Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Race to the Finish, Part Two

This is the second part to my previous post from April 5th titled A Race to the Finish, Part One. I ended that post by saying:
What does this all mean to the rest of us? To those of us who are not professional musicians, who do not put out CDs or book concerts or appear at festivals, who merely play at home for enjoyment and perhaps hope to find other kindred souls to learn from and to play with in pleasant settings? What does all this mean to those of us who seek in our music to find rejuvenation and intimacy, a life tonic to help balance the daily life onslaught of relentless racket and frantic rushing about?

Clearly this trend towards speed and volume is not something that only occurs in the world of mountain dulcimer players. How then has the average dulcimer player been affected by this musical movement towards faster speed, louder and 'bigger' playing?
Well, to find the answer we must look at the settings in which we learn and play traditional music nowadays...
In the 'old days' (say, before the folk revival of the 1940's) dulcimer players were mostly rural people living in close knit communities with extended family. It was not uncommon for various family members to play an instrument, and for people to go to community dances where local people played music to dance to. Anyone interested in learning music would seek out some local person whose music they admired and try to learn from them. Learning consisted of a lot of listening, and picking up tunes and songs bit by bit from those you listened to and watched. It was common for even good musicians to have a personal repertoire of only a few dozen tunes and songs that they liked to play and played well. Personal tunes they were known for.

If you read my post from February 25, 2009 entitled "What Happened?", you will understand some background of what I am getting at here.

Things have changed a great deal since the 'old days', and of course many of these musical changes are good and exciting. It's wonderful to be able to hear rare old field recordings of old-time musicians from long ago. It's great to be able to record something that you want to go home and learn later. And great to be able to learn about music in books and on the internet- a whole wonderful world of information is at our fingertips!
But how do we now learn to play our music? Well, we usually don't live in large extended families or close knit communities where many people play home made music in their daily lives anymore. Instead, we go to classes and workshops, and buy books and DVDs to learn our music. We listen to CDs, but find it hard to learn by ear from them since there is no live person playing it for us in person, slowly, knee to knee. Instead, we learn tunes and songs from TAB, sometimes without ever even hearing how a tune sounds. We learn the bones without the flesh.
We have no idea how to go about playing in various keys with other instruments such as fiddles, guitars, or banjos, yet we yearn to play music with others, such a very natural human desire.
So we form dulcimer-only clubs and meet at specific times to all play together. To prevent total pandemonium and enable the learning of more tunes, large books of TAB are distributed and that is what it played, in a large circle. Everyone plays the same notes from the book at the same time on the same instrument in the same key and the same tuning. It sort of has to be that way for such a large group of non-professionals to be able to play together successfully.
I notice that most tunes speed up a great deal while being played in large sessions- usually due to two or three 'lead' players who like to play fast and push the tunes ever faster. This tends to leave true beginners behind, feeling inadequate. Some people even say right out that they want to play the tunes fast and only twice through because that way many more tunes can be played during a session. They don't want to spend very much time on any one tune. Is this a goal, then, to play as many short fast tunes as possible? Where is there a chance then to learn from or savor a tune or song? Playing lots of tunes quickly is sort of like collecting vast reams of TAB- you can say you 'have' that song, or you 'did' that song....but can you really play the song with meaning and feeling? Is it coming from you or are you just playing fret numbers?

Naturally, there is a happy camaraderie involved with attending these large dulcimer jams or club meetings. A geographically isolated beginning dulcimer player would be lonely, bewildered, and discouraged without this club spirit of encouragement. I loved 'goin' to meetin' when I was starting out. It's a wonderful and supportive thing for when people live scattered about. Without dulcimer clubs and tab books I think maybe half the people now playing dulcimer would not have been able to start playing any music at all. In that sense it is very good.

Added to the clubs are dulcimer festivals and 'camps'- sort of like old-time music gatherings but mainly catering to dulcimer players wanting to be taught by professionals and wanting to meet new dulcimer friends. Some people go to the same camps and festivals over and over every year, like a vacation. Many festivals offer dulcimer workshops, and the camps can run from a day or a weekend to as long as a week or more, packed with classes and workshops. Both offer concerts as well, showcasing the exceptional talent of the hired instructors. In the evenings, there is usually plenty of feverish 'jamming' going on, where dulcimer players of all levels form large circles and play one tune after another. Most of the people leading these jams play pretty fast. The meek beginners usually remain on the outer fringes, content to gingerly pick out a few notes as they are able. They would be mortified if anyone heard them trying to play music or making a mistake. They've told me so many a time.
People go home loaded up with new books, CDs, recorded lessons, more TAB, and are happy.

