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.