Me and my banjo, a lamentable song

You might know that a little over a year ago I bought a banjo. It was a decision made on a whim at the moment that, instead of heading straight from Zayed Sports City after the rugby carnival, I turned left and headed out towards Raha Mall. I had no idea whether the music shop out there would even have a banjo and, as it turned out, nor did they. The person at the counter had to go and check with the person out the back who had to go and check with the owner who eventually came out and said, ‘Did you want a 4 string or 5?’ (His accent was Australian, east coast.)

‘Oh, five,’ I said.

It didn’t have a price on it, and he pulled a number from the air and said, ‘What do you think?’

Numbers fall out of my head the minute I hear them, so I can’t remember what I paid exactly. The owner disappeared back out the back and along with the banjo I bought the only banjo book they had and also some picks.

Picks aren’t picks.

When I got home and opened the book I discovered that guitar picks and banjo picks aren’t the same thing and of course there being only one banjo in the shop it was hardly surprising that there were no banjo picks and they had sold me the ones for guitar (not deliberately, they didn’t know). Then I was cross because they hadn’t even put them in for free.

It’s reasonably easy to get a good sound out of a banjo because, unlike guitar, the open strings make a lovely chord. I had this idea that one day – probably the next day and if not then definitely next week – I’d be able to play Rainbow Connection. I used to play that on the piano in 1983 and 84, my god I loved it. To play it on the banjo would be such retro fun. A new party trick (not that I had an old party trick, but you know what I mean).

Time has taught me that my natural talents do not lie with the banjo. I’m shit at it.

I taught myself a few things, and then I went to lessons last year, taught by a wonderful young man of excellent music talent. I’m sure he dreaded my lessons. I’m sure that every time I turned up he went home thinking Do I really the money this much? And that every time I cancelled he was like, oh, there really is a god.

I haven’t got very far. I can play a couple of chords, but my rolls are still very slow. My biggest disadvantage though is that I can’t really sing. I can hit a range of about five notes (two down from middle C and two up) with vague precision, but that does limit a person’s repertoire. So even though I learn a new song each week all I really do is play the same chords in different combinations.

The only way I’m really going to get any better is to play a whole lot more than I do. But the thing about middle age is that you have this ever-increasing awareness of the value of time and there are so many things I want to get better at in the space where banjo might be – sewing, baking, reading poetry. I want to read more books and watch more movies than I do.

I’ve always lived my life by doing more things, but I wonder if that’s changing. Maybe I want to commit to other things by deciding that I’m not committed to my banjo.

What would Kermit do?

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