Music is not a competition….except sometimes

Nothing says fun and excitement like rearranging your bedroom/office/music room when they are all the same room because you can’t afford a house big enough to have those rooms separated without sacrificing the kitchen, dining and second music room in the process.  By a strange coincidence nothing really grinds my gears like thinking about how I can’t afford a house with those rooms as a consequence of spending all those dollar bills I blew thinking I was buying a winning lottery ticket.  Bummer.

But anyhooglbees, rearranging, cleaning, and going through an abundance of old stuff has been fantabulous.  I am truly impressed by my ability to throw material possessions away that I should have some sentimental attachment to, yet keep the most useless 99 cent trinkets that were given as gifts from my friends that either don’t feel I’m worthy of gifts valued above that one cent below one dollar threshold or they don’t have any money as a result of spending their money on lottery tickets and have been scraping by on that one time they actually got ten to fifteen dollars back as a result of playing.  But again I digress.

Very soon, one very lucky Goodwill store in Tallahassee will be the lucky recipient of my useless trinkets that are sure to make great gifts and re-gifts for years to come before eventually ending up on the shelves of Goodwill once again upon the realization that the item(s) are a complete waste of space with no real function except to maybe pass along the opportunity to some thrifty Sunday morning shopper always on the prowl for a good deal.

Of the many items that I was quick to categorize as useless waste of space one of them earned a spot on my new bookshelf as it just seemed to look right there.  That is the first place trophy I earned in Mt. View, Arkansas for winning the regional dulcimer competition there in 2005… my last dulcimer contest.  After seeing the pleasant way it caught the light and really brought out the color of everyone’s face in the family photo residing next to it I decided to search for some more of my old shiny objects that serve no real purpose other than unnecessarily inflating my ego and bringing out the shiny color of my family’s face.  It wasn’t long before I realized I had, in a spell of under sentimentality, thrown them all out.  Ribbon from winning the state competition, trophies from sitting in with various groups in ensemble competitions when I was in high school and traveling to folk festivals.  Even a nice engraved plaque from making the top five at nationals that looked more like a kid’s sectioned plate than it did something you’d win at a competition for playing dulcimer.  The thought of that one brings back memories.  I had been playing about 2 or 3 years at the time and was still terrified of being onstage and with good reason.  People stare at you.

I realized the only reason this one trophy had survived was because my mom, being the mom she is, demanded I not throw it out as I said I would and instead let her add it to her small pile of Aaron O’Rourke memorabilia.  So in that sense, this trophy just got lucky.

After reflecting a bit on what really prompted me to toss the small collection of awards I’ve received in the garbage I think I realized that while I was excited about winning (and how could I not be?  With a free dulcimer and cash involved it was pretty sweet!) it’s the kind of excitement that is over and done with… real quick.

For one thing I feel like what I played at these competitions were arrangements that were good specifically for where I was at musically at that time and that just happened to coincide with what a decent contest arrangement would be.  I feel like I have better technique now, maybe even more visually impressive.  I feel like I pull better tone than I did then.  And having said all that I don’t think I could possibly be any further away from playing “contest” arrangements of tunes.

The thing is, music is not a competition.  Instrumental competitions are however, and they do tend to involve people making sound on their instrument in an organized and impressive way.  The organized sound part means that yes…music is somehow involved… but it’s not necessarily the competition.

So now here’s the meat of what I’m getting at.  I never liked competitions even though I participated.  Many times I was giving into peer pressure.  No big deal.  I’ve done stuff way more shameful because of peer pressure that wouldn’t be appropriate to write for an all ages fan base (just joshing.  I was always a pretty good kid).  But now I feel like some part of me misses that terrified feeling of knowing I’m going to be judged and possibly told that I’m not as pleasing to listen to as someone else.  There might even be a few in the audience that despite my child-like, innocent face will still be praying to whoever may be at the top of the food chain in whatever monotheistic religion they happen to be a part of, for me to screw up.  But that ain’t going to happen.  I’m going out to Winfield this September for the national dulcimer competition and if I don’t win it won’t be because I screwed up.  No. It will be because I’m feeling a little rusty at contest playing and I’m probably just real crappy.  No biggie.

Posted in Competition, Dulcimer, Music | 1 Comment

What is this “mountain dulcimer” you speak of?

Productivity at the Aaron O’Rourke headquarters (aka my room) has been in high gear as of late.  This kind of inspiration to get life and music in order only happens ever so often.  Usually, just as another brutal summer in the Florida panhandle begins to put itself out of its misery and lets the rest of us get on with our lives.  In other words once a year.

Like usual just before a burst of creativity and motivation a good chunk of time was spent in my room hiding from the heat index on the other side of my window with the a/c turned up as high as it could go in a shameless display of how far I will go to be conscious of my energy consumption when my comfort is on the line.  I took this opportunity to feel bad about what a crappy citizen I am for it.  Then, I started thinking about dulcimers.  The past, present, future and the community that identifies themselves with this incredible and humble instrument.

The dulcimer community is a funny thing.  The instrument itself could be considered its own sub-genre of folk.  Interestingly, this sub-genre has created its own subculture revolving around this instrument.  A community of people that at times functions like a family…sometimes disgruntled and most of the time nurturing. At other times I’ve found the atmosphere of a dulcimer event to bear a striking resemblance to how I imagine a Star Trek convention complete with characters and enthusiasts eager to share and enjoy the company of others who have a similar obsession.  Running around with their funny ears that bare a slight resemblance to my own and yet somehow, in a spectacle of openness, fitting in.

