Last time, I wrote about how bluegrass music has an amazingly high level of transition from passive fan to active player. 

The process of going from non-player to player is not easy, though, and most who try will fizzle out within the first few months. When I was teaching banjo in Boone, I had about 15 students of all ages, but there was only one kid who picked it up quickly. And I will bet that he’s the only one, out of the 15, that is actively playing music today. 

One of the biggest challenges in learning an instrument is the process you have to go through to become proficient. There’s a large gap between “beginner” and “advanced” playing abilities, and I think most go into the process with no idea how big this gap is. A month or two in, they realize that the gap still feels like the Grand Canyon, and it can be disheartening. 

Ira Glass, the host and creator of the “This American Life” podcast, has the best description of this gap I’ve seen. 

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste,” he said. “But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. 

“Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. 

“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

There’s a mantra in the teaching world: 10 minutes a day is better than two hours on Saturday. I always believed this and recited it faithfully to anyone who asked, but I never fully understood why it was true. A few years ago, I came across a study on how sleep helps us learn and become more efficient at certain tasks: 

“Stickgold taught participants to tap out a number sequence on a keyboard. Students improved their speed on the task with practice for a few minutes, but then quickly reached a peak performance level. A control group of students who were tested 12 hours later on the same day showed no more improvement on the task, but those who went home and slept overnight improved 20 percent by the next day, although they had not practiced any more.” (Lea Winerman

Stickgold, R. (2005). Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature, 437(7063), 1272-1278)

Reading this caused an “ah-ha!” moment for me. Sleep allows the process to become embedded in your memory and ability. So, every successive day you practice a new song, you’ll theoretically become 20 percent better than the day before. Those 20 percents start adding up, allowing you to learn faster than only practicing for two hours on the weekend. 

For me, personally, understanding the why is just as important as understanding the how. A year ago, I started learning bluegrass guitar, which is completely different than banjo; and every time I pick up the guitar I tell myself, “I can play this song 20 percent better than yesterday!” 

Just telling myself that focuses my attention not on that massive gap, but on the tiny step that I just took. It might sound small, but trust me, it’s a huge difference. 

Another piece of advice I always give about learning bluegrass or specifically the banjo is simple, but all encompassing: Learn 200 songs. It will take a couple of years, but after you learn 200 songs, you can walk up to any group and feel comfortable playing any song they call out. Either you’ll know the song well, or you’ll have a deep understanding of how the music works, and you’ll be able to improvise on an advanced level. 

It’s a long, tough process, but as I’ve said before, it pays back tenfold with the people you meet and the experiences you have. Good luck, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I’ll be happy to chat with you! 

Brian Paul Swenk writes for The Mountain TimesBluegrass Today and his own blog, The Lonesome Banjo Chronicles. He plays banjo in the North Carolina-based band, Big Daddy Love, and is an App State graduate with a music industries degree through the Interdisciplinary Studies program.

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