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The Lifelong Learning Process

Posted by wbloomfield on Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Despite the appearance when we watch our favorite banjo and bluegrass stars, becoming proficient on an instrument does not just happen. Growing up, I remember listening to my Dad play the banjo and my brother play the guitar and thinking how amazing it sounded. I had hated piano lessons as a kid, but thought that maybe this guitar thing might work out. At 14, I picked up the guitar, worked hard at getting those first three chords, but ultimately gave up and decided that I just didn't have the talent. Sports interested me more and practicing sports never seemed hard like practicing music did. When I say I gave up, I didn't wholly give up. Every now and then over the next 6 or 7 years (through high school and college), I would pick up that guitar, practice a little, and give up again. It just didn't seem easy to me and I figured it never would be.  I knew what I wanted my bluegrass to sound like, but I didn't want to take the effort to get there. I wanted a shortcut.

During my first year of law school, I happened across my Dad's banjo and gave it a try during the week of spring break. After an hour or two of practicing some rolls and working on Blue Ridge Cabin Home, I realized that it wasn't that bad. All those years of fiddling around on the guitar had not made me a proficient guitar player, but it had gotten me to the point where I could pick up the banjo and not be completely frustrated. The banjo held my interest that spring break, and I practiced every day. I practiced every day for the next year for a solid hour a day. I never missed it. I'm sure you all will be surprised at what happened. I kept getting better. I tried to learn new things. I tried to learn new songs, and I tried to learn new back-up. I tried to emulate my banjo heroes using their books and by listening and trying to decipher their recordings. As long as I kept things fresh, I kept practicing my hour a day. After two years, and by the end of law school, I played in a band and thought I was pretty good. I could have stopped and been satisfied. I was as good as my Dad had ever been.

The next year, my band and I got serious, and the band motivated me even more. I now practiced three hours a day for the next year. By the end of that year, I was so much better that now I laugh to hear some of my recordings at the end of law school. I figured I had finally made it. Wrong again.

One day, our band took on a new bass player. This guy knew his stuff and had real timing. He suggested a metronome. I tried it, but the damn thing kept going faster and then slower. Up until this point, I thought I had been critically evaluating my playing. Boy was I wrong. I was just hearing what I wanted to hear. In my mind I thought I sounded like Crowe and Shelor, and maybe some people thought I did, but that metronome does not lie. Despite my hundreds of hours of practice over three years, I finally had come to the point where I was critically evaluating my playing. I realized that you can't ignore process and you can't ignore technique. I finally got my act together and practiced with that metronome until every one of my rolls and every one of my licks stayed right with the beat.

Next I started recording some things with my band, and then on my own. Just like the metronome, those recordings don't lie. I renewed my focus on tone and technique and attack and right hand position and left hand position and pull-offs and hammer-ons. Once again, I had thought I had attained the level I had wanted to be at, and once again I had discovered a myriad of defects to my playing.

It has now been three years since I corrected these problems with my banjo playing and I have since moved on to guitar and mandolin and have rapidly advanced on these instruments as well. Now I focus on process, technique, timing, tone, and taste. There is no shortcut and each of us must have the humility to see the shortfalls of our current playing and have the patience to slowly work out the kinks, one at a time. It's now been seven years since I picked up my Dad's banjo, and I've come a long way, and now others assume that I just have "talent" and am "musical." No. It requires patience and hard work and practice and we must focus on the process. It does not just happen, but if you focus on these things, over time it will start to happen a little more easily.

I didn't start the banjo until I was out of college.  I'm not quite 30 yet and I've come much farther than I ever thought I would.  You can learn a lot in a decade, and many of us are likely to have quite a few decades left.  I'm not J.D. Crowe, and I never will be, but I'm looking forward to hearing myself in a few more years, with a few more years of practice. The better I get, the more I realize how much farther I have to go. Don't fall for the "I guess I'm not that musical" or "I guess I'm not talented" lines. We can all be better musicians than we are right now and we've got our whole lives to get there. Be patient and stick with the process. I know I'm going to enjoy it.

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