Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Polkas and slides have a special place in Irish traditional music.  They are very popular but a lot of musicians don't play them because they are very localized in origin (for the most part) from West Kerry and the Sliabh Luachra (which encompasses parts of Kerry, Cork and Limerick) and they require a special feeling to pull them off.  They rely on more on back beat than the rest of Irish trad and are often very hard to play well if you are used to playing square tunes.

Polkas are a special challenge on the banjo and mandolin.  Even thought he tunes are simple on paper, there is a lot going on especially when trying to emulate the lift that accordions and fiddles can get.  In order to come close, we have to think in a different manner and play with a lot of down stroke emphasis.

Here is an example of polkas played very square and very badly.  Note, however, that they are "authentic" in the sense that they are West Kerry polkas.

The Smith College Wailing Banshee ensemble is playing them with no back beat and no lift for the dancers.  It sounds good at first until you hear the real thing.

Contrast this with Seamus Begley (who is from West Kerry) and Tim Edey:

Note the back beat, the tempo, and the enthusiasm of the players.  They want you to dance.

Here are some well known Sliabh Luachra polkas from Jackie Daley and Seamus Creagh:

They are slightly different (the West Kerry and Sliabh Luachra musicians can tell the difference in a second) but still full of life and you want to move your feet due to the back beat.  This is the essence of polkas and is what separates them from the other parts of Irish trad.

As a result, the rules for playing them on a banjo or mandolin go out the window.  Back in the day, when I was writing for Mel Bay Banjosessions, I did a piece on how to play polkas on the banjo.  Here is a video from that article:

The tune is simple, like most polkas, and I tried to emphasize the back beat.  The main point I tried to make is that because of the emphasis on back beat, you have to play a lot of single down strokes in order to get the music to sound right.  It takes a lot of listening to get it right and I don't think I quite got it in this video.  In fact, every time I go back to Dingle, West Kerry, I have to re-learn how to play polkas and slides because if you are not around them a lot, you tend to fall into evil ways.

Enda Scahill teaches that alternate picking is the basis of all banjo playing (with the exception of jigs) but playing that way takes away some of the emphasis needed to carry a polka.  Here is Brian McGillicuddy, of Cork, who showed us alternate picking on the mandolin.  While he plays the polkas well, note that he plays single down strokes on some notes in order for the polkas to work.

In a concert or dance situation, Brian would be playing these tunes a lot faster, at least 130 bpm.  He is playing to teach us the tunes here, but he can play at speed the way shown.

Trying to figure out polkas is not easy.  They are simple tunes at 2/4 time that look easy but when played require that your head be in the groove for polkas.  This is one music that absolutely has to be learned by ear.  Here is my attempt at trying to play three polkas.

For Pluck Sake is another (and excellent) blog following the learning curve of two banjo players named Brendan (one is Breandan Mac Gabhann).   Look it up.  Lots of good information.

One more video.  Enthusiasm! from Sliabh Notes.  You have to play it on youtube, but it is worth it:

MJ Keyes
22 Dec 2015

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor, Volume II

Volume One of Enda Scahill's banjo tutor took me three entries in this blog to describe it and give some hints on how to use it.  It teaches the basic techniques needed to play the instrument, techniques which include both physical and mental tools, the latter including relaxation and visualization.  The first volume is dense with knowledge and needs to be looked at over and over in order to help you develop a strong base from which you can develop a style.

Volume Two is devoted to helping you with your style and as such is more advanced and expects you to have the basics down.

This presents a problems to anyone eager to advance and get better as fast as possible.  Volume Two is the pathway to becoming an expert on the Irish Tenor Banjo.  It will not make you an expert, but it will give you the tools for that state in life.

But becoming an expert is not an easy task.

Let me explain my concept (and the concept of a lot of scientists who study this state) of what an expert is.  Experts are, in general, made, not born.  They are people who have an automatic response to stress that is peculiar to a particular field, in this case playing Irish music on a tenor banjo.  Experts develop over a period of time that includes coaching/tutoring, repetitive practice, education and laying down and maintaining a strong set of basic techniques that act as a springboard for more sophisticated methods.

During this process there are significant changes to the brain and body, especially the brain which forms specific pathways that monitor and act on these techniques to the point that they become automatic and separate from the conscious mind.  In turn heuristic solutions form spontaneously to the various standard problems that occur in the field of expertise (this means that there is no conscious thought when a solution is needed, it just occurs) and the expert can build on this efficient and consistent way of automatic thinking to come up with a more sophisticated answer to the problem.

It's that automatic response that makes an expert and it is the result of a lot of work, the so called ten thousand hours.

The problem arises when there are lacunae in the expert's education and development.  Just because you have the hallmarks of an expert doesn't mean that you are a good expert.  If the  basics are not learned in a layered and complete way, there will be problems when more complex techniques are learned or attempted to be learned.  Mistakes and errors have a way of creeping in anyone's learning process and they shape how far an expert can go with his or her performance.   And then there is the role of talent.

As musicians develop, a lot of how far they can go depends both on their training and where they started out to begin with.  Folks musicians traditionally have had very little formal tutoring (although, in Ireland there is a strong tradition of mentoring) and as a result there are a lot of limited musicians in the field.  Most of those who arise from this impediment are very talented to begin with and often are prodigies.  Talent is the step on the ladder you start out on.  The ten thousand hours are the journey to becoming an expert and where you end up is a factor of all these issues.

