Song of the Week Kick-off: Huckleberry Hornpipe

This is the first of my "Song of the Week" series!

The "song of the week" is a tutorial on a progressive tune every Friday. For example, this could mean Alan Munde, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Tim O'Brien, David Grier and Tony Trischka songs or solos, but the spectrum is wide open(as long as it's progressive bluegrass)...and I take requests! If you'd like a song to be covered and played, please leave a comment. 

I've started the "SOTW" for a couple reasons:

  1. I get to help curious and creative banjo players learn some awesome tunes, and become better players.
  2. It gives me incentive to learn and practice songs and become a better player.

Please leave a comment if you'd like a song to be covered, and don't forget to subscribe to me on YouTube and sign up for my mailing list below the vid!

Performing with Nashville's Clare Bowen

Yesterday(Monday, January 27th, 2014), I had the opportunity to perform on the ABC show, The View. I was playing banjo for Clare Bowen, who is an actress and singer on the television series "Nashville". It was the first time I've performed on National Television, and I had a blast. Everyone on the set was really cool and down to earth, including Clare and the rest of the band. 

The band was Phil Lassiter on piano and harmony, Lincoln Schleifer on bass, and me on banjo. Phil Lassiter is the arranger and lead trumpet player for Prince's band, which is so freaking cool, and it was great to meet and play with him. 

Lincoln, the bass player, is good friends with Buddy Miller and John Campbell, and lots of other people, and has performed and recorded with tons of famous musicians, including Levon Helm and Warren Hanes. He's a great bass player, and being a native New Yorker, he has endless stories about the New York music scene from the 60s on. It was so cool to talk with him about the village during the 60s, and the "golden age" of recorded music and session work. We talked about playing on Broadway, too. 

It was great to work with Clare Bowen. She's an amazing vocalist, and a really sweet, easy-going person. Thanks to her and her team, including David Pyler for having me. 

Here's a video of the performance, and below is a picture I took after we played. 

7 Reasons Why Slowing Down When You Practice Will Make You Better Faster

This list has some uncommon(but really important) reasons why you should SLOW DOWN when you practice. To expedite the process of becoming the master musician you want to be, you gotta take it easy. Enjoy! 

1. You're Training Your Muscles and Mind to Work Together 

The master musician has complete control over his/her instrument. Simply put, in their body the heart(emotions/feeling) is communicating with the mind(logic/motor control), which is communicating with the muscles to create music. If the mind is more developed than the muscles, you'll hear things and not be able play them clearly on your instrument. If the opposite is happening, your muscles will be controlling what you play, not your heart and mind, and you'll sound more mechanical than emotional. When you slow down your practice, you're allowing your mind and muscles to communicate at a rate that works for both of them. Ideally, you should be hearing things in your "inner ear", and your muscles should be effortlessly executing what you're hearing. Experiment with different tempos and chord progressions to see/feel what needs work. You can also record yourself to hear spots where your playing lacks effortlessness. 

2. You'll Listen to Every Note

Banjo players are used to playing really fast, relying on set note patterns and licks to get through songs. A goal for me is to "hear" every note before I play it. Even on extremely fast tempos, I want to be able to "shape" each note based on how I hear it. Shaping notes is something saxophone players like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordan, and John Coltrane are masters at. Every note I play should be played with intention, and there should be absolutely no mindless or heartless playing. This is a goal I set for myself, and I urge you to consider it as well.

Slow things down and work on your awareness in a song. For banjo players, you could pick a standard banjo tune or singing song, play for only one minute(slowly), and completely concentrate on every note you're playing. This short period of time will allow you to give each note everything you've got. Mess around with other tempos and chord progressions. Yea, we banjo pickers play a lot of notes, but why can't all of them mean something and contribute to the sound and feeling of the song?

