(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)
Thanks for all the favorable comments on my story, “The First Banjo Lesson.” I’m glad so many of you could relate to it. As you know, learning to play the banjo, especially as an adult, is no easy task. Here, in this second installment, we follow Peg as she continues her banjo lessons with her teacher Jill. Comments welcome.
The Further Adventures of Peg and Jill: Banjo Lesson #2
Slowly Peg walked up the steps of the old house where she took her banjo lessons. She had not had a good week of practice and she was afraid Jill was going to yell at her.
She didn’t feel any better when she heard Jill saying to the student in front of her, “Dammit, Bob, you missed that C chord again. How long have we been working on this?”
“I just can’t hear it,” came the reply. “There’s no damn melody.”
“I don’t care if there isn’t any damn melody. Memorize the damn pattern. Come on in Peg. We’re done.”
Peg cautiously entered the room to see a man with a thick head of grey hair putting his guitar in the case.
“Peg, this is Bob. Bob, Peg,” said Jill, getting up out of her chair. “Go ahead and sit down, Peg, and get your banjo out. I’ll be right back.”
As Jill left the room Bob was saying, “I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Is this your first lesson?”
“No, my second,” said Peg. “I came on Tuesday last week.”
“God help you,” said Bob. “I really admire you banjo players. That’s a lot harder than banging on a guitar. That’s all I do. Good luck! I’ve got her warmed up for you!”
Jill didn’t know if this was good news or bad news.
She got out her banjo which she hadn’t touched in the last few days. She suspected it had gone out of tune so she’d tried to use the tuner she’d bought at the music store, but that seemed to make it worse so she’d quit practicing entirely. She felt guilty but what else could she do, she thought. She was halfway mad at Jill for not showing her how to tune the banjo.
Jill returned, sat down, and grabbed her own banjo.
“So how’d it go this week?” she asked.
“Not too good,” replied Peg. “I think the banjo went out of tune so I tried to tune it but I think I made it worse.” She strummed across the strings.
“Yep, out of tune for sure,” said Jill, making a face. “Hand it here.” Then, pulling her hand back, she said, “No, you need to learn to tune it. I should have gone over that last week. Sorry about that. Is your tuner on?” She could see Peg’s red Snark tuner clamped to the peghead.
Step by step Jill walked Peg through tuning the banjo. Peg knew better than to ask if she could write any of it down.
After Jill deemed the tuning “good enough,” she said, “Okay, let’s go over the rolls you learned last week. How about the forward roll?”
Peg had gotten in a couple of days’ practice before her tuning malfunction so she knew her rolls. She started in on the requested roll only to be interrupted by Jill saying, “Where are your picks?”
Jill had been dreading this moment.
“I didn’t practice with them on. I don’t like to wear them. They feel terrible. I can play much better without them. Look.”
She played the forward roll. It was clean and smooth, just like Jill wanted it.
Jill said, “Okay. Wait just a second.”
She put her banjo down and got out the guitar that was lying in the case at her feet. She settled it in her lap and said, “Okay, play the roll again.”
Peg played but the guitar was distracting. She couldn’t hear what she was doing. She played louder—pulling at the strings so hard that her fingers hurt. The sound was barely audible. She thought about asking Jill to play more quietly but realized this was probably not a good idea.
Jill said, “You can’t hear yourself can you?”
“No,” admitted Peg.
“That’s why we wear picks. So you can actually hear the banjo over the sound of the other instruments.”
“But I’m not planning on playing with anybody.”
“Well, you might change your mind. And if you want to play bluegrass you’ve got to wear picks. That’s just what we do. Everybody wears picks.”
Well, shit, thought Peg, as she reached for the picks lying loose in her banjo case. Dammit it to hell. I hate these picks.
“I really don’t like these picks,” she said to Jill.
“Let me see them,” said Jill, putting down her guitar and holding out her hand.
She took Peg’s picks and frowned.
“Do you mind if I put them on?”
“No,” said Peg. Why would she care?
Jill put them on and said, “For starters, this thumb pick is way too tight. And the picks are stiff, the metal’s too hard. They hurt my fingers.”
“That’s why I didn’t want to wear them,” said Peg.
“Let me see if I can find some that might fit you better,” said Jill.
She got up and started rummaging around in the small ceramic bowls on the nearby table. As Jill silently searched for picks, Peg surveyed her surroundings. Jill had livened up the large room by hanging quilts on the walls and covering the hardwood floor with mismatched rugs. The back wall, split by French doors, sported a large painting of a nude woman playing the cello and a poster for the movie Tombstone. Before Peg had a chance to peruse the knick-knacks on the old-fashioned fireplace mantel, Jill was handing her some picks and saying, “Try these. I think they’ll fit better.”
Peg put on the dreaded fingerwear and was surprised to find that these picks did feel better.
“Thanks,” she said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. And you’re welcome. I’ll never use all these picks,” said Jill, as she sat down and picked up her banjo. “Now, let’s try that forward roll again.”
Peg played the roll and elicited a “good” from Jill who then said, “Now the backward roll.”
Peg obliged with a barrage of 123123123123.
“And now the square roll.”
This was Peg’s favorite roll, so she did the alternating roll pattern Jill had showed her, 3215/4251.
“That’s really good,” said Jill. “Did you have time to try anything on the DVD?”
“No,” said Peg, “when I couldn’t get the banjo tuned, I just quit practicing. I didn’t even look at the DVD.”
