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"I Don't Have Twenty Years!" By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Friday, May 30, 2014

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Ah, Baby Boomers! God love us! "We want what we want and we want it now!" (To paraphrase Woody Guthrie.) We understand that there may be work involved, but we feel like if we do the work there should be an immediate reward. Why? Because we don't have twenty years. 

Now that we all have Bucket Lists (thank you Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson!), it's amazing how often "learn to play the banjo" surfaces. Who woulda thunk it? I guess all those halcyon bygone days spent watching the Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and Bonnie and Clyde must have created a lasting, if unconscious, impression on fertile Baby Boomer minds! After you've heard Earl Scruggs sing "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl" to Pearl Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies how could anyone NOT want to learn to play the banjo? ("If you'll be Missus Scruggs/We will live on kisses and hugs/Like Juliet and Romeo." Lester's counter to Earl's courtship of Peal was: "This here man is such a sap/He won't hold you on his lap/Unless you are an old five-string banjo!" But I digress....)

I applaud anyone who wants to play the banjo. Not to get too Southern Baptist about it, but I have pretty much dedicated my life to making this particular dream come true for folks. However I'm not sure the idea "I don't have twenty years" is useful when you set off on your banjo adventure. Since it implies that "faster is better" it's more likely to be counter-productive. And, as we all know from painful experience, faster is usually not better unless you are in an actual race.

Perhaps you are thinking, "But I AM in a race! A race against time!" As a Baby Boomer myself, I get that. But as a banjo teacher, I've seen too many people derail when they try to learn too much too fast. While "learning it fast" might work out well in the short run (making me rethink my "one song a month" rule) my experience with adults indicates that these students usually run into big problems farther on down the track. You can't rush the process or the progress. Sorry! 

More often I see beginning adults setting unrealistic goals for themselves which they are unable to sustain or attain and then life  interferes and they become discouraged and quit. As many pontiffs, including Gamble Rogers, have said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." Your plan is to learn to play the banjo this year. Life gives you carpel tunnel surgery. Your plan is to learn to play two songs this month. Life gives you a family crisis. Your plan is to learn to play Dueling Banjos for your high school reunion. Life gives you a flesh-eating dishwasher who takes a bite out of your fretting fingers. (Don't ask!)

I'm not telling you anything new here. I'm just applying the old adages to learning banjo. "Slow and steady wins the race" and "Enjoy the journey."

Baby boomers are also taking up the banjo in order to keep their minds active. I also applaud this sentiment. Learning banjo will do it! But many of these folks are coming to the banjo with no knowledge whatsoever of bluegrass music--they just like the sound of the banjo. "My dad had an old banjo." "Did you ever hear him play?" "No." Let's just say that this makes it more interesting for me as a teacher!

Now comes the advice part of this article. (I can't help it. I'm a teacher, that's what I do!) This advice is specifically tailored to older adults who are serious about learning to play the banjo. (I assume that you are learning by ear. All bets are off if you are learning by tab.) First, let me assure you that you can learn to play the banjo. That goal is achievable--but you have to be pro-active about it. 

Set realistic goals. Learning to play the banjo is probably going to be harder than you think. I think a realistic goal is to enjoy whatever you are learning from the git-go. If it's a forward roll, enjoy that. It's something you couldn't do before. If it's a C chord, enjoy that. If it's Banjo in the Hollow, enjoy that! Again, even if it's slow, it's something you couldn't before. Stay in the moment (cliche!) and enjoy where you are.

Practice! Don't derail your own goal by not practicing enough. Give yourself a fair chance. What is enough? I would try for at least an hour a day, most days of the week. Don't beat yourself up if you miss a day. Stuff will happen. But make practice a part of your daily routine.  (See my BHO article on practice.