To take and extreme example, Itzhak Perlman was a child prodigy who taught himself to play the fiddle at age three (he was refused schooling because they thought he was too small to hold a violin) and was matriculated at Julliard at age ten.  He had formal training throughout his early life and has been a student and teacher ever since.  His talent level was extreme in the beginning and he is now one of the acknowledged masters.  His ten thousand hours ended when he was about eleven - the time when he was an expert - and continues today.

There are two important points here that apply to anyone learning to play the Irish tenor banjo and using Enda's book: a) you can become an expert (but not always a master) by learning the basics and putting in the work and b) talent helps, especially if you are young and have a more plastic brain.  Most of us have some talent but putting in the time is the problem.

So it is important that we go back to Volume One and look at it again before we start Volume Two.
In the introduction to Volume Two, Enda emphasizes the need to have the basics of playing, especially "plucking" (picking patterns to us North Americans.) He points out that without the essential techniques that he teaches in the first volume, you will not be able to take full advantage of the second.

Because he is teaching the rudiments of style, Enda uses several "foundation tunes" to teach the more advanced methods.  These are easy to play in their basic forms - The New Post Office Reel and The Champion Jig - but they also offer many opportunities for stylistic change and different looks at how the tunes can sound.  In addition, when he is emphasizing specific techniques, he introduces other tunes that specifically beg for these techniques to be used.

As usual, he accompanies the book with CDs of his playing the tunes and techniques and he offers meticulous detail with each of the methods.  I don't think that Enda expects everyone to learn every little trick in the book (although you should try) but I do think he expects the reader/student to take what he is offering and transform from beginner to a player who has the rudiments of an individual style.

In my last column, I noted that many of you will skim over the boring parts and get to the meat of the subject of Irish Tenor Banjo Playing.  This is a mistake in the beginning and continues to be one in the case of Volume Two.  Enda has been a teacher for years with a number of very good students coming out of his tutelage.  He has seen the mistakes that are made by players and he knows that if you don't have a good mentor, you will continue those mistakes and limit how far you can go.   Learning to be a good banjo player is a matter of exploration but you need to have a compass if nothing else.  Those "boring parts" offer the compass.

Take the advice on relaxation for instance.  Right after he introduces the foundation tunes and before he offers any technical advice on playing them, he has a long chapter on relaxation and then on one practice techniques.  If you have a tendency to skip over these chapters (and the one that follows on scales and exercises), you will have missed very important lessons that will bear fruit later on when you want to develop speed and tone.  Most of these basics - relaxation, visualization, breathing techniques, posture, practice routines and even  scales and exercises - don't come naturally except to a talented few.  The rest of us have to learn how to accomplish these techniques because if we don't we will limit how far we can go with the music.  Yeah, this stuff seems boring and there is a tendency to skip it or just pay lip service, but when you are trying to do some of the methods later on in the book and they don't come, you are paying the price of ignorance. (This is not bad thing, it just means that you are not educated in the subject.)

The rest of the book offers advanced methods and examines how these methods can be used.  It is not an exhaustive tome on the subject, after all new things come along all the time or are borrowed from other styles because they work, but it is fairly complete for anyone trying to develop his or her own style.  Assuming you read then apply these techniques it gives you a vocabulary and experience to not only look at your own playing but the playing of others so you can analyze and apply as needed.  That is what learning a style is all about, finding things either by exploration or observation and making them your own.

Enda does not expect everyone to use everything in the book but I think he wants everyone to be exposed to those things he thinks are basic and important.  What he does expect is that you will not sound like Enda Scahill but will have a sound that is uniquely yours.  This means that you will have to listen to a lot of music, practice a lot and above all have an interested ear so you can find those gems and if you don't know how to perform that sound, you can at least analyze it because you have seen and heard something similar.

Volume Two of Enda Scahill's Irish  Banjo Tutor is just as rich as Volume One but takes the student into another dimension of playing.  Enda expects anyone reading this volume to have learned well the lessons of Volume One and be well on the way to being an expert at the end of the reading of Volume Two.  You can't just read it, you must learn it and these are not the same thing.  The information in Volume Two will help you if you are willing to take in the whole book and, above all, put in the time to master the methods.  If you do, you will find that you are developing your own style and will be able to hold your own.

Here is a video I did after reading and practicing Volume Two.  I know that I have a long ways to go, but the journey has been fun and interesting.  I play the slip jig Hardiman the Fiddler.

See if you can figure out what techniques I borrowed from the book.  (I'm not sure I even know.)

MJ Keyes
15 November 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor, Part 3

