Paul Hawthorne's Web Site
Banjo Psych 102

banjo head, banjo psych logoSetting Yourself Up To Lose?

There is one sure commandment that is necessary to learn to play the banjo.


The plain truth is that most people who try to learn the banjo (or any other musical instrument) do just that: they try and then give up. It is common to overestimate what is required for a small project and to underestimate the work required for a large project. The reason for this is it keeps us looking good. We've made a great achievement on the little things, and have a built in excuse to quit for larger ones...we can say after a while that we just couldn't do it, but we can say "I TRIED". Big deal. Trying is a nice and phony way we justify failure. Results count.

If you decide to learn to play the banjo, especially in a three finger style, it is going to take an effort. It will not be all fun; that learned expectation is one way that we are trained to limit ourselves.

The last time you learned to express yourself through a communications medium you were a world class professional student of everything. You learned from masters of the art you wanted to be really good at and it still took several years. You also were not prepared to accept failure at all.

It was when you learned to talk.

If you could really focus on the banjo for 6 months or a year under the guidance of a master whom you trusted, the results would be massive. Very few learners get that clear about the banjo. Bill Keith had a student named Bryan Landers a few years back who did attach himself to Bill in just that way, and he is an awesome musician already. Bill describes him as "the best student I ever had.".

When I find someone who can do what I want, I make them my teacher. I questioned Bryan about how he learned so quickly, and was able to focus so well. His answer was simple: "It's what I wanted to do."

Now there are other things that take your time too, Family, work, school, and other recreations could be a few of these, These will dilute your learning per unit calendar time. The reason I bring this up is that you may have an unreasonable expectation on yourself to play pretty well in a few days, weeks or months. Playing involves learning micro-motions of both hands. A good analogy for you to experience is to write your name on a piece of paper, and then do the same thing with your OTHER hand. If you are right handed, write your name with your left hand. Actually do this right now to get the feeling of it. If you are resisting doing the little test, how does that fit with the three ways of dealing with a new idea described in Effective Learning?

Writing is a similar skill to playing the banjo in that it requires fine muscle control in real time. How long would it take to learn to write fluidly with your other hand if you don't spend 12 hours a day doing it under the full time guidance of a supportive teacher? More than a few weeks? Think about this when you are discouraged with your banjo progress. Can you cut yourself some slack? Odd as it may sound, this will actually allow you to internalize playing faster. I'm not suggesting being sloppy, but do enjoy the ride.

Earl Scruggs was recently asked what advice he would give beginners. His answer is unchanged from what he said in the 1970's in reply to the same question.

"Don't give up! Most folks start off trying to play too fast or too hard a song. Then they get frustrated when they can't make it sound right or they can't play it as fast as they think they should. Then they quit. You should start out with easy songs. Take it slow and be patient. You'll get better in time if you keep at it." - Earl Scruggs, Washington, D.C., 4 July 2003

Commitment is a loaded word in our society. I submit commitment is not forcing yourself, gritting your teeth, make something of it.... it is surrendering (isn't that a word that fills with joy?) to the way things are, not what you'd like them to be. We are trained differently, and seeing the reality of your present learning habits is almost always essential. Mastery and the Art of Practice on the reading list are ways to get a grasp on your reality, have concepts worth considering.

The idea of never giving up may be too intimidating. If you really need a time frame, give it at least five years. At one or two you may be ready to chuck it. Go for five on the 5 string. It will work. I'm not saying it will take that long before you are comfortable with the way you play and the benefits you get from playing; it probably won't. If you don't want to commit that long to it, consider doing something else. The scalding truth is it will probably be better use of your time and resources.


Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 01 Apr 2007 by WF