When I was interviewing musicians of the estrogen persuasion for my book Pretty Good For A Girl, I was amazed by the number of women who described their early infatuation with bluegrass like this: "I got bit by the bug." I knew exactly what they meant. I was in college when I got bit by the bug and I ended up tossing my plans to become a doctor right out the window. I started playing my guitar and singing at small folk clubs in Athens, Ga., and then I got a banjo. The bug smacked its lips and took a Bigger Bite. I never took my banjo to bed like Lynn Morris did, but I practiced so much--and listened to so much Stanley Brothers--that my roommates packed up and fled to the library. They were actually studying. I was studying, too, but it was no longer biology, P-chem, and physics. (Thank God!) I was learning something much more valuable: pull-offs, hammer-ons, and forward rolls.
So I know about getting bit by the bug. The symptoms are always the same: You think about banjo playing all the time, you hear tunes in your head, you practice every spare moment, you write down lyrics to songs (pre-Internet!), you listen to bluegrass in the car, on your iPod, on your iPhone, you seek out bluegrass in clubs, festivals, and camps, you read about all things bluegrass on the Web, you follow bluegrass people on Twitter and Facebook and Banjo Hangout. If you are testosterone charged (stereotyping!), you peruse eBay and Craig's List incessantly, looking for old Gibsons which you have learned are the "creme de la creme" of banjos because that's what Earl played. You start using words like "Granada," "pre-war," "tube and plate flange," "arch top," and "Jim Mills."
Lately I've been thinking about the "bit by the bug" phenomenon and I have realized that what may seem insane and fanatical to some (read: your family!) is really a necessary part of learning to play the banjo. It's this fanatical fire that propels you to keep that banjo in your hands every spare minute of every day. Let me share this little story about Texas Tim, who was on a trip to Europe with his wife. Their scheduled flight back got canceled and they had the opportunity to spend an extra day in London. Tim's wife was excited. Tim's comment was, "We can't do that! I'll miss my jam session!" (BTW, he is still married....mostly because everything worked out so they could do both!) Tim has most definitely been Bitten By The Bug.
Folks who buy tiny travel banjos (shout out to Tranjo) to take with them on business trips have been Bitten By The Bug. Folks who get up an hour early to practice banjo have been Bitten By The Bug. Folks who buy travel trailers so they can attend festivals have been Bitten. Folks who persuade their life partners to take up an instrument so that they, too, can share this insane joy have been Bitten. If they are lucky, their partners get Bitten, also.
So what is the point of this article? The point is this: if you have been bitten by the bug enjoy it. Revel in it. Exploit it. Being passionate about something is one of life's great pleasures. It brings joy, excitement, and a deep sense of personal satisfaction. And it's so much fun to have something to look forward to. Never again will you have to ask the question, "What am I going to do tonight or this weekend?" You are going to play your banjo! Oh ban-joy!
One reason to "rejoice and be exceedingly glad" during your bitten phase is that eventually this particular phase will end. Boo hoo! Life happens, stuff gets in the way, jobs change, jobs end, people move, families have crises. So, during your bitten phase, learn all you can, practice all you can, absorb as much as you can, do everything you can possibly do banjo-wise. Take as many lessons as you can, go to all the festivals and camps you can, play as much as you can. The Universe has blessed you with a burning desire to play the banjo. Just say "Thanks!" and roll on, buddy, roll on!
My experience as a teacher indicates that this passionate phase of learning banjo lasts about two years. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Students, of course, will continue to take lessons, continue to play, and continue to learn but as life gets in the way the same level of intensity is simply not possible. No problem. The work that students have put in during their passionate phase usually gives them a strong enough foundation to survive a slow down. (Again, I only know this to be true if you have learned by ear. It's kinda like home cooking--it sticks with you!)
After the fire is gone the characteristic that you need most is persistence. Hanging in there. Slogging through. And never surrendering. (Apologies to Winston who was talking about a war, not a musical instrument!) I'm sure you've all been there. You don't want to practice, you can't find time to play, and your banjo hasn't been out of the case in weeks or months. As my student Bobby Van is fond of saying (usually when he screws up), "This, too, will pass." And even if it doesn't, you've still got everything you learned. And the joy you had in learning it.
