Monday, December 5, 2016

Teaching the Very Young Banjo Player

I've been teaching banjo for about 35 years now.  Hard to believe...  I've learned some things in this time that I think are worth sharing.  I want to talk about teaching the very young banjo player today.  Who do I mean?  I mean the 9 year olds and younger.  Here are some things to consider:

1) Size of banjo - A full size banjo is going to be hard, if not impossible, for a very young banjo player to play.  The right hand needs two fingers planted on the banjo head, while the left hand needs to be able to reach all the way to the end of the banjo to do the fretting.  Girls have a slight advantage only in the sense that they tend to grow taller faster, so they *may* have longer arms at this age.

If you can avoid the tiny banjos and use something mid-size, it will make things much easier.  Gold Tone has great quality tiny banjos and mid-size banjos.  You can view them here:  https://goldtonemusicgroup.com/goldtone/catalog.php?cat=travel-banjo.  They are all listed as travel banjos, but they are great for kids!  The smallest banjos (like the Plucky) can be hard to tune, and even Gold Tone suggests they be tuned to a C rather than a G.  You can still tune them to a G, but the strings tend to be "floppy" and it is hard to keep them in tune.  If you don't tune them to a G, all the songs will be in the "wrong" keys when you try to play with others.

Savannah also makes a mid-size travel banjo.  You can view it here:  http://www.savannahacoustic.com/sb060.html. This is another good instrument for the younger banjo student.

2)  Right hand placement - The right hand of the banjo player should have the pinky and/or ring finger planted on the banjo head near the bridge.  Planting these two fingers gives stability to the right hand, and it also teaches muscle memory and allows the picker to know where all the strings are without looking.  One of the problems that I've seen in young pickers is that the fingers are so short, when they try to plant finger(s), they are unable to actually pick the strings because the ring and/or pinky is not tall enough for the rest of the fingers to actually be higher than the strings to facilitate picking the strings. 

There are a couple of things that can be done to allow finger planting.  One is to try switching to a 1/2" bridge.  The banjo will need a complete setup for this work if it is not already set up with a 1/2" bridge.  (5/8" is the standard.)

Another option is to allow finger planting directly on the top edge bridge with one finger (either the ring or pinky).  This will have to be changed later, because finger planting on the bridge mutes the sound of the banjo. 

The third option is to play from the "back up" position.  This means that the right hand is placed near the neck of the banjo.  The strings are lower here.  They is also less tension in the strings here, so a young player will need to be aware of not picking too hard.  This will distort the sound.

3)  Picks:  To use them or not - I was always a die-hard believer in always using banjo picks.  No matter what.  Now, I have changed my opinion about this in the very young players.  First of all, there are no really good options for very small fingers.  I have used a grinder to make the Dunlop mini picks smaller, and also the Pro-pik finger picks smaller.  Recording King has the smallest plastic thumbpick that I know of.

Secondly, I have seen that the very young pickers do all kinds of strange things with their right hand position when they start with finger picks.  When I remove the picks, they seem to play much more naturally.  I have found that starting without the picks produces a much better right hand position, and it transfers over when they go to the finger picks.  There is an adjustment, but when the finger picks are presented as a "reward," the young players really WANT to use them and learn to use them quickly.  It also allows them to play faster, cleaner, and louder.

4)  Banjo strap - This is really a must for most small pickers!  A properly attached strap keeps the banjo neck up.  It also keeps the picker from laying the banjo in their lap (with the banjo head facing the ceiling instead of the wall).

5)  A Great Teacher with lots of parental involvement - I can't emphasize this enough!  The parent is the one that is going to be helping the very young picker.  Practice is an absolute must, and it really has to be done on an almost daily basis to be successful.  Banjo picking takes very fine motor skills -- not the kind used in most sports.  Young children don't really start to develop this until around 12 years of age unless they are taught to play musical instruments.  There has to be a parent or some other person involved that can help supervise and answer questions.  You don't have to be musically inclined or know how to play to do this.  You just need to be willing and available.  It is important that you get instructions after each lesson from a (really great) teacher.  This teacher will tell you what to look for.  It is also very helpful to have a recording and/or a video.  Videos work GREAT for this age because the student and the parent can watch them together.  The very young student should strive to play along with the recording so that rhythm is learned correctly.

6)  Short, but frequent practice times - A small child is simply not capable of long practice sessions.  Their fingers get sore, their attention span wavers, and they can quickly go from loving the banjo to hating it.  Practice sessions can be as short as 5 minutes, as long as you do them several times a day.  They can even be done during the commercials of a favorite television show!  I suggest 15 minutes, five days a week.  If the student practices more, they will learn faster. 

7)  Lots of praise!  This goes without saying.  They really need encouragement.  Don't push them to stardom.  Let them be little kids learning to play a banjo...not prodigies in training.  There is such a thing as Little League parents in music...  Have them play "concerts" for you.  Watch them when they play.  Don't just sort of listen while you do something else.  Their songs are short.  You can do this!

8)  Expose them to other pickers and music.  Let them hear what they are aiming for.  Let them talk to and/or play to and with other pickers.

