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.

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