And I’ve had a few emails from people saying they are back in therapy because all this talk about practicing just makes them crawl into a corner from self-loathing and guilt.
Either way, you’re welcome!
Personally, practicing brings out a little bit of both in me. I always feel better afterward, but it’s getting myself to do it that’s the hard part, often requiring hypnotism.
This week I interviewed one of the most well-known, well-liked, and much-imitated banjo players in bluegrass: Alan Munde.
From his early work with Sam Bush in Poor Richard’s Almanac , then as a Sunny Mt. Boy with Jimmy Martin, through his years with Country Gazette to today, Alan is a player’s player.
And for over 20 years, he taught bluegrass and country music at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, before retiring in 2007.
Alan is one of the most grounded people I know with a wry take on anything going on around him. I heard him once say that people always want to learn new songs, but if they just learned to play the 20 tunes they “think” they know, then they’d have 20 new ones.
And I’ll never forget the sage advice he offered at a banjo workshop I attended sometime in the 80s at Nacagdoches, Texas: “Folks, when it comes down to it, it’s just a banjo.”
CS: Do you recall when you first started practicing seriously?
AM: I always praticed with intent. I always had things to practice. I took guitar lessons early and had my assignments and was a dutiful little alter boy about getting them done.
Early on if I couldn’t quite get the music, I worked on how my hands looked and how I sounded. I noticed that the good players were the ones who had good hand positions and efficient finger control—their finger movements were graceful and had a beauty that I still appreciate to this day.
Early on I would play into a mirror and try to make the fingers in the image be those of the fine players I saw play—sort of a mind game.
CS: How does your practice time and technique differ today from when you first started?
AM: What I practice now is more directed to learning to play whatever song, instrumental, or backup I’m interested in at the moment rather than directed at specific techniques as I did early on. Any new techniques needed will arise from the attempt to play the new piece.
CS: What is an effective practice strategy?
AM: For me it is to have a solo that I am wanting to devise and then work through all the nooks and crannies of the piece. Each phrase, harmony moment, rhythm idea, roll pattern, fingering—left and right hand fingering—are really important to me and I work on the solutions to any problem that arises.
CS: How do you maintain focus when practicing?
AM: I love music and music making and don’t have much trouble focusing on the practice of music. In the moment of practice, I have music in my head and try to get it into my fingers. Of course, my musical thoughts are pretty straightforward and not very complicated. I see myself as a high normal player. Playing the High Normal Sound Since 1962.
CS: Is there a practice technique you would consider a waste of time?
AM: This is not a waste of time but is possibly done too much—playing a tune from beginning to end and thinking you have practiced. Again, every song has its nooks and crannies—pull-offs, slides, hammer-ons, tone, timing, right and left hand fingering, speed, hand position, clarity, on and on.
You should record yourself as you practice and listen critically and work to correct any perceived flaws. Play a problematic spot over and over making adjustments until you feel good about the performance.
I met a famous and wonderful bass player, Richard Davis. He had his students do three and six minute drills. What are they? Anything that takes repitition to learn. Sounds like everything. Take a small bit of the music and play it for three minutes. If you don’t have it, then do it for six minutes. If you don’t have it then start over. Life really slows down when you do any one little thing for three minutes. Try it.
I did not use a metronome when I began but am a believer in them as a wonderful practice device. They can be difficult and frustrating at first. I start by listening to the constant, timed click and just try to relate to it by tapping my foot or my fingers on the fingerboard or head of the banjo.
When I feel comfortable with that, I mute the strings and pluck with all three fingers on the beat with the metronome. Then I play a roll until I feel well connected. After I feel I have gotten in the groove, I play a song I am totally familar with until again I feel at one with the beat, then I am ready to practice new things.
Also, I recommend playing along with recordings. Even if you don’t know the song, just mute the strings and chunk along or play rolls—the banjo at its base is a harmonic drummer. Be the drummer. It will help your right hand muscles be in tune with the groove of the music.
CS: What do you suggest to your students for practice time?
AM: Have the banjo in a stand by your bed and practice before you lift your feet into the bed. In the morning when your feet hit the ground pick up your banjo and practice. If you really want to play, you will find the time. As to what to practice, listen to yourself and you will know.