A Tale of Two Dulcimers

The truth I have dreaded sharing, and put off as long as possible:

Have you ever done the right thing for the right reason, then lived to regret it? Twice? This is what happened to me, when I finally acquired the beautiful, walnut dulcimer of my dreams. Let me tell you what happened at Christmas 2011.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was everything I had always hoped for; it was nothing I had ever wanted. It was the fulfillment of a dream; it was the beginning of a nightmare. I was fretful, and fretting. But not in a good way.

The dream began when I was sixteen. That was the summer that my parents decided to send me off to camp for two weeks. Unfortunately, that beautiful camp in the mountain resort town included two afternoons per week of free time, time when we could read, tackle dirty clothes that we could hand wash and hang out the window to dry (rather than spending excess money and time at the laundromat), nap, or mosey down into town to play tourist.

Tourist traps abounded, but my favorite was the mountain dulcimer shop, where, for the first time, I was introduced to a stringed instrument up close and personal. As a fledgling piano player, I had always envied people who could play more portable instruments, while at the same time, worrying that I might never be smart enough to master any of these myself.

I am astonished now that I didn’t just go ahead and buy myself a dulcimer right then. For in the summer of 1984, the price of a beautiful-sounding instrument was about a third of what my husband and I ended up paying three decades later. I had the money in hand. Knowing how hard my parents had scrimped and saved to give me that money, I took the message, “Spend it wisely, and don’t waste it,” to camp. If I bought the dulcimer then, I would have to scrimp and save for the rest of the trip. Having lived a lifetime of scrimping and saving, I had no desire to continue to process at camp, even for the long-term gain of an instrument I might later (or possibly sooner) come to love.

This was the first bad decision, and though I regretted it somewhat initially, it didn’t exactly ruin my life. Besides which, I had already begun building, albeit accidentally, a dismal foundation of depressing musical failure through the acquisition of a couple of instruments that just didn’t work out. Neither of these instruments had come with instructors or even training manuals, and at the time, I had not yet come to the lovely conclusion that music was to be enjoyed, not executed with perfect precision in the very beginning. At the time, six different unrelated piano teachers (and several vocal instructors) had somehow either taught or reinforced the musically-fatal idea that there was only one way to learn music: that was in a neat, orderly, linear fashion, with as few mistakes as possible. It was a joyless way to learn music, which, ironically, is itself the very language of joy.

If I could have known years ago that the world would indeed not end if I should decide to let my fingers wander randomly over my instruments, if – which was much worse – I should dare to play a tune that was not a tune at all, I could learn something and have fun at the same time, that would have made all the difference.

When, in my late 30’s and early 40’s I began to play whatever melodies dropped by on the piano or harp, I started the joyous-though-still-nerve-wracking process of creating original compositions I could never have played otherwise.

The dulcimer was the perfect instrument for this kind of musical approach, having both a logical, fretted string layout, only four strings to tune, and a gentle, restful sound. In fact, the name “dulcimer” is rooted in the Latin word for sweet, and it truly lives up to its name. I think it may be one of the few musical instruments that is completely foolproof. On more than one occasion, either my husband or our youngest daughter, neither of whom received much musical instruction in their lives, would grab the dulcimer and simply start strumming with no apparent design or purpose, only to produce some very soothing sounds that I loved hearing.

So long as the dulcimer has been properly constructed, it is a total joy. But I will tell you more about that later.

To make a short story long, I was more than happy to take full advantage when a dulcimer I had been wanting finally came my way by practicing for up to an hour at a time on it. Now, I don’t want anyone to believe that I played with any great skill, hour-long-practice sessions notwithstanding. I WASN’T TERRIBLY GOOD. The point is that I could indulge in a healthy musical activity for up to an hour at a time without sharing musical regrets with any of my listeners.


