Playing the banjo is wonderous, joyful, magical and irresistible. Whether it’s the syncopated sparkling five string banjo, the emotion filled chord melody of a four string banjo, the sweet sonorous depth of the long neck banjo or the powerful, wide reaching elegance of the six string banjo, the banjo touches every human being who hears it.
Learning to play the banjo is not as complicated as you might think. Its beautiful, intricate music is released when you adhere to the following: Practice, Persistence, Patience, and Faith.
Practice is working on your technique. It is working on your body’s coordination; muscles, tendons, nerves, etc. Your practice involves lots and lots of repetition. The more you do something, the better you get at it…period! Think about learning to tie your shoes. You don’t think about it now, but when you were young it was a challenge. At first, you went through it slowly until it became second nature.
When you practice slow, you learn fast.
When you practice regularly, you retain more of what you learn.
Greg Deering used to tell me “all things bow to persistence.” Athletes throughout history have proven to us that “you may not win the marathon, but if you stop before it’s over, you’ve lost. However…if you finish the marathon, you have won a personal victory, regardless of how you place compared to others.”
So it is with the banjo. Every minute that you spend in concentrated training brings you closer and closer to the finish line…playing the way you want to play.
Every one of us has worked at something in our lives and has been stopped. We have hit a wall that seems insurmountable. Whether in our jobs, personal challenges, or other activities, I don’t care who you are, you’ve faced that feeling of “not getting anywhere”. It is frustrating. It seems impossible to overcome.
Sadly, during those tough times, we commonly look at people around us on youtube or TV, playing beautiful, exciting, magical banjo music and they make it look so easy that we often feel the gap between our daily struggle and their perfect tone, timing and style is too great to cross.
At that point, we are comparing our worst to their best!
You know what? That is the wrong focus. When you’re staring at that gap of ability, it’s pretty darn hard to see how wrong your focus is. But…that is THE WRONG FOCUS.
What you accomplish with your banjo, every day that you practice, is a wondrous and beautiful miracle.
Your nerves, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are slowly, gradually becoming accustomed to this new activity. The small, fine motor muscles used in banjo playing take longer to develop than the large, gross motor movement muscles. That is why it takes more time to learn a musical instrument than to increase your number of push-ups.
However, like watching your fingernails grow, this slow fine muscle development means you must continue your banjo practice and not expect to see immediate results.
For most of us, patience is a learned virtue. Being patient means continuing your banjo training without pressuring yourself to be successful in an un-realistic time.
Let’s say that you have been patiently practicing for a good long time; staying with your regimen and keeping relaxed while you practice; Things are getting a little stale and you start getting that “not getting anywhere” feeling; Your practice feels like the same old, same old and you are definitely “flat on a plateau” in your development. This terrible question hits you in a moment of frustration, “Can I really do this?”
Since I retired, I’ve had time to work on my musical aspirations. When I was in my 20’s I injured my right hand and lost my ability to play the banjo. I spent well over 20 years visiting doctors and physical therapists trying to get my right had to work. The injury proved insurmountable so I tried to re-think my musical focus.
While working at Deering, with Greg Deering’s consistent encouragement I learned to play the electric bass guitar using only my left hand by tapping the strings to the frets. My right hand was just draped over the body of the guitar and not used for anything.
I can tell you that discouragement and I were close pals for many, many years. I worked at playing. I gave up. I worked at it again. I gave up again. This was a constant pattern that I seemed destined to never break.
Recently my best friend asked me, “what does your music mean to you?” When I answered this question to myself, I realized that despite my physical handicap, I would not succeed unless I found the one factor that would help me continue my passion for music… faith.
If a person has no faith, they cannot succeed. If a person has faith that they WILL succeed, they will succeed. It is just that simple. You will succeed in your banjo playing. Every moment spent practicing your banjo is a precious gift. When you believe you will succeed, that faith will keep you focused on the job at hand, and not whether this is going to work.
You might now be asking, OK Mr. philosopher, have you overcome your left hand only handicap to prove your points here today? I am playing better today than I was six months ago, better than two years ago, and better than four years ago. I get discouraged all the time, but my playing is getting better all the time. My faith that "this is working” keeps me going. True, I have to learn what’s possible and what isn’t possible with the technique of playing with one hand only.
Everyone has limitations. Having limitations is not a negative. It’s what makes each of us unique.
John Hartford once said, "style is based on limitations”. Singer John Denver once said in a recording studio when asked if this take was practice, he replied, “they’re all practice”.
Know that your effort will continually improve your banjo playing. Practice, persistence, and patience will teach you to play the banjo and faith will keep you on the road to success.
I wanted to share this message today to encourage everyone who wants to learn to play the banjo to not be afraid to do it and as you progress, don’t associate discouragement with reality. Faith isn’t always easy, but it’s always effective.
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