Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Does Fall Mean To You?

Not long ago, a Michigan friend had written to me about her recent doings -- a combination of actively enjoying autumn's beauty with doing chores which must be completed before the onset of winter.  That's what fall is to her: a period of specific activities tailored to the season.

For a kid who grows up in Florida, fall is merely academic: pretty much just a designation on the calendar.  "Fall" means that school is in full swing; "fall" is the time of year when Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving occur; "fall" happens to mean football season (in Florida, we also have spring football).  When I was growing up, most of my friends were also native Floridians; I can't think of more than a tiny minority of kids who'd been born in a place other than Florida.  If they had been, they'd probably moved to Florida before "fall" had made much of an impression.  When we started getting interested in fashion, we noticed that "fall colors" were rust and gold and orange and brown, though we had no idea why.  I remember being a little confused by the old song "Autumn Leaves," and being unsure as to what crayons to use when coloring pictures designated as autumn scenes.  Most of the trees in our town were palm and pine and oak, and we knew only from books that there were trees that changed colors and actually shed their leaves.

The very first time I experienced "fall" was after I'd already graduated from college and started my teaching career.  A friend (another native Floridian) and I took a long weekend in October to visit the North Georgia mountains.  We could hardly get enough of the cool, crisp air and the riot of color which could made even the most mundane highway into a scenic drive.  I took dozens of pictures and reviewed the photos over and over again, reliving the magic of those few days.  We took another trip the next fall, venturing into North Carolina.  Several years later, I would experience my first New England autumn, and it was more beautiful than I could've expected it would be.

My experience with fall is, however, a week here, a couple of weeks there; I've never been in one place long enough to experience fall's full progression of summer-into-winter.  The photo above depicts what I'd have considered a "classic" fall scene: a tree ablaze with orange coloring, and a front porch decorated with pumpkins.  The scene below took me by surprise: only two doors up from the previous house, a single yellow rose makes its last bid for attention before succumbing to the cold of winter.    


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Top 10 Questions, Hammer Dulcimer Edition

Playing at an art show or a state fair is a lot different than playing in a concert. When I first started playing in concert, I remarked that my years of teaching experience would come in handy: you have to know your audience (your class) you should know in advance what you're going to play (your lesson plan) and you should be able to pick up cues that your audience is responding properly, and be able to adjust accordingly.

I've come to realize that a concert setting is more like giving a lecture at a large university, where due to the sheer size of the class, questions are not taken during the course of the lecture. Playing at an art show or state fair -- that's more like the public school classroom I'm used to! All of the above-named skills are still important, but fair-goers (your students) can interrupt at any time to ask clarifying questions, adding a whole new dimension to the mix. They can come up with some doozies! But, for the most part, you hear the same questions again and again. The challenge is to realize that, no matter how many times you may have heard a particular question, this individual has thought of that question for the very first time, and accordingly deserves a thoughtful answer. Sometimes, when it does seem as if I've answered the same question over and over, I fantasize about making a FAQs poster -- then I stop myself, realizing that, that is precisely the time when you shouldn't make a poster, as your responses to the questions might be a little less civil!

Still, I thought it might be fun, a la David Letterman, to prepare a

Top 10 Questions Asked During The Fair

#10 Have you recorded any CDs? Do any of the CDs have music on them?

The first question's a puzzler. I always wonder if perhaps the questioner hasn't taken notice that we're offering CDs at all. If, however, they're looking at the CDs while asking the question, I wonder, "Why in the world would I be playing this instrument all day long, if I am just selling a bunch of generic CDs?"

The second question I have come to understand: translated, it means, "I don't want to buy a CD with any singing on it!" Singing's music, too, isn't it? I don't really mind too much when I'm asked this question ... except when I'm in the presence of a vocalist who's just sang his/her heart out in one of our concerts. Sigh ... that's gotta hurt ... 

#9 How do you do that?

This one comes from kids aged about four to eight or nine years old. It's another puzzler, and I've never been able to come up with a completely satisfactory answer. I mean, they can see me tapping the strings, so to me it's obvious how the music's being made. But I've heard the question often enough to realize it's not obvious to the kid who's asking. Maybe they're too young to understand the concept of a stringed instrument? So I lamely say, "Well, I'm just gently tapping the strings." I put special emphasis on the word gently, just in case the next question is, Hey, can I try that?  