Volume One of Enda Schahill's banjo tutor is as rich a resource as you can find on the subject and even a third look at it only covers part of the considerable and dense amount of knowledge that it contains.  So far I have touched on picking patterns, ornamentation, relaxation and learning how to develop a style.  Enda uses a number of tunes to demonstrate these issues (and leaves them for you to practice along with the CD) and gives good and sophisticated information about how to play the tunes.  Now it is time to talk about jigs.
Enda's plan is to have the student learn up/down picking for reels, hornpipes, etc. first before he delves into jigs.  He asks that you "firmly establish" this pattern before going on to jigs because he wants the student to be able to distinguish the down/up (DUDU) pattern from the down/up/down (DUD) pattern. 
Interestingly, he is not hidebound when it comes to jig patterns.  On the first page of the jig section he mentions that down/up/down "will achieve a strong rhythmical effect" while the alternating pattern is more lyrical.  In turn he asks the student to learn the down/up/down pattern when learning jigs and to use it exclusively for a while before becoming more lyrical. 
The main reason for this is practical.  DUD establishes the jig rhythm - something that most beginners just don't get initially - and it helps with the traps that a DUDU pattern can get you in when you count in threes.  This is especially true when you try to add ornamentation to a jig. 
Enda doesn't go into a long explanation as to why DUD should be learned for jigs.  In a sense, this is a failing of the book because the reasons are crucial if you want to learn how to play jigs.  For most of us who have not been brought up in the tradition, jigs are fun to listen to but are not native to our rhythmic sense.  Jigs are a type of dance that moves in threes with the first an fourth beat emphasized.  While this sounds relatively simple, it is foreign to the standard 4/4 time that we are used to.  If we start out playing DUDU, our heads will continue to think 4/4 and the jig pulse will not come through.  By learning DUD we are automatically in the  jig mode.
DUD is one of the basics of Irish Tenor Banjo which means that we have to learn it until it is automatic - this takes some time, I might add - so that you don't have to think about pick direction when you play.  This automation of pick control is the key to learning jigs just as it is for the 4/4 modes in Irish music.  It sets a base from which you can develop a style of playing, a style that may not include DUD, by the way, but sets the rhythm in your brain to draw on without having to think about it.
The "secret" to learning how to play an instrument in a folk style is hard work, repetition, listening to the music and having good basic technical skills to draw upon.  If you want to improve, you have to have a good base and DUD is part of that base. 
If you skip over the DUD part, you will find that you are limited in how you play jigs.  DUD DUD with each measure is hard to do at first because you have to constantly think about what you are doing.  One of the best ways to deal with this is to just play one note until you have it down and then go one to tunes.  When you start with tunes, play them slowly - a lot of jigs are beautiful when played slowly - and gradually increase the tempo.  After a while DUD DUD comes naturally and then you can play around with different patterns.  This took me at least three months to achieve, so be warned.


I might add that Enda does not teach DUD DUD as an exclusive method, he just thinks that the use of alternate picking for jigs is an advanced technique and that the basic technique is DUD DUD.   I agree for the reasons mentioned above and the fact that you are missing out on a lot of the music if you limit yourself to DUDU. 
Just to show that alternate picking can be done well, here is a video of Keiran Hanrahan playing a jig.  Note how it is more lyrical and how different left hand techniques are needed to make it work.

I have not covered everything that is in Volume One of the Irish Banjo Tutor but I hope there is enough in these three columns to make you curious about the work.   If you want to learn how to play the Irish tenor banjo, this is the best book on the subject.  If you combine this book with a teacher, or at least regular workshops, you can't go wrong.  It is pricey, but the set of books is also a great value because they contain precise and rich information that will only make you a better player.
Next: Volume Two

Mike Keyes

Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Use Enda Scahill's Banjo Tutor, Part 2

In my last column I got halfway through ESBT1 by pointing out the important bits and using videos to make the points emphasized in the book.  To recap, a) everything in this book, no matter how mundane appearing, is important, even the bits in the beginning; b) relaxation and alignment are crucial if you are to learn the rest of the method; c) Enda teaches an alternating method of picking for reels which can be changed as your skill increases, but is important because it lays a foundation for the rest of the techniques (including jigs) and if you don't learn and assimilate this method, you will lose a lot of the value of this system; d) we just started to look at trebles/triplets and how to use them.
I had an interesting dialogue on why there are so many tunes in this tutor.  Tunes are the stuff of ITM and they are the fun part, after all. But Enda does not just throw out tunes, every tune in the book is there to illustrate a concept or technique and he emphasizes the importance of practicing these tunes, listening to the CD track related to each technique or tune and then going back and practicing more.
A more advanced (before reading the tutors) student would do well to go over even the most basic parts of the book and CDs.  I've found that more advanced students have a better understanding of the basics and often profit more than beginners when this information is given because they are more aware of the lacunae in their technical skills and find little tweaks that help them become more efficient.  I know this is true for me and I find gems every time I read and/or listen to Enda.
When I left off last time we were looking at trebles and how to do and use them.  His initial introduction to trebles/triplets is sparse.  Basically he shows you how to do them and expects you to practice them with the help of the triplet track.  One of the problems with triplets is that they are perceived to be so crucial that many players try way too hard to do them and to make them fit in.  Again the trick goes back to the "relax and align" meme and, of course, practice.  Eventually they come but in the mean time it is important to listen to find where they should be used and when they could not be used.  Some of you will get triplets right away, and others (like me) will take a while.  The important thing is to not get ahead of yourself because a poorly played triplet sounds terrible and is very frustrating for the player.
Because triplets are treated just like other ornaments, you may find that you are stuck at this point in the tutor.  Don't be, one of his remarks is that you can use triplets as little or as often as you like.  At this point you probably don't want to use them that much - it is much more important to stick with the alternating picking style as you use the tunes he teaches.  The triplets will come eventually. 
Another trick is to play the tunes given slowly.  Note that the CD entry for each tune (in the beginning, at least) is played slowly.  I know that your session plays them about ten times faster, but you are not ready for that and ornaments and if you don't pay attention to the details now, you never will.  Enda uses Crowley's Reel as his anchor tune throughout the book and will go back to it when teaching each technique.  If you play this tune slowly at first you will get an idea about how and when to used triplets that will carry through to other tunes.
I know I spent some time on triplets, but there is a reason, actually more than one.  Triplets are the most often referred to right hand ornament and the one that everyone obsesses over when trying to learn these techniques.  Often they are the first one asked about and while pick direction is much more important, often the only one.  Eventually, they have to be mastered, but you don't have to do so unless you have the talent to get it right away.
My take:

And another take (note that I don't always use alternating picking, this is before I used Enda's book):

Here is Enda playing two tunes, the first a schottishe (note that there are few triplets here but great music) and the second is Colonel Fraser, one of the "great" tunes.  He uses triplets as a part of the tune such that you hardly notice them.

