That question surely pops up in every beginning banjo player’s mind. It’s very natural to want to see progress happening as we practice and improve.
I think I started thinking of myself as a banjo player on two different levels. Starting with the last one first, it was when I had learned Cripple Creek, The Ballad of Jed Clampett and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I learned them all pretty close to each other, so there is no ambiguity in my mind as to when it actually happened. Not a particular day, but definitely a certain two or three week period that late spring of 1977.
But the first time – a different way of thinking about the question – was before I had ever touched or owned my old Lark 5-string. It was during chapel at Freed-Hardeman University (Freed-Hardeman College back then) when Pickin’ Apples got up to present a bit of bluegrass entertainment that fateful day. I remember well hearing Tim Alexander play Flint Hill Special. I thought to myself: ‘That’s it – that what I’m going to learn to play!’ And I also remember not knowing much at all about the details of a banjo, but I did know and own one thing very important: that I would do however much practicing it took to learn it.
Nowadays, as I teach banjo and mandolin to students, I see the same eager approach to learning in most students. They also want to see progress just as I did; a sort of payment for services (i.e, practice) rendered. So to that end, I usually start saying someone is an official banjo player after they can go through their first song without an error or a break in rhythm.
And that’s a big, happy day for someone!