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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Pros..Still Improving?

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jimmie99 - Posted - 05/16/2023:  08:16:17

A question I've pondered for years is---do big name pro banjo players like Bela Fleck, Kristin Benson, Ron Stewart , Rob McCoury et al still feel like they are improving, or did they achieve their peak some years ago and are now just maintaining or what? Probably some are and some aren't. Anyway, since I'll never get the chance to ask a picker of that caliber I thought I'd see what ya'll think (or know).

KCJones - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:08:48

I saw any interview with Bela Fleck where he commented that he still finds faults with his playing and feels like he isn't 'good enough' yet.

Bluzeman - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:16:40

B.B. King has always been one of my musical heroes. He said similar things in many interviews. Always talking about how he wasn't very good at this or that and had to work on things. This coming from a man so great I'll never be worthy to hold his guitar pick.

thisoldman - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:19:22

I would guess that those top level players are working on "evolving" as well as improving.

NotABanjoYoda - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:21:38

From what Ive seen, most pros work on their offstage skills and onstage setup continually and constantly.

KCJones - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:27:43

There was a documentary about Grateful Dead and it had a clip of Jerry Garcia practicing scales and licks in his hotel room while on tour. The camera man had walked into the situation from behind and Jerry didn't see him coming. When Jerry noticed the cameraman, he got flustered and he looked kind of embarrassed/annoyed at being 'exposed'. That tells us something, anyway. 

Edited by - KCJones on 05/16/2023 09:32:16

Banjfoot - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:33:28

Even musicians like Bach and Beethoven were studying and learning new things well into their lives. Uwe Kruger said every person knows something about music I don't know, so everyone is my teacher. Snuffy Jenkins said something like that, too (quoted by Don Reno), that you can learn something from even the lousiest picker, he'll have something good for you. I don't care who someone is, if you are a human being, there are good new things to learn even in your chosen field.

Edited by - Banjfoot on 05/16/2023 09:37:47

KCJones - Posted - 05/16/2023:  09:34:43

I just remembered this, and it answers your question more directly:

In 2018, The Travelin' McCourys played the Sugar Maple Festival in Madison, WI. They did a Q/A session as part of that festival. I asked Rob McCoury this exact question... Does he practice a lot, or does he just play? He answered that he doesn't really 'practice' much, and also said that with their touring schedule he gets enough play time that he stays sharp and doesn't need to practice much.

Edited by - KCJones on 05/16/2023 09:38:15

Just Bill - Posted - 05/16/2023:  10:12:07

There is a popular story about a reporter who interviewed famous cellist, Pablo Casals. She asked him why he continued to practice for three hours a day at 93 years of age. His response was, 'Because I believe I'm making progress.' :)

sunburst - Posted - 05/16/2023:  11:23:02

Tony Trischka would stop by and stay at the boss's house back when I worked "at the factory". He would escape to an upstairs room to practice for a couple of hours.

I read that every artist has what is called a golden period; that time in their career when they have accumulated experience and skill and the their abilities are at a peak, be it drawing, painting, instrument making, music or whatever. The golden period gradually declines as advancing age causes declines in mobility, visual acuity, sharpness of mind and so forth.
So, that would mean that a pro can improve into his/her golden period, and from there things gradually decline.

jimmie99 - Posted - 05/16/2023:  11:33:10

Thanks all, I appreciate your responses.
Some years ago I read an interview of the wife of the great classical violin player Isaac Perlman. She was asked what it was like living with Perlman. She said "Same thing every day, squeak, squeak, squeak". Lol

SandChannel - Posted - 05/16/2023:  12:23:09

It is all relative. The top players in the world are still tinkering with their technique because they find things that they cannot do as well as they would like. I think you get to a point where your technique is going to level out and endless wood-shedding only brings about modest gains. At this point, I think the focus becomes more about musicianship and expressing oneself.

Edited by - SandChannel on 05/16/2023 12:24:43

stanleytone - Posted - 05/16/2023:  12:28:13

I imagine those people have learned so much that they constantly have to go back and brush up on stuff theyve already learned

chief3 - Posted - 05/16/2023:  12:32:43

When asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day at the age of 93 he answered... "I'm beginning to notice some improvement." -Pablo Casals, musician, cellist

Jack Baker - Posted - 05/16/2023:  12:51:12


You've answered your own question...Jack

Originally posted by jimmie99


banjoy - Posted - 05/16/2023:  13:01:22

I believe the same is true of any artist who performs at a high level. I've know *plenty* of artists in my life, mostly painters and sculptors who were at the top of their game.

When I lived in Charlottesville, VA in the early 1980s I met and befriended a Brazilian artist. He would lock himself in his studio for days at a time with a bottle of wine and a few loafs of bread and emerge with dozens of paintings, and hundreds of pencil sketches, ink and paintings of hands drawn over and over, this that or the other drawn again and again and again and I asked him about that. He called them "studies" and he was constantly learning. Those studies to me looked pretty amazing but to him they were his own homework. I have six of his original linocut stencilprints hanging on my wall here at home.

I had since come to realize the greats like Leonardo da Vinci did hundreds of studies as well, his manuscripts are full of fragments of what eventually came to be well known paintings or inventions. Other artists I've known do much the same thing as I've described, in one form or another.

So to answer the OP question, yes, my thinking is that high level musicians are constantly creating "studies" of their own, pretty much the same thing in my opinion.

