Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lesson Nine: How to Practice

 Being a beginner means that we have to learn not only the music, but the style and technique of the banjo - this holds true for experienced musicians as well as absolute newcomers.
As a result, no matter how much you read about playing or see on youtube or follow in your live lessons with your teacher, you have to practice.  If you don't practice, you will never learn to play the banjo.
There is a lot of very good research available these days about how musicians learn.  The very best classical professionals start being taught as children, work obsessively with a variety of teachers, go to a professional school and then try and find a job.  In the process their brains are altered until they are very different from even good amateurs in that they end up playing at a higher level than mere mortals.
The best Irish banjo players have similar stories.  The majority of them started as children or teens, developed technique and style via a variety of teachers (or at least good models) and practiced incessantly until they had a style and a method of playing that allowed them to become creative and go beyond the abilities of most other players.
The one thing that none of the best or worst players can escape, however, is the need to practice.
All the teaching in the world, all the talent, all the listening to music will not take the place of practice.  If you want your brain to physically change (so called muscle memory, among other things) so you can become a better player, you have to practice.
There are some universal guidelines about practice that have to do with how the brain operates.
The first principle is Repetition.
By repetition I mean practicing specifically to learn basic skills and technique and then applying them to learning how to perform tunes.  It means practicing good techniques and then reinforcing them by practicing them again and again.
I suspect that a lot of you have heard the theory that to become a master at anything you have to put in ten thousand hours of practice.  That is true, in a sense, as long as those hours are layered.  By this I mean that you have to have basic technique down and part of you before you can move on otherwise if you are missing some basic technique, you will not be able to build on it in the future and you will run into a dead end.  The best way to do this is to have a teacher guide you.  Each time you move up a layer you learn it until it becomes part of your unconscious and automatically occurs when you play.
Once the basics are learned you have to reinforce them with practice as you advance.  This is why  many of the best teachers will tell you to play scales and training riffs to warm up.  Basics have a tendency to be lost as a player advances because cumulative small errors sneak in unless you consistently remind yourself of the basics and play them.
The second principle is Rest.
If you do nothing but practice and not allow time to rest, two things will happen: your skills will  worsen and you will injure yourself.  If you don't give your brain and your body time to recover and assimilate, you will never be able to improve.  The idea of resting  your body is probably obvious if you have played sports or practiced for any non-musical performance.  Your body will eventually tire so much that mistakes creep in and you will never be able to build muscle fitness or learn good technique.
The same is true for the brain except that the brain needs recovery/assimilation time even more than the rest of the body.  We know from studies of musicians that the brain not only develops specific pathways for music, but that a process of growing new brain cells devoted to these pathways occurs.  In order for this neurogenesis to occur, the brain needs sleep, rest and nutrition. In other words your mother's advice to "sleep on it" has literal validity.  While you are asleep your brain is putting it all together.
This also means that practice times should include some rest time and time limits on what you are doing before you move on to other things either in life or in practice.
The third principle is Planning
Probably the worst way to practice is to just play tunes.  For one thing, playing tunes is a fun exercise but it is not very critical of technique, tone, or timing.  How many times have you gone to a jam or session and found the self taught musician who can't keep time or is not able to function with other players?
I suspect that this player only plays tunes at home and is not listening to what he or she is doing.  It is very important that you set up goals every time you practice and that you keep to these goals as much as you can.
A typical beginner's practice session is to 1) determine how much time you have; 2) begin by warming up with scales or practice riffs; 3) start on the issue you want to practice (tone, tempo, timing, pick hold, positioning, right hand technique, left hand technique, practicing performing, etc.) and focus on that one issue.  After a period you should move on to another issue but you have to make sure that you are practicing the right thing and doing it properly.  If you don't then you are practicing to be either inconsistent or to have a poor performance outcome. Later on you can devote some time to putting these skills together and playing tunes.  Each time you practice you want to learn something new.  You should have an idea what that new thing is, but there will be times when you surprise yourself. 
The last principle is Analysis.
These days we have wonderful tools to help us learn and analyze.  Even your phone is capable of recording, videoing and slowing down your music to see and hear what you are doing.  Once you have this raw data, you can then watch and learn, send them to a teacher or coach, and determine what you have to do in order to improve.  If possible you should write all of this down  so you can go over it when you are able to be more objective.  One of the great tools that the best players have is to be able to objectively look at their own work and then make the necessary changes.
It's up to you as to how much you want to practice and how you practice.  The more time you devote to practice, The more likely you will improve but even minimal practice will help if you go about it with clear goals and a good idea about what you need to learn.
The guidelines I mention are universal for all sorts of things but the most important cog in this wheel is you.  In order to improve you have to put in the time and learn from that experience.  What you learn is going to have the most effect on your improvement and that "wood shedding" is the reason why there are so many great players in the folk music field who are "self-taught" - they were able to practice with meaning by following the guidelines above, even if they didn't know they were following them.

