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Banjo Student Lament: I Can Play It Better At Home!

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, April 7, 2014

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Let me start off with a little story about Ben, one of Casey's banjo students. (And yes I did get his permission to tell it!) Ben and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Kasey, have been taking lessons from my Casey for about two years. They are both doing great because, number one, they are learning by ear; number two, they have been coming to my Tip Jar Jam every week; and number three, as Ben told me recently, they have the best banjo teacher in the world! (Harrumph!) After two years of playing they both have amassed quite a number of songs that they can play and vamp to. They can also do some simple improvising. So that throws them into Intermediate Song Territory where, even in Murphy Method Land, the songs do get harder. In order to execute these new, harder songs, it is imperative for the students to play all their old songs extremely well. (I think Ben had been falling a little behind here, but that's a story for another day.)

So, Casey had given Ben the intermediate-level song, Fireball Mail, which is actually on our Beginning Banjo Volume Two DVD. (Recorded many years ago when I was young and didn't know as much about teaching as I do now!) Fireball Mail can be tricky. If you can hear it in your head and have a solid Scruggs' foundation it's easy to play. But if you can't hear the melody in your head, you can easily get lost. The rolls themselves aren't hard to play (they are mostly forward rolls) but hearing the timing of the rolls and how they fit together is essential. You can't count the number of notes in a roll on this one and get away with it! (And you thought we didn't know you were counting!)

Ben worked on Fireball Mail for a solid year in his usual studious manner--he's no slacker, that's for sure. But there was one lick that eluded him. He just couldn't get it. He and Casey worked on it and worked on it. And worked on it some more. Lots of working. Finally Casey told him to stop working on it because he was spending too much time on it and his other songs were suffering. (You gotta keep up with your old stuff!) Casey thought Ben understood and had agreed to this. But Ben is a guy who likes to start what he finishes. And maybe he didn't realize how serious Casey was about his not playing the song anymore for a while. Whatever. The long and the short of it is that Ben kept working on Fireball Mail at home. And Casey didn't think anymore about it. 

Months pass. Then Ben, thinking he has now learned to play the song correctly, brings it up at the lesson. Casey listened to him play it. Again she told him that he didn't have it right. At which point he uttered the Banjo Student Lament: I can play it better at home. And I'm sure Casey thought, "No, you can't." She might have even said it, as I have been tempted to do many times. (Usually nowadays I simply say in a soothing voice, "I'm sure you can.") But Ben was adamant about being able to play it better at home. So adamant, in fact, that he went home and videoed himself playing Fireball Mail. In his pajamas. He emailed the video to Casey, who emailed it to me. (Ben calls us the Murphy Method Mafia.) And guess what? Casey was right. Ben wasn't playing it better at home. He was making the same timing error at home that he had been making in the lesson. Casey was not a happy camper, especially when she also found out, through me, that Ben had been trying to play Fireball Mail in the jam. This time she made Ben swear on the Precious that he would not play Fireball Mail again until she told him he could. This time Ben, thoroughly chastened, listened and obeyed. And did what Casey told him he COULD do which was to learn to sing the song. (He sings it really good. And can play the bass while he is singing, too! He's not barred from playing Fireball Mail on the bass!)

The moral to this story is: If you're playing it wrong at the lesson, you're not playing it better at home. You're playing it wrong at home, too. It's not just nerves. It's not the sound of the guitar throwing you off. You are making mistakes at home that you that you don't hear. 

I know you don't believe me.

But hang with me here, because I think this is important. Why are you not hearing your own errors? Here are some of the most common reasons:

  • You are playing too fast. SLOW DOWN! If the mistakes go by fast, perhaps you think no one will notice. I will notice.
  • You learned it wrong to begin with, perhaps by moving too fast through the material, and now your fingers are locked into that incorrect pattern--which you "hear" as right. Now you'll have to go back and re-learn it which is much harder. Best to learn it slowly from the git-go so you'll get it right.
  • You don't really have the sound of the song in your head. Easy fix: Listen longer and harder to the DVD. Really listen. Lots and lots. Try to play along with the slow version on the DVD. If you can't stay in time, believe me, it's not because I'm speeding up or slowing down. (As one student told me!)
  • You're not really listening to your own playing. START LISTENING. It takes time to develop an ear for what you are really playing. Pay attention. Stop daydreaming.
  • You are starting and stopping to correct tiny errors without realizing it. So, as I said above, you've got listen to what you are actually playing, not what you think you are playing.
  • Finally, you've got too many songs on your plate. Stop playing the harder ones. Establish or re-establish your foundation. Better to have some you can play well, than a bunch that no one else can play along with.

