I have been trying to learn the banjo for a couple years. An irregular practice schedule hinders progress, obviously. Unfortunately for me this is unavoidable as I travel frequently...I’m a pilot. I was wondering if anyone knows of a good way to practice banjo while travelling, such as a different type of banjo? Maybe similar to the neck with the amp plug in for the guitar?
The famous pianist, Glenn Gould, would 'practice' mentally imagining the performance in his head.
Of course examples from geniuses aren't very helpful for mere mortals, but that anecdote at least suggests there is a purely mental aspect that could be exercises.
Aside from looking for some kind of travel instrument, you could try mentally rehearsing.
For a large scale composition like a sonata a lot of memory and concentration is required to mentally recall every event for the entire work.
The banjo music you play may not involve the same intensive memory function as a classical sonata so this kind of exercise many not offer much value. But you could try it.
Also, short of banjo specific options, you could try using the travel time for general ear training. There are lots of apps you could try.
Ways I've practiced banjo while traveling:
- Bring and practice ukulele instead
- Bring a travel banjo
- Do ear training
- Learn music theory
- Memorize lyrics
- Memorize your fretboard
Bring and practice ukulele instead
Unfortunately, the banjo is a bit ungainly for airline travel. One option is to practice on a different instrument that travels better, such as the ukulele. These skills that you learn on the ukulele will benefit you on the banjo:
- Physical dexterity with the fretting hand
- If you play clawhammer banjo, the ukulele can also be played clawhammer style, so the same right-hand skills will apply
- Ukulele strumming patterns work very well for banjo (unless you use fingerpicks), so are useful to add to your skill set.
- Practicing scales and melodic improvisation on the top three strings of the ukulele will transfer surprisingly well to the top three strings of the banjo. The scale patterns aren't the same, which I thought would cause me a lot of confusion when moving back and forth between the two, but in practice does not cause much trouble.
Ukulele also has these benefits for travel:
- Ukuleles are relatively quiet, a good quality for practicing in hotel rooms.
- Ukuleles are very affordable, a big plus when exposing an instrument to the hazards of travel. My travel ukulele costs ca. $50, is terribly ugly, has a decent (not great, but playable) action, and OK (not perfect) intonation.
Bring a travel banjo
There are various travel banjos that are lighter and smaller than a normal banjo, and often quite a bit less expensive. My favorite has been the Fireside Banjo by Backyard Music Instruments, which is about four inches shorter than a normal banjo, about eight pounds lighter, and costs around $150. Sadly, they are not producing banjos at the moment, but if they resume production, you may wish to consider one.
Note: I am not affiliated with Backyard Music Instruments.
There are other travel banjos. Some have folding necks. Many are short scale, or move the tuners to the head, all in the service of making the instrument shorter.
Do ear training
While not banjo practice per se, ear training can be done anywhere, usually with little more than a smart phone or other device that can play audio files. There are interactive smart phone programs for learning to recognize intervals, chord sequences, etc. There are also audio programs intended for playback through an audio player (CD, MP3, etc.); these are not interactive, making them suitable for listening to while driving.
Ear training is very helpful for playing with others, where you may need to identify the key, time signature, and chord structure on the fly (these aren't always called out, except for the key, and not always that). It also helps a lot with melodic improvisation.
Learn music theory
Music theory and ear training kind of go together; learning one will necessarily expose you to aspects of the other. Music theory can be learned from a book, perhaps on a phone or tablet, making it convenient for travel. Some music theory exercises can be done in your head (memorizing the circle of fifths, key signatures, etc.), making them useful when you are waiting for something. And there's plenty of waiting in travel.
Music theory is helpful in many ways. For example, during a jam, when someone calls out the key, you'll know what other chords are likely to be used, without having to look them up. That's just one of many, many ways that music theory improves your playing.
I do this while driving or hiking. I'll have an audio player looping the song I want to learn, challenging myself to memorize the lyrics. The best way I've found to do that is to pause before each verse, and see if I can sing that verse from memory. If I just sing along with each verse, it's too easy to think I know the lyrics when I'm actually just following along.
I've also done this by having a printed copy of the lyrics, or having them on my phone. Remember, sing, then look at the reference to check.
Memorize your fretboard
Memorize your fretboard, for each tuning that you use. Learn where each note is on each string. Name a note (e.g. Db), then see in your mind where that note is on each string. Imagine the fretboard markers in relation to the notes. The idea is to know instantly where each note is. This will stand you in good stead when using closed chord shapes: For example, if you know where Bb is on the 3rd string, you know where you can make a Bb barr chord.