Lessons Learned from Bad Banjo Playing

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 07/22/2012

Last summer around this time, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the banjo.

You could ask me why, and many of you have, and the real answer is that I’m not sure.  But I can tell you a few things that might shed some light on it. 

One thing was that I was going to turn 40 that November, and I was looking to do things new and energetic to prove to myself that 40 is not really that old.  This is the same sort of drive that leads middle aged people to shiny new red convertibles, I think, but instead of that, I got a banjo.

Another thing is that I had spent the past fifteen years with very little time in my life for hobbies or fun pursuits.  But now my kids are older and I’m done with all my schooling, at least for the foreseeable future, and I’ve gotten settled into this ministry, and so I have time on my hands for learning and doing something new.  To celebrate my newfound freedom, I wanted to do something fun.

And, last but not least, last year, I became moderately obsessed with a band called Mumford and Sons.  I’m not really a huge music fan, in general.  But I saw Mumford perform with Bob Dylan at the Grammys, and I was stopped in my tracks.  Long story short, I ended up at a concert they gave in June last year, one of their first in the US, where I found myself strangely surrounded by apparently intoxicated, rainsoaked 20-somethings, and thinking, incongruently, “You know what makes this band really great?  It’s the BANJO.”

“Megan,” I said to myself, “you need to learn how to play the banjo.”

And so it came to be.  I bought a banjo and found a teacher, and when the school year started I began weekly lessons.  I figured it would be no time at all before I could play along with all my favorite songs, Mumford included, and could probably even start my own band with the cool banjo influence that I had come to love.  I could probably even play bluegrass someday along with Steve Martin at the 4th of July concert on the National Mall!  This banjo thing was going to be great!

Well, things did not turn out quite as I predicted.  I have spent the past 10 months playing the banjo really, really poorly.

Here’s the thing – when you’re 40, your brain is pretty filled up with all the stuff you normally do and you like to do and you’re good at.  I can with great authority report to you that if you start to learn something brand new at 40 that is nothing like you’ve done before, you can literally hear your brain trying to crank along in the new ways.  Neurologists can tell you that you’ll be making new neural pathways that did not exist in there before, and I swear I could feel that happening, and it wasn’t easy.

I’ve played music before, and sung in choirs, so I’m not completely unfamiliar with reading music.  But banjo music is written in tablature style, which means that the music, the five lines or staff, that you might be familiar with, those five lines are actually a picture representation of the strings that you’ll be playing, and which strings you’ll be plucking.  It’s an entirely different way of figuring out how to play a song, written in a code that I needed to translate from the page into my fingers.  It’s like trying to do math in an entirely new way, like in base 5 or something.  And math, and reading music, isn’t my strong suit to start with!  So every little thing I learned on the banjo happened very, very slowly.

And that was annoying too, because I’m not used to learning things slowly.  I’m usually pretty quick to pick up on things, but I came to realize that lately in my adult life, I had only really tried to pick up new things that were related to stuff I already knew how to do – so it wasn’t really new at all, was it?  If I already know a lot about how people act, and a lot about how people act in groups, then learning about how people act in groups at church isn’t exactly the lost frontier to me. 

But learning to read a code on paper so I could do something different and complicated with each one of my fingers?  That was new.  And I was so slow to learn it!

So after a while, I put away my dreams of playing with Steve Martin or with Mumford and Sons, who probably wouldn’t want me anyway, since I’m probably the age of their mothers.  What I did do is try to swallow my pride and see what this new path, this learning-the-banjo path, had to teach me.  And what it had to teach me, I bring to you today.  These are the lessons I learned from bad banjo playing this year.