The next issue that Enda takes on is one that is peculiar to the tenor banjo (and other similar instruments), finding the high B note on the seventh fret of the E string.  This is one of the few times that Enda addresses left hand fingering schemes ( uses a cello/guitar/chromatic/four finger/finger-per-fret style, all names for the same thing) because this is the only note we have to play out of first position for most tunes. 
The first idea that he looks at is changing position to second position (second position means placing the hand up two frets so you can use the same fingering scheme but are closer to the seventh fret.)  Here is a video of Darren  Maloney playing "Roaring Barmaid."  He goes up to second position to play the high B note.

In this tune it makes sense to go to this position and play some of the other notes while there because they are very handy until you have to go back to first position.  The second half of tunes such as "Silver Spear" have the same solution to the problem.
There are other ways, of course.  Here is Barney McKenna sliding up to the high B in a series of tunes.  There appear to be some sync problems with this video, but you can see how he reaches the note.

Barney uses a three fingered/mandolin style in which his third finger is on the fifth fret.  In this style it is fairly easy to reach the seventh fret with the little finger and a lot of players do this.  The technique of sliding up to the B note is also handy for tunes that require a jump from the high F# note to the high B note (commonly seen in ITM) although it is more of a jump up and back than a slide.  It is essentially a move to second position without anchoring your first finger.  Enda gives a detailed analysis on how you play the high B note and a few tune examples that have to be played to be appreciated.  This skill is essential if you want to use the full range of the tenor banjo tuned GDAE.
We are still on the first book and there is more to report in the next blog entry.

MJ Keyes
14 September 2015

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How To Use Enda Scahill's Banjo Tutor, Part 1

Enda Scahill's banjo tutor is, in my opinion, the best book of its type available to anyone interested in learning the Irish tenor banjo.  It comes in two volumes, the first published in 2009, the second in 2012 (with a revision in 2014 for both), and it spans not only four years of planning and publication but also a change in Enda's career in which he went from a part time job with the Brock-McGuire band to full time with WeBanjo3.  In addition there is a third book, The WeBanjo3 Tune Book also published in 2012, that serves as a graduate degree for banjo players even though Enda doesn't look at it in that way.
In this blog entry I'm going to focus on the first book, appropriately known as Volume 1, and go through the advantages and disadvantages of both the book and learning from a book.  In addition I will illustrate some of the principles with videos that I took in 2009 just before publication that Enda graciously allowed me to publish on YouTube.
The book really doesn't have any disadvantages.  The problem lies more in the reader who may or may not realize what is important.  A word of advice: It is all important.
Enda Scahill is one of those people we are lucky to have around.  A prodigy on the banjo, he won a number of competitions and was well known as a banjo player before he wrote the books.  He also taught Irish tenor banjo on the side and it was because of his teaching that he began to develop a system of playing traditional music on the banjo.
There is no question that if you want to learn to play an instrument, the best way to accomplish this is to have a teacher.  For most of us this is not a viable solution unless we live in a city like Chicago.  The other alternatives are to attend workshops on a regular basis, search YouTube for lessons, find a good book on the subject, or try and invent the wheel.  Any or all of the above is possible but unless you have a good system to start with, most likely you will find your self floundering around trying to become a good musician.
A live teacher will not only give you that system, but will be able to give feedback on a regular basis and serve as model that gives you all of the non-verbal cues you need to succeed.  The danger of not having a method of monitoring progress is that a fundamental system may never take effect and there will be lacunae in your basics that will slow progress in the long run.
Enda appears to have written these books with this in mind.  While his tutor is ideal for use with a teacher, because it covers all of the basics in great detail, an astute student can get the basics as long as he or she is aware of what is needed.
It may seem a little condescending to point out which end of the banjo is the playing end, but there is a good reason for including these details: beginners come in all forms and some are total newbies with no knowledge of music.  Still I advise that you not skip over even those parts that seem obvious because sometimes they are not.
Enda starts with the central theme of his entire tutelage, relaxation and efficient alignment.  These principles are mentioned in the "Goals" section of the book, that part that almost everyone skips, and you should pay attention because if you don't, it will be much harder to work with the system and it is hard enough as it is to keep paying attention when you don't have good feedback.
You will see the term "RELAX" all through the book.  There is a good reason for this, most people don't relax when they play, especially in public and that alters how you play.
So far we have only seen a few pages of the first volume yet they show extremely important issues that have to be taken into account.  Don't skimp on this advice from Enda.
Next is basic hold and right hand.  His descriptions are clear, but because students often come in with some ideas already taken hold, ignored.  That is not all bad, but Enda is trying to teach an efficient method as a basis for playing that can be altered later on as you develop a style.
Here are two videos on pick hold:


In both cases, relaxation is emphasized.   This is not the only way to hold a pick, but it is the way he teaches and it is integrated into the whole system.

