After many years of spinning my wheels as a banjoist, I have been on a steep improvement track the last several years, and I couldn’t be happier! A lot of hard work and study has gone into this improvement, not the least of which has been in figuring out just how to cause it.

“Practice” only goes so far; one must learn for oneself what to practice! The old adage “practice makes perfect” is true only if the practice itself is perfect; practice your mistakes (which most of us unwittingly do the majority of the time), and you’ll get really good at making them! Or—perhaps more importantly—practice only the things that you enjoy doing, (without knowledge of what will actually cause improvement) and that’s all you’ll get good at.

It is against this backdrop that I still find myself having to defend the supreme importance of scales (and all related things—namely, the rest of music). On one hand, folks notice and comment on my constant improvement (thank you for noticing!); on the other hand, most continue to ask “why should I have to play scales? Isn’t the banjo a ‘fun’ instrument?” Um. . .how do you think I have brought on my improvement? And do you think maybe I’m having more fun now that I am a better and smarter player?

Do you want to actually improve, or do you intend to continue to cherry pick only those things that you think are fun? Are scales so darn repugnant to you (“oh, the misery!”) that you would rather stay on your intermediate plateau then have to submit to them? Do you think maybe all those world-class jazz and classical musicians (who have used that smarty-pants theory stuff to get as good as they are) were wrong? Are you afraid that this stuff will be over your head, and that there is no hope you’ll ever “get it?”

Oh, I know. . .I hear it all the time: “So-and-so doesn’t know anything about music theory, and he/she is a great musician!” First off, are you “so and so?” Secondly, for every so-and-so you can name, I can name hundreds of greats who do know their stuff (whether they admit to it or not)! And I bet those rare “naturals” would be even better with study. Ignorance only works for the supremely gifted; if you are a musical savant yourself, feel free to ignore my advice. Otherwise. . . If you have been fooled by a “play in a day” sales pitch, you have some work ahead of you.

An example: Let’s say you want to emulate a style that involves jazz improvisation with lots of scale runs (Buddy Wachter comes immediately to my mind); if your fingers don’t already “know the way” (never been trained/exercised with scales, et al), do you think you’ll just pick the notes out of thin air? That’s what I used to think; “if I can’t play what I hear in my head without practice and study, then I guess I’m just not meant to improvise!” Oh, the decades I’ve wasted in fruitless dreaming and non-practicing!

One caveat: What has worked for me may not be the perfect answer for you! It is my personal (and perhaps a bit insane) desire to improve that has led me to my practice routine. I know I could do even better; I may not have found my own ultimate answer yet! The only way to find that for yourself is to buckle down, get pissed off at your self-imposed limitations, and get to work. In the meantime, a few sessions with a perceptive coach will go a long way toward that end. I like to think I am that perceptive coach (I have at least one successful student; myself); I may not be exactly what you need, but there is only one way to find out.

I say and do these things for the betterment of the four-string banjo and its musical reputation.

1 comment on “ImprovementAdd yours →

  1. Isn’t it funny we have to come to this conclusion on our own, years after it was mentioned to our younger, dumber selves? I spent years doing only the easy stuff I could crush at the gym, now I actively look for my weaknesses and work on those first. But no one could convince me to do that before I decided to do that!

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