Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lesson Ten: Speed Kills

The first thing beginners want to learn is the triplet.  The second thing is how to play faster. but the right thing to do is neither.

 Here is a good example of someone who plays fast:

And here is the same tune also played fast but with a difference:

This last video is by David Mold who regularly contributes to Mandolincafe "Song of the Week" and is a good example of how to play fast but remain tasteful with good tone.

I hope you can hear the difference between these two examples of the same tune.  There is an  important lesson here: speed is not that important, but if you insist on speed, you have to have good fundamentals.
There is a natural progression for beginners on any stringed instrument.  First you have to learn consistent technique that produces good tone before you do anything else.  For most fretted instruments this means that the right hand produces about 90% of the tone so you have to work hard on the right hand.Learning to produce a good tone is paramount (pun intended) if you want to advance.
While this is primarily an Irish tenor banjo blog, I will frequently use mandolins as an example (and will talk about Irish mandolin and tenor guitar as the spirit moves me) because banjos are infinitely tunable due to their construction.  The importance of the right hand can be lost if a banjo has a terrible setup and sounds crappy.  Mandolins, on the other hand, have some setup requirements but are not as variable as a banjo.  I mention this because sometimes it seems impossible to hear a good tone in a banjo that is not setup well.  Assuming that your banjo is well setup (I will have a column on setup at a later date) then learning to produce good tone will make more sense.
In the case of our two intrepid mandolin players, tone is clearly impeded by speed in one case and not in the other.  The difference is in the level of good technique between the two.
Let's look at what has to be done to produce good tone.
If you look at videos of the great banjo players, you will be struck by one thing, they all seem to hold the pick differently and there seems to be no similarities.  Compare Angelina Carberry and Enda Scahill and others in this video: totally different on the surface.

What you don't see at first is that there are a lot of similarities: the pick is perpendicular to the  head but at an angle to a plane that bisects the fingerboard. This allows the pick to slip through the string but still strikes the string strongly. In addition the pick is held very softly which allows it to move but  not flip out of the hold.  But most important is that the hold is consistent throughout the tune.  One of the reasons for this is that these players use a relaxed wrist stroke which is the most efficient way to produce a sound.
Here is where speed is not your friend.  If you don't have good consistent tone and you haven't practiced your technique at different tempos, you will not be able to produce the same tone as your tempo increases because the angles will change and you will tighten up your grip.  In fact, even for the best players there is a limit to how fast you can play with good tone - of course at those speeds no one is listening to the tone of the banjo as they are  too dazzled.  There is not so much dazzle when a beginner attempts to play at the same speeds because consistency (hence tone) is lost at speed.
If you listen to the experts when the question of "how do I play faster" is asked, they will all tell you to play slowly first and speed will eventually come.  For many beginners this advice is too difficult  to take because they want to get from point A to point F without learning solid layered technique.  The result is seen above - anyone can play fast, the trick is to play well.
So the trick to playing fast is to not play fast but to play well.  Learn to play with great tone and consistent technique.  Play the music so it sounds good.  At some point you will find that you are playing faster but playing well.
Speed kills.

Mike Keyes