Like so many kids of my generation, I left school thinking that I had no musical ability. Music theory just baffled me, and my croaky, deep, unruly singing voice embarrassed me.
I envied my mate Jon, with his electric guitar and his apparently magical ability to understand what the hell our music teacher, the fearsome Mrs Dix, was talking about. (Four beats to a bar? Really? Why?? Who decides where the bar starts and ends? And where’s the four in 3/4 time?)
Later at uni in Kiel, Germany, one of my friends was a competent sax player and I’d tag along to his Dixieland gigs. I loved music, was moved, delighted, captivated by it, but music wasn’t something I was ever going to make. I couldn’t even keep a beat while dancing.
Fast forward 30 years …
I became a banjo player. My wife had just taken up ukulele, and this emboldened me to try an instrument myself. A visit to our local music shop ensued, and I emerged with a pretty Deering banjo and ten weeks of lessons booked.
That was six years ago, and the course of my life changed at that point.
These days …
I play banjo every day, and most of my closer friends are fellow musicians.
I perform with a cheerfully amateur band. Pre-COVID, we played market gigs every month. Hopefully, we’ll do that again, post-COVID. (Will there ever be a post-COVID?)
I teach five-string banjo to beginners in my spare time. I’m on a mission to show them that it need not be a difficult, technical instrument to play. It need not be played at breakneck speed or with superhuman virtuosity. It is suited to many genres of music other than just bluegrass.
I want to help my students get over that ‘hump’ where playing banjo seems so damned hard, so that they can go out into the musical world and discover their own musicality, whether that lies with bluegrass, Celtic, folk punk, jazzy blues, Renaissance and Baroque banjo or something that defies categorisation.
In the modern digital era, we expect our music to come prepackaged, cellophane-wrapped. Professional-quality, studio-recorded music is the aural wallpaper of our lives. Amateur musicians tend to be judged (by non-musicians) against these impossibly high standards, or ignored as harmless eccentrics.
That’s a shame. The joy of making music socially, the thrill of making modest advances as an amateur player, the poignancy of putting your deepest emotions into a little song that you’ve crafted yourself — these things are too important to lose.
Making music is satisfying on so many levels: creative, emotional, intellectual, social, physical. It’s far, far too much fun to be left to the professionals.