about us home to the headlines join us! visit our store at Cafe Press links photos classified ads acts on oahu and neighbor islands recurring events on oahu and the neighbor islands contributions from our community home to the headlines

Musical Proficiency:
Turn Off The TV and Pick Up Your Instrument!


As I mentioned in my first article; I l-o-v-e TV and all of the other distractions in my life that can take time away from practicing and playing my instrument.

But, if you want to improve your playing you’re going to need to make time (you’ll never “find” time) to invest in practicing and getting proficient on your chosen instrument. I used the term “invest” because there is the potential for great return for the time spent if you do it right.

First of all, I want to say that if you choose to pick up your instrument only when you play music with other people, that’s O.K. You should enjoy musical involvement any way you can. But (and there’s always a big “but”), don’t react negatively or longingly when other people who practice regularly can play better than you do. The most important issue here is to enjoy making music; how proficient you become at it is your choice.

Personally, there are two compelling reasons that cause me to find as many hours as possible to practice: I genuinely love the instrument I play (the five-string banjo) and I have the good fortune to be in a performing band made up of very talented, dedicated musicians. I want to be a fully contributing member and I don’t want to be the weak link in the band.

After a day at the office, I look forward to “quality time” with my instrument. Since my time is limited (must not forget to spend “quality time” with the Mrs.), I try to get the most return out of the available time that I have to invest in practicing.

I haven’t discussed practice routines with other musicians, but what works pretty well for me is to keep setting goals to gain better proficiency on the banjo. In other words, I’ll select a song, passage, or “lick” that I want to learn and I’ll work on it until I get it to where I’m reasonably satisfied with my rendition. For the sake of practicality and application, I try to select material that I can use with the band or when playing with other people. This way I’m more likely to retain what I’ve worked on.

I also regularly re-visit songs that the band performs and other songs that I want to keep in my repertoire. Re-visiting songs that you already know is a good way to ensure that you don’t forget how to play them, and it gives you an opportunity to refresh the way you play the song that might enable you to give an older song a new lease on life, with a new approach.

Lastly, I make sure to set aside time to work on improving my timing, tone, and volume. I have timing issues, so I try to work regularly with a metronome. I think a lot of players find out how their timing needs improvement by playing along with a metronome. These little boxes from Hell don’t lie. They’re also inexpensive; buy yourself one.

Since I play bluegrass banjo, the tone and volume generated by the right hand is very important. Other players and bluegrass music aficionados can tell if you’re not generating the kind of sound that is so characteristic of this style of music. I’ll often spend time working on my right hand positioning to produce good tone and to maximize smoothness. And I’ll admit that I work on my volume by playing very hard while still trying to produce good tone. (This drove the Mrs. to the brink until she had our study sound-proofed.)

Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick, renowned banjo maestro and teacher, recommended that in your practice regimen you proclaim this week Good Tone Week, and then every week thereafter… I concur.

In closing, I want to tell you about an experience that a friend of mine recently had. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him “Kilin”. Over the last two months, “Kilin” has played the guitar, bass, resophonic guitar, and mandolin in different performing bands, all in the same time period. This was no easy feat, considering the diverse repertoire he had to learn. Besides being a talented musician, “Kilin” is also adept at concentrating and prioritizing his practice time, so he was able to proficiently if not excellently rise to the occasion with each band he performed with.

I don’t think he watched TV the whole time.

Paul Sato


Paul Sato plays banjo in all kinds of places with all kinds of folks. Click here to read his first article on musical proficiency: "You Can Get There From Here..."

What did you think of this article? Would you like to see more, or perhaps write one of your own? Please let us know!