Another of Stephen’s workshops—this time at the foot of the Smokies in Townsend, Tennessee at Mike and Connie’s Wood-n-Strings Dulcimer Shop— was so intensive that our Mary Lawrence decided to throw an end-of-workshop party for all participants. Stephen, Heather, Mike and Connie and their family joined us to blow off a little steam and have some fun. We all gathered at the gorgeous back porch of her little place on the river for hot dogs and potluck to marvel at both what we learned in the workshop and what we were all grateful for: a master teacher and the Clemmers, who are always so warm and friendly to all of us. We met some amazing players who were serious jammers and, after our dinner, we had a ball playing old and new songs on the porch. Our new friends meet regularly on Monday nights here in Townsend and invited all of us to come back soon. We can’t wait to take them up on their invitation. Enjoy the short video below that brings back a very happy time!
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 a 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 his full 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.
What is your ideal end-of-summer get away? Mine involves a scenic setting, good company, and lots of dulcimer music. Every year, I look forward to Larry and Elaine Conger’s Dulcimer Duet Retreat at the end of August along with about 50 other dulcimer players from all over the United States.
What is a Duet Retreat, you may ask —if you were not amongst the dozen Nashville GODC members who were there this year. It’s simple. Larry and Elaine create wonderful duet arrangements and teach us how to play them at a lakeside venue. From fiddle tunes to spirituals to blues, songs we know and songs that are new to us—all sound better when played in two parts. The arrangements are geared for the intermediate level player, but the Congers do not turn anyone away. Even if you don’t feel your have intermediate level skills, you can always just pluck the melody line and keep up with the group. But, if you pay attention, you will come away with a better understanding of how to play chord melody style with smooth transitions between chords using the finger shapes that Larry and Elaine teach.
The weekend began by diving right into the songbook which every one receives (with an optional demo CD of the songs). Then Larry and Elaine gave a mini concert. It is hard to believe Elaine never played the dulcimer before she met Larry. Of course, she is very musically gifted with a voice like an angel. But now she also plays bass dulcimer like a boss! Larry seemed to enjoy segueing from one song to another without telling Elaine which song he planned to play next. Sure enough, within a couple of notes she caught the tune and was plucking out a cool bass line.
Saturday was a full day of lessons, punctuated by meals and snacks and coffee breaks. The most anticipated part of the weekend occurs on Saturday night, when the participants play for each other. I know I enjoy this part of the retreat immensely, and it was gratifying to hear that Larry and Elaine also enjoy listening to us amateurs play. Having the largest group of players, the Nashville Dulcimer Ensemble always commands the last spot of the evening. This year we chose to play two of Tull Glazener's arrangements: Packington’s Pound and The Road To Boston. We were also treated to a solo by our own Tricia Hackett. She performed a medley of country hits which Larry had arranged in a beautiful fingerpicked style.
One of the things I appreciate the most about such retreats, is the opportunity to just sit and chat with the players we may see at the monthly club meetings but don’t know well. This is how I first met and got to know Mary Lawrence, Lela, Georgia, and Shan. And now that Shan has retired from playing, I am honored to be included in their quartet, infamously known as the G-strings (G for geriatric, of course.) We performed Appalachian Round based on a duet arrangement by Heidi Muller and Simple Gifts arranged for four dulcimers by Larry and recently published on his Patreon site.
Previous years the Dulcimer Dulcimer Retreat was held held at Tennessee state parks. But since those lodges are under repair, this year the Congers moved the event to Lake Barkley in Kentucky. This is a beautiful rustic facility just 90 minutes from Nashville. Although we all arrived on Friday not quite knowing what to expect, by the end of the weekend we were glad to hear that next year’s event will be held in the same place, August 23-24, 2018. Hope to see you there!
Where have you been with your dulcimer lately? We would love to hear about your dulcimer adventures. Let’s make this a regular “blog” for everyone to contribute. Send your update to Stephanie or to Linda and we'll publish it here.