Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lesson Six: Bad Banjo Habits

No matter what you do, you will develop bad habits when you play.  Maybe I should say "bad habits" because there are plenty of fine Irish tenor banjo players out there who don't play in a classical manner but still have wonderful music to share. Not every thing that is wrong is "wrong."

But there are a few things that will help you advance your style and technique faster, especially if you are beginner. 

Of course there are a lot of things you can do wrong while playing the banjo.  Wrong posture, wrong grip, weird hand position, the list goes on and on.  Most of these are readily corrected either by a teacher or by checking your technique against the many videos of experts out there.  But two things stand out that are not readily seen and they effect crucial parts of your playing.

My last banjo lesson with Enda Scahill brought this out.  Enda has been studying a relaxation method called the Alexander Technique which is a system of body presentation originally devised by an Australian actor, Frederick Alexander, to help him speak and sing better.  It incorporates a number of relaxation and posture techniques that make a person perform more effectively and more efficiently by making sure that the body is relaxed and that unnecessary levels of muscular tension don't interfere with the performance.

I'm not advocating this technique, like all systems of this sort it takes a long time an much dedication to get it right, but Enda specifically pointed out two places where this idea benefits banjo players.

This is not the first time I have heard these ideas, but it was the first time they came with an explanation.

First the Right Hand.

Speed and right hand ornaments (read triplets) depend on a single motion of the wrist and lack of interfering muscular tension.  Tight grip is the  thing that most interferes with both speed and good tone.  This may sound counter-intuitive, after all a loose grip should result in a lost pick, but time and time again I have observed the best players not only use a soft grip in which the pick moves back and forth, but they have all told me that they try to use as relaxed a grip as possible.  Videos show this happening - just look at the previous blog entry of Enda playing a relaxed grip - and while the pick moves, it moves in the direction of the stroke and is not lost.

On the other hand if you use a gorilla grip on the pick, you not only activate all the muscles in your forearm, but those of the hand too.  In other words all the muscles present are working and the result is both a slowing of the stroke (because you have to fight off the resistance of the opposing muscle) and a loss of control and strength  since the final product of all this muscular activity is the net force of the opposing muscles which is quite weak.

So as relaxed a grip as you can stand is the best grip on the pick.

Next we will look at the Left Hand

The fingers of  left hand are used to press the string to the fret in order to change the note on the banjo.  When you are excited or stressed the natural tendency is to press harder  on the string because you want to emphasize the note.  This is a normal reaction but one that is of no practical value.  Because it is a natural reaction to your music, it becomes harder to change when you need to be more light fingered such as during a fast tempo or fast left hand ornaments.

There is an easy way to find out if you are pressing too hard, your fingers and perhaps your finger joints will hurt after a session of doing so.  I play the mandolin and I tend to use the same force with the banjo that I use on the mandolin.  It is not necessary to do so so I have been trying to  change this and play the banjo more like an electric guitar.  Part of the problem has been solved by lowering the action of my banjos but the rest is a matter of learning the right technique and relaxing.

I have to deliberately  tell myself to "relax" when I play and I have to remind myself often to do so.  Eventually this will become second nature, but it is a matter of practice and work.  You may ask yourself "what's the harm in more pressure than needed?"  The answer lies in what it does to the rest of your body as you play.  I found that I was leaning forward looking at my hand, that my right shoulder was raised and tense, and that I was not breathing during the most difficult passages.  All of these factors worsen when I am playing in session or on stage.  (a lot of this has been discussed in a previous blog.)  The simple thing to do was to practice a light fingered approach.  Martin Howley showed our mandolin class what he does.  He pressed down on the strings until he has a clear note and then tries to keep it at that pressure.

Here is a video showing some of the things that I try to do when I play.  I'm the first to admit It doesn't always happen that way, but I am still a work in progress and will be forever.

Mike Keyes

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