Monday, August 30, 2010

Why is it taking so LONG for me to strum well?!

When I was just beginning to play the banjo, a girlfriend and I attended a three day banjo workshop taught by Dwight Diller of West Virginia- a master clawhammer banjo player. We were both rank beginners. After the first day, I said to my friend “I just HATE that I sound like such an amateur, I HATE sounding like a total beginner. I wish I could play like Dwight!”. My wise friend said “Well
but don’t we sound like we are supposed to sound for having played just a few weeks? -We probably sound just like Dwight did when he had been playing for three weeks.” A simple concept, but it hit home for me... I saw that I should appreciate each stage of playing I am in at the moment, no matter how humble my beginner skills.

Strumming confidently on your dulcimer typically will takes months of playing. Strumming really well takes years. Don't give it a second thought when you still feel awkward after a few weeks. That's totally normal. Beginners are supposed to sound like beginners. I've been a beginner many times on various instruments or whenever I try to learn a new style. Embrace your's like the beginning phase of a great romance! Don't bang your head in frustration and feel inadequate ...rather enjoy the sweet rosy flush of new discovery.

I used to play mountain dulcimer in chord/flatpicking style, and I was pretty good at it- sounded very nice and I felt comfortable picking that way. I also had a little experience playing both mandolin and banjo.
But when I decided I wanted to start playing in traditional noter and drone style, I had to start right back at Square One again. It was a totally new thing for my right hand, and suddenly I was a brand new beginner all over again. Ackk!! The strumming was a whole different thing from all my other experiences, and I sounded very awkward, rhythm-wise. I stumbled constantly, felt embarrassed, and could not keep up or keep steady. All this while I was able to play banjo rhythm confidently!

It took me about 3 months to even get 'comfortable' on a basic level with my dulcimer strumming rhythm. Another several months to actually get decent and to be able to play at a fairly normal speed. About 3 years from starting that endeavor, I was able to sound 'good' -with a solid bounce and crisp syncopation, and I could play fairly fast. There are still some fiddle sessions these days that are simply too fast for me to keep up with. That's ok with me though, I don't feel driven to do everything well.

Now I have been learning to play the bowed psaltery for the past 10 months...and I'm starting from Square One as an awkward beginner all over again! But now I figure that learning is where much of the fun really lies. It's the journey, not the destination. It's the present moment that is most precious.

I have taught myself to enjoy the journey and the struggle more, so that I don't have to worry about the destination as much. The funny thing is, no matter how 'good' we get, our destination or ultimate goals seem to always remain just out of reach anyway, like a carrot on a stick. Meanwhile the journey, the moment, is right here in our hand to bring us delight if we only allow it to. Enjoy the romance of being a beginner, always learning and discovering ...and yes struggling too. Everything else will follow naturally in its proper time.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." -John Lennon


  1. this is very nicely put and so recognizable. I picked up the violin last year (after much hesitation) and I really enjoy 'the learning curve' !

  2. Thanks for this post. It is encouraging and wise - I have been so discouraged trying to teach myself from books and videos. Now, back to that dulcimer!!!

  3. The value of strumming well, giving the dulcimer its healthy heartbeat, is so important. I took a fine workshop with Jerry Rockwell on strumming a few weeks back and am glad I did!

    Another great post, Strumelia!

  4. Have you ever heard the myth of Sisyphus?

    In mythology, Sisyphus upset the gods, and was condemned to spend eternity rolling a giant rock up a hill. Every time he almost made it to the top, the weight of the rock would overcome him and it would slip and roll back down to the bottom where he would have to start over again.

    Albert Camus, the French philosopher, argued in his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus" that Sisyphus was happy. He essentially said that in all of eternity, Sisyphus had to find some happiness in the act and labor of pushing the rock. He knew he would never get the rock to the top of the hill, so he had to find joy in the simple act of pushing it. We are all Sisyphus; we all want to be somewhere we aren't. We just have to find joy in the act of trying to get there.

    Thanks for another great post!

  5. So true, Strumelia; thanks for the link! I wonder when the day will come when I no longer feel like a beginner in EVERY SINGLE capacity. (True, LESS of a beginner, but a beginner all the same.) -- And yet, you're right, there is so much fun in the learning, that on the other hand, maybe I should hope to always feel like a beginner. Never really satisfied, are we?! -- Elaine