Author: Poling, Chuck

Practically Practicing

Recently, Jeanie and I played a few shows with Ray Bierl accompanying us on fiddle. Ray is a fun guy to play with and is very versatile, which is great for us because we play a mix bluegrass, old-time, honky tonk, and Western swing. Though he has the chops of someone who’s been playing since childhood, he didn’t take up the fiddle until he was 35 years old. Despite the late start he forged ahead, practicing every night and bringing the fiddle to work every day to get in some practice whenever he could.

It’s that kind of dedication that takes you from novice to fiddler-about-town in a relatively short time. I tried the fiddle myself some 30 years ago and for about six months I dutifully ran through my exercises every day, no doubt branding the mangled melodies of “Angeline the Baker” and “Old Joe Clark” into my neighbors’ minds. I had just returned home from four years of college out of state and had lost track of my high school friends, so I had a lot of time on my hands. But after a lot of effort I still sounded like the death cry of rare species of monkey. Then my social life started picking up and I had better things to do besides sawing on the old fiddle.

Since then, I’ve been concentrating on mandolin. In the last twelve or so years I’ve managed to make some progress, though it’s usually two steps forward and one step back. Which gets us, finally, to the topic of today’s column. How does one keep motivated to practice every day and to commit to being the best musician one can be? For most of us, it’s not realistic to quit our jobs and just devote ourselves to playing bluegrass music. So we have to fit in our music with the rest of our life – family, work, other hobbies, etc.

We all know that playing 20 or 30 minutes of guitar every day is more productive than playing four hours on the weekend and not picking it up again for another week. It seems that somewhere in our busy day we should be able to commit to 20 minutes for practice, but then there are a lot of cute kitty videos to watch on YouTube.

Jeanie has been playing clawhammer banjo for a few years and has had some fits and starts with the dang thing. She already plays guitar and is learning bass as well, besides having a pretty demanding day job. She’s taken several workshops that energize her and get her going for a while, but she finds it difficult to maintain the level of intensity that the instrument requires.

Lately, she’s been pretty good about keeping after it. At a recent performance, we featured a couple of songs she plays on banjo. Nothing too fancy, but a nice interlude in the set and, it turned out, a real crowd pleaser. She practiced a lot in the weeks leading up to our show, and since then, she’s been frailing away pretty regularly and hopefully has entered a new phase that will see her achieve some cumulative progress.

I manage to play mandolin at least three times a week, more if I’m practicing for a show. Sometimes I play along with recordings or just accompany Jeanie on whatever she’s playing. There are times when I’m really woodshedding, going over a lick or a break or learning a new tune from scratch. I was very inspired by Mike Compton’s class at this year’s CBA Summer Music Camp and am trying to incorporate some of his teachings into my playing.

Alas, when I’m busy with other things I wish I had time to pick. When I have time to pick regularly I realize I’m making some progress and regret that I don’t have even more time to devote to the mysteries of the mandolin.

So, dear readers, tell me how you do it. What gets you motivated? How do you find the strength to turn off the “Dancing with the Stars” or those @#%^&*$^! cute kitty videos on YouTube? Do you ever take your instrument to work and practice there? Do your loved ones/friends/roommates encourage you?

Posted:  11/28/2011

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email