There is one Christmas that stands out in my memory as my favorite. I was 14 years old and didn’t ask for anything in particular, but what I found under the tree had the biggest impact on my life, more so than anything else. It was a banjo.
Why did my parents choose a banjo? We lived north of Boston at the time and didn’t have a connection of any kind to bluegrass or old time Appalachian music. My mom was a school teacher and one of her fellow teachers, Karen Wolf, was also a folk musician. Karen Wolf played the spoons and her husband, Andy Wolf, played the fiddle and the banjo. I am not exactly sure how it happened, but Karen Wolf must have inspired my mom to get me a banjo for Christmas.
I loved it. I practiced all of the time, learning through a Tony Trischka book. I really didn’t know anything about banjo music, but went through the Rise Up Singing songbook which had the lyrics and chords to thousands of folk, blues, and r&b tunes. I must have tried to learn every song in that book. Banjo became a part of me. It gave me a something to focus on. A place to forget everything else. A place to relax. It gave me an identity.
I went on to go to college for music (there wasn’t a banjo program anywhere at that time, but now Berklee - one of the schools I went to - has a major in banjo. I must have inspired them.). I became a professional musician playing the banjo and later started working for Deering.
That one Christmas present changed my life. Without it I probably never would have gone to music school. I would have had a completely different career path. I would most likely have never met my wife. The list goes on.
I am not expecting everyone to take to the instrument like I did and want to pursue it for the rest of their life as a career. But just by playing a musical instrument a couple times a week a person’s world can open up. Playing music has been proven to help people improve their physical and mental health. So this year, give the gift of music. It doesn’t have to be a banjo (although this is the easiest stringed instrument to get started playing), but give a gift that will last a lifetime and possibly change someones life.
If you are new to banjo, welcome! If you are anything like many fellow beginning banjo players, you likely deal with one or more of these common issues.
It’s too late to learn when the dirt hits our face, but until then, we have plenty of time to learn how to play the banjo.
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