So, as you might have seen in my Liberty! blog, I was teasing Marty about my not granting him permission to learn "Liberty". (My advice had less effect early on when I told him not to learn "Old Joe Clark" out of sequence, but I think he saw the light after that episode! Kind of like as you grow up your parents get smarter. Right, Casey? No, don’t answer that!)
Anyhow, shortly thereafter Marty headed off to Nashcamp. And the next week I get this email from him:
Okay Murphy. Here is what I learned at Nashcamp that is relevant to your "No, Marty this does not give you permission.." statement. Kristin Scott Benson said the banjo is a quality not a quantity instrument. That is, learn what you learn very well and with a limited number of things that you know really well, you can make a lot of music.
As I emailed back, I knew there was some reason I liked Kristin! Let me put her words in big, bold type:
The banjo is a quality not a quantity instrument.
With a limited number of things that you know really well, you can make a lot of music.
And since that’s what I do, let me expound. (And this applies to all instruments.) When you’re learning, take it slow and learn your songs well. That’s why I’m constantly saying, “Speed is not essential!”
I am always amazed when I ask a student to play a tune slowly for me and when they make a lot of mistakes they say, “Let me speed it up. I can play it better faster.” Duh. No, you can’t. The mistakes just go by faster. If you can’t play it right slow, you sure can’t play it right fast. (Although when I’m learning something new, I succumb to the same wrong thinking! Duh again!)
That’s why I am so insistent on learning the easy songs first and learning them well. Not only are they your foundation, but if you can play them well, then, yes, you can make music! If you play out of time or have to start and stop, then you don’t have music, you have noise. To me, it’s always been that simple.
It breaks my heart when someone comes to me for lessons with a long list of songs they’ve “learned” but when I ask them to play one or two, I find that they literally can’t play them. Sure, they can play some notes, but the notes make no musical sense. There is no sense of song, no sense of music. So, what do they have for the tremendous amount of practice time and effort they’ve put into their music? Perhaps some technical skills, but, sadly, no music.
So, in my book, it’s better to be able to play good, solid versions of "Cripple Creek" and "Banjo in the Hollow" than to have a remption of songs you can’t quite play. What’s the point?
I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, but you just might want to examine your own song list to see if you are carrying any excess baggage—songs you can’t quite play. My advice: let them go. They are probably too hard. At least for right now. Get the easy stuff down first. (I can’t begin to tell you the number of fiddle tunes I’ve let go of. "Orange Blossom Special", "Katy Hill". And there are quite a few banjo tunes too! Starting with "Blackberry Blossom" and continuing on through "Hard Times" and "Little Rock Getaway"!) I’m not saying never learn these tunes, I’m just saying make sure what you are playing, you are playing well.
The Good Book says, in paraphrase, What does it profit you if you gain the whole world and lose you own soul? In banjo terms, what does it profit you if you gain the whole Scruggs/Stanley/Reno/melodic repertoire and lose your musical soul? Or as Jimmy Martin said, Pick it solid! Think on these things.