Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

How to Practice - Recognizing Progress (split from Blackberry Blossom topic)

Adding to @Maggie’s comments, it would be nice to not have to practice for weeks at quarter-time speed - just to get the rolls and memory down…

I just hope there is a path to where we junior players can ramp up the learning pace to a snail’s pace… let alone “mastering” at near speed.

That is an interesting question I pose to the more seasoned players on the forum…

What signs help you realize that the progress will come more rapidly?

For me… I only “feel” that incremental improvement on a NEW song when I can somehow sight read a roll passage (beyond a G-lick, Which doesn’t count)… play it… then be amazed that I plowed through it correctly.

Other than that, new songs remain long, bump rides down the road paved with potholes!

Even at that… l expect you are more advanced than me. :thinking::open_mouth: because relaxing like you describe still isn’t possible for me.

If I don’t sit upright (and even when I do), I struggle to make my fingers land where they should go.

Sometimes, I wanna recline to play for 2 main reasons: 1) relaxed playing is smoother, faster playing and 2) reclining may facilitate Lilongwe practices without tiring… while also allowing the playing to ease into “automatic mode”… where playing becomes second nature…

What’s often forgotten is the hours, months, years of study and practice that has already gone in ahead of the past weekend when @Mark_Rocka decided to work on this tune. Lately I have been revisiting tunes I have been trying to learn for years with little or no progress then out of the blue I find that things now coming together and I am starting to see some major progress. @BanjoBen 's lessons have certainly helped me get better but I think sharing my progress here in the Video Swap area and watching others do the same has motivated me to study more and helped boost my confidence. I encourage you all no matter what level your at to post a video. Don’t put it off till you think you have it perfect I am sure Mark will agree with me when I say we all want our tunes to be perfect but in reality we all make mistakes. Once you take that initial plunge the task becomes easier.

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Let’s see, kick back: check. Elbows propped: check. Feet up: usually check. Banjo resting on belly: check. I think you play in almost exactly the position I do :thinking: guess I should mention, that video was the ± 200th take, cuz by the time I got one right inside, the light was too bad to see it, so I went outside and tried another ten times and got that one :slight_smile:


Well, @WillCoop, it helps to have a half dozen hours a day to practice, I’ve been playing banjo about 1.5 years, and guitar 2.5 years so at six hours practice a day ± I already have more actual playing time than most folks who have been playing more than twice that :joy:

I disagree. It doesn’t matter how unskilled you might think you are, no song is as bad as driving thirteen hours and only travelling three hundred kilometers, and that’s a paved (ish) road in a 4x4 potholes aren’t much problem in the USA (sigh)

I played when I was young for three or four years maybe; and then stopped. I haven’t played for 30+ years. When I went to the store to get a banjo and I put one on my knee, I got nothing. I couldn’t even get started on any song I used to play. So I’m basically starting over.

Some of the old songs came back but in bits and pieces, I had to re-learn them really. I’ve learned several songs here and a couple other resources and recently, I’ve noticed that learning a new song is getting easier. Now, licks and beats and weird timings are becoming more familiar. When I encounter a new one, many times it’s similar to one I already know so that helps. And fret hand positions are getting much easier. It’s sort of an economy of scale thing, once you get enough resources and experience in place, the cost of doing new business, or in our case, learning a new song, goes way down.

When I got here to Banjo Ben, I started with the beginner stuff and also music theory which is something I never did before. One song that really caught my ear when I got here was Ben’s Wayfaring Stranger but it is an advanced piece. But I started it anyway knowing that it was a lofty goal. So so frustrating learning that one. I struggled with even the first part of it and the worst was yet to come. If you haven’t seen or heard it, go check it out. The bluesy solo kicked my but for months. Granted, this was not the only song I was working on, I knew it was gonna take a long time. But as I learned other stuff, I notice that when I came back to Wayfaring Stranger, I was better equipped to tackle those tougher parts. Man, it was a quest I tell ya, it’s just chocked full of smokin licks and I love the bluesy style.

