My lesson with Tim Allan

This past Wednesday I had an on-line lesson with Tim Allan, a fantastic player who has been around for a long time — he was inducted into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame back in 2002. I knew of him through some of his books and recordings (I have his 40 Easy Reading Song Arrangements and Tim Allan’s Notes) and later via his YouTube videos.

He is a really nice guy, and the lesson was quite relaxed, but nonetheless he got a lot of information across. Over the years I’ve taken and given literally thousands of music lessons, and I consider myself something of an expert. One thing I liked about Tim was that he was quite sensitive to what I personally needed. (Not that it was particularly difficult for him — I came prepared with a long list of questions.) This is typical of good teachers — they observe their students and tailor the lesson to the student, instead of delivering a canned sermon….

I won’t go into everything he told me — that would be telling — but after the class I wrote up my notes about what I’d heard, and they took up two pages in rather small type! Since this was my first banjo lesson with anyone, a lot of my questions were to see if the things I was already doing were correct. Among other things, my questions were about:

  • left hand position
  • pick holding
  • position of other right-hand fingers
  • where the banjo should rest when playing seated
  • Dixieland chordal accompaniment style
  • fingering — guitar-style or mandolin-style?
  • how to connect chords
  • how to speed up my chord changes
  • whether I should use a strap

In general, I was not surprised by his answers — after all, I have spent years gathering data from method books, the Internet, videos, etc., so I was hardly unprepared. But it was good to get confirmation of some the things I wasn’t entirely sure about.

One thing I have learned over the years (on the trumpet) is that, when you have a lesson or master class with a top player, it is often best just to relax and observe him/her, rather than focusing solely on getting specific information. Subleties about posture, timing, use of tension, musical interpretation, etc. are best communicated on an almost wordless level. In fact, the observant student can sometimes learn things the the teacher doesn’t even realize he/she is teaching.

A lot of this stuff can be observed in concerts, which are, after all, public displays of what the player can do, but the communication in a private lesson is more two-way and much more relaxed. And you get the chance to ask your teacher to repeat things you didn’t catch the first time!

Although my present ambition is mainly to become an acceptable jazz-band rhythm player, what the tenor banjo is really all about is chord melody. That is, instead of just strumming accompaniment chords while someone else plays or sings the melody, the banjoist chooses the chords so that the most prominent notes (usually the highest ones) ARE the melody. This considerably increases the difficulty of playing, but it is something that I want to learn.

One of the things Tim said was that, where possible, the banjoist should choose chord fingerings which leave the left pinkie finger free to play melody tones. This means changing some of the standard fingerings found in method books. For example,

Eb (1 - traditional)   becomes   Eb (2 - pinkie free)                    and                    G7 (1 - traditional)   becomes   G7 (2 - pinkie free).

This allows the pinkie to play some extra non-chordal melody notes (the red dots). I understood this in principle, having read about it in one of Tim’s books, but I confess I was a little afraid to bend the first joint of the finger backwards, as these fingerings require. I guess I felt it would break or something. After seeing it demonstrated and subsequently trying it out for myself, I am convinced.

To cut a long story short: the lesson was a good experience, and I hope to repeat it sometime soon. Tim will be doing a European tour next month, but unfortunately he will not be anywhere near Seville. I’d love to see him live!

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