Bluegrass Banjo Sheldon Friesen

Banjo lessons, teacher, performer – Vancouver / Surrey, BC

Archive for the category “The Art of Practicing”

Left Hand Finger Independence Exercise Two

A number of posts ago I suggested a left hand independent exercise to enable you to have greater control over where your fingers go on the fret board. That exercise actually focused on the actual brain signals we send to our fingers. Essentially it was a motor control development exercise.

In this post I want to again look at developing left hand finger independence but in this post, I want to focus on actual muscle development and stretches.

First, place your fingers on the fret board with your index finger on fret 10, middle on 11, ring on 12 and pinky on 13. Do this so all four fingers are on the same string. Any string is fine, but if your like me you’ll find that the second string is probably most comfortable.

Now, lift just your pinky and move it from fret 13 to 14 on the same string while keeping your other fingers firmly planted on their existing positions.

Next, lift your ring finger from 12 and place it on 13 where your pinky finger was previously.

Then, move your middle to the 12th fret and finally your index to fret 11.

It’s almost like playing leapfrog with your fingers on the fret board.

The main focus with this exercise is the stretch the pinky has to make from the rest of your fingers and also the ring finger stretching away from the middle finger.

Do this leapfrog drill up the neck a little ways then try it in reverse until you eventually work your way back to the original starting position.

You’ll find your muscles limbering up and your ability to stretch your fingers increasing to enable you to play those fancy licks with greater control.

Pick Away!


Do You Have What It Takes?

As a music teacher, I have noticed differences in students and how they view themselves and their musical ambitions. I have also noticed how students view other musicians and compare them to themselves and to others. Many players look up to someone they consider as a hero, a superstar player, an untouchable. “If only I could be like that person!”

Don’t get me wrong, I think that having those you look up to, to aspire to play like, is a positive and even a necessary thing. But, too often we place those people on a pedestal and they become superhuman in our eyes, someone who has achieved things we will never be able to achieve. “They are talented, I’m not,” would be the way we view them. Or, “They have a gift, I do not.”

I want to address these notions of being talented, being gifted and being a genius. I don’t know if everyone will agree with me on these points, but this is how I’ve come to view these terms based on my experience. I hope they will encourage you.

Talent is often thought of as an elusive object that you either have or don’t have. I disagree on this notion. If this were true, then I would be born with a talent to play the banjo. I can guarantee that is not the case. When I first started playing as a young boy, I was not making pretty music. I was not born a talented banjo player.

The first pancake I cooked for breakfast, many years ago now, was not an award winner either. But, I do say, that if you now come over to my place for Saturday morning breakfast, you would be quite pleased with the state of my pancaking abilities. I was not born a pancake gourmet but over time, through many mistakes and some victories, I have achieved an acceptable level of pancaking talent.

You are not born with talent, you achieve it and develop it. A talented banjo player is one who’s achieved a level of proficiency at the instrument through many hours of practice, trial and error, and through a discipline of small sustainable achievements.

Can anyone become a talented player? I would say yes, but I qualify that with an ‘if’. If you are willing to put in the effort and time required you can become a talented player.

Then, what is a gifted player. A gifted player has achieved the prerequisite of being a talented player. Gifting is more of a natural attribute, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that one needs to be born with it. Gifting is the ability to take talent to another level. To understand the talent, to be able to fine tune the talent, to be able to develop the talent to new personally unprecedented levels; that is the ability of a gifted musician.

A gifted banjo player is one who’s learned how to practice. He or she will, almost without thought, know where their weakness are and be able to create exercises to grow beyond these hurdles. The gifted player seems to have a sixth sense in these matters. The gifted musician, has a love for the instrument that eventually enables them to do more than just play the instrument but to also express themselves through their instrument; to communicate through their instrument.

Can everyone be a gifted banjo player? I said that anyone could be a talented player ‘if’. That ‘if’ results in a world population where not everyone is a banjo player but a world where many have taken up the challenge to become talented players. From that talented player population, I would say that a smaller percentage are gifted players. Why, only a smaller percentage? That is not so easy to understand but let me say a few things on this subject.

Gifting, as I’ve described it above requires that the musician gets the music firstly out of the head and into the fingers. That is talent. Then, he or she must get the music out of the fingers and into the heart. That is gifting. This requires that one loves the music so much that the instrument begins to be an extension of themselves, another means of communication like speech. Not everyone has that deep of a love for the music. That isn’t to say they can not achieve great things on the banjo and it also does not mean that they do not like the music. It simply means that some have this passion to a greater degree. I believe that passion for the music will lead us on to its greater depths. It’s what eventually turns a talented musician into a gifted musician.

What about genius? OK, first let’s get a perspective of the banjo playing population. Many banjo players are talented players. If you work at it, I believe you will; if not yet, be a talented player. You’ll have lot’s of fun, play at jams, maybe play in a band. People will enjoy your music. Doesn’t sound bad to me. Well worth the effort you put in. A smaller part of this talented group will become gifted. If you have the passion and the lifestyle that will allow your passion to take you on it’s journey, you will likely become a gifted musician. Not everyone can sacrifice what it takes to get to this level and not every one has the desire to be this kind of player. Then there is the genius. I personally don’t believe that many will ever achieve this. Genius is not so much the ability but it is the historical record of creating what no one else has ever created. Only a few have ever achieved it.

Genius is not required to be a good player. I don’t think that genius is a pursuit either. It is an outcome, and achievement. The majority of banjo players, whom I consider to be great players, do not have genius; but they have taken their talents to the level of giftedness.

I don’t feel this is an exhaustive treatise on the subject but I do hope it will give you a more realistic perspective on your place as a student, player, musician, banjo picker!


