Friday, October 23, 2009

For The Love of a Banjo



Every December, I like to grab a blank piece of paper and write a list of goals for the coming year.

Last year, one of my hoped-for goals was to learn to play the banjo. A long time ago, one of my late uncles, who happened to be a music teacher, gave me a banjo. It traveled with us to Arizona and sat in our garage for more than a decade. I knew it was there, "just in case."

My uncle played many different instruments, including guitar. He had a thriving studio and taught literally hundreds of students how to play. Sadly, ill health took over and he spent the last years of his life in a nursing home. Once, when I visited, I brought my guitar to play for him. He reached over and indicated he wanted to play it but arthritis had stiffened all his fingers. He tried, in vain, to strum the instrument he had once played so beautifully. He handed it back to me with tears brimming in his light brown eyes. It was a moment I won't ever forget. If he could no longer play an instrument, I was determined I'd play "for" him!

Music is a great gift. It's a soother of emotions and can lift one's spirit in a few minutes. I love all kinds of music (except heavy metal). It's always been an important part of my life and is a gift passed down to me and my siblings by our late mother who played a mean piano. (I can still hear her playing and singing, "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey? Won't you come home?")

One of my favorite movies is O Brother Where Art Thou, a rollicking comedy about three inmates in the south who escape from prison. The music in it, filled with banjo, is joyous and uplifting. I think the seed for wanting to learn to play the banjo was planted the first time I saw that movie.

The first two months of 2009 went by and I finally called Wood Brothers Music Store in Pittsfield, MA,to inquire if they knew any banjo teachers. They recommended Paul Rice who taught right on the premesis.

Waiting for the day of my first lesson to arrive was an exercise in sheer patience. I couldn't wait to learn how to play the banjo. It's not an easy instrument to learn. Paul was a gentle, extremely patient teacher. He taught me my first "roll," which is plucking of certain strings with different fingers.

He explained that by learning even three chords, one could play dozens of songs on the banjo. Every Thursday morning I loved going to my lessons. Little by little, I learned songs like "Oh Suzanna," "Cripple Creek," "Camptown Races" and "Banjo in the Holler."

It was impossible to go to bed without practicing, at least a little bit. Sometimes, after an extremely busy day, I'd pick up my banjo as late as 10:30 p.m. to pluck those strings. Soon I graduated to using finger pics!

Unfortunately, Honey Cat, our resident feline, does not care for my banjo playing. As soon as I pick up the instrument, she hops down from whatever piece of furniture she's on and beats it quickly out of the room. That's very ego-deflating but it won't stop me from continuing to play.

As we are coming up on December, I'm happy to say I accomplished the goal of learning to play the banjo. Of course, there's so much more to learn. I'm no longer taking lessons but I practice frequently.

Eventually, I'm going to share my banjo playing in some way. It's such a picker-upper and playing it fills me with tremendous joy.

I think my uncle would be happy to know I'm carrying on one of his traditions and putting the beautiful instrument he gave me to good use. Yee hah!

1 comment:

Diane said...

You'd better practice as I'm coming to see you next month and I want a concert. I'm going to see your idol Steve Martin next Friday night...with his BANJO BAND...can't wait....xo Diane

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