Saturday, January 31, 2015


Kathe and I have been taking music lessons for a month.  I have my banjo; she has a keyboard (although what she really wants is a piano.)

We are adult music students, a bit of a rarity.  And we both are convinced that we can do it, and we devote the time to practice, like we never could (or did) when we were kids. We set aside time, and are very protective of that time, because we have a goal in mind. We want to play.

What we are doing is very different from what kids do when they are given lessons. 

The typical child lesson (I have made some assumptions here) goes something like this: MomnDad decide child progeny (CP) is going to learn an instrument.  They give CP a choice: oboe or saxophone; CP chooses the one CP think is best/coolest/least dorky/easiest-to-hide-in-the-locker-at-school.  (Or, if you have a piano in the house, you get to learn piano).  M&D buy the instrument, and go about finding a suitable tutor.

And when I say ‘suitable’, what I really mean is ‘affordable’.

CP is encouraged to practice, and at the end of the semester/year, is rewarded with an opportunity to dress up and give a concert, that M&D attend.

From CP’s perspective, here is what happens:

M&D: “Do you want to give up the last remaining shred of video game time to practice the tuba, or to practice the piccolo?”

And just like that, CP is suddenly forced to give up a half-hour to an hour of every day to practice an instrument that he does not love, and then spends an additional hour with an adult who gets to be a
participant in the weekly humiliation when CP does not perform to the genius level that is the expectation.

The end result is a recital, where videocameras and smartphones take over, and Nurse Ratched shepherds her charges through the painful process of showing that the parents’ investments in CP were not in vain.

(In all fairness, Mrs. Robin - my piano teacher - was a loving, kind woman who played more the kindly psychologist than a piano instructor version of Nurse Ratched.)

But still.

The difference for an adult is incredible. 

I decided I wanted to play the banjo.  It is a decision that many who love me question, but it is my decision.

I decided I needed lessons to get better. 

I went looking for a ‘suitable’ tutor.

I looked at what we could afford, and with my wife, made the decision on what to do.

I went to my first lesson, and I hated it.  The instructor was a condescending jacktard, and did not even play the banjo.  Just watched me while I made mistakes doing something I had never done.  I was sweating, I was shaking.  It was humiliating, and I suddenly remembered the tears that were shed in poor Mrs. Robin’s 6x10 cubicle. By the end of the half hour, I did not want to look at the banjo at all. 

And then that night I did the scales that he instructed me to do.  And dammit, it made sense.  

I practiced every night, but not because of him, and not because my parents (who were protecting their investment) made me.  I practiced because I wanted it. 

My sister talked me through some of my grouchiness about the now-hated banjo, and emphasized my goals – I want to be able to accompany myself when I sing.  “Focus on that,” she said, “and play the things you want to play.  IT SHOULD BE FUN”.  And not, she said, just the musical equivalent of learning grammar.

Combining the two approaches (Agricola, agricolarum with Paul Simon’s The Boxer) made practice bearable.  And I played my heart out. 

Next week, Instructor Mike had given up on me, and had handed me over to Instructor Rick.  Rick does not play the banjo either, but he watched and listened and asked questions and talked through problems, and offered advice.  He explained some of the ideas that I was having a hard time understanding, and I got thirty minutes to ask questions and discuss.

It was magnificent.

But it was also limited.  He plays folk guitar, and so the technique has some crossover, but not it is not complete.  So there is only so far he can take me.

As an adult, I know my learning style.  And where I appreciate the place of learning grammar at the business end of a metronome, I also know that my reaction is so strong that I am going to resist.

I know my own mind.

I also know when I need to move on.  I have bought two months of lessons, so I have four lessons remaining.  And I will finish those lessons and not renew.  But not renewing does not free me from the learning.  It just will mean that I have hit a learning plateau, and will work on my own until I need another teacher. (Maybe one who plays the banjo…)

Not a decision that the five-year old progeny can make.

Videos. Books.  I’ve collected enough to satisfy the intellectual part of it.

The time for practice is set aside, and I have the drive to practice so that I can satisfy the physical memory part of it.

The only real piece that I am missing is a goal orientation and a time constraint.  I need a recital to make the physical and the mental come together. 

So here it is: the grand challenge.  The great offering.

I am going to serve beer and wine (and maybe sazeracs) at my house on June 6. That’s right.  I am going to host a recital.  It will be painful, with a lot of shaking hands and wild nerves and maybe even some tears (possibly proving that kids learning an instrument isn’t really all that different after all!)  

But you are invited to hear me play banjo.  And drink. And laugh with me.  And maybe, just maybe, sing along.

Because I am going to need you to do a lot of all of that. 

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