Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo


Today, I presented a program about the National Road at a senior residential complex.

My presentation included a song, "The Old Turnpike", c1855 and then finished with "Paddy on the Turnpike" and "Paddy on the Railroad".  I was concerned about "The Old Turnpike" because the verses just wouldn't roll off my tongue easily.  I actually did that one......not perfect, but acceptable.  I absolutely butchered the two tunes even though I was fairly comfortable with them at home.  I mean I BUTCHERED them!!  I know that it was because I was nervous playing solo in front of people.


Does anyone have any insights on this circumstance?  Any tips?  I am presenting a much longer and more involved program about Antebellum America (with 24 partial songs) for a library in less than two weeks, and though I had felt more confidence in it, I am beginning to worry after today's debacle. 


I know what would help the most would be to play in public more often.  Does anyone have additional advice while doing so?   Bottom line:  How can I play in public (particularly solo) as though I'm playing for my own enjoyment/relaxation in my living room?!?   

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Carl Anderton gave me a priceless tip once..."All my lyrics are cut and paste".

Ha...that sure has come in handy.

However, no matter what, there is always one I screw up. Sometimes I film it and get home and laugh at the babble I used to fill it out with sylables.

I actually carry a lyric book with me now. Not that I actually use it all the time, but it's nice knowing I have it there. 


Thanks for the advice, but my problem, today, went beyond forgetting lyrics.  That can happen to people even without performance anxiety, I would think.  I was trying to play tunes (instrumentals) and was totally lost and the more I fretted (with minstrel banjo, this is in reference to my mental condition) the worse it got.  I just could not settle down and pretend that I was at home, playing for my own enjoyment, where I didn't have particular difficulty with these same tunes.

Perhaps that is the solution, as difficult as it seems to be for me.......to become adept at fooling myself into thinking I'm at home(?)    Surely, others have been in this situation(?)


Yes, that might help! ......and I'm sorry, Tim.  I didn't mean to downplay forgetting lyrics.

I just wasn't sure if you meant that you sometimes forget them out of nervousness or anxiety, I suppose because I cannot picture that as an affliction you might suffer from, occasionally.  Forgetting lyrics AND butchering an instrumental tune can certainly happen when I'm nervous.   When I have anxiety about forgetting a lyric, it's often preceded by my destructive mind thinking, "Oh no!  What if I forget the next verse!!"  How do I turn off that voice!?

Sometimes I get it playing 1860's base ball.  We use no gloves and sometimes I think, "Oh no!  What if I drop this fly ball?!"  When that voice starts talking, I am much more likely to actually drop it!   Yikes! I'm beginning to sound like a real head case!  ...but I sure would like to overcome this and relax.  Maybe it's just a case of trying to enjoy myself more.

Well Al, you are not alone. Everybody battles these demons.

How can I play in public (particularly solo) as though I'm playing for my own enjoyment/relaxation in my living room?!?


hmmm...I don't think you ever can. I've been playing in public for 40 years. There's a level of liveliness, or adrenaliness, or exitedness that comes with playing live. You know that. I just expect that in public, I have to tap into that or ride along with it or I'm gonna fall - way down. I hate playing solo in a way but with a big ole minstrel banjo on my lap I don't feel so alone. Strange. When I play duets or trios, I laugh out loud when someone, including me, screws up. Nobody hears the screw up, only the laughter. I told my kids to never apologize on the microphone because nobody hears your goofs, and it makes you look bad. Guitarist and fiddler Gatemouth Brown said you've gotta be like a cat and cover your tail. He said goof ups are always there and you have to work with them.  Good laughter always works for me - to find somebody to joke with really changes things. When I was younger I observed other guys before the performance getting ready- 2 whiskeys and 2 beers, acid, 2 bottles of Robitussin. Whew. I guess before I learned to lighten up I smoked a bunch. A buddy I played with for years said the best thing is to play what you know and know it well. He said, onstage, don't play outside your bubble. He was always a solid entertainer. Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland told my fiddling brother DO NOT take a tune onstage until you can play it upside down, inside out and in your sleep. I would always tell my brother that and Jerry proved to my little brother that yes, I am a musical genius. Actually, taping some notes inside my banjo keeps me going. It's the silence that makes me nervous.

One of my proffs in college called it the constant "art of recovery"...using tips like Terry's.

I like playing with at least a duo...it changes everything. 

Yes, I agree.  In past experiences (a long time ago) I always felt much better with a duo or more.

I guess it might be hitting me now since I am beginning to have my first real experiences as a solo via some historical programming to which I have chosen to include music.

