Author: Evans, Bill

The Value of Mentoring
fiogf49gjkf0d defines a mentor as a “wise and trusted counselor or teacher” or “an influential senior sponsor or supporter.” Mentors open doors to new knowledge, interests and experiences that we might not have otherwise sought out. We’ve all had access to mentors of one kind or another: our parents and older relatives and siblings, a grade school teacher or college professor, a coach or church leader may all change us in positive, life-altering ways. In many cases, we might not realize the influence and value of their mentorship until many years after the fact.

As I get older and reflect upon the direction that my life has taken as a professional musician, I think about those who have mentored me, perhaps without their being actively aware of it. There was Roy Cooper, a paint salesman who lived across the street who took me with him every Sunday morning to a local church, where I sat next to him, following the music and turning the pages at age six, as he played piano for the men’s choir. Living next to Roy was Mrs. Hoffenberger, a German immigrant, who played organ at another local church and gave me my first piano lessons.

Then there was Miss Tischler, my elementary school music teacher who shared my love for the Beatles and was the first person to suggest that I could be a professional musician, just like John, Paul, George and Ringo (Mr. Cooper, on the other hand, was convinced that I should become a minister). And there was Mr. Thomas, my high school madrigal instructor, who encouraged my fledging interest in the banjo and bluegrass music while also revealing to me the beauty of Renaissance vocal music.

In those days, Norfolk, Virginia was not considered a center for folk or bluegrass music but those of us who lived there now realize that it was a pretty great place for acoustic music in the 1970’s. There was a folk music store there, run by Bob Zentz, called Ramblin’ Conrad’s Guitar Shop and Folklore Center. Bob and the store served as the nexus for a vibrant and growing community that mentored not only me, but also other young musicians such as John Lawless, Bill Smith and Lynn Kelley.

By the time I was a high school junior, I was hanging out at Ramblin’ Conrad’s most afternoons, benefiting from a more informal kind of musical mentorship imparted by older musicians such as Bob, John Currie and Duff Porter and getting the chance to experience not only bluegrass, but folk, singer-songwriter, blues and Cajun music as part of Ramblin’ Conrad’s weekly Friday night coffeehouse open stage. I heard (and met and sometimes played with) everyone from Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz, to Libba Cotton, Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer and the Highwoods String Band at the annual folk festival that Bob produced in cooperation with Old Dominion University. One Christmas, I “won” a mandolin in a store contest drawing. Looking back, I wonder now if that was somehow rigged to get me an instrument I had coveted for about a year (well-meaning deception can be a part of mentorship too, I guess).

As a professional musician, I am very thankful for the mentoring relationships I’ve had with a great many of my banjo heroes. There’s Ben Eldridge, the banjo player in the Seldom Scene, who gave me private lessons for free and encouraged me to stay in college until graduation - and not hit the road with a bluegrass band until I had that degree (that proved to be important advice when I later applied to graduate school in Music at UC Berkeley – I never regret having finished college). In addition to Ben, Tony Trischka, Alan Munde, Pete Wernick and Bill Keith have all given of their time, knowledge and advice freely over many years of mentor-friendship.

Sometimes the most valuable mentoring relationships don’t start out that way. I’m not sure what Tony Trischka thought of me, as I spilled an entire cup of coffee in the kitchen of his upper West Side New York apartment not ten minutes into our first lesson. I remember the shocked look on his face as the quickly expanding pool of caffeine narrowly missed the three-inch thick completed hand-written manuscript to his “Hot Licks for Bluegrass Banjo” book, which I extricated from the table with a quick hand.

My first encounter with Sonny Osborne was at a small local bluegrass festival in Waynesboro, Virginia in 1978. After the Osborne Brothers played their afternoon set, I sheepishly approached the Osbornes’ record table and to ask Sonny about his prewar flathead Granada, which was then a relatively new acquisition. He removed the banjo from across his shoulder, over his sweat-drenched suit, handed the instrument to me across the rows of LPs and cassettes and said, “Let’s see if you can play it.” That’s trial-by-fire mentorship, to be sure! Thirty years after that initial meeting, Sonny arranged for me to own my own Granada.

In professional music, mentorship involves not only the imparting of musical knowledge, but also the sharing of business and personal aspects of the industry and advice on how to integrate family life with the demands of the road. And it’s in these latter areas that one may not immediately understand the true value and wisdom of the advice being offered until you’ve experienced a few hard knocks and made a few mistakes on your own.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received from a mentor is this gem of wisdom from Sonny Osborne: “There are times when you can’t open certain doors by yourself, no matter how hard you try. However, you have to be ready to walk through each door when it’s opened for you.” This is the path that the Osbornes followed from Hyden, Kentucky to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and beyond. It’s a pretty good life motto, don’t you think?

These days, I think a lot about how I can better mentor the young professional musicians who I come into contact with. Teaching others to play the banjo provides a formal path of mentorship, with a monetary exchange attached. However, the most durable and meaningful forms of mentorship usually come in more informal ways, offering advice as a friend, not necessarily as a teacher.

Who has mentored you in your musical life? And who are you mentoring? Mentoring is an important part of keeping the music alive. Use every opportunity you can to nourish it and keep it growing in your own life.

All the best!

Bill Evans
Posted:  3/26/2010

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