I am always looking for ways to improve my fiddle playing. (Aren’t we all?). One thing I run into time and time again is the advice of accomplished musicians who give basically the same advice which boils down to repeat a thousand times.
One such musician is my favorite banjo player, an icon by the name of Earl Scruggs.
Some of you might not be familiar with Earl. Earl was a famous bluegrass banjo player from North Carolina who was the developer of a unique instrumental style called the Scruggs Style that helped to popularize the five-string banjo. Earl performed for years with his partner, guitar player Lester Flatt. And, even though you may not be familiar with them, you are familiar with a song they popularized, the Ballad of Jed Clampett, written by Paul Henning.
In an instructional book on how to play the banjo, Earl would give an exercise and then say Repeat A Thousand Times. This is perhaps the best bit of advice we can take as beginning fiddle players. Like most skills in life, learning is a process, and the more we repeat the skill, the better we get. Remember those flash cards in grade school when we were learning the times tables? Even professional baseball players practice their skills on a regular basis. Go to any ball game early, and you will see the infielders practicing turning a double play over and over.
Most people who are learning the fiddle are never going to be professionals or masters, and are not even interested nor aspire to such a level, myself included. But, how many times have we become frustrated a particular section of a tune? We can rush over the particular problem, give up, or just accept that we can’t do it. Or, we can practice it over and over until we get it! And, then practice it again so we keep it! We can repeat it a thousand times and make it our own!
Right now, I am working on learning Rock the Cradle Joe. Summer responsibilities have kept me from practicing as much as I would like to or as much as I need to. (I can hear Jason (FiddleHed) saying: Play every day!) And, when I practice this tune, there is a small section near the end of the first part on the E string I have the hardest time playing. (Notes: E, F#, G, F# E – or Tab: 0 1 L2 1 0). For some reason my fingers just do not want to cooperate! Some days I have played that part a few times and then just skip over it and keep going. But, yesterday was different. Thinking of Earl Scruggs, I concentrated on just those 5 notes and played them over and over and over a gain. I played them exaggeratedly slow. One thing that dawned on me was I could keep my first finger down on the F# while I played the G. This allowed me to immediately play the 2nd F# without a miss.
I must have repeated this hundreds of times in the next ten minutes. Slowly I increased the speed, and by the end, I could play this tiny section without any mistakes. I was pleased.
Now, today is another day, and I may have a problem again with that section…or something new. (Note to self: Play every day!) If I do, I will repeat, repeat and repeat, because even though I may not want to because it can be boring and frustrating, I want to get better. And, improvement brings great satisfaction. Oh yeah, when I don’t feel like repeating, I picture a Earl Scruggs, and that somehow makes my task easier.
Yes, I know Jason…
I would like to thank Jason (FiddleHed), and of course Earl Scruggs, for the inspiration for this post.