Hey, I’m still playing!

Hi everybody. Although I’ve been absent from this blog for approximately a zillion weeks, I have not been inactive on the banjo. At least not CONTINUALLY inactive. I find myself practicing and investigating and being fascinated … and then the problems of normal adult life intrude and I have to lay the banjo aside for a few weeks. I’ve had family members get sick. I’ve gotten sick myself. I’ve injured my fingers. I’ve gotten my work hours extended to take away my afternoon practice time. I’ve had to travel. And so on.

Nonetheless, the banjo is still a part of my life. On my practice spreadsheet — did I mention that I track my practice in a spreadsheet? — I have columns for the various things I am working on:

DATE Technique Method books Combo tunes Solo tunes My blog Misc. Mandolin

This makes it easy to see what I’ve been doing over time. And looking back, I can see that since my last blog posting things have gone like this:

  • JULY 2014 — I made a “Chord Diagrams” sheet for my own personal use, using a great chord-diagramming program called Neck Diagrams. Here’s a link to my beautiful chord-diagram sheet (in its last-ever version).
  • AUGUST 2014 — Realized that, however beautiful my chord diagrams were, my chord sheet was getting too hard to update. Switched to a text-only format (just the fret numbers), which worked well. I’ve kept updating it as I discover new chords. Click to see the latest version of my text-only chord sheet. Then went to the U.S. to visit my family and didn’t take my banjo with me.
  • SEPTEMBER 2014 — Had a stupid accident pulling up my socks (seriously!) and bent my left middle finger REALLY badly. I even ended up going the emergency room. Couldn’t play for over a month (and, in fact, the finger is still somewhat swollen now, six months after I hurt it).
  • OCTOBER 2014 — Started to play again, cautiously. Made a really good practice sheet for major scales, using Neck Diagrams. It’s different from the scale sheet I posted back in July, which was in standard staff notation. This one is simply a bunch of neck diagrams.
  • NOVEMBER 2014 — Decided on a list of seven Dixieland combo tunes to prepare (St. Louis Blues, St. James Infirmary, Tiger Rag, Just a Closer Walk, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Tenderly, When the Saints). Was hoping to start my little Dixieland band soon. Practiced about half the days of this month. Decided I wanted a mandolin (when I saw how cheap they could be), the idea being I could take it with me in my suitcase whenever I travel and thus have something to practice.
  • DECEMBER 2014 — Work intruded a lot, and also Christmas (which lasts a long time in Spain, all the way through Epiphany on January 6th). Asked my family for a mandolin for Christmas.
  • JANUARY 2015 — Received my mandolin on Epiphany (which is when most Spaniards give and get their Christmas presents) and started practicing it a little. Cut my left middle finger chopping up vegetables or something and couldn’t practice for a week. Went to my Dad’s funeral at the end of the month. (He had died back in June, but he was to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, for which there is a long waiting list.) Also visited my mother in Richmond, Virginia. Brought my mandolin along but didn’t practice it a single time.
  • FEBRUARY 2015 — Returned to Spain to a big backlog of classes (I teach music and English) and had no time to practice until the last week of the month.
  • MARCH 2015 — Was given a very time-consuming instensive English exam-prep class to teach in the afternoons (which I would prefer to dedicate to the banjo) and could scarcely practice at all. Decided to start another blog, Back 2 Seventeen, in which I decide to live my life as if I were 17 years old again. (I am really 58.) Finished the intensive class right at the end of the month.
  • APRIL 2015 — Started playing again on April 11th. Decided to ask Tim Allan, one of my favorite banjoists, for a lesson. If you don’t know about Tim, look at his YouTube channel. He is fabulous.

And today, I had that lesson! It’s getting kind of late, so I’ll describe it in a later post, maybe tomorrow or the day after. For now I’ll just mention that Tim is a really nice guy and a really fine teacher. I wrote up my notes after the 90-minute lesson; they covered two full pages in 11-point Calibri type….

I’ll stop for now, but rest assured that I am still at it, and still trying to apply what I know about the trumpet to what I am learning on the banjo….

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 Amazon.com, 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)….

Still on it!

