You’d think after 20+ years of learning to play mandolin that the voices in my head would be kinder and more tolerant, and that I’d just accept where I’m at. But sometimes it’s just me and my “shoulds,” those voices sounding like a nagging parent. “You missed a note, wrong chord, that solo sucked.” All my efforts to keep the voices at bay are too easily breached by doubt and discouragement.
Last spring we joined several dozen musician friends for a bi-annual musical extravaganza weekend, playing morning till night, or more accurately, morning till morning. I’d been nursing an inflamed thumb, which kept me from me from playing much in prior months. The lack of practice slowed me down, and that internal critic worked its way in. I struggled to keep myself from the self-doubt, but it reared up at the threshold of my solos, and receded as I kicked myself back into the present moment. Occasionally I heard myself getting the music in my head out into the air, but the voices do not easily render praise. It got worse when I was cold or sleepy, or when the inflammation flared. But even in my better hours I only heard the oddly placed note, the discordant tone, the weak delivery. My automatic pilot zoned out and I couldn’t remember the melody or the chord progression or what key I was playing in. I had to drive manually, and all I had was an irksome old transmission.
In the past I’d let these moments take over, and it would be tough to get back on my feet. But with time and experience I’ve gathered some tools and reminders that keep me going, and help me stay positive. In this group there’s usually someone with a smile, a “yay,” or a simple nod. Some struggle alongside and are mutually supportive, some are better musicians and unfailingly reassuring and helpful (I married one), and others are beginners also looking for encouragement. But I haven’t always bounced back easily.
I played piano throughout childhood, classical music giving way to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor songs in my teens. At 17, I went to a Telegraph Avenue music shop in Berkeley with $100 I’d earned myself, and bought a Yamaha guitar. With just a few major and minor chords I could step into song circles and campfire jams and join in on my favorite folk and pop tunes. That was as far as it went and I never quite got a handle on the next level of details like scales, or individual notes, or the harder chord shapes. 20 years later I was still at the same basic level. I was pretty discouraged.
Mid-life meltdown was the push I needed to mix things up and find new creative ventures. When a friend said he had an old mandolin collecting dust under his couch, I was eager to try it.
Do you remember the tentative thrill of trying something for the first time? The exquisite mix of pleasure, discovery, fear, disappointment? The possibilities laid out before you? Grabbing onto that mandolin was like buying that guitar: reinventing myself, challenging myself, and trying on a new identity. It was love at first strum, and has been my passion, nemesis, challenge, and life saver ever since. Taking up mandolin was an exciting foray into learning something new, shaking up a too predictable existence as I considered life at 40. I explored, took a few lessons, and strummed my way into a new identity. It was easier to get my arms around, easier to move my fingers up and down the compact fretboard, and felt more intuitive – the tuning was symmetrical, in fifths! I loved the happy and sad tones, the vibrant tremolo, the double stringed twang, the fierce chop. Some days I’d just hum along, going if not smoothly, at least in a forward motion.
Inevitably, as I do, I began courting doubts. I’d hit a wall, or a plateau. Sometimes nothing went right, and everything was a struggle.
I sent my concerns out to an online mandolin discussion group. Is it too late to start an instrument at 40? Will I ever be faster, smarter, more adept, more creative? Why even try if I would never be like my mandolin heroes who started in childhood, who now had virtuoso recordings, energetic performances, and perfect technique? I was sure I’d never play solo leads between verses, never make my pinkie useful, never progress beyond the familiar plateaus. My music gods were male; few women musicians rose to the top, and no women mandolin players that I’d found. I’d never be a star, never perform, never master the instrument the way it deserved, never hold my own in a jam circle of musicians.
People responded with passion and suddenly I wasn’t alone. The first answer I got was, “Nancy, are you inside my head?” Amateur musicians from everywhere chimed in – like-minded doubters, late starters, older-than-me folks, and women. Lots of women. They shared their journeys, doubts, struggles, and good advice.
It’s never too late they said, unless you never try it. Mid-life apparently, was a great time to take up an instrument. As with any act, creative or otherwise, you can only start now, they said. They dispelled my illusions that you had to perform or record, or that you had to do anything except enjoy yourself.
