What Song Should You Learn Next? (Brainjo Bite)


Welcome to another Brainjo Bite. So in the last two episodes, we’ve talked about the process of learning new songs, specifically how to learn new songs so that they stick in your memory and how to learn from written notation of any form in a way that enhances your ability to play by ear instead of interfering with it or undermining it. So today I thought it’d be good to talk about how to select songs or material to work on next, just like the last two episodes, the goal here is to help ensure that you’re able to make consistent progress and that you don’t end up hitting a wall that you don’t know how to get through.

As you’ve heard me say before, the primary reason why the banjo and three finger banjo in particular has a reputation as being difficult, has nothing to do with any intrinsic or inherent difficulty in that style.

But rather because of the process or the path that has become commonplace in how it’s learned. And that includes the material that a lot of people often choose to learn when they’re in the beginning to early intermediate stages of learning to play the banjo and more on that in a minute first, I’m going to discuss what I think are the two most important questions for you to ask whenever you’re selecting a new song to learn, the first one may sound obvious, but it’s not always done is do I really like this song? I know that for me personally, this has really been the driving force between my whole journey as a banjo player, by that, I mean, hearing a song and thinking I have to learn how to play that at some point, why is this so important? Well, because of the people who are the most successful are the ones who can’t stop picking up the banjo practice should never be something that you have to force yourself to do.

Rather it should come from this burning desire to play music. When I was first learning, I was grabbing my own banjo every spare moment. And even when I didn’t have it, I was playing the banjo in my head, whether it was at the grocery store at work. And all of it was really driven by having these things that I really wanted to be able to play. So having music that is inspiring to you, that you really want to learn how to play is essential for keeping motivated. And then the second question I would recommend asking yourself, which is also key to keeping you motivated is, is this song something that I can learn in a week or less? And you’ve probably heard me say how critically important it is to work on material that is appropriate for where you’re at wherever your skill level is number one, so that you don’t end up developing bad habits in an attempt to play things that are too far beyond where you’re at.

And number two, you don’t get disappointed and discouraged. Disappointment comes when our reality doesn’t meet our expectations. And as mentioned, this happens all too often with folks learning how to play the banjo because they end up taking on material early on. That’s completely wrong for where they’re at in general, in order to progress, we want to find material that’s in the Goldilocks zone, meaning it’s not too easy, but also not too hard. And I want it to provide something that’s known as desirable difficulty. So providing challenge that pushes us, pushes the limits of our capabilities, such that we’re not right out of the bat, meaning we can’t play it right away, but not so difficult to be completely unattainable because ultimately if you try to tackle things that are too far beyond where you’re at, you’ll almost certainly get frustrated and end up losing that all-important desire and motivation.

And then practice will feel like drudgery. So this, can I learn this in a week or less rule of thumb is good because it indicates you’ve selected something in that Goldilocks zone. Now this isn’t anything hard and fast or especially rigid. In other words, the timeframe can vary. It can vary depending on the amount of time you spend practicing. And so that one week, one week guideline kind of assumes you’re putting in a little bit of practice each day, but I’d say if more than two weeks pass by with consistent practice and you’re not getting it, then it’s time to shelve that particular piece and save it for a later time. Now you may not always know if a particular piece is suited for where you’re at, as you may know, all of the tabs on this channel and in the breakthrough banjo course are rated according to the Brainjo level system so that you can have a reasonably good idea of whether or not a song is right for your current ability level.

Most of the ones I post on this channel are Brainjo level three to four. But there are a great many Brainjo level one and two tabs in the breakthrough banjo course. Now the idea for this episode was sparked by a post that I saw recently where a beginning banjo player was talking about how he’d been working on learning foggy mountain breakdown for the better part of a year, and was starting to get frustrated because he still hadn’t gotten it. And it wasn’t sounding right. And this is the perfect illustration of why selecting the right material is so important. And the perfect illustration of three finger banjo has developed an undeserved reputation for being especially difficult. Foggy mountain banjo was a song recorded by Earl Scruggs after decades of experience playing the banjo. So a song recorded by one of the greatest virtuosos to ever play.