Now that my collection of musical instruments that I either play badly or not at all has grown into the teens, I can see how my husband would have been reluctant to start down the slippery slope of supplying my ever-hungry demand for more musical novelty. At the time I already had two folk harps, a harmonica, a piano, a keyboard, a psaltery, a melodica, a kalimba, and a small assortment of flute recorders. As if these were not enough, any and every single time my family innocently dropped into the music store for a legitimate purchase, I invariably would fall into infatuated fantasies with new instruments, whose endless praises my patient family would endure for months on end. Until the next trip.

Can you see how my husband might not have been as thrilled as I was at the idea of adding a new instrument to our already crowded house?

But I wanted more. Which one of the neighborhood big box stores was more than happy to provide: for a little while, they carried a line of starter instruments in a variety of styles at rock-bottom prices, displayed prominently close to checkouts. After we had completed our grocery purchases, to get back out to the car, we had to walk past huge displays of little silly instruments. AND DULCIMERS.

Until that time, I had had no idea that my teenaged dream of owning and playing a dulcimer had not quite died, just gone underground to spread a deep, well-watered root system, which was just waiting to burst through the surface of my consciousness, where it grew to an all-encompassing hunger that only continued to grow every time we went to the store.

Over the course of the next few months, in a way more real and powerful than I could ever have imagined, I learned the true definition of lust. At least as far as musical instruments were concerned. How I drooled over those dulcimers at the store, then pined for them once we left. They constantly filled both my mind and my conversation.

When my husband had had enough of this treatment, urged on by some of the kids, he broke down and bought the dulcimer.

Ecstatic is a weak word for what I was feeling right about then. Starting to gently tune right away, I was playing simple tunes almost immediately. On the third day of possession, the kids and I loaded up the car and trekked right down to the nursing home, where I joyfully showed off my newest musical love, and played a couple of songs on it. Our friends there, now used to my musical whimsies, received me and my lovely “Dulcinea” very well.
Fast forward a few years, a couple of moves, and a new dulcimer later. After all this time, my husband had upgraded me to the dulcimer of my dreams, and I was raring to go.

Things could only get better from here, right? Though my first dulcimer, “Dulcinea” had been a joy, she had a fret toward the bottom that had not been properly placed, creating dissonant ringtones whenever I had to maneuver certain chord arrangements. She was also small, therefore not so resonant. The new dulcimer, “Johanna Cherry Blossom”, a beautiful, full-sized dream in walnut, was perfectly fretted, had lovely little heart cut-outs, and came with a custom carrying case so that I could finally fulfill my musical dreams of dulcimer grandeur by dragging her all over creation, making beautiful, welcome music for everyone in my path. Well, everyone in hospital rooms, and nursing homes. Just as soon as I could get a little practice in.

I had barely finished cataloguing all the good news before the bad news showed up in all capital letters: NOW THAT I HAD THE DULCIMER OF MY DREAMS, I NO LONGER HAD THE ABILITY TO PLAY IT.

Distractions, other commitments, and a deteriorating diet, combined with a depression that made sleep more attractive than anything, sapped my practice, until when my husband finally bought me the dulcimer of my dreams for Christmas, I found that my fingertips squawked in protest at the constant bite of the strings. Furthermore, if I didn’t want painful tendons for hours or days later, practice time was limited to 4-5 minutes at a time, once or twice a week. My musical dream was dying before it could finally spread its wings and fly.

I never imagined this outcome. It slipped in quietly, without fanfare.
Most of us have myriad individual ways of measuring health. In my middle years, one of mine is now how long I can play music without pain. The times have been getting shorter.

I know solutions are out there, and I also know that I am not consistently doing everything I know to do.

This has been a painful article to write. Days after I told myself I would get started, my computer died, and stayed caput for the better part of a year. Even after it was restored, I have dreaded finishing this.

Nevertheless, since I have heard that if nothing else, we can always serve as a bad example, I now share my story with you. Feel free to learn from my mistakes instead of repeating them.


September 17, 2016


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