Four years ago, I bought a five-string banjo. I had discovered the joy of bluegrass music and loved the sound of the banjo in it. I’ve been playing the guitar most of my life and finger-pick quite a lot, so I thought, How hard could it be to learn the banjo?
I started with some tutor videos on Youtube and practised a couple of rolls. I quickly realised that playing bluegrass banjo is very hard, with its pesky chanter string that’s high-pitched but positioned below the bottom string, and with the way the thumb tends to carry the tune, but still, I made a little progress. Then we moved house and I no longer had the space to have the banjo out, so it sat, neglected, in its case. In new year 2017 I resolved to give it another go (and went public with a blog post). I bought a tutor book written by Earl Scruggs himself, and tried practising a little every day. I did quite well and learned to play Cripple Creek by mid-February. The next section involved a lot of technical stuff, with roll after roll, and I hit that wall you hit in learning anything new, when it seems like you’re not progressing and it’s just too hard. I needed to have lessons but I couldn’t afford them and I didn’t think I was nearly good enough to start playing with others (whoever they might have been).
So the banjo stayed in its case. This summer, I decided that I was never going to play bluegrass banjo and it was just cluttering up the dining room, so I put it up for sale on Gumtree. No one was interested in the ad, so at Brighthelm Camp I offered it to anyone who wanted it, in exchange for a donation to our local hospice, and it was snapped up straight away.
Part of me felt bad about giving up. But a bigger part of me felt liberated. It felt like a burden of oughts and shoulds being lifted from me. It also felt like a movement towards simplifying my life, which I always find joyful. I’m sure it’s good to try to learn new skills and have new experiences and stretch yourself. But I wonder if it’s also good to be realistic about your limitations (of time and ability). I am naturally stubborn and don’t like giving anything up, so in giving up the banjo I also had to give up some pride and some ambition and I think (I hope!) I have learned a little humility as a result. I certainly feel lighter. Maybe the quest for a simpler life includes reviewing and simplifying not just possessions but ambition and dreams as well, where perhaps less can be more.