Getting Good Feedback

As you progress in playing the banjo, your skill level will increase. Simple enough. But realize that that increase in skill level doesn’t come just as a result of your having practiced for a long time. You also need feedback; something that will tell you when you are going wrong. And it should tell you early in the process so you don’t have to relearn any more than is necessary.

Feedback, as Dictionary.com (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/feedback?s=t) defines it, is “knowledge of the results of any behavior, considered as influencing or modifying further performance”. Good feedback is anything that helps you improve your playing by successfully delivering on this definition.

Feedback can be categorized as Auditory, Tactile, or Visual. No, smell doesn’t count.

Auditory:  This includes Pitch, Timbre, Volume, Intonation, or Rhythm as sources of feedback.

Types here are recordings of your playing, listening to yourself live (the least effective, BTW), or a metronome. Any one of these could be areas for improvement, but some can be very tricky to even find a clue that you are off.

I had a problem with this when I first started playing the banjo. I didn’t realize that my timing was too variable. (Yes, you can vary your timing, just a little (playing ahead or playing behind it’s called), but that is purposeful, and very little is needed for the effect; I’m talking about the much more common pitfall of simply having bad timing.) I didn’t realize I had it until I heard myself on a recording, then I knew what to do (get a metronome and use it on a regular basis). It was just a matter of knowing what the problem was in the first place.

Tactile: Fretting fingers, picking fingers and hand, and to a lesser extent, you arms and shoulders. The most overlooked source of information, especially in the tips of the fretting fingers. Train yourself to listen to what your fingers are telling you. Pay attention to the following.

What your fretting hand is telling you:
1) I’m exerting pressure on the fretboard with my fingers
2) There is a wire between my finger & the fretboard
3) I’m also touching something like a wire on the side
4) I’m stretching that wire underneath (up or down)
5) I’m touching a fret (purposefully beneath or accidentally on the side)

Traing yourself to be aware of each of these fretting hand signals above.

6) Your calluses. Don’t have any? Then you probably aren’t getting enough practice! BTW, too much water on your hands causes calluses to not form as easily and to go away quicker.

What your picking hand is saying:
1) picks too loose or they fall off easily. Get a pair of needle-nose pliers and spend 10 minutes adjusting them. Get all the ‘air pockets’ out; the space between your fingers and the picks, so that there is almost total contact with your fingers. Make sure they are tight enough as well.
2) Picking is too forceful – lighten up and find how smooth and gracefully you can play
3) Picking is too soft – play with confidence! It will sound so much better.
4) Aching hands and fingers. A certain amount of this is inevitable in learning something new, but soon (just like with riding a bike, or lifting weights, etc.), this should go away. If it is still a problem, make sure you aren’t holding your hand in an unnatural position. Here’s where an instructor can really help out.

Your arms and shoulders: Same thing here in terms of unforseen stresses and strains. Make sure everything is in a natural position and comfortable.

Also, you should know that good quality modern bluegrass banjos are, literally, THE heaviest stringed instruments that you actually pick up (yes, an upright bass is heavier; thankfully it sits on the floor!). If you aren’t used to holding one while standing for long periods of time, then your back and shoulders are probably going to get strained. Gradually get used to it by standing more and more as you practice.

Visual: A lot of this category overlaps with others (auditory and tactile). I think we have covered them well enough above. These include:
1) Metronome
2) Positions of hands and fingers
3) Stance and posture, etc.

In addition, different kinds of feedback may be from yourself (that is, your own eyes, ears and fingers), or from others (an Instructor or other person).

Just remember these points in closing:
1) Anything you can detect or know can be considered feedback
2) Almost all feedback can be helpful
3) Any gained feedback requires a response in order to be put to effective use
4) That response must be positive

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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