Growing Older & Laying Off Less

When I was younger, there were a couple of periods of time that spanned longer than I care to remember. Times when I didn’t practice the banjo. No guitar, mandolin, dulcimer or drums, either. I didn’t even think much about them, other than to wistfully remember, as though they were far away in a distant, blissful scene, how nice it would be to devote some time, once again, to diligently playing. Maybe when I get some more time, I would tell myself, then go about my busy life and promptly forget again for weeks and months on end.

If you’ve been playing very long, then this has most likely happened to you as well. Of course, if you turn professional at a very early age, then you have no options other than to play – that is now your livelihood. But otherwise, it is all to easy to let things slip.

But why? Why does this happen? Are we not serious about playing? Or is it that we get lost in a sea of activity and this is just another such activity; all of which are destined to go through cycles of sinking and rising again to the top of this ‘Interest Sea’?

Here are a few observations I have made over the course of playing musical instruments for the past 40 years. (I’ve been playing the banjo since about 1977, but I started with drums, then mandolin, back around 1968 or 1969.) I’ve not lost interest in quite a few years ( knock on wood!) and hope I never will.

1 – Some of us tend to ‘collect’ neat activities. I know I’m that way. Soon, we have so many, there is no way to do any of them effectively! I know that what I have to do is stay focused on just a few interests, and I have to do this deliberately and effectively. Otherwise, I’ll be spinning my wheels. I have learned how to tell when this is happening, and even though it is not a pleasant task, I know that it signals the time to pare things down once again.

2 – Even if you don’t collect activities / hobbies, you have to make sure your priorities are straight. This doesn’t mean putting the banjo at the top; it’s not for me. I’ll tell you what my top 5 priorities are, in this order:

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. Work
  4. Music
  5. Martial Arts

When I retire, then work will be music, I might add; slightly simplifying things. But you see you have to keep to this pecking order, even as whims and temporary emotions sway back and forth. This does take some discipline, and it is well worth the effort.

3 – I believe that as you get older, somehow you simply learn to balance disparate tasks better. I don’t stray too far left or right in my pursuits these days as I did when I was younger. If you’re like me, then you have this to look forward to!

4 – Examine what your goals are in playing the banjo. Is it your goal to simply play well enough to sit on the front porch and sound decent? That’s a noble goal, and it doesn’t take as much effort as for someone whose goal is to play professionally. But don’t expect to play professionally with a ‘Front Porch’ amount of practicing. Be sure you have the right goal – one that is reachable.

5 – Are you burnt-out? I think that’s the main reason folks stop practice – whatever it is they are doing. Ironically, I think having more than one activity can help this. In my own life, I see burn-out when I concentrate on one thing only for too long a period of time, with no let-up. To have several priorities (like my top 5 above) means I’m not thinking about any one too much. Each is an enjoyable activity and when the next comes along, it is a most welcome change. I think this is exactly what people mean about being balanced. Dwell on this concept a while and see if it fits you; tweak things if it does.

I hope this rather personal glimpse of my thoughts on ‘falling off the wagon’ will help you. Let me know if it does!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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