I finally nailed the last part of the of the bluesy solo just a couple weeks ago, that last line being the toughest, but man oh man what a feeling of accomplishment. I can play 100% speed up to that last part which is still at 50% but I’m working on it. Things I learned while learning this song have helped me learn others more easily as well.

I’ve had Angeline The Baker on my list for some time. Such a pretty song, but it’s another Advanced one. I took a shot at it two days ago and nailed the whole first part in about 30 minutes, I was shocked. I took a close look at the rest and it seems easy. I can’t believe it’s in the advanced section. Anyway… I guess my message is: It’ll happen, just keep at it.

I saw a sign as my callouses developed. It meant I could play longer and more aggressively.

I see a sign every time I finally figure out that troublesome timing in a particular measure after listening to it a couple hundred times and trying to repeat it.

It’s another sign when I realize that same measure with the troublesome timing now seems easy peasy.

Backing tracks seem to interfere or distract me and I’m totally lost just a few measures in. So, it’s a sign when I can get through most or all of song with the backing track, even at the slowest speed.

I see a sign that I’m making progress when I can finally make that three or four fret long chord shape that my hand just wouldn’t do a few months or a year ago.

It’s a sign when I realize I’ve picked up the pace on a song, even just a little.

It’s a sign when my left hand doesn’t hurt so much any more.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. Just be open to them; look for them.

I do have a huge problem memorizing the songs though. I still struggle with that. I learn songs from the tab (the .tef files are awesome), so I’m used to looking at the tab while playing… without looking at my either of my hands. The problem now is, when I do feel comfortable enough to look away from the tab and at my fret hand for even just a couple measures, it totally freaks me out. My brain cannot process rapidly moving fingers and strings and frets and reconcile it with the sounds and what I’m trying to play and everything comes to a screaching halt. So, I’m trying to take small sections of songs that I can memorize and force myself to look at my fret hand; I’m trying to retrain my brain a little bit.

And then, I see players on stage and it just urks me to no end when I see a guy just smokin on his solo, not losing a beat, and he leans over to the player next to him and starts talking with him and they both have a good laugh at whatever. What the heck?

Sorry this is so long, not my intention, it just spewed out. Here’s my summary.

If one song is tripping you up, try another song for a while.

I’ve learned that success breeds motivation. Nail that one lick or pick up the pace in a song and let that motivate you to keep going.

If you’re not seeing the signs, you’re not looking hard enough.

Realize that there is ALWAYS progress to be made. You’ll never be done man, there is no end for us in this endeavor. We’re all doomed.


Aw mate, you just spoiled the illusion :frowning:

Actually, that makes me feel a little better, thanks.

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Great Post @Maggie

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Well, I only sit like that because my back starts to hurt after 30 minutes of proper posture. I’ll sit in my recliner and play for 3 or 4 hours sometimes.

If I ever get good enough to be on stage in a bluegrass band, I’ll probably have to bring my recliner with me on stage.

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Aw, cheers mate

WOW! Who could have guessed all of this great info would have come out of me posting a little old video? What a great conversation you guys have had while I was at work!

I’m feeling the love. :slight_smile:

It always helps when you tackle a tricky lick. For advancing, I can’t stress enough how key it is for me to only learn one small part at a time. For most songs, I’ll typically use the TEF file and highlight no more than 2 or 3 measures at a time and loop them until I can play them from memory. Then I’ll add another 2 or 3 and then put those together. Each time I add new measures, I don’t advance to the next until I can play all of the learned measures all the way through from memory. For me, playing from memory is the most important thing, because then I can practice anywhere without the tab if I have to.

Too true. Past experience is extremely helpful, since I already have many of the licks built in to my fingers. It really is all about muscle memory. By the time I feel comfortable recording a video, most of the song is happening automatically. I’m barely even thinking about what my fingers are doing, especially my right hand. The great thing is, the more you learn, the easier the learning becomes.

Ain’t that the truth!? Yeah, please don’t think I just turned on a camera and got that video on the first try. I remember the first contest of Ben’s I entered last year (Red Haired Boy.) I literally spent 7 hours trying to get a good recording.