Immerse yourself in bluegrass culture. Years ago I didn't understand how important this was--because I was so thoroughly immersed in the culture of bluegrass myself! What does this mean? Listen to lots of bluegrass music, watch performance DVDs, read about bluegrass history, learn about the old bands, learn about the new bands, subscribe to Bluegrass Unlimited and Banjo Newsletter, keep up with bluegrass on the Internet with Banjo Hangout (of course!) and the online bluegrass magazine Bluegrass Today. Go to shows, go to festivals, attend the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh this year. Go to banjo camps! Cultivate bluegrass friends. Find your closest local bluegrass organization and join it and then support it. Become a bluegrass junkie! You can't learn to play banjo in a vacuum!

Buy the best banjo you can afford. Now that you are an older adult, you may have a bit more disposable income. Spend it on a banjo. Here is one time that the "I don't have 20 years" actually comes into play. You don't have time to waste trying to learn to play banjo on an inexpensive, hard-to-play instrument. Pony up! Don't wait till you get "good enough." Buy it today!

Travel to where bluegrass is. Again, as an older adult you may have time to travel now. If you are serious about learning the banjo, go where the music is! Camps, festivals, shows. You are doing this for YOU, so follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell said.

About jamming... The more I work with my jammers, the more I realize how hard jamming is for beginning students. So, I'm not going to blithely say, "Get out and jam." Instead, try attending some jam sessions as an observer. Repeatedly listening to the songs and tunes will help you understand the repertoire. Then if you find a friendly jam, sit on the outskirts and vamp quietly. If you have cultivated bluegrass-playing friends at festivals or shows or camps or jams, see if they will let you pick a tune or two with them. Ease into it. By all means, take advantage of the slow jams offered at camps. 

Working with adult learners has been eye-opening to me. So eye-opening that I have developed a new Murphy Method approach especially for my adult learners. (And believe me, this has taken a long time!) Yes, you still have to learn the Big Three--Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down. But after that, we start right in on the Roly-Polys: using forward and backward rolls in G, C, and D to create basic "breaks" to singing songs (and some instrumentals!). These basic breaks allow you to play in slow-to-moderate-paced jams as soon as possible. (Yes, you have to learn to hear your chord changes.) Then as you learn more licks, you can add these licks to your already-constructed and playable break, making it sound even better. Roly-Poly breaks are extremely impressive to friends and family!

I will be recording a "Roly-Poly" DVD this fall. I'm really excited about it, because already I can see in my jams that adult beginners are able to participate more fully if they can learn the roly-polys. And while I envisioned them working only for singing songs, my students have shown me that they also work for instrumentals such as Lonesome Road Blues, John Hardy, and even (with a small D-lick tweak) for Daybreak in Dixie. I will be teaching the Roly-Poly concept to my beginning and intermediate students at Kaufman Kamp June 15-21 and I'm sure I'll learn as much from them as they will from me! Hope to see you there!

P.S. As Earl Scruggs himself said, "A good point to remember is do not try to learn too much at one time. If it is only making a few chords, do that over and over until you can do that with very little effort." (I just saw that quote in the book How to Play the Five-String Banjo by Pete Seeger. I figure Pete and Earl know what they are talking about!)

18 comments on “"I Don't Have Twenty Years!" By Murphy Henry”

jude quin Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @1:15:09 PM

no need to convert this elderly learner!

Banjowag Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @1:17:17 PM

Helpfully written. Echoes what I have had to learn myself and what I have also shared with my beginning students. We all have similar things in our minds we have to overcome!

Ken Mooney Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @1:45:39 PM

All bets are off if you are learning by tab.) ""
Why do you say that ??
I learned most of my guitar songs by ear (strumming only ), but banjo ,--- tabs do make things easier to learn a lot of songs. I've had a lot of help from an instructor who works on translating many notations.

