Thursday, September 17, 2009

Am I not good enough? Am I too old?

ballad singer and banjo player Dellie Norton.

I often hear beginner mountain dulcimer players asking "Am I too old to learn to play the dulcimer? I don't have any natural talent for playing music! I've never played music before, it seems like so much to learn, and I'll never be good enough, so why bother?" Whenever I hear this question, I think Well, ok, say for example you are 75 now. You can either start playing and in three years you'll be a 78 year old who plays the dulcimer, OR, you can not make the effort at all and in three years you'll be a 78 year old who doesn't play the dulcimer. Um...I know which path I would choose!

Remember this: very few people who play instruments ever become good enough to be 'professional musicians'... But it is just as important and rewarding to play a simple melody that brings a smile to someone you love, or just to yourself.
Our society has for too long fostered the notion that only 'real' musicians should make music, and that they should do it up on a stage while the rest of us pay to sit and listen and buy CDs. Making music is just too much FUN to restrict to only a chosen few! In past generations, music making was a natural part of everyday life, and most communities and families had some sort of home made music going on- singing while they worked, playing simple tunes in the evening at home, or at community dances and picnics, at church and at school. If someone hit a wrong note or didn't sound perfect, they just carried on with the tune. People made their own music instead of buying it.

Music is a tonic that brings joy to all it caresses. And the mountain dulcimer is arguably the very easiest musical instrument of all to make heavenly sounds on right from the first moment you play- even just strumming across the open strings creates a celestial chorus. How can you beat that? We don't have to set ourselves the lofty goal of becoming a highly skilled player. Such a goal has prevented countless good people from ever starting to play at sad! They see themselves as untalented failures even before they play a single note. To you I say: you are allowed to leave those kinds of goals and tasks to the young and ambitious if you like. Instead, why not set yourself free by making your own goal simple, enjoyable, and more realistic for yourself?- a goal of just playing a very simple tune or two for your own enjoyment. Personally, I admit to you that I have set my own musical goals to be less lofty over time, and am much the happier for it! I have stopped beating myself up for what I cannot do, and am more pleased in what I can do. That doesn't mean I have stopped trying to improve my playing- it just means I now refuse to feel inadequate about my playing limits and I try hard to no longer compare myself to better players and feel bad about it.

Life is too short to feel you can't or shouldn't attempt to learn something or do something new just for fun. Life is too short to keep thinking you are not good enough, or to end up wondering wistfully what it would have been like to play a simple tune on a simple instrument.
It's high time we all take back our right to enjoy
playing simple home made music for ourselves. Even as brand new beginners, we are... 'good enough'.

What are you waiting for?


  1. Well put. I have played piano for many years and became interested in the mountain dulcimer in 2004 at the age of 74. I play mostly for myself but will play at open stage/mike and at rest/retirement homes.I don't consider myself an accomplished player but so far, no one has complained or thrown anything. could I get permission to copy your post and give it to anyone who says they are too old?

  2. Sure you can- please be sure to include my name as the author, and this website URL as source location. :)

    Keep showing them how to enjoy life!

  3. Strumelia said
    "...I now refuse to feel inadequate about my playing limits and I no longer compare myself to better players and feel bad about it."

    There are no "better" players... just "other players".

    Nice article Lisa; as always.

  4. Strumelia,
    Thought that I would reply to this.
    When I was 60 yrs old, we were on a vacation. I happened to walk by a group of people playing their instruments. One was a dulcimer. I was amazed at the sound that was coming from it. I waited until they were thru playing and questioned the dulcimer with a thousand questions. He let me strum the ducimer and then used the noter. I was hooked. Went out and bought me one.
    Folk music is my choice of music, but I enjoy listening to different types. Always something there to learn.
    Now I am 64 yrs old. Not the best player. can not read music, don not have an ear for music. (Thank God for tab). I listen to how a song is played and then I start playing. After many hours I finally start to get the song right. That is when I smile.
    No I don't think a person is ever to old to play a music instrument. The dulcimer just makes and ol' dummy like me look good.

  5. Vearl thank you for telling your inspiring story. :)

    And Ken, of course you are right about no 'better' players.

  6. This is a really wise article. One of those that it wouldn't hurt to read every year on your birthday.

  7. Amen, Sister Strumelia, you're preaching the truth; to those who have ears, let them hear!

    I enjoy listening to lots of different kinds of music, take great pleasure in it. BUT (And it's a big BUT!) there are some itches that can only be scratched by doing a thing yourself; making your own music scratches one of those kinds of itches.

    Great post, Lisa!

