The Guru Thing

My father and I have done a lot together. We performed as The God Knows We Tried String Band (Pete Seeger loved the design of our shirts), organized a large fiddlers picnic, created/hosted/organized/managed The Eastern Shore Opry, created and hosted weirdly wildly popular radio shows for 98.6 WBEY and 196.5 WKHI, brought live musc performance to Eastern Shore radio for the first time in ages, crated a video music magazine called The Down Neck Gazette… I could go on for a while – and I am not even close to bringing frailing banjo instruction to the web or writing ten books.

It will eleven books soon.

In everything we did, all we really wanted to do was hang out together and make music.

I am an introvert. The weirdly nonscientific Myers-Briggs test calls me an INFP. I am an introvert. This means I am shy. It is hard for me to walk in front of a camera – but I can do it because I value my craft more than my personal preferences.

If that sounds difficult to do, it’s because it is hard to do.

I am jotting this far from even half-complete rundown of my experience because it will help you get a grip on what I am about to say.

There is this illogical belief online that all banjo teachers are the same. You can go to anybody and get the same level of instruction. Before Covid-19, I always got a laugh at the staff lists for various banjo camps because the staff always plays at a lower level than the person running the event. Since the guy who runs most of the big camps never could play, that means there have been people giving expensive lessons on instrument they only barely play. I just saw a workshop on frailing from one popular camp guru who seems to be under the very false impression that every movement of the frailing hand counts as a beat. In other words: in 4/4 time, Strike = half a beat, raise your hand after the strike = half a beat, strum = half a beat = raise your hand = half a beat and then just thumb the fifth string = half a beat.

Count the half-beats. Bear in mind that 4/4 time is four beats to a measure.

Do you want to take this one, Captain Picard?

Thank you.

I do not want to get into a discussion on what makes a teacher. If you have to ask, do the world a favor and hold off on trying a career. Start simply by sharing what you know just for the love of it and you, as I did, learn how to talk and work with students.

But if you are going to perform, teach, host workshops and all the other banjo guru stuff there has to be real skill and knowledge of music, the instrument and most of all the way people really learn.

I am being honest with you, I have never seen a person become a functional musician by memorizing tab. Melody may be the most recognizable aspect of the song, but only children and truly stupid people run with that initial baseless impression.

Here is the problem: the left and right hands must perform complex tasks in synch with the rhythm, harmony and (yes) melody of the song. If one element is off, it goes from a song to noise. Pretend the noise is real Apple-ah-chian music that resonates with the mountains and waterfalls (Dwight Diller boorishly insisted the mountain range be pronounced that way while we were in his presence, Jesus wept) and you become a Trump tweet with feet clutching an out of tune banjo you have no clue what to do with.

The problem is exacerbated by this idea that all banjo people are wonderful. While I love a positive outlook, my snarky realist has enough scars – some visible and some not – to tell you it’s more the opposite. At the professional level, nine out of ten are faking it. People who fake it get testy when they can’t live up to the fake image they project. I have students, still beginners, who have a better grasp of the craft than the staff of the average banjo camp.

On the bright side, there are sniff tests. None are 100% accurate, but hitting more than a few checkboxes should be a warning to look a little closer at what is being played versus what is being said.

Run like hell if your teacher:

Dismisses the basics.
This one is huge. Since I teach basic frailing, the entire old-time banjo business dropped that traditional teaching tool and warned against it. Why is this bad? The basic frailing stum is the craft. The basics, like the pork and beans in pork and beans, ARE the craft.
Any teacher of old-time banjo that tells you to double-thumb first is either a moron or just trying to keep student from progressing to either keep them paying for lessons or compete for gigs down the road (I see this a LOT).

Verbal placeholders.
Constant strings of verbal placeholders, like, you know, man, it’s like, um, a sign of unpreparedness, lack of experience and fishing to find the words that will hook you.

Only plays a handful of tunes.
If you get frailing you can play anything.
If you can’t play, you run through a couple of nasty-ass fiddle tunes nobody wants to hear and act like you are preserving the fabric of human culture.
Run through some banjo forums and see how many of your “heroes” do this kind of crap. Prepare to be depressed.

Sounds like The Sphinx from Mystery Men.
If you have not seen this movie, do so. The Sphinx is the greatest bad teacher not on a banjo forum.

Claims a scratchy field recording of some person that may either be playing a banjo (the recording is always almost inaudible) or slamming a whole mortadella against a bass drum propped against an outhouse door has some mystical quality lost in today’s music.
Other versions of this trope usually involve claims of adoration for some dead illiterate person who played a few songs with a fiery passion scarily reminiscent of old footage of Chinese nationals emerging from reeducation camps.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Charlie Poole, but he had little technique beyond a roll or a pinch. The myths around the man are just that, myths.

Waves off chords and/or any need for music theory.
If you are a musician you know music.
If you own a musical instrument but are musically illiterate, you simply own a musical instrument.

Reading tab is not a method.
Reading the tab out loud is not only not a method, it is also stupid.
Almost every phony I have ever encountered had some sort of bogus method or super-duper-secret banjo setup – you get the idea.
I learned same as the folks who helped me: I got help to help me help myself. Nobody held my hand or walked me through songs measure for measure. I did the work, played badly until I didn’t and to this day still practice a crazy number of hours.
Folks, gimmicks don’t work. You know this, but lazy people are prone to magical thinking so the scams and medicine shows continue unabated.

The last one is, for me, the big one. The real deal breaker:

Wants to be a guru.
I am sure your eyebrows raised at this one.
Okay, here is the hard truth:

  • I never wanted to teach to a wide audience.
  • I never wanted to write.
  • I never wanted to make over a thousand videos.

Read Just This Banjo. I wanted to play the guitar. The banjo thing was all a happy accident.
When you do not have ambitious goals, your view is unclouded. You simply go out your front door and things happen. Laozi called it The Tao. Jesus called it grace. Every faith seems to have a version on this – but it has nothing to do with the supernatural.
I want nothing, so things come to me. If you don’t understand that, you never spent any time with cats.
When you are not applying effort to be something you are not you are free to become who you are. I want no part of the banjo scene. I do not want to be famous, an influencer or any of that. My only goal has been to be the best Patrick Costello I can be.
If your teacher is or wants to be IMPORTANT, run like hell.