Have you heard the song “Santa Never Brings me a Banjo” – well fortunately, it’s not true. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s my other passion besides photography. I’m learning to play the 5 string Banjo and it’s interesting how many parallels there are with learning to be a photographer.
I’ve loved Banjo and Bluegrass music since watching the Beverly Hillbillies as a small child, but it wasn’t until 2018 that I got my first banjo. My ambition now is to be able to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (and sound good).
When I started trying to learn to play, I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos. Most of them were trying to teach me how to play a song but without understanding how to play. This is a lot like going to a photo location and trying to reproduce someone else’s photo you like. It kind of looks the same, but it’s never as good as the original.
The other thing that happened whilst watching all these videos was that I became very confused. There’s lots of conflicting advice about something as simple as how to hold the neck of the banjo and how to fret correctly. It reminded me a lot about the confusion we have about using our cameras. Not just how to hold the camera but which mode you should use it in.
Have a look at some of the videos on YouTube and they will tell you that you must shoot in Aperture Priority or that you’re not a proper photographer unless you use full manual mode. When you’re starting out in photography this can all be confusing. It’s only years later that you realise you do what works for you providing you can capture a quality image.
As you can imagine if you’ve ever tried to teach yourself to play a musical instrument, my efforts to learn the banjo from YouTube weren’t very successful. That’s when my wife made the excellent and obvious suggestion “why don’t you get yourself a banjo teacher”. Now Bluegrass banjo teachers may be relatively easy to find in parts of the US, but here in the UK they are about as common as rocking horse droppings.
Following a lot of fruitless searching I finally came across Eagle Music. It turns out they are Deering Banjo’s (Banjo aficionados will recognise the make) number 1 dealer. Now I’d never heard of Eagle Music, but to my surprise, they are in the UK and only 12 miles from where I live. I got in contact and started having lessons with someone who works in the shop. As the saying goes, “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.
Once I started having lessons, I found that I quickly improved (it would be difficult not to from my starting point). The reason for this is that Graham my teacher broke the playing down into simple lessons that taught me the basics of playing. I would then take these away and practice regularly. Then the next lesson would build on the previous until I knew enough to play a song.
This again has parallels to learning photography. When we start photography, we are so keen to progress that we often ignore the basics. Instead we look for more advanced techniques and tools that we think will improve our photography more quickly. But if we don’t invest time in learning and mastering the basics, there’s always something lacking.
It’s just the same when playing the Banjo. When Graham plays a simple song, it sounds better than when I play it. That’s because he has mastered the basic skills from years of practice where I have only learned the basics of playing. Even with simple playing techniques there’s always refinement that comes with hours of practice that you can’t explain to someone.
The bottom line then is that if you want to be a better photographer, you need to put in hours of meaningful practice. That means shooting images and exploring different compositions and honestly assessing the areas to improve. It requires that you study the work of other great photographers to understand how and why they created their images. You must be ready to spend the time learning how to edit your work with software and experiment with ways to improve the results. Then print your best work, hang it on a wall and look at it critically for months. Once you know what’s wrong, go back and try again. This is what meaningful practice is about.
It takes roughly 10,000 hours of meaningful practice to become world-class at something. Over the past year I’ve practiced the banjo for 1-2 hours on most days. It looks like I have another 19 years hard work ahead of me.