I have had many frustrations in my lifetime regarding banjo milestones. I’ll struggle with something for years, then all of a sudden it will be easy; this of course is largely due to time constraints. While I was in college for instance, the banjo sat in the closet, playing second fiddle to the clarinet; all the years of the work-a-day world and raising a family was the same story. I rarely played the banjo “for a living”; “work” was mostly non-music related until returning to the Army as a clarinetist (best mid-life crisis career decision I ever made!).
I have never forgotten one of the most important things that Buddy Wachter ever said to me. I commented in a phone conversation that I couldn’t locate my cassette tape of Fats Waller. He casually said “you’ll find it when you’re ready to hear it.” He said one of the subconscious mind’s jobs is to protect you from things that you’re not ready for. I didn’t know what to think about this hocus-pocus (I am at heart a conservative, skeptical guy), but a couple weeks after the conversation, I suddenly found the tape—right in plain sight in my tape collection, where I had often looked! That certainly caught my attention!
I have since kept that in mind anytime I couldn’t find something (or figure something out); it never ceases to amaze me how the universe seems to hide things, only to reveal it when you stop looking so hard. I tell myself “I guess I’m just not ready,” which lets my mind off the hook; then when I do find it (usually soon after), I say “I guess I’m ready for this now!” True or not, the belief in this phenomenon has certainly made those in-plain-sight discoveries more interesting. Operating from this position makes them all the more instructive, and accentuates what they occasionally prove to be; truly paradigm-changing discoveries.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, with my recent and on-going paradigm-smashing breakthrough in Jazz improvisation. Just today I was thinking “what if Buddy had shown me this stuff 30 years ago? [he’s one of the few capable of this feat] Would I have been ready for it, or would it have gone in one ear and out the other?” Heck, for all I remember, he may have tried to, but it just didn’t catch my attention! Just like how I have often lamented that none of my High School teachers were able to inspire me, leading me to think they didn’t try to. . . or. . .they did, and I just wasn’t ready, or more-likely was simply too pig-headed to hear them.
In Buddy’s case, I think the truth is that he recognized I wasn’t ready for something like that, but wisely planted the seed that would eventually lead me to my own discoveries, which I believe has proven to be the case, 30 years later! For instance, his inspiration had a direct effect on my decision to return to college for my Music Ed degree, which officially kicked off my quest for knowledge, and in turn, made my Army music career possible.
I have come to the conclusion that his attempts to give me a “shortcut” might have affected my playing somehow, and might have led me to my breakthrough earlier, but I don’t think I was “ready” for it back then. I could over-analyze and second-guess this ‘til the cows come home, but I choose to—have to—believe that everything worked out exactly as it was supposed to!
My father developed dementia late in life; this event (18 years ago) had quite an effect on me. I had long stated that I didn’t want to be like him—the dementia part sealed that deal! So, I have developed a mentality of learning something new every day, keeping the mind working on new stuff all the time. I have come to believe that it is never too late! For whatever reason, I have had to wait until my late 50s to finally break through into what I’ve longed to do for the last 30 years.
So, I offer my shortcut Jazz improv lessons with a slight amount of trepidation; are you ready for what has taken me 30 years to figure out? For all I know, this stuff might be old-hat to you. I hope that you are open-minded enough to take a look, try the exercises for yourself, and make your own decision whether it’s right for you or not—or if you’re ready for it or not. If nothing else, I hope it plants a seed of curiosity in your sub-conscious mind (and maybe speeds up the process), the very sub-conscious that will eventually give you the green light—when you’re ready for it.