Confidence Through Chords: Learning To Play the Banjo Helped Me Challenge My Inner-Critic

As far back as I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety and depression. My father, who suffered from Schizophrenia, took his own life when I was 2 years old. I was the youngest of six children in a single-parent family. My mother, who had her own problems, was distant, my siblings unsupportive. Bullied at school and with no one to turn to at home, I grew up thinking that I could never be any good at anything. Disparaging comments from family, other children and teachers left a deep mark.

Throughout childhood, I sought out moments when I could put on a pair of headphones, cut myself off from the real world, and escape to my own comforting universe of music. Records seemed magical, a kind of alchemy. Those big black discs contained entire worlds to discover. Stevie Wonder. Talking Heads. XTC. For many years, these were the only real friends that I had. And deep down, I harbored dreams of one day making music of my own.

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I struggled on into adult life. I never gave up on music, or my other hobby, writing, but neither took me anywhere until four years ago, when I got married. My wife is tirelessly encouraging and motivating, and eager to see my potential realized. Thanks to her support, I have transformed my hobbies into my work. I am now a music journalist and writer and I love what I do.

My next step was even bigger. When I mentioned to my wife that I’d always been interested in learning to play the banjo, she was immediately proactive. “Why don’t you buy one?” she said. I shrugged. Investing in myself had never been my strong point. Constant echoes of people labeling me “selfish” and “lazy” made it difficult to believe that I deserved anything.

Then on vacation one day, while hesitantly browsing in a music shop, I saw the banjo of my dreams. A Gretsch Broadkaster Special, mahogany with a rosewood finger-board and pearl inlays, complete with a hefty price tag. I fretted and could not decide if it was okay to spend so much money on something for myself. My wife decided for me: She went back to the shop and bought it.

The author with his banjo

Back home, I found a book and began to learn. At first, it was hard, slow progress. My fingers simply weren’t used to the coordinated motions I was asking of them. But, slowly and surely, I found that I could do it. With each new technique that I mastered, each new chord learned, my self-belief grew.

Sitting there, letting my fingers loose to conjure sparkling notes and hear them fly up into the air, I found a great, calming joy. That newfound confidence seemed to expand beyond my banjo-playing. If I could do this, perhaps there were other things I could also do. Maybe I wasn’t as useless as all those voices had told me.

“You should find a local group,” urged my wife. As an introvert, the idea of approaching a group of strangers was intimidating, but I resolved to try. Banjo-players are thin on the ground in our area, but I found a ukulele group nearby and tentatively emailed. The reply I received from Sylvia, who co-runs the meetups with her husband, Andy, was warm and encouraging. I bought a cheap banjolele (a hybrid banjo-ukulele), plucked up my courage and went along.

It was wonderful. The meetings were relaxed and fun. My fellow players are a lovely, diverse bunch. Andy even took time out to give me some personal coaching. After a few sessions, I asked if I could bring my full-size banjo along (even though it was a ukulele outfit). “It’s got strings,” said Andy, “it’s close enough.”

In less than a year, I’ve gone from painstakingly plucking one string at a time to performing in front of an audience. Now, whenever we have a social gathering, I will invariably get out my prized banjo and play. It’s still hard for me to accept that anything I do can give pleasure to others but, thanks to the support of my wife, some therapy, and a lot of internalizing, I’m slowly getting there.

If occasionally I hit a wrong note, or fail to strike a string cleanly, then I can learn from that. It is through striking “wrong” tones you learn what is harmonious. Learning to play has given me a tremendous boost. Whenever I am faced with something challenging, in whatever sphere of life, I remind myself how difficult it was to begin playing, how hard it was to make my fingers work, and how easy it seems now. I feel a level of confidence that I never before had.

For anyone out there considering giving it a go, whichever instrument you have in mind, I urge you to invest some time in yourself. The least it will bring you is satisfaction and calm, and it might just lead to something wonderful.

Originally published on January 19, 2021.

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