And how's that for a title? Blunt. Brutal. Off-putting, no doubt, to some of you. Nevertheless I will keep my hand on this particular gospel plow and plow on!
I was inspired to write about hard songs by one of the students at our Women's Banjo Camp. But first I checked with her and her amazing banjo picking daughter-in-law to make sure they were okay with me addressing this particular subject. Bless their hearts, they said "Go ahead on!" (They might not have used those exact words, but I knew that's what they meant.)
Millie, an intermediate student, had gotten a bee in her bonnet about learning Banjo Signal. (Google it. It's a monstrously difficult tune by Don Reno.) Her teacher had advised against it, her daughter-in-law had advised against it. If I had known about it, I would have vehemently advised against it! But Millie was, in her own words, "obsessed." Alas! When she came to camp, she had spent so much time on Banjo Signal that her others songs--Cripple Creek, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Do Lord--had fallen by the wayside. She was, literally, not a happy camper. Fortunately she had one of those "I saw the light" moments at camp when she realized that learning Banjo Signal had not made her a better banjo player. So she rededicated her life to Earl and we all sang "Hallelujah!"
That’s right, there is one reason you need to stop learning tunes that are too hard for you: they take up way too much practice time and cause you to neglect the tunes you need to be working on.
How many times have I asked a student to play an old tune--a foundational tune (John Hardy, Lonesome Road Blues)--only to have them look at me guiltily and say, "Oh! I haven't been practicing that one!" Then I have to give them what my students call the "evil eye." I call it my "frowny face." It is meant to express extreme disapproval. If your foundation erodes, your harder tunes won't have a leg to stand on. Remember that old kids' song with the verse "The wise man built his house upon the rock?" (And the wise woman did, too, but we never sang about her.) Okay, maybe that was a Baptist song....but the message is good! Google it! [I do so want to add a verse that says, "So build your house on the three-fingered roll...!" It scans so well!]
But I digress....
A bigger reason for not learning a song that is too hard for you is this: How are you going to get it "up to snuff?" Meaning, now that you've taken an inordinate amount of time to memorize the notes, how are you going to make it sound like a song? Sad answer: At this point in your banjo journey, it ain't gonna happen. I wish it were otherwise. I wish learning to play the banjo were easier. But as a beginner or even a budding intermediate, you haven't yet developed the fine motor skills you need to handle that intricate bluegrass timing. And you're probably not hearing the song in your head and I'm guessing you don't know the chords. These skills are a must for advanced tunes. You can't just regurgitate a bunch of notes!
Beginning-level songs are designed to gently educate your fingers and your ears in all of these areas. Intermediate-level songs are designed to keep the process going. There's no reason to take two years to learn a tune when, later on, after you are more advanced player, you can learn it in two months. By then you will have the skills to make it sound like a song. And the chords will come easy!
Unfortunately I speak from experience here. There are many of Earl's licks that I had to give up on because THEY WERE TOO HARD FOR ME. Could I have eventually learned them if I'd put in the time? I like to think so, but there was so much else to learn that I could actually play! Thank goodness I finally stopped working on Ralph Stanley's incomprehensible intro to Hard Times! It never made any sense to me, I wasn't "hearing" it, and the tune (a great one!) hardly ever gets played in a jam. It worked out better for my playing to let some of that hard stuff go!
ASIDE: That's also why I never delved into the melodic style. The pattern of the notes was not "intuitive" to me and, not being Bill Keith, I couldn't play melodically with the "drive" that I liked. I knew I couldn't do it all. So I concentrated on the Scruggs style.
I have also seen this fascination with "hard songs" play out with my own students. Bob, my longtime guitar student who turned into dear friend, came into his lesson a few years ago and said he'd been working on a guitar break to Ashoken Farewell. In the key of D. My initial thought was "Just shoot me! Ain't no way this is gonna turn out good!" But he was excited about it and he had been trying to learn it by ear from a fiddle recording so I felt like I should support that. Well, he had some of the notes wrong. And that made the timing wrong. And if Bobby ever gets anything into his head, it's almost impossible to change the way he hears it. Nevertheless, we plowed on. For weeks. And weeks. I tried everything in my power to help him with the tune, including recording a simple guitar break myself for him to work with. It just wasn't happening. Finally, I had to say, "Bobby, this ain't working. Why don't we just give it a rest?" And we did. We got back to something more productive which was him figuring out some good Bob-level breaks to songs like Kneel At The Cross and I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby. Fun songs we could sing together.
There are so many good songs out there that are within your grasp, why spend your valuable time on a song that is too hard for you? You yourself have said "I don't have 20 years." So why not make the best use of the time you do have? Stop chasing that rabbit down the rabbit hole! "Oh, my ears and whiskers! How late it's getting!"
PS: If you're interested in our Murphy Method suggested order of tunes, check it out on our blog: Beginning Songs, and Intermediate Songs