On Getting Better
In many different ways, I'm a late-bloomer. Sure, music has been a major force in my life since I was in elementary school, but an ADHD-riddled work and study ethic coupled with major behavioral issues throughout, oh, I don't know, my whole freakin' life, managed to keep true excellence at bay until a relative level of mental and spiritual calmness took hold in the early 2000s. It wasn't long ago that scales, chords and basic music theory on the mountain dulcimer were a foreign concept; I played completely by ear. That will get you far, but having a deeper understanding of how music functions, coupled together with countless hours of practice, will make you a better player and, up until about 2005, I was an illiterate musician with a troubled mind and a drive to succeed that was stuck in first gear.
It was about that time that, through sheer force of will and frenzied desire to soar ever upward, I began to find myself in the company of musicians who were far more accomplished. After living so long in my ignorant little bubble, the damn thing had finally gotten popped by proximity to people who had paid their dues, put in the time and gotten past whatever hangups they might've ever had that served as a block between themselves and achieving greatness. Standing in awe and humility near such self-motivated people cast a light upon my life's station and, after taking stock of what was in the cupboards, I decided to make a change, get education and focus on becoming not just a better player but the best player that I could possibly be.
A year later, I released "Dulcimerica: Volume 1", my first dulcimer-centric album as well as the first solo album I'd released since 1994's "70mm." To be honest with you, I don't listen to "D:V1" any more. It's a snapshot in time, taken as I was just beginning this journey towards dutiful improvement and it stands in stark comparison to my just-completed 17th solo album "Dulcimerica: Volume 3." Man, what a difference nine years makes. "D:V1" isn't a bad album by any means and it still enjoys decent sales and the admiration of folks who enjoy listening to it. Put it side by side with "D:V3" and it's like comparing the mystery meat of your middle school cafeteria lunches to a Wolfgang Puck dish of Chinese Duck with Plum Sauce and Chinois Pancakes.
Any artist worth their salt will continue to improve with age and experience, though the big-hitters with record deals and worldwide acclaim often enter the public consciousness with skill sets so tremendous that any improvements to their craft tend to emerge with grace and subtle surprise. When I arrived on the scene in the mountain dulcimer community in 2006, I'd come from the rock clubs as a frontman for Mohave, bringing with me a DIY approach to mountain dulcimer that was anything but traditional, let alone rooted in any kind of studied musicality. Before I had the chance to dive into becoming a student of contemporary dulcimer players, many of whom I had just discovered, I was placed in the front of the class to scrawl on blackboards and teach what I knew to other dulcimer players. Sort of like taking the kid with the dunce cap out of the corner and giving him a ruler, a piece of chalk, tenure and a pension. It was all I could do to stay one step ahead of the students and those first workshops were taught in a sort of fevered terror. What the hell did I know? More than that, how the hell was I going to explain what I did know?
That was the environment in which I emerged upon the scene and I'm not sure how many of you out there even know that. But the first few years of teaching myself new skills in order to pass them onto others proved to be an extraordinary catalyst for self-improvement. And as more and more offers to teach and perform began to fill my e-mailbox, the more I dug deeper and studied, explored, listened and practiced so that I didn't look and sound like a complete ass once I showed up at a festival. You don't even know how out of my element I felt. There's something to be said for great acting. "Fake it till you make it" indeed.
So, when did that all change? Hell if I know. How do you measure success at anything? What kind of plumb line can you use to see if your wall is straight? The musician is always challenging himself, always aware of the shortcomings and how far they have to go. There are no plateaus, no places of comfort where all that there is to learn is finally attained and now you can just kick back and be awesome. No such animal. There is always another mountain to climb, I like to tell my students, but it's important to turn your back to the mountain, see how far you've risen above the once lowly-seeming places and enjoy the view. When "D:V1" was completed, I felt like "hey, this is a pretty cool record." Listening to it now, it's head-shakes and low whistles. Why do I still sell it, then? Because it's a chronicle of where I was at that point in time. But if I could re-record it, you betcha, I'd do a lot of things differently. It's a lot like life, isn't it?
One year, and I'm not sure when this was, maybe around 2008 or so, I received an e-mail from a mountain dulcimer national champion whom I admire and am inspired by. He wrote that he didn't want me to take this the wrong way, but that my playing had improved dramatically over the last couple of years and he just wanted me to know that he had noticed. Far from taking offense, I was delighted that he'd taken the time to reach out and comment. It was encouraging and it was validation for the hard work I'd been putting in. Since then, I've gotten the same comment from many players and it's always a welcome form of input. Today, I'm happy with how far I've come and the musical trail that I've left in the form of records, video podcasts, performances and workshops all across the country. But I'm nowhere near done climbing mountains. Not in the slightest. And when I die, they're going to pull my body off of some mountain because I'll still be climbing when I pass on. Ever upwards and onwards.
I share this with you because there's a very good chance that you're making music but got started late in life. You might be looking at those around you thinking, "I'll never be as good as them." But that's not really the point of making music, to be better at it than others. The point is, well, to make music. It's like talking. Some people aspire to be spoken word artists or excel in oration, speak twelve different languages and have the silver tongue of lore. Most people seem content with being able to order off the menu at Denny's without sounding like a second grader and, you know, that's a decent goal, isn't it? Language as function has a place, to communicate and to help foster understanding between people. Music as function certainly has a place as well and the effort that you place into it will make the difference in how skillful you become. I guess it really boils down to "what is your need?"
I need to fight. I need to struggle. I need to win the battle against myself. It's not easy for me to study music, though I love it so. The reward is being able to do more, say more, play more, know more, teach and share more and leap off the mountain every now and again and fly like the birds. For everyone, the experience of making music is different, but the results are often very common. We share the shining of our spirits through our art as well as the foibles of our flesh. So, looking back at how far we've come can sometimes be like glancing through old yearbooks and seeing ourselves younger, geekier and with really bad hair. Maybe we liked our hair back then. Rearview eyes bear the burden of history while our forward gaze holds the promise of our dreams. Each new handhold of rock is a victory and every spot on the mountain affords a spectacular view.
Just don't spend a lot of time looking down. You get dizzy. Look to the horizon and see all that there is to enjoy about your accomplishments. Have a beverage and a bit of chocolate. Savor the moments. And when you're ready, you know what to do.