This is an addendum to my recent blog, The Best That I Can Be, and is meant to partially answer some of the responses I received. I apologize for the length of this, but I had a lot to say!
I was not a terribly ambitious kid; I would get really interested in a subject—bird watching for instance—then do nothing about it. Heck, we had binoculars for gosh sake, and that hobby is free, so I don’t know what happened. Most of my passing interests would quickly fade into a “someday” thing; for instance, I now enjoy bird watching! Those things that I was already doing—the banjo especially—were just, you know, “whatever.” Only fishing held my attention, simply because I could spend all day alone, knee-deep in my river and not see another soul; no pressure!
A big part of the reason for this—beyond my total lack of self-confidence and ambition (“can’t” was the most-often used word in my vocabulary)—is that I would be teased by my siblings for showing beyond-normal interest or aptitude in anything. I’ve always been overly-sensitive (and its frequent companion, overly-serious, which I’m sure nobody has noticed. . .). It was a family “rule” (at least as I understood it) to not do anything that may draw undue attention to ourselves. Even as an adult in my 30s, I was told by a sibling that “Hinkles don’t dance.” “Well, I do!” was my defiant answer as my wife and I fox-trotted away (she has played a huge role in my continuing escape from my childhood cave); it was a turning point in my awareness of my self-imposed limitations.
In confusing counterpoint to this, my Father took great pride in showing my sister and I off to his many banjo friends (thereby drawing attention to us!); this of course made me drag my feet. I guess it was just my personality to hide in my room and not progress, which I did a lot of. So, at an age when real progress is considerably easier to make, I sand-bagged so as to not be noticed; this hiding my head in the sand permeated my whole life for many years. I now believe that I was potentially one of the best (as my Father glibly predicted). Who knew that his well-intentioned encouragement would have the opposite effect on me? How disappointed he must have been, not in me necessarily, but in his inability to inspire me! Who knows how far I might have gone if I had only had ambition, or had at least believed in myself (or believed what others were saying about me)?
Is it too late for me? That unanswerable question drives me today—now that I do have ambition and do believe in myself! At an age when many folks are settling down and resting on their laurels (having confidently satisfied their cravings and worn out the novelty at an early age), I have finally found the ambition within myself to do the things that didn’t fit my childhood self-image. I have always thought of myself as a late-bloomer; with each passing year, I become more and more confidant and ambitious. This growing desire is also fueled by a realization of just how much time and opportunity I squandered early in life, and how comparatively little I have left. I don’t want to die a bitter old man, saying “I coulda’ been a contender!” The inescapable feeling of life passing me by frustrates me to say the least.
Funny thing about this is, the older you get, the less folks expect out of you! “Wow, I remember you when you were 16; what a monster player you were!” I will never hear that; I will get “oh I remember what a shy kid you were. Wait, do I remember. . .oh yeah! You’re Myron’s boy!” First impressions last a lifetime, and can have a limiting psychological effect on all involved; I am fairly convinced that no matter how good I ultimately get, I will never be recognized as a great player, simply because folks remember me as laid-back and “average.” So, my goal now is not to be “great” per se, but simply to be “the best that I can be.” If that adds up to greatness (or not), then so be it; furthermore, if I do get really good and am not noticed for it, then I can at least rest in the belief that I got as good as I could get. At any rate, I will never know unless I try—and believe me, I’m trying; I refuse to set any more limits on myself.
In my opinion, it is difficult to inspire a new generation (a subject that is always on my mind) by resting on your laurels. Giving a mostly-older audience what they want to hear instead of what you are capable of playing (thereby showing them what is possible on the banjo—and possibly raising their expectations, like Buddy Wachter did for me?) shortchanges the future potential of the instrument, especially among the few youngsters that are there. Kids will rise to the level that is shown to them. How many of you were originally inspired by a great player? I rest my case!
Ambitious kids find it hard to find inspiration in a bunch of old guys playing sing-along songs! Before you roast me in the comment section, realize that I myself fully enjoy being an old guy playing sing-along songs (in jam sessions at least)!And I also fully realize that some of you do still show great skill and ambition in your playing; thank you for your continued inspiration! There is at least one person in the audience who appreciates and applauds “too-many-notes” virtuosity when he hears it, so let ‘er rip!
I believe that the prevalent, fun image of the banjo will not attract kids who are looking for and thrive on virtuosity—the ones who have the youthful ambition/potential to be great at whatever instrument they choose. Frankly, their ambition/potential is better spent taking up a legitimate classical instrument or a popular, contemporary instrument like the guitar, which the vast majority do. At least those instruments have somewhat of a future, a competitive atmosphere to aspire to, or have at least a viable “social/financial reward” system. There is no shortage of potential players; only ones who find interest in the banjo. Look at how many great young 5-string players there are today!
So no, I am not particularly driven by a desire to please an audience; I’m not getting paid for what I do anyway (thank goodness I have a good retirement!). I would rather try to please the 10% who understand what I’m doing (and are inspired by the effort, if not the results) than to get a rousing ovation for playing favorite sing-along songs. Virtuosity is exactly what I want to hear as a member of the audience, so I am thinking about my audience; I’m just thinking about a different part of the audience than you are. I like to think that I will eventually tip the scales to where folks are so amazed at what I do that they can’t help but applaud, whether they like or understand the music or not! My entertainment chops are severely lacking, so I need to do something to catch attention and contribute to the party.
To those who say “lighten up; it’s a banjo for gosh sakes!” I say, “that’s exactly why it’s declining, and not catching the attention of the general public or the mainstream music community. Too many have given up the chase and just play it for fun.” I don’t plan to lighten up—or lower my sights—anytime soon; you get what you want out of the banjo, I’ll get what I want! I could never be so arrogant as to say “I’m the greatest.” But I have to be honest, and say that I would certainly like to be great! I see hard work and self-confidence as the best route to that. What’s wrong with that?
I certainly don’t mean to turn off, offend, or threaten anyone with my attitude, and I sincerely apologize if I do. I also don’t mean to “spoil the fun” of playing the banjo; my own fun continues to increase with my increasing skill (even if my grimacing, un-smiling performance face seems to say otherwise—just close your eyes and listen!). My former self-deprecating, non-threatening persona—which put people at ease around me—is gradually giving way to a realization that what you say about yourself is what you truly believe; “as you think, so shall you be.” I am simply changing my narrative.
I will always be a nice guy, and will never think less of you for not sharing my ambition (though I hope that ambition is inspiring). That’s why I like to share my journey in workshops; I believe that anybody can do at least some of this stuff if they put their mind to it. If it worked for me, it will for you too. I was inspired by Buddy’s workshops, even when he occasionally became overly-brutally honest; I swear, he was talking directly to me! And I loved it! Yes, he is an “artist,” and most of the rest of us (myself included) are “typists.” I was not offended by that theme; on the contrary, I was inspired by it. I want to be an artist too! That is the challenging model I’m trying to emulate—just in a nicer way.
My ambition is also fueled by a desire to be an inspiration to the younger generations. When I wrote my book, Beyond Chord Melody, I dedicated it thusly:
“All my work is humbly dedicated to the young banjoists of today and tomorrow. My most sincere hope is that this book proves valuable to them in their important role of ensuring the future of the plectrum banjo.”
I have not yet done much good for the banjo; give me time and encouragement and I will! And I would love to have company—young and old—on my “quest to be the best” and to help raise the image of the banjo. Who’s in?