  8. Actually playing the dulcimer will make you younger--you'll get out more, get a little exercise carrying it around, flex your big and fine motor skills--take more care with your appearance because you'll be out and about more meeting new folks.
    Look at Lisa--she's got younger every day since she began playing dulcimer. :)

  9. Oh Mary you are too kind!
    I credit my music playing, my bicycle riding, and my wonderful loving husband with keeping me young. :D

  10. Thanks for this article. I turned 68 on Oct. 30. I listen to lots of old time, bluegrass, and folk music while carving realistic birds (my "occupation" since retiring). Unfortuantely my dulcimer (a McSpadden) has been mostly just been hanging on the wall. I always think about taking it down and playing it some, but rarely do because "I am not very good" at it. Thanks to this article, I took it down off the wall, tuned it up and played "Holy Manna." I think I try some others.

    Bob Wasmer
    Nampa, Idaho

  11. Bob, I am so glad you wrote that. Good for you!
    None of us needs to 'be very good at' playing music- it's far more important to just experience the joy of playing some pretty notes and expressing something from within yourself. :)

    Thank you for letting us know what you did.

  12. Thank you for this wonderful article! I have struggled so much with this issue with playing the (classical) violin. It was getting ridiculous. I find myself gravitating more toward playing the mountain dulcimer these days and moving away from violin. The dulcimer is just so much more peaceful and the expecations are more fluid. Like you say, I am pleased in what I CAN do on the dulcimer (and not just disappointed in what I CAN'T do, as I am with the violin). I hope to play the mountain dulcimer as long as I'm on this Earth ...

  13. Hello Strumelia, I am 60 yrs old and a brand new Dulcimer player (about 3 weeks now)and your videos and blog are a God send for me, Thank you so much for your time and dedication to your music and helping others.
    Take Care and God Bless ... Rex

  14. Your message is SO important. It should broadcast from the highest mountain. I'm not a stranger to music, but I started over in earnest at age 66 after 7 angioplasties and a burst appendix in a 3-year span. I took up the clarinet and sax and now play in 2 community bands and a trio with my teacher another student of his. We play at nursing homes and anywhere else we can. I'm now 72 and NO MORE VISITS TO THE HOSPITAL since I started playing music. I've since added banjo, harmonica and soon-to-be dulcimer. Your blog and videos are super!! Thanks.

  15. Awesome, inspirational post. Very well expressed. My feeling along these lines is that there is something very special about the sound YOU are coaxing from your instrument, whatever it is, even if you are the only one that hears it. Even if it's not the right note sometimes. But there is an indescribably positive feeling when you think, 'I'm pretty sure that note is next..." AND IT IS...! And you feel the harmony and sympathetic vibration of what you expected. That is what it's all about for me.
    Very nice blog, thank you for all the knowledge, enthusiasm, and inspiration you have contributed. I for one have learned so much.

  16. Thanks for this post! I bought a dulcimer (renouncing my intention to try the autoharp..) because I read that it was really easy. Trying to learn it on my own (not many players - never mind teachers - in Scotland, it seems, or they are all far from me) I am not progressing at all. I have decided to stop using lack of a teacher AND age as an excuse and look at all the resources available on FOTMD.

  17. At 58 years old I set a goal to learn how to play an instrument. Having seen a volunteer play a dulcimer at the assisted living facility where I was the administrator, I found my instrument and hired her to give me private lessons.

    After nearly two years, I am lousy, but I love playing and love my Dulcimer. Ari Goldman took up the cello late in life and wrote a book, The Late Starters Orchestra. He wrote that the part of the brain that is able to learn an instrument at an early age disappears later on in life. The brain, however, is able to compensate for that deficiency.

    I am compensating and determined!!!

  18. You are all an inspiration, and it's good to hear from others who are starting on the mountain dulcimer later in life.. After some research, I just ordered a mountain dulcimer to be made. This kind of instrument is new to me, but the kind of music I enjoy most can be played well on a dulcimer. Looking forward to that getting that feeling that "dignature" describes, and I think I'll, enjoy the challenge of learning, plus the apparent, relevant ergonomic ease of such a lovely instrument!

  19. It's inspiring to hear from others who are also embarking on this path a little later in life. After some research, I just placed order for a mountain dulcimer to be made. Looking forward to the same joy that "Dignature" and others describe, getting to that so-called "zone" of being pleasantly immersed in a mildly challenging and beautiful, enjoyable activity. I'm sure I'll have lots of questions in a few weeks, and I look forward to learning from others.

  20. Came across this picture and immediately thought of this post's thread:

  21. I'd sort of given up on ever playing an instrument. I stumbled across my copy of The Dulcimer Book a few months ago and was reminded of how much fun I had with the kit dulcimer I made, back in the day. I found a used Dulcimer Factory dulcimer locally and I have a better quality dulcimer on lay away. I hack around with it and try to make fun my highest priority.

    I saw an interview with Michelle Shocked once and she said something that I think is important. She said "Music is too important to be left to professionals." If you are a beginner dulcimer player at 66 (like I am), that's a great thing! There aren't a lot of things left that I can be a rank beginner at!