume at times, to train and test yourself. And don’t forget, a loud drum beat also makes it harder to hear your tone—not good for your tone.

I prefer a loud pulse when I work on parts that are not “secure”. Slowly repeating a practice loop, flaws become obvious and tend to fix themselves. I figure out which finger is hitting on each beat and make sure to clearly emphasize that finger right on the beat as I repeat the loop. It’s fun to nail those notes, right with the thump of the rhythm box. It locks in the timing. Ahh!

After playing with those “beat” notes louder and locked in, turn off (or turn down) the machine and see if the segment now exudes the beat (not just following it, but stating it). If your playing exudes the beat, it’s probably not just in “correct” rhythm, but also larger and clearer than ever, and more rhythmically appealing— as in, it gets people’s feet tapping. This is something to work for, as Bill Monroe or Bo Diddley would tell you.

So you can see I’m saying that some work with a loud beat and some with it quieter, or even out, is best.

For good practice playing in solid rhythm with *people*, play along with people or recordings of people, a challenge different from keeping time to a machine, and certainly a relevant one!

Hope that all helps.

—Pete