How Long Will It Take To Learn the Banjo?

by Barry Hunn

A common question we receive is how long will it take to learn the banjo? A customer called the other day and proclaimed that he was having trouble catching on to the banjo. In particular, he was having trouble making chords with his fretting hand. Our customer service rep asked how long he’d been playing the banjo?  “A month” was the response.

His expectations were that he should be able to play to whatever his “standard” was in one month. When we are starting to learn to play it is absolutely normal and common for us to want to be able to play now, without waiting. After all, the beautiful sparkling sound is what we want and it is what draws us to pick up our banjo. But what kind of timeframe to learn and what kind of skill level expectation are realistic?

Playing the banjo is fun at every level. When we try to put a timeline on “how long it takes” we automatically set up expectations about success and failure rather than focus on the joy that we get playing our banjo. Doesn’t it seem that the question puts us in a judgmental mindset that expects us to either succeed or fail? If we love the banjo, how can we ever be a failure playing it at any level?

I understand in a race, there is a winner and there are those who did not win. But that is a situation where someone touched the finish line before everyone else or someone ran the race faster than everyone else. That is a measurable, clearly defined comparison between performances, like most athletic competitions. How can we treat the artistic expression of playing the banjo like a competition?

Playing music on the banjo is a personal expression and therefore there really is no success or failure - there is just expression.

Most of us respond well to setting goals like “I want to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown from scratch”.  This is a good and healthy goal. On the other hand, learning it from scratch in three days might be a little unrealistic. I am not deliberately being obtuse, but I think too many of us judge ourselves by comparing what we do with what others do.

We must do that in a race or a competition. That is the nature of competition, but it really doesn’t apply to playing the banjo and enjoying it.

Instead of asking how long will it take to play the banjo, what if we asked ourselves “what can I do to enjoy playing the banjo even more than I do now?” Doesn’t that really apply more to “an activity that we enjoy” rather than setting up competitive expectations that really don’t apply to artistic expression in the first place?

The basis of the original question, I think, is more accurately expressed as “how long will it take for me to be able to express myself with complete fluidity and without limit just like the famous players I admire so much?”

This is what we generally perceive our favorite artists as being able to do. Interestingly enough, the late great John Hartford said in an interview years ago, something along the lines of “if I could get what’s in my head onto my banjo I’d be thrilled”. His inference here was that even as a professional, he was still working toward what he wanted to be able to create and had not truly arrived yet.  He was not a young man when he said this.

I suppose if a person dedicated enough time and energy to practicing the banjo they might be able to express themselves without limit, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who felt that way. Everyone has limitations.

Some of the greatest, and most successful artists and entertainers are the ones who accept their limitations and embrace what they are able to do instead of wishing they could do more.  It is also true that some artists are rather brutal with themselves to progress and to do more and more and sadly, many of them are not happy people because of this.

We as admirers and audience members tend to view these masterful players as “being able to do anything”. This is usually what we compare ourselves to.

Rather than ask ourselves how long will it take to be able to play the banjo, let’s change our focus.

  • Why not celebrate that we are able to work at playing our banjo?
  • Why not focus on every beautiful note that we can create as opposed to focusing on the beautiful notes that someone else is creating?
  • Why not focus on what we can do and not focus on what we can’t do?
  • Why not focus on spending time playing our banjo because we love it?

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