MikeCee Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @3:23:21 PM

Thanks for this, I'm 60 and just starting to learn the banjo (played around a guitar for a while), I hope I've got a few more years than 20 :-) but this advice is timely. I've taken your advice and used my lifesavings to buy a Gibson Earl Scruggs limited edition model ! only problem is I haven't got any money now to buy gas to get to the Jam sessions ? (only joking, I wish), Thanks,

dmcclure Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @4:07:48 PM

Great advice! I especially liked the part about the flesh-eating dishwasher. In my case it was a carving knife with a taste for human thumbs that interposed itself in my ambitious plans.

Sally Goodin Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @4:26:59 PM

Roly-Polys. I like that! Baby Boomers - you forgot to mention trigger thumbs and fingers, narrow-angle glaucoma, and cataracts. I could come up with a few more, but I'd much rather be playing Foggy Mountain Special - s l o w l y, of course! Luv ya, Murphy! Susan

roadstar75 Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @6:13:22 PM

"Set realistic goals. Learning to play the banjo is probably going to be harder than you think. I think a realistic goal is to enjoy whatever you are learning from the git-go. If it's a forward roll, enjoy that. It's something you couldn't do before. If it's a C chord, enjoy that. If it's Banjo in the Hollow, enjoy that! Again, even if it's slow, it's something you couldn't before. Stay in the moment (cliche!) and enjoy where you are".

As an older nearly new beginner It was great reading your article. Also about buying the best instrument you can, very true, already did that bought a Deering Calico. I'm 76 started just last year and in about 10 years might have it figured out (LOL). Richard

Tajay Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @7:44:45 PM

Startin' out learning banjo this late in life, I know I'll never be a great banjo player, but my realistic goal is to have a great time learning and playing! Thanks so much for your words of encouragment.

sylvia carlyle Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @9:20:44 PM

I'm 62 and started learning clawhammer banjo last year. I love it, although I'm still a beginner. After listening to old-time music most of my adult life and flatfooting to it, I wish I'd come to the banjo a bit sooner. If anybody wants to know about practice, Tom Heaney's First, learn to practice, transformed my approach to practice and made it a truly pleasurable experience, while Cathy Fink's Truefire workshops has given me deadlines and encouragement (I need both).
But why the ban on tabs? I try very hard to do without, but sometimes I need them to check that what I'm hearing is right. I don't have much confidence in my ears.
Great article apart from all the bluegrass - old-timey music is what makes my heart and soul sing.

phillavery Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @1:16:22 AM

An excellent introduction, what are you thoughts on TABS ?

geckoz Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @2:13:21 AM

The good news is, it doesn't take twenty years to become a banjo player. Lets thing clearly and rationally here. We keep seeing in the media the top banjo players, actually the top any instrument player, who have indeed played at least 5 - 10 years ( by the time they get to be seen). This is a very skewed perception.

We do not need to aim for becoming concert banjo players. If we do take that as our standard, well, then we'd have very few musicians out there. This is simply wrong.

By my own experience of having learned multiple instruments ( and I am the most average person there is) it takes no more than about 5 years or regular 30 minutes to 60 minutes of very goal directed learning and practice to reach a level of competence that you will enjoy and be proud of.

Along the way there are many smaller goals to achieve and enjoy, e.g. Banjo in the Hollwo, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, and before you know it, you have a dozen songs under your belt inside just twelve months. These are all important stepping stones to getting better.

Perfection is not the aim here. Continuous improvement is the aim.

Learning an instrument is not a goal. It is a journey.

20 years! Ha! Humbug!

BWright Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @5:15:08 AM

I would also like to hear your thoughts on tabs. I am 71 and started banjo six months ago (clawhammer). Enjoyed your lesson.


jude quin Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @7:57:32 AM

here's my experience with tabs (i know you didn't ask). they have helped me learn to find melody quickly. in combo with learning by ear i can write a tab for a simple melody pretty fast (if the tab is written to follow the melody and not at the 12th fret). i write out tab as a learning tool and to aid my poor memory. now though i need to get 'unhooked', rework the tunes from memory and learn how to find the right notes by myself. this is my only instrument so it is not easy to break the dependance. ?fair warning?

casinojack Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @11:52:03 AM

THANK YOU for the great advice.
I started this wonderful journey two years ago at age 66. I bought a new Hatfield banjo and said let's GO.
(NO musical background)

I enjoy the process and some days it even sounds like real music.

