Lessons Learned from Gardeners

"I say, if your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life."
- from Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Winter is coming, and those who planted gardens are seeing their plants wither away once a hard frost has blown through. But watching my neighbors care for their gardens through the spring and summer, I realized that gardening and learning to play an instrument require some of the same basic principles of care. And (of course) I want to share with you the lessons I learned from them.

  • Gardening requires faithful diligence. It’s not easy to keep gardening when the days get hot and the sweat is pouring down your back. But it’s worth all the work when we get to eat those fresh vegetables from our garden or pick a bouquet of flowers for the house.  Learning to play a new instrument requires diligent practice, but how rewarding it is to play a new tune completely through without a mistake.

  • Sometimes you have to pull weeds. It’s so easy to let a few weeds creep into our garden  here and there.And it’s easy to ignore them because we get so busy with other things.  Like a gardner who needs to regularly yank out those weeds, we need to yank out our mistakes when practicing.  If you ignore them, and just keep repeating mistakes without digging out the root of the problem, the issues with that tune will stay with you for life.

  • Time is precious. The amount of time we put into our garden will directly affect the outcome. Likewise the amount of time we spend in practice will affect our accuracy, musicianship, and expression as we play the piece.

  • Patience is necessary. Gardening requires us to slow down. There’s really no way to speed up the process! I don’t know of any shortcuts for learning to play an instrument either.

  • Looking at things from a different perspective can save you a lot of time. Some folks plant the same plants in the same place year after year without a good yield. But what if they changed the location of the plant, to a spot where it can get more or less sunshine? Could that affect the result?

    If the same old thing isn’t working for you, if you’re still making the same mistake in a tune over and over, maybe it’s time to reevaluate and try something new. If your fingers don’t work well with the notes as written, take the liberty to rewrite or simplify the arrangement so you CAN succeed.

  • Optimism is important. Seed catalogs arrive when snow is still on the ground in most places, and garden planning is really just an act of imagination. Likewise, trusting that good things will happen on your instrument, if you just hang in there and keep practicing, is an important attitude to have when learning to play.

  • Every good garden requires hard work. First-time gardeners are surprised (maybe even shocked) by how much hard work is required to get a good crop. Hard work is also the secret ingredient for learning to play your dulcimer well.

  • Failure is a stepping stone to success. A successful’ garden is a misnomer. There is no such thing as 100% success in gardening. When you are dealing with nature, there are no guarantees. But gardeners learn from their mistakes and try again the next growing season.

    If you were to talk in depth with a few successful musicians, I don't believe you will find even one who doesn't have a long story to tell about the extreme failures they experienced on their road to that success. But they used each failure as part of the learning curve that would boost them up to the next level.

Just like our gardens, our music life may be filled with the unexpected, failure and adversity, and never seem to go as planned. But it’s also a wonderful thing when we experience the happiness that comes after playing though a piece well and seeing joy (or sometimes sentimental tears) in the eyes of our listeners.

Keep on pickin' and hammerin',



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