“If you can count to ten, you can play this instrument.” I heard the words many times, as my father-in-law attempted to sell the wooden four-stringed box. They were indeed, true. The mountain dulcimer, with its single melody string and a trio of relatively-tuned drone strings beside it, was an extremely easy instrument to master. Well, perhaps not to master. There are many talented instrumentalists who take years to become virtuosi of the dulcimer.
How odd, you might say. I thought your father-in-law said that it was as easy as counting to ten. Ah! You see, there is a slight difference of opinion regarding this ancient folk instrument. In its original form, the frets, which determine the intonation (tuning) when the string is depressed to the fingerboard, only extended below the one melody string. Since that time, the design has changed in this one respect; the frets extend across the entire fingerboard under all the strings. While the old-time dulcimer players insist that only the one melody string is to be fretted and the others left open to be strummed as drone accompaniments, many players see the frets under all the strings and assume that they all must be depressed, as with a guitar or banjo. When the original method is employed, it is just as easy as counting to ten. It takes a bit more practice and knowledge of the instrument to use the other method.
I will do nothing to settle the argument tonight. I will, however, tell you of a customer who carried one of these beautiful folk instruments into my store the other day. She is a musician herself, a trained pianist and a vocalist. When she and her husband purchased the pricey instrument a couple of years ago, she had the best intentions. She bought books, and videos, and accessories, fully expecting that she would be able to play this fine walnut instrument. On this more recent day, she was declaring failure. She will never play the dulcimer. I mentioned the sentiments I had heard vocalized by my late father-in-law over the years. She scoffed at the idea, even as I, completely untrained, began to strum the first strains of “Amazing Grace”, fretting the melody and strumming the drone strings. “Well, sure! I could do that! That’s not playing.” She went on to talk about the various tunings and the random chord patterns, as she bemoaned her inability to play the beautiful thing.
The very name of this simple instrument tells a story in itself. From the Latin “dulce” (sweet) and “melos” (song), meaning “sweet music”, the dulcimer can be a remarkably versatile accompaniment to other instruments and to voices. Even in its simplest usage, the music it produces is haunting and lies sweetly on the ears. I would expect nothing but sweetness from this fine example of the luthier’s art. Alas, its former owner would dispute the wisdom of that expectation. She is left with a bitter taste in her mouth from the wasted hours of practice and the frustration of her perceived failure.
I will spend but a moment on my thoughts regarding the truth to be learned here. I wonder often if we don’t make life much too difficult. Before us, we all have days with the same number of hours. There are tasks set before each of us which must be accomplished. In my experience, we are almost always equal to the task, but we often handicap ourselves with a poor attitude, and by procrastination. I have also noted that we frequently make the job before us harder than it needs to be, decrying those who would give valuable help and despising wise advice. Sometimes, the simplest answer to our problems is the last solution we will consider. I don’t claim to have learned the lesson myself, simply to have observed the situation again and again. I am, after all, a slow learner, requiring repetition to grasp the simple concepts many others adopt the first time they are presented with them.
I sat with the dulcimer for a moment tonight and strummed out the haunting melody of the ancient plainsong carol “Of The Father’s Love Begotten”. It wasn’t a masterful performance, neither was it fit for consumption by any other ears but my own. That said, I have a differing feeling toward this dulcimer than its former owner does. To my mind, it is indeed a source of sweet music and a joy to play.
And, I only needed to count to ten to be able to play it.
“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honor; duty; mercy; hope.”
(Winston Churchill~English orator and Prime Minister~1874-1965)
“It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones, after all.”
(Laura Ingalls Wilder~American author~1867-1957)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.