Practicing better

I’ve been taking banjo lessons for 2 1/2 years and I’m definitely making progress. So far, I’ve learned a bunch of songs – Scruggs style bluegrass mostly, but also some classical and a few others. It’s fun being able to play the songs, and they’ve helped me learn some chords and some licks, plus develop my dexterity. But there’s a lot I don’t know, and I want to get better faster.

So I’ve started thinking about the way I practice. What I usually do is a bit of warmup with a couple of songs I know pretty well, and then I work on the song I’m trying to learn. I break it down and memorize a bit at a time until I can play it all the way through. Sometimes I use a metronome or record myself. I try to focus more on the harder parts. If I can find a recording of the piece, I’ll usually listen to it once or twice early on, and sometimes if I’m really struggling I’ll either track down sheet music or laboriously translate the banjo tab to notes and play it on the keyboard. Sometimes I watch t.v. episodes on Netflix while I run through parts of the song over and over.

I wouldn’t call it deliberate, mindful practice. It’s pretty haphazard.

I decided to create a practice plan. I went looking for a template on the web, and stumbled across a terrific website called The Musician’s Way which is the companion site to Gerald Klickstein’s wonderful book.

MusiciansWayThis is exactly the right book at the right time. Even though it’s written for people who’ve been playing longer and have loftier ambitions than I do, it’s packed with practical information I can use. It inspired me to create a better practice environment, with fewer distractions and with everything I need close at hand. It encouraged me to take it more seriously, mentally and physically preparing before I pick up the banjo.

Klickstein advocates scheduling regular practice, with plenty of breaks, and using multiple short stints instead of marathons. Hours of sloppy run-throughs will produce nothing of value. Make it your top priority to raise the quality of your practice. He recommends choosing material that you like and that’s within your ability to play, using etudes and exercises to improve your technical ability, and regularly attending performances and listening to recordings to widen your pool of possibilities.

He advises breaking practice down into 5 parts: learning new material, getting better at older material, preparing for performance, improving technique (scales & such), and musicianship (including studying and listening). I don’t have any performance plans but the other four are spot on for me. I see now that I’ve been spending almost all my time in the first box, which is why I’ve felt like I’m spinning my wheels.

That advice to listen and study reminded me of a story I heard from  a banjo teacher I met in Flagstaff at Pickin’ in the Pines last year. He talked about a student of his who wanted to play bluegrass but only listened to rock music. I write fiction, and I would never attempt writing in a genre I don’t read, but I confess I haven’t listened to enough of the kind of music I’m trying to learn to play. At my last lesson, my teacher turned me on to a guy named Bill Keith who developed something called the melodic style of banjo playing, and I really think this is going to be a breakthrough for me. Turns out there’s a whole boatload of YouTube videos like this one:


With Klickstein’s permission, then, I’ve started watching these videos and seeking out a bunch of different versions of Arkansas Traveler (the song I’m learning right now – you know, I’m bringin’ home a baby bumblebee, won’t my mommy be so proud of me) and, although I feel weird about it, visualizing playing before I touch a single string. And this week I’m focusing my technique block on the G, D, and C scales and converting major chords to minor chords.

And I’m only in Chapter 2!







The 3,600 mile road trip

My husband and I just got back from the longest road trip ever!

We started by heading west to Carpinteria, California, a tiny old timey beach town a few miles south of Santa Barbara. My nephew discovered Carpinteria when he started working for, which is headquartered there. We hung out on the beach, ate lunch at The Spot, had dinner at Padaro Beach Grill, chatted with the locals, and seriously considered moving into one of the 55+ communities there. The only drawback to Carpinteria is the Southern California freeway system that we’d have to navigate every time we wanted to see our granddaughters! Stay tuned, we may end up there yet.