Well, despite my lack of posts, I’m still working hard at the banjo — when I have time. 😦

I did have a spell of almost two weeks when I played practically nothing at all, first due to a very busy work life, then due to an impressively powerful flu virus which left me weak as a newborn kitten for several days, and then due to a very busy work life again as I gradually caught up with the work I had missed. Luckily life has calmed down a bit since then, though I rarely have the two hours a day I’d like to dedicate to the banjo.

I am finding the banjo more and more fascinating! As I lie in bed at night waiting to fall asleep, I often work out chord progressions in my head and try to form them with my left hand. I also try to figure out and concentrate on each note of each chord I am “playing”. (I used to be just as fanatical with the trumpet — in fact I still find myself automatically doing the appropriate trumpet fingerings whenever I hear a melody that interests me.)

One thing that I still find a little unnatural is imagining the angle of the fingerboard. I’ll explain. For example, if I play a low F on the fourth string, that means extending my left pinkie finger a centimeter or so towards my left shoulder. I can do this easily without getting confused if I have a banjo in my hands. I can also do it without a banjo as long as I hold my left hand up as if I were had the neck of the banjo in it (with the palm facing my left shoulder).

But if I turn my hand over (without the banjo), palm down, and try to imagine myself playing a low F, I get all confused about which direction I should extend the pinkie.

I find this a little strange. You’d think the angle of my hand wouldn’t matter much, since the muscles I use the extend the finger are the same. Perhaps my “cue” for the direction in which to extend the finger is the banjo itself, not the physical sensation of moving the finger. Anyway, when I “practice” without the banjo in hand, I have to do it with my left palm facing more or less upwards.

Feeling the strings

I’ve been practicing some chords, using what one of my method books calls a “Klopf-Übung” (the book is in German). This is where you hold all the notes of a chord and then lift up one finger and hammer it back down, a few times for each finger. I suspect this is a very basic exercise on the fretted string instruments, but I don’t know what it’s called. (“Hammer exercise”, maybe?)

Anyway, I’ve noticed something interesting, especially with the more complicated chords, like this B-flat chord at the nut:

2014-01-15 B-flat major chord


At first I just banged my fingers down on the fingerboard and was happy if I happened to make a chord that didn’t buzz when I strummed it. Then I realized that I was aiming at places on the fingerboard when maybe I should be aiming at places on the strings. That was an improvement.

And now, over the past couple of days, I have started to FEEL each individual string as I press it down. I don’t mean I just feel the string; I feel the whole “journey” it makes to the fingerboard and the springiness it retains even when held down firmly. Suddenly what was formerly an on-or-off thing — string pressed down or not — has become an experience, a process. I can feel the string resist my finger and then give way reluctantly, as if I were pressing my finger into a dense sponge. It is a totally different feeling from just banging my fingers into a hardwood board that happens to have a string in the way.

I am now realizing that squeezing a string onto a fingerboard is a very sensual thing. It is the sort of feeling I knew well on the trumpet. On that instrument, if you don’t HEAR and FEEL the note you are about to play, it will likely be out of tune or even a wrong harmonic — say, a high B-flat instead of a high C. But when that “pre-feeling” is right, you feel like a god! You KNOW the note is going to come out exactly as you want it. (It’s a little bit like when you shoot a basketball, and the instant BEFORE you release the ball you already know whether it is going in the hoop or not.)

P.S. Watching top-notch banjo and guitar players, I have noticed that their left hands rarely seem to be in a hurry, even when the music is moving very fast.

Possible solution for pick-grip discomfort

I would really LIKE to use the “standard” pick grip. It looks like a relaxed and ergonomic position which still offers a firm grasp on the pick. But, as I said in an earlier posting (click here to see it), my forefinger hurts at the point where it is squeezed by the pick.

2014-01-14a How the pick squeezes the nailbed      2014-01-14b How the pick squeezes the nailbed (without pick)

I have been thinking…. Maybe the problem is merely because the CORNER of the fingernail digs into the flesh of the forefinger, where the arrow points in the picture below:

2014-01-14c Where it hurts

So I am going to let the fingernail grow out a bit, past the point at which the flesh can be dug into. If that works, great! And if not, no problem, I’ll find an alternative.


