Learning Levels

Which class should I take?

Year after year the problem is deciding where a student is to be placed.

What often happens is the student has been working on the music [banjo] for some time, even for many years, and feels that s/he has advanced quite far along. The problem that arises is often the student is familiar with ‘many tunes’, but habits have been ‘learned’ which are detrimental to playing the music as it needs to be played. Ultimately the student needs to be able to develop skills which result in what is of extreme importance in playing this music: rhythm and pulse. The ‘tunes’ themselves are of minor importance in this realm. Too much emphasis is placed on the number of tunes that a person can ‘play’, when often they have no rhythm to play any properly.

How does Dwight categorize students?

These categories are not to place a value judgment on the personhood of any student.


Just what it says it is. Knows little to nothing about the banjo and/or old time music. Like Dwight did for quite some time. Needs to get started properly on the ‘rhythm hand’ [usually right] using drill. This is the frustrating work but pays the most dividends in the long run

Get it right in the beginning and you don’t have to go back and unlearn and relearn. Unlearning the poor, limiting habits and then relearning for good rhythm is the most tedious and most frustrating part of the process. Get it right the first time. To unlearn and relearn is when the real tears flow, real anger and frustration surfaces, and everything in the student says ”I’m gonna walk away or totally quit. I’ll never get it.”

Advanced Beginner

The person who is working through the above suggestions through deep listening and learning rhythm techniques. When this is accomplished, s/he may start applying them to 3 – 4 – 5 tunes with very simple fingering patterns to avoid falling into the trap of many tunes played very poorly. Poorly played ‘music’ only leads to frustration and finally quitting the music.

The tuning for this level is the key of ‘G’. The student is learning to retune into different keys, but best to learn in the ‘open G’ tuning..

Low intermediate

Hard to explain. Let’s say this level is fully reached when:

  • The student has a good grasp of the proper hand techniques for strong rhythm and is able to carry them use them to pursue good ‘lilt’ or proper syncopation.
  • Has listened to the old folks to the point that she/he is starting to get a grasp of the regional differences of Appalachian hills traditional music [and, from the Southern standpoint, can pronounce “Appalachia” properly. Throw an ”apple-at-cha”!].
  • Has gotten a grasp and can recognize ‘G’, double ‘C’, and ‘Modal’ tuning and tune the instrument accordingly.
  • Has become very, very familiar with and can play a couple of tunes with feeling/expression in each of the different tunings. Not just plonk thru the tune, but has proper relaxed control w/ plenty of gentle, quick snap.
  • Has stopped speeding up while playing the tunes inside or outside of a ‘jam’. Begins to understand medium sized and larger ‘jams’ are killers for learning and proper playing the Music. Recognizes that the best way to play this music, if ensemble, is a banjo and fiddle w/ fiddle leading and banjo giving maximum support underneath.
  • Has come to understand that speed rounds off the corners of each individual tune thus making it a ‘festival’ tune which is to be avoided at all costs for the sake of the music. Treating it in ‘festival’ way, a jam “session” way is literally almost always an insult to the old time mountain Music.
  • Starting to be able to articulate the notes so the sound of each note has it’s own individual shape. This is extremely hard to learn. Takes years of listening, absorbing, cogitating before actually setting out to do this on the instrument. If it is not inside so a person can, as Mose Coffman – the old fiddler from nearby said, “you have to be able to whistle, hum, or sing the tune before you can just begin to play it.”
  • Is willing to play honest music. Moving away from trying to grab the glory. Grabbin for glory, again, is an insult to the Music.

Intermediate level

This person is becoming a good instrumentalist.

  • Understands and can play tunes with lilt/snap/swing.
  • Has become able to play music with feeling. Shaping each note for what is in it as well as learning to fit it into the community of notes in each tune.
  • Has chosen a regional music because he/she has listened closely and has come to understand that s/he can’t do it all,
  • Has chosen to not care and aims to play whatever suits his/her fancy no matter whether anything gets diluted or insulted. Then no matter the skill level or technique, the music can never mature because the person has insulted this mountain music.
  • Has learned several tunings and can play appropriately the tunes which go with that tuning.
  • Has come to the place that s/he understands that mountain music is beautiful and fragile and it can be played in such a way that it becomes damaged and destroyed when it is raped.
  • Carefully selects a tune and then takes time to learn what is down inside the tune. Has now become able to shape the sound of every note and start to control the silences between the notes.
  • Technically a level of maturity has been reached, but more importantly, the relationship between the music and the musician is one built on deep respect. So at the end of the day we can see that the most important aspect can be there at the beginning: Respect!!

To start this way insures that the music, whatever the technical level, will always be honest.

But there are no shortcuts; the student has to work through all the steps. Drill and discipline are the easiest and give the greatest results. A deep friendship can develop between the music and the person. That is the way it must be. The old Clay County, W.Va. fiddler, Wilson Douglas, said many times:

#1. It takes about 10 years just to START to learn the fiddle[the old music]”

#2. ”It gets awful expensive just to play a little bit of fiddle [old time music]” and he didn’t mean money .


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