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.

The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas, by Henry Ossawa Tanner currently on display at the Hampton University Museum.


  1. I remember having to take accordion lessons when I was seven or eight. I could not learn to coordinate my left hand and right hand with the push and pull motion. That poor instructor must have dreaded my visit as much or more that I did. Being left handed was part of my problem whenever it came to music lessons.

  2. Two years ago I began guitar lessons. The poor teacher. I surely gave him fits. He kept telling me to loosen up, I was wound tight for every lesson. I was so afraid to make a mistake. Now I am just a beginner banjo player. It is easier for me than guitar was in the beginning because I am over the fear of making mistakes. I find myself starting to take a mistake and work it into the piece, which I find easier than working a mistake into a guitar piece. I truly love the banjo and the progress I have made in my two and a half years. I've kept in touch with that guitar teacher, he's recovered nicely.

    Mr Dana

  3. I think the banjo is a more intuitive instrument than the guitar, probably because of the open tunings used. Enjoy!