Cynthia Sayer didn't set out to be an acclaimed banjo player — but her passion and her style make a recipe for success.
All she wanted to do was play the drums.
At the time, Cynthia Sayer was a little Jersey girl who had already started piano at the age of 6 — and then added viola, guitar, and eventually drums in the school band.
At 13, she begged her parents for her own set of the rock ‘n’ roll percussion staple, but they weren’t about it. Instead, she came home one day to a banjo lying on her bed.
Now, Sayer is a multi award-winning banjoist who recently headlined the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. She also just secured a second trip to China to share her talent abroad.
“I grew up in New Jersey — I didn’t know what the banjo was,” she laughs. “I knew immediately it was a bribe for the drums and I was like, ‘OK, fine. I’ll play this thing.’”
But Sayer’s story isn’t just about her roundabout road to the unusual instrument. It’s about the success she’s achieved in a field of music that is largely dominated by men.
Sayer’s parents — both now live in Palmer Ranch — got the idea of buying her a banjo after seeing an ad in the newspaper by a professional musician named Patty Fisher. She had just moved to town and needed students, and the Sayers needed a new creative outlet for their daughter.
So at 13, Sayer started taking banjo lessons from the woman who would become her biggest role model throughout her music career.
“I had never met a woman in the arts,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of women role models out there, and I was just dumbfounded that she had traveled all over the world as a musician and had all these exciting adventures — she validated the possibilities for me.”
At the time, Sayer says she had no idea — nor did she have any way of knowing, really — how rare it was to become a woman banjoist. Fisher did it, so she figured she could too, and that was the motivation that she needed. She was entranced by her teacher’s exciting lifestyle, but as she got older she grew less confident in the idea of a music career.
Instead, she went to college and prepared to go to law school. It seemed practical, and music seemed like something to just do for a hobby, she says.
“I was like, ‘Well this is fun, so I’ll do it for a couple years before I have to do all those responsible grown up things and have a job.’ It took me a couple years to realize it’s OK to do what you love,” Sayer says.
Her parents were supportive, so with their encouragement and some self-convincing, she went on a USO tour when she finished college at the age of 21.
On tour, Sayer performed duets with her friend Don to boost morale and provide entertainment to members of the U.S. military and their families on bases around the world.
“We went to Iceland and Germany, and this was such an adventure to me,” Sayer says. “That pretty much sealed the deal, and I was like, ‘If this is what being a musician is like, I’m in.’”
Sayer thinks she struggled with the idea of becoming a musician when she was younger because it seemed self indulgent. What she didn’t understand, she says, is that being a musician is all about being joyful and sharing that joy with other people.
The next group she’ll be sharing this experience with is a Sarasota audience at Glenridge Performing Arts Center Feb. 25, where she last performed in February 2017. This will be Sayer’s sixth or seventh time performing at the venue — there have been too many good memories to keep count.
She first performed at the center before her parents moved to Palmer Ranch about 10 years ago, and she has kept coming back because of the unique makeup and positivity of Sarasota audiences.
“You guys have a mix of people,” Sayer says. “There seems to be a broadness to it and with an older-skewed population there’s a sense of less pressure. People are out there to have fun and they’re open to the arts. And people have the time and interest and inclination.”
Sayer lives in chilly New York City, so she says she’s looking forward to bringing her distinctive jazz banjo sound to sunny Sarasota. Another aspect she’s most excited about is getting to play with local musicians — one of whom she’s never met.
“It’s a different fun — it keeps it fresh and new,” she says. “The whole thing about jazz is that you don’t know what’s going to happen next … and having different people and their spices in the soup — you never know what kind of soup you’re going to end up with.”