So, you bought a banjo. Good for you.
When undertaking any discipline, you can be effortlessly swept away from the actual craft and transformed from a potential artist to a lifelong consumer.
I witnessed examples of this happening while studying the martial arts. For every experienced instructor I encountered, there were fifteen guys who simply went and bought a black belt and a Bruce Lee poster.
The thing about inexperienced trainers, regardless of discipline, is that they can and will get you hurt. Sometimes badly. When I was twelve, I had my ribs kicked in by a fake black belt. I tried different schools and received multiple injuries that are plaguing me to this day. It took me a solid year to find a qualified instructor. It was only then that I could truly begin training.
Music is no different. Badly written guitar manuals led me to injuring my fretting hand to the point where I had to teach myself the instrument all over again. I paid to attend guitar and banjo workshops hosted by legends who proceeded to fail in every way a person can in public while remaining both sober and clothed.
The name on the marquee is unimportant. The legends and press releases have no bearing when people are sitting knee-to-knee making music. A person can cite any influence or refer to traditions until the cows come home. The only purity in our craft is when flesh meets wire in a way that produces music. Nothing else matters.
A lesson is not a show. While seasoned instructors can make learning fun and even entertaining, there must be an emphasis on doing the work. There also must be realistic and honest discussion regarding the learning process, rather than some feculent sales pitch promising banjo wizardry in one month or less.
This all begs the question of how to sort out the musicians from the people playing the role of banjo teacher. After a great deal of thought and reflection on my own experiences and failings, I boiled it down to three things: Competency, Fluency, and Comfort.
Is the teacher competent?
In other words, does this person have working knowledge of the instrument, the technique in question, and basic musicianship? Is this a workshop where you learn to use the instrument, or are you going to be led brainlessly through a tune note-by-painstaking-note and measure-by-agonizing-measure? Does the teacher understand the time and work involved to master even basic skills, or are they selling the banjo equivalent of patent medicine?
Is the teacher fluent in music?
Can this person improvise? If you were to call out a random song from a random genre, would this person be able to break the song down and work with you to discover an arrangement? Can the teacher change genres, keys, rhythms, and more without losing composure? Flop sweat is a sure sign that even the musician in question isn’t buying their own shtick.
Is the teacher comfortable?
Weaklings are afraid of questions and interactions, so they tend to put on shows when they should be teaching. Can the instructor speak clearly, free from verbal placeholders? Is this person willing to admit when they don’t know something? Is this person here to share or show?
The thing about competency, fluency, and comfort is that you can’t fake them. So, accept nothing less than the real thing. The craft deserves better, and so do you.