Crisis of confidence #2 (the “extra” pick-hand fingers)

I was cutting up some food for the dog yesterday (not Brown, the fat dog in the previous pictures, but our other dog Tolo, who is scandalously skinny because of a liver problem and needs to be tempted to eat). Here is Tolo a few days ago on Epiphany morning:

Tolo on Epiphany morning

Anyway … I cut right into my left thumb. It was not a deep cut, rather more like taking a slice off my fingerprint. (No, I’m not going to post a picture. Yuck.)

Luckily, it didn’t get completely sliced off, and I was able to patch it back in place, where it should heal nicely. (Reminds me of a book about the FBI that I read when I was a kid, in which one crook changed his fingerprints.) Even more luckily, it is not directly where the thumb touches the neck of the banjo for most chords. But it is close enough, so I am taking a couple of days off to let it knit.

Yesterday I limited myself to some right-hand picking practice. It was a good opportunity to try out some of the great advice I’d received regarding how to hold the pick. (I described my doubts both here on this blog two days ago, and also posted on banjohangout.org, whose members are very helpful — click here see the banjohangout thread.) I also looked at a few tenor banjo sites around the Web. (Really enjoyed banjoseen.us.)

Today I did more picking practice and dared to work on some chords, holding them down and then moving one, two or three fingers off and onto the string. I’m sure there’s a name for this sort of exercise, but I don’t know it….

Anyway, it’s a good time to blog! Here’s my next “crisis of confidence” — another doubt about my right-hand technique:

Obviously I am going to use the thumb and forefinger to hold the pick. So … what do I do with the OTHER THREE FINGERS?

I have bought and watched (many times) the Buddy Wachter video from HomespunTapes.com, and I love it! He distinguishes between two types of playing:

  • FINGERS UP (Eddie Peabody) style, with the four fingers curled under. It is intended for strumming, chord-melody playing, etc. I think I understand this style, at least in theory. No problem here.
  • FINGERS DOWN (precise-playing) style, with the last three fingers in contact with the head. It is intended for single melody lines, single-string tremulos, etc. I tried it, and found it marvelously helpful. (Until I saw the video, nobody had told me that it was okay to touch the head!) But … I have one question about this style:

So, I have three fingers in contact with the head. When I switch strings, say from the first to the fourth, should those three fingers (a) flex back and forth (curling more or less), or (b) just move with my hand, maintaining the same arc? Here’s what I mean:

(a)  If those three fingers extend or curl up, according to the string I’m playing on, the fingertips maintain the same distance from the first string, but change their distance from the pick:

2015-01-12a first string - fingers curled      2015-01-12b fourth string- fingers extended

(b)  If the fingers maintain the same arc, the fingertips change their distance from the first string, but maintain the same distance from the pick:

2015-01-12c first string - fingers extended      2015-01-12d fourth string - fingers extended

Neither of them feels entirely natural to me. Which is better? (Or, perhaps, what other options do I have?) If you have an opinion about this, I’d love to hear it!

Crisis of confidence #1 (how to hold the pick)

As an experienced musician (on the trumpet), I know that it is important to establish good habits from the start. So I am a little worried about my right hand technique. At present, I have two doubts:

  1. How should I hold the pick?
  2. What should I do with the other three fingers of my right hand?

This post is about #1.

Holding the pick. It seems that the “standard” way is between the flesh of the thumb and the side of the forefinger, like this:

2014-01-11a standard pick grip - viewed from above      2014-01-11b standard pick grip - viewed from below

The problem is, this position really hurts my forefinger where the skin is squeezed into the nail by the pressure of the pick. See below — the arrow shows where I mean:

2014-01-11c standard pick grip w arrow showing pain point - viewed from below

So I have tried moving the pick further along the forefinger, where it is supported by the knuckle:

2014-01-11d standard grip moved to knuckle of forefinger - viewed from above      2014-01-11e standard grip moved to knuckle of forefinger - viewed from below

But I don’t know whether there are disadvantages of this method which will come back to haunt me in the future. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I’m also putting this post on the tenor banjo forum at BanjoHangout.org (click here to see it), which seems a great place to get advice.

