May 16, 2004

#78: Motivating beginning banjo students

A discussion on the Beginner Banjo yahoo discussion group include someone quoting a statement that 95% of people who start banjo give up before they learn.

John, an experienced player and teacher, writes:

Part of that quitting percentage has to do with lack of will power in some cases. Many people attempt to play thinking that it will be a" 4 week course, then off to the Opry" scenario. When they realize it takes TIME to learn to play, they often aren't willing to put forth the serious effort. Sometimes their schedule is too full of major responsibilities, other hobbies and such, to give it the attention it deserves.

I know what you're talking about, and I agree with you about the obstacles. But there is a way to help these people practice enough to make the banjo a good part of their lives, AND maybe inspire them at some point to do all the hard work it takes to actually learn bluegrass banjo.

I make a clear differentiation at the start of all my camps aimed at novices:

"You can learn to play any chording instrument (banjo, guitar, mando, dobro, bass) in a very satisfactory way for simple bluegrass jamming, with only a few weeks worth of effort. If you want to play Scruggs style well, be prepared for a lot more effort. But let's tackle the easier part first, since it's the first step anyway."

That easier way is about correctly chording along in time, while a bluegrass song is being sung. Most songs are just three chords, and a collection of 3 to 6 chords will take you through the large majority of bluegrass songs, with a choice of keys, even. All it takes is someone to sing a song, which can be right out of a songbook. Banjo technique other than chording (I mean the easy chords, including the 2-fingered D7 and no F-shapes) and strumming is welcome, but *not at all necessary*. How many people have had a great time singing along with a guitar or banjo or piano singing favorite songs? MANY. Don't assume that strumming and chording is not a hugely worthwhile goal. It gives people a sense of accomplishment, ability to make "the sound of a banjo" that they love, and the best step toward more ambitious playing.

So as teachers, I say let's get that part done first. Facilitate by actually getting those people together -- almost immediately (second lesson). Start with TWO-chord songs (see the large list on my web site, under Instructional). This is how I show people at one-hour festival workshops that it's NEVER too late to learn to play banjo. The many non-banjo-player onlookers stay riveted as several novice banjo players follow me easily on songs like Little Birdie and My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mts. When I ask them to sing (though they've never sung the song before) I get the majority of the gathering involved, and I know some of them wonder why they never realized how easy it is to get started.

Many of these folks would *like* to play Scruggs style, and I clearly inform them that it takes quite a bit of work, comparable to learning a foreign language. (The right hand has to learn to work like your mouth does when you speak, without conscious direction of the individual components.) But then I hasten to inform them that if they love the sound of the banjo and would like to play music with other people, there is definitely a way, and it won't take them long at all to learn enough technique to do that. Then once that's done, they can start Scruggs style just by replacing the strum with a TITM roll.

The beauty of this approach is that it gets the student having fun and feeling accomplishment almost immediately... while also laying a solid musical foundation for the hard work that is to come, should they choose to take that extra step. If a teacher can create a small group out of a few people who match up, and one or more of them can sing songs (looking at a songbook is fine ... for the singer only), they can jam for as long as the singers hold out. For many people, if they drop out of lessons right there, but continue to jam, I know I've given them something huge that they'll have for life.

I feel that the social situation of jamming provides the "will" you speak of, the motivation to do more than just playing chords. That comes naturally from the jam sessions, where people start wanting to improve, just to contribute better and to impress the others.

For what it's worth, this is the situation I was in when I started to play music. My best friends would play and sing easy folk songs on guitars and banjos, and I just wanted to fit in. I would practice at home with a songbook, learning the changes so I could function better at the next jam. It worked well. Then I started thinking, if I could learn some of that Scruggs stuff, they'd be amazed. It went from there.

You are right about those teachers that only give complicated tabs and no other learning tools. Hopefully it will change with your help.

Well, I appreciate your endorsement. But I'd also like to clarify that I don't think it's appropriate to give ANY tab at first. It's more important just make sure people can change chords quickly and smoothly (learning that F is hard, so I save that till later), and without having to look, so they can keep time on slow and easy songs. Getting those skills down can take some people a good while. As they learn that, I take care NOT to distract them with tablature or any music-on-paper except for chording. A TITM roll can be shown easily, when appropriate, without tab. If they want tab, I would tell them they're not ready, but they will be soon, at which time they can learn other rolls in tab, to substitute for TITM. After they can do that comfortably, then it's time for a simple tab like Will the Circle Be Unbroken or This Land Is Your Land. Note: a *singing* song, no instrumentals! (Definitely not Cripple Creek, which is not only easy to screw up, but many of the moves don't go easily into other songs.)

When you're trying to build a tentative beginner a solid path to walk on, you raise the bar only very slowly on them, to make sure they clear it most of the time. Keep them and frustration ("It's so hard, I just can't get it.") as far apart as possible. Hook them on jamming first. What they learn from tab should be *useful* as soon as possible, in actual jam situations, so that when they "get it", they can USE it, to impress their buddies. The work part will frustrate many of them, but now they have a lot more motivation to see them through. Compare that with the level of motivation necessary to tough out learning a tab when they have no place to use their newfound ability, other than 15 seconds of glory in front of a teacher or family member.

Sorry to be ranting on this subject, but it's truly a lifetime goal of mine to see that banjo teachers (and all bluegrass teachers) teach more effectively. We'll have more players having more fun, and fewer people who gave up in failure, feeling they wasted time and money. I don't believe in blaming failure just on the student. They had enough will to get a banjo and show up and pay money for help.

So many teachers blame the student, saying they're slow to learn, unrealistic about goals, lack will, and don't practice enough. I say, let's assume that's true, and let's ALSO learn how to harness what can truly motivate them (musical social situations) and let that motivation then carry them to achievable goals that will give them the glory of knowing how to play banjo, even if they never tackle Scruggs style. There's plenty of satisfaction to knowing how to chord along while people sing. The lose/lose situation can turn into win/win.

Give it a try. Offer group lesson (or two or three) to a few of your beginner students, and show them how to play and sing some easy songs, just strumming. If someone is good enough to do TITM while chording, great. See what happens.

My full length articles addressed to teachers about this, one published in BNL and one a recent Bluegrass Unlimited guest editorial, are both found on my web site,

My best wishes to you, John, and all the other concerned teachers and learners out there!

Pete Wernick


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