Here is a great podcast by one of my favorite violinists, Rachel Barton Pine, on how to practice.  Note that most of us will not be able to keep her schedule of eight hours a day from age three to eighteen.

Mike Keyes

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lesson Eight: The Most Important Thing To Know About Learning the Irish Tenor Banjo

The most important thing about learning the Irish tenor banjo (or any other instrument) is listening to the music before you try to play it.

OK, I am a little over the top with the title of this blog, but I think I am correct about this.  You can't learn Irish music without listening to it and by listening I mean making the music part of you.
There are very good neurophysiological reasons for this. The process of learning takes time and exposure to the information needed to learn.  But more importantly, there has to be more than just a logical process if you really want to learn a tune, or in this case, how the music is played.
Irish traditional music is a foreign entity to most of us who play it, even for some from Ireland who found it after they became adults.  This is not an argument for "you have to be born in Ireland to play Irish music", but it is a bit of reality we all have to deal with.
The same thing can be said about many American roots styles: it takes work to be able to incorporate the music so you can interpret it in a way that honors the music and have an emotional relationship to it.
Irish music is something of a fuzzy concept.  If you listen to Martin Hayes and Tommy Peoples play the same tune you could not say that they were identical.  Part of this is a reflection of regional variation but even that concept is questionable ever since Michael Coleman started to send records back to Ireland from the United States.  There are clearly regional tendencies, of course, but most of the music we hear these days is more related to the genius and style of the various expert players.
Today's players use a differently tempered scale, have better technique, and have explored the music far more than a lot of the players from the first half of the last century.  More of these players are professionals and they have learned from teachers and records while developing their own styles.
One thing all of these musicians have in common is that they have listened to the music.
Seamus Connolly, Artist-In-Residence at the Boston College Irish studies program, pointed out in a lecture (at the O'Flaherty Retreat) that beginners should attend master classes in fiddle because they would always come out of the class with something of value.  His thesis was that by listening to the best teachers and musicians you get a feel for the music that you don't get in beginner classes because the beginner classes focus on teaching tunes and technique while the music is secondary.
There is no question that you have to have good technique if you want to advance in the music but technique is not the whole picture.  Even knowing a lot of tunes is not the be-all and end-all of the music.  You need to learn the "lift" if you want to play the music and really enjoy it.
Martin Howley alluded to this in his lecture on learning by ear at the Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School. There are skills you can learn to reproduce a tune and there are plenty of apps and aids to help with this process.  But in order to really learn the tune you have to make it your own.  To make it your own you have to have an emotional relationship with the music and then it really comes alive.
The process of learning music is one that has been studied extensively in medical schools and universities. (The perfect storm, highly trained poor musicians attending school offered a lot of money to put their heads in an MR machine while they play - all at the same university.)  What has been learned is that the brains of musicians, especially skilled musicians, are different from non-musicians and this difference is a result of years of hard work both in technique plus being  immersed in the music that they play.  Highly skilled musicians have a section of their brains that light up when they see other musicians play called the mirror neurons.  In order for this to happen, the brain has to change a lot and brain growth actually occurs.
Music is not a logical endeavor.  In order to learn a style or type of music you have to work very hard at it and in the case of Irish banjo playing, listen to a lot of music played well
This doesn't mean you have to listen to banjo exclusively.  In fact that would only limit you.  You should try and listen to as much Irish music as you can, take in all the styles in the genera, and enjoy the experience.  This is especially true in the beginning as you are learning technique.  For one thing knowing the music will give that technique some context and as you start to sing the music in your head, you will add the little diddleys automatically.  At some point it will come together, but you have to work.

Here is a video of Enda Scahill playing The Doon Reel.  This is a popular session tune in many areas and well worth learning.  But first listen to how Enda plays it.  He is adding a number of variations (which he explains) and points out how they work.  You may not like what he does or even understand it on a logical level, but try and learn the feel of the music too.  At some point you will hear this tune and will be able to anticipate the lift and rhythm as you harken back to this video:

Here are the ABCs, you can plug them into the Concertina converter and get a PDF printout:

X: 1
T:Doon Reel (6) (The)
T:Leather Buttons
(3Bcd ec dBAB||d2fd Adfd|d2fd BABc|d2fd Adfa|
afeg fddc|d2fd Adfd|d2fd ~e3f|gfec dcBA|(3Bcd ec dBAF||
 Mike Keyes