Lesson One:  A little humiliation never hurt anyone.  Okay, I’m being facetious, because I found that my banjo humiliation was quite hurtful, actually.  But what the humiliation didn’t do was make me worse at banjo.  I could be completely humiliated by my own playing, and still be improving, ever so slowly.  As long as I kept trying to play, it didn’t matter how I felt about it at all.  So that’s a good lesson to learn, if you ask me – as far as getting something done, you should keep trying even when you’re embarrassed.  I came to see my embarrassment as just something that flowed over me from time to time, and didn’t need all my attention or even much notice.  It was just there.  It goes away and comes back.  But it didn’t get in the way of my learning.  It was a separate thing.

Lesson Two, and this is probably the most important one although also the most obvious, because the title is this:  Practicing helps you get better.  “Duh!,” you’re probably thinking, especially if you play music or sports or anything like that.  I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve been involved in anything that needed me to practice at it, so I was surprised.

But I was particularly surprised because I had assumed that the way that practice makes you better is that every time you play, you can tell you’re just a bit better and you build up your abilities kind of like climbing up an Egyptian pyramid.  I saw it as a straight progression from bad to good, with either big jumps along the way, or, as it turned out, little tiny baby steps between levels of skill.  But that’s not actually how it works at all, or at least it wasn’t how it worked for me.

How it worked for me was, the practicing would make me better even if there was no observable progress at all.  I could play the same piece or practice the same trick or whatever it was a million times, and mess it up every time.  In my early days, I would end these sessions really mad and frustrated, kind of hopeless about my ability to improve at all.

But what would happen, amazingly, is that the next time I played, I was better, no matter how terrible I was while I was practicing before.  It was like magic.  Something that I could not see or feel was at work in me, and it seemed like that thing was invisibly giving me skill as long as I made an effort, no matter how bad that effort seemed to me to turn out.  Things were still changing and growing in me whether I knew it or not.  So eventually, I learned to chalk up bad practices to being just as valuable as good practices, because something was afoot in me, even when I couldn’t see it. 

That is an awesome religious metaphor that I really want you to take home today.  Something was afoot in me, even when I couldn’t see it, as long as I made the effort to improve.  All I had to do was make the effort.  I didn’t have to control the outcome; that was taken care of for me.  I think it’s a really good model for living, actually.

Letting go of outcomes became really important in my banjo playing this past year.  In letting go of most of my outcomes, I realized that I could let go of other things as well.  Here are lessons three and four:  You don’t have to play the melody all the time.  And, you don’t have to write the song.  It’s already been written for you, and all you have to do is play it.

These are lessons about being controlling and being in charge, and they may be lessons that you are wise enough to not need, but I need them and I found them valuable to learn through the banjo playing.  In my life, I like to know what the metaphorical melody is, the most important thing to be done.  If there is a task that needs doing, I want to know about it and do it, quickly and well. 

But the banjo is a chord instrument, where the melody is usually kind of buried amid all sorts of other notes.  These chord notes make up a harmonious whole, and the melody, which is the point of it all, I guess, the melody is in there somewhere, but it’s not right up front.  And when you’re new at playing the banjo, it can be particularly hard to hear or play the melody.  But that doesn’t mean that the music isn’t pretty, or isn’t being played correctly. 

And even though I can’t always hear the melody, either because the chords are confusing me, or because I don’t know how the song goes, that doesn’t mean that someone listening can’t hear the melody.  I can play happily along, trusting that the melody is there, and that those who need to hear it can hear it.  I’m not in charge, and I won’t always be able to tell which of the things I do, which of the notes I play, is the one that will turn out to be important.  A lot of what I do is just pretty and supportive.  That’s true in banjo, and at the end of the day, despite my best efforts at relevancy and efficiency, its true in life too.  That’s good for me to know.

I was also surprised at my delight about Lesson Four, that songs are already written for me to play.  Again, this is very obvious upon reflection.  Of course songs are already written.  You can just buy music to a song you like, and play it, and it will sound right.  Someone already arranged it - that is, they already did the work of making it sound right for you and your instrument, at the level of difficultly you are able to play. 

