by Pete Wernick
I feel that speed is both overrated and underrated as a criterion of good banjo playing. Some seem to consider it the main criterion, speaking reverently of someone as “the fastest banjo player I’ve ever heard” or “faster than ________”. I feel this misplaces the priorities I stressed in the section “What Makes Good Banjo Playing”.
Though it’s true that unsophisticated listeners often overrate speed, I don’t feel that speed is therefore unimportant. It’s also true that many very good banjo players don’t take the trouble to learn to play fast and so are handicapped when playing tunes like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Flint Hill Special, and Rawhide, which are meant to be played fast.
The complete player, I feel should be able to play comfortably at fast speeds, at slow speeds, and the various tempos between – and select the appropriate speed according to the material. Also, to the extent you want to include flashiness in your playing, speed may be valuable as an unmistakable audience-pleaser/attention grabber. Few experienced players or listeners would say speed is of prime importance, but almost anyone likes to hear some good flashiness now and again. When done well and used in moderation, fast playing will usually bring attention and admiration.
How to increase your speed
Gains in speed come slowly, with the agility and ease that result from a great deal of playing. Playing a long time at a stretch can be helpful since it’s after you’re all warmed up that you achieve breakthroughs in speed and other technique.
You can make quicker progress in increasing your speed if you make it a priority in your practice routine. Here’s what to do:
Pick a tune that you already can play, but would like to play faster. Get out your metronome and use it to determine just how fast you can play the tune comfortably and accurately.
Comfort and accuracy are key words here. Speed is useless when it causes a sacrifice of more important qualities. As you develop speed, keep your ears tuned to whether you are sounding good and being accurate.
Once you’ve determined your present speed on the tune you’ve chosen, set the metronome a few beats per minute faster and try to play with it. Try a few times and see what happens. If you do OK, move the metronome up another notch and again until you find yourself faltering in any spot – whether playing too slow or losing clarity or precision.
When you hit an obstacle like this, note just where in the song it happens and note the metronome setting. You have now focused on a good target area for practice. See if you can isolate the one or two measures where your speed lags and/or your clarity or precision suffers. Make that segment into a loop exercise and see if it smooths out as you play it repeatedly with the metronome. Look for any problem spot within the exercise. It’s likely to be a part where one finger (most likely the thumb) has to play two notes out of three. It may be hard for one finger to move that fast. Or it may require your left hand to move faster than it’s able.
The next step is to make loops based just on the trouble spots. Each is now an excellent exercise for increasing your physical ability. Playing these at your speed limit will directly challenge physical barriers in your hands. It’s quite possible that by this time in the process, confronting the barriers will actually cause pain. It’s quite important not to play very long with pain in the muscles which control your hands. The pain is a sign that a physical limit has been reached, and that to continue too long would strain the muscle with possible harmful effects.
When you hit the point of pain in practicing for speed (or anytime, for that matter), check to see whether you are unnecessarily tense just from the mental strain of doing something difficult. If that’s true, try to remember to keep relaxed next time you practice the exercise.
But most important, stop practicing the exercise for a few minutes, to give those straining muscles a rest and to keep from injuring them. Practice something less physically demanding for a while and come back to the speed exercise again later. Once again, though, stop when you hit that pain point.
The effect of regular practice of specific exercises like this will start showing in just a few practice sessions. The pain will take longer to set in and may even let up entirely as the muscles develop the strength to do their task smoothly.
A meaningful goal may be to play the original one- or two-measure trouble spot continuously, smoothly and accurately up to speed for one minute. That’s progress!
Any time you notice such progress you can always renew the challenge by raising the metronome speed.
For more progress of this sort, just pick out more tunes you want to play faster and repeat the above procedure.