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Posted by pcfive on Friday, June 18, 2010

 There was a recent post on the Scruggs forum about how a lot of students neglect backup skills, and only want to memorize solos. There were some comments from teachers saying that backup should be 80% of your practice time, since that's how much time you  spend playing backup if you are in a band, or when jamming. So I wrote some comments that were never understood by anyone, somehow. I accused them of not reading carefully, but maybe it was because I didn't write carefully. I did go back and re-read all my comments, to see if they made sense. I thought they did. But, of course, I know what I was trying to say, so of course it made sense to me. 

Tempers did flare a bit -- maybe they thought I was being defiant. One teacher said "Well go your own way then, since you know exactly what to do, and good luck to you."  Or something like that. 

But I DON'T know exactly what to do, and I never said I did! And I wasn't being defiant. I was just saying that I can't take 100% of all the advice I get. For one thing, different teachers give different advice. And besides, sometimes advice doesn't make sense to me. If I don't understand  your advice, how can I follow it?

I said the thread had convinced me to spend more time practicing backup. I am perfectly ok with that idea, and I really like playing backup anyway. However I also said that 80% would be too much for me at this time. I feel that I benefit greatly from playing songs along with recordings, and don't want to cut way back on that. Not now anyway. 

No one could say exactly why they disagreed with me. And some of the teachers / experts actually said the same thing I did -- that 80% is too much time to spend on backup, and that you learn a lot by practicing songs.

After the ordeal of going through that confusing debate, I thought a lot more about the question of what we should spend our practice time on, and why. I wrote a long comment about how it's important to learn and practice songs, because that's how we make the style a part of ourselves. If you practice scales and rolls with a metronome, does that really help you to resonate with the bluegrass style? I doubt it.

If you already have bluegrass in your soul, then I guess it doesn't matter. And everyone should probably spend some time on dreary exercises. I know I plan to -- some day.

But what I decided, while thinking about all this, is that MOTIVATION is the single most important factor in learning bluegrass banjo. Or any musical style and instrument. Or any subject or skill. And I decided that we get motivation by staying connected with the MEANINGFUL CONTEXT. In this case, the meaningful context is bluegrass music, the songs and instrumentals that make up the style.

Exercises that help you learn the techniques are fine, except they are disconnected from the meaningful context. Therefore, too much emphasis on exercises could be de-motivating for many students.

How many people love the sound of bg banjo, start learning, but eventually give up? Since I am not a banjo teacher, I have no idea. My wild guess would be that it's many. 

It takes a lot of time and effort, for most of us, to get the banjo to sound the way it's supposed to. Maybe that's true for most instruments, to varying degrees. That time and effort has to start to pay off, if we are to keep at it.

Jamming is one important way of staying motivated, and getting connected with the bluegrass style. But we also need meaningful context during our daily practice. I get some of that from YouTube. There are lots of jam sessions and performances to play along with. I could play backup or lead, or both. But mostly I play lead.

And here is my reason --- which did  not go over well on the forum -- when I play songs I have memorized, I don't have to think about where the notes are. I can focus my attention on details of tone and timing. I can listen to every note I play and try to make it right.

This has to be GOOD. And, believe it or not, the knowledge generalizes. As I continue practicing the songs I have memorized, I am getting some general knowledge, and learning and arranging new songs becomes easier. And playing BACKUP also improves!

But I know, of course, that I can't just do this and nothing else. I know I need to work on the components abstracted away from the songs. In other words, exercises. And I am going to. But I am not going to stop practicing songs.

I did not grow up in the bluegrass context. It isn't, or wasn't, part of my soul. Playing songs every day has been changing that. It has felt very rewarding, to me. 

So this doesn't mean I am going my own way and I think I know it all. But I know something about myself, and about learning in general. If you go too far in abstracting away from the meaningful context, you could lose motivation and interest.

