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Chosing a New Banjo Instructor. Hows it working out for me?

Posted by loukiii on Monday, March 18, 2013

Wow! It has been over a year since my last blog entry! What have I been up to? Well, since you asked... (or even if you didn't)

I have been busy busy busy rebuilding my picking skills under the wise tutelage of Fiddlin Al via Skype.

My original teacher, who I was with for over a year, and in my opinion was an excellent beginning banjo teacher, told me that I was graduated and I needed to get a more advanced teacher. Basically I wanted to learn to do more advanced backup and she said that even though she was a very accomplished player she did not feel she could teach that. I really appreciated her honesty, and I would still recommend her to anyone who wanted to learn to play.

Then on to the task of finding a new instructor. I was very apprehensive about selecting a new instructor. I take my banjo education very seriously and although I have no illusion that someday I might be the second coming of Earl, I still want to be good enough that when they see me coming at the local jam the other musicians will think "Oh good! Lou is here", instead of "Oh good.... Lou is here"  and maybe even someday get in a local bluegrass band and do a show or two just for fun.

I feel it is a very important decision. More important that what kind of banjo should I buy? What tone ring is best? I am sure there are a lot of really great instructors out there but not around Tampa, FL. If there are they really need to look into marketing themselves better because I had a hell of a time finding my first one and feel I lucked out because again, she was really good. My next option was Skype. That really broadened my selection and there are some pretty good instructors out there. 

Now honestly I cannot critique any of them but the one I chose, because I did not take a lesson with them. I did contact Tom Adams inquiring about lessons and explaining what I wanted to learn and he responded with a nice email. I would give him serious consideration. Ultimately though I chose Fiddlin Al. Why? Well for me it was because I can get skype lessons and he lives only about an hour and a half away to where if I absolutely needed an in person lesson, I could drive over there if I had to on occasion. (Fortunately I have not had to and everything is fine.)

So how is it working out for me you ask? Well. I can honestly say my expectations have been exceeded. At first I was a bit skeptical. And honestly I felt my playing got worse before it started to improve. Let me explain, Al is a tough teacher. He doesn't miss a single mistake. No slop will get past him. No push offs that should be pull offs. No slides coming up short. Missed a 16th note? He knows. Didn't hold that 8th note long enough? He knows. Let me reiterate. Nothing gets by him. Nada. Zilch, Zero. Once I realized this and made a little extra effort to notice some of the subtle nuance of whatever piece I am working I started making some serious progress. One of the issues in the beginning was that some of the songs I would be working on I had already learned from my first instructor so I thought I knew them, and I did, I just didn't know them as intimately as Fiddlin Al wanted me to know them. I found myself having to unlearn bad habits that had worked their way into my playing, sometimes little things, something as subtle as pushing off instead of pulling off or picking a string with the wrong finger. Both of these things seem like minor nit picky things but I have found that you can hear the difference and the little things do add up and contribute to the whole sound or style of the song. Another minor thing I have a tendency to do is fretting with the wrong finger. For some reason I often find myself fretting the 4th string with my middle finger instead of my index. (If your gonna slide then definitely use the middle, but if it is just a note use the index) Big deal you say? Well, no not really but, as you start building speed and playing faster, using the correct fingers in the correct place will help keep your flow smooth because your movements will be more economical. Yeah I thought it was a load too...but I decided to give him the benefit of a doubt, after all I am paying him to teach me so I might as well let him. 

I seriously stopped playing out for about 2 months because I felt I was not cutting the mustard and really devoted my practice time to the minor details and cleaning up my picking. After a while I was back to picking with my local groups of jammers but didn't really notice much had changed, although I could play better backup. I recently took a trip to California and took my banjo with me. I found a couple of jams out there and decided to go just for fun. I figured nobody knew who I was so if I sucked it wouldn't matter lol. Much to my pleasant surprise, I felt like I did a solid job and had a good time. What I didn't expect was all the nice things people were saying about my playing, a lot of which was backing up songs I had never heard before, and even taking passable improvised breaks. What a great feeling. But here is the kicker. There is a group of pickers that I have always considered way out of my league (and still do) that I got to jam with recently and there are a couple of banjo players in that group that I have always looked to as inspiration hoping that someday I would be on their level, well they have started asking me to show them how I am doing certain things, and it looks like I'm getting noticed. I have even been asked If I would be available to fill in for an occasional gig if one of the regular Banjo players can't make it!

Of course they could be blowing smoke up my rear but you never know...

Thanks for reading.

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