I used to teach a lot of Bluegrass banjo workshops and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really great professional players over the years and I can honestly say that I have enjoyed all of my time teaching and that the overwhelming majority of my experiences have been positive. I think it’s funny that the ONLY time I have ever received a complaint was from the “free” (actually included with an event) workshop I helped teach. I really let that bother me quite a bit at the time, but have since let it go. I showed up completely prepared and with a plan, printed material as well as a link to my website where the information presented could be reviewed in the form of a video. I really prepare for these things and I want to give the attendees of my portion of the workshop the best opportunity to understand the material as possible.
I get the impression that some folks think that if you set through a 2 hour (minus the chit chat) workshop that you will walk away with all the instant gratification you will ever need to ascend to the level of (if not surpass) the likes of Earl, J.D., Sonny, etc., etc. Having taught professionally I can tell you that the “I just purchased a banjo… how hard could this be” group of folks actually do exist… Thank God their numbers are minuscule compared to the majority who know that you must start at the beginning and not the middle… or at the top, depending on their allotment of raw albeit slightly misguided ambition.
The truth is that if you want to learn to play any musical instrument well, you will be putting in an inordinate about of time to make that happen. I have witnessed (time and time again) people taking months to master a task like shifting between 3 closed chord shapes in order to be able to start learning accompaniment (backup banjo). I’ve seen others take to those same closed shapes so naturally that I would swear they had been playing for over 6 months before coming to me for lessons. I’ve taught some brilliant engineers the same techniques, shapes, rolls, phrases, etc. over and over… and over… to no avail. For some reason the majority of people who have an extreme type “A” personality have a very difficult time turning off their frontal lobes long enough to just play. Daring to not do what they are doing well or without having the luxury of analyzing every note, pull-off right and left hand digit creates more of a list of things that can be checked off. This makes the timing nonexistent and therefor what they are doing, even though the notes are 100% present and accounted for, non-musical. Daring to suck until they get it doesn’t always work for them. Others are a rare blend of type “A” and “B” personalities who will generally excel at music and then understand it completely when they have gone through an exercise, then happily go beyond the assignment to apply what they have learned to something else. These are the people who only need a gently push in the right direction for they will teach themselves. Give them a good teacher and they will surpass all expectations!
I have taught young people who’s parents were living vicariously through little Johnney or Susie and who would almost predictably ask, at some point, “Why is it they haven’t learned to play well yet?” What’s wrong, dad?… Junior doesn’t want to be the next Earl Scruggs and it’s my fault? Oh, how I could see those coming from a mile away. 5 minutes of practice 30 minutes before lesson time to meet the obligatory trip with mom or dad so their prodigy could blossom before their very eyes while all the time they were no more interested in learning to play the banjo than they were participating in on the job training as a rodeo clown. They had no conviction, passion or desire.
Thankfully most people are somewhere in the middle. Some people want to learn for their own personal entertainment while others are aiming for a professional level of musicianship. Adults do learn at a different pace than an impassioned 10 year old with a proclivity for music and the tenacity to make it happen… it also helps that there isn’t a job or college in the way. Working adults come with responsibilities that take priority. Family comes before banjo, and it should! The amount of time you want to put into something and the amount of time you can put into something are often at odds with each other. This thing, no matter how fun it is, takes time and dedication and work. A lot of work…
Putting in the work sounds like such drudgery, doesn’t it? The truth is if you have fallen in love with the banjo there is nothing that will stand between you and learning to play it… period! You will sacrifice social time, sleep, love, money (boy, that latter one is true ha, ha…) to make your dream of playing banjo a reality. The time you spend learning to play it and mastering every little piece in that very large puzzle in order to start putting large enough clumps of those pieces together to make it sound like you can actually play won’t seem like a chore at all.
Most (I’d say way over 90%) of the musical instruments that are sold to beginners today will never actually be played. They will live out their inexpensive little Taiwan born lives behind a closet door after a couple of weeks of being noodled with and even with the free help of YouTube the instant gratification doesn’t come. That’s because most people fall in love with the idea of being a musician instead of with the music and the journey of learning to play it. That’s why some of what are in my opinion junky, Asian import guitar, banjo and mandolin manufacturers today can offer a lifetime warrantee to the original owner. Beginners are usually infatuated with the idea, not out right in love with it and willing to put up with what equates to a masters degree’s worth of time actually leaning to play.
It isn’t realistic to show up to a banjo workshop, free or otherwise, and expect to walk away with skills you didn’t possess before you walked in. You can however, assuming the instructor is a good one, walk away with a bit of solid knowledge that you can develop. It’s the same if you are taking professional lessons… a good teacher will help you avoid developing bad habits, he or she will gently coach you and lead you in the right direction at your pace. You see, it is you who is learning, not the instructor. It is you who are teaching your hands, mind and ears how to listen and to make your banjo sound like it knows the song you are learning.
A good instructor who not only plays on a professional level but who can convey ideas to persons who all learn at a different level and do it well will absolutely help, but you are the first person in the learning chain. Teaching a group lesson is one of the most difficult things that even the best instructor can do because there are too many targets and all of them are in a different spot on the board. So, if you are attending a group workshop, ask questions, talk one-on-one to the teacher before and after the workshop if possible. Try to see where you are and what level you are really on… I know most people who are still deep in the thicket that is the beginner level fancy themselves an intermediate player as soon as they can kinda pull off a couple of tunes… sorta… oh, and they know how to hold 2 or 3 chord shapes. The fact is most professional level instructors consider a person who can actually hang in a jam session without too much difficulty on standard 2, 3 and 4 chord standards to be on an intermediate level.
So, get out your banjo and play instead of looking for the instant gratification that doesn’t exist. Don’t buy do-dads in hopes of improving your playing when working on your timing and your right hand skills will do you way more good than that set of picks that “Marketing Mike” recommends. Truly evaluate where you are in your playing ability. Go play with other musicians and try to hang around with people who are better than you because you can’t learn anything from someone who sucks. Stay off public forums because those people are a collective of differing opinions all of whom are right… just ask them. Attend all the free or professionally taught workshops you want, but pay attention to your level and what level of material that is being taught and try to align yourself with an instructor who is teaching as close to your ability level as is possible. But above all, play.