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