By Pete Wernick – March 2017 column, Banjo Newsletter

Here I am, 71 as of Feb. 25, and still picking the five. The “new Granada” I got in 1988 is 29 years old this year — older than Earl’s was in the 40s and 50s — and sounding nice with a calfskin head I’ve had on it since fall.

Thus far this year I’ve been on stage with Flexigrass, Joan Wernick, Hot Rize, Shakedown Street (Grateful Dead cover band), Rapidgrass, and members of local trad. bluegrass band Long Road Home.

WTH? Taking Social Security and still trying to play 10 notes a second sometimes on stage. Not sure this computes!

Over the years, I’ve observed the evolution of professional banjo players’ music as they got older. I’ve seen both the propensity and the ability to play fast slowly diminish. On the other hand, the music sometimes becomes more interesting. Some players seem content to stick with their old favorites, while others (Bill Monroe notably) would still be actively trying to cut new pathways.

I’d sometimes notice less sure-handedness and wonder whether it was due directly to age, or – at least in part – lack of regular playing compared to what they did in their younger career-building years. Maybe less motivated to impress folks once they’re established. Then there are inevitable physical age-related issues like arthritis, tremors and just plain neurons firing slower.

All my life I’ve wondered how well I would be able to play when I got older. Lately I’ve been finding out!

Yes, there’s a tendency to play slower, though I see that as my hand muscles warm up, speed comes back naturally. The warmup is important, and seems to take longer than it used to. It’s important not to get impatient and play with more force and speed than my muscles want to produce. I note that it takes my right hand longer to hit its stride, and until it happens, it may sometimes spaz out… my term for losing fluidity. What should be a smooth flow might lurch, or I might hit two strings at once, for an unclear sound.

As a professional player, I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to contribute well to my band. If I’m going to keep up with this “career” thing even after taking Social Security as late as I could, I’d better be serious. Truly it’s flattering, an honor to be asked to perform, and in the right circumstances it is still quite fun and even scary or thrilling.

When I think of the challenges: the travel, the unfamiliar surroundings and people, the schedule, and the pressure… the notion of staying at my favorite place – my house – starts sounding pretty good. What used to be thought of as laziness is now generally considered “payback for all those years of work”. But I have to choose: Keep playing in the pro ranks or not. This is not something you do halfway. If I play in the pro ranks, it better be good.

Hot Rize agreed last year to do a round of festivals this summer and a concert tour in fall. Aside from that, I’ll be at MerleFest for the 29th time, run a few bluegrass camps –and otherwise stay in lovely Niwot, Colorado, running the Wernick Method from my phone and laptop.

With a lifestyle like that, am I going down the path of “fewer gigs, less sure-handedness, less speed, less creative drive”?

I hope not! I’m trying to be sure to play every day, including demanding, muscular playing, with a continued eye to precision. I head down to my practice cabin and work out with the good old rhythm machine!

In my 30s, when Hot Rize was trying to get on the national music map (which we ended up doing by the mid-1980s), I was steadfast in my practicing, in addition to playing over 100 gigs a year. I got to jam at festivals most weekends, and sometimes for long hours on the Hot Rize bus. That much playing was good for me. When I’m home, I try to play at least an hour a day, with a pretty demanding practice routine. That is the standard I’ve tried to maintain, at times of fewer gigs.

In February 2016, same month as my 70th birthday, I had a shoulder operation. The pain I had been experiencing in the previous year, up and down my right arm and in my right hand (as well as the shoulder) when practicing had led me to physical therapy and then an MRI. The photos showed shredded muscles in my rotator cuff, due to a bone spur in their path of movement.

Thank goodness the surgery to lose the spur and reattach the muscles worked. Within weeks I was playing pain-free, even with the shoulder not fully healed for lifting anything “heavier than a cup”. It was a huge relief… but that’s when I found that even with repaired muscles and pain-free practice, some of my taken-for-granted long-term abilities were now less reliable. Not gone, just not as reliable as usual.

Especially when starting a song, or handling a difficult roll (say MITI or any MIM combination) at high speed, I’d sometimes spaz out, hitting notes late or awkwardly.

My practice regimen says: Go slow and get it clean and smooth before going to high speed. And I would do that, and it would be frustrating to need to go slower for longer, trying to get it right. Fortunately, with patience over time this approach works, and I’ve been gaining steadily this last year to reestablish parts of my playing that had become less dependable.

Certain parts of the Hot Rize repertoire are high-challenge. Top speed on Hangman’s Reel, Train 45 and almost-top on Shady Grove, which is to say about 150 beats/minute. Shady Grove has some hard-to-play-at speed right hand (MITIM, MIMT, MITI etc.) There’s the ring-finger pull-offs in Radio Boogie and 99 Years. There’s an odd stretchy left hand and a need for precision with the break on Colleen Malone, which starts the song in unison with Tim’s mandolin.

As my hand warms up I can play them cleanly and comfortably at speed… on a good day. The challenge is, I have to be able to play them on *any* day. All gigs matter! And I have to hit the stage all warmed up. Not always so easy around travel and sound checks. Part of my pre-show routine is to find a place out of others’ earshot where I can work up to high speed at relatively strong volume, for 15 minutes or more. It’s best to do it right before hitting the stage, but that’s often not possible. In those cases, the band opens up with a powerful start to Blue Night and I’ve got to rise to an intensity level that is sometimes momentarily not quite there. Within a few seconds the roll is rolling and I find the groove and dig in. My break comes up next and … I can do it.

At the end of some practice sessions, I feel like myself again as a player. The right hand feels strong and coordinated. Along the way, new ideas sometimes pop up, and once in a while I grab a few and make a new tune. Always wondering…. “Who’s going to hear this?”

That’s quite another topic but not unrelated. In early years, a musician typically puts out as much worthy music as he/she can, trying to build a good track record… and like most I did a lot of that between ages 25 and 45. Constant gigging and recording kept me in circulation, and people were listening.

Do I still have “something to say”? Even while many very talented players are writing new tunes by the bushels, with top-notch players to help perform and record them? It has become a pretty crowded field of instrumental banjo albums since I did my first in 1971. Are people still interested? Wouldn’t they be looking for great new talent, rather than “here’s another from ol’ whatshisname”.

Just a fact of life for oldsters in many fields, whether academic fields, or creative spirits who’ve been on the job for 30 or 40 or more years. Do “the old ways” still count? Well, not to everybody, but of course they do.

Thirty years ago a fair number of banjo players, including myself, would occasionally put out instrumental albums. Those days are about gone. A lot of it due to albums having smaller and smaller audiences, rarely making a profit. Putting out an album now costs the musicians dearly. And most bluegrass bands don’t do many instrumentals. With Hot Rize I might do 2 banjo tunes a night, and they’re usually the same ones.

One of them, Sky Rider, which comes up pretty early in the show, starts off with a “danger” lick. After blowing that lick *live* before millions on Prairie Home Companion (despite all my normal prep), I knew I needed another level of “insurance”. The answer: While the song is being introduced, I start my roll going, just a plain forward/backward sliding into 4th string 5th fret. Once the roll locks in, I switch from those “potatoes” into the tune… the band comes in, I feel solid, and it all works, hurrah!

Can I play as in days of old? We’ll have to see about that! Watch for Hot Rize at DelFest, Dollywood, Telluride, Strawberry, Winnipeg, Brevard NC, Washington D.C. and various other places in summer and fall. Wish me luck!