That’s great advice (actually you’re whole post was great , Maggie!) One other thing I forgot to mention above is to take small breaks while you’re learning. Even if it’s just to check Facebook, I find that a couple of minutes away from the fretboard can help integration. Also, if you can do your learning late at night, it’s amazing what kind of integration can happen while you’re asleep. Several times now I’ve gone to bed only being able to play a song at 80% speed, but the next day, I can get that song up to 100% in a very short time. Integration is such a fascinating part of learning banjo for me.

Thanks to everyone for all of these great replies!


Great response @Mark_Rocka I do hope other students read this. It answers a lot of questions folks have about how to study and practice. I wish someone had been there to guide me in the beginning instead of having to figure much of this on my own through trial and error.


I have heard it suggested that one should practice something difficult right before going to bed. It it is supposed to help mastering tough things. I read it somewhere, so it must be true :smiley: I did find that it seemed to help commit things to memory. Perhaps the brain can process things better while sleeping.


Yeah boy

I learn the whole song first, then try to memorize which obviously isn’t working so I’m going to try your method on the next song. Thanks for that.

I’m also going to start incorporating the backup tracks much earlier in the process since that’s been hanging me up too.

Absolutely. I do these as well. Take the breaks, give your fingers and your brain a rest now and then. I do practice during the day but I play for an hour or two before going to bed also. I’ve just thought of that as a fun way to wind down the day, but what @Mark_Rocka said rings true I think.

It’s interesting because tonight I’m realizing that just writing out my thoughts earlier today on @WillCoop 's original question about signs you’re making progress has opened my own eyes about the things I need to change. “Pretty cool, huh?” as @BanjoBen says somewhat frequently.

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This was just an awesome threat of responses from all.

That is the funny thing from me… that I had a somewhat musical background… played trumpet for 10 years or so in school. I self-taught piano and electric guitar (very mild successes - not accomplished by any stretch of imagination) and studied Music Theory for 3 years in High School. I have transcribed songs on piano by ear and made notation. I composed a song for my High School Senior Class play… so the music and memory parts come somewhat naturally.

For me… it is the skill and techniques. I do practice but admit to time off - mostly due to family time rather than any lack of interest or drive because I feel a need to play.

It just takes time… but know this… I am neither frustrated nor defeated about it. I play and I enjoy. Someday… perhaps to play with others… but for sure… my pace feels slow… although steady, at least.

I feel that progress has come a bit quicker on the Mando… which is either because of my Banjo skills complimenting… or because Mando playing with a pick is more “adaptable” to my prior guitar experiences - or a bit of both.

One thing for sure… it is a thrill ride and finding this site and people like YOU (you know who you are) make me feel a bonding kinship with all of you.

This is just GOOD STUFF, isn’t it? :sunglasses:

Thanks… for being out there…


Oh… one more point… with my 50+ years… I have slight regret for not having started sooner…

Still, those who are late to join the party at least are there to attend, right?

It sorta reminds me of the days in my youth… at a dance and waiting all night to finally find the courage to ask THAT girl who caught my eye all evening - to dance… only to lament it was the last dance of the evening.

Only one dance… but oh how that feeling lasts…

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Little miss @Maggie, if you can play Ben’s wayfaring stranger and Angeline the baker then your more advanced than you think. If you can start memorizing and playing with the back tracks you’ll be two hands ahead :joy: :wink: (I guess that’s not an actual phrase :thinking:)


Awesome job Mark! The melodic stuff is more difficult for me but that’s probably because I don’t tackle as much of it. Thanks for sharing that.
I also enjoyed everyone’s discussion on progress, and I will echo @Archie statement about coming back to a song. I started FMB over a year ago, and I failed miserably. I came back to it this year and I now have it under my belt (and memorized) very clean at about 85% speed. I was pretty proud of that. Somehow it was just easier after I learned some of the licks in other songs. FYI, I download it before Ben took it down a few years ago.

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Man this discussion is just great! I’m wondering if we shouldn’t split off the discussion about practice and progress into its own thread so it’ll be easier for people to find in the future. @Archie and @BanjoBen, what do you guys think?

Fine by me @Mark_Rocka anything that helps others avoid all the bad advice I received on the BHO which delayed my progress for many, many years.