Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Makes It Beautiful

I was playing my dulcimer the other day, when a couple approached me.

"I have one of these," the woman said; "I have the instrument, the stand, the case, the hammers, the electronic tuner, everything you need. Now I just need someone to teach me how to play."

I made a recommendation as to a potential teacher who lives in the general area, but the woman expressed disappointment that she would have to drive a little distance to get lessons. She informed me that she was an experienced musician, so I suggested that perhaps she could teach herself, as I (and many of my fellow players) had done. "Oh, that won't do," she replied. "I've already tried, but I can't figure it out. I'm sure that if someone would help me get started, I'd have it mastered in no time."

The couple lingered. While continuing to play, I asked what type of instrument she'd purchased.

"It's a Dusty Strings. At least the same size as yours, and probably bigger."

Greg, overhearing this, brightened. Thinking to make a connection with her, he said, "Sam Rizzetta, who built Marcille's dulcimer, is the man who did the basic designs for the Dusty Strings company."

She flinched in disbelief, blurting out, "But my instrument is very beautiful. It's got a rich-looking mahogany-colored top. It's an exquisite piece."

Briefly, I look at my own dulcimer through her eyes. It's 17 years old, now, and no one would describe it as cosmetically beautiful any more.  My hand traces the side rail, finding the small dimple I put in it less than 24 hours after taking possession of it: I'd slipped on ice when carrying it from my hotel room to the car. My mind still hears the rich chorus of tones that reverberated from inside the case, and I recall gingerly walking back to the room, my heart in my throat the entire time, to inspect the instrument to be sure that no major harm had resulted from my carelessness.

Sliding my hand further along the rail, I find one jagged, rough corner and recall the time that a gust of wind blew the dulcimer onto the pavement during a street fair in Dunedin, Florida.

Examining the sound board, I see evidence of other minor catastrophes and remember other episodes:

The time that the hickory nut fell out of the tree during a rehearsal in Ohio -- I still can't figure out how that nut managed to slip so perfectly between the strings to leave such a relatively large indentation!

The time that I was hustling to get off stage after performing at a festival in North Carolina -- I dropped one of my telescoping legs and left a gouge in the sound board.

The time that our band was giving a free "St. Patrick's Eve" concert to a Punta Gorda, Florida audience still shell-shocked from a punishing hurricane season -- the performance venue had not yet been able to repair the canopy over their stage, and the sudden rainstorm that blew in left a few water marks that I've not been able to rub out.

My dulcimer has endured snow flurrying onto it during a performance at Tennessee's Dollywood. Its tuning pins are ever so slightly corroded from salt air exposure up and down America's eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine. It's been played in 100-degree-plus temperatures in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and sub-freezing temperatures in Orlando, Florida. It's collected dust at fairgrounds in Michigan and New York and in Georgia's Stone Mountain Park. It's traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and played millions of tunes.

It's been fondled by quick, sticky-fingered children with slow-footed parents.

It's been embraced by the hands of hearing-impaired persons who wanted to experience its sound through its vibrations. Its strings have been traced by the fingers of sight-impaired individuals who wanted to "see" it through their sense of touch.

To me, the scars and imperfections are "character marks." Like the wrinkles and dark spots on the face of an elderly person, each one was attained through mostly natural use, and perhaps occasional misuse, but each "flaw" has a story to tell. It is evidence of a full life, fully lived.

And to me, it is beautiful.

I jarred back into the present, at a loss for words. The slight was probably unintentional, but even if it was not, any response from me would have been unjustified. After a few minutes, the couple moved on.

I caught Greg's eye. "Honey, don't even think about it," he consoled.

"Oh, I'm not insulted by what she said, Greg. She's looking at the dulcimer as if it's a fine piece of furniture, rather than a musical instrument.  She'll figure it out eventually ... or not."

He smiled. "Well, I'm glad you didn't say anything to her."

I smiled back. "Well, it wouldn't have been right for me to say anything, really. But I couldn't help thinking that my dulcimer is, in fact, beautiful because

"I know how to play mine." 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Open Letter to the Person Who Tried My Patience Today

postmark: Woodstock-New Paltz (NY) Art & Crafts Fair

Dear Latecomer to today's Art Fair,

I smiled at you when you came through the gate, noting that you were arriving after they'd stopped charging admission.

I hope I managed to be somewhat cheerful as you peppered me with questions, even as you could plainly see that I was trying to pack up from the fair.

Sorry I wan't able to procure that mailing list you requested; it'd already been packed.  Hope the business card that I did manage to put my hands on will suffice; I'm so glad that I was able to find it, as it, too, had already been packed.

I don't look at patrons as dollar signs -- really I don't!  I'm compensated for my service as an entertainer, but I also make my living from selling product, just like all the other vendors at today's fair -- and just like practically everyone else in business.  So please forgive me for the blank stare and wan smile when you told me that you'd deliberately come late, and empty-handed, to the fair in order to avoid spending money.

You see, you'd just figuratively slapped me in the face.