Banjo For Beginners

The ultimate guide to banjo for beginners.

How to Play Banjo in Public

Playing in public can be almost prohibitively scary, but it doesn’t need to be so. There are a couple of steps that anyone can take to get comfortable playing in public, whether that be at a local jam or at your favorite venue. Playing in public will undoubtedly improve your own ability to play the banjo, for two reasons. You cannot gloss over wrong notes or sloppy playing, and those around you inspire you and lead you to try things you never thought of doing. Playing in public is very important to growing as a banjo player. So, what’s the first step?

Practice. No one was born good at the banjo, every banjo player you know got where they are through a lot of playing. If you don’t like how you sound when you play by yourself, you will really not like how you play in public. Different people have different standards for what is ‘good enough’. I generally say you want to know a few songs and licks, and are able to fluidly move through chords (an essential skill for jamming). If you play in private enough, you will have the skills needed to play competently in public. There is little worse than coming into a jam and feeling totally underwhelmed by your own ability and wishing you had practiced more. So stay in and play/practice (I use the terms interchangeably) until you have a solid base. Then you can deal with your ability to use those skills in public.

Jam’s can be very scary. There are a lot of elements going against you; generally everyone knows each other, generally everyone knows the songs that will be played, and when you start off, generally everyone is better than you. And that’s ok. As I said above, no one was a born banjo player. I feared going to my first jam session. I wanted to keep practicing and practicing, until I would be perfect and having nothing to fear. Growth (in whatever field) does not come from comfort. Growth comes from putting yourself in awkward and scary situations, and seeing yourself come out unscathed. There is no doubt about it. I was very anxious going into my first jam session. There were around 20 people in folding chairs with all sorts of different instruments. They all knew each other and I tried very hard to keep my head down and be ignored. It didn’t work. Jam’s are full of very friendly people who want to know your name and share their love of bluegrass (or whatever) with you. Most beginner jams are totally prepared to deal with novices and are incredibly welcoming. At my first jam, I played poorly. And that’s ok. It was a really good learning experience for me, and motivated me to play more frequently. As I went to more and more, I started getting more and more comfortable with the format and with the next step. Performance.

While jam’s are friendly and welcoming, performance can be hostile and closed off. People don’t want to see someone struggle to play the banjo on stage, they want someone to impress and entertain them. It’s a transition. No one boo’s you at a jam. Performance requires a lot of practice, both in your ability to play the banjo and your ability to play the banjo in public. You can have a great set list, but if your hands start shaking uncontrollably when you get on stage, all that practice won’t shine through. Thankfully, there are easy ways to build up to this. A lot of people recommend open mikes, my personal favorite is to play outside on a nice day. Find a park bench (or some other public space) with some minor foot traffic and just play. Most people will ignore you and keep walking, but they are actually giving you a huge gift. Comfort in playing in front of other people, even if they aren’t paying attention. I played a lot in public spaces before I did any real performance, and it really boosted my confidence and calmed my shaky hands. After you get comfortable with that, then it’s time to play in front of people who are paying attention. Skills are no good if you can’t calm your nerves when the time comes. Best of luck to everyone! Playing in public has helped my playing so much, and I hope that it helps you as well.

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