Left Hand Finger Independence Exercise

You’ve just finished supper, worked hard all day and now you want to take the rest of the evening off to play the banjer. Only, when you pick it up, your fingers feel like sausages, I mean frozen sausages and they just don’t do what you tell them to do. In fact they sometimes even feel like they’re tied together and can’t move independently.

What can you do?

First off, a big mistake when practicing is to not take the few minutes necessary for warm up. There are numerous warm up techniques and I won’t be able to get to all of them in this post but I wanted to share one technique I’ve found helpful. It’s a left hand finger independence exercise. Let me explain.

Plant your index finger (finger number one) on the D string about fret eight ( not too important which fret you start on). Now, finger two on fret nine, finger three on fret ten and finger four (pinky) on fret eleven. This is our starting position.

Here’s where we teach our fingers to move independently, starting with this opening position, only lift fingers one and three (at the exact same time) and plant them on the B string while keeping your other two fingers firmly on the D string.

Could you do it? If your not used to it you probably had a lot of trouble. You see, the brain and the fingers don’t always speak the same language and thus don’t always do what you tell them to do. Take your time and you will teach your fingers to obey.

Now, take those two fingers still on the D string and lift them at the same time while keeping the two fingers on the B string down, planting fingers two and four on the B string. You should now have finger one on the B string at fret eight, finger two on the B string fret nine, finger three same string fret ten and finger four on fret eleven, all on the same string.

Repeat this exercise to walk up the strings to both the G string then to the fourth string D.

Now, once you’ve mastered this, walk back to the first string and end up in our opening position.

This exercise will really help your fingers to move indepently of each other and make it easier to do that fancy fret work that your getting so good at 🙂

Keep up the good work!

How Long Will It Take?

When that new excited banjo student arrives for their first lesson, undoubtedly there is one question they all have whether they voice it or not.

“How long will it take me to be a good banjo player?”

I can’t answer that question with a simple statement and be fair to the student. Sure it would be nice to say that it takes so many months or so many years but its different for everybody.

So how do I answer that question? Well, here goes.

First, someone once said that the difference between someone who can play and someone who can play well is about 3000 hours of practice. This is not a precise amount of time because so many things affect it like previous musical knowledge, quality of the actual practice time, is there experienced tutoring or music lessons involved, and even some personal aptitude or gifting. (That is a subject for another post at another time). Having said all that, I still think that 3000 hours is a fair appraisal that would generally get an average student from beginner to proficiency at playing the banjo.

So please read on and let me explain.

OK, let’s say you spend 1/2 hour a day practicing for seven days a week with no holidays. That means your goal would be achieved in 6000 days or about 16 1/2 years. Now, that may sound just absolutely scary to most aspiring musicians but its not that bad. Look! Practice 1 hour a day would then drop that time to about 8 years. Two hours a day would drop that to 4 years. And remember, there are a multitude of joyous victories along that path to your goal as well. You, definitely will not be in the closet the whole time. In fact, you should be playing with others as soon as you can play three chords. That won’t take long and you’ll have lots of fun too.

Now, most of us can’t spend 8 hours a day practicing so you have to be realistic with how long it will take you to reach your proficiency goals. However, the more you practice will greatly increase the years you have left to enjoy your instrument at a higher skill level.

So, let me try to sum it up here. Don’t get discouraged, don’t quit, you’re not any wierder than any other banjo picker 🙂 and you will get better with time. No; shortcuts don’t work, only dedicated time to practice.

OK, you still want me to tell you how long you will have to play before your any good. I knew you’d force me to this point, I don’t like to make general statements like this but here goes. I don’t think you should make a decision to quite before at least 5 years of consistent progressive practice and learning. I think at that time you’ll know yourself better regarding your ability to play and if you still can’t get it, you might want to try the accordion. But, most likely, you’ll find that after this amount of time, you’ll have developed enough skill to have lots of fun, and to understand where your strengths and weaknesses are and you can then chart a course for the next five years of playing.

Hope this helps you to keep the big picture goal in mind.

Keep pickin’

Practice Pointers

Practicing needs to have a structure to maximize its benefit. I’ve included some tips to help you organize your practice time better. Put the principles to work and you will find your progress maximized.

As far as practice goes, it’s most important to have a daily procedure to follow:

1. Always keep the big picture in front of you…

You can use books, DVDs or your own personally written list of goals. This will be your personal point of reference to help keep you on track. You’ll see where you’ve come from and where you are heading. This will help to keep you inspired by knowing that you’ve made measurable progress and that all your practicing is beginning to pay off. Keeping a list of what you are wanting to achieve in the future will give you a goal to aspire to, providing purpose to your lessons and efforts.

2. Keep a record of exercises and songs for your daily practice.

These exercises will help you build a solid foundation for playing. They will be the ground work for your more advanced studies making them easier to master.

3. Always set aside your time for practice.

You will want to practice every day. A minimum of 1/2 hour per day should be your beginning goal. As you advance, you will need to set aside larger time slot for your daily practice. My former music teacher used to tell me as a young boy that if I missed one day of practice, the next day was just catchup practice. Do the math, 1 lost day = 2 lost days of progress. Miss 2 days = 4 lost days of progress.

4. Be patient with your progress.

It’s easy to become down on yourself and discouraged with your progress. Often you will find that progress is not as rapid as other times. This is normal. Think of these periods of time as the time it takes to build a solid foundation. It is not wasted time. Great musicians are not born but made over thousands of hours of practice.

5. Always reinforce your current lessons with your previous lessons.

As a student, make it your responsibility to remember what you’ve learned in the past, applying these lessons to your current lessons. For instance, your hand positioning that was taught to you in the first weeks of your studies will need to be applied to all your lessons for the rest of your playing career. Make it your responsibility to apply everything you’ve learned to the current pieces you are practicing.

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