Don't Stress. Distress!

Distressed furniture

You know how people pay more money to buy furniture that's been roughed up a little? What do they call it? Things that have been distressed. That's because something that's seen a little wear is just more interesting than something brand-new that hasn't ever had a scuff on it.” (Joe Hill)

I read this quote the other day, and it resonated in my heart because I sell mobile homes as part of my employment, and I have found there are folks who even like their kitchen cabinets to have that distressed look.  But how do you give furniture, cabinets, or ceiling beams a “distressed” look. Well, before you start the painting process, furniture can be literally beat up using heavy chains, hammers, hex nuts, wire brushes, and more. This process isn’t for everyone, but it can add another layer of depth and character to your piece. A simpler method is to paint the wood, and then use sand paper or steel wool to give the piece the distressed veneer you want.

So I started wondering if the distressed technique could be applied to a tune – making it a more unique arrangement, more interesting for the audience, and maybe even easier to play? I think the answer is, “YES.” We can do this with creative planning ahead of time. For example ...

  • Recall a saxophone solo you’ve heard played one time. Saxophonists never play the melody as written for a solo. They play over, under, and around the melody notes, and yet you can always discern what the underlying melody is actually supposed to be. And, to be honest, if the player made an error during the solo, I wouldn’t even know, the resulting arrangement is that good. We can do the same to our own melody lines.

  • What if we changed up the tempo? I like to play Amazing Grace in 4/4 time, when it is actually written in 3/4 time. It gives me the opportunity to slow the hymn down and, during that extra beat, add more dynamics and expression to the words that have so much meaning in my heart.

  • Change the mode to change the mood. If the song is written in a major mode, play a verse or two in the relative minor mode.

  • Use the tools of a different genre. For example, I prefer to play Jesus Loves Me with a calypso beat. I used to play keyboard at a church in St. Thomas, USVI, and I was the only woman and the only Caucasian on the worship team – surrounded by West Indian male musicians. They were incredibly patient with this white woman learning to play hymns with a reggae beat. Some of our lessons at Dulcimer Crossing teach you how to add the blues sound, which is another nice variation.


Take a risk and try something new. “Distress” your music. You owe it to yourself. Maybe it will be a bold transition to another key, a fresh chord progression, or something different that only you can hear in your head. This isn’t just a way to keep your arrangements fresh and interesting. You will find this is also a way to keep yourself engaged and challenged in the process of learning to play your instrument.



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