Learning to play the banjo is hard.  So is any other instrument.  It takes time and commitment.  I hope that this will help you with some of the things that are specific to the very young banjo student.  Good luck and keep picking!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Chris' 2016 Private Lesson Schedule

Chris will not be teaching private lessons on the following dates.  Please note that group lessons WILL be taught unless it specifically mentions no group lessons on the date.

March 7, 8, 9, 10
April 11, 12, 13, 14 (no group lessons)
May 16, 17, 18, 19
June 20, 21, 22, 23
July 4, 11, 12, 13, 14 (no group lessons)
August 15, 16, 17, 18
September 5, 6, 7, 8
October 10, 11, 12, 13
November 23, 24, 28, 29
December 22, 26, 27, 28, 29 (no group lessons)
January 2, 3, 2017

2016 Jam Schedule

Every other Tuesday night we have an acoustic jam session that is free and open to the public. You can come to play, sing, or just listen and it is free. Jam session is from 7:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. There will be players of all levels and we will pass the microphone.

If you are a true beginner and don't have any or much jamming experience, we ask that you try attending our Beginner's Instructional Jams as an alternative to our Open Jam.  You can get more information by calling or e-mailing The Bluegrass Shack.

Here is a list of the dates we will be having the jam.  If for some reason we need to cancel a jam, we will remove it from this list and post on Facebook.  You are always welcome to call to confirm.  We hope you'll come join us!

Jan. 12 & 26
Feb. 9 & 23
Mar. 8 & 22
Apr. 5 & 19
May 3, 17 & 31
June 14 & 28
July 12 & 26
Aug. 7 & 23
Sept. 6 & 20
Oct. 4 & 18
Nov. 1, 15 & 29
Dec. 13 & 27

Friday, May 8, 2015

Practicing vs. Playing - What's the Difference?

Everyone always tells you that you have to practice to get better, but what does that actually mean?  It sounds simple enough.  You just get out your instrument and play your songs through several times and there you have it!  Right?  Well, not exactly.   There is a difference between playing and practicing.  This is something that I was taught many years ago, and this is something that I continue to teach my students because it is so important to success. 

First of all, what is the difference between playing and practicing?  Playing means that you are playing songs that you have already worked out. You are just keeping them in your memory, or maybe you just really like a particular song, or you are just having fun.  It's more like what you do in a jam session. 

Practicing means that you are working to get better on something -- the song in general, a technique that is specific to an instrument, memorizing a song, etc. Practicing is how you get better.  Although you may not want to PLAY in front of others, you most certainly do not want to PRACTICE in front of others.

What is your goal?  How long and often should you practice?  First of all, make sure that your goal is reasonable. It might be reasonable to play at least one scale every day, but not reasonable to play for one hour every day. And with practice, how OFTEN you practice goes farther than how LONG you practice. Playing for 4 hours every weekend is great, but if you can spread that out over the entire week, you'll progress more and faster.

Make sure your goal is not just to practice for a set amount of time.  That's like saying you are going to sweep the floor for 10 minutes with no mention of the fact that the real goal in sweeping the floor is to get it clean.  Maybe your first goal is to learn how to play Part A of a song.  You know what you want to accomplish (learn Part A), but you still need to decide how you will accomplish it.  At this point, you may decide that you will practice Part A for 15 minutes, three days a week until you can play it.  This gives you the goal of WHAT you want to accomplish along with the goal of HOW you will go about accomplishing it.  It does not set a time limit on how quickly you have to learn the song because everyone learns at a difference pace. 

If you have a time limit, for instance you have to play a song at a wedding in one month, then you will have to set different goals.  Your goal may be to memorize two lines of the song each day until you have the whole song memorized.  You will practice for however long it takes to get those two lines down each day you practice.  Then you still have to leave time to put the whole song together and get it polished before your performance. 

Practice SMARTER: Another great goal would be to practice for at least 10 minutes on days that you have your lesson (after the lesson when you get home). It REALLY helps you to be able to remember what you did during your lesson, which will help you in all your practice sessions all week. If you don't take lessons, remember this technique when someone shows you how to do something. If you're out at a festival or jam and you learn something new, make sure to go over it again as soon as possible so that you don't forget it.

Practice what NEEDS practice. If you can't play the last line of a song, don't keep going back to the beginning to play it all the way through. Practice the last line. I know this might seem like something everyone should know, but as a teacher I see this happen all the time. Especially with beginning students.  Many beginning students tell me that they can't start in the middle of the song. You have to learn how to do this -- even if it means getting your tab or music out to help you do it. If you know you have a trouble spot in a song, start with the trouble spot before you play the whole song. That will increase your chances of playing the song correctly the first time through.  If you always start at the beginning of the song, you will waste practice time on the part you already know.  For instance, if you know Part A of a song, start with Part B, and play Part B several times before you put the whole song together. Since you started learning Part A first, you will have played it more times than Part B. (Commonsense, I know, but most people don't think about this.) In order for Part B to "catch up" to Part A, you need to play it twice as much.

