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How to Become a Senior Prodigy

Posted by FiddlerFaddler on Monday, October 1, 2007

The text of this blog was originally published in the Almost Famous [Monthly] Newsletter of the Northern Illinois Bluegrass Association  (NIBA).  I am dedicating its posting to fiddlebob, as his perseverance and joyfulness is an inspiration to us all, and to all of you who have had the temerity to learn to play the fiddle long after your first childhood, but maybe in time for your second!
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This post will wax eloquent, yea philosophical, for the purpose of helping anyone of any age excel in any chosen endeavor, but the focus will be on musicianship.  It was inspired by a polite, but rambunctious – and often hilarious – ongoing debate that I have with a musician friend of mine, Rodney.

Rodney can strum the guitar and play the harmonica at the same time.  This impresses me, as I have trouble performing two rudimentary tasks at the same time, let alone one of them being as complex as playing a musical instrument.  Undaunted by his amazing abilities, when we were talking about my goals as a musician, I once told him that I aspired to be a senior prodigy.

Rodney's response was a most amusing mixture of mirth and caustic incredulity.  He trenchantly stated with great conviction that a person doesn’t become a prodigy late in life by practicing, but is a prodigy due to natural abilities that are resident within the person that manifest themselves at an early age.  I responded with equally pronounced conviction that while most prodigies started early in their quest for excellence, thus explaining why “child” and “prodigy” were adjacent peas in the same pod of his noggin, the word “prodigy” allows for excellence to be achieved and manifested at any age.  To prove my point, I took him to to see the definition of “prodigy” for himself (check it out yourself).  With his wife Marcia qualified to serve as an impartial adjudicator for our dispute because of her love of language and etymology, we had the needed arbiter de jour for our debate.  Marcia admitted that the definition of “prodigy” did not require accomplishment at a young age.

Thus the balance of this post will feature a panoply of principles presented in manifesto form to encourage anyone young or old, or somewhere in between, who aspires to achieve excellence as a musician.

1. Barring physical incapacity, it’s never too late to become dedicated to a worthy cause.  The keyword here is “dedicated.”  You must be focused and committed.  It has to be a priority.  You must have the wherewithal to resist any naysayers who would rain on your parade.  This is one of the rare circumstances in life where it actually helps to have a contrarian spirit – “I’ll show them, even if it’s just to spite them!”

2. If something is worth doing well, it’s worth doing poorly.  Be willing to embrace mediocrity as a necessary stepping stone to excellence.  Don’t be satisfied to be mediocre – strive to improve.  Your immediate goal should be to be better than you were yesterday.  Repetition is the mother of learning, so practice, practice, practice!  As a piece starts to sound like it’s supposed to, you become encouraged to improve it further.

3. Stick to it.  I once heard a preacher say from the pulpit, “There is no such thing as a good musician, only bad ones that wouldn’t quit.”  His sermon was on the topic of perseverance, and the point he made is worth adopting as a life-enhancing doctrine.  Be willing to do today, tomorrow and continually, something that won’t reach fruition for a long time.  The longer it takes to accomplish a goal, the sweeter the savor once it is realized.

4. Plan and prioritize to succeed.  The famous motivational speaker Zig Ziglar asks, “How can you reach a goal that you don’t even have?”  Aim high when you set your goals, and then get serious about making them happen.  Order every area of your life to facilitate the reaching of your goals.  Discerningly embrace the better over the good.  Put aside the habits that dissipate money and time instead of leveraging them towards the advancement of your goals.

5. Develop an effective support system.  This includes getting together with like-minded individuals for the sake of networking and encouraging each other.  Examples of this include being an active member of NIBA and other worthwhile organizations that will expose you to more, quality repertory and challenge you to hone your skills.

6. Choose and then nurture your life partner carefully and deliberately.  This is really a continuation of No. 5.  It helps greatly if your partner shares your goals with you.  Two oxen pulling together have a multiplicative effect such that they can pull more in concert with each other (that even sounds musical!) than they could individually.  I do not advocate ending a marriage over differences about musicianship, but think about how much more you will be able to accomplish if your spouse is on board with the same goals.  Cultivate your spouse’s cooperation by purposefully fulfilling his or her needs.  Get counseling and commit to its success if you need help ironing out differences.  Marrying a musician helps, especially since you will be able to make beautiful music together, and you will empathize with each other’s need to practice.  Remember that a family that does things together – especially the making of beautiful music together – stays together.

7. Be obsessed and be balanced.  Consider it a moral imperative for you to improve and succeed.  The only things more important than your development as a musician are your spiritual development and excelling in your parental and conjugal responsibilities.  This hierarchy of priority should define the balance in life that you must attain to be a successful person.

8. Consider your music your ministry.  Musical excellence will determine the quality of how you minister to others.  You will have achieved excellence when your hearers are blessed by what they hear from you.  For example, I used to lug a classical guitar on my business trips, and I would play it while waiting for my flight to start boarding.  Many that heard me play would say that they found my music refreshing, invigorating and soothing, which also illustrates the practicality of choosing to learn excellent music instead of musical drivel.

9. Be a musical snob.  Old-time, bluegrass, and other genres of folk music are far more excellent then the vast majority of popular, contemporary music.  Think of the inferior types of music as weeds that you can choke out with the select grasses of the better genres – especially with bluegrass (and old-time)!  Be kind to those whose tastes are not as refined as yours, but don’t just curse the darkness, light a bonfire!  Lead the musically challenged by example – by providing good examples.

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I trust that this post  will be an encouragement to anyone of any age to strive for excellence in any area of their lives, especially in the area of musicianship.  If you diligently apply the principles touted above, you will surely improve as a musician, and could even earn the noteworthy sobriquet of “senior prodigy” within a couple decades.  As for me, I look forward to my second childhood as an opportunity to finally become a “child” prodigy as a musician.

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Mike Diaz is an extremely late bloomer who is striving to be a chronic over-achiever.  He has the stated goal of becoming a “senior prodigy” within a couple decades.


6 comments on “How to Become a Senior Prodigy”

fiddlerdi Says:
Sunday, October 7, 2007 @7:15:57 PM

Michael, this is just delightful. As a life-long participant in the attempt to be a senior prodigy, I can relate to every single point you have made. As a fairly new teacher I will share this with all my students, young and old and make it required reading. This will increase my credibility as it contains many of the same ideas that I have told many of them over, and over. The part about having a supportive spouse is so important. It they believe in you then you truly have the open door to greatness. It is even better if they play and in my case my husband has taught himself the Ukelele. Up until that time he could in no way relate to my musicians life. SInce then things have been a lot better around here. It almost ruined our marriage. I would like your permission to reprint this in our Kansas Prairie Pickers October newletter and I hope others will do the same. It will be a blessing to many. Thank you so much for putting our lives into words to share with others!