I loose fine motor control when I get onstage...my hands shake like I've got the palsey (turns out this is common). This tends to make my stroke-style/Clawhammer performance only acceptable and my fingerstyle completely crap. No way I can sing...which is probably a good thing for the audience!


Working with others onstage is also great. Even in such a friendly environment as AEBG, I look for someone to get up onstage with me. I just get too nervous to get up there alone.


I do pretty well if I get a chance to talk, tell something about the banjo or the tune. This drops my adrenaline levels and is relaxing, like taking a deep breath. I had to play onstage at a Banjo Camp (staff member, teaching stroke and claw) a few years ago and they used full lighting/dark audience, etc. You cannot see past the end of the stage...and without being able to see the audience, I actually relaxed a good bit.


If it gets too bad, ask your doctor about beta-blockers like Xanax. These are often prescribed for stage-fright. I've talked to several professional musicians who reported excellent results. They also said they really only needed it for two or three performances, never took it again. I'm about to start a regular gig (retirement homes, etc.) here in town with an old friend and I will probably try it myself soon.

Part of the thrill of playing for an audience comes from those butterflies. You probably can't ever shake all of it, and I'm convinced I wouldn't want to. Controlling it is another matter. As Terry Bell said, make sure you know each song in your set list very well before playing them in front of an audience. Not letting on that you made a mistake is good advice also, though sometimes it can work well to "fess up." I introduced a song at a gig several years ago, played the intro, and promptly forgot the words. I played a harmonica break, but still couldn't remember 'em. I stopped, and said "Well, I knew the words yesterday!" I got a good laugh, and went to the next song. Later, when my memory came back, I did the first song. After I finished it, I said "That was the one I couldn't remember a while ago." Got a second good laugh from it. The point is, the audience wants to have fun. They came to hear music and have fun. They are on our side, and will back us to the hilt, given a chance.  If you can make them laugh, dance or sing along, they'll enjoy the performance. A mistake or two just shows them you're real, and they don't think anything about it. I have begun bringing a book with the lyrics in it, and am making a Large Print edition for dark stages, etc. I have 4 books started with different songs for different performances, so I don't have to fumble through 20th century country songs looking for the Civil War songs I'm trying to perform.

Make a set list, in the order you plan to play the songs. I find myself trying to remember what songs I know, when  I get in front of an audience. The list jogs my memory. The book works the same way, but a list is small and good to refer to. Even at open mics, where I can jump across genre's at will, I find myself at a loss for what to play next. If there is a central theme for the performance, that limits what songs I can use, so a list is more helpful. I also like to talk a bit about the songs. Who wrote them, it it's known, how old they are, and if there are other versions with different lyrics. It brings the songs to life,and sometimes the stories about the songs are as interesting as the songs. I did a Civil War performance last April, and researched as much as possible to talk about each song. Keep it short, but do say something when you can. I stay away from making guesses, though. Like it says in the Doctor's oath, "First, do no harm."  

Hecklers: You may have seen such on TV. The reality is they are rarer than hens teeth. If one is in the audience, the rest of the crowd will shut him up. His friends won't even back him. Don't even waste time worrying about that issue.

Will I forget the words again?  Probably, but with my book handy, it isn't an issue. Will I make a fool of myself? Yeah, sooner or later, but it won't be the first time, or the last. Heck, it might not be the first time that DAY! Will it bother me?  Only till I go to sleep that night. In the morning, the sun will rise right on schedule, and the weather will do whatever it is going to do that day. No mountains will crash into the sea because I messed up a few tunes. I worry more about messing up at home. My wife will worry enough for both of us, if she hears me mess up while rehearsing at home. She'll have me writing the lyrics on a black board 100 times. Must be some kinda latent school mar'm inside.

Relax, warm up your hands and vocal chords before if possible, and enjoy what you're doing. Yearsd from now, you'll have years of experience.


Thanks for the tips, Paul.  Your advice helped me to realize that no one cares about mistakes as much as the performer does, and the audience is on our side.  If we enjoy what we're doing most of the audience will, too.

.....and the types of presentations I'm giving ....and hope to participate in during retirement are those where music is merely a supplement to a program about some historical event/issue.  They aren't coming to see/hear a virtuoso on the minstrel banjo!  Most won't even know what one is!  And, in my program next week, I'm giving the audience quotes of famous people to read.  Some of them might be as nervous as I! 

As long as I stay on the beat - that's job one.

Don't freak out - job two.

Don't play too fast - job three.

For God's sake - smile sometime. - job four.


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