The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas, by Henry Ossawa Tanner currently on display at the Hampton University Museum.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The Banjo Lesson
Yesterday I gave a beginning clawhammer banjo lesson. It reminded me of the paradoxes involved in learning to play a musical instrument. Teaching someone how to play a musical instrument is like teaching someone how to ride a bike or drive a car—you have to take something that you do without thought, analyze it, simplify it, break it down into steps, and then help the student reassemble it and develop the muscle memory and confidence that will allow them to perform the task without thinking about it. The beginning student learns the skill by consciously and deliberately reconstructing the process, but it's important to move away from the mindful approach as soon as possible so that technical execution doesn't get in the way of musical expression. A beginning musician has only one approach available to them, that is an intuitive approach. The experienced musician works to acquire knowledge and highly developed fine motor skills only to strive to get back to the intuitive approach of the beginner. So, grasshopper, the circle is complete, the teacher becomes the student.