The next basic aspect, and probably the most important issue that Enda brings to learning the banjo, is consistency in "plucking" ("picking" in North America) and learning to do so in a predictable manner.  He introduces the idea of alternating directions in reels and later on a variation for jigs.

This is a concept that is not emphasized in other tutors and it akin to learning bowing in the violin.  As you develop, strict adherence to patterns will change, but if you don't have a basic understanding and practice it you will never be able to vary from it.  Otherwise it is chaos and you can't improve beyond your talent level in a chaotic environment.
Throughout the book he shows tunes (and there is a CD that lets you listen how they sound) and shows the pick direction needed to play them well.  As a beginner you will be on shaky ground if you don't follow the directions he gives.   Later on, having an automatic understanding of pick direction will help with the more advanced techniques, and in this series of books there are plenty of them.
Lastly he teaches the most sought after and most understood aspect of tenor banjo, the triplet/treble.  You will note that I put in two different names for this ornament, that's because Enda makes a distinction between a single note treble and a multiple note triplet.  I just call them all triplets even though there is another written triplet seen in hornpipes that also confuses the matter.

Here is my take:

Here are several of Enda's takes:

A triplet exercise in class.

And a little lesson on triplets up and down:

Here he shows what relaxation and good technique can really do.

These are just the basics (and really not all of them) shown in the book.  There is a large section of tunes to be learned and practiced if you want to nail down these basics.   And this is just Volume 1.
It's important to note that by just reading the book and looking at videos you will not become an Irish tenor banjo player.  You have to put in the time and you have to be able to reproduce the basics in a consistent and efficient manner.  One of the pleasures of owning this series is that as you progress, you learn more from the early basic stuff that the book has.  This is a consistent finding with all performance arts, the basics are essential and they have different meanings as the artist progresses and develops his or her own style.
In my next blog entries, I will continue to go through Volume 1 and move on to Volume 2 and the Tunebook.

MJ Keyes
8 September 2015

Monday, July 6, 2015

Banjo Setup

A banjo has about 100 parts, give or take a few, all of which are conspiring against you to make your banjo sound terrible.  In order to tame this tendency you have to know a few principles that will help you setup your banjo without causing it to explode.  I've made a 40 minute video on this subject but it is, by necessity, incomplete because this is a wide and deep subject.  Because there are so many different banjos, so many different head sizes, so many ways to attach the neck to the rim and so many types of tone rings, I can't be specific about all of these banjos.
What I can do is give you some ideas about how to setup your banjo and where the limits of an amateur banjo mechanic are.  Most of this is common sense if you know how a banjo works but there is a scare factor when it comes to messing with your expensive banjo.
This video is aimed at the player who wants to maintain his or her instrument, not someone who wants to make major changes or anything past changing the head.

Banjos come with disposable parts: the strings, heads,  bridges (which eventually wear out) and some parts such as the tailpiece (some of which have a tendency to break) or tuners which can be changed out.
Since a banjo is an accumulation of parts, an heroic player may want to try and change other things but for the most part the idea is to keep the banjo at an optimal state, i.e. each part snugged up to the right tension and safely in their places.  A banjo is the sum of its parts, but some parts are more equal than others.
The rim is the most important part of a banjo.  A banjo with a great rim will sound good even without a tone ring - look at John Carty's Ome which only has a simple metal hoop (of course he has something to do with it too.)  The rim is not a part that you can deal with, but the relationship of the rim to the tone ring and the head is very important.  The rim to tone ring fit is a matter for a banjo luthier (one like Vin Mondello or Charlie Cushman, not your local guitar guy) but the relationship with the head is also very important and you have some control over that.
Changing heads can make an impressive difference in the sound of a banjo.  Fitting a head to a banjo can be tricky - you have to have the right diameter but if you already have a head that fits, just measure it.  You also have to have the right height of head and you should look up your banjo on the net to find out if you need a high, low or medium head.  Changing the head is a pain and if you don't like the results it is even more of a pain.  But if you have done all the work needed and don't like the results, don't give up yet.  After a head has been changed you have to wait at least several weeks as the rest of the banjo settles in and you get the head tension right.
Head Tension
The head tension is probably the one adjustment you can make that will make your banjo sound good.  There have been a lot of things written about this, but the easiest way to determine if your head tension is good is to listen to the banjo as you tighten the head.  It is a mistake to make large changes in head tension.  Once the head is snugly on, you can make big sound changes with very small tweaks of the tension ring as long as it is even all round.  The idea is to increase the tension until you like the sound and then measure what that tension is.  A lot of players do it the other way - they tighten up to a specific tension and declare it  right which is backwards to common sense.
The video shows a way that I use to tension the head and how to use a DrumDial to measure the result so you can go back to it again.
If you learn one thing, it should be how to tension your banjo head.
There are two things you have to know about strings in Irish tenor banjo.  The first is that the string gauge varies with the scale of the banjo.  There has been an unfortunate tendency of banjo marketers to call a short scale (19"-21" or so) "Irish Tenor Banjos" and sell them as easier to play.  While the short scale means less of a stretch to the high B note, it also means that the changes you do both in setting the bridge and the gauges needed to make the G string sound good are critical.  By critical I mean that it is a lot harder to find the right strings  that work with a short scale banjo and even a slightly long or short difference in length makes the banjo sounds terrible and causes the intonation to be bad.
String gauge can make a difference in sound quality.  Some banjos are sensitive to what the gauges are,  while others are indifferent.  The higher the gauge, the more the tension, so in older banjos a lighter set may be a compromise but it will preserve your banjo.  You can make up some of the difference with other setup changes.
The second is the material that the strings are made from.   I have several banjos that don't do well with bronze strings and others that love them.  You have to find out what material and what gauge works best for your banjo.
Here is an excellent way to change strings.
There are four important issues with bridges.  The first is the bridge height which helps determine the action of the banjo.  Banjos are built for a specific bridge height in mind but there is usually enough room for some variation. Another little tip is that a bridge has a 90 degree side and a slanted side.  The slanted side, which usually has the logo on it, faces the headstock.
Second is the materials that make up the bridge.  The classic bridge is made from maple and ebony, but the quality of materials and how they are put together is very important and some banjos do better with other materials or no cap on the bridge. This is a complex issue that may only be resolved by finding a decent optimal bridge and then forgetting about it  because if you obsess too much about it you will never be satisfied and at $20 a pop that can be costly.
Third is bridge placement.  Because of the physics involved in how strings vibrate, correct bridge placement is crucial and often forgotten even by luthiers.  The videos show how it is done and it is simple enough that anyone can do it.
The final issue is that once you change a bridge, you may have to change the tension on the head or other aspects of the setup because a bridge change is a disruptive act for a banjo.  No part of setup is independent from any other part and any changes effect the rest of the banjo. Bridges are the only conduit between the vibrating strings and the rest of the banjo.  They act as a filter and the sound changes due to the material of the filter.  This can make a huge difference in how a banjo sounds.  Find a good maker and work with him or her if you need to change out the bridge.
The tailpiece is usually not dealt with very much except in changing heads where you have to take it off and put it back on.  The main thing is that a tailpiece can change the sound of the instrument and it has to keep the string tension on the bridge.  If you have a low tension tailpiece like a no-knot you will probably not have the full power of your banjo at hand.
If you have to go beyond these setup parameters, you should either have some experience or find a good banjo luthier.   It is fun to work with your banjo but if you are afraid of it, you will screw it up so don't try.  Otherwise you can do the things you need to in order to maintain the sound you love.
While picks are not strictly a setup issue, they are the subject of endless speculation.  I find that you will eventually find the picks you love but will constantly be on the lookout.  No master player seems to agree with any other on what is an optimal pick with the possible exception of the Dunlop nylon .63.

