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:  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: 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!