Special Banjo Questions Column -
Getting Better at Banjo / Fun with the Left Hand
I'm getting better at banjo but the left hand is tough for me right now. I remember you emphasizing it in your workshop. It seems so much easier and 'fun' to work right hand picking techniques.
Ross Nickerson response
I would exercise your fretting fingers a lot, it will help you more than you might realize. The truth may well be that it's not more difficult than developing the picking hand, however, the difficulty could lie in exactly what you said in your question, 'fun' to work right hand picking techniques. Fretting an acoustic guitar is much harder to fret than a banjo, there are six string and the strings are thicker and harder to push down, yet, there are many people who can play the guitar. What they don't have is the fun of picking to distract them from practicing chording and other left hand techniques. A lot of the necessary exercise to becoming proficient at making more difficult chord positions and developing left hand dexterity is somewhat mindless and purely physical. Because of this, practicing to build up coordination and ability in your fretting hand or in either hand for that matter can be done when you're tired after a long day or even while watching TV. Trying to memorize a song or developing tone may not be good to practice when you are less alert or focused, but simply getting your fingers to work better for you when you are more alert, can be! Good ability in the left hand makes it easier to "learn on the spot" when you take lessons, go to workshops, play with others, or even when learning from a book. When you exercise and develop coordination, you put yourself in a position to implement what you understand, mentally. To put it simply, understanding what to play or what you are taught without the physical ability to respond to that knowledge and execute is the challenge, and one that you should make your goal to overcome. Exercising and developing muscle memory even when you are less focused or alert may be a key ingredient to your progress. It could solve two problems, you improve, and you can still practice in less than optimal circumstances.
I hope that helps.... and relieves some pressure too, you don't have to be perfect when you practice. Spend some time just getting those fingers to work for you. You'll be happy when something just clicks and your fingers are there waiting to respond!
Thanks, Ross Nickerson
The Banjo Encyclopedia, Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z by Ross Nickerson
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