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