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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Off the Grid: A writer learns the banjo

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

When you live out in the country, it’s important to ensure that your outward appearance, hobbies and political preferences align with the external expectations placed upon you. This, and Steve Martin, are why I started learning banjo.

It is not my first experience learning a musical instrument. I was in a fourth-grade presentation of the “12 Days of Christmas” that involved a kazoo. Also, I was fired by a cello instructor who did not mince words when she explained that I had many gifts, none of them musical.

So it would make sense then that I pick up an instrument with a history I know little about other than its notoriety for being difficult to tune or learn. Also, one plays about 47 notes per word when playing the banjo. It’s the opposite of my slow-knitting/fast-talking approach to fine motor skills.

Studies show that learning new skills as we age is widely beneficial to our brain health and overall happiness. This is probably true for everything, but the banjo and the only reason Martin got any good at it is because he has a sense of humor. Much like my banjo teacher Chris, who cheers me on as I curse my way through a song.

Once, he asked me to tap my foot while playing and I nearly short-circuited right there, drooling on my banjo and twitching in some catatonic state of neural overload.

After I tangle my fingers in the strings for a while and begin feeling like I recognize a tune, he’ll pick up his instrument and play the actual song for me. Sometimes I ask him to play my banjo because what he plays sounds so widely different from the awkward ear-violating mayhem I create, I’m sure there is a problem with my strings.

That’s one of the excuses I use as a façade for the humility. Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I wore my fingers out gardening, sometimes I didn’t practice. Often I am just discouraged because I thought I’d be hammering out banjo duels on the deck at sunset by now. In that dream, I’m wearing a pinafore, chewing on a cinnamon-soaked toothpick, and barefoot. And I sound good.

Then one day, Chris taught me how to play “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.

I grew up with Pink Floyd. Back then, my father could still hear. None of us played instruments, but music was what started our workday. Every day was a workday because I also grew up building the house in which we lived.

Near the portable stereo was an old cosmetics suitcase filled with cassettes. Talking Heads, Pretenders, Alan Parsons Project, Camel, Blondie, Neil Young, Genesis (the old stuff) and Pink Floyd. Sometimes Dad would pick the soundtrack, but often he’d let us choose our workin’ tunes. And always, there was a story behind the music, whether it was the sad tale of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” or how “Harvest Moon” made him want to dance with Mom on the front porch.

I don’t know anything about music theory, but I know that music influences our sense of connection to each other, plays through the melodies of our memories, and helps me keep a rhythm when I chop firewood. To this day, I build, burn, dig or split to the same songs. My vinyl record collection is like a glimpse into my father’s past (Snoopy vs. The Red Baron) and some of mine.

Something changed for me when the banjo I held began to tell those stories, however butchered and imperfect. Practicing started taking me to a different place, a happy place, a place of some of my fondest memories of my fondest people.

And for the first time in 40 years, I started to believe that maybe I could make music too, that I was not forever a hopeless exile from this beautiful experience of humanity.

It might take another 40 years for my album “Progressive Rock in Clawhammer Banjo” to be released, but it will be better than the kazoo version at least.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at ammimarie@gmail.com.

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