Remember your high school history teacher who droned on and on, and made you memorize dry lists of facts and dates? Instead of learning history, you learned to hate history. Well I did anyway. Much later I found out that history is a collection of fascinating true stories. It's one of the most interesting school subjects. Yet many teachers feel it's more efficient to ignore the meaningful context and just drill the facts.

The same can be said about math and science. They can be fascinating when you connect with the meaningful context, but deadly dull otherwise.

Imagine a football coach who makes his team spend most of their time doing exercises, rather than playing the game. How effective would that be?

Athletes want to play their sport. Artists want to create art, dancers want to dance, and musicians want to play music. Yes, there are necessary component skills that you have to learn. But the meaningful context should never be overlooked.

Now I realize that banjo teachers probably run into lots of students who just memorize songs from tabs. They think they know how to play banjo, but they don't really understand the instrument or the style.

And the teachers probably misunderstood me because they thought that is what I am advocating, but I am not. Memorizing from tabs is not the way to learn a song. You should be able to look at a tab and understand what it means. That is very different from mechanically translating the numbers into notes.

The way I look at tab changed after I studied the Splitting the Licks book. Now I try to see the meaning in the tab -- the song that it represents, the chords and licks that make up the song. 

Well anyway. I am not trying to sound like someone who knows how bg banjo should be taught. I am really talking about learning in general. I have learned several things in my life, and I think there are general principles involved in learning almost anything. 

And the most important thing is MOTIVATION. And according to my theory, motivation depends on staying connected to a meaningful context.




















7 comments on “Motivation”

Oalbrets Says:
Friday, June 18, 2010 @8:49:32 PM

I think the main thing is to just have fun.

peghead59 Says:
Sunday, June 20, 2010 @3:09:58 AM

I agree with what you are saying. Motivation is the biggest drive behind learning anything, and we are all motivated in different ways. I might get excited about a tune I've heard and decide I want to learn that tune. That's my motivation.

However, I also believe that just learning tab after tab doesn't really further my knowledge of the banjo. For me, learning why I'm playing a certain lick is just as important. The relationship between licks and progressions has become important to me, so I am putting a lot of time into back up which is helping me understand the anatomy of the banjo neck. I guess that's my current motivation.

As you said. Trying to put a point across in the forum can sometimes be misunderstood. It's not always easy trying to get your opinion understood, as it's not always easy trying to get a tune understood. I wouldn't take it personally.


pcfive Says:
Sunday, June 20, 2010 @5:45:22 AM

"However, I also believe that just learning tab after tab doesn't really further my knowledge of the banjo. For me, learning why I'm playing a certain lick is just as important."

Yes, me too. I learned a lot from Splitting the Licks by Janet Davis. Instead of memorizing tabs, I try to really learn the songs. And I got her backup book yesterday and have started working on that.

Memorizing tabs does not provide a meaningful context. We have to listen to the songs and understand them, and put our own licks together.

When I'm learning a song I listen to bluegrass banjo versions, but also vocals, fiddle, whatever I can find. I also try to learn the words.

peghead59 Says:
Sunday, June 20, 2010 @9:05:22 AM

I got The back up book from Janet davis a few months back. It didn't really make any sense to me at the time. I have been taking another course on back up and I looked at the Janet Davis book again today and I thought "Oh Yeh!" that makes sense now. So I guess I've learnt something in the past month or so.

pcfive Says:
Sunday, June 20, 2010 @3:03:44 PM

The backup book is definitely not easy. A lot of it makes sense to me because I have been jamming for 3 years, but otherwise it would be too hard. I am definitely learning a lot from it. I didn't listen to the CDs yet -- I'll try to listen while I'm at work tomorrow. I have a feeling I will get a list of inspiration from this book.

pcfive Says:
Sunday, June 20, 2010 @3:04:44 PM

I meant to say "a LOT of inspiration."

peghead59 Says:
Monday, June 21, 2010 @9:35:34 AM

I think you will. Good luck with it.

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