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Relaxing When You Play

Posted by rossnickerson on Tuesday, September 17, 2013

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Relaxing when you play
by Ross Nickerson

Everyone that plays banjo knows that when they tense up, bad things can happen. Banjo players get teased for sometimes having a dead pan look but there is likely a real good reason for appearing nonchalant or making it look easy: it’s called keeping cool and relaxed. How many good banjo players have you seen grimacing, straining and trying too hard, not many I’d bet. How many times have you seen someone tense up and have problems? How many times has that happened to you?

If you are in agreement that this is one of the key ingredients for success in banjo playing, let’s discuss some practical ways to help you achieve a relaxed state, other than shots of whiskey that is.

Having More Ability than You Need

Building skill and ability in practice makes you relaxed. When you have more skill than is needed to execute a song then you are coasting and in a relaxed state. For instance, practicing single string scales and left hand finger exercises may not apply directly to a song like Turkey in the Straw, but the scales are more difficult than the left hand moves needed for Turkey in the Straw, hence the left hand moves start to feel easy. With your picking hand, if you can pick at a certain top speed or a breaking point, when you back it off a bit, you will be more relaxed. Push yourself to play rolls faster and then slow it down to a speed you can relax at. I could elaborate but I think you get the idea, drill and build skill in both your right and left hand so you have more ability than is needed to play the songs you like and are learning.
The Banjo Encyclopedia “Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z”

Muscle Memory

There really is no substitute for muscle memory, Muscle memory is what makes the banjo playing world go round. We simply don’t have the mental or physical capability to pull out of thin air notes we saw on a page even a moderate speed. Learn songs by repeating measures and phrases over and over without looking at tab. Learn how arrangements work and how to recover from mistakes. We are not robots, everyone makes mistakes. The difference for pros and more accomplished players is that they have achieved “ways out” and know how to not get cornered. That’s because of reps, experience and muscle memory.


Holding your breath is a very common problem for banjo players. Playing the banjo does to lend itself to easy breathing like strumming a guitar and singing, or even fiddle playing. You are in a very tight space with little or no arm movement, We are also using three fingers to play in mostly 4/4 time, if you are not solid on where the downbeat is, that can complicate breathing properly too. You may see some banjo players rocking there head back and forth, any motion like that could help. When performing, I much prefer playing around a mic that picks me up from a distance so I can move and breath. Standing or sitting like a statue really locks you up. Think of ways you can keep breathing and play freely. Having more skill than needed helps you to not hold your breath and tense up too.

There is no substitute for practice and preparation to relax you. Sometimes this can be boiled down to knowing what to practice. For me when I began learning, it became apparent right away that if I could not play fast enough to keep up I would be embarrassed and left behind. So I got right on practicing that. That might not be your goal to play blazing fast but It is important that you are able to pick fast enough so that you can back it off and cruise in a more relaxed state.  Practice building up reasonable picking hand speed and fretting hand skill with exercises and drills. Keep in mind that many times playing fast is just having the good sense to keep it simple so you can keep up both physically and mentally. How to Practice Banjo 

Practicing things that apply to many situations and Planning for the Unexpected
Spending too much practice time on one song is a trap that can be fallen into easily.
When confronted with playing songs with others that musicians are not familiar with we all learn the chords to the songs first. That is very clear for guitar, mandolin, bass players etc. but somehow goes over the head of many banjo players rooted in tablature. Learning to play along based on the chords of the song is really how it’s done and I don’t just mean vamping.  Replacing the strum or chop with a simple full measure roll and changing chords is something to start with. You can still provide a rhythm and play along if you execute your rolls in time and change chords with others. Banjo playing is rooted in the rhythm you produce not the notes you play. It can start very simple and go much further to include improvising over the chords, finding melody notes in the chord and continuing  to building your skills in this crucial but overlooked area. All of these tools in preparing to play along with songs you only know the chords to will absolutely help you relax when you play. Playing By Ear and Learning the Chords

The topic or relaxing when you play could be expanded much more and commented on in so many different ways. I recommend that you keep this simple statement of “relaxing when you play” as a default concept in your approach to practicing and learning. It will help guide you to find more and more ways to use your practice time to accomplish relaxing, breathing and making things feel easier to you both physically and mentally.


Playing By Ear and Learning the Chords
How to Practice Banjo DVD
The Banjo Encyclopedia “Bluegrass Banjo From A to Z”
Banjo Play Along and Practice DVD
Essential Banjo Licks DVD
Other Ross Nickerson Books and DVDs     banjo by ear   banjo dvd to play along with  banjo licks dvd       


5 comments on “Relaxing When You Play”

droseman Says:
Monday, September 30, 2013 @1:32:33 PM

Banjo playing is rooted in the rhythm you produce not the notes you play - great, concise point. It applies to all instruments, to greater or lesser degrees, but particularly the banjo. I think for me and most other novice players the majority of the challenge is in figuring out how to swing.

jonlarkster Says:
Monday, September 30, 2013 @3:32:25 PM

having spent 50 years learning 9 instruments i would say the above practice tips would apply to probably all instruments.

Steve_gts Says:
Monday, September 30, 2013 @11:45:49 PM

Too much for me to think about on top if 2 hands as well, can I just have the Whiskey instead?

SeldomSean Says:
Thursday, October 3, 2013 @1:42:20 PM

HI Ross,
I read your info about "relaxing while you play" and agree with everything you said. The one issue that I have is that I play in a band and some of our songs are moving pretty fast. I have a routine practice that I do before playing. I work on all the rolls and warm my right hand up as best I can. (my left hand is fine). I run into issues about my right hand. After playing a few high speed songs, my right hand gets tense and fatigued. I'm fine after awhile but I feel it takes me a while to "warm up" my right hand and keep up. I have pin pointed my stress in my right hand. I am a pinky planter and I think the tightness in my right hand is from my pinky to the palm in my hand. (Does that make sense?). Basically, the stress comes from my planting finger. I try to keep in mind of this but sometimes it just locks my hand up. Is there any practice routine or something I can do to eliminate the pressure in my planting finger. (I don't press too hard but just enough to keep my hand in place). Thanks for any suggestions.

rossnickerson Says:
Friday, October 4, 2013 @11:45:06 AM

It is hard of course to make an accurate assessment without seeing you play but I had a thought from my experience with others. See if the tension is coming from your forearm.

Are you pushing hard against the armrest with your forearm? Also is your arm straight or is there some relaxed flex and arch in your forearm between the armrest and you anchor position. If any of this is possible for you, try placing your forearm further down on the armrest which will cause some arch in your wrist when you plant your finger. Your elbow in towards your side can help too. Make sure you are relaxed in the forearm. Hope that helps.

I wrote an article On right hand picking position and planting your fingers on the banjo head too that might lend more insight too, here is a link, thanks again, Ross Nickerson

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