Friday, April 27, 2012

Learning to Play Music as an Adult – How I Got Started

I didn’t start playing music until I was in my early 30’s.  I never took any lessons or played any instruments as a child or in high school or college – no guitar, no piano, no band, no choir, nothing.  Then, in summer 2006 I was buying some old-time CDs over the phone from Elderly (I believe the CDs were by Riley Baugus, Dan Gellert and Bruce Molsky) when the Elderly rep asked me if I played?  I said, no - that I just had a burgeoning interest in this music.  She said that I should get a banjo!

That's all it took.  After I hung up the phone I started doing some research.  That’s when I realized that the banjo I had seen played in Ireland during visits in 2004 and 2005 was a 4-string tenor banjo that you could tune and play like a mandolin.  Stupid me hadn't made that distinction before then.  The phone rep was probably referring to a 5-string clawhammer banjo based on the CDs I was buying, but being somewhat of an impulse buyer I decided that tenor banjo was the instrument for me!  After a crash course in figuring out which tenor banjo to buy, a few days later I had purchased a vintage 1920’s Bacon tenor banjo online from Intermountain Guitar and Banjo.

When the Bacon arrived I had new planetary tuners installed and had it tuned to GDAE – one octave lower than a mandolin; the way Irish tenor banjo players do.  I was starting completely from scratch.  Luckily I found a local teacher who played GDAE tenor banjo – Josh Bearman of The Hot Seats.  I took a few lessons from Josh and initially had him show me how to play some songs by my then favorite bands – the Grateful Dead, Phish, Ween, the Meat Puppets, My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog, Neil Young. Not surprisingly, I found playing that music on tenor banjo to be unsatisfying.  So instead I tried playing a couple fiddle tunes and Irish jigs and really liked them, even though at that point I hadn't actually heard that much old-time or trad. 

I quickly gained a knack for reading mandolin tablature, which also works for GDAE tuned tenor banjo, and found great pleasure in tabbing out arrangements of different fiddle tunes – about half old-time and half from the Irish tradition.  Unfortunately this reliance on tab took away from some all important aural development.  In 2007 I got up the nerve to start attending a local slow session that permitted music stands.  I was a complete novice in every aspect at this point, and instead of motivating me to learn more, attending this session backfired because it caused my inner critic to kick in.  Eventually I started to dread having to attend the jam and in 2008 I stopped playing altogether. 

I plucked a little bit here and there in the interim, but the story literally picks back up in late 2010 when I was inspired to once again pick up the 4-string banjo.  After a few months of sitting around the house playing by myself, a new opportunity to play publicly presented itself; this time with an expert musician at a local coffee shop.  I began playing every other Saturday morning at this coffee shop – first as a duo and now as an open jam that attracts many other musicians.  In fact, I currently try to participate in at least 6 old-time jams and Irish sessions per month, and I feel like I might stick with it this time!

I've learned to not spend too much time worrying about what others think; chances are they are more concerned with what they are doing than what you are doing.  My aural skills are still pretty undeveloped and I still use sheet music and tablature as a learning aid, but by immersing myself in the culture as much as possible through real life music making I hope that eventually I will become a competent amateur player.

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