Finished or Not Finished? That is the Question.

I recently read this quote by artist Arshile Gorky, an Armenian-American abstract expressionist painter (1904-1948). "I never finish a painting – I just stop working on it for a while.  … I like painting because it's something I never come to the end of. Sometimes I paint a picture, then I paint it all out. Sometimes I'm working on fifteen or twenty pictures at the same time. I do that because I want to – because I like to change my mind so often.”

This quote resonated in my heart because that’s the way I feel about my music. I’m never really finished with a tune. For example, I probably started playing Amazing Grace when I was 11 years old (and I turned 76 this week). Since then, I have played several arrangements by others, written arrangements of my own, and have played it on all my instruments. I have played it on the organ at church for the congregation. I have accompanied choirs singing this beautiful hymn in competitions. I have played solos on the keyboard as well as hammered dulcimer for an audience. I have played it for the Lord in my home during my personal praise time.

Am I finished with Amazing Grace yet? Not a chance. I will never be finished with this hymn. As a matter of fact, we just moved to a new home and this was the first piece I played on my hammered dulcimer in the new home.

So this raises the question, “How long does it take to learn to play the dulcimer? Will I ever be finished?

This is a common question when it comes to learning any instrument. You’ve purchased a beautiful new instrument, gotten a good teacher, maybe even signed up with a site like Dulcimer Crossing to access the learning videos. But how long will it take for you to actually be able to say, “Yes, I can play the dulcimer.” You’ve made a good start, but now you’re wondering where it will all end.

Personally, I believe there will be no definitive end to your dulcimer-learning endeavors. You will surely be learning for as long as you are playing. Even our dulcimer heroes who are at their highest possible level of playing and earn their living by performing, arranging, and teaching the dulcimer will tell you that they are still learning.

Now, I promise, with practice you will reach a decent level of proficiency at some point. The time it takes to reach that point will be different for everyone. It depends on a wide variety of factors such as how quicky you learn, what your musical background is, if there are health issues slowing you down, what level of playing you want to achieve, and whether or not you have spare time to dedicate to practicing.

But don’t ever get discouraged if it takes you longer to learn to play than someone else you know. Remember that the joy is in the journey. Look at your dulcimer practice, not as something you’re doing just to reach a certain level of skill, but as something that’s meant to provide you with a lifetime of musical fulfillment and enjoyment. For myself, there’s nothing quite like being able to sit down at my piano or pick up my hammers at the end of a hectic day and play a favorite piece.

Don’t worry about how long the journey will take or what potential difficulties might pop up along the way. Just keep the reward in sight. Learning to play your dulcimer will be a lifelong expedition. Even when you are in your 80s and 90s, you will still need to practice – because with practice, you will continue to improve. Learning to play your dulcimer will never come to end.

So until next time, happy practicing! And keep on pickin' and hammerin',



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