Carpinteria State Beach

After Carpinteria, we drove north to Monterey, where we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. What an amazing place! We saw jellyfish, sea otters, thousands or maybe millions of anchovies and other tiny silver fish swimming in circles above our heads, a couple of great documentaries, and throngs of school children. School in California wasn’t out yet, although in Arizona, kids had been on summer break for a couple of weeks already.

On the way to Monterey, we were surprised by the beauty of the mountains we drove through between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Vineyards as far as the eye can see. In San Luis Obispo, we had beignets that somehow, magically, had enormous fresh blueberries right in the middle of the triangular pastries.

We spent the night in Santa Cruz, at a Comfort Inn about a block away from the Boardwalk. Now, the Boardwalk is a special place in my memory. I grew up in Palo Alto, and begged all summer long, every summer, to go to the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. I think I actually got to go there three or four times as a kid. I’m sure it’s been modernized and it’s probably a far safer place than it was when I was young, but it still has that crazy beach holiday feeling. We walked out onto the wharf for dinner.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

From Santa Cruz, we drove to Redding, bypassing the craziness of the Bay Area although we definitely encountered plenty of traffic along the way. We stayed at the Oxford Suites in Redding and visited a place called the Sundial Bridge. It crosses the Sacramento River and on the other side is a big park with walking trails through woods and meadows. It was unexpected! I had picked Redding just for its geographical convenience along the road, but it was a very nice spot.

Sundial Bridge, Redding
Sundial Bridge, Redding

Redding to Portland was the next leg of the journey. We actually stayed in Beaverton, because we could get a better rate on a Courtyard Marriott – my husband loves the Marriott beds and we figured we would need a good rest after the long drive from Redding. We tried to go to the Rose Garden in Portland but ended up in parking gridlock – who knew it was the rose festival that day? Note to self, next time check the events calendar! We did make it in to Powell’s City of Books, my favorite place in Portland. I picked up a couple of used books and my husband got his first glimpse of the glory that is Powell’s.

Wetlands, Beaverton, OR

From Portland, we headed north to Canada. The Seattle traffic was as intense as everyone told us it would be, and we were impressed with the flexible speed limit signs on the freeway. We considered a side trip to the Space Needle but…next time.

We took the smaller, less busy border crossing at Aldergrove because it had a shorter wait time. Small definitely didn’t mean easy, though. The Canadian officer quizzed us at length about why we were visiting Maple Ridge and seemed particularly interested in our Arizona license plate, asking several questions about weapons and concealed carry permits and the like. Seriously. Me. Nope, no guns, no how, no way, no thank you.

The Golden Ears Bridge (so much easier to get to the other side of the Fraser River now!) took us to Maple Ridge. It was lovely to see Aunt Edith and Uncle Max, always my favorites and now the last of their generation in my family. They’re in their nineties and are frustrated that they can’t be as active as they always have been, but neither of them is sitting still. We had a nice long chat, then my husband and I took a walk on the nearby dikes to shake the cobwebs out after the long drive.

Maple Ridge dikes
View from the dikes

On our second day in Maple Ridge, we drove up to Alouette Lake. We managed to confuse Siri, who wanted to send us on a 4-hour journey where we’d drive to halfway between Stave Lake and Alouette Lake and then hike the rest of the way. Alouette Lake is less than a half hour up the mountains from Maple Ridge, in Golden Ears Provincial Park. Luckily we knew that, and double checked the route on Google Maps, which sent us in the right direction. Don’t get me wrong, I love Siri, and she guided us faultlessly on the entire journey, with just that one exception.

We took a little walk on the Spirea Nature Trail after spending a little time tossing stones into the lake. The kids in BC were still in school, and it wasn’t full-fledged summer yet, so it was pretty quiet, but we still saw a few people catching some rays on the beach.

Spirea Natural Trail in Golden Ears Provincial Park

My cousin Elaine recently moved out to Tsawwassen, a tiny town in between Boundary Bay and the Pacific Ocean, famous for its ferry terminal. We had a nice lunch at the White Spot there, and then walked out on the trail by the bay, admiring the gorgeous golf course we walked past on the way from Elaine’s place. We saw our first inukshuk – it’s a kind of cairn built in a dolmen-like shape, used by Inuit and other northern peoples – on the side of the trail there.

