Advice from Dwight

This is an answer that I wrote for some of my students. They had been working to ‘learn to play the banjo’. Our culture tells us to invest great effort, to work hard and you will achieve your goal. The problem is, intense labor works against the student. Yes, there has to be some ‘work’ but it must be approached from a different direction than the way we normally approach. My experience with learning is built on 32 years of fighting the fiddle while trying to learn to play it.

The best thing you can do is quit trying to ‘do’ anything with your right hand. What I want is for you to listen and sing, whistle, hum along filling up every minute that you can stand to keep it going. I want you to think about the hand moving and how it is to move and perceive how it is to move. I want you, as much as possible if you want to learn this stuff, to get it internalized. But don’t let your hand ‘do’. That will create more problems than it could ever solve. People should spend months dreaming, thinking, visualizing, perceiving before touching. The PHYSICAL absolutely gets in the way. The physical is the last thing this music is about. Ultimately you will have to go into the area of the intuition/creative/right brain/spiritual before you ever play music. So why not start out there? And I am not talking fuzzy-wuzzy. I am talking depth. Because to really do it, you must finally learn to hit the note before your soul/mind thinks about it. The intuition/spirit jumps over the mental and engages with the physical. Let the intuition jump ahead or reason. The mental holds you back. Avoid it. This is why I avoid books. So please stop worrying left or right, correct or incorrect, up or down, day or night. They are immaterial. Just listen and dream/cogitate. Then you will do much better when you can dream BUT it may sound really terrible to anyone else. You are not working to sound ‘good’; you are working to breath life into your music. It ends up a paradox: the hardest part of playing real music is not learning melody. The hardest part is to quit trying to ‘play music’. trying keeps you from learning to relax every muscle in your body. your skeletal framework needs to be set up as a metronome and utilized to snap/whip the playing arm rather than using the muscles in the rhythm arm. The muscles are far too slow to snap. They can just play fast and frenzied. It might sound good to the intellect, but it will be dull and flat to the internal system that I refer to as the ‘spirit’. This is not to scare you, it is to tell you to relax and see this as an opportunity [like star trek] for your system to go where it hasn’t gone before. Initially your middle class system won’t like it and will fight it. However, once you have truly experienced the deep rhythm arising out of your depths, you will never want to go back to dull melody.

What I have encountered over the 3 1/2 decades that I have been teaching is the problem of rhythm. Most of the emphasis over the past 40 years has been on notes with rhythm falling by the wayside. Students were not taught to place strong emphasis on proper techniques of how to get clean, clear, strong, powerful rhythm with depth, not being reminded that ‘speed kills’.. After mastering the rhythm, notes can then be added to enhance the rhythm’s effectiveness. The emphasis is always on rhythm and not on how many notes can be played.

It’s not about tunes

I am going to offer some advice which is going to sound like I am trying to get students to come to more classes than they need, but there is no other way to make the point.

You will be holding yourself back by trying to learn tunes from a book or a video before experiencing the playing of the old people by listening to recordings for hours, days and weeks. In addition, your music will suffer greatly by trying to learn notes and tunes before you are able to produce solid rhythm. Plus it is generally impossible for students to teach themselves good rhythm: thus the reason for schools in all walks of life. The true mountain music takes discipline and sacrifice as any other thing in life that is to be mastered. BUT there is the lasting ‘reward’.

As most of you know, in 2006 I released a banjo tab book containing 27 tunes, a CD with each played so you will know how i personally play them, many black & white photographs I took mid-October, 1970 at the Hammons homes, plus strong suggestions for approaching the music and some old stories that help with context.
The 8-Steps to help the student rethink his/her approach to the music

In my experience, here is the way that works the best:

  1. Discipline yourself not to touch your instrument except to admire it and dream some. Especially if you are going to come to learn directly from me.
  2. Listen, absorb, internalize the old music until you can whistle it, sing it, hum it – until it flows out of you. Then you are just starting to start to begin to catch on. Just startin. Here is where the ‘hard work’ starts, the discipline’. But later having learned from the years of hard investment, that is where the joy sets in. There is no other way to accomplish the goal than take this route.
  3. Get started on your banjo with proper techniques that won’t be a hindrance farther along, my ‘ JUST RHYTHM’ instructional DVD will be a great help. That is, mute the strings with the noting hand and work on using the body to move the rhythm arm/hand. This keeps your mind off notes on the fingerboard. Initially, put the most care into not moving the thumb on the rhythm hand and NOT using the wrist muscles to move the wrist. The more relaxed the muscles, the more proper rhythm can be produced later. Use your skeleton to play the music. REMEMBER, THE MORE USE OF MUSCLES, THE MORE RIGID THE MUSIC FORM.
  4. Work solely on rhythm while playing along with some slower tunes you have put onto a tape/CD – always monitoring the rhythm hand technique by watching in a mirror. 85% of playing the banjo [and the fiddle] is the ‘loose control’ to develop precision in a whipping snap but later learn to control. Must never ever work on practice that is precise but DEAD; that insults the music. The ‘suzuki’ method of starting children is just a pure killer if they ever to want to learn this music. It’s always the rhythm, the syncopation that wins the day.
  5. Once again,always work toward getting ‘lilt’, always avoiding speed!!!!!!! Beginners continuously make the mistake of playing faster than they can manage. I used to do that also; get excited and off I would go. But there is no excuse for those who have invested 18 months-2 years. They havent been listening to the old folks.
  6. Start playing tunes that have very, very simple fingering patterns after you have moved up on the fingerboard. Just because the fingering patterns are more complicated DOES NOT mean the far less complicated tunes  are inferior. Right often the so called ‘simple’ tunes are far harder to play. There is nothing there to cover up the ineptness of the player. The main thing to learn is to get the extremely controlled but extremely relaxed syncopation/lilt. How you handle the slow tunes shows your progress.
  7. Never, never use drop thumb until the rhythm is very solid which may take many months or years. Drop thumb is a hindrance if it gets in the way of your rhythm. Right often it’s many years to learn to drop thumb and retain rhythm. Far better to ‘double thumb’ and use that plus the left/fingering hand to add more rhythm  Now, that is major piece of work. Do not let anyone sucker you into attempting the so called ‘drop thumb’ for many many months.
  8. Use your index fingernail to pick  down on the strings – not your middle finger. For 99.9% of those learning, the middle finger causes the music to be too mushy and throws the hand out of balance. Just as a very small wheel weight on automobile tire/rim makes a great difference, let that index hang out there in mid-air and the right hand is out of balance.

When a student can master this, then s/he is ready to move into music that has some real meaning and can give a tremendous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction.

Just remember the only shortcut is the longest way around.

And don’t be intimidated by us hotshots. We were once where you are now. It took me 2 years[1968-1970] to start to get the rhythm on the banjo, and 32 [1970 – 2002] years to finally break through on the fiddle. Of course, I am a very slow learner, as if you havent already figgered that out.

Don’t compare yourself to others and don’t set time limits and expectations. Just internalize the music and not city people. Initally let the old musician’s music get ahold of you inside. In your gizzard. Probably a couple years or more. Listen until you don’t think you can stand it anymore. You must be so full of the rhythm and the way the music goes that it overflows out of your ears. You will learn more quickly that way. AGAIN, avoid listening to very many younger musicians; always listen to the older musicians. Most are dead now.


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