#8 Do you take credit cards?

Greg can't help himself when he hears this one; he often says, "Yes, we do, and we also give them back." This is usually received with a puzzled pause, then a grin.

One time, though, Greg -- prankster that he sometimes is -- went a bit further. He said, "Yes, we take credit cards, and after we've done a bit of shopping, we return them." The sweet elderly woman who'd offered her card locked his eyes with a horrified stare as she slowly withdrew her card. "Oh, ma'am, I'm sorry, I was only kidding!" Greg hastily said.

The woman's eyes twinkled as she broke into a broad smile. "Gotcha!" she cried.  

#7 How are the notes laid out?

There's no easy answer to this one. "Notes are laid out diatonically, though the instrument is chromatic," is the truth, but even music scholars, if they're unfamiliar with the dulcimer, can't envision the truth of its simple layout. I usually show them a scale or two, then hope that they're not going to try to press me into giving them a quick lesson -- though that's happened before.

#6 Where do you live?

Greg often answers this with, "In an Airstream trailer, goin' across the country." He laughs, then follows up with the answer that they're really seeking, which is "Port Charlotte, Florida."

It's funny how many people seem to think that we operate out of Port Charlotte -- that we return to Port Charlotte after each gig. Wow!  What an incredible amount of travel that would entail! Just think of it: since August 1, we would've gone from Burnsville, NC back to Port Charlotte (PC) ... up to Columbiana, OH, then back to PC -- twice ... up to Rhinebeck, NY, then back to PC ... to Stone Mountain, GA and back to PC ... man, I'm getting tired just writing about  it! We'll be back in PC on November 3 ... and, until then, living in an Airstream trailer, goin' across the country.  

#5 How old is it?  Where did it originate?

The first question may refer to the hammer dulcimer in general, or it may refer to my own instrument. I have to be really careful in clarifying what the questioner is looking for before answering; can you imagine the confusion if the person had been referring to my own instrument but received the answer, "Oh hundreds, if not thousands, of years old." For the record, no one really knows for sure when/where the dulcimer originated.  Some say 9th Century Persia ... others Medieval France ... still others think there's archaeological evidence to support the notion that some form of hammered, stringed instrument existed in Old Testament times! My own instrument was built for me by Sam Rizzetta, in 1993. (And he built another for me in 2004.)

Greg seems to like this question, too, because he loves to answer, "Oh, it's thousands of years old -- that's the instrument, not the woman!" Ha, Ha.

#4 How long does it take to learn?

"Minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master," is my stock answer. Why no one really seems to believe me, I cannot fathom.

#3 Which one is your favorite CD?

This one's a toughie, because it's somewhat akin to asking a mother who's her favorite child. Like a mother, I love them all, each for a different reason. Like a mother, the newest one is always just a little more special for a period of time. But you still want to know, don't you? I'll consider that for another blog, another day.

#2 What is that thing?

This would seem to be a fairly easy question to answer, and you, of course, already know: "It's a hammer dulcimer." But you may be surprised to learn that it's the one question that can only be answered if I completely halt my playing. You see, after all these years I'm not half bad at being able to talk while playing. But for the life of me, people cannot understand me when I say the word "dulcimer"! Maybe it's my Southern accent; more likely, it's their complete unfamiliarity with the word. We've had a sign made up that always hangs in close proximity to where I'm playing so that I can stop playing, point to the sign, and say, "It's a hammer dulcimer."

#1 Where's the bathroom?

Made you laugh, didn't it? Seriously, this isn't the most frequently asked question; Question #2 has that distinction, hands down. But we were pretty unprepared for the frequency with which this question is asked of us -- of any vendor in a show, actually. And we have learned to prepare a simple -- and mercifully quick -- answer for it. I may not yet have a completely satisfactory answer worked out for Question #9, and I may still have difficulty giving an easy-to-understand answer to Question #7, but by golly, I can give swift and accurate directions to the nearest rest room!

And just in case you're wondering, I do completely halt my playing for this one, as well.  Being able to physically point a person in the correct direction can be critical!