Playing your banjo along with a You Tube video, DVD, CD or MP3 recording is not only loads of fun but a much more productive way of practicing banjo with few exceptions. One of the key elements in becoming a good banjo player is repetitions. The muscle memory you develop in repetitions helps you developing banjo tone, skill, speed, timing and the ability to improvise when you lose your place.
My goal with my writing today is to point out all the benefits of "playing along" as a way to practice. However there is one disclaimer before I run off with my enthusiasm and encouragement.
Important Exception - Repetitions using poor technique and or incorrect banjo timing only reinforce the wrong things. Providing you are solid in three finger Scruggs Style techniques and are playing measures and phrases that are rhythmically sensible, complete and correct, reps are what it is all about.
Ok, now that I have made that clear, let’s have fun.
For new banjo students keeping up or even playing steady is not always an easy task. Students playing at home can easily fall into a rut of playing incomplete phrases, parts of songs, changing the timing to suit their skills and all kinds of other things that reinforce unproductive habits. This is often because there is no band to play with, something to force you to stay within the arrangement of the song, or to play along steady and in time or even someone to look at you cross when you break off from the team on your own.
The trouble is bluegrass music is hard to fall in to. The normal tempos bluegrass music is performed at is like being taught to ride a carousel only to find out the carousel is going so fast if you try to get on it you will get thrown back like a rag doll. This could easily cause a student to putz around practicing while watching the carousel turn too fast for them and never feel like they could get on without falling off. The trouble is it's not until you fall into the groove of the music or "on the Carousel" that good things start to happen. If you need another reason why kids learn faster, it's because they just fall off the carousel and try again, they are afraid of nothing, what’s another scrape on the knee to a kid. However an adult is taught to be cautious or we get in a car accident or other real things we learn to be cautious about.
Wouldn't it be nice to have the carousel slowed down so you could get your skill and courage up to build to a higher or more complicated speed. That's the beauty of today's technology, having the ability to slow down audio or video so you can get on the horse and play along and no one’s gets hurt.
I highly recommend any banjo practice tool that gives you an opportunity to play along, learn to play banjo by ear and get those needed reps to develop better banjo tone, skill, coordination and the muscle memory you will need to take on harder songs and keep progressing.
One of the best ways is through software on your computer that slows down audio like CDs and MP3s or Video software that can even slow down live YouTube videos or DVDs.
I recommend either of these programs, they are excellent. You can even download a free trial version to test it out.
I was talking enthusiastically about recording bluegrass backup band tapes to play along with back in 1984 when we still played records and were getting used to cassette tapes. It took me awhile to organize it but almost every banjo instruction product I have come out with since my first book in 1990 has had play along tracks in some form to practice with.
Personally I would not enjoy practicing without at least some of my practice time using something to play along with. When I do practice by myself without playing along I focus on technique and developing muscle memory and skills. Then I play along to be challenged to keep up and to try out any new skills or techniques and get them to stick. Now that I have more experience I just put on XM radio, Pandora or Spotify and play along on the fly. This is the kind of thing that prepares you for jamming. The band I play in now once a week on Sunday evenings I have never rehearsed with. The core of the band plays 3 to 5 nights a week and they don't have time for it. I started by sitting in and later became a regular with no rehearsals. That is not only because of my experience playing with others but also likely skills I developed by challenging myself playing along with random songs virtually.
There are different levels of experience, but the concepts are all the same. Remember experience is measured in hours and reps, not years. Me going out and playing once a week for 3 hours does a lot to keep my chops up. That's a lot of reps. A student could easily have 6 hours of practice time during the week and not get in close to 3 hours of steady reps in practice.
One of the best ways to start playing along is with software that can slow it down for you.
It can also keep looping the same thing over and over. It can change the key of the song so you do not have to use a capo, or change it so you can practice using a capo. If you are more advanced you could change the key of say a standard, like I'll Fly Away in G, switch the key to C and try to play it, then D, then F and so on. There are so many uses for this, learning to improvise, not stopping for mistakes, "learning to to fill the space" when you loose your place and learning to play songs based on the chord progression instead of tab and playing steady and consistent are big ones.
I am excited about this new software either Song Surgeon for Audio and Video Version, Video Surgeon. Song Surgeon is for playing banjo with CDs and MP3's. Video Surgeon is used for dissecting and playing along with You Tube Videos, Streaming videos and DVDs.
Because I am old school just the audio version get's me excited. I learned in the days when we didn’t even have that. But actually now a days the video may be the more useful one. Especially slowing down videos on YouTube. Regardless either or both could be extremely useful.
Most of all I encourage you to expand your practice and experience by pursuing the feeling of playing with others even if you begin doing it virtually by taking advantage of today's technology. Not only will you achieve your goals faster but you would make me happy if something I encouraged you to do helped you improve and have more fun.
Thanks again, Ross Nickerson
Free Trial Version of Video Surgeon
Free Trial Version of Song Surgeon