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Notes from the Field

Muscal Heroes

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I play mandolin, and have played for many years. I am not great, never will be. Mind you, I am a fair hand at it, but the package of abilities I received at birth did not include prodigy. (It did include skills in other areas, in which I make my living, and for which I have a different kind of passion.)

But I do have a love for the mandolin. I enjoy playing mandolin more than I enjoy listening to any particular genre of music. And I play just about every day for myself, and once or more a week in jam sessions with others, every now and again at an open mike. The several times I have been in bands and performed I found that I enjoy playing with friends much more than playing for friends.

We musicians each individually own our music. Mike Marshall, Alison Stephens, Marty Stuart, Butch Baldassari, Chris Thile, Marilynn Mair, etc. while they are my musical heros, they don’t own all of mandolin music. They don’t own my music. Nobody owns my music but me. I have as much of a ripping good time playing whether I have listened to them or not. Nobody can take my joy in my playing away from me. My journey of musical discovery can be and is delightful to me, whether or not what I discover is common knowledge among the pros and prodigies. Sure, I still love to listen to my heros, but I love playing more.

I think where more than a few of us get caught up is in our aspiration to become like one of our heros. I had a healthy dose of that at one time. There are folks about whom I wonder if they would continue to play music and enjoy it if they were to know that for what ever reason they will never become a super star. When I discovered that I enjoyed making music, and making my own progress with it, much more than I enjoyed the work involved in an ambition to become a pro, I relaxed, put music in the context of my real life, not my ideal life, and enjoyed both music, and life, all the more.

Yeah, I am inspired by my heros, but the inspiration is to improve my own playing, not to become one of them. Not even to sound like them. Not even to play like them.

150 or more years ago, most folk musicians played for family and friends, as a break from the toil of the farm or factory. They might have heard the best fiddlers in their home county, or perhaps the state, but certainly before recording technology, their exposure to other players was geographically limited. Nowadays, we easily listen to the best of the best of the best. And being continuously bombarded with the music of the best of the best of the best, we can get to feeling that the bar is awful high, and our meager accomplishments are not worth much. Why continue? Certainly the bar is higher today than 150 years ago, but it is important to avoid thinking that what our heros can do is anywhere near what the average player can do. Ever. Since most of what we listen to is recordings and concerts, we can get to thinking that the whole world is better than we can ever hope to be. The best of the best of the best is not the whole world. And its important to avoid being inhibited by the huge difference between our own abilities and those great ones that we love.

When we hear a child prodigy, like Sierra Hull, or Natalie McMasters for example, we can feel a twinge of jealousy. We say to ourselves, “what I would give to be able to play like that.” The truth is that our jealousy is misplaced. We are saying “I would like my life to be just like it is now, with the only difference being I can play as good as she does.” The reality is that someone who has that kind of talent that early in life leads and will lead a life totally different from most of us. And doing what it takes to make that genetic endowment flower may not be what we would really want to do in our lives - especially if we had to give up all the cool stuff we really did and already do in our lives. If I could live two lives, one in which I lived a life like a child prodigy, and one in which I lived as I do today, and then could pick which one I wanted for my real life... well you see what I mean. So I quickly let go of my envy and just enjoy watching the charmed life of a young person with extraordinary talent.

While there is a connection between what we do in the world of our living room and with friends or at the local contra dance or jam, and the world of the lives of those we listen to at performances, on radio and recordings, the two worlds are not the same. And we only inhabit one of them. Each life has its own joys and rewards. I claim the joys and rewards of my life, and not so much the lives of others.

I remember an interview I heard with Beverly Sills, the amazing American opera singer. She said that when she was on vacation she would eschew all music of any kind. I thought how sad that was. In a way, music had become for her a kind of “packing and lifting” that a warehouseman would do, or the driving a cabby does only while the “meter is running”. While I may at times wish for grand success, I would not ever want to lose the fun place music has in my life. If I made music my vocation, I would then be in need of an avocation. Its kind of like what Oscar Wilde said about marrying your mistress, it leaves a vacancy in that position.

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Updated Aug-24-2010 at 9:45pm by JeffD



  1. JeffD's Avatar
    Add Jacob Reuven to that list!