The thought popped into Jill’s mind that if Peg were really interested in learning to play the banjo she might have at least looked at the DVD. Then Jill gently reminded herself that Peg was not the banjo fanatic that she had been. She cast a fond inward glance at the young Jill, bounding out of bed every morning to grab her banjo and listen to vinyl LPs played at half-speed, trying to figure out every note Earl Scruggs played, determined to be the Best Girl Banjo Picker Ever.
Jill’s mind snapped back to Peg when she heard her say, “But I did try singing with this roll. I was doing one of those silly songs I learned at Girl Scout Camp. You’ve probably never heard of it? Little Rabbit Foo Foo?”
“I love that song!” said Jill. “I learned it at Girl Scout Camp too.” And she sang a snippet of the song.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Somehow that roll reminded me of that song, so I tried it.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“I don’t know if I can do it in front of you.”
“Well, I’d love to hear it if you’re willing to sing it.”
“I’ll try,” said Peg, letting her breath escape between her clenched teeth. “Can I take my picks off? I’m not used to doing it with them on.”
“Wow!” thought Peg. That was unexpected.
She took her picks off, setting them on the tiny table near her chair.
She did the rolls a couple of times to get focused. Then she took a deep breath and started playing the roll and singing at the same time, “Little rabbit Foo Foo running through the forest…” but she found, with Jill’s gimlet eye on her, it wasn’t as easy as it had been at home. She was missing strings, hitting the wrong strings, it was a mess. She stopped, embarrassed.
“I could do this at home.” she said. “Can I try again?”
“Sure,” said Jill. “I thought it was sounding good.”
Peg ignored that remark, believing it to be a blatant lie. She took another deep breath and started again, playing more slowly this time and concentrating fiercely. “Little rabbit Foo Foo running through the forest...” but that’s as far as she got. She’d lost the roll. She’d wanted to impress Jill and she had failed miserably.
She heard Jill saying, “Let’s play it together.”
What have I got to lose, Peg thought. I’ve just made an utter fool of myself.
Jill was speaking. “I’ll say ‘one, two, ready, go’ and then we’ll start. Okay?”
Jill waited until Peg had regrouped, then they started. With Jill playing and singing with her, Peg made it through the whole song.
“That was great!” said Jill, when they finished. “You did it.”
“That was awful!” said Peg. “I missed the fourth string and sometimes I missed the first string. And I wasn’t singing much. At camp, it looked so easy.”
“You did fine,” said Jill. “You kept the roll going and you didn’t stop. It’s hard to play and sing at the same time. It gets easier.”
“I hope so. I’ll take your word for it.”
“Now,” said Jill, “let’s look at what the left hand is going to be doing.” She showed Peg how to make the D7 chord and the C chord. Peg made the D7 chord easily, but the C chord was hard. She could not get her middle finger over to the fourth string. She found herself frustrated at her inability to do something so simple.
“Don’t worry,” said Jill. “You can play the C chord without fretting the fourth string for a while. That’s the ‘cheatin’ C’. Lots of students use that to start with. You’ll get it.”
Peg gave Jill her skeptical look, raising both eyebrows, but Jill didn’t see it because she was putting her banjo in the case by her chair.
“We’re out of time,” she was saying. “I hope your banjo stays in tune this week. Practice all the rolls in all the chords. Next time we’ll be learning our first song. Look at it on the DVD if you want to, but don’t start on it.”
“Okay,” said Peg, glancing at the clock. Thirty minutes sure went by fast. She wondered if Jill gave hour lessons. She wasn’t getting any younger.
“Hey, Susie,” said Jill to the next student, a small older woman who was already in the room, her fiddle out, ready to go.
As Peg carried her banjo to the car her thoughts were running a mile a minute. Learning to play banjo was much harder than she had thought. Why didn’t I start earlier? she lamented, beating herself up. But I will learn to play this. I’m not quitting. I’ll practice two hours every day. And I’ll show Jill. I’ll learn those chords and the next song too.
Thus, blissfully unaware that she was setting herself up to raise Jill’s hackles, she pulled out of her parking space, cranked up Aretha singing “Respect” on Sirius, and headed home. She was ready to crack a cold beer.
Heh, Heh!…. How much of this is real experience and how much is made up. If it’s made up fiction then it comes darn-awful close to reality. This brings back the traumatic memories of when I took (piano) lessons years ago. It also reminds me why I got the DVD’s and I practice when the kid’s aren’t home and my wife is somewhere else in the house.
I am 64 and started learning the banjo (by myself) when I was around 59. I probably would have learned a long time ago but used left hand banjos were hard to come by. Anyway, this story of Peg and Jill is so refreshing, It makes me laugh because I can relate to Peg. I just started with rolls that I saw on youtube then I found the Murphy Method. Wow! What a big help. I didn’t want to go for lessons cause I was too embarrassed. Murphy’s lessons were the answer. My biggest problem was learning one section well then moving to the next section of a song. By the time I learned the second section, I had forgotten the first. It was frustrating and many times I was going to quit but I persevered. A year ago our house burned down and we lost everything. I didn’t think I would miss my banjo, since it was hit and miss at practicing, but I did.. a lot. I was able to buy another banjo and have been more diligent at practicing. I continue buying Murphy and Casey’s DVDs for my lessons and I hope, like Peg haha, that some day I can play faster and in front of people.