Back at it!

My apologies for being silent for so long (though I suspect my absence from the blogosphere hasn’t depressed anyone but me). I haven’t blogged anything since before Holy Week (or Semana Santa, which is a real big deal here in Seville). Not to make excuses, but it’s been a rather rough few months for me and my family. This seems to be the norm whenever I try to do a long-term project like learning a musical instrument. *Sigh*….

Anyway, here I am again, bright-eyed and ready to redevelop my finger callouses. I haven’t been completely idle on the banjo during this time — far from it — but my work has been in fits and bursts, with no extra time or energy to blog about it. So over the next few posts I’ll report on what I’ve been doing. First, my work on FINGERING:

My former instrument, the trumpet, has had many more players and a much longer history than the banjo. Perhaps because of that, the “standard” way of playing is pretty well established. Although there is some debate about the fine points, there is general agreement about how the instrument should be held, how one’s breathing apparatus should be employed, what the embouchure should look like, which fingerings should be used, etc.

On the banjo, however, even something as basic as whether to use guitar- or mandolin-style fingering for single-note melodies is still up for debate. I suppose this is stimulating in some ways, but I don’t want to participate in such debates; I just want somebody to tell me what the “standard” way is so I can start learning my scales. 🙂

Looking at the classical world, I see that there is indeed an instrument very much like the banjo, with a long history and well-established technique. I am referring to the VIOLONCELLO, which has been taught in conservatories for a long time and which has similar — though hardly identical — fingering problems. It resolved the guitar/mandolin debate long ago. Near the nut it uses guitar-style fingering (i.e. one semitone per finger), while in the upper register, near the bridge, it uses violin style (one diatonic note per finger). I decided to buy a couple of cello instruction books to see if that instrument would work as a model for the banjo.

After much deliberation, I decided on two books: The Art of Cello Playing by Louis Potter, Jr., and Three-Octave Scales for the Cello — Book One: The Basics by Cassia Harvey. Clicking on the cover pictures will transport you to, where you can see some of their content:

Product Details      Product Details

I found them fascinating, and they proved very rewarding from a fingering point of view. The Art of Cello Playing, in particular, has lots of practical explanations which I continue to find very useful. It also contains hundreds of exercises, which I am still going through.(You have to read bass clef and transpose two octaves, but that is easy to get used to.)

Three-Octave Scales was also very helpful, giving specific and complete fingerings for scales over the whole range of the cello. On the cello you can do three-octave scales in any key. The tenor banjo has a more limited range. With a 19-fret instrument you can do three-octave scales in the five lowest keys (C, D-flat, D, E-flat and E), while in the other seven keys you have to be content with two-octave scales.

I spent a lot of time studying these two books, as the blocks of free time I had available were more suitable for theoretical study than actual playing. Little by little I developed my own “definitive” practice sheet for major scales on the tenor banjo. Little by little I made a clean copy in Finale. And little by little I am learning it. Please feel free to download and examine my masterpiece. 🙂 I’d be very interested in your comments:

 Doug’s “Major Scales for Tenor Banjo”

As a trumpet player, I found scales to be so fundamental that I dedicated at least 20% of my practice time to them, even as an advanced professional player. I’ve realized that I will not feel comfortable on the banjo until I am comfortable playing scales. Yes, my main aspirations — playing rhythm in a Dixieland band and playing a little chord melody — involve chords more than melody, but I’m still a one-note-at-a-time guy at heart.

More to come soon (if my life allows it)….