Zither Banjo Technique

by Bernard Sheaff

Part 1

Scale Playing Exercises.

Keynotes, Volume 11, Issue 2, February 1926

This is the first of a series of articles which will appear in this journal from month to month, and it will be my endeavour, with the aid of a page in the Music Supplement in the issue, to illustrate my analyses of the various stages of scale, arpeggio and chord playing with examples suitable for daily practice.

I am sorry that I cannot start absolutely at the beginning of the subject and treat the proper position of both right and left hands and the correct method of striking the strings. My teaching experience tells me that, even if I could make myself clear on paper, only one beginner in twenty (which is a generous percentage) would progress right from the start without contracting bad faults which could only be eradicated by the personal attention of a good teacher.

Only a few bad habits in style and technique are common to a number of players. Most faults, big or little, which harass and retard the progress of the struggling enthusiast are created by and peculiar to himself. So it is rather hopeless, I think, to expect that any general criticism or advice will put the beginner absolutely on the right track.

Scale playing, which I have thought best to write of first, is undoubtedly the best method of acquiring perfect control of the nerves operating the finger muscles in both hands; also for attaining all the subtle variances in striking the strings, which is called touch.

The scales in all keys can be found in some Tutors, but I fancy they are only included for the sake of completeness and to show that all these notes are to be obtained within the compass of the instrument, in most of the extreme keys—those with a number of sharps or flats—the scales cannot be played with any musical effect, and would not in the least beautify a solo were they introduced into it.

Even in the simple key of F Major the diatonic scale is awkward, and is therefore rarely used on the Banjo in its strict form. As a matter of fact, to play a perfect diatonic or chromatic scale unbroken throughout the compass of the instrument is not possible in any key without incurring some awkward shifts which rob the passage of the necessary fluency a scale passage requires to be effective.

Nevertheless, scales both diatonic and chromatic which are arranged to suit the left hand positions have been employed by Cammeyer and Morley in their respective compositions with complete success, but it is an unfortunate fact that the majority of amateur players stumble badly whenever they encounter any of these "runs" simply because this majority never have paid much attention to the exercise of the fingers which would enable them to execute double fingering with perfect evenness of tone and time.

My exercise this month (illustrated below) is for the preliminary training of both hands to attain this perfect double fingering and scale playing.

In my article in last December’s keynotes I suggested a method of acquiring control of the left hand fingers so that they could be prevented from jumping too far away from the keyboard. Those players who were interested enough to make use of that little exercise will find that it is very closely allied to the one in this issue, the difference being that in the latter the right hand is introduced and given its share of the work, thereby making the exercise complete.

To those whose alternate fingering is not yet satisfactory, I would suggest that the hands are exercised separately before the most important work—the synchronizing of the action of the two hands—is attempted.

For this reason I have prepared the almost superfluous illustration marked Example I. Each string should be subjected to a prolonged exercise separately, commencing each time very slowly and deliberately, with no attempt to increase the speed until the rhythm and tone are both satisfactory, for it is very essential that the right hand be able to produce a steady series of notes, either at the moderate or quicker speeds, at will, before the mind is further engrossed by the introduction of the left hand—Example II—which will require as much, perhaps greater, concentration.

Although the arrangement of notes in the second example is intentionally simple, yet (especially for the beginner) there is a surprising amount of command of the fingers required to execute this little scale on each string to perfection.

This is why the student should benefit enormously by the conscientious daily practice of the exercise, as it necessitates the execution of all the actions experienced in scale playing except, of course, changing position—"shifting"—and changing from one string to another, which movements will be discussed subsequently.

One important fact that cannot be too strongly emphasised—the right and left hand fingers should work absolutely together. Quite a large number of banjoists, I have discovered, have a hazy notion that the left hand fingers should be placed on the notes immediately before the string is struck—as quickly before as possible. This is not so—nearly right, but not quite. The left hand finger should drop on the note at the precise instant that the right hand strikes the string—not a fraction of a second before or after. In a descending passage, the left hand finger is raised from the note behind at precisely the same instant as the string is struck, also.

This invariable rule of technique applies equally to quick or slow passages, and in fact is the most important law governing the relation of right and left hand action.

The first exercise—Example II —is quite sufficient to commence to acquire this first and essential training of the hands, and even the advanced player will find those little scales, notwithstanding their simplicity, very useful for the commencement of the daily practice.