“How bout we play a couple of tunes together?”
“Sounds great!” I replied, trying my best to project confidence while my stomach contents began migrating their way up my esophagus.
It was my first banjo camp. I’d been playing the banjo (bluegrass style) a little over a year , and one of my favorite players – a camp instructor and master banjoist with decades of experience – had just asked ME to jam with him. How I could I refuse that?
“What do you want to play?” he asked.
I mentally searched my small repertoire of tunes, looking for one I knew I could play in my sleep. I really wanted to nail this, to impress him with just how far I’d come in such a short time.
“Fireball Mail?” I suggested.
“Great. I’ll kick it off and then back you up first.”
Here we go, I thought. Time to show him what I can do.
He played a quick pick-up measure, and, with a mixture of excitement and terror, I launched into my solo. A solo I’d probably played at home somewhere north of 36,000 times. One I knew like the back of my hand, one that I thought really showcased my skills.
It didn’t take long for me to realize things were not going well. For starters, my timing was terrible. For the life of me, I couldn’t get my playing to sync up with his. Was he the problem? Was he just not good a keeping time?
And it didn’t get better from there.
Anxiety quickly turned into blind panic. Beads of sweat from my forehead began making their way down my brow, searing my eyeballs. My heart was in my throat. Trying to cleanly pick a string felt about as easy as hitting a bullseye from 8 miles away. Besides, by this point I could barely remember how to breathe, much less focus on what I should be doing with my fingers.
Finally, I just stopped. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I guess I need to practice that one a little more.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a look of pity that made me want to vanish into thin air.
“Just keep at it. You’ll get there,” he replied mercifully.
What on earth had just happened? I’d practiced this tune so many times. I thought it was one of my best, and it always sounded so great when I played it at home.
I was embarrased. And demoralized.
All that practice, and that was the best I could muster? Had it all been for naught?
MAKING SURE THIS NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN
After licking my wounds, my next step was to figure out just why that had just happened to me.
If that was the best I could do in spite of all those hours spent practicing, then something must’ve been wrong in my preparation. This was one of those experiences that led me to overhaul my process for learning to play music, including how I went about learning new tunes.
I wanted to make sure that what happened to me that day would never happen again.
I ultimately landed upon a process that has done just that, heretofore referred as the Brainjo Tune Learnin’ System (and it’s now the method I use for all the tunes in the Breakthrough Banjo course). It’s a system that allows me to both learn and memorize tunes faster and play them better.
And, last but not least, it allows me to know that when it’s time to sit down with someone else and play it together, I’m ready.
Check it out in the video below, the second bonus installment in the “How to Play Clawhammer Banjo in 8 Essential Steps” series. And after you’re done, see the system in action with the backing tracks for “Long Journey Home” (which was taught in the first bonus installment).
In Part 2 of the bonus installment (below), we learn our next tune: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”