But think about what an act of grace that is, how much of an example of our seventh principle about the “interdependent web of creation of which we are all a part” it is.  I don’t know the person who arranged my version of “Turkey in the Straw,” but the fact that they were willing to do so makes my creative process, my ability to play, possible.  What a gift this stranger has given me! 

And in how many other areas of my life am I given this gift of ease by strangers every single day?  I began to realize that just like I can’t write banjo tunes, I can’t grow food (as my sad tomato plant at home could tell you), or make a car, or transmit data by satellite, or educate children, yet I am able to use someone’s else’s gift for those things every day.  It turns out that my whole life has been given to me like a present, literally a song that I am learning how to play but could never write myself.  It makes me feel very grateful for those around me, and I could use more of that, banjo or no.

Lesson Five, from my bad banjo playing, is that it’s more fun to play with other people, even if you’re tempted to never, never play with others because of how terrible you are sure that you are.  It’s more fun to play with others, even when it’s humiliating, and it also makes you better faster. 

As an introvert, I revert to being on my own, in banjo and in life.  But what if it’s true all around in Life that playing with others is more fun and makes you better faster?  I think there’s a case to be made for that, introvert or not.

Which leads us to Lesson Six from bad banjo playing, the last lesson for today.  Lesson Six is this:  If you’re a beginner, that’s okay.  Everyone was a beginner once.  And when you’re a beginner, even if everyone is better than you, you can get together with those people, and they can adjust to you.  It doesn’t always have to be you striving to be like them.

Metaphorically speaking, this is what we try to do in church.  We want people to come as they are.  Everyone has gifts, and everyone has weaknesses.  And we try to meet people where they are.  If you aren’t good at managing money, say, then we have other people here who can help us get that done.  If you aren’t good at socializing, then we have other ways to get involved and get to know people.  If you aren’t good at sitting in long meetings, well, we have people who can make those meetings a little shorter and a lot more productive.  If you aren’t good at cooking, then you can bring the soda to the potluck.  We can be there for each other in our weaknesses.  We don’t have to be good at everything, because we have each other.

I’ve heard of a musical group that is committed to helping new musicians play.  They meet and play songs just as slowly and just as repetitively as the new musician needs to get on their feet.  The new musician gets better, because as I said in Lessons Five and One and Two, you get better and have more fun when you play with others, even if its humiliating.

Here at Sugarloaf, we’ve tried to do something somewhat similar.  I’ve been telling Jim Schmidt for months about my banjo playing, and he always graciously invites me to play with the ensemble, to which I always say, ‘My God, Jim, I’m really very terrible and would never play with you guys.”  So he had a genius idea.  He is learning a new string instrument, the guitar, and Janine is learning a new string instrument, the violin.  How about if we got a whole bunch of people together who are trying to learn a new string instrument, and play a song?

It was a great idea, and in just a few short minutes we’ll play a song for you – Amazing Grace, of course, because amazing grace is definitely what new musicians need. 

But what’s been most amazing to me about Jim’s suggestion has been that I’ve found out that I am not alone in my struggle to learn this brand new thing.  There are tons of people here at Sugarloaf who are trying to learn a new string instrument.  Not all of them were available to play with us today, but they are out there.  It turns out that there are so many of us, trying hard to learn something new, battling the humiliation and the baby steps, just waiting for someone to say to them, “Come on out and play with us.  It doesn’t matter how bad you are at it.  We’ll play with you anyway, so you can have fun and get better.” 

We here at Sugarloaf say that about music, apparently.  But we say it about lots of other things too.  If you are hesitant, or embarrassed, or not very talented, or just beginning something new, in any way, this church is the place for you to be.  This is the place for you to play your tune with others.  To get better.  To have fun. 

Thank you for all you bring to Sugarloaf.  Thank you for your effort and your stick-to-itiveness and your willingness to try, and try again.  We cannot be who we are, without you.  Even when your banjo playing is really, really terrible.

Blessed be.