I do feel compelled to admit that I have never attended nor do I believe I will have the privilege to attend any such fanfare anytime in my life.  In other words, I may be way off base with all that bit of business.

Let’s pretend for just a second that I am right which is highly unlikely given my lack of experience on the matter and the fact that my record on being right about random stuff is against me except where figure skating and the lyrics from the musical Sound of Music are concerned.  While I find the dulcimer community to be similar to how I imagine the average family as well as the average sci-fi franchise convention, I find one major difference.  In a family, it’s genetics that binds them together.  Hopefully in most cases that’s not the only thing (i.e. a home, memories, love, and all that jazz) but we can be sure that a family of blood relatives has something solid they can say they have in common and bonds them together.  Trekkies, and I hope I spelled that correctly, have Star Trek.  Anyone can define Star Trek.  It’s a show.  It wasn’t the characters individually that made it Star Trek but the sum of its parts.  William Shatner gets a lot of credit but really it wasn’t all him.  Priceline.com is all William but it’s no Star Trek regardless of how out of this world the bargain deals may be.  (That pun do anything for anyone?  It’s truly absurd how far out of my way I went to set that up….but I digress).

If you asked someone at a dulcimer retreat, camp, or festival what is it that binds the community together you might get some answers like, “love” or “music” or my personal favorite “it’s in the stars.”  People who give that answer usually overlap with the Star Trek crowd or they read their horoscope everyday and take it seriously.  But I think the majority of people would offer what would seem to be the straight forward answer, “the dulcimer!”

Such a simple answer but one only has to do a little digging to find a pretty big grey area to that.  Here’s a good follow up question, “What is a dulcimer?”

The answers to that question will be as varied as the people who play it (at risk of sounding cliche).  I haven’t heard one that has sounded irrelevant and not worth taking seriously.   However, the answers people give are generally a better indicator of how the person giving the answer relates to the instrument more than an accurate representation of what the dulcimer is and where it’s at in its development.  That’s all any individual can know.  Except for maybe the feds.  I bet they keep tabs on the dulcimer crowd.  The most satisfying answer to the question came from my friend and fellow music nerd Ken Bloom who said “dulcimers are hard to define but you know it when you see it.”

With dulcimers being built in different body styles, some braced like guitars, some not braced at all, some bowed with violin style bridges, some diatonic, some chromatic, and many somewhere in between I can see why Ken’s answer seemed the most fitting.  Still, I believe even if it’s something that we can’t define with words the dulcimer occupies a certain space in the musical universe that deserves to be acknowledged and to some degree understood.  This is my motivation for my next project and what I’ve been doing the ground work on for quite some time now.

I will be working on recording an album that will be aptly named, “The Dulcimer Project.”  This album will feature a different dulcimer on every track with song selections that span my repertoire and borrow from my most diverse influences and hopefully capturing in one cd a taste of where the instrument came from, where it is, and maybe just a little glimpse of where it’s going… unless the world ends in 2012.

Posted in Dulcimer, Music, Recording | Leave a comment

A Sincere lack of Masculine Insecurity

Like most young males pretending to be on the verge of adulthood it’s easy to find myself slightly embarrassed about my lack of alpha male-ism.  Coupled with the fact that my burning desire to pull tone from the acoustic guitar is far from in sync with me not being blessed with strong natural nails yielding frequent trips to the nail salon to get acrylic nails applied on one hand and to catch up on all the latest gossip with the regulars.  The aptly named “Nail Shop” here in Tallahassee boasts an all inclusive sign that let’s even the most masculine of fellows be slightly more ok with going and getting their nails did with the slogan, “complete nail care for ladies’ and gentlemen’s needs.”

Tonight I was in the presence of fine company over dinner when a topic close to my heart and dear to my childhood came up: The Sound of Music.  Almost everyday at Betton Hills Preparatory, the place where I spent many days during my fourth year here on the planet, we were graced with the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews singing “The Hills are Alive,” “Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss,” and all the others featuring the musical family dynamic of the Von Trapps.  I believe it was my celtic and old-time fiddle playing friend, Aisha, who got started on one line of lyrics only for me to intercept the phrase and take it into the end zone for the big climactic resolve.

While I was suffering the consequences from not being able to contain my enthusiasm I didn’t have to wait much longer for another topic I am slightly ashamed to have any knowledge…figure skating.

The evening continued on with fine food and drinks to which Irish music played by a few good friends was the perfect accompaniment.  I seemed to be relatively unscathed by my admittedly self invited attack on my masculine security and I think coming out at the other end made me realize something important.  That is, I may not (am definitely not) the most manly of dulcimer players and may at times feel the cruel judgment of friends after finding out I know more than they do about musicals, figure skating, and fake nails.  But, by jingo, the kind of security with my manliness I feel from all that makes me so much more manly than all those other little pansies out there compensating for their lack of security with a lack of sobriety.  Or the guys making a desperate attempt to impress a girl with all three chords they know on guitar.  I suppose if said guy gets the utmost of enjoyment from those three chords than perhaps he is my idol in some strange sense in that I admire that kind of simplistic and satisfied mentality with playing music.  But if he can’t pull the kind of tone articulation that makes every note jump out of the instrument and punch the listener in the gut than he needs to be told to man up and grow a set…and if he can’t he should go have them professionally put on it….I’m talking about nails that is.

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