Aging as a Musician: Is it Time to Stop?

Being a musician in one of the many genres that populate the extremely broad mantle of popular music has inherent challenges built directly into the very nature of these genres. Most of these genres are populated by youth, and, let’s face reality, are geared toward a youth driven market. By the time most people are on the back side of their thirties and have slid into their forties, going out clubbing and being ardent band followers has lost its allure. Going out to hear a band at 10pm on a weekend night, let alone during the week, just doesn’t have the same appeal after a long week of working and kid wrangling, not to mention that as you get older it takes longer to recover from long nights. As musicians age they face the same issues, but they also have to look at distinct possibility that their draw is going to decrease largely due to the age difference between new listeners and the band members themselves, as well as a lack of impetus on the parts of their friends to go out and take in a late night show. Age is a catalyst when it comes to performing, and as such it motivates people to either change their approach, or make the ultimate decision to quietly move onto some other enterprise, retiring from performing whether they really want to or not.

Some musicians fight the whole aging process through copious amounts of hair dye, make up, surgery (if really determined to deny their age), and an endless drive to remain current with all of the popular trends, styles, and music. They fight aging tooth and nail, determined to keep doing what they love the same way they have for decades, and struggle long past the point where they can plausibly present a more youthful countenance. There’s often a quiet thread of desperation running just under the surface among the band members, almost as if they’re waiting to be unmasked for some reason. Sometimes the end result can get a bit creepy from an audience perspective, not to mention from the bandstand.

The musicians who have the life long bug to perform who are professionals, but never hit the big leagues and became household names, have the tendency to do what all species do to survive for the long term, they adapt. Not all genres have a low tolerance for aging performers, for instance jazz, smooth jazz, classic R&B, folk music, blues and a few others embrace older players in a way that other genres don’t. Players who are capable of shifting genres effectively, do so and both continue to grow as musicians and increase their performance life span dramatically by doing so. The also tend to shift the type of venues where they book, opting for festivals and other venues which don’t require such late starting times, opting for a more family friendly time frame and venues that don’t require a band following for booking.

There are some musicians who reach a certain point in age where they decide that they’re too old to continue. Often these are folks who are locked into one specific genre of music and can’t switch gears and/or genres, either from a lack of ability to do so or a lack of interest. They park their half stacks in the garage or basement and count themselves lucky to have friends come over to jam occasionally and reminisce about the days when they were on stage. If they’re happy with that, then ultimately that’s fine. Others, however, find it too depressing and end up closing the door to the basement, letting their equipment either gather dust or selling it off to close that chapter of their lives. From my perspective this is a sad end to a cherished skill and ability, because for one thing this often happens long before they really have to quit physically.

Aging happens to everyone, just as does death at some point. What happens to us as musicians as we age is often more a matter of choice than people realize. It really isn’t a situation where once you reach a magic number your career as a musician is over, but just like everything else in life you have to adapt and grow in order to continue to move forward. Someone once asked the great cellist why he still practiced at the age of 93, and his response was beautiful. He stated that it was because he thought he was getting somewhere. Growth, whether it’s on the personal level or communal level, is a part of life in every stage from birth to death. It’s your show; do what you’re going to do!


Preparation, Desire and Pursuit: Making Opportunities Happen

Opportunities often occur when we least expect them to, and sometimes they are things that we’ve dreamed of happening but had all but given up hope on. The key to being able to take advantage of these opportunities when they appear is simple preparation. We need to ensure that if the opportunity ever happens, we are ready for the challenge and can step in to move forward. This pretty much extends throughout our personal lives as well as our professional lives. We’ve all experienced opportunities that we have let pass by because it wasn’t the right time, or we weren’t prepared to the point where we were comfortable taking the leap. For most of my life I’ve had seeing Big Horn Sheep in the wild on my bucket list. When I did it was when I least expected to. We were on our way back from Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to our hotel in Custer, SD and I had put my camera on the dashboard of the car before we left, just in case. We rounded a curve close to the Jewel Cave National Monument on 16A when we came across a herd of about 20, with lambs, right beside the road.

Preparation for an event, even when it isn’t expected, makes the difference. If I had left my camera in my backpack in the trunk, I wouldn’t have been able to document my bucket list moment into my person digital history, which I would have sorely regretted. For me the experience was an awe inspiring moment, which I would have cherished with or without the photographic documentation, but being able to take the photos made it that much better. That was made possible simply by making sure before we started back to our home base that the camera was available in case a photographic opportunity presented itself en route. So too we must ensure that we are prepared professionally for any opportunities that might present themselves, that we aspire to or always wanted to do but didn’t have the chance for.

In terms of preparation there are many things to consider, but they basically boil down to having the right equipment and the musical skills, and ability, to take advantage of opportunities. Of the two often having the right equipment is not the prime barrier. Equipment wise, there’s always a legal way to accommodate the need one way or another. The one that most frequently rears its head is a lack of musical preparation in terms of skills and abilities. When we start out we are filled with hopes and dreams, and since we’re young when we start we often don’t view anything as impossible. We work at our skills and push as hard as we can to succeed. As we age and the years go by, as well as opportunities, we tend to slow down and often don’t put in as much time as we should, or we find other distractions in our lives that pull our focus away. Then an opportunity shows up and we find ourselves thinking “ten years ago I would have been all over that, but I don’t think I can pull it off now.” We’ve let our skills and abilities slip to the point where the dreams are shelved.

We all change as we age. What is important to us at 50 is often not the same as it was when we were 25. This is one of the simple realities of life, but we still have room for passion, goals and hopes. If we no longer really want the opportunity that presents itself, then that’s perfectly fine, but if the opportunity is still something that we strongly desire and still pine for, and we cannot move on it because we’ve let ourselves slip, then it’s a very sad thing. Which also brings us to the other end of the stick. Most frequently opportunities happen because people make them happen. We set the stage for them as opposed to sitting back and waiting for them to come our way. If I never went to where Big Horn Sheep lived and sat home waiting for them to come to me in the Chicago suburbs, then my opportunity to see them would be non-existent. I had to do what was necessary to make the opportunity eventually present itself.

Opportunities happen most frequently when we make the moves to ensure that they can present themselves. We do this musically through tons of preparation, networking, performing and more networking and preparation. We go where the opportunities exist and then do our best to keep our ears to the ground and our feet and hands moving. Some start making excuses as they get older, stating that it is a younger person’s game, but the reality is that it’s everyone’s game. When we start setting limitations that deny access to our dreams we do just that, we limit ourselves and our abilities to continue dreaming. We limit our abilities to sink our teeth into our lives and what matters to us most. Remember, preparation is the key, and most of all, if the opportunity doesn’t appear, make your own opportunities!