See the following post for my next crisis of confidence. 🙂

My audience, and a sound clip

Today I am giving my poor left fingertips a rest. The previous times I tried to learn the banjo, I generally played too much the first few days and actually did myself some damage. This time I’m going to start slower and give myself time to develop callouses! I’ll just do a little right-hand practice on the open strings today.

In the meantime, here are a three photos of my number-one audience. Notice how he relaxes little by little:

Brown sits down

Brown relaxes

Brown is comfortable

In case you’re wondering, his name is Brown, and he’s a podenco andaluz, which translates to something like Andalusian hunting dog. My wife and I found him abandoned in the country and adopted him. He is terrified of firecrackers and other sudden loud bangs, which may be why his previous owner (presumably a hunter) dumped him. Brown can stand my banjo playing for at least a few minutes before he has to leave. (He never much liked my trumpet playing.) With such sensitive ears I think he has potential as a musician, or at least a critic.

If you want to know my level of banjo playing, feel free to listen to my attempt at creating some chord melody, recorded three days ago. I know you’ll be kind — you know I’m a beginner, right? 🙂 The piece is “Jacob’s Ladder”, from Mel Bay’s Music Pocketbook for tenor banjo, where it is printed in lead-sheet style, with just the melody line and chord symbols:

[audio http://www.dmcclure.org/SHARED-FILES/trumpettobanjo/2014-01-02_Jacobs_Ladder.mp3]

Sorry about the sound quality. I recorded it on my MP3 player. When Deutsche Grammophon offers me a contract they’ll probably want to use their own recording equipment. 🙂

First post: Trying out the banjo

Here’s my blog! Wow…. Of course, I meant to start it on January 1st, but … well, you know … lots of distractions. Today I have to go shopping for some Epiphany gifts, so I’ll write what I have time for in today’s maiden entry. (Epiphany gifts? Yes — I live in Spain, and my family, like most Spanish families, reserve most of their Christmas giving for Epiphany, January 6th.)

Anyway, on to the banjo! I used to play the trumpet professionally, but had to retire a few years ago because of focal dystonia (let’s just say, it was a chops problem, or, if you’re really interested, you can look it up). This blog is NOT about focal dystonia. 🙂

I missed music, so I bought myself a banjo. Over the past couple of years I have made several enthusiastic but aborted attempts to learn to play it. (Always found myself too busy with my jobs — teaching English and music — or other responsibilities.) This time I’ll do it! My goals are:

  • to learn to play simple chord melody at sight.
  • to get a Dixieland group started up and running.

There are a whole bunch of types of banjo. Given my goals, after a little research, I decided on what’s called a TENOR banjo. This is not the five-string banjo you see so frequently nowadays. I like the five-string’s sound and its flashiness, but it is not the most appropriate banjo for jazz. The tenor banjo has four strings, tuned in fifths, C-G-D-A, exactly like the viola (or an octave above the cello). It is not nearly so popular as it once was, but it is still the banjo of choice for Dixieland music, a.k.a. traditional jazz.

I am not an absolute beginner on the banjo, due to my various attempts to learn it in the past two or three years, and the fact that I played the trumpet professionally for some 28 years means that I know all about the technical aspects of music (reading the various clefs, chords and scales, transposition, etc.). So I hope this blog will end up documenting some pretty fast progress. At the moment my left-hand fingertips are aching, as I have not yet built up the requisite callouses. I have practiced on Dec. 30th, Jan. 2nd, Jan. 3rd and today (Jan. 4th), with increasing amounts of time. Today I gave it about two hours (!).

Yesterday and today, my major focus was memorizing the “standard” major chords, all as close to the nut as possible. These are the chords that come in the beginning books, and although I know that what I want to really master are the “moveable” chords, I also want to learn these. I went through the circle of fifths ten or twenty times each day, and I think I have these basic 12 chords memorized.

For a trumpet player, it’s weird to have to memorize a bunch of apparently random finger positions to make music. Or maybe it’s not so weird. After all, the fingerings you have to learn to play the trumpet are pretty much random until you are pretty advanced and start to analyze them more deeply. I suspect the same thing will come about for me on the banjo.

Anyway, enough for today. Christmas/Epiphany shopping calls. I’ll end with a picture of my banjo. And with my best wishes for a marvelous 2014!

Doug's tenor banjo