“I’m not good enough”

Meghan and I just returned from Uke U-7, the super-fun annual festival by the Bend Ukulele Group. Thanks, you guys–talk about a labor of love!

A dozen or more times each day at festivals we hear some variation of “I’m not good enough for a $3500 uke”. A new one this year: “you’ll be the 2nd person I call when I win the lottery!”. Hopefully they’re buying tickets.

“I’m not good enough” is a VERY familiar feeling—it derailed my instrument making for many years—but a couple pivotal experiences changed how I think about it.

Uke players may find it astonishing, but among the campfires and tents at bluegrass festivals one regularly sees instruments in the $6,000 to $20,000+ range, and I’ve played $200,000 mandolins on multiple occasions. At one festival I was playing in a “band scramble”—an impromptu band given a couple hours to prepare songs for the main stage—when an acquaintance saw me practicing on my $1000 vintage Gibson and handed me his $7,000 Gilchrist (now $20+K!), saying I needed a “real bluegrass mandolin” for the stage.

I replied there was no way I’d risk his incredible Gilchrist, but he looked me in the eye and said “it’s built to make music, not sit in a case; accidents happen, but don’t worry about it—go and play the heck out of it”. I did as I was told, and it was a wonder. A year or so later I did the (previously) unthinkable and ordered a Gilchrist (named Cecilia, after the opera singer Cecilia Bartoli—the first instrument I named).

One can hardly count the ways in which I wasn’t good enough for this mandolin, and why it was absurdly impractical. Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, multiple collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, and now Prairie Home Companion) played one, as did many other bluegrass and classical luminaries. It cost more than my first new car. Ridiculous.

But…what a joy. An instrument is a relationship, and I treasure our time together; for almost twenty years I’ve experienced delight each time I play so much as a single note. She has lifted my playing and shaped it for the better.

Cecilia has scratches, her finish is worn and rumpled, and repairs have been needed…like any long relationship. Long periods have passed when I didn’t play much. On several occasions I felt I should let her go to someone to someone who would play more, and better–the “worthiness” thing again.

Thankfully, a violin maker gave me some crucial perspective: he reminded me that fine instruments naturally live much longer than people, and I’m only Cecilia’s first relationship, albeit the critical one that supported the luthier and shaped his choices as he created her. He said that instrument relationships (like others) ebb and flow, and if there is still joy—however quiet and hidden at the moment—then it’s worth staying the course. She will naturally pass on to others when I’m gone; why abandon the turning seasons of this rich relationship before they run their course?

I’m still not remotely “good enough”, but I count Cecilia among the best decisions in my life.

(Full disclosure—I got a 2nd equally wonderful (but different) mandolin from Lynn Dudenbostel…think of it as needing both a high G and low G!)

I’m painfully aware this may sound like an elaborate sales pitch, but it relates primarily to my experience as a player. It was as a player that I first experienced the delight, inspiration, and even healing of some instruments; only later did my mentors help me see I could make them. In any case, maybe it’s a uke from Chuck Moore, Woodley White, Steve Grimes, or Jay Lichty (among others) that will speak to you instead of mine. That’s great–find what is alluring to you and play the heck out of it.

Caveat: naturally there are many situations in which expensive instruments make little sense. If you must leave your uke in a hot vehicle, get one that’s indestructible (carbon fiber/plywood/etc.). If ukes are a casual hobby that may give way next year to golf or quilting, then of course find something that plays decently and have fun.

But if you long to go further, to make more expressive and beautiful music…well, (climbing onto soapbox, and going way beyond ukes)…wise and joyful paths often appear profoundly impractical beforehand, and as my family has experienced repeatedly, life can change in a moment. While striving for good is critical, it’s not about whether you are good enough; everyone deserves joy. Good follows mysterious channels; listen for the (often whispered) guidance of your heart, and (with eyes open) take chances on yourself…and others.