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Feb 6, 2023 - 12:43:38 PM
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350 posts since 6/20/2003

I play primarily three-finger, so I'll post this here.

I started playing a little over 20 years ago and I have been rather regular over that whole period. I don't perform a lot or at a high level, but rarely a week has gone by without me playing - only once or twice has a whole month passed withough playing - and for much of that time I would practice almost daily. Particularly the first few years and the most recent three years I have been very focused - playing often and working consciously at the edge of my ability to improve and expand.

What I wanted to write about were these weird "jumps" or surges that occur from time to time. I think I've had 4-5 of them. My first was when I was about 2-3 months in when my wife came in and said something to the effect of "Hey, that really sounds good, like a song." I had been stumbling through rolls and exercizes and banal, easy songs nobody recognized and then suddenly - melodies.

I was urged to write by the latest jump over the past week or two. I got Geoff Hohwald's book on improvising up the neck (vol. 4 of his improv series) without having tried the first three. I just thought, "cool, I need up the neck. Add to basket." Then the book arrived and sat on the sheft for a while. Then I started trying it out, first with just a metronome but then quickly over backing tracks. And WHAM - stuff started to happen. I was doing new stuff. Fluent stuff. Nice tone. All over the fretboard. Still too slow, but hey, the "stuff" is there.

You get the feeling that you're kind of on idle, or stagnating, or just kind of in a rut, learning a bit here and there, but not really entering any new territory - and then, within some short period of time, it just kind of moves to a new level. The right combination of attitude, time, focus and material (in my case Hohwald's tab + Strum Machine) just happens.

I've noticed in the past that these new levels seem to be kind of like ratchets. You can fall a little, but even if you get a bit lazy for a bit, it is not terribly difficult to return to wherever you were. You don't slip well below your last ratchet and find returning to it very difficult. At least that is my impression. I suppose if I quit for several months it might be a different deal.

I assume there is a bunch of learning psychology going in these events and in players' attitudes toward them.

Any thoughts or similar experiences?


Edited by - Strelnieks on 02/06/2023 12:45:01

Feb 6, 2023 - 1:06:40 PM
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2678 posts since 11/17/2018

I don't know about "learning psychology", but there are "lightbulb" moments when things start to click.

Feb 6, 2023 - 2:16:33 PM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)


28530 posts since 8/3/2003
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I think people reach a plateau in their picking and stay there for a while. Something will happen that will suddenly let them start moving up and improving. Sometimes it's a teacher, sometimes another banjo picker, sometimes the brain and fingers just decide "this is easy and I can do it" and up you go.

I had a teacher who showed me how to make my own breaks. He gave me several "melody phrases" that would work with many songs and said I could find many others if I just worked at it. He was right and that got me started on improvising and playing by ear and completely away from tab.

I formed a little local band and had to work at dozens of songs for a gig, making sure I had the songs down where I wouldn't make too many mistakes and had to work on my backup so it would (a) be in the background and (b) be interesting but not over powering. That helped me immensely to be a better backup player.

Jamming with others allowed me to get over my stage fright and take off and try any song that came along, whether I knew it or not. It also allowed me to laugh at my mistakes and just plow through them and keep going.

Feb 6, 2023 - 2:53:55 PM

80 posts since 11/30/2021

I'm glad you have written about this. I've experienced this many times. Right about the time I start to get frustrated with my abilities, I experience an almost inexplicable jump, and all of the sudden I'm able to play cleanly what I struggled with before. It's like banjo-brain-magic.

Feb 6, 2023 - 3:55:39 PM

566 posts since 11/9/2021

While not banjo, i been thinking about fiddle riffs and phrases while going to sleep lately, and Lo ! I pick up the fiddle and the riff is there under my hand! Gotta work the same way with other instruments, right?

Feb 6, 2023 - 9:52:37 PM
Players Union Member



350 posts since 6/20/2003

Originally posted by wrench13

While not banjo, i been thinking about fiddle riffs and phrases while going to sleep lately, and Lo ! I pick up the fiddle and the riff is there under my hand! Gotta work the same way with other instruments, right?

Yes. I have heard of experiments where they compare the performance of people who are learning a skill. They are built something like this: A control group doesn't practice, another group practices as usual and the third group practices in their mind - thinking about the exact moves they would make during practice. The performance between the latter groups is comparable if I recall the results. I may have the details wrong, but the takeaway was that vividly imagining performing a skill trains the brain much like actually, physically practicing the skill. (Did I learn about that in the "Brainjo" book or on a "Brainjo" video or somewhere else? The actual experiments weren't about banjo playing, of course.)

I would think you'd need really strong focusing skills to really add time on task by this method - imaging looping a lick - really focusing on it - for five minutes is probably harder than actually doing it for five minutes - and doubt I have the focus. But I have dabbled in this idea while riding the bus or falling asleep.


Feb 7, 2023 - 2:22:03 AM
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3976 posts since 7/12/2006

The best jumps ive had are when i wind up playing with relative ease certain licks ive struggled with for 10- 20 years.

Feb 7, 2023 - 2:24:34 AM



3768 posts since 11/8/2010

I hope such a little breakthrough is preparing for me right now. I have been practicing FMB for speed for a little more than a week and managed to hit 120bpm without getting too sloppy. That's not such a great improvement over the ~115bpm I could do before, but what gives me hope is that the feeling in my fingers is totally different from how it was before. I am more aware of the fingertips hitting the strings and movements seem to have become smaller and thus more efficient. I sometimes hit a string backwards with the thumb pick when moving back from a note played on the 2nd string to one to be played on the 5th. This, of course, is a problem (it knocks the thumb pick loose) but it is caused by not lifting the thumb away enough from the strings which in itself seems to indicate progress in the right direction, i.e. shortening the way the fingers have to travel. It's been a while since I last had such a breakthrough feeling, I hope this one is coming.

Feb 8, 2023 - 11:40:06 AM

1451 posts since 11/25/2007

Great topic. Not unlike my golf game, it's those breakthroughs that keep me coming back for more.

Feb 8, 2023 - 12:26:21 PM

98 posts since 1/13/2023

Even Michael Cleveland sound like crap during his 1st fiddle lesson, I heard it .
Now the guy is the Maestro !

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