When the Teacher is Taught by the Student

Teaching, by its very nature, implies a certain terminus. Courses are scheduled for a finite period of time and are completed. One reason being that no teacher could possibly teach someone forever. Teachers have finite information which they share; when that information has been successfully conveyed, the course of instruction has reached its goal, and that particular phase of learning has ended.

Bill Emerson Signature

So it is with banjo teaching. Even as new students sign up and I begin the process once again, it has that characteristic enthusiasm of a project just started. I love that feeling, and yet I realize that for each student one day this too will be gone. But I have learned to thoroughly enjoy it for what it is, right now. I know the day is coming when, for whatever reason, something will break the continuity of lessons. Although life-long friendships are frequently made, learning and teaching in a formal sense ceases for that student and me. It’s just the nature of the process.

No student has gone past that above-described limit of what I can teach them; except for one. I’ll call him Al. Al was my very first student when I started teaching formally, and he continued until physical factors beyond his control forced him to stop.

You might think after all those years, that he was a very advanced student; he wasn’t. Well, not in the traditional sense of being able to execute difficult techniques and improvise and knowing tons of songs and all that. No, he wasn’t at that level, but… he did have something else that, to me, was far more important. Something that spoke of being able to handle whatever life throws at you. He understood the nature of the journey. He had the big picture, more clearly that I had ever seen it before in a banjo student. My proof? How else could he have lasted longer with lessons that anyone else (by far, I might add) if he did not clearly understand that the big picture is to enjoy the process, not to simply strive to make it to some self-defined point of proficiency?

A self-defined point of proficiency? Isn’t that just a way to gauge your progress towards some goal? And if you already know your goal, and you are confident of your progress towards it, do you really need to somehow measure that progress?

So using that as a definition, I’m very glad to say that Al knocked one out of the ballpark when it came to taking banjo lessons. He knew the real process going on was one of simply enjoying the process and discovering your abilities. And I was made far more aware and appreciative of that not-so-small fact in witnessing it firsthand.

Thanks, Al for all the lessons. We both learned a lot, but we also had a great time in the process!

Posted in Banjoists and Others, Beginning Banjo, Philosophical Ramblings | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Patterns in Nature

Here are some photos I’ve taken over the years of something that is rather fascinating to me: patterns found in nature. Wikipedia has a great resource on these

Although patterns are found almost everywhere you look, these particular patterns are caused in a specific way and in a few places, so they are rather uncommon, maybe you could even call them rare. Looking at the photos, of which I have included just a few here, you see there is not much context, intentionally. That way, you are forced to focus on the appearance of the patterns.

Nevertheless, here are the details. If you look closely, you might get a few clues that this is on a sidewalk, and you would be close. This particular set of pattern photos were all taken on the northern section of Aldridge Creek Greenway in south Huntsville. Basically, they are the result of rain water flowing and drying over the rough concrete, yet so many factors come into play here. To mention several, it depends on:

  • Overall volume of rainfall
  • Rate of rainfall
  • The content of the rainwater flowing over the concrete (more sediment is better)
  • Time since rainfall
  • Surface texture of the concrete pathway
  • Slope of the pathway (very slight)
  • Debris already on the pathway before the rain
  • Openness of the pathway, or at least few trees nearby
  • Stronger wind during and after the rain may have an interesting effect

As you can imagine, I was quite fortunate to come upon these patterns at first. I soon learned to recognize the conditions and so I can now maximize my chances of finding such patterns again. What I look for is the following.

  • A rainfall of maybe 1 or 2 inches the previous evening or during the night, which is over by morning.
  • A broad pathway, such as the 10-foot wide greenways in Huntsville.
  • A slight slope to the pathway, which I’ve not yet understood the cause-and-effect, but I see it needs to be slightly sloped.
  • Roughness of the concrete. Asphalt doesn’t seem to give results due to its smoothness, I think. Fortunately, all greenway concrete seems to have that required amount of roughness.

My favorite place to look for these is on the Aldridge Creek Greenway from Green Mountain Road to the current terminus of the greenway about a mile north.

If you’re interested, I have a larger set of photos on my photography portfolio in the album titled “Patterns & Textures”.

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Rethinking My Online Content

It’s time I revisited my various online sites; this blog, my website (especially my outdated website!) and my photography portfolio hosted on Wix.

With three different online sites, it is starting to get confusing. I need a more cohesive collection of everything. It should look like it was all designed together, which means all three have to be deliberately thought through together. I’m considering these hosting options below.

You may recognize the last three as being website builders, rather than simply website hosts. I have a photography portfolio on Wix (the free plan) and it was so simple to put together. Of course, there is almost always that trade-off with technology: the simpler it is, the less versatile it is; and vice-versa. There are exceptions to that, but as a general rule, it holds.

  1. WordPress. Roughly 1/4 of all websites on the web are on WordPress, so I have read. That is amazing and speaks to how good WordPress is, although it isn’t for the technically challenged.
  2. Wix. Wix is really easy, like all website builders. I hear that Wix isn’t all that great for a blog though.
  3. SquareSpace. Costs about the same as Wix, and has a reputation for being the classiest-looking builder. Also more versatile and not as intuitive due to that versatility.
  4. Weebly. The cheapest of these three builders. Also very good for website beginners, so maybe not as versatile.

Good Reasons to Consider Changing
The website just looks dated – because it is dated. Being a web developer, I designed it myself back around 2007, before all the social media options that we have today. Browsers, web standards, styles, and UI/UX (user interface/user experience) trends have all changed since then.

What’s Currently Good
Website SEO – It’s not like I have a lot of online competition for banjo students in North Alabama, but doing my own SEO does get me to the top of searches. My website is probably the most common way that prospective students find me, next being word of mouth. Interestingly, even though I get a good bit of results from my outdated website, I don’t seem to get much in terms of student referrals from my WordPress blog, which is more active. Nevertheless, I think I’ll keep the blog on WordPress. WordPress gets such high ratings, especially when it comes to blogging.

I believe I’ll transfer my domain http://www.PhillGibson.com over to whichever one of the three website builders I decide on, and keep the sub-domain blog.PhillGibson.com on WordPress. Maybe dress it up and bit more, but leave it here. I think I’ll also keep the photography portfolio on Wix; I’ve changed the layout to handle more photos recently.

So What’s Ahead? 
Still more banjo blogs. Maybe more on topics further afield also, like photography and trail-building activities with the Land Trust of North Alabama.

But what do I think I’m ‘qualified’ to blog about? Thing is, you have to ask yourself what is it you can say with some degree of authority and pretty much stick to that. Otherwise, you are really just stating an opinion, and I feel uncomfortable leaving it at that. I pondered this a bit and came to the conclusion that I’m not an authority on a lot of stuff that I’m interested in. But that’s not the same as being a newbie at something and blogging about it – you can effectively blog on topics you are learning. Just make sure that the context you are writing from is a newcomers experience. Lessons learned is a very good example.

So maybe I should say expect more topics like learning drone photography, or learning 3-D modeling, along with the more substantial topics. 

At any rate, do look for an updated website soon, plus more varied content here.

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Remember Your Early Goals

I remember when I first started playing the banjo, one of my main goals was to sit under a pine tree (a very specific one) and play Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Somehow, that goal got lost rather quickly for me, and I forgot about it for a few years. Until one day, it came back to me. Quickly, I went over to the tree about 100 yards from my folk’s house. Sitting there overlooking a quiet meadow, I performed the expected song. The deed was done and I remember that otherwise mundane event to this day.

Pine Tree by The Gate

So I went on to set other goals; usually more complex, yet generally not as significant. Looking back, at times it was a little like attaining goals simply for the collection of goals. As time went on and I was able to do more and more, new things started to lose that thrill of the first things I had accomplished.

But you have to remember what brought you here. Why? Because there is this mental phenomenon that goes on as you become more advanced with anything. You want to avoid it. I don’t have a name for it, but if you have ever excelled at anything, you will surely recognize it. You become jaded to the very thing that once fascinated you, even as you become better and better at it. You find yourself longing for “the good old days” when you first started; when the whole world revolved around this new activity or concept, and all other things even became more fascinating and successful because of it.

I remember seeing the movie ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, the story of Loretta Lynn. In the movie, she becomes more and more successful until one day, she is frustrated with the direction everything is going and tells her husband Doolittle that she wants to build a cabin. Just a simple little cabin to start over in. I suspect she was thinking along the same lines as what we are talking about here.

So, if that sounds familiar, know that I have also been there; still go there from time to time, even. Having been there, I do think I know what it is you must do to keep that fascination intact.

1) Set goals. Either write them down, or keep them important enough to you that you’ll be able to look back and tell where you came from and where you are.

2) Remember the details. Remember them in two ways.

  • If you’ve been playing a while, revisit your early days of learning to play in as much details as possible. These are the reasons you started playing in the first place. Make the mental connection between your early goals (ever if they we just general goals such as ‘learning to play the banjo’) and your current motivation.
  • Also remember todays’ details. Because you have goals to work towards, remember as much detail as you can, and let this become the material that helps make even today a continuation of “the good old days”.

3) Learn something new! Of course, we should all be learning something new, but often, we get away from it. This has such a positive effect, you’ll definitely want to keep this in mind.

I hope this helps when you are feeling unmotivated to play!

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Strength, Accuracy, and Speed

If you’re the type of musician who just likes to grab your instrument and start playing without much analysis of techniques, you probably won’t get much from this post. It’s a very in-depth look at what you are really asking of your hands when you ask them to play music.

It’s also from the perspective of someone who had the ‘opportunity’ of lying on my back for some time while I recovered the use of the left side of my body. As you can imagine, I did a lot of thinking, planning, analyzing, and ruminating on how we actually do things with our hands and how our muscles can possibly relate to the messages coming from our brain.

That’s when I started to realize this general fact:

All physical skills can be condensed into three qualities:
strength, accuracy, and speed.

Banjo Practice

Banjo Practice, by Phill Gibson

When a stroke occurs in the brain, in a way, it loses the directions on how to find, say, your hands and fingers. It also forgets how far away they are and how long it takes to send and receive a message, not unlike when you ping an IP address. Lastly, it also forgets how much ‘signal’ to send in order to affect a certain amount of response, or strength.

Here’s an example. Say you want to play a chord on a stringed instrument. After lifting and slightly rotating your arm, you tell your hand and fingers to start moving into a predefined set of positions. Each finger position is different for each chord. Whether you’re playing a simple chord with no vamping sliding or other added techniques, or you’re playing something with those fretting-hand techniques, you are asking your hands and fingers to:

  1. Apply enough pressure onto the string to cleanly press the string onto the fret, yet not enough to make it painful to your finger tip. This is strength.
  2. Apply this place of contact with the string/fretboard combination with an accuracy of better than about 1 millimeter, with absolutely no room for corrections after the placement has been made. This is accuracy.
  3. Apply this combination of strength and accuracy in a variable amount of time, which often includes doing it in a fraction of a second, depending on the technique and tempo of the song. This is speed. Oh, and that’s just one finger! You need to multiply that complexity by a factor of 2 to 4, because…
  4. Do all of this simultaneously with as many fingers as is required, usually two to four fingers on the fretting hand for a simple chord.

So from that perspective, doing anything on the fretboard seems a daunting task! But looking at everything in terms of those three qualities also helps you isolate and refine whatever the issue is.

Here’s another example. When I was trying to get back the ability to form decent chords after my stroke, I found that I could make much better progress if I examined what I was (or wasn’t) doing and categorize it as one of these three qualities.

  1. If it was strength, that meant that I was either not pressing hard enough (usually the case) or maybe pressing too hard and my finger tip was screaming for me to stop because it was painful. My solution was to go over, and over, and over that one application of pressure. I would also have to make sure the muscles in play also have had enough exercise so that they were capable of doing simple tasks normally. The gym had one of these unusual hand exercisers in a basket of miscellaneous gadgets and I found it very worthwhile to exercise my hand and fingers. Here it is at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008N3KZEC/?coliid=ILB0A7Y9TTZQ1&colid=32BO599ZRYRID&psc=0&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it.
  2. For accuracy, it was really easy to tell; just listen to the chord. Usually, ill-formed chords were the result of poor accuracy. You can also guess the solution: extreme repetition, emphasizing exact, instant positioning of each individual finger, then all fingers together. 
  3. For speed, well, here I’m not talking as much about breakdown-speed banjo breaks as much as just the speed it takes to move your fingers in simple fashion for basic tasks (such as forming chords) in a reasonable amount of time (basic speed, I’ll call it). Fast speed will come along just as it did the first time: gradually, and with much diligence and practice. For basic speed, I practiced my strength and accuracy with an eye towards simply making it a habit once again so that I had the smallest of movements in my muscle memory. At that point and with a relaxed touch, basic speed did indeed start to improve.

So that is a very in-depth look at the details of how I made progress with regaining my banjo playing ability after my stroke. It was a long process, it was not very pleasant, and I still have some way to go to get back to where I was, but by delving into analysis of such minute points of execution, it did the trick! 

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I’m Doing Online Banjo Lessons Now

Just about everyone has learned how to zoom in 2020. I’m sure when we look back, learning how to do Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams will be one of the many identifiers of this year, along with a few phrases like ‘social distancing’, ‘flatten the curve’, and ‘post-COVID’.

Photo of banjo tablature

And that brings me to my point:

I’m offering online banjo lessons now. That’s in addition to the usual in-person banjo lessons, of course. Normally I use Zoom, but MS Teams works and I’m pretty sure Skype would work just as well too. Lessons (both in-person and online) are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays after 5:30 or so.

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Learning the banjo (again) after a stroke – Part 3

Part 1 Part 2

So it was time to begin a rehabilitation process that I have described as both the most maddening and frustrating thing I have ever done (or ever will do, I’m confident), and yet also the most natural thing that has ever occurred to me. I know those are totally contradictory concepts. I cannot explain it any better. In preparation for an eventual return home, my friend and fellow banjo player Bruce talked about the need to build a front door ramp for me. I agreed that it was now needed. By this time, I knew of many hundreds of people who were praying for me. I am convinced of the efficacy of all those prayers to Jehovah-Jira, our God who provides.

After completing both occupational therapy (your arms and hands, basically) and physical therapy (your legs) I was still way off from being able to do much more than bring my left hand up to the banjo neck, Forget about being able to even remotely place my fingers where chords were formed, much less being able to make a descent-sounding chord. I have a short video of me trying to ‘play’ during this time; maybe I’ll post it along with later attempts.

Next was diligent visits to the gym and a lot of frustrating practice with trying to form chords. Two things really helped here:

1 – Lifting weights. My progress really started to accelerate as I gained muscle strength. I had lost some 20 or 25 pounds during my hospital and rehab stay. Most of that was muscle mass due to non-use of the muscles. I would work out for up to 1 1/2 hours three times per week.

2 – Serious and frustrating practice at forming chords. I used the techniques I had so often taught my own students on how to make progress in quickly forming chords. I mentally knew everything needed to play the banjo, I just needed to physically train myself again. In essence, I became my own student. My chemistry professor in college used to remind us that the first five letters in laboratory are “LABOR”. I thought the same mindset was needed here. I was right. And looking forward, this is exactly what my students need as well, especially those students who seem to be struggling with the basics. Too often we (all of us) tend to identify practicing fretted instruments as sitting on the front porch, effortlessly and leisurely picking a tune. Practice, for all of us, could not be further from that vision, as pleasant as it it to think of and anticipate.

Practice should be tough, critical, extremely repetitious, and sometimes even frustrating.

Such difficult lessons-learned in learning to play the banjo again have taught me much about the perspective of absolute beginners to fretted instruments. It has given me a new awareness of how beginners approach learning music, plus where and how exactly to apply their existing talents in order to achieve success with their musical goals and their life goals.

Stelling Red Fox Banjo

I should mention that even though I have recovered to a great extent, I have never been able to put in the time to get back the ability to play at the same speed, or play that ‘fancy stuff’ again. Although I’m pretty sure that only other banjo players can really tell the difference. If I didn’t have a ‘life’ then maybe I would have the time to get everything back. I do believe that it is possible, but it is very much like someone who is absolutely new with a skill; it simply takes a lot of time; time that is concentrated, long-term, laborious and sometimes even frustrating. Do you sense a trend here?

In retrospect, how I wish once again that the present-day me could have visited then; an apparition from the future. How it would have lifted my spirits to hear that not only would I recover, but I would again get to ride bikes with my son along Aldridge Creek. I would get to play the banjo again before hundreds of people on multiple occasions. I would get to continue teaching the banjo. And I would not only be able to walk again but would even become a volunteer with the Land Trust of North Alabama, building and maintaining trails for them and leading workday projects mainly on Green Mountain in the hollow where I had spent many a happy childhood day. And I would even be honored by them four years later as a 2018 Volunteer of the Year – and later, an even greater honor of having a trail named after me! All this lay ahead of me. But I could not see it.

So where do I go from here? Life has settled into pretty much the same as before. I really don’t like the phrase ‘the new normal’ as it seems to imply a certain resignation that I am unwilling to accept. I have been teaching banjo again since about 6 months after the stroke. I don’t teach mandolin or guitar anymore, and I’m fairly sure I won’t be expanding my repertoire of instruments played and taught after my retirement in a few years. But I may bring teaching mandolin and guitar back when I retire.

I’m also seeing several new or renewed interests blossom these days. I plan to expand my topic areas in this blog. I continue to enjoy volunteer work with the Land Trust, where the biggest challenges there are more age-related than stroke-related. Photography, one of my older interests, seems to have taken on a new life with me these days. Writing, theology, and urban studies are alive and well. Oh yes, then there’s birding.. and don’t forget astronomy … I also have to mention… and also don’t forget about…

You get the idea. My old self as always.

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Learning the banjo (again) after a stroke – Part 2

Part 1 Part 3

It was now almost 11 am. 2 1/2 hours since 8:20 am and my thoughts of making a cup of coffee. As soon as the clot was found, TCP was administered. Almost immediately, I felt my left side come back to life! This was great! I thought I would maybe even go back to work – now let’s figure what’s for lunch…

But it wasn’t to be quite so simple as that. After a few minutes, I felt things gradually going back to a state of paralysis again. And there they would stay, perhaps for the rest of my life. Or… perhaps not, but I could not see that at the time. Over the next few days, life seemed to be coming to a very practical close for me. I was only eking out a mere existence now, for who knows how long.

The next few weeks were difficult times, filled with despair. Nights were especially difficult. Up until this event, I had always had a good feeling thinking of hospitals, a sense of security in knowing how close I would be, if ever I were a patient in one, to the latest and the best care I could get.

I now realized I needed a new word in my vocabulary. A word that would accurately yet succinctly describe that thought and feeling (it’s both) of when your perceptions of an ideal situation are dashed against a harsh reality. I have had that happen maybe two or three other times in life, but not until this time did I really connect them as passages in life that everyone must go through. Hopefully, coming out all the wiser on the other side – yes, hopefully.

In reality, being aware of the latest medical technology was not the comfort I had envisioned. Nor was being fairly close to others. Instead, I was simply a number (I believe I was number 217, as in “Have you woke up 217 yet? Well go do it!”) I now understood what others had described to me in times past.

One very odd positive note in all this – I now laughed. A lot! If something was truly funny, I simply had to laugh out loud. And many things had a new face, and a new curiosity about them, often causing laughter. I think I laughed more in the first year after my stroke that I had in the previous ten.

Still, I had no idea what the future held now. How well would I respond to rehabilitation? No doctor nor rehab specialist could – or would – answer that. There was only a quiet resignation to either despair or the unknown.

Stelling Red Fox Banjo

Perhaps it would have been fitting for the future-me to tell the stroke-laden-me that the outcome of the arduous process that lay ahead would really be up to me and my willingness to fight. It’s true that the first thing I thought of after realizing that I was having a stroke was “I won’t be able to play the banjo anymore!” And I think that was a large part of my willingness to try to the point of total frustration to try to get back my life and my ability to play the banjo.

I remembered that day in college when I heard Tim Alexander playing “Flint Hill Special” in the band named Pickin’ Apples. That’s when I said to myself “I have no idea what it involves, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to learn the banjo!”

It was that time again.

Continued in Part 3

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Learning the banjo (again) after a stroke – Part 1

I’ve not written about this anywhere until now. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about without another word. Others have no idea what has been going on over the past several years. I know it’s long over due, so here goes.

Friday morning, April 18th, 2014 I went to work as usual. At 8:20 am, I was just making my to-do list for the day, as is my habit. Maybe I’ll make a pot of coffee in a minute, I thought to myself. I opened the drawer to make sure I had some coffee. Great! I have some freshly ground from The Kaffeeklatsch downtown; now to go get water… Just then, I felt dizzy; so dizzy, yet not like I was losing my balance. Dizzy in a new, unusual way. Maybe 20 seconds went by. I then tried to put my to-do list in my shirt pocket, but my left hand wouldn’t make it there. It simply wouldn’t respond. My brain did not know where my left hand was! That’s when I knew what was happening.

I was having a stroke.

You’ve heard people say how your life flashes before you in times of great peril; how, in a fraction of a second, you make overarching judgments of your life’s worth and value. Is this the end? Am I really prepared to meet God?  Will it get any worse in a few seconds? What sort of pain and suffering will I encounter? That, combined with a sudden, almost existential, realization of everything minute and trivial surrounding you: is this really happening? To me? How? Why?! No!!!

True to descriptions, this thought process played out over the next one or two seconds, with reverberations of the same over the next ten seconds or so.

Stelling Red Fox Banjo

Then back to the reality of the moment: I needed help, but I was at work with no one especially close by. It was still a quiet Friday morning. My boss and only co-worker were in DC; only the people working a different contract were out in the rest of our wing of the building. But I couldn’t walk! I tried calling out, as best I could but to no avail – all use of the left side of my body, including much of my ability to talk was now gone.

Well, I had to do something. I thought of the absurdity of me staying at my desk all day until it was time to go home, as if that would fix anything. I did finally manage to scoot along the wall over to where Dorian was sitting in her cubicle.

“Hey Dorian… I’m fine, how are you? Umm…actually I’m not ok. Hey listen, I don’t mean to scare you or anything… but I’m having a stroke…”

Immediately, she and Jason helped me back to my desk, where we discussed the next step. It only took a minute to see we needed to call 911. I broke out in a cold sweat, the only real discomfort during that whole process. It seemed like a mere 10 seconds until I heard the paramedics approaching; a mere 10 minutes it seemed until I was tracing out the labyrinthine ceiling tiles of Huntsville Hospital, hoping for some odd reason to be able to remember my way out. As it turned out, finding my way out wouldn’t be necessary for quite a while.

After being wheeled into the neurological area of the emergency room, I was prepped for an MRI, or maybe it was a CAT scan. I have forgotten which came first. About this time, my wife and children arrived. Dorian had called them on my cell phone back at the office.

The first test didn’t find anything. It was obvious I was having a stroke but was it ischemic or hemorrhagic? The treatment is exactly the opposite for each, with potentially fatal consequences if misapplied. Time was wasting, though. If the stroke was being caused by a blood clot blockage – an ischemic stroke – then the application of the drug TCP within the first 3 hours or so could help tremendously in reversing the effects of the stroke. The results from the second test came back quickly – the CAT scan, maybe – I wasn’t terribly concerned about what it was called. It revealed that a tiny clot, too tiny for the first test to detect, had been found in a most critical location: my basal ganglion.

To be continued…

Part 2 Part 3

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Playing at Berkeley Bob’s in Cullman this Saturday

If you happen to be around Cullman this Saturday, drop by; several of us are playing Bluegrass at Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House at 1pm, Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It’s at 304 1st Avenue Southeast, Cullman, AL.

Actually, we are ‘practicing in public’ for a bluegrass wedding we are providing music for in October. At any rate, it should be a fun time; come on out!

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