What Kristin Scott Benson Said

Murphy Henry

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.

8 thoughts on “What Kristin Scott Benson Said

  1. Susan

    HALLELUJAH!!! HALLELUJAH!!!!!!!!!!! That means I can pick slowly?!?!?!? Here it is from the Bluegrass Master’s mouth!!! That does it — “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” at 50 bpm — I’m THERE! Thanks, Murphy, for permission to go to the Nursing Home and pick slowly….. I may even wear my slippers! I LOVE to pick slowly (probably because that is the only way I can – but that’s another matter for another time). I love clean, slow pickin’ !! However, I DO take issue with Kristen’s statement, “The banjo is a quality not a quantity instrument.” I have 8 banjos, which is still not quite enough even tho some of them ARE quality instruments 🙂 🙂 🙂

  2. Augie at Common Ground Stable

    Great message. I just started to learn banjo in Jan 2010 at age 66. I can’t make much “Music”, but it is starting to come with much practice. I fully appreciate slow and clear rather than rushed and messy. I run bluegrass through my head most of the day. I even whistle the banjo tunes I’m learning as I ride my horses. It helps keep the tunes in my head and it seems to relax the horses. It also helps along with a daylight fluorescent orange vest to keep from being mistaken for a game animal. Some of the other riders think I’m nuts, but I’m loving every minute of it. Thanks for being there for us. Smiles With Horses

  3. Martin Bacon

    Old Joe Clark was a pain in the rear to learn the way I did it and consequently I do tend to just say “Aye, Aye” now when Murphy states an opinion about my banjo course. It really is more efficient for me. And “here’s the suckup” (but true nonetheless, there might be many others who can play as well as her but no one knows how to teach as well. I love to hear about Susan’s BAS (Banjo Acquisition Syndrome) because I can always tell Cheryl (my wife) that there is someone with a bigger “problem” than me and I do agree that she has both quantity and quality. And I would love to pick with Augie whenever! Thanks Murphy for an excellent blog.

  4. Susan

    Aye, Aye, Marty! Let’s go banjo shopping….. I’m feeling the need for a new one! It might take my mind off of my slow pickin’.

  5. Martin Bacon


    All you need to do to take your mind off your perceived slow pickin’ is to pick with me. Going banjo shopping is always fun, especially if I can use someone else’s money:)

  6. Tam

    Hi Martin

    You certainly know how to suckup

    “there might be many others who can play as well as her but no one knows how to teach as well.”

    You are talking about Murphy of course !!!!

  7. Dave Eisenhuth, Tucson, AZ

    Well I am 45 have been playing for exactly 3 months and have finally gotten to Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I use all the warm up techniques Casey spoke of and felt rather cocky about my Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek and Cumberland Gap. Now hear is the rub, I broke the Cardinal rule and began to speed these songs up, hence I began Foggy Mountain and HIT the wall, it was if Murphy had developed some scientific way to come out of the DVD and SLAP me and tattoo the “Eternal Words” SPEED IS NOT IMPORTANT!!!. Anyway I have slowed down again, playing the songs at a more age and experience appropriate speed and have become patient in realizing this is a lifelong pursuit not a sprint Thanks for all you do! BTW I have already started looking at more Banjos Stelling included, now something else to add the the colledction of toys. Oh Well we only live once!

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