Diary of a Lonely Banjo Player

24 September 2018
Joel Hunter

Joel Hunter



This was our latest project with Sir George Benjamin in Berlin at the Philharmonie. It was part of the Musikfest 2018. There were only 15 of us on stage this time, playing a chamber opera in concert version by Benjamin called Into The Little Hill written in 2006. It’s based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as written about by the brothers Grimm in their folk stories. It is a pretty dark and intense 40 mins of dramatic theatre with two sopranos telling the story and playing the roles of all the characters. I was thinking how I could convey this project to you and how to approach it? In the end, I decided to simply write a personal account...

16.08.18 –

Email from the office concerning my banjo.
Yes, my banjo! Into the Little Hill has 2 viola parts, one of which also requires the player to switch to the banjo for a few passages within the piece. You might be thinking this is strange? Correct. It is very unusual to say the least, although this particular type of banjo has exactly the same strings as a viola so how difficult can that be, right?!

Anyway I had already agreed to take on the role so the search for an instrument begins....

03.09.18 –
I drive to Charlottenburg, a suburb of Berlin, to the ‘American Guitar Store’ to pick up my banjo that is being rented by the orchestra. I walk in and am greeted by a very enthusiastic chap who promptly directs me to his banjos. A whole wall of them!
6 strings, 5 strings, 4 strings, tenor, bass, big, small, metal, wood and so on and so on. I had no idea there were so many different types...

After explaining my specific needs, it seems there are only two instruments to choose from after all (phew). He pulls them off the wall, lays one on a chair and launches full blast into a high tempo bluegrass tune on the other. After a fairly mind-blowing minute or two he stops and hands it to me to try. Oh God. I tentatively pluck a couple of the strings and, noticing his disappointment, quickly hand it back. Now the other one. Same routine. By now he has figured out that I have absolutely no clue about anything banjo/guitar related and his initial enthusiasm has seriously worn off. With a pitiful look he suggests I take the smaller of the two. I nod and after sorting out some paperwork make a very hasty exit.

08.09.18 –
A couple of days before the first rehearsal and I’m still hard at it. By that I mean driving my wife, kids and everyone else in our apartment block and most probably the ones on either side slightly mad by my endless, loud and very repetitive plucking and strumming.

10.09.18 –
First rehearsal. What a luxury being able to ride my bike to work! My working life usually involves many hours in airports and railway stations so for once it’s such a joy to be able to leave my house 30 minutes before a rehearsal. I’m forced to take our kids’ bike trailer though to accommodate the banjo and viola... my two children for today.

Sir George Benjamin is conducting his own work and obviously knows every tiny detail of the score. There will be no hiding, that’s for sure. My colleague Johannes is playing the 2nd violin part which unusually also involves a second instrument, the mandolin. We share stories of our preparation and compare our woes. Good to have a comrade in arms...

11.09.18 –
Day two. Yesterday we ran through the work. Today the hard work begins. 6 hours of intense rehearsal. I am slowly figuring out how the banjo sections fit into the piece in context. I have devised a colour-coding system to enable me to find the correct positions for my left hand in order to hit the correct notes. Small coloured stickers indicate where my fingers need to go and relate directly to the different sections. Yellow for the first passage, red the second and blue the third. That’s the theory at least. Seems to be working, though a high element of risk remains. Catching a wrong string, unpolished technique, hitting my colleagues as I switch instruments...

12.09.18 –
Dress rehearsal. Blimey it’s already the day of the concert. I think my banjo would love another day or two to get used to me – it’s a bit like a racehorse and jockey but unfortunately it is our last day together. Actually I’m not sure my poor thumb would survive another day. Johannes is using a plectrum (small plastic triangle) to pluck his mandolin but I opted for my thumb instead. I figured that the element of risk I mentioned earlier would greatly increase if I added another complication into the mix, although looking at the state of my thumb, I’m wondering if that was a wise decision. Oh well, too late now...

Twang! Damn. I get a little carried away in one of the loud strumming passages and break the top string. Luckily no injuries but as I have no spares I have to go and buy one from a nearby store after the rehearsal. I won’t go into details but a lost key, a massive puzzle (how the hell do you put a new string on a banjo???) and a very lonely practise room contributed to a very stressful 40 minutes or so. But at least I finally got my new string up to the correct pitch. Big relief.

Concert at 8pm. George Benjamin’s works always takes us musicians into a special sound world: I share the stage with instruments you wouldn’t hear every day (bass flute, basset horns, contrabass clarinet, cornets, cimbalo... and of course my banjo and Johannes’ mandolin!)

Thankfully the concert went really well I think, collectively and personally. No broken strings or limbs and a great reaction from the audience.

I and my new friend the banjo had survived!

Photos: Adam Janisch