There have been two main types of music instruction methods over the years – the Classical Method and the Folk Method.

I. The Classical Method has been used for hundreds of years in Colleges and Universities and is used today to teach piano and orchestral instruments such as violin, trumpet, flight, clarinet, etc. Millions of musicians and scholars have spent their lives developing and refining this system which is very logical and works in a very precise and predictable way.

Very simply the method works as follows:

1. The material is presented in a sequential method starting with the easiest material and gradually progressing to harder material.

2. The basic movements and techniques needed to play the instrument are identified and broken down into exercises that are also presented from easy to harder. These exercises typically consist of 1 or 2 measures of music.

3. Learning is based on repetition. Many of you have had the experience of practicing exercises and scales over and over when learning the piano, violin, or clarinet as a youngster. The student is developing muscle memory and programming themselves for music passages that will appear later through-out their playing experience. This also involves developing coordination, stretching muscles, increasing stamina, and preparing and shaping the student to best play the instrument.

4. The exercises and drills are done using a timing source, which is a metronome. The metronome lets the student gradually increase speed and prevents the student from increasing his speed too rapidly. Being in a hurry can cause the student to program short cuts into his muscle memory by either not playing with sufficient focus, playing unevenly, or leaving out notes and using incorrect hand movements.

5. The student in school practices with a band or ensemble which forces him to develop rhythm and consistency while playing with others. This is also a controlled environment with a band director present to choose the appropriate music with the appropriate speed. The band director is there to spot mistakes and give feedback to the students.

6. The other significance of the band or ensemble is that it is structured, meaning that the student has a goal each day that they must meet to keep up with the band. If all goes well, the student can see his progress as the band or orchestra plays additional and more challenging pieces. Further feedback is available in the form of band director comments and a letter grade at the end of each six weeks.

In summary, the Classical Method consists of a sequential plan, continual repetition of small bits of material, repetition using a timing source to gradually increase speed, playing with others, and constant feedback from a teacher or band director.

II. The Folk Method is based on learning solos to songs as follows:

1. Most of the folk music is relatively new compared to the hundreds of years classical instruments have been taught. Bluegrass has been around for less than seventy years. Earl Scruggs did not perfect his banjo style until the mid 50’s and his instruction book did not appear until the early 70’s. Hot bluegrass guitar did not appear until the early 60’s with Doc Watson and 70’s with Clarence White and Tony Rice.

2. Tablature for the preceding instruments was not widely used until the 1980’s, meaning that the teaching methods for these instruments exist mainly in the mind of the individual instructor as contrasted with classical music where the learning and teaching principles have been developed over hundreds of years by thousands of teachers.

3. The method books that included CDs typically play the songs at two speeds, which is too few. To properly learn a song, it needs to be played at five speeds, which in many cases is impractical.

4. There is virtually no structure to the lessons. The main focus of folk instrument instruction has been on learning the lead breaks or solos to songs as opposed to identifying and practicing exercises and scales to provide a musical foundation.

5. Most students do not practice with a timing source such as a metronome because they either do not know how to use it or find it boring.

6. There is little feedback. Many students try to learn their instruments by taking lessons but are isolated with the exception of their music lesson each week. With no idea where they are or how they are doing, it is hard to stay consistent and motivated.
7. The lead breaks or solos that the student is focused on are not designed for instruction. They consist of easy measures that can be played immediately and hard measures that might be a year away. As a result, the student must wait a year to play this with others, will take short cuts and learn the piece incorrectly, or slow down when the hard measure appears making it impossible to play this with others.

8. Going to jam sessions is a way to improve but can be very frustrating because the songs you know may not be played or may be played too fast.

In summary, The Folk Method has been focused on learning lead breaks or solos with little emphasis on the fundamentals. There are no excellent sequential learning methods available meaning that you are left to the talent and experience of individual instructor.

III. Tips to make your learning more effective

1. Get organized and develop a plan.

2. Talk to teachers of your instrument and determine what their plan is. Ask if they can show you some simple solos to songs that sound good.

3. Take an audio or video recording device to all lessons. A smart phone will do both.

4. Make notes of things you do not understand and record the teachers response with examples. Take a metronome to the lesson and have the teacher play the examples two or three times. At first, speeds would be 40, 50, and 60. You will play four notes of the banjo to each click of the metronome. Each version should be 1.5 to 2 minutes long. For the teacher, every tick of the metronome would correspond to one note that the bass plays. Or comparing it to the guitar, which plays bass note – strum, bass note – strum. The click would occur when the bass note is being played.

5. If the teacher sings, ask him to record two minutes of a song and ask him to show you some chords and simple rhythm patterns to play along with it.

6. Feedback – Ask the teacher to listen to your playing and identify the measures that you are having trouble with. Ask him to isolate these and play them over several times as you record them.

7. Set up a practice area somewhere in the house that has your instrument on a music stand with music opened, picks, tuner, boom box, or TV and DVD player. You should be able to start playing within 60 seconds of sitting down.

8. Practice in 10 to 15 minute sessions. This is why the organized practice area is so important. For example, if someone is coming to pick you up and is ten minutes late, you can now practice.

9. Look for a slow jam in your area or start one so that you can play songs at beginner speeds.

10. Make a three ring notebook for jams with words to the songs that you know and chords in large type that can be seen from eight to ten feet away. This way the singer can sing songs that you know the solos to. Ask if you can start the song so that you can play it at a comfortable speed.

11. Try to find someone else to play with on a regular basis.

12. Provide your own feedback/ear training. Record a song from one of your instruction books on a recorder. Now record yourself playing that piece. Compare the two.

13. Most instructional methods have CDs that play songs at two speeds. If you want more speeds, you can get a slow downer program for your computer on the internet. You can also get your instructor to play the songs at predetermined speeds. One again, take your metronome to the lesson.

Improve Your Playing
Geoff Hohwald is Master Banjo Instructor who has been teaching and playing banjo for over 40 years. Geoff wants you to become the banjo player you have always wanted to be. He has written numerous banjo instructional books, teaches one-on-one banjo lessons, and even hold regular banjo camps at his mountain retreat in North Georgia.