Banjo Newsletter

October 2004: Never Too Late
By Murphy Henry

Just when I was wondering what I was going to write about this month, just when I thought I was going to have to fall back on writing about my kids again ("Oh, no! Anything but that!"), just when I had finished begging Donald Nitchie for more time, hoping to come up with a suitable topic (which wasn't about playing fiddle!), one of my students handed me a book titled Never Too Late. The subject? Adults learning to play a stringed instrument for the first time. Voila! Right down my alley.

Okay, so this book was about the cello, not the banjo, which means classical music and you know how they play. (They read music!) Nevertheless, much of what author John Holt says echoes things I've learned in my 30 years of teaching banjo, so naturally I liked the book!

Holt, a children's educator who has written many books about how children learn, took up cello at age 40, messed with it for a couple of years, put it down when his work crowded out his music, and picked it up again at age 50. (How familiar does that sound?) Although he says that few adults who have never played before take up an instrument in middle age, I think this was perhaps truer before we baby boomers arrived at middle age! Because now, in bluegrass, I see middle-aged students all the time. Bluegrass camps are full of them. And I say more power to them! Holt believes "it's never too late" and I agree. The trick, if there is one, is to enjoy the journey. As the song says, "Don't worry about tomorrow, just be real good today." Or, be as good as you can today, and don't worry about what you can't do.

Holt thinks, as I do, that musical talent is not rare. But it is often undeveloped for a variety of reasons including, as he points out, "the kind of music teaching people run up against." And the all-too-frequent grade school or family experience of being told you can't carry a tune in a bucket or don't have a musical bone in your body. That is so sad. (Note: Make sure YOU never say that to anybody!)

Before Holt took up the cello, he spent several years with the flute, starting at age 34. Here he began to notice his severe inner critic. (Don't we all have one?) When they would play duets, his teacher would tell him, "Keep going. Don't worry about the mistakes, just keep playing." But Holt could NOT make the "self-correcting teacher" in his mind shut up. He'd play for a while then, sure enough, he'd miss a note. He says, "I'd feel a flush of fear and shame, miss another note, feel my face getting red and hot, miss another, and before long I would come to a stop." Sound familiar? He couldn't keep going because he was too worried about playing the right notes. Part of his anxiety came from not being able to sight-read music quickly. Luckily, we don't have that problem. Finally he gave up the flute. He listed his reasons:

It was still just a hobby-it was not connected with any other parts of his life.

He was not emotionally ready-he felt too ashamed and afraid of making mistakes

Flute was the wrong instrument. (He should have tried banjo!)

He didn't know what good flute playing sounded like.

He was not resourceful enough in his own practice, but only did exactly what the teacher told him.

He DIDN'T PLAY ENOUGH WITH OTHER PEOPLE. (I swear he wrote this, although not in all caps! See why I like the book?)

Then at age 40, he took up the cello. And found exactly the right teacher for him because he says, "My weekly lesson with Hal was one of the great joys of my life." Can you say this about your lessons, or do you approach them with fear and trembling? (Note to my students: The answer better be "No, I love my lessons. I have no fear.")

Holt understands that fear can get in the way of learning. As a grade school teacher, he had seen this fear firsthand. "Fear of failing, of not pleasing, of looking stupid, of being criticized, or mocked or despised, or punished." And this doesn't entirely go away, even after you've been playing for years. At the recent Augusta Heritage bluegrass camp where I was teaching, I went out to jam one night, fiddle in hand. Well, it so happened that Tim O'Brien and a couple of teachers were sitting outside the dorm, holding instruments, shooting the breeze, and getting ready pick. Tim saw my fiddle and graciously asked me to play a tune. Did I? I DID NOT. Why? Fear of failing, of not pleasing, of looking stupid, of being criticized, or mocked or despised. Probably the only thing on the list I didn't feel was fear of being punished! And I'm sure Tim and the other guys would have been kind and supportive no matter how I had played. But my own inner critic, my own inner perfectionist, kept me from doing it. I told them I was going off to find some people to play with who were more at my level. And I did. Still and yet, I wish I'd been brave enough to play a tune with Tim and the boys.

One of my favorite stories in the book is about apologizing. Holt had been invited to the house of some friends for a musical evening. He said he wasn't a good player; they said that was okay. Several easy things they played went fine. But then they said, "Oh, we've got two cello players here, let's play the Braham's Sextet." (Whatever that is.) And they handed out a piece of music which he'd never seen or heard. Which was over his head. He tried to keep up, he got lost, friends pointed to the place in the music where they were but he couldn't pick it up. Finally all he could do was sit there while they played. Can you imagine how uncomfortable he felt? With time on his hands, he thought about what he would say after they had finished and decided if anybody said anything to him about not playing, he would apologize. But if nobody said anything, neither would he. Guess what? Nobody said a word. Then he realized something that has taken me years to get through my thick skull: "People are not all that worried about your musical problems and troubles, they have musical problems enough of their own. Play if you can, don't play if you can't, but in any case, shut up." Or as I have (sometimes) learned to tell myself: It's not always about you, Murphy.

Never Too Late is an easy read (especially if you skim over the classical parts!) that resonated with me in many places. It would make a great present for yourself or the adult learner in your life. (And it's not too early to think about Christmas!) Throughout the book I found myself thinking about one of my favorite sayings-about life or music: Enjoy the whole catastrophe!)