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Music to My Heart

Music is like a foreign language to me.

You know how when you don’t understand someone speaking another language animatedly to you, so all you can do is smile and nod? Uncomprehending and feeling lost but trying not to let it show.

So when I headed to John C. Campbell Folk School on Friday September 6, 2019 I suspected I was going to have to spend the weekend smiling and nodding.

Honestly I felt a bit of dread about this weekend but was going to check off 2 more boxes on my #50for50. I had already paid for tuition, room and board, had even borrowed a mountain dulcimer just for the occasion so I was bound to show up.

My friend Robin Lenner had encouraged me to add attending John C. Campbell Folk School to the list and Karen Marino-Brueggerman was the one to put ‘learn a new musical instrument’ as another line item.

Learn a new instrument. Not like I hadn’t tried before.

Back in grade school I learned to read the notes and where to put my