My mom recently fractured her humerus (shoulder) and her physical therapy revolves around being able to get her arm up high enough to play bass. That’s her one big goal. She may never block a volley ball spike again but she sure as heck is going to play that bass.
As I watch her struggle for each millimeter of movement, I wonder about things like choices and playing music. And about the things we let get in the way of music, and how willing we are to start over.
I’ve watched numerous friends, especially my elder mentors, struggle not just with physical challenges, but their own mental constructs. Our friend Marilyn, at age eighty six, announced that she was going to “stop being a wallflower and take guitar leads during jams!” She’s been playing guitar for over sixty years and made the decision to get out of her own way. She now plays a solo every chance she gets.
Being around people like Marilyn nudges reflection of my own choices and encourages me to face up to the siren call of my excuses. Shyness, being tired, fear of judgement, not having enough time, and sheer laziness show up as flimsy excuses when a catastrophic event makes the choice for you. When choice is taken out of our hands we’re left wishing we had used our time better.
When you find yourself wallowing in “excusitis” with your music, I recommend visiting with people who are actively overcoming physical challenges. My own limits seem drastically diminished when compared to someone who doesn’t have a choice about their condition but choses instead to figure out that break, practice a chord, or reach up the neck of her bass once more.
My uncle with rheumatoid arthritis plays the guitar. His strumming hand is bent at a 90 degree angle nowadays but he still finds a way to play the music he loves.
Regardless of how deeply committed we are to any choice or excuse, it’s always good to remember that it’s okay to change directions and begin again. I love watching babies, children, and folks of all ages (and especially those with physical challenges or impairments), experience the vibration of sound in an instrument. I encourage little ones to rest their heads on the bass and watch their response as I pluck a string. They usually hug the bass again and with a big grin ask me to “do it again!” Music is multi-sensory: you can smell the rosewood, see a string vibrate, hear the tone of a single plucked string, and feel the wood sing. I love to see the recognition of our shared experience, and there is always surprise and wonder in their smiles. And when that happens, my own sense of wonder is rekindled.
My excuses vanish when an adult Downs Syndrome man laughs out loud as he feels and hears the vibration of my mandolin. Most music is experienced at a distance from the performers but Bluegrass and Old Time music are a hands-on, participatory medium that invite closeness. Folks are thrilled to touch, inspect, and experience an instrument and come along with us on a musical adventure.
Here’s my take on this: Play what you can, as much as you can, when you can. And play as long as you can. Wherever you happen to be on the continuum of life. Because there’s always a way to begin again.
(Cameron Little is a bluegrass musician who plans to keep on playing no matter what. He jammed and soaked up music and inspiration at the Plymouth Bluegrass Festival last weekend. He was glad to see you there.)