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!

 

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3 thoughts on “Aging as a Musician: Is it Time to Stop?

  1. I’m a 50 something in a jazz trio with a couple of 20 and 30 something’s. Fortunately, (Unfortunately?) the band has become popular and as such gigs are coming more and more frequently. I’m finding that I have to plan basically my entire life around these gigs and it’s becoming very time consuming.

    I guess because of their youth, my band mates are happy to take the majority of these, regardless of time and distance. I can’t remember the last time I had a two day weekend. Like you mentioned it takes a day (or two) to recover so not much gets done around the house, then it’s back to work.

    After 4 years together, I’m thinking it’s time for me to hang it up with this group and find something more my speed.

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    1. You’ve definitely put the time in and given it your shot. It’s probably the youth factor combined with differing goals. Ultimately you’ve got to do what is going to pay off in the best way possible for you. I’d suggest giving them notice and a chance to find a replacement, or if you’d rather, suggest a rotating chair if they’re willing (and you are as well). Good luck!

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