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!