Check the links below and above for other ideas about setup.
Banjo Maintenance from Deering
Richie Dotson tips
Speed changing the head 
How to tighten a bottlecap banjo using the alternative bolt pattern
Warren Yates on truss rods - Warren has a lot of good tips on his channel

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Watching Yourself On Video

One of the prime resources of any music learned aurally is YouTube.  We have all wondered how a tune sounds or if a particular artist has played it and have searched youtube to find it.  In addition many of us have used youtube to publish our own videos for various reasons including asking for critique on our technique, etc.  One of the other uses is to just be able to see what we are doing or to act as an archive of our work.
This all sounds like a good idea: we play into the camera in order to see how we look and sound and we get exactly what others see when we play in a session or on stage.  The only problem is that is not what happens.
The key here is that we are doing the recording, on purpose, while sober and all of a sudden we are in a position to screw up.  The result is often a left brain performance in which we remain fearful of making a mistake, we tighten up and play clumsily, and our tone suffers along with the spontaneity that we usually strive for.  But even if  we are able to relax and play to our capacity, we can fall victim to what psychologists call a negative and distorted image of the observable self.
What they mean by this is that we are often our own worse critics.  In the past I have been taken aback by movie stars who never watch their own films.  It didn't make sense to me mostly because I enjoyed the movies and their roles in them.   What I never took into account is that many performers have very high standards and a very critical way of viewing film.
Take this to a more local level and we have the rest of us who have a difficult time either videoing ourselves or watching the videos in a non-critical manner.   I mentioned two forces in action when we video ourselves or watch ourselves from other videos: left brain performance and distorted images of the observable self.  I'll go over each of these in light of the scientific literature and then suggest things that can be done to counter act the problems.

Left Brain Performance or Choking
Musicians, like all performers, go through a process of learning a skill and internalizing it until it no longer is a conscious skill.  In this process there are several steps and thousands of hours of practice and repetition until a style is achieved. This is the way experts in any field develop and it is a process that has been studied for centuries.  The so-called "10,000 hours" results in expertise as long as there is a layered process that emphasizes basic technique and moves on to more sophisticated aspects of performance.
In this process the brain changes considerably and the functioning goes from pre-frontal cortex/conscious effort to more unobservable (by eye) deeper brain structures that are called up automatically when needed.  There have been papers showing that in this automatic functioning of the brain seen in experts that the left side of the brain is briefly activated but the processing quickly goes over to the control of the right brain.  This is true of right handers and most left handers.
Studies of performance degradation under stressful situations show that there is a regression in brain functioning under uncompensated stress and a retreat to left brain function.  One of the hallmarks is that the performer has a distinct isolation from an audience and thinks that people are watching for mistakes.  The result is an increase in tension, loss of coordination and a tactic of thinking every motion through.  Just the opposite of how an expert performs in practice and or under normal performance circumstances.  In other words if you are used to playing in front of friends or the same venue, a change (such as a contest or master class) may cause you to mess up a lot.
There is a large body of literature about how to deal with this problem but it takes practice and some focus in order to achieve relaxation in these circumstances.  Videoing yourself is one of these circumstances.

