Should you be practicing right now?

Fact: learning something new – anything – helps to stave off dementia. Fact: music makes you feel better (and bluegrass is particularly cheerful). Fact: kids who play an instrument, do a sport, or have another extracurricular activity are better students and have better social lives. Fact: playing an instrument opens up opportunities to meet other people and have more fun. Bonus: when you have both hands occupied on a banjo, you can’t be eating junk food.

So, I’m learning to play the banjo.

I’ve been taking lessons at my local music store for about 2 1/2 years. I have a great teacher, a nice young guy who’s been playing the banjo since he was 8 years old. I’ve learned a bunch of songs and bought a bunch of books. I’ve made flash cards to try to cram the chords into my brain. I practice pretty much every day, unless I’m traveling (and even then, sometimes I bring my banjo along).

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. It’s incredibly complicated! There’s your left hand, making the chords. There’s your right hand, plucking or strumming. So there’s that manual dexterity feature, which has never been my strong suit. And then there’s your brain. Remembering where the chords are (and the same chords have different shapes depending on where you play them on the neck). Finding out why a C chord is a C chord – not something I ever needed to know when I was learning to play piano as a kid. Memorizing the patterns in the songs, including both hands and all the repeats and all the minor variations.

And on top of all that, the banjo is an extremely loud instrument, so everyone in the house gets to hear all your mistakes!

Somebody said it takes 10,000 hours of practice to turn someone from an amateur into a professional, and then someone else said the practice needs to be deliberate – you need to stretch yourself and work on the stuff that’s hardest.

So yes, I should be practicing right now.

(The clip below is my audio Christmas card from 2014, with my teacher accompanying me.)

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