Yesterday I dug through boxes of music books and instruments and made a big ol’ mess, but now all but one of my instruments are out where they can be played. The missing one is an African stringed instrument that will look nice hanging on a wall, so I’m not worried about it for now. The music books, if not on a shelf, are at least out where they can be used, too, and I have a stack of books to go to charity. This takes care of all the near-term tasks on yesterday’s list except one: decide which instruments I really want to play. Make them a priority. Accept that I will never gain any proficiency with the others.
This is where it gets tough. Obviously, the piano stays. It is the priority instrument, but I can certainly have some side instruments. The contenders are the guitar, flute, hammered dulcimer, and penny whistle. Don’t think that the hammered dulcimer and penny whistle aren’t “real” instruments. Both have rich histories and provide ample challenge, believe me. The big question is how many instruments I can manage given my current allotment of free time.
The Piano: The piano is a demanding instrument. One must practice daily to play it well. At 30 minutes a day, I’d barely be filling that need. Unless I can make more time for music, perhaps I should give up all of the other instruments.
The Flute: I love the flute. Sometimes I think it is the instrument I was meant to play, and had I learned it before the piano, there would have been no contest. Flute allows those of us with no singing voice to sing. The flutist has complete control over the sound. Playing the flute doesn’t strain the hands and arms as badly as the piano does, and it exercises the lungs.
I learned to play on a cheap, heavy flute that sounded as leaden as it felt. When I started taking lessons at age 17 (or thereabouts), I advanced so quickly that my parents were persuaded to buy me a better flute. It was a revelation. Suddenly I could make beautiful music, just like James Galway.
I love it still, and I haven’t entirely lost the ability to play it. If I had a couple of hours to practice every day, I could make it sing again. But that’s the problem. It would require too much time to reach my desired level of proficiency. I would rather not play it at all than play it poorly, and I would rather give it away than let it go to waste.
The Hammered Dulcimer: I heard my first dulcimer at the Sterling Renaissance Faire and I fell in love. I didn’t know what I was in love with, but the sound haunted me. It took a while to find out what it was called and then to find out where I could get one (remember life without the Internet?). My parents were cool enough to drive me out to a folk instrument store in eastern Connecticut, so far into the boondocks that most lifelong Connecticut residents have never heard of it. Mom and Dad weren’t too happy about the dulcimer’s price tag. Nonetheless, they bought one for me. We called it my “birthday-Christmas-birthday” present.
That dulcimer has been with me through so many stages of my life. When I was in high school, I brought it to school a couple of times and played for my classmates. I still have some of the thank-you notes that my French teacher made them write. When I was in college, I wrote a paper about it for my Physics of Music class. I remember playing Christmas carols on it when I lived in Milford.
I haven’t given the dulcimer nearly enough attention lately. Years of mistreatment have contributed to string corrosion (I used to enjoy playing it by plucking the strings, which is a definite no-no). It needs a cleaning and restringing. Whether I continue playing it or not, I should at least do that for it, since it has made me so happy over the years.
The Penny Whistle: I knew how to play the penny whistle before I ever picked one up. It’s just a simple flute and very easy to figure out. But to get the best tone and pitch, memorize the tunes and master the embellishments takes time and effort. Unless you do those things, the penny whistle is nothing but a rather shrill toy.
The Guitar: I’ve always wanted to play the guitar. I love listening to other people play it. It’s a social instrument. Everyone who hears it wants to sing along, and that can lead to some serious fun when there’s a group of people around. What particularly appeals to me, though, is that it’s a good instrument for songwriting.
I own a great acoustic-electric Ibanez. I know all the basic chords, I’m a natural at finger-picking, and I have plenty of books that claim they will teach me how to play. I could start tomorrow.
But it’s also the instrument that my father and brother play. By learning it, I would put myself in competition with them. Not intentionally, of course. It would just sort of happen. That’s the way my family is. I’ve always been slightly turned off by the guitar for that reason.
So there you have it—the pros and cons of all my instruments. Which ones should I give up?