Practice with others. Maybe your goal needs to be to practice with other people. Practicing with others is one of the best ways to get better faster. If you haven't tried it, let me warn you that it's hard for most people. It's worth the effort! Many times when people first start attending jam sessions, they tell me they feel lost and frustrated. Don't let this stop you. Keep trying until you can do it. You may play better in your living room, but eventually you will be able to "carry that living room feeling" with you to the jam. 

If you don't have other people to practice with, then practice with a recording.  If you can't keep up, use a program that will slow the song down.  Windows Media Player has this feature built in as long as the song is saved on your hard drive.  If you have a CD you want to play with, save it to your hard drive, or purchase a Guitar Trainer (a CD player that allows you to slow down and speed up the CD).  If you can't stay with the recording, keep trying until you can.  Try five or six times right in a row before you go on to something else.  Eventually, you will get it!  You may have to practice the song 10 times by yourself first, then try the recording again after you have worked out the spots you had trouble with.

Try television practice. What??? This is one of my biggies, especially for kids who try to tell me they don't have time. I ask them if they watch any television. The answer is almost always yes. I tell them to take their instrument with them to where they watch tv, then play it during the commercials. If you play during the commercials of a 30 minute program, you have probably practiced about 10-15 minutes. Not too bad if you consider the alternative was to not practice at all. Reminder: I'm not saying do ALL your practice this way!!!! I personally will use this method while watching the news if I am trying to memorize something. I have 5 minutes or so to play through a phrase or portion of a song, then I watch some news, then I see if I can remember what I memorized during the last commercial break.

This certainly isn't all-inclusive, but it is a start to getting you on the right track.  I'll address some specific practicing techniques in another blog, but for now, you can start setting and accomplishing those goals!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2015 Jam Schedule

Every other Tuesday night we have an acoustic jam session that is free and open to the public. You can come to play, sing, or just listen and it is free. Jam session starts at 7:30 and goes until everyone leaves. It is beginner friendly, but there will be players of all levels and we will pass the microphone.  We hope you'll come join us! Here is a list of the dates we will be having the jam.

January 13 & 27
February 10 & 24
March 10 & 24
April 7 & 21
May 5 & 19
June 2, 16 & 30
July 14 & 28
August 11 & 25
September 8 & 22
October 6 & 20
November 3 & 17
December 1, 15 & 29

Chris' 2015 Private Lesson Schedule

Chris will not be teaching private lessons on the following dates.  Please note that group lessons WILL be taught unless it specifically mentions no group lessons on the date.

January 1
February 2, 3, 4, 5
March 9, 10, 11, 12
April 13, 14, 15, 16
May 21, 25, 26, 27, 28 (no group lessons)
June 15, 16, 17, 18
July 2, 6, 7, 8, 9 (no group lesson on 6th)
August 10, 11, 12, 13
September 3, 7, 8, 9, 10 (no group lessons)
October 19, 20, 21, 22
November 23, 24, 25, 26
December 23, 24, 28, 29, 30, 31 (no group lessons)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You Can Make a Difference

I have been taking the instructional jam groups to our local nursing home for the past several years now.  Each group practices the songs for several months or so until they start to come together, then everyone volunteers for breaks and kicks-offs to prepare for the concert.  Everyone takes this very seriously, and you might be surprised how nervous the students are to perform for the residents at the New Athens Home.

Last year, when my dad was ill, he had to stay in the New Athens Home for a short time.  I didn't think any of the residents would know me outside of the jam groups that I bring.  Boy, was I wrong!  As I walked through the hallways to my Dad's room, people spoke from their rooms and from their wheelchairs, all saying hello and asking when was I going to bring another group to play music for them.  It touched me more than words can say because I guess I thought they would forget or that it wasn't that big of a deal.

Yesterday was another one of those moments that really hit home.  I took another jam group to the home last night and we played for an hour.  We did songs that I wondered if the jam group might think was "below" them.  I picked out songs like Oh Susanna! and She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain.  I wanted songs that the residents might know so that they could participate in the singing with us.  As we played, I encouraged them to sing along and even "dance."  I told them they could dance by moving their feet or just by holding hands with the person next to them and moving to the music.  And they did!  I told them the names of the musicians and made up little jokes about each one.  Then I would ask the residents if they remembered the music students' names.  We would try to remember their names, and they would try to remember our names.

When we were done playing, I thanked them for coming to listen to us play, and then I asked the music students to stay and talk to everyone -- which is something that we always do.  I was talking to one of the ladies that always comes to listen to our music.  I asked her how her day was.  She told me that it had started out really bad, but that it was good now because we had come to play music.  She told me that she had been having trouble with her eyes and that the doctor told her she was going blind.  She was scared.  She told me how a couple of relatives were supposed to come and visit her that day, but that even though they were only about 10 miles away, they didn't make it to visit.  She said that she was so happy when she heard we were coming, and that it had made her bad day into a good day.

My point?  You can share your music and make a difference.  These music students weren't musical prodigies.  They were "regular" folks having fun and sharing what they learned.  They were making a difference in other peoples' lives by taking the time out to play for them.  It doesn't matter how good you are, how perfect you play, how great your voice is, how wonderful you are with crowds or even how nervous you get!  What matters is that you take time to share with others.   You may find that it not only makes their day, but that it makes your day, too!