Monday, February 24, 2014

Economy of Motion, Part Three by Greg Earnest

We’ve looked at ways in which our left-hand movements can be made more economical—now what about the right hand?  A compact right hand technique is essential for the bluegrass banjo player; watch videos of Earl Scruggs and you’ll see that even on the fastest tunes, the fingers of his right hand barely appear to be moving.  This is because he had mastered the art of moving his fingers as much as necessary, but not ONE BIT more.  

While it may seem like an obvious statement to make, the only time any sound is produced on your banjo is when your picks are in contact with the strings.  Three inches to the sides of your strings, or three inches above them, are places where nothing happens and where your fingers have no business being.  Experiment just a little and see how little of a “running start” is really needed to get all the volume you need when picking a string; strive to make your finger’s attack on the string less like swatting at a fly and more like pulling a trigger.  While you’re at it, take a look at how much of your picks are contacting the strings; ease of playing and quality of tone are both improved by using just the tips of your picks.

I can tell by glancing at a student’s banjo if he is not being as precise and economical with his thumb as he should be; there will be a telltale black mark on the banjo head where the student’s thumb pick hits it every time he plays the fifth string.  The thumping noise caused by the pick on the head can be distracting, but what worries me more is what it says about the compactness of the student’s right-hand technique.  

Concentrate on letting no more than a quarter of an inch of your thumb pick contact the fifth string.  This may take some concentrated effort until it becomes a habit or second-nature.  Give yourself a couple of weeks, at the very least, to perfect it.  Slow down the tempo and focus on accuracy.  If you’re thumping the head with your thumb pick now, that noise will disappear.  Your playing will be better, and more enjoyable, for it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Economy of Motion, Part Two by Greg Earnest

In our last installment on economy of motion, we looked at the problem of the “flyaway slide”.  Another left-hand problem I often see in my students is what I call the “hot string” syndrome—the student frets a note and then lifts the fretting finger up off the string as quickly as possible, as if the string were a hot stovetop.  In many cases, the very same note is needed again just two or three notes later, so the student has to relocate and fret the string again—only to lift it off again.

My rule for left-hand fingering is simple—once you have fretted a note, leave your fretting finger in place until it is needed somewhere else, or until that string needs to be noted at a different fret.  Given the nature of bluegrass banjo playing, one or the other of those things is going to happen quite soon, but that little extra bit of follow-through saves a lot of wasted motion and also improves the overall sound of your playing by letting notes ring out until they decay naturally, rather than being cut off prematurely by a lifted finger. 

When hammering on to the second fret of the fourth string at the end of the A part of Cripple Creek, for example, try leaving your left-hand middle finger in place until it’s needed to do a first-string slide, to start the A part over or a third-string slide to start the B part.  Do it slowly and listen to the subtle effect as the fretted fourth string continues to ring out until the end of the measure, producing just a hint of a G6 chord; pull your fretting finger away too quickly and that little bit of harmonic subtlety is lost.

As I said in the last installment, making good music on the five-string banjo is about doing a lot of little things well.  Next time, we’ll look at this idea of economy of motion as it applies to the right hand.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Economy of Motion, Part One by Greg Earnest

I’m sure my students get tired of hearing me preach about the importance of “economy of motion” in bluegrass banjo playing, but it’s really something I feel can’t be overemphasized.  In tackling this instrument, our hands have plenty to do as it is—the last thing we need to do is to stack the deck against ourselves by engaging in a bunch of unnecessary movement.  

Failure to keep both your left-hand and right-hand movements as economical as possible not only makes it harder to play, but also negatively affects  the sound of your playing.  In the next few installments, we’ll take a look at some of the concrete ways in which the principle of economy of motion can be applied in your playing.

One of the most common examples of wasted motion that I encounter in my beginning students is what I call the “flyaway slide”; when the student renders, say, a slide from the second to the fourth fret on the third string, the fretting finger never really arrives at the fourth fret but flies off the string somewhere along the way.  The result is that instead of hearing one full, ringing note sliding to another full, ringing note, the listener hears a beginning note and then a PFFFT as the fretting finger leaves the string and the note abruptly dies.  It might seem like a small thing, but expert playing of the five-string banjo (or any other stringed instrument) is made up of a lot of such small things done well.  

Make a concerted effort to keep your finger in full contact with the string from right behind your starting fret to right behind your ending fret, and you’ll be on your way to a cleaner, fuller, more professional sound.  Next time: the “hot string syndrome”.

Monday, February 3, 2014

September 13, 2006: and Atlanta Braves host "A Tribute to Earl Scruggs", Part 2

The Atlanta Braves organization is first-class.  They're always interested in any community events that might entertain baseball fans.  Our event would entertain and bring more attendees to the Braves' game.  On the schedule for September 13, 2006 was a double-header with the Phillies.  We would take the field between the two games and hopefully set a world record for the largest banjo ensemble.

