Cindy from Florida writes,

I don’t know if you remember me, but I was the Florida girl in your January 2001 Banjo Camp. Although I struggled through it, now 3 years later it all comes full circle.

The reason that I am asking your advise is because a very interesting (horrifying) thing happened to me. I’ve been playing now for 4 years and have recently done some gigs. I know that I’m not at a “Damn Good” grade yet, but I am finally “there”, if you know what I mean. I know over 40 songs by heart and can play them confidently and well…that is until this week. All of a sudden, I have “lost” everything that has been in my head regarding banjos. Even if I open one of my old books, I have usually added something so different to the song that I can’t even follow the books. My last jam was horrible (me and ‘the boys’ jam every week and sometimes we really are Damn Good.)

Has this ever happened to anyone you know before? I have worked so darn hard that I am besides myself. I am practicing very hard and I am praying it will come back.

Thanks for listening and any advise will be appreciated.

Yes, I do remember you. I’m so glad to hear that you’re “there” and regularly jamming, even gigging!

To the extent that you want to be able to play your memorized stuff exactly as written, I would think that you can reclaim that by picking a song and reviewing it carefully.

What you describe as a problem is maybe not really a problem. Songs are not to be “learned” by simply memorizing a tab. Songs are to know the basic melody and possibly carefully learn any special licks that go with the song, and then allow it to come out differently as it will.

I often make the analogy to language. When you describe, say, what you like about your house or job, you make would make certain points. A minute later, you might make the same points, but the sentences would come out different. You can count on it! But the meaning would be the same either way.

There are *lots* of ways a song can be played. The idea is to sound fluent and smooth, with nice tone and carrying the melody. That can be done infinite ways on the same song. Earl Scruggs once told me he has no idea how someone can play a song two times in a row exactly the same way. You see, real Scruggs style playing really is like a language, with your brain working to make your mouth say things virtually spontaneously. That is very different from reciting a poem or phrases from a phrase book.

So what may be happening, is that a different part of your brain is taking over for the “memorized solos” part of your brain. I think there is some value in exact memorization, but the “speaking the language” process is much more important and real in your life as a musician. You have been interacting with other musicians, and letting your brain take care of some of the details while still focusing on the main musical elements of melody and rhythm.

From what you say, some of it may be coming out wrong, perhaps timing-wise. If that’s true, you might need some time to establish timekeeping by more attentiveness to the melody and proper timing of the song itself, and not just “executing the arrangement”. In other words, it’s like relearning grammar when going from memorized grammatical sentences to speaking on your own. Instead of your brain being occupied with “following orders” (the tab), it can switch to following the melody itself, and the musicians around you.

So it could be, this is all a good sign that you are getting to a better “there”. At least, that’s what I hope. Please let me know if what I am guessing squares with what you think is going on.

Pete