Benjamin Smith, James Peterson and Richard Osban
It’s an unfortunate truth that the best musicians are usually the ones who are willing to spend some of their time consistently focusing on the things they’re not good at. Duh. But too many of us who are basically proficient at our instrument get stuck on plateaus by sticking to what we’re already good at. How to keep climbing that endless mountain? Here’s a few of the tools that have helped us over the years.
1. Listen obsessively
It’s easy to think that getting better at one’s instrument is about making our hands work better. But more often it’s not our hands that are at fault; it’s our ears. Intonation, groove, subtle ornamentation and other aspects of playing have to sit firmly in our ears before we can ever hope to execute them on our instrument. This is where close listening comes in.
Consider diving deep into a particular region or player. It helps to get obsessive with one or a small number of source musicians rather than spreading yourself too thin right at the beginning.
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We can easily get overloaded with source recordings nowadays. Pick a favorite or just a few. Listen like crazy until you’ve internalized the grammar of that particular style. Oldtime is a language with many dialects. Learn to speak one before moving on to another.
If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it!
2. Stop learning more tunes
For many, oldtime music can turn into a numbers game. How many tunes do you know? 50? 100? 500? Somehow it’s easy to think that being a great player means knowing a huge number of tunes. Okay, Midwest fiddlers do seem to know an endless number of tunes, but many great players knew and know far fewer than you might think. And still we try to learn more and more new tunes.
We get it. We hear new tunes all the time and have the irresistible urge to stop whatever else we’re doing and learn one. There’s something really fun and exciting about learning new tunes. But there’s good reason to exercise some restraint.
Ask yourself this. Would you rather be able to play 200 tunes poorly or 25 really, really well? For most players, fellow musicians, and listeners the answer is pretty obvious.
3. Go back to old tunes you thought you knew
So, once you’ve stopped the half-assed learning of a thousand tunes, what next? Go back to ones you already have in your bag and see if you can really nail them. This is difficult because the novelty of learning new tunes is so sweet. But working on tunes you already know can also be deeply fulfilling.
Find new nuances, work on the intonation and groove, come up with subtle variations. Listen to multiple source versions, record someone’s version you really like and look for spots you don’t quite have where you want them. You can play a minimalist version of this game by taking a tune you already play and looking for just one thing you’d like to do differently or better. Maybe there’s a double stop you’re not nailing, maybe the rhythm is tricky in one spot, maybe there’s a bowing you’re always muddling through. Find that one thing, isolate it, and try to get it better than before. It’s amazing what you can do in ten minutes, if the focus is clear.
4. Work on your technique – if only a bit
Oldtime musicians can have a complicated relationship with technique. On the one hand, oldtime is certainly not like classical and jazz in which there are relatively set definitions of what counts as “good technique”. People hold their fiddle bows in all kinds of ways. Banjo players seem to all do everything differently from one another. We’re not even sure what the guitar players are doing. And yet most people who play for long enough recognize that focusing just on tunes and playing with others leaves some ripe fruit laying on the ground.
We are still playing instruments and instruments are hard to play well. Having a well developed ear is part of the story, but so is having effective technique. We don’t think one needs to go so far as practicing etudes or anything, but just spending a small amount of practice time focusing on the fine mechanics of your instrument can pay generous dividends. In our experience, doing so regularly always seems to translate into greater fluidity and pleasure while playing. Figure out what basic techniques you could practice, spend a couple weeks doing a little bit every day, and see what happens. You might be surprised.
5. Have a beer
Statistics show that 2-3 glasses of wine a day significantly reduce your risk of giving a s**t. And, well, if it works with wine, then it ought to work with beer too.
We’re only half joking. Of course, no one in the oldtime community would ever drink alcohol or suggest others do so. But finding ways to relax both physically and mentally can do wonders for your playing. Physically, it’s always important to be aware of tension in any part of your body, no matter how small. These tensions are bad for technique, they’re bad for your long-term health, and they usually result in bad sound too. But mental tension is just as problematic. Worrying about whether you’re going to hit the right notes or stay in the pocket are all sure-fire ways of not succeeding. Playing an instrument with real fluency is a weird game in which the more you try, the worse you sound. So, maybe a beer’s not a bad idea, but the real point is to just relax and have fun. Paradoxically, this is often the best strategy for actually sounding good.
6. Record yourself
Often we’ll learn a tune at a jam or from a recording and we’ll spend our time playing it with others. Ever been in a hot jam and feel like you’re just nailing a tune, and then go to lead it the next day and not be able to scratch it out? Turns out our brains are really good at covering up our mistakes and filling in empty space. When we play, our brain often uses recordings or versions that we’ve heard as frames of reference, and if we miss a note or play a phrase incorrectly, we very often don’t even notice it.