Jim called a few days later with another great idea.  Why not invite the living banjo legend, Earl Scruggs, and name the event in his honor?  He literally reinvented the banjo for bluegrass music and wrote the book that we now call the Banjo Bible.  Jim's idea to invite him was keeping me up during the nights.  I had already met Earl Scruggs in 2003 when he played a concert at The Tabernacle in Atlanta.  He was a bluegrass "rock star", and I was impressed that he was so accessible to fans. Louise Scruggs, his wife and manager, was there with him, overseeing the crowd.  I wanted to hear him talk, so as I shook his hand I asked, "Do you ever practice?"  He replied with a smile, "No, but I probably should."  Then I cringed at what I'd just done.  I asked that of Earl Scruggs!

The name Earl Scruggs is held in such high esteem by banjo players, his attendance would bring fans who were anxious to see him, and it would increase attendance for our record-setting event.  But would he attend?  How would we get in touch with him?  More in the next installment...

Friday, January 10, 2014

Learning To Practice by Greg Earnest

Emphasizing the importance of practice for the student of the banjo, or any musical instrument, is hardly novel.  But exactly how do you practice?  

I find it useful, both in teaching my students how to practice and in my own ongoing efforts to improve as a player, to think of practice in three parts.  The first part might be thought of as “just playing”—going over tunes you know extremely well.  This type of practice serves to keep your hands working well, to help you remember things you have already learned, and to concentrate on the fine points of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation.  

The second type of practice is where the student tackles “works in progress”—this is the time spent cleaning up tunes or licks that are still sloppy, memorizing a new tune, or (slowly) increasing the tempo of a given piece.  

The third type of practice is what I think of as the “input” phase of the operation—this is the time spent tackling brand-new material, whether from tablature or an audio or video recording or (for more advanced students) doing your own transcriptions from recordings of accomplished players.  For those working with a teacher, this would also be the time to buckle down and study whatever you were given at your last lesson (which hopefully was no more than one day before or, preferably, earlier the same day).  

I strive to give roughly equal time to each of these three types of practice in my own learning; the temptation is always to spend too much time on the first type of practice, since it’s naturally more fun to play something you can already play well.  The old music-teachers’ admonition to “practice what you can’t play” is one I have to continually repeat to myself and my students; too much time spent “just playing” can get the student in a rut of doing just a handful of tunes over and over.  Keep a mental (or an actual) list of tunes that come up at jam that you would like to learn—put these in your “practice queue” and get them in your learning pipeline!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Slow It Down! by Greg Earnest

I have often joked with my students that my presence at lessons isn’t necessary; I could be replaced by a recording alternately saying “slow it down” and “do it again”.  By far the most common direction I have to give my students is to dial back the tempo of whatever piece they’re working on.

The temptation to speed is especially hazardous to students of the banjo, since it’s the 160-beats-a-minute breakdowns that make so many people fall in love with the instrument to begin with.  A common complaint from students is that they “can’t play it slow”.  What’s really going on in these cases is that while playing the tune at a faster tempo, the student is leaving out some notes, playing some rolls incorrectly, and in general playing a sloppy version of something that should be very defined and precise.  When the tempo is reduced, every phrase and note has to stand more on its own and the “hiding places” provided by a faster speed are no longer there.  Sloppy playing is exposed, and this can cause the student to “lock up”.

The answer, of course, is simply to buckle down and practice at the slower tempo, finding and correcting the missed notes and garbled rolls one by one.  This “troubleshooting” process constitutes a lot of the time I spend working with my students; once the problems have been identified and fixed, the prescription is simple: spend a LOT of time drilling the tune at the slower speed before even thinking about increasing the tempo.  Clean, precise playing at a slower speed can be enjoyable to the player and pleasant for the listener; fast, sloppy playing is no fun for anyone.

We strongly recommend using a metronome.  Start at a slow speed and focus on accuracy.  Once the accuracy is mastered at that speed, increase the tempo slightly and keep the focus on accuracy.  Using this method, accuracy improves on the whole song.  That’s what makes the song more enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

September 13, 2006: and Atlanta Braves host "A Tribute to Earl Scruggs", Part 1

A Tribute to Earl Scruggs, Turner Field, Sept 13, 2006
Do dreams come true?  Yes, and often in surprising ways.  During our trips to Merlefest each year, Jim "Duck" Adkins and I enjoyed brainstorming ideas to help promote our small enterprise,  A five-hour drive each way, the trip was entertaining and a great way to pass the time.  Many of the ideas were just plain silly, but they kept us laughing.  Then one day in February, Jim called me at the store with an idea.  Brad Laird, the mandolin player in his band, suggested that we host a world-record-setting event for banjo players.  I knew it was exceptional the moment Jim uttered those words.

I contacted representatives at the Guinness Company, the one that publishes a book of world records each year.  They suggested an ensemble since no record existed.  We would need to get a group of banjo players together and play one song for five minutes.  But where?  Where would we host such an event?  Then I thought of Turner Field in Atlanta, home of the Braves.  A week later we were manning a booth at the huge Country Music Fair in Atlanta, and I stopped by the Braves' booth.  Dave Tomello was there, said the Braves were interested, and gave me his card.  Jim and I met with Dave and his team a week later, in early March, and scheduled the event for September 13.  It was on!  Then I realized that we had only six months to pull this all together.  Agh!  More in the next installment...