The instrument are so many nuances of tone, rhythm timing, phrasing technique in that tune that he spent years cultivating and nuances that, if you’re still relatively new to the banjo, you won’t even know are there. You might know when they’re missing, but you won’t know how to get them in there.

And so trying to learn tablature of songs like Earl Scruggs played them when you’re starting out, it’s kind of like learning to ice skate and starting by learning the routine that won the gold medal at the last Olympics. Again, this seems to be one of those things that’s particularly unique to the banjo where people commonly start out trying to learn the advanced material in the early stages. But when you stop and think about it, it’s absurd. And of course, you’re going to get frustrated and not make the progress that you would want.

Again, disappointment comes when expectations don’t meet reality, and it wouldn’t be realistic to expect that of anyone at an early stage. I personally made this exact same mistake myself years ago. I’d read some advice to get the Earl Scruggs and the five string banjo book and use that to learn from, and don’t get me wrong. It’s a great book and a great resource for understanding Earl Scruggs’s playing style. But it’s not for learning how to play the banjo. Again, these are transcriptions of tunes played by someone who many consider it to be the greatest banjo player of all time. So I wanted to record this episode in part to give you permission to play stuff that’s simpler and to resist the temptation, to think that the only way to improve is to play music. It’s very technically challenging. The great thing about it is you do not have to play fancy to sound amazing, especially on the banjo.

If there’s something I’ve learned over and over and over through the years is that there’s zero correlation between how difficult something is to play and how good it sounds and how much others appreciate it. And that’s not just because when it’s simpler you tend to play with fewer mistakes.

It’s also because you’re able to better focus on those details and elements of musicianship that are so important to playing great music and playing music that connects with others. So things like tone and rhythm and timing and dynamics, which you cannot focus on. If you’re barely holding on to play a tune, you can move people with very few notes. It’s really all about how you play them. And a lot of the music that has stood the test of time, that generation after generation people can’t stop singing and listening to, is quite simple.

And notably when the winners of music contests are asked how they decide what music to play for a contest. Most often their answer is not the most technically difficult thing or the most challenging thing they can select, but rather the thing that they can play well under pressure well enough so that they can impart all of those crucial details that are really what makes music shine and makes it connect with others. And as I said, there’s so much great music you can make on the banjo that is accessible in the beginning and intermediate stages that allows you to focus on all those all important nuances of tone and timing and phrasing. And I can’t stress enough how much value there is in squeezing all that you can out of the simpler material before you move on, because that is where you are forging that essential foundation that you’ll be using for everything else.

This incidentally is a lot of what I focus on in the no picker left behind live sessions in the Breakthrough Banjo course. The aim there is really to help people to slow down savor the simpler material and understand how to utilize it for the incredible learning opportunity that it represents. This is also exactly why I strongly recommend learning two finger thumb lead banjo before moving on to three finger banjo. Because again, it allows you to focus on and develop those essential elements while still being able to make incredible music that you feel inspired to learn and that others will love to hear. Okay. So once again, the two questions to ask when selecting something new to learn, number one, is this something that I really want to learn to play?

And number two, is this something that I think I can learn in a week or less? And by that, I mean, something that you can play from start to finish with an external timekeeping device. In other words, not dropping rhythm or timing from start to finish at any tempo. And I’ll actually be talking more about the stages a song goes through in the learning evolution in the next episode.

Also, if you enjoy this Brainjo bites series you will likely enjoy the book The Laws of Brainjo which was published last year. It’s all about how to apply the science of neuroplasticity to learn smarter and more effectively.

The easiest way to find it is just search Laws of Brainjo or just Brainjo on Amazon. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo Bites.

To make sure you catch future episodes be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to funding it as well. To learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to Brainjo.academy.