Most of the errors I'm talking about are timing errors. Sometimes they are stopping and starting errors. These errors become apparent to the student when I get the guitar out to play with them. If I have to stop playing in the middle of a song because you are backtracking to fix a mistake, that's not good. Playing guitar with students is a tremendous teaching tool. I wish more teachers did it.

Let me reiterate: I'm not asking you to play it perfect. We've been through that here. I can tell when a student is playing a song "right" and when that student has a timing error that prohibits my being able to play along. All I'm saying here is stop kidding yourself about how you sound at home. Listen to what you are really playing. And when you play it right at home, you'll play it right in the lesson.

You can find all our instructional DVDs on The Murphy Method website.

10 comments on “Banjo Student Lament: I Can Play It Better At Home!”

boccecoach Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @8:46:27 AM

Been there done that, I'm guilty thanks
For the reminder.😊

e4007 Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @2:51:55 PM

I don"t care how long you have been playing,you WILL screw something up somewhere during a 4 hour set.It"s called a lapse in concentration,and every banjoist I have listened to gets caught up somewhere sometime.So don"t get so hung up over a mistake,it is going to happen.Relax,pick,listen and enjoy!! E4007.

rossnickerson Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @3:14:15 PM

Love this article, hope you dont mind me chiming in. This is very encouraging to students. It does seem to be rooted in timing. Most of the students in this predicament are leaving out a beat or are adding one in, (usually caused when trying to learn something difficult and forgetting that ending the difficult section in the right place is the bottom line) Playing along with a guitar will smoke out those errors every time. Developing a solid sense at home what a full 4 beat measures feels like and where the chord changes are helps at home too. Happy Picking to everyone!

ralph morrison Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @4:23:41 PM

Thank you Murphy. You are wise beyond your years.I wish I lived close to you or Casey. It would be difficult to choose between you two. But, with your considerable teaching expierence and success, I would pick you. It IS called 'The Murphy Method ' ya know!

fiddlingbear Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @6:05:07 PM

If I had a dollar for every time a student said that I'd keep teaching till the money ran out.

Amusingly enough, I've been studying Northern Indian Classical music for several years--ragas and the like--partially to remember what it's like to be a novice student. And as many times as I've heard students claim to better playing at home, I've been tempted to tell my teacher the same thing. I've always bitten my tongue instead and went back tonbpractice more.

Thanks for the great observations!

gclaunch Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @8:25:32 PM

Good article and as a student, I have been guilty of the same thing, "...but I could play it at home.l....!". Isn't there a T-shirt out there with that on it?
After about the 2nd time doing that with my teacher, I examined my playing very carefully and discovered that "at home", I was starting and stopping several times before getting it going and doing it "right". Any more, when I learn a song, my goal is to be able to put on a backing track and jump right in, on time, and keep going, I don't worry too much about fumbles as long as I'm in time and can recover.....Will be in Maryville, Tn. in June, looking forward to meeting you.

Michael Breeman Says:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 @11:02:56 PM

You are so right, having had numerous guitar lessons from numerous teachers I have so often stated that " when I get home I'll play that correctly, in time and the right notes" but since setting up a little recording studio I now realise that I make just as many mistakes at home as when I'm in the classroom. Playing along with a metronome has been and still is a challenge for me on the banjo, but with the excellant lessons available from BHO I'm sure I'll improve over time.

mfoster Says:
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 @5:49:09 AM

I find when I can't play it right I play an extra note, give the song a new name and go on to the next song.

hicotton Says:
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 @5:38:33 PM

Hhhmmm...I think I'm guilty of that same refuge, right Casey?
Without doubt, one of the best, concise, and accurate overviews of learning to play banjo I've read.
Thanks to you both!

JIMBOB99 Says:
Monday, May 19, 2014 @12:33:33 AM

How sharp as a tiger's tooth is this truth to bear. After reading this, I began to hear myself practice. Sure enough, the mistakes were there in force.

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