What’s the Worst Sound You’ve Ever Heard?

I’m so grateful to my parents for putting up with me practicing banjo in the back seat of our car.

Let me give you some backstory on that:

I grew up near Annapolis, MD, but many of our relatives (on my mom’s side) lived in the small town of Berkeley Springs, WV about two hours away.   As a result, we made the trip to “Berkeley” almost every weekend.

I started taking piano lessons when I was 6 years old.   My parents told my piano teacher “We don’t care if he ever gets any good at this, but we still want him to enjoy music when we’re done.”   So that was the approach my piano teacher used.   As a result, I loved music.  I had no idea until years later how much that simple philosophy would follow me through life.  It influences every lesson I teach now, and much of my role as a full-time music pastor.

I switched piano teachers (I think because my original teacher retired) when I was about 12 years old to a new instructor, who was more perfectionistic and allowed me to color outside the musical lines far less.   So I dropped piano at 14, and largely stopped playing it for about 5 years.

But I had also discovered banjo at age 12.   I had never expected to play banjo; or even listen to it with much interest.   But one day in Berkeley, we visited some friends and their son was playing banjo in their living room.   Hearing it in person, I thought it was the most amazing thing ever.

I hinted to my father that I might learn to play banjo if I had one.   He had spent years strongly encouraging my older brother and sister to turn down Jethro Tull and the Rolling Stones and various other bands that we now consider “classic” rock.  So he jumped at the chance to buy a banjo (as a representative for a style of music he was more familiar with, I guess) for his youngest kid, and a week later I had a $125 Iida brand beginners banjo.

The first few years I played for hours on end.   I never viewed it as practice, or work, or rehearsal.  It was simply what I  wanted to do.

One of the most effective places for me to play was in the back seat of the car while mom and dad sat up front–on our 2 hour drive to and from Berkeley Springs each weekend.  There was nothing else to do in the car so I could play the same bright, tinny, grating line over and over.  And over . . . and over . . . and over.    Banjos are quite loud, and cars are quite small and enclosed when used as portable venues for live acoustic music.  The loudest part of the banjo was basically aimed at the front seat (a foot or two away) where my parents patiently endured whatever I played, with them somehow remaining calm and still navigating the interstate highway traffic.   I never gave this whole process a second thought until many years later, but I have no idea how they maintained their composure as they drove and I played and played and played.

That first year, I thought the banjo music I created was amazing.  It was not.  Wayyy not. . .  I’ve gone back and listened to the tapes to prove it.

Note:  By “tapes” I mean cassette tapes; which were a primitive music format popular right after 8 tracks (an even more primitive format that involved songs fading out in the middle and going “ka-chunk” and then fading back in), and right before CDs, which were what we used before we could access every song we’d ever heard on our phones.   Anyway, I heard the tapes and have no idea how anyone survived it.  It was out of time, out of tune, full of wrong notes; it was a disaster.   But I have no recollection of my folks ever discouraging me.

If they had discouraged me in just the wrong way, especially early on, I think I might have given up.   But they never did.  I remember lots and lots of encouragement along the way though.

I took about a year’s worth of banjo lessons, and after that was self-taught.  Those basic skills I learned enabled me to teach myself acoustic guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, playing piano and synth by ear, and more.

I don’t play that much banjo these days (and think of myself as primarily a music pastor and arranger/recording engineer who plays electric/acoustic guitar and keys), even though it still seems to be the instrument other people  associate with me most.

But my years on banjo taught me how music works.  How it all fits together and interconnects.    It (and the bluegrass music I still love to play) gave me my first real training in playing by ear, transcribing songs, working with groups of musicians in bands (both musically and understanding differing personalities and temperaments), theory, and harmony vocals. . .   all skills I still use and articulate every day as a music pastor and multi-instrumentalist.

And all of it could have been squashed out early on if I had received too much discouragement from two parents listening to the same loud, bright, brittle, musical phrase endlessly on I-70 between Frederick and Hagerstown.   But that discouragement never came, and I was off to the races musically, spending much of my teen years learning how to play almost every instrument I could.

Parents and grandparents, the things you encourage repeatedly–or even just tolerate with big smiles on your faces while on the inside you are completely losing your minds–have lasting, gigantic ramifications for the little ones you influence.   Your words and actions fan out exponentially in their lives, for better or worse.  The sacrifices you make are worth it.  

My parents’ patience with my fledgling musical efforts affected not just my life, but the lives of all of the other people I have been able to influence since through the gift of music.   That’s huge.

We lost dad in 2011, but I had plenty of chances to thank him along the way for his influence in my musical life.  I still get to tell mom.

I’m so glad they toughed it out.

I have to get ready to oversee a couple of music team rehearsals tonight with the amazing group of people I get to lead worship with on Sundays at my church.   But I’m not sure I’d be able to make that statement, if not for the patience of two parents when i was a 12 year old kid playing banjo in the back of their car.

2 comments on “What’s the Worst Sound You’ve Ever Heard?

  1. I and so many others, without even knowing your parents, are so appreciative of the way they were patient with you too! Love your talents and the way your talents are being passed down to others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *