Different Kinds of Banjo Students

One of my students and I were talking just recently and I was referring to all the different kinds of students that a teacher interacts with: young and old, talented and not-so-talented, progressive and traditional, by the book and outside the box,to name just a few opposites.

I was quick to point out however, that just because someone is talented does not make them my idea student. I don’t guess I have a favorite kind of student. Each person, as well as each type of category you can lump people into, has their own merit and value.

Another way to look at students besides talent is in terms of their timeline:

  1.  The Past. Everyone has past experiences, even if slight. This gives them their perspective. It may include a past that places a high value on roots, as is typical of country, bluegrass and blues music. If they come from a more modern viewpoint, then they may like rock or jazz more.
  2. The Present. Their present ambition centers on a desire to learn the banjo and is seen in the practicing of techniques. Among styles they embrace are Scruggs, melodic, single string, plectrum and frailing. 
  3. The Future. Their future, then, is comprised of goals, or what they want to bring to fruition through their present practice. This might include goals such as playing in a band, learning 100 different songs, making a CD or even as simple as being able to sit on the front porch and pick a few tunes.

In terms of experience, I tend of think of students in four categories:

  1. New Students. New students are the most predictable in terms of what their needs are. Almost always, I start them on Earl Scruggs’ book. Some go fast through it; others slowly. All are on the journey and I try to help them remember that they should be enjoying that journey, not striving to reach the end (none of us reach the end of this musical voyage).
  2. Knows Some Already. As students grow, their own individuality starts to shine in how they approach their music. And it is now their music, not just what someone else says they should practice and play. Lessons need to be tailored to the individual now. Some tend to like traditional bluegrass or old time music, others tend towards progressive stuff and jazz.
  3. Needs ‘Cleanup’. Sometimes students simply need the surgical precision of some extra analysis. Why is their playing sloppy, how to get faster, or how to create a compelling break. These students know what they need, but just need help in getting there.
  4. Needs Coaching. Coachable students may be anywhere from beginners to advanced, but I usually see advanced students here. They need the accountability of a teacher to keep them on the proper path. They may also need the typical guidance found in lessons.

Regardless of how you categorize students, whether beginning or advanced, bluegrass or old time, they represent the future of their musical style. Besides, we get teachers for tomorrow from the students of today. And they are all great to work with!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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