The better you get. . .

“. . .the worse you feel.” Buddy Wachter told me this many years ago, but I only half understood; I didn’t yet have the wisdom of age to aid me.

His explanation sufficed for the time: He explained that in the process of learning and improving on a musical instrument, the mind races ahead, and leaves the fingers lagging behind. The better your fingers get, the more the mind races ahead. It’s like a Zen paradox; the closer you get to the goal, the farther out of reach it gets. Considering what Buddy’s fingers can do, I can only imagine what goes through his mind when he’s playing; it must be very frustrating.

I am blessed with a musical mind; I hear music in my head 24/7—not just tidbits, but whole compositions in real time. I doubt my fingers will ever catch up. There was a time in my life (my 20s) when I didn’t play any music; the banjo sat in the closet, and I no longer owned a sax or clarinet. My musical blessing became a curse; I couldn’t get the music in my head to stop.

I finally realized that if you can’t beat it, re-join it. Not playing hadn’t shut down the music; maybe playing could satisfy it. Shortly after I started playing the banjo again though, I met and heard Buddy for the first time. It was of course a revelation, but it has also proven to be a bit of a curse; I hear Buddy in my head, and my fingers give me, well. . . me!

Honestly, my youthful ignorance of what is possible on the instrument had unwittingly shielded me from the grind of this fingers vs. mind downward spiral. I often wish I hadn’t heard and realized the possibilities; I might have been a happier person! But then, I realize that I probably would have become bored soon enough; I was open and ready for the challenge that has consumed me for the last 30 years (or it wouldn’t have happened). I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I see life as having two basic guiding aspects: Reality, and desire. Reality of course is what is; desire represents what I wish to be my reality. These two aspects intertwine, one usually being ahead of the other. When reality is in charge, I’m down in the dumps; when desire takes the lead, I am filled with ambitious hope that maybe I’ll reach my goals. True happiness occurs at those times when the two aspects are neck and neck; to have a realistic idea (and agreement) of what is possible and what is actually happening is the ideal state. 

The trick is in finding and keeping that balance; I’ve gotten better at that simply by being aware of it. Sometimes I need desire to take the lead, for it is at those times that I am able to ratchet the reality up a notch or two by actually improving as a musician. I prefer not to let reality take the lead, but of course we all need an occasional “reality check,” don’t we?

Being aware of this endless, constantly-evolving cycle has allowed me to glean useful lessons for moving forward from whichever state I happen to find myself in. I use a sailing analogy for this: I of course prefer “fair winds and following seas,” but I’m perfectly willing to “tack against the wind” as well. I try to always focus on forward movement no matter what the winds.

The “get better/feel worse” paradigm scares me a bit; I have a natural tendency to give up too easily and to feel inadequate, though I have made great strides to overcome those childhood habits. At some point in my development as a banjoist, I need to recognize that I have “peaked,” and probably will not improve anymore. When that inevitable day comes, I need to be ready to back off on the desire and accept my reality for what it is—or be forever condemned to frustration.

1 comment on “The better you get. . .Add yours →

  1. I know this feeling all too well! One thing I find very important is continuing to play with others (especially those who play other instruments). That way I am part of another musical conversation apart from the (sometimes) frustrating one in my head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.