Learning to play the banjo has been on my “things to do before I die” list since the halcyon days of the Nixon Administration. It’s been on my Christmas List for at least 12 years–even Santa thought I was joking.
The desire to play stretches back to elementary school days when I first saw George Segal use his banjo in a comedy routine on The Tonight Show. Joking has always been my way of dealing with crisis, so I can only believe that I was drawn to Segal’s unique way of generating laughter.
My shift in interest from the minstrel-ragtime sound to the mountain music or Old-time banjo manifest over a couple of decades as I found myself drawn to learning about the Appalachian music tradition. I find a beautiful honesty in that music’s tales.
Life has a way of passing …and those of us who make it through another day seem to appreciate the blessing more and more as we rack up the years , I’ve found myself awfully sentimental, nostalgic,and most of all, aware that younger I am not a gettin’. This life–this present–has no permanence. If we are lucky, it will transform over time, but we all tuck away the secret fear that it could possibly change in an instant. Over the last year, I have been making a point to appreciate each and every day and to quote the Grass Roots, Lalalalalala live for today.
So that brings me to why I bought my banjo , and what I am struggling with as I wrestle with time and obligations to learn to play it.
First came the opportunity in the form of a side-job at work that gave me the extra cash to afford a step up from a beginner model. Then, came the elimination of my summer work from the university budget, allowing me time…or at least the false promise of some extra time.
I told my colleagues that the banjo was coming. I told my husband and kids. I don’t think any of them truly believed it would happen.
But after my spring courses came to a close and I had cash in hand, the banjo was delivered, and the fun began.
I started with Clawhammer Banjo from Scratch–lesson one, learning all the terminology, how to hold the instrument, and fretting the notes. I worked around baseball games, tournaments, other people’s sleep schedules, our pre-schooler’s schedule, housecleaning, errands…let’s just say life is getting in the way of living for today.
I practiced the right arm “clawhammer drop thumb” for an hour each day on the banjo for a week, and replicated the movement while shuttling kids here and there in the car, hoping to make the move second-nature. I started learning some basic chords and how to make a smooth transformation between them. Then, I moved on to Lesson 2, which required that I put my banjo in Double-C tuning. Plink, boing, Plunk–three strings were snapped and coiled in ten minutes time. I broke my toy!
So the waiting set in. No nearby music store had banjo strings in stock, so I turned to Amazon and ordered three sets. I turned to YouTube and felt fairly confident that I could –and should learn to –complete this routine maintenance.
A week later, I had strings and time to string and tune. The stringing was the easy part; the tuning took an hour with an electronic tuner. BUT, I never could get it in Double-C. So,I gave up and tried to get it back into the original G tuning. Just when I thought I would never “get it” and hear those strings sing as sweetly as they did the day I took the banjo out of the box, I tweaked a peg just right and heard by ear–not by the tuner readout–that I had nailed it.
At first I saw this as one huge setback, but now I feel satisfied at accomplishing this important step in the learning process. I’m not an expert at stringing and tuning, but someday….
Tonight I should have time to get back to learning a few chords and focus on finally learning to play a song. Maybe I should try ‘When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” I hope I can play by the time that my name is called, oh that’s provided my name is called! At this rate, I might be able to cross this off my ” things to do before I die” list before my hands are too arthritic to hold a pen.