3. You Will Feel the Rhythm and Groove More Precisely  

So many musicians overlook this in the crucial stages of their development. Having good time, rhythm, and groove is probably the most important part of becoming a great musician. You can have the coolest melodies, but if you don't groove or play them with rhythm, they'll sound awful. To practice rhythm slowly, I recommend practicing subdivisions of the beat - so setting the metronome slow(around 60 or 70), and clapping quarter notes, eighth notes, eighth note triplets, and sixteenth notes. Do this methodically until it feels easy to switch between the subdivisions. The more challenging transitions are from eighth notes to eighth note triplets, and from triplets to sixteenth, and back. Once you feel good about that, check out these two books - Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer and Polyrhythms by Ari Hoenig. To successfully and fully feel/internalize rhythm and groove when you are playing, you need to feel it in your body, and work up from a slow pace, so your mind and body can understand what's going on at a deep level. 

4. You Can Focus on Your Breathing

Do you hold your breath when you play? This can hinder you from having flowing, rhythmic melodies. What you are playing is a completely genuine reflection of your body and consciousness, and if you have choppy breathing, chances are your playing is going to sound that way as well. Take time in your routine to see how you're breathing when playing a tune melody, when comping(playing back-up), and when you're improvising. You may be surprised after trying this. If you're gasping or making noises after phrases, you probably aren't breathing fluidly. If you want your playing to sound fluid, slow down and feel the air going in and out of your lungs. You'll notice it actually feels good to breathe :). 

5. Memorization Comes Faster 

Do you feel like you can never quite get the tune your learning under your fingers? Sometimes you feel like you're "BSing" the melody, and you're not sure why it's not coming out the way you want. Maybe you need to slow it down, and really let your body and mind catch up with each other. When you slow a song down and play it through, the troublesome spots are going to become obvious. Make a mental note of these spots, isolate, and slow them down even more, until they are easy to play. Make sure you aren't speeding up or slowing down at certain sections of the song. Patience, and respecting the groove is important to working up a song to a level where it flows and sounds good. 

6. Building Speed is Easier

"Tension is the enemy of movement" - Eric Franklin. This is one of my favorite quotes, and it completely applies to learning an instrument. By slowing down your practice, you're allowing your muscles to form and get used to doing the movement required of them. As you gradually speed the tempo up, notice if there is any tension in your body. You may notice it in your hands, or it could be in your feet, or shoulders. Any tension in your body will affect how you play.  Once you notice it, relax and mentally revisit that area while you practice to see if anything has changed.

7. You'll Develop Focus

This has to do with patience. See if you can play a song super slow, without getting impatient or distracted the entire time. If you can't, this is something to work on. Try to enjoy every note you play. Bathe in the sound that you're creating, and listen intently to what you're playing. Once you start speeding the tempo up, you'll see that fast tempos will be easier to play because you're focus is more developed. Concentration is a huge part of playing in time, and with other people. In learning an instrument, there are so many things your mind needs to focus on, and by slowing things down, you are allowing your mind to be there with your body throughout the process. Take the time to develop your focus, and your musicianship will increase tremendously.

Thanks for reading this article, and please leave a comment if you enjoyed it. If you’re interested in taking private banjo or guitar lessons, click here and sign up for a free 30 minute trial lesson.

Ready to learn from me immediately? I’ve released my Practice Strategy Checklist for Bluegrass Banjo! If you want to take your banjo playing to the next level, get “unstuck” from looking at tabs, and start sounding like a pro, this checklist is perfect for you.

5 Things You Can Do Without Your Instrument to Become a Better Musician

Its true - you can practice anywhere with no instrument! These are 5 things that you can do without your instrument to supplement your hands-on practice time to progress at least twice as fast. 

1. Actively Listen to Music

I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over again from teachers, online, at workshops, etc., but it’s probably the most important thing you can do when learning how to play an instrument. Listening to music is good, but actively listening takes your experience to a whole new level.

Actively listening is taking song that you enjoy, are interested in, or want to learn, and listening to it on repeat, with no distractions. NO DISTRACTIONS. This means sitting down or standing up, preferably with headphones on, and concentrating fully on the music. You aren’t walking around, on Facebook, or thinking about what you have to do in 30 minutes. Be in the present moment, fully taking in what your ears are hearing. It’s kind of like meditation.

The goal is to be able to hear things in recordings that don’t pop out to the untrained get to a deeper level of hearing. This requires a lot of repeated listening, or listening to the same song over and over again. Focus on a different instrument each time. Listen to how they solo. Do they play long, extended phrases that go on for almost the entire solo(Adam Steffey is really good at this), or do they play in shorter phrases? How is their playing different from other musicians on the same instrument?