It doesn't come easy but at age 68 (soon 69) we know that a lot of things don't come easy in life.

Just LOVE it and let it happen.


frank shaw Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @12:33:50 PM

Great Advice! All of my students are boomers. Can I get a reprint of this article or email access that I can share with them? Most are not on the Banjo hangout...

Frank Shaw

Mountain Mac Says:
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 @2:10:04 PM

In regards to using TABs, I think there are 2 ways to go about it which lead to very different results based on my experience. Using tabs (such as in the archive) to randomly look up how to play a particular song you want to learn is kind of a cheat. Yes, you will quickly get "the notes" and learn how to play THAT song, but you're not likely to take away much that will apply to other songs. It's almost like learning each song individually from a blank slate. This is the method by which I learned my first 15 or so songs. I think the issue with this is that the tABs vary in style, author, transcriber, etc. Each piece of tab is totally unrelated.
Later on, (after months of binging on nothing but Blue Grass Album Band in the car radio) I was inspired to purchase Russell Sawler's "Classic Solo's" J.D. Crowe Tab book. I think it was very helpful that I could then systematically learn not just individual songs, but learn J.D.'s STYLE. (if you glance through the book, without close inspection 90% of the songs look like you take the same 5 tag-licks and just rearrange them to fit the melody. Closer inspection reveals the tiny nuances that really make his solo's sparkle, but the big picture take-away remains this ("now I know how to learn/create intricate/unique solo's using the handful of licks I am now comfortable with"). If you are going to learn from tabs, I think the best way is to do a serious study of one banjo players particular style (using ACCURATE transcriptions), because then you are learning technique rather than songs, and this is what you will carry with you while building a reppertoir. I stress again, accurate transcriptions such as Russel Sawler's are important so that you are actually learning the correct style you are aspiring to. After doing this myself, I have been able to compose stylistic banjo lick to melodies by ear without even an example on banjo in the recording to go by. My thinking has changed from "how am I going to play this on the banjo" to "how will I interpret J.D. might have played this on the banjo". The difference is like navigating based on random bits of local knowledge, and then being given a compass. Of course, this can also be accomplished well (if not better), by ear, which is I think what the Murphy Method believes (and I agree). But for those of us inclined to use TAB, I hope this is helpful.
Happy practicing!
Mountain Mac

raburns Says:
Monday, June 9, 2014 @9:24:04 AM

I started learning banjo at age 65 and have been at it for three years. A good teacher is important. It helped me for about 21/2 years and then I felt I could develop on my own using books, cds and dvds. I used tab to learn, but now I'm working on developing my ear to learn tunes. What I've learned is that practice, practice, practice is the key to your development. For me that means 2hours a day, plus going to a 2 hour jam one a week where I work on my backup chords and licks ( its not a bluegrass jam). Everyone is different so what works for me may not work for others. Enjoy the fun of playing music, its not a race, anything you learn to play is an accomplishment and you should be proud of it. We all aren't going to play like Earl. Just enjoy the music you can produce.

Carroll Says:
Tuesday, November 25, 2014 @9:03:48 AM

I truly feel Murphy wants every one to learn how to play the banjo if they want to. It is a requirement that you must practice or play as Murphy puts it. That is not a problem for me. I had tried sooo many different teachers and methods when I finally found Murphy at BHO it has made a world of difference for me. I no longer use tabs but I admit to writing down patterns or numbers until it is burned into my brain, just don't tell Murphy. If anyone is sitting on the fence trying to decide what system will work for them, I suggest very strongly the look at Murphy Method it works. I am 70 years old and I enjoy my banjo every day thanks to Murphy Method learning.

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