Edited by - banjoy on 05/16/2023 13:04:10

steve davis - Posted - 05/16/2023:  13:37:37

Andres Segovia said at the age of 92 that he still learned something every time he played.

Many other artists have said similar things.

Human nature,I'm guessing.

I think we all continue to get new ideas throughout life.

It would be boring,otherwise.

Edited by - steve davis on 05/16/2023 13:40:55

Andy B - Posted - 05/16/2023:  17:31:10

We are all works in progress in every aspect of our lives. I take inspiration from people like Casals and Segovia who believed that our ability to learn doesn’t have an expiration date. A similar attitude was expressed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of the most brilliant jurists ever to serve on the Supreme Court. When he was in his nineties and retired from the Court, he was visited on his birthday by President Franklin Roosevelt, who found Holmes reading Plato. Roosevelt asked him why he was reading Plato, and Holmes replied, “To improve my mind, Mr. President.” The capacity for self improvement is part of what makes us human.

dfstd - Posted - 05/17/2023:  04:38:44

We went to a Béla Fleck concert last month. He performed with Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, and Rakesh Chaurasia, and they were promoting their new album, As We Speak. Béla grabbed a mic and spoke to the audience a few times, and his remarks were peppered with comments about how he had so much to learn and that working with these musicians was a tremendous learning experience. He was humble about it, but then he started playing, and he was amazing--they all were. He seems to have a mindset that he always wants to be learning and growing as a musician.

phb - Posted - 05/17/2023:  05:22:50

I don't believe the technical abilities of great players form some sort of arch with one ascending side and one decending side. I doubt Earl Scruggs played like he used to the day he picked up a banjo after not touching one for several years. And he probably already played a lot better a few days later.

I saw an interview with electric guitar legend Jeff Beck from when he toured with Jennifer Batten. He commented on the amazing eight-finger tapping she could do and added that he would have to practice quite a bit to do that.

Edited by - phb on 05/17/2023 05:25:02

steve davis - Posted - 05/17/2023:  09:35:00

There's more to growing as an artist than just our technical abilities.

Will Frady - Posted - 05/17/2023:  19:29:39

Has anybody ask ex NBA legend Allen Iverson ? He’d probably disagree. Lol !

steve davis - Posted - 05/18/2023:  16:32:47

Playing an instrument,writing or painting can be a life-long exploration into ever-more meaningful expression.
I don't think basketball works like that any more than throwing a shot put.

steve davis - Posted - 05/19/2023:  16:49:07

I love how playing music is a life-long friend.

Ira Gitlin - Posted - 05/20/2023:  06:47:08


Originally posted by steve davis

There's more to growing as an artist than just our technical abilities.

Exactly! In a discussion like this we should make a distinction between artists' technical prowess, their artistic expression, and their depth of understanding. These all influence each other, but they are indeed separate things.

Jack Baker - Posted - 05/20/2023:  07:13:50



You've answered your own question...Jack

Originally posted by jimmie99


5stringrules - Posted - 05/23/2023:  19:11:52

Depends on what inspires him/her. You can do really well for a long time, but life can inspire you different ways, and music may not be a part of it anymore. Just because music may not be premier on someone's list of things to pay attention to anymore doesn't mean that person couldn't eat any one of us for lunch if demanded. On the other hand, someone might have a new inspiration to practice a lot in addition to playing out.

steve davis - Posted - 05/24/2023:  11:49:32

If someone stops playing for some time their talent is diminished.
I never think about if someone can play better or worse than me.I just enjoy playing.
I don't think of playing as practice.I just need to play every day because I love to play.

Dale Diehl - Posted - 05/25/2023:  12:02:57

Pete Wernick and Tony Friends wrote a book, Masters of the Five String Banjo. In that book they ask questions of many of the greats of that era and past, that were still living. One of the questions deals with practice habits, another talks about satisfaction of their playing. It's a wealth of information.

steve davis - Posted - 05/31/2023:  13:16:02

I'm always curious and wanting to try new stuff.
I think that's part of improving,but "improving" might be better stated as "evolving" in my opinion.

MickeyReeves - Posted - 05/31/2023:  20:54:35

So when I met Bela for the first time years ago, he asked me what kinda music I play. I say, "I play your music; well... I try, anyways". Then he laughs and goes "haha, yeah, me too".

Later on, backstage before the actual show, he was practicing a Bach piece in the dressing room when he looked up and went "it just never gets any easier".

There's an entire documentary about his banjo concerto 'the imposter' and his struggles with that. One thing thats interesting is that in that documentary is that Béla's struggle is in finding himself in that concerto, not on finding technical ability. I remember one scene where he's like "ok now I just gotta learn to play it"

Pros are pros precisely because they constantly live in that struggle.

steve davis - Posted - 06/01/2023:  04:56:23

I wonder if a pro would use the word "struggle".

Timothy Lindblom - Posted - 06/01/2023:  16:10:21

I’d imagine no one gets to the point where they feel like they’ve arrived. There’s always someone that can do something that you can’t. Billy Strings showed up here at Bryan Sutton’s Blue Ridge guitar camp for a day because he said he just wants to keep improving. You can learn something from anyone. Even if you’re that famous I guess!

steve davis - Posted - 06/02/2023:  03:39:57

I never compare my playing to anyone else.
I just have to play every day and am always interested in new tangents.

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