Again, dulcimer clubs, festivals, camps, and workshops are a very good thing in that they now fill a terrible vacuum that was left behind when people stopped playing music as part of their daily lives with family and friends in their communities. When people scattered and moved away from families and home towns, and became Too Busy to play music. Now it takes a determined bit of planning and often some traveling to get together with anyone to play or learn music.

But the result of learning to play music in this type of setting is a double-edged sword. There is both good and not so good to it.

First, you have to spend money (sometimes hundreds of dollars) and travel long distances to attend these events. Naturally once you get there you want to try to cram in as much learning as you can in the very limited time you have. People rush from workshop to workshop (as I have done on numerous occasions) and by the end of the day their head is spinning. You stay up late to 'jam' and get up early to get to classes. I'm long past my twenties, and I don't know about you, but by the end of the week or weekend, I would often feel like it was an unreal dream.
Because of the investment of time and money and the limited time factor of the event, one can feel
rushed and desperate to get it all in before it's time to go home. Something that long ago was a delight to absorb slowly and intimately from person to person now from necessity in our frantic schedules has become more of a product, something consumed rather than absorbed.

The end result is also a sort of packaging of dulcimer playing into something that promotes playing fast and fancy, and that encourages playing in BIG all-dulcimer groups, in unison, generally encouraging one key, one playing style, and one tuning over others. This inevitably isolates dulcimer players from other mixed musicians, makes them dependent on each other to provide 'dulcimer safe' playing environments, and it makes it more difficult for a dulcimer novice to play with people who play other kinds of instruments, in various keys. I feel a little sad when I see how isolated beginner dulcimer players can become from other music players who enjoy mixed sessions. I have heard some dulcimer players say that they feel the rest of the music playing world is just not open to them. And even though it's not really true, dulcimer players now have a reputation for not being able to play in anything but the key of D. Indeed, I know several who can't play in any key other than D even though they've been playing for many years more than I have. Yikes.

At first I never thought much about all this- about the modern ways of learning of our music from books and CDs and workshops and clubs and TAB and classes and internet forums (and blogs!). I'm still pretty busy learning the dulcimer myself, and often utilizing these very methods myself.

But as I look back now over my own limited experiences and see them from the standpoint of having myself been a total beginner not that very long ago, I realize that of all the musical learning experiences in my journey so far, the moments and realizations that were most intense and profound were not learned through those methods. Rather they were quiet slow small moments of personal musical sharing and realizations.
Perhaps I happened upon a beginner fiddler sitting alone under a tree scratching out a tune at some festival, and I stopped to play for just a minute with them- and wound up figuring out something amazing and simple in trying to play with them, something that I had never thought of before. In trying to solve a problem on my own, I learned in a meaningful way...even if I couldn't solve the problem! Perhaps I played a few tunes with someone who was just learning banjo, with a very old or very young player, and they gave me some fascinating story that forever effected the way I think about music for myself. Perhaps I heard some drones in a concertina being played by someone on a street corner, drones that I recognized in my own playing and thus learned to hear the interval of a particular tuning. Perhaps I made someone in a nursing home experience happy memories when I went to play for my mother there as she was failing, or perhaps I said something silly about music that really impressed my 9 year old banjo student. And perhaps it was just these small moments of wonder that made me feel like the best musician in the whole wide world.

When I think about it, all the most memorable and enriching learning experiences in my life, even aside from music, have been during quiet moments of listening or reflection or experimentation, or through non-rushed personal interaction with another person or with my surroundings. I think of music as a living thing- it needs to be lovingly nourished, and it needs to breathe.
How will you grow and nurture your music?


  1. Beautifully said, Lisa.

    Like you, most of my memorable dulcimer moments have been the quiet times. Picking out Frere Jacues with a four-year old. Playing in hospitals and nursing homes. Sitting in the park and playing fr myself but watching people's reactions to "that strange instrument." Not the hurly burly rush rush rush of a mega jam or a festival class.

    The quiet spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves. Enjoy the moments.

  2. Huh, I guess there are some benefits, then, to starting to learn to play the dulcimer while being a contemplative monk-in-training. We're always supposed to approach what we do without haste ("in a recollected manner"is what the Rule says). It also means that I have plenty of chant music to transpose over to the dulcimer if I run out of TABs.


  3. With every blog entry of yours that I read (and, I am reading them s l o w l y !), I am more and more convinced that we were sisters, separated at birth.
    We may never have the opportunity to play our dulcimers together, but you and I think and write and live along the same lines...or, at least, close enough to harmonize.
    I agree with every word written here. Thank you for stating it so well...once again.