My friend Sam once told me in a conversation about the subject of philosophy, "There's a steep learning curve." Understatement of the century.
But the aphorism has surfaced again in my flailing attempts to produce music with the banjo.
Generally speaking, a "learning curve" is a progression of difficulty in learning a skill or subject over a course of time. A steep learning curve means that you have to learn a lot, pretty quickly, in order to learn the skill. It can be represented with a graph.
Region A represents the slope in the first period of learning. Region A may take a few minutes, or maybe several months. It may be steep, as indicated, meaning that the learning rate is initially grueling. I interpret this phase as being when the learner is at the highest risk of quitting. In the case of banjo, a suite of skills need to be picked up. Obviously chords, a few things about scales, and- most importantly- right-hand technique need to develop as integral foundations to the amateur player. A learner may respond to region A with "Wow, this is challenging, but I'm learning noticeably day to day," or with "This is hard; screw it."
I have spent a lot of time trying to make music, and I find that something critical to learning is that the learner is able to reflect on his progress as substantial and noticeable over a reasonable period. When I started to learn claw-hammer technique, it took me at least 10 days before I found that I had made any progress; honestly, this is a long time to spend waiting for something to click. And in this case it took those 10 days just to realize that I could do it. It took about another 10 before I could admit that I was doing it. And another 10 to put it into practical, interesting use. And another 10 before I could do it in a way that felt fluent. Then, scarcely had I journeyed those 40 days before I realized that I was getting bored with my limited ability and began to break out into a technique called "drop-thumb," which I discuss below.
Region B represents the last 10 days of my intensive hammer-claw learning. By this time I felt that I understood what I was doing, though there was room for improvement. I was learning a lot of simple little tunes for hammer-claw but felt restricted in my ability to diversify them (they all sounded too similar to me). Drop-thumb is a technique in which the thumb is liberated from the fifth string and bounces around from the fifth to other strings. This may not sound sexy to you, but to a new hammer-claw player, this sounds almost heretical. I gave it a shot- badly- for a few hours until I started to get the hang of it. The rate of learning here was nowhere near as steep as when I first began to familiarize myself with claw-hammer, but it is keeping me interested at the moment.
Region C is, like A, another trouble spot and, I think, presents the next highest risk of quitting an instrument. I have reached Region C again and again on the guitar, and sometimes I seem stuck there. In Region C, the learner is essentially a sophomore. I've learned all the basics, he says, and there's not much more substantial material to learn. I guess I'll plink around and see what happens. This of course sounds pretty stupid. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jim Croce, Jimmy Hendrix, Preston Reed, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton (to name a tiny fraction of great artists) probably never thought this. But the attitude slips into new learners' thinking all the time.
It is in Region C that the learner needs to be pushed by an instructor to explore new areas or have the discipline to seek out those challenges for himself. Each new challenge is represented by a new bump, in the region represented as Region D. In Region D, the little waves may individually be much steeper and larger than Region A, depending on the increased level of difficulty. For instance, if I leveled off in Region C for hammer-claw and began to intensify my attention on finger-picking- a different technique- I would end up in another steep curve, the qualities and length of which may be greater or less than Region A.
What do I mean with all these abstruse musings on "learning curves" and "regions" of said curves?
Notice that the curve goes up. And the curve goes up at a rate roughly proportional to the learner's effort (in my view). So this is really applicable to learning any skill. If you suppose yourself to be incapable of learning some new skill, look at the curve. Yes, it starts steep. You may even run out of momentum a few times and have to put the breaks on or change gears. But it levels out eventually. Maybe you are content to stop at Region B, fine. But remember that you can do it.
I have had to remind myself that I can do it a hundred times in the short duration of learning to play the banjo. And I have- so far- always been right.