For my sixty-third birthday I requested a five string banjo. A deafening silence ensued. Apparently, my gift request was received as a somewhat curious one. Brows lifted, eyes darted and I suddenly had the sense I was being scrutinized for possible early onset dementia. But on the big day I tore the gift wrapping off an awesome adventure that continues to amp up my days on a regular basis. Learning an instrument has become the best part of my day, every day, for over three years now.
When, exactly, was I grabbed by the urge to take on this exotic, twangy instrument? I’m not sure. I imagine I heard some tune that caught my ear. I just knew I was ready for a new journey.
“You don’t, one day, go to bed middle-aged and wake up an old man; it’s a gradual process.”
I read that somewhere. Turning sixty hammered me. Watching youth fade in the rearview mirror seemed surreal. I had been an adventurous and athletic young man. Upon graduating from college, I embarked on a solo hitchhiking journey around the western U.S. (Jack Kerouac was real big with English majors at the time). I was an avid backpacker and enjoyed canoeing, kayaking and skiing.
Once, while backpacking in the Adirondacks, a steady downpour forced my brother and me to take refuge in a trail-side lean-to. While sipping hot coffee in our shelter, we were surprised to see two poncho-clad guys splash passed. They cast us polite smiles and moved effortlessly down the trail. These guys were real gray, well into their sixties. I turned to my brother and quipped, “Wow! Think we’ll still be doing this when we’re that old?”
Yeah … well that didn’t happen. My second hip replacement is scheduled for the very near future. Besides, I’ve become one of those old guys who has real trouble sleeping. In bed I flop like a mackerel on a dock and wake up feeling like I spent the night riding a mechanical bull. With this much trouble in my own bed, I can’t imagine sacking out on the hard ground.
And all of this narrative has what to do with the banjo? Well, I’ve come to accept life as tricky navigation through various phases. At some point you’ve sadly outgrown tricks-or-treating, but not too long after that you get to drive a car. Pretty cool. Doors close; doors open. In semi-retirement, some doors had closed on me. But then one day there came this tapping, “as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
So with new banjo in hand, I launched into an odyssey I figured I could pursue well into an advanced age. First order of business – procure a teacher. I wanted to get the basics down correctly from the start and not waste time later on breaking bad habits and relearning something as fundamental as proper hand position. My first few lessons were stressful as hell. I sweat like a hog when it came time to play in front of the teacher. I’d freeze up when he’d back me on guitar. Eventually I calmed down and actually looked forward to lessons. I learned a great deal. “Take it slow – a measure at a time.” “Set the metronome as slow as you need to get it smooth. Gradually increase speed, but keep it smooth.” “You want to be a player, not a hack.” “You want to sound good, not like someone threw a box of silverware down the stairs.”
I took to the banjo immediately and quickly recognized that there would be no instant gratification in this endeavor. It was going to take time and a whole lot of effort. I developed a personal code for study: PYF (park your fanny). I dug in. Discipline, determination and curiosity became mainstays for me. I made my practice area comfortable and efficient: good lighting, a desk for my lap top, music stand, electronic tuner, metronome, and a chair heavily accessorized with many pillows (if you’re going to park your fanny for lengthy periods, better make it comfy).
Eventually I discontinued the lessons. Budgetary concerns were a part of that decision (lessons are expensive), but also my teacher is a Bluegrass purist. Bluegrass is a whole lot of fun to play, but curiosity was drawing me in different directions. I have become interested in exploring some of the many other dimensions the banjo has to offer. Unfortunately, it’s an instrument that has been tagged with a simpleton, hayseed image (think “Deliverance”, “Hee Haw” and “Beverly Hillbillies”). Let me explain something here – the banjo is a sophisticated instrument capable of many musical genres, including: pop, blues, rag, bop, straight ahead jazz, jazz fusion, classical. I know … you’re saying, “C’mon! Classical?!” I’m currently working on a piece by J.S. Bach. Many of the masters composed in an era that preceded pianos. They played harpsichords and the banjo is tonally similar to the harpsichord. It lends itself well to the music. I enjoy learning Bach. Feels like I’m gettin’ some real “culcha”.
Music theory fascinates me and I’ve come to appreciate the evolution of this art form. I picture some prehistoric, long haired dude striking a hollow log with a stick; his eyes go wide as he digs that sound. Over the millennia music has developed into such a beautiful and complex blend of math and art. Scientists have unearthed bone flutes from over 40,000 years ago. Art is an integral part of the human experience. Werner Herzog produced the fascinating documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”. It features Chauvet Cave in southern France whose walls are adorned with gorgeous images that look as though Picasso painted them. In fact, they were etched by artists who used charred sticks as far back as 32,000 years.
My goals have become more defined as I’ve moved along. Through books and the internet, I’m studying backup and improvisation so that eventually I can jam with other musicians. I’d like to try some song writing. Pandora is constantly introducing me to new music and artists. The great part about this whole thing – you never stop learning.
And so my quest continues. I’m not shooting rapids down some deep canyon or free climbing the face of El Capitan. I’m OK with that. I have this passion that enriches my life. A statement by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” is taped to the wall in my practice area. It reads, “I don’t know if it’s a function of age or temperament, but I’m no longer seeking those major exclamatory notes of pleasure. I want a life that has pleasure contained within it.” That eloquent little reflection nails it for me. All I have to do is close my bedroom door, and I’m off exploring new worlds.
So pay attention. Listen up. You never know when you might hear a gentle rapping on your chamber door.