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Banjo Playing Timeline: Revisiting an Unfinished Post

This post began six years ago. After writing about my 10-year banjoversary, I discovered an unfinished draft from 2012. Started as a follow-up to a reflection on my music listening journey, the post was an attempt to trace my personal banjo playing history. It's about time I finished it.

1994 / Prelude to a Picker: A high school friend who played bass was convinced I had perfect hands to be a guitarist. My long fingers being perfectly suited for intricate fretting. I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas and began taking lessons. However, I lost interest because I wanted it all now, and I quit after a couple years because I had no patience to learn.

2007 / The Tipping Point: After becoming obsessed with banjo music, I started researching how to play one and what instrument to buy.

March 2008 / Give Me the Banjo: With my tax return, I bought a Recording King "Songster" and began my journey. I started with Scruggs three-finger style, but started to lose interest after few months, which also coincided with when I started dating the woman I would marry.

Christmas 2008 / Clawhammer: After letting my practice time languish, I vowed not to repeat my mistake with the guitar and contemplated how to renew my enthusiasm for playing the banjo. Near the end of the year, I discovered clawhammer style and received Mike Seeger's Southern Banjo Styles DVD set for Christmas.

New Year 2009 / A New Way: My New Year's resolution was to learn clawhammer banjo. After reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, wherein he posits that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, I began tracking my practice time on a spreadsheet to keep myself accountable to my goal. Today, I have logged more than 730 hours of playing time in my life. [Keep in mind this was written in 2012. I'm now at about 1,200 hours. Only 8,800 hours to go!]

August 2009 / Give Me Another Banjo: After switching to clawhammer style and recommitting to banjo playing (one of my most successful New Year resolutions ever), I visited with Bill Van Horn of Shelby, Ohio, and asked him build my current banjo, a B&P Blackfork. It was delivered that December.

November 2009 / First Workshop: At the Kent State Folk Festival, my first since childhood, I sat in on a workshop by Cleveland's old-time banjo wizard, Mark Olitsky. It would be the first time I played my banjo in public.

May 2010 / First Jam: Almost a year and a half into playing clawhammer banjo, I went to my first old-time jam in Kent, Ohio, the Kent Shindig, at the Euro Gyro.

July 2010 / First Lesson: Feeling as if I had reached a plateau, I contacted Dan Levenson, a banjo and fiddle teacher and author of many tutorial books from Mel Bay. I hoped he could tell me how to improve my playing, and we set up a lesson at his house in southern Ohio. After spending about four hours with me, he said, "If you keep playing, you'll be scary in a year."

November 2010 / Building the Circle: At second Kent State Folk Fest, I again sat in on Olitsky's workshop, where he helped me start adding variation to my playing. After spending some one-on-one time with other attendees, he looked at me and said, "You already know how to play." Afterward I joined Van Horn in a jam circle where I met more good local musicians, who have become my friends, and we were joined by harmonica extraordinaire David Rice, who once worked at Goose Acres in Cleveland and now provides luthier services at a music shop in Twinsburg, Ohio.

2011 / Year of Change: It's hard to think of what happened in the way of banjo milestones in 2011, when so many personal events overshadow my highest yearly total of banjo playing time. I got married, bought a house, started freelance writing and got more responsibilities at my job. I did play my first "paying" gig with my jam group.

January 2012 / Old-Time at Home: [Again, this was written in 2012.] With the goal of strengthening my local old-time community, I set up the first of what I hope will be many private jams at my new house. This is the fourth year of playing the banjo, but in many ways my journey is just beginning. What will my timeline look like 10 years from now?

... Continued Six Years Later ... 

December 2012 / Enter the Fiddle: After almost five years of playing banjo, I decided to learn the fiddle. The banjo started to take a backseat.

2013 / A Son Is Born: They say parenthood changes everything. Turns out that's correct. My son arrived a day after my second wedding anniversary. Going to jam sessions became a rarity. I've hosted maybe one other jam at my house. I had to figure out how to play in the spare moments.

2014 / Back to Jamming: After my communal playing time had been reduced to a couple local festivals, as parenthood kept me absent from my local jams, I started to get back to the occasional session. I also began taking my fiddle to work to practice during my lunch break.

2015 / Finding the Ohio Connection: Up until this point, I followed the trends of listening to the the big names in old-time music, you know: the Round Peak guys, the Galax masters and more modern "stars" like Brad Leftwich, the Freight Hoppers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Big Foot, etc. However, I've always been proud of being an Ohio boy, so it was with great pleasure that I boosted my collection of Ohio-base old-time music in March 2015.

2016 / Vinyl Revival: OK, so the first additions to my old-time music on vinyl collection actually came in 2011, which I'm going to write about next week. But overall, this is the year I really got back into buying vinyl again after a long hiatus. That summer I went on a little spending spree, visiting several stores in the area and resulting in the first three of my ongoing "Vinyl Hunter" series. The best score was Ed Haley's Parkersburg Landing for $4. I still can't believe my luck!

2017 / Year of Ward Jarvis: After working my way through a series of instruction books and DVDs, I decided to venture into the realm of learning by ear and focusing on the repertoire of Ohio old-time musicians, starting with Athens County, Ohio, fiddler Ward Jarvis. I learned four tunes from the Field Recorders' Collective release and the recordings of David Brose.

2018 / Banjo Blitzing: Despite embarking on a "Second Year of Ward Jarvis," this year has been notable for my conscious effort to play the banjo more. With the help of Tom Collins' Banjo Blitz YouTube series and focusing on shorter bursts of practice, I played my banjo 22 days in March, with a streak of 12 consecutive days playing.

Thank you for indulging this bit of navel gazing. It's been fun looking back at my own history of playing the banjo. Like I said back in 2012 when I started this post, I'm curious to see what my timeline will look like 10 years from now.


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