These are just a few of many questions to reflect on prior to listening. The active listening technique allows you to grow as a critic and student, and is the absolute best way for you to learn about different styles, find your favorite musicians, and train your ears to recognize and pick up tunes faster when you actually are sitting down to practice with your instrument or at a jam session.

2. Visualize

Visualization is incredibly important to becoming a better player. I’m talking about seeing images and hearing music in your mind. There is science to prove that musicians that use imagery and hands on practice with an instrument improve at a much faster rate than musicians that just practice with their instrument.

Close your eyes, and imagine your instrument - lets use a banjo for example(since thats what I play :)). See the instrument resting in your lap, with brand new strings on it and the whole thing is just glowing, ready to be played. Choose a song to play. Now slowly play the song. See your left hand fingering the correct spots on the fretboard, and hear the song being played. Do the entire song, then open your eyes.

Visualization is a practice that can be applied to any instrument, song, or technique that you want more clarity on.

3. Sing

Don’t let this intimidate you.. You don’t actually have to know how to sing, although you’ll probably get more gigs that way ;). You may have heard the phrase, “If you can sing it, you can play it.” This saying is so right, and it ties in with #1(Active Listening). The more melodies you can sing from memory, the faster you will develop your improvisation skills.

I’ll say it one more time:

The more melodies you can sing from memory, the faster you will develop your improvisation skills.

No joke - if you can sing “Fisher’s Hornpipe” from memory and in tempo, you’ll be able to play it better on your instrument than you would without being able to sing it, because you won’t be solely relying on muscle memory. You’re involving your ears, which is something that people learning from tab are missing. You are also laying the foundation for improvisation, because the more songs you memorize and sing, the more you are internalizing the music on a deep level. It’s kind of like putting all of these melodies in a big pot in your mind and heart, and they are just slow cooking there, while you’re adding more and more ingredients(songs, licks), until it’s time for them to be put to use. You could also look at it as developing your musical intuition, which is closely related to improvisation. You don’t have time to think when you’re improvising, so the music needs to be there, ready to come out.

The more that you immerse your ears and mind in music, the quicker you’ll develop essential connections in your mind to allow you to play by memory, improvise, and play at a much higher level.

What does one do to quickly learn a language? They place themselves around people that speak that language! This is totally true for becoming a better musician. The more music you listen to recordings, go to shows, and play with more advanced musicians, the better you will become. It’s all about immersion.

4. Meditate

Meditation puts you into a state that is incredibly similar to what happens when you improvise. When you do get around to improvising, you want to be able to flip a switch to have a clear mind, without those distracting thoughts. Also, being present allows you to focus on any tension you may have in your body and relax it.

I recommend meditating in the morning after you wake up, or right before you go to bed. If you’re new to it, it may help to put on a guided meditation, or some peaceful music. Don’t get frustrated if you feel like you aren’t progressing. It takes time, and practice, and you can’t force the results. It will happen at the right moment.

5. Exercise

You’re probably saying, “Seriously, this guy thinks exercising is going to help me shred like Yngwie?”

Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that you have to move your body to live, and you also have to move to play an instrument. You can’t have a well conditioned mind without a well conditioned body. It’s just not possible. The mind and the body can’t survive without each other, and when one part of the body is lacking in a certain area, it reflects the entire body, including the mind. To feel able to practice for longer periods, develop your focus, and overall be a happier musician, you need to move your body. It doesn’t have to be much, even 30 minutes a day is better than nothing.

Through moving, you are circulating your blood more, which transports oxygen, nutrients, and information all around your body. This information is necessary to have efficient communication between body parts, which, of course, is crucial to being able to play without effort or tension.

I help individuals become better people through studying music. If you’re interested in working with me on banjo or guitar, click here and sign up for a free 30 minute trial lesson.

Ready to learn from me now? I’ve released my Practice Strategy Checklist for Bluegrass Banjo! If you want to take your banjo playing to the next level, get “unstuck” from looking at tabs, and start sounding like a pro, this checklist is perfect for you.