I picked up my banjo this morning to practice. Lately I’ve been working on speed, and correcting deficiencies in my technique that have crept in as a result of tension. The first thing that happened was my plastic thumb pick snapped in half when I put it on. With an irritated sound which could easily be mistaken for a cuss word, I found another thumb pick.
Now, get this. I have a good capacity to stick with things; bands (17 years with Alison Krauss and Union Station), marriage (20 year anniversary last year), a primarily raw food way of eating (seven years). That’s a good thing. But that capacity can also be misused; it can deteriorate into the realm of “It’s comfortable and familiar, so I’m sticking with it.”
That’s why I was irritated at my thumb pick. I hate changing picks; new picks take awhile to get used to. I use the same tortoiseshell guitar pick for month after month until it wears down; then I reshape it and use it more.
But I put on the new thumb pick. It wasn’t so bad. I played for a bit, and then thought, “What if I changed out my finger picks, too?” I play Scruggs-style banjo with the thumb and two fingers, using two metal finger picks and the plastic thumb pick, and for the past six months I’ve been using a modern pair. I dug into my cache of old National finger picks (probably from the 1940s-1960s) and found an unused pick for my middle finger.
It fit perfectly. I hit the string. Clang. The tone was remarkably better than the newer, more modern picks I’d been using, with a nice zing in the high-end,. So I put another old National on the other finger. Clang – again, better tone.
Well, that was even more annoying in a sense. Here I’d spent months with these modern finger picks with less tone simply because they were comfortable, and I was used to them. But they weren’t optimal.
How many things do I continue to think, or do, or say, or allow in my life because they’re more comfortable than change? How much of the world’s thinking has infected my own because it’s more comfortable than following Christ? How many things could I change with just the smallest adjustment?
Faith steps out of the comfort zone looking for “Optimal.” These picks will take a little getting used to. But faith says I can get used to them quickly, and the extra tone is worth it.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.
I make a similar noise that is so easily mistaken for a cuss word that my son often says, “Did you say a bad word?” Explain to a 4 year old how you didn’t because you only said the first and last consanant sounds (think, “Shhhhht”) and you begin to realize the absurdity of using this comfort noise that, ultimately, amounts to cussing. As they say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
This week, we’ve had a lot of issues kind of explode simultaneously and my comfortable response is to start taking action just to look busy, wallow in the stress, freak out, cry, feel angry and scared, and basically lots of nonsense that has never led me to anywhere good. I’ve been preparing for this for a few months, now, but in practice, have not reacted as well as I’d hoped I would. I know it’s because I’ve still got roots in behaving familiarly. But I also see where I’m sprouting little branches of faith and trust that, in the past, weren’t there. That’s reassuring in itself because I know that’s where I want to be full time and to the Nth degree. Suddenly, something new feels comfortable because I can rest there.
Thanks for sharing … it turns out we have a lot in common. My wife and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary in a month, and though we don’t eat exclusively raw, we do eat mostly vegan—for the health benefits, not for philosophical reasons.
I also have been going through some musical changes. I recently re-tuned my guitar to DADGAD, and though this is radical for me and throws all my left hand knowledge of guitar out the window, I’m finding the sound amazing and I like the ability to let some of the strings act as drones. My goal is to back up my kid’s Gaelic/Celtic band, and I think I’ll have more success with this tuning.
And for the rest of life, I think God allows out apple carts to fall over sometimes so we can see the rotten apples in the center. Change cuts to the heart of our dependence on the status quo and helps us focus on Him much more.
I really enjoyed your last paragraph. Thanks for sharing!
I’m grinning at your picking post. Thanks for the smile bro.
I have never heard the words “better” and “tone” used in relation to the banjo…
tee hee hee
(I’m just joking…my father played the banjo and I spent many summer evenings listening to Cripple Creek and Shady Grove on my front porch)
Ron, I saw you in concert with A.K. about 13-15 years ago in Branson, MO. To this day, it is one of my top 5 or 6 favorite live concerts.
Other favorites no particular order…
Bela and Edgar and Sam B. (played Bach Art of Fugue!)
Renee Flemming at Bass Hall
Mahler Symphony Number 2, St. Louis Symphony
U2 Rattle and Hum
Itzhak Perlman at Shepherd School
In the Palm of your Hand is still one of my fav’s.
Congrats on 20 years!
Wouldn’t it be nice if our old picks didn’t have to break for us to try something different?
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