Self Image
The other issue is negative and distorted images of the observable self (NDIOS.)  Most of the studies on this problem have centered around helping patients with social anxiety.  At one point it was thought that videoing yourself in a socially anxious situation (like giving a talk) would help self image and help to overcome the anxiety.  Instead the experiment was a flop of sorts because it turns out that videoing yourself can also cause anxiety.
Some of the same left brain regression occurs, but the main finding was that people come into a viewing of themselves with preconceived ideas which are mostly negative. (The Holy Card Effect when someone is looking at your driver's license: "Jesus, is that you?")  This is not just limited to highly anxious people, it affects everyone.  A study in 2000 showed that with good preparation, this problem could be diminished and self ratings went up.
Now the reason you want to avoid both of these problems is the reason you videoed yourself in the first place.   You want to see how you play and you want to be able to find things to improve in order to make better music.  In addition you want others to see the video (for a variety of reasons, I might add) and enjoy the music.  But if you are "camera-shy", the culmination of the two issues mentioned above, you will no achieve your goals due to deteriorating performance and you may regret publishing your video.
There are a number of things you can  do about videos to make them a more palatable experience. First is the fact that you can do them over and discard the bad ones.  We all make mistakes and sometimes they are more interesting than the real thing, but we also don't have to publish everything that a camera records.  (This, along with poor visual standards, is the reason a lot of youtube videos suck.)  If there are too many mistakes you can simply do it over - and over and over if it matters that much.
Secondly, sometimes you have to take what you can get.  I will show you some of the videos that I think are sub-par but I have learned something from them which is, after all, the reason for the videos in the first place.   The most common thing noted is anxiety and in my case a tendency to not only be heavy handed (due to striking way too hard as I become more anxious about screwing up) but to forget the variations I can do in my sleep.  Clearly a right/left brain dysfunction on my part.
I will try and correct this in the future even though I know it will take a lot of work to do it well.

I mess up several times here and am not anywhere as light on the pick as I am in a session where we are all playing together.

A little better but still very conscious of the camera.  I don't smile much either or seem to be having much fun.

Dealing with Stress on Camera
There are ways to combat these tendencies to freeze when a camera is on.  The first thing is to warm up before you start recording.  The idea is to play through the tune/set a few times to get in the groove as much as possible. This doesn't always work, but it does allow you to stop thinking and just play for a while.  One aspect of this is Enda Scahill's admonition to "breathe" and relax when you play.   A lot of us hold our breaths in this situation and this only serves to tense our muscles.  When you warm up, pay attention to your breathing.  For one thing it will take your mind off of the task and allow you to just play.
Next is the meme of "just playing. "It's not as easy as it sounds, but if you learn to focus on the task of hearing the tune in your head instead of how to play it, it will come more smoothly.  But you can practice this and if you expose yourself to the camera a lot it also helps, especially if you try to relax into the tune and just play. This way the brain is more likely to go into right brain mode.
A corollary of this is to do something called "cognitive preparation."  This is a technique used by therapists to help highly anxious people observe themselves on tape and decrease the effects of NDIOS by cutting off the automatic effects of this problem before it takes effect.  It is a three step process which includes 1) predicting what will be on the video, 2) mentally imaging what it will look like in a positive way, and 3) mentally stepping back and viewing the video as if it were a stranger playing.  Studies are very clear that this method is helpful in lowering anxiety and by being more neutral while watching the video, you can start to see what you have to do to improve without being self critical.
Lastly there is a technique called "hemispheric priming" in which you try to activate your right brain before you perform.  This sounds like a screwy idea and it is counter-intuitive but there are imaging studies that show that it works.  It consists of squeezing a ball in your left hand which activates the right brain.  More importantly it seems to discourage the left brain from firing up in times of stress.  Combined with good breathing and focusing on the music it seems to be very helpful.
Of course none of these methods work very well if you don't put in the time to make them work.  Like any other performance tool they have to be practiced and you have to do the repetitions in order for the brain to respond and change.  The level of perceived stress will probably not change, but the performance will and you will be able to make better and more productive videos.  These same mental training methods will also help with stage fright, but that is another column.

I have a lot of videos on YouTube that will help with learning the Irish tenor banjo.  Some are mine, but the vast majority are from master level players teaching in class.
Noa Kageyama Ph.D is the author of the Bullet Proof Musician blog.  Noa teaches mental toughness at the Julliard School in New York City.  He is one of my primary influences in this field.  Take a look at his work.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Memorizing Tunes

