Giving up

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?

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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.

Banjo

This is my new year resolution.There are many worthwhile issues in my life and my behaviour that I could address and maybe, by so doing, make a little positive difference to the world. But, as Rose Schneiderman put it, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” So I’m going to learn the banjo.

img_20161231_200037I bought this banjo 3 years ago with money I was given by the churches I was leaving. I enjoy hearing the banjo, especially in bluegrass music, and I’ve been picking a guitar most of my life, so I thought, How hard can it be? The answer is, Very. I have struggled with the open G tuning and I can’t get my head, let alone my thumb, around the chanter string. I’ve wondered about taking off the chanter, tuning the top string up to E and just playing it like a ukulele (but in a different pitch, obviously). I’ve thought about trading it in for a 6-string banjo and playing it like a guitar. I’ve even thought about just giving up and getting rid of it.

But – full of new year’s resolve, I am not going to be beaten. I am going to set aside some time every day to practise and I am going to learn to play the banjo. I’ll report back to you in due course.

In the new world, we’re going to need stories and art and poetry and music, otherwise what’s the point? We’ll need bread, sure, but we’ll also need roses.