Learning from the Banjo

Stephen Trussel

When I was twenty-one, I was drifting around. I had dropped out of school twice already, and was trying to find myself. I had been a bad student in high school, and then had done equally poorly in college for the same reason: I didn't know how to learn anything, I never studied, never did any homework...

At that time I had a friend, a little older than me, who was a very romantic character, and he also drifted around. But his case was different: he had his banjo. I had never heard anyone play and sing like he did. His fingers flew like a beautiful dance, and the banjo sang harmony to his voice. I could listen to him for hours.

Of course, I knew that I was too old to learn to play - everyone I knew who could play an instrument could already do so! "They must have been playing ever since they were kids," I thought. But one day I ran into the banjo player's girlfriend, and she was sitting and practicing. "Mel's teaching me how to play," she explained. "Wow, you're so lucky," I answered. "What do you mean," she countered, "he'd teach you too, you know."

I was shocked. I'd never considered that it was possible for me, but I went to Mel and asked him. He told me that if I found myself a banjo, he'd be happy to. I managed to get my hands on an old one somewhere, and we began. He started off by teaching the old familiar lullaby, "Go Tell Aunt Rhody". Almost everyone knew the simple tune and words.

I struggled to get my fingers to hold down the strings, and hated the ugly sounds that came out when my hands tried to play at the same time. But Mel just said, "do it one thousand times, and you'll have it." "Really? Was that all there was to it?" I wondered. But I took his teaching to heart, and practiced day after day, hour after hour. Slowly, "Aunt Rhody" became a real song. My fingers got stronger, my hands moved in harmony with each other. My life began to change.

Since that time, I have learned many things. I returned to school for a third try, and did well. I went to graduate school, learned languages, martial arts, many new things. And all the while I continued to play the banjo. The banjo had become my teacher. It had taught me how to learn...