Practicing to Practice

by Barry Hunn

When learning to play the banjo (or learning anything for that matter) learning becomes more enjoyable when we can accept where we are at that time in our development.  What is very common for most of us is that we tend to want to immediately be where we are able to perform at a very high level of skill before we have actually developed that skill.

What is needed for learning, is a balance between a drive to improve and an almost complacent satisfaction with where we are at this moment. If we are too complacent, we stop reaching for new techniques, ideas, and we stop developing. On the other hand, if the drive to improve overrides our enjoyment of the moment, then playing the banjo becomes an arduous and odious task, that needs to be endured instead of enjoyed in order to accomplish a “goal”.

This might seem really obvious, but when you’re practicing, and working toward a specific skill level or goal, it is amazingly easy to fall into a feeling that you will never arrive where you want to be unless you push yourself very forcefully. It’s so easy to fall into this, because in most cases our desire to accomplish something overrides our ability to see where we are at that moment. Almost everybody does this: the degree to which we do this does vary from individual to individual. 

For those of you who have read my articles in the past, you know that I speak about this patience and practicing idea from personal experience. I used a finger pick bluegrass banjo professionally and during my college days I performed with friends and other performers and shared the stage with acts like Earl Scruggs and the Earl Scruggs review. However, I inherited the medical condition called focal dystonia, which pretty much ended my banjo picking career. Not being a person that likes to give up on anything, I ended up working with physical therapists and various doctors for more than 25 years in an effort to regain my ability to finger pick the banjo. The knowledge gained from this experience has helped me to understand the process of learning and how difficult this process can seem to students just beginning.  It has also revealed insights of how to make the learning process more enjoyable, easier, and, believe it or not, a little faster.

The Pressure of Time

We have all observed children who learn easily and seemingly quickly. While it is true that we are able to learn more easily when we are young, it is also true that most children do not bear the time constraints or emotional pressures of most adults. I have seen adults learn to play the banjo about as easily as many children. However, they always accomplish this because they have managed to control their perception of progress within the confines of the time that they have available.

In my observation over 50 years of learning and teaching banjo, (as well as learning other activities), the students who learn the quickest, ironically, are usually the students who thoroughly enjoy every moment they spend with their banjo. They don’t enjoy it if they make progress, they enjoy it whether they make progress or not… At least, that is their attitude.

The Pressure of Talent Perception

Probably the single most difficult challenge that new musicians face is the question that can float into a person’s mind, “do I have the needed talent to be able to play the banjo?”

While everyone has different innate abilities (whether in music, sports, art, analytical thinking, etc.), I have never met or seen anyone who was unable to play the banjo at least at a very basic level. (This isn’t necessarily true for other fretted stringed instruments.)

The Pressure Builds

So, here’s the problem: we have an adult who has to work for a living, possibly raising children, taking care of the home, and all of the responsibilities that accompany these wonderful daily activities. Buried inside of all of this is the desire to play the banjo. How in the world is this going to be accomplished?

There is an old story about a man who was being chased by a hungry tiger. In order to escape, he ran to a very sheer cliff, jumped over the edge and was hanging on by his fingertips. Just when he thought he was safe, he looked down below and there was a huge hungry crocodile in the river below him. So up above him was the hungry tiger and below him was the hungry crocodile. While he looked up and below trying to figure out how to get out of this mess he looked straight ahead and growing off of the cliff was a huge, ripe, red strawberry. He reached out, plucked the strawberry, took a big bite and thought to himself man, that’s good.

The idea of this story is that even though we have difficulties in both time and circumstance, we can decide to make the best use of and enjoy the very moment in which we are living.

When you think about it, if you enjoy the banjo, and you want to learn to play, what’s your hurry? Do you have to play like a professional by next Thursday? Or perhaps more precisely, do you ever have to play like a professional? Does every person who goes to a golf course on Saturday or Sunday have to play like a professional? Does every person who shoots a few baskets in the evenings at the local gym have to play like a professional basketball player?

Practice Practicing

What if we practiced our practicing technique?  What I mean by this, is what if we practiced clearing our mind of any expectations of accomplishing anything while were playing the banjo? Also, this would include expectations of the time we plan to spend or the level of accomplishment that we would achieve.  For example; why can’t we sit down, knowing we have 10 minutes, and just slowly, joyfully practice what we know how to do right now? Children have an easier time doing this mostly, because they have no other responsibilities. Okay… We’re not children and we do have responsibilities, but what if we could forget about that for just 10 minutes?

From what I have heard and read, we tend to improve our abilities when we practice them, regardless of what the abilities are. However, if we practice techniques that are self-defeating, then we are digging ourselves into a hole even though “we’re putting in the time.”

How many of us have worked hard to develop some sort of skill or technique only to become frustrated and feel thwarted regardless of how much time we invest? I think, if we analyze what happened, we would very likely see that we did make progress, but our “expectations” or our “peer evaluations” did not match with the progress that we achieved.

When I was learning to play as a young man, it really was terribly disappointing when a family member or friend was rather blasé or not very encouraging when I would play the banjo in a family setting. They were often comparing me to the professionals… And they convinced me by their lack of approval to compare myself to professionals as well.

As I got older, I began to see that everyone experienced these kinds of disappointments in feedback from friends, family, acquaintances, etc. I also began to see that while some of these “observations by interested persons” were offered innocently and without any intention of being malicious or cruel, they were rather heartbreaking nonetheless.

On the positive side, they could also be used to spur me on to greater development: if, I did not treat them as the final word of judgment, of my skill level or innate ability.

So perhaps, one of the most important techniques to practice, is to practice the sheer joy that comes from playing the banjo. After all, a person who can play with magnificent technique who is not enjoying the playing because they are “waiting for a great moment of achievement” is no happier than a beginner who is also waiting to “be able to play”.

Playing the banjo can be very simple. Playing the banjo can be very complex. But I think all of us are searching for the joy that comes from playing the banjo.

I think we would all be better off to practice the joy.


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