Recording yourself playing a tune you want to learn and listening to that recording is one of the best ways to get better, because it forces your brain to come to terms with the fact that no, you really don’t play that tune exactly the same way Rayna Gellert does. It also puts a microscope on all the different tonal and stylistic decisions that you’re unconsciously making, and gives you a great opportunity to consciously focus on improving the parts you don’t like.
Ultimately there’s no ‘perfect’ way to play, but there is the way you want to play, the way you hear it in your mind’s ear. Recording yourself can show you the difference, and help you bridge the gap between the way you want to sound and the way you actually sound.
7. Neglect your family/wife/dog/job/health
We only have so much time in this life we’ve been given. It’s our joy and burden to decide how we spend it. OK, sure, your family, your spouse, your dog, these are all important. Yeah, you probably need a job to keep body and soul together. Health is good too. But really, are they that important? If every hour of your life is part of a grand existential bargain, a bet on how to best spend the most precious capital you’ll ever have, then can you think of a better bet than playing oldtime? I didn’t think so. Get them priorities straight!
8. Play with others
Oldtime is a fundamentally social music, so play with others every chance you get. Go to local jams, get your friends to come by and play some tunes, go to as many festivals as possible. There’s nothing quite as immediate as the feedback you get from playing with others. If it’s working, you know it. If it isn’t, you know that too!
A more intense version of the same is to “start a band”. Let us explain.
Now we’re not saying you should actually start a band with the intention to play gigs for people. Most oldtime music is not really fit for the stage, and that’s just fine. But “starting a band”, by which we mean finding a small group of people to play with and actually working on a “set list” is really a great way to get better at oldtime generally. Why? Because it forces you to stop settling for good enough. Instead you can play the same tune over and over while talking with the other musicians about what is working and what isn’t. You can find parts of tunes or songs that need a little more care and attention. You can find variations or arrangements that sound good in one tune and then work their way into others. This is something that generally doesn’t happen in jams.
Plus, once you “have a band” people will almost invariably ask you to play some gig: a party, a dance, at the market, wherever. And there ain’t nothing better for your chops than the pressure of having to play a gig.
9. Don’t miss a day
If you’re just trying to maintain your current level of playing, then this really isn’t necessary. It’s good, but not necessary. Those plateaus are pretty stable.
But if you want to get better, then there’s almost nothing that will help more than the consistency of playing every day. I don’t pretend to understand why the human brain-body works this way, but even short periods of daily practice seem to have far greater effect than longer ones spread out over the week. Even when the total amount of time spent is less, consistency seems to win out.
10. Sing and play solo pieces
Learning how to sing while playing your instrument is an excellent way to make your playing much more automatic, if only for a few songs. It can also give you an emotional attachment to certain tunes, and help you better understand which notes to emphasize and which ones to play quietly. It makes your playing much more dynamic and will help you in so many ways even if you never take the plunge and sing in front of other people.
Also, there are plenty of solo pieces (with and without lyrics) for oldtime fiddle, banjo and guitar. Don’t assume you are wasting your time just because “I’ll never play this at a jam!” If you practice to sound good solo – both in terms of rhythm and tone – you’ll sound that much better when playing with others.
Also, breaking away from a jam-focused repertoire is about the only way you’ll get to mess around with some of the beautiful alternate tunings on fiddle and banjo (i.e. tunings beyond the standard ones used for A, D, C, and G tunes).
11. Stop listening
To yourself, that is. In our experience, players who are critical of themselves spend a lot of time listening to themselves. Listening for good intonation, trying to get the groove right, wincing at little mistakes. On the one hand, that’s how you’re gonna learn. If you don’t hear the mistakes, you can’t correct them. But at least when you’re playing, we think the opposite strategy is where it’s at. Rachel Eddy talks about playing “with open ears” as one key to really getting into the groove with other musicians and making beautiful sounds. One can interpret her words to mean listening to the whole sound that is being made. Of course it’s only natural to pay attention to what you’re playing, but if all you’re doing is listening to yourself (and maybe making sure you’re not falling out of time with the others), then you’re not really playing with others.
You can do this with clear intention. If you can play a tune well enough for the fingers to basically do their thing, then actively choose another instrument to put your attention on. In the moment, it feels like you’re not really hearing what you’re doing much at all, but instead you notice that a musical conversation begins happening on its own.
In the end, everyone has different ways of approaching the music and their instrument, and so will have different ideas of what it means to “get better” and how they go about doing that. But it’s also the case that far too many people who do take time to practice are missing out on really helpful and effective tools to make progress. Hopefully, you can find one or the other here that will give a little boost to your playing.