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.

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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6 Responses to Learning the banjo (again) after a stroke – Part 3

  1. Bruce Woodmansee says:

    I am so glad to see your old self is back my friend.

    • Shawn Bittinger says:

      Phill I hope you keep striving on, you are quite an inspiration to me and I’m sure many others. I read your story and it sure is an eye opener but also encouraging especially about playing the banjo again. I too play the banjo, old time 2 finger and clawhammer and I too would fear loosing that ability to do. So this is nothing compared to what you went through but i sprained my right wrist and after about 8 to 10 weeks I was able to play normal again. The banjo means so much to me, maybe even too much. I could not imagine not being able to play anymore but I must remember there are more important things in life. I’m sure you know what they are but I hope to use the banjo to bring glory to Jesus Christ someday. I’ve only been playing for 2 years and I started at 49 years old. I’m now 51. I always had an interest to play but I thought it took a gift and talent which I don’t think I have any. I like what you said about new students learning the banjo. I too found through labor and hard work, that it could be done. I have played for no less than 2 hours a day give or take for the last 2 years minus probably a total of 10 days. Even after I sprained my wrist, I only missed a couple of days, even though I couldn’t play worth a hoot, I still picked it up and tried. Right now I have about 43 tunes that I can play very well. I started off learning by tab but about the last 25-30 songs, I’ve learned by ear, which I found to be much easier than by tab. About 20 of those tunes are gospel hymns. I hope someday to put my banjo solos on youtube and try to use it to bring glory to Jesus Christ and get souls saved letting them know that if they’ll accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and keep the faith that they will get to heaven. I didn’t mean to write a book but just wanted you to know that you putting your story out there, has meant something to me and I’m sure I’m not the only one. God’s Blessings Jesus Christ to you and your family.
      Shawn.

      • Phill Gibson says:

        Hey Shawn,
        Thanks for the reply – I’m glad you found it to be encouraging!
        Be sure to let us know when you put videos on YouTube.
        God bless you and your family too – and merry Christmas!! 🙂
        Phill

      • Shawn Bittinger says:

        Phil, Thanks for replying back to me. I’ll certainly let you know when I put my first video on youtube.
        Shawn

  2. Pingback: Learning the banjo (again) after a stroke – Part 2 | Phill Gibson

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