One of the hallmarks of traditional Irish music is the way it has been taught.  If you saw the movie "Boys and Girl From County Clare" (known as "Boys From County Clare" outside of the US), it starts with several boys learning tunes bar by bar from their teacher.  This has almost always been the way I have been taught a tune, bar by bar, and it is the way I like the least.
One of the cardinal memes of any folk music has been that you have to listen to learn the music.  Not only do you have to have the tune, but you have to have the stylistic features and the variance that goes along with the particular style of music. The meme goes on to say that you have to be able to sing the tune before you can play it and with this I agree hardily. It also depends on the instrument you play
In bluegrass, for instance,  Bill Monroe tended to be impressionistic about the notes of the tune while his fiddler, Kenny Baker, played every note.  In Irish traditional music (ITM) the tunes are played in ensemble in sessions (which are the most common setting) requiring most of the session to have the same variation of the tune in their heads.  Because there is so much noise (both actual and technical, i.e. minor variations) in a large group, any changes in the tune can go unnoticed unless you have a very loud instrument, like a banjo. But even then each of the instruments will have a different take on the tune.
As a result, for most people - especially at the beginner and intermediate level - learning a tune note for note makes a lot of sense.  Because the teacher is usually a master level player, the stylistic aspect of the tune is implicit which accounts for why we have regional styles.  There is a fairly broad stylistic range in any folk/aural music, but for the most part you can tell from whence it comes if you know the music at all.  It does make a difference on how you learn those notes, however.
By learning note for note and then practicing the passages and returning to the teacher, most students (at least the ones who practice) learn to play the tunes.  Later on, when they have developed a style, they can add variations or absorb other ideas about the tune.
For intermediates there is somewhat of a dilemma in that they are not only trying to learn tunes, but they want technical tips as well.  If you have a consistent teacher at this level, these tips come explicitly and implicitly as you observe your teacher/model and ask questions.  In workshop environments this is often difficult for the teacher unless all the students are at a similar level. 
But there is some value in beginners attending advanced classes.  Seamus Connolly once told me (and 150 others) at the second O'Flaherty Retreat in Texas that no matter what the level of skill, you always learn from a master, even if by osmosis and even if you don't know what you learned.  Music is not just notes, it is emotional, right brain and fun in addition to being the notes and left brain in the beginning.
This of course is not the main theme of my column, learning efficiency is.
There have been a lot of studies on how musicians tend to memorize pieces.  Most of these studies have been done with classical players who are learning to be professionals in their field.  In the 30s and 40s two methods were observed, Segmented and Holistic.  In the Segmented method a student would learn a passage, play it until it was right and then move on to the next passage.   In the Holistic style users played the entire piece through and then went back and worked on it until they were satisfied that it was correct repairing minor flaws as they came up. Interestingly the studies on which was more efficient were mixed and it appeared that both methods were just as efficient. 
In the 90s studies were done which showed that there were more ways to skin this particular cat than the two mentioned above and also that expert level musicians would vary the segment size of serial learning according to the formal structure of the piece or according to the difficulty of the passage.  Many of these segments were musically meaningful while others were not.  Apparently these inconsistencies accounted for the mixed results of learning the whole vs parts in prior studies.
In addition it was also observed that musicians used more subtle strategies to learn a piece including the Serial strategy in which a student would play a piece until a mistake appeared and then they would return to the beginning and start over.  In the Additive method the musician would memorize a segment and then systematically expand that segment until the entire piece was learned.  This differed from the Segmented method in that a prior learned segment was incorporated into the cycle instead of being set aside and then put together in the end. 
The Holistic and Additive strategies had the advantage of including all of the piece in the practice regimen.  The Serial technique includes all of the piece too, but it stops when a mistake occurs and there is a break in the continuity of learning the piece as a musical whole.
A study in 2002 showed that the Holistic and Additive methods were more efficient - in other words they learned the music a lot faster than the proponents of the other two methods.
A question still remained:  how well did they retain the music after learning it the first time?
The author of the 2002 paper, Jennifer Mishra of the University of Houston, decided to do an experiment to see how well each method worked for long term memory of a 16 bar exercise.  She took music education students and divided them into four groups each using one of the techniques mentioned above.  The results for efficiency mirrored her 2002 paper, the Serial and Segmented strategy uses took longer to learn the piece while the Holistic method users learned the fastest with the Additive method behind (by statistical analysis) but well ahead of the others.
The long term memory results were a little different, they all seemed to retain the passage a short time afterwards but the Serial method seemed to engender more errors.
When these students were asked how they memorized music, a large number (44%) reported that they used no system that they could discern.  Somehow they managed to learn a piece by muddling through although I suspect that they had a method but they didn't know what they were doing - a common thing among experts of all kinds.
So, according the the research, teaching bar by bar is the least efficient way to learn.  In Ireland and elsewhere where your teacher is always in the picture over a long period of time, this is not as much of a problem.  But in workshop situations it is.  I can only give anecdotes, but they are consistent.  In every class in which  the tunes were taught bar by bar people tend to drop out of the action one at a time and there is a particular problem of being able to accurately remember the first part of a tune even if it was solidly learned fifteen minutes before.  Most of this reflects either the level of the student or the learning style at which they excel (and possibly a talent for learning this way.) One thing I always hated was that the passages were not musically meaningful and that until I heard the piece played I didn't get the context.
I find that I learn a tune a lot better if I can sing it first and have it in my head relaxed and especially when it becomes hard to get out of my head.  I'll hear the tune a few times, attempt to play it, listen some more and then pick up on the subtle differences between my ear and the tune itself.  Rinse and Repeat.   Often it will take me weeks to learn a tune well but with tunes I really like it may only take an hour.
I'll often use the Additive strategy when I have a particularly hard piece to learn and will devote time in practice to learn a hard passage (although this is more a practice issue, I usually know the tune by then, I just can't play it.)
Things may be different for you.  It is clear that there is a wide variation in the ways that people learn things and there is no reason to think that memorizing a tune is any different.  The traditional way of learning (Segmented) works well in the context of regular classes and good motivation.  For those of us who don't have a teacher to show us how the tune goes, a combination of a recording/youtube and constant exposure to the whole tune makes more sense.

Here is a video of me playing Home Ruler and Kitty's Wedding, a set of hornpipes that were taught to me by Ken Fleming of the O'Flaherty Retreat.  Ken used an Additive method of teaching and he picked great tunes - Thanks Ken!