“It Takes Three Years to Become a Beginner.” If I had heard that from day one, would it have dissuaded me? Probably not. The stubbornness and determination that I have is genetic, but I appreciate the sentiment now. My heart was sold on the banjo before I even truly considered it an option for someone like me back then: someone who never played a string instrument, and someone lacking a musical community.
I will say that learning to play the banjo is like trying to fit into those “skinny” jeans. You know, the ones you struggle to wiggle into whether or not you have to move a mountain to do so? Pull up the ranks in your left hand technique, then the right, then learn up the neck backup, then down then neck melody, don’t forget those roll patterns, hit it harder, wait – just stop and feel it, but don’t forget to use the metronome or you’ll be out of time! You go around and around in all the areas of learning the banjo, and barely get up to your knees in confidence and skill. You’re left standing in a jam with your bum hanging out of your pants because you couldn’t pull it all together. Not just yet.
Now, I know songs that I know, maybe ten total after two a half years – and I’m almost completely lost in the other songs that I don’t know, which are innumerable, unless I can pull off the same break from one of my other ten. The art of playing the banjo is body encompassing – It takes listening, it takes impeccable rhythm and timing, it takes coordination and motor skills in opposing hands (think patting your head and rubbing belly times 100!), it takes a huge heart and determination, It takes 5 string with 3 picks and fitting that into 4 beats. Wrap your heads around that math.
For all my hours of dedication, equally shadowed by feelings of doubt and discouragement, there is no greater joy than playing music with others on the banjo. Placing that banjo sound down where it’s supposed to go, lick by lick. If I had picked up the guitar or stuck with the fiddle, I may have been a little further along this incredible journey into bluegrass, but there is no comparison in my heart to a loud, and on time, banjo pickin’ gal.
And just when you think that you’ve got it, you step into that jam ready to take a break – hanky nearby to dry your sweaty palms – and they go and play that dang song just a tad too fast to pull it all off. That’s playing the banjo, kid.