It’s the third and last early morning of Stephen’s Three Day workshop this year in his hometown. As I wake up, I wonder how in the world he will find even more topics to fill my head than he already has. I busy myself with the morning routine of farm life: getting dressed, feeding the animals, checking the seeds and plants for the quickly coming spring. But spring is barely on my mind. For just these three days, I’m only going through the motions with My Other Life, the one that seems only peripheral now to playing music. It’s because my mind is full of mountain dulcimer wonder: the emerging growth of the countless seeds of all kinds that Stephen has planted over the last two days in the minds of the students in his workshop.
Imagine thinking that you’re walking into a fast food restaurant, but, instead, you’re served a 14 course gourmet meal by a five star chef. Or, imagine you need a lamp to bring light to your very dark barn, but the manager at the hardware store hands you a 500 watt bulb and shows you how nicely it will fit into what you thought was a 60 watt socket on your lamp. Voila; your world is changed. That’s what taking a workshop with Stephen is like.
I take some useful learning skills of my own to any classes and workshops I attend. In a former life I was an educator of new teachers who needed to know how students learn most effectively. In other words, I know what works for most students, and the kinds of challenges that teachers face in the classroom. A professional lifetime of being an teacher (in a non-music field), observing other educators and studying teaching and learning means I know how to define excellent teaching in a learning milieu. No matter how many times I’ve attended his workshops, I always leave with the same sense of wonder and awe and feeling that I am perhaps the luckiest music student ever. Think about it: this past weekend, twelve of us got to be able to sit in the classroom of a person widely acknowledged as the best mountain dulcimer musician in the world, who also has a passion for teaching and a sensitivity to students that seems to equal his passion for music and learning. That is a rare combo; take my word for it.
It is a most delightful irony that the man who literally wrote the mountain dulcimer world’s most beloved playbook, “Join the Jam”, spends very little time teaching us how to read the sheet music in his book. Instead, he spends almost every minute of our time together seducing us into believing we are all musicians in the making. We walk out each day standing a little taller, with a newfound sense of confidence that no challenge, no jam, no group, no song is going to be too much for us, no matter how lowly our skills or how many secret self-doubts we might have in our hidden baggage. One fellow student, a very advanced mountain dulcimer player who also teaches piano for a living, told me that she had a whole new world open to her because of the workshop, and learned many ideas for helping her own students. She wanted, she said, to apply what he taught us to get even better at how she approaches music. Another fellow student who was brand new to the dulcimer told me she was so excited to be a part of this; she was having the time of her life.
One of Stephen’s many gifts to us is giving us his full-blown permission to not play the “Join the Jam” tab as it is written. Music, he says, is a living tradition. Tab, he insists, is not a destination, but a point of departure. Stephen spends much time teaching the foundation for approaching any song to play it, no matter how complex, and shares many, many techniques to make it your own. Stephen doesn’t just give you a fish; he teaches you how to fish.
I write this blog entry as an invitation to everyone: to those who have ever considered playing the mountain dulcimer to those who—like me once—believe they could never play a musical instrument, yet have a nagging sense of something wonderful missing in their lives. Pick up a mountain dulcimer and make your way first to a Stephen Seifert lesson or workshop before you do one more thing. If you would like a lesson via Skype, or if you can take a lesson or workshop in the Nashville area, do it. You’ll have the time of your life. Go to stephenseifert.com to learn more, and check his calendar to see when he may be teaching in your area.