What if you don't feel like you've been bit by the bug? Well, perhaps you need to listen harder. I was raised Baptist so I'm a big believer in the still, small voice. Maybe the bug is trying to talk to you but you keep saying "I don't have time. I don't have talent. I don't have a teacher, I don't have a good banjo...I don't, I don't, I don't...." You gotta give the bug a chance! Whoa! This is coming perilously close to sounding like a sermon! I feel like we should close out with a hymn. Unfortunately, with all this talk about getting bitten by bugs, all I can think of is "One black bug bled blue-black blood while the other black bug bled blue..." and "The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah..." and what do those have to do with banjo playing?? So, I'll close by saying if you have been bitten by the bug, you are certainly in good company. Enjoy the ride!
Friday, July 4, 2014 @9:45:18 PM
I got "bit" in 1988 at age 34. Two of my kids caught it in their teens and their kids are playing now too...........So much fun to be bit!
Monday, July 7, 2014 @8:48:49 AM
Great blog Murphy! Passion without direction is like a mighty ship without a rudder. Thanks Murphy for providing the rudder for my banjo passion. Nothing can beat the Murphy Trinity for learning the banjo. 1) Murphy Method DVDs that can be played over and over to help those who can’t possible remember what your instructor showed you five minutes ago 2) Lessons to show the weak areas and help with the tough parts 3) Jams to bring out the competitive side in you and keep the motivation high
Monday, July 7, 2014 @12:54:33 PM
As a single dad and farmer I know all to well about life "getting in the way". I have started taking my banjo to horse shows (it worries me it's a LouZee Golden Roll,don't want it stolen) and will play in the trailer between my girls and my classes. I can't get to it as much as I did or want to, but figure it'll be there when they are gone and I'll go "full time" again:) I do so enjoy it and for a short moment in time while playing all else is on the back burner. I have one Clydesdale I swear he likes the sound he'll stand by the fence when I'm on the porch playing! My one daughter has picked up a fiddle! Yea here we go.
Monday, July 7, 2014 @1:07:45 PM
So this BAS insanity is mostly a Y-chromosome thing? LOL! Now that you mention it ...
Monday, July 7, 2014 @1:51:54 PM
Sorry, Murphy, I really wanted to read all of your article, but I had to get back to practicing!
recore gary Says:
Tuesday, July 8, 2014 @5:19:20 AM
Enjoyable comments. Yep, when one straps on the five all else leaves one's mind and the way the world is today, and I believe that to be a good thing for the heart and the soul.
Best to all,
Boyd Freeman Says:
Tuesday, July 8, 2014 @6:09:21 AM
Good article! I was bitten in 1975, and still have two banjo's and a guitar sitting along side my fireplace. I sit with the banjo in my lap most the time until I go to bed. Bless the ones that teach, and Bless the ones that are smart enough to practice and listen.
Thanks Casey! Boyd Freeman
Tuesday, July 8, 2014 @8:27:56 AM
At "first bite" I was constantly cruising the internet, reading about how best to learn how to play the banjo and what kind of banjo to buy. Now, thankfully, I am playing banjo more than I am reading or shopping for one! Just passing my first year of playing. I love all your blogs, Murphy! (And I spend face-time with you each week in my living room in front of a Murphy Method DVD...or two)
Tuesday, July 8, 2014 @10:25:26 AM
I got the bite later in life, and it has been several years and it is still not letting up a bit. Loving it.
Sunday, July 13, 2014 @9:11:36 PM
Yep, the bug got me in the 70's, but subsided when I chose the practical road of elementary teaching. It never left, however, and reveled any time the banjo would re-appear, until--lo and behold--it came back as a full-blown condition over ten years ago and has almost taken over. But God and Jesus first, then family, work, and then--yahoo--music!
Keep up the dynamite work, Murphy. We saw you in Grass Valley a while back and you're totally entertaining. Daughter Casey rocks, too, as does Chris. Good genes....
Saturday, July 19, 2014 @3:40:02 PM
I play banjo, got the bug big time, and my daughter plays the fiddle too
Thursday, October 29, 2015 @6:39:57 PM
i first got the bug in 87 at age 38. it was the first time i had seen a five string banjo.the banjo is always on my mind and has been since.the first few tunes i learned were from murphy henry cassette tapes. thanks very much for getting me started.bill bc canada
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