Play because you like it – you like the music, or the process, or the challenge, or you like playing with others, or exploring the songs. You like learning new things, or you like who the instrument makes you into. If you enjoy it, keep going. If the challenge or sound or result is satisfying, keep going. If you can find people to play with, it gets even better. They reminded me to relish the moments when it makes me feel the way I want to feel, and to hell with the rest.
Finding people to play with was the best advice.
We started a small house jam and it just grew and grew.
I was reassured that musical ability has nothing to do with gender, only that mixing it up with a macho/competitive thing may not be what I’m looking for. They said there’s a balance between crucifying myself and reasonable expectations [and goals]. Around the world, music is a communal activity, not just a star-studded performance-based, CD-producing event. Making money is not the point. Forget about being good or bad or what you know or don’t know. Comparisons are a distraction. Let go, allow yourself to be immersed. No amount of technique will substitute for the magic that happens when you let yourself connect.
I’ve now played weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals…
I’ve held onto those comments, and over time gained a measure of confidence. Sometimes I’m daunted by the enormity of what I don’t know, but I’m better at recovery and seek out new inspiration and encouragement. Confidence spirals upward, each round building on strengths learned before, each doubt more readily dispelled.
As I improved and was included in gigs with friends, I still felt positively ill over performing, and it got in the way of all enjoyment. I had to either stop getting up on stage or get over it, quick. I joined a comedy improv workshop, and learned to think on my feet and make a public fool of myself. A couple years of that helped loosen me up, and taught me about staying in the moment, saying “yes and…” to whatever comes up, and realizing that things move quickly and you can’t dwell on the mistakes. I learned to just keep moving along.
Always with great reluctance, I nevertheless persisted,
and played all sorts of gigs, alternately proud and terrified.
I went into my digital photos recently and typed in ‘musical instrument.’ What came up was not struggle and suffering, but evidence of years and years of enjoyment, playing with family, friends, some musical heroes, playing for old folks or children, in places of beauty, and yes, even performing. As for age, I can now say all these years later, I’m glad I started at the youthful age of 39.
My Toolbox Things to remember in moments of doubt, frustration, perplexity, or defeat
- Always take a solo when it comes around to you.
- If it’s too hard to be creative, keep it simple, and try to pick out the melody.
- “You’re only a half step away from salvation at any given moment.” (The wrong note is just a half step away from a right note.) Dizzy Gillespie
- You wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.
- We are conduits, in service to the song.
- Seize the joy in the music, the playing, the community.
- Get out of your head.
- Do it for the fun of it.
- You’re only one breath away from your center.
- Look at what you’re DOING, not what you’re not doing (also my favorite parenting advice).
- “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” ~Charlie Parker
- There’s only now.
Every gathering an opportunity for joy, discovery, connection, growth.
It’s hard to measure musical growth. It’s subjective, and some of us are our own worst critics. But there are milestones: playing something that once felt impossible, getting up to speed, keeping up with someone who once seemed unreachable, playing with confidence, or being able to sing, strum, solo AND lead a song all at the same time.
We camped recently at a music event, and there were no musicians around to join us, so Alan and I played with each other, as we do. With lots of people camped nearby, I wanted only to play songs I knew well. Softly. If I made eye contact with anyone I lost track or felt self-conscious, so I avoided that. Soon, to my surprise, appreciative people stopped by to listen and said nice things. People applauded from afar. I felt encouraged, relaxed a bit, and played things I didn’t know as well, tried more solos, and let myself sing out a bit. At the next camping music festival I cared almost not at all about who was listening, and boldly stepped up, staying in the moment, in the song. We got the same appreciation from surrounding campers, and some even said it was their favorite way to wake up. It felt magical.
At the end, people are just listening for the songs – not for wrong notes, poorly played leads, badly delivered phrases, or forgotten lyrics. We share our music, play from the heart. It makes us feel good and people appreciate it. That’s it.
Young and old alike love music, and all that it communicates.
And sometimes you get to meet, and maybe even play with your heroes.