We stayed with my cousin Debbie and her husband Pete, who live in the basement suite of my aunt and uncle’s house. It’s a great arrangement. Debbie keeps the whole place shipshape and keeps an eye on her parents’ health, and in partnership with her dad produces beautiful painted birdhouses (Max builds them, Debbie paints them).  They came home from their visit to his family in the Kootenays after we’d been there a few days, and we had fun visiting a crazy place called Granny and Grumpa’s (featured on Canadian Pickers) out in Chilliwack one day.

Canadian pickers

The rest of our stay was a whirlwind of fine food and relaxation. We had lunch at a pub on the Fraser River and another pub in town, and dinner with Debbie and Pete and my other cousin Brenda at a Japanese place. We grilled out on the patio one night, and got a chance to visit with Mel and the kids Scout and Sawyer (Elaine’s daughter-in-law and grandkids). We ate loads of Pete’s delicious salsa. One night Jim and I drove across the bridge to meet my cousins from the other side – my dad’s brother’s sons Mark, Garry, and Donny, and Garry’s wife Rhonda – over dinner at the Spaghetti Factory in Langley.

Veggie Box at Sushi Umibe 

Debbie agreed to paint a birdhouse for us to take to our friends in Boise. We looked at hundreds of pictures on Pinterest for inspiration, and decided to do a barn theme. Watching Debbie make the barn come to life was an education in how much care and creativity and how many steps go into her creations. The end result was beautiful, and our friends loved it. It’s a great fit in their gorgeous back yard.

Debbie & Max’s birdhouse at home in Boise

One day in Maple Ridge, we were surprised to see a pair of deer scampering up the driveway. By the time we came upstairs, they had turned around and were headed off down the street. We also saw a couple of coyotes while we were there. Lots of wildlife on this visit!

Maple Ridge deer
Deer on Thornton Ave.!

We went with Debbie on her morning walk through the neighborhood one day. I took a ton of pictures but the one with the fire hydrant is my granddaughter’s favorite.

Morning walk in the neighborhood

To be continued…






Should you be practicing right now?

Fact: learning something new – anything – helps to stave off dementia. Fact: music makes you feel better (and bluegrass is particularly cheerful). Fact: kids who play an instrument, do a sport, or have another extracurricular activity are better students and have better social lives. Fact: playing an instrument opens up opportunities to meet other people and have more fun. Bonus: when you have both hands occupied on a banjo, you can’t be eating junk food.

So, I’m learning to play the banjo.

I’ve been taking lessons at my local music store for about 2 1/2 years. I have a great teacher, a nice young guy who’s been playing the banjo since he was 8 years old. I’ve learned a bunch of songs and bought a bunch of books. I’ve made flash cards to try to cram the chords into my brain. I practice pretty much every day, unless I’m traveling (and even then, sometimes I bring my banjo along).

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. It’s incredibly complicated! There’s your left hand, making the chords. There’s your right hand, plucking or strumming. So there’s that manual dexterity feature, which has never been my strong suit. And then there’s your brain. Remembering where the chords are (and the same chords have different shapes depending on where you play them on the neck). Finding out why a C chord is a C chord – not something I ever needed to know when I was learning to play piano as a kid. Memorizing the patterns in the songs, including both hands and all the repeats and all the minor variations.

And on top of all that, the banjo is an extremely loud instrument, so everyone in the house gets to hear all your mistakes!

Somebody said it takes 10,000 hours of practice to turn someone from an amateur into a professional, and then someone else said the practice needs to be deliberate – you need to stretch yourself and work on the stuff that’s hardest.

So yes, I should be practicing right now.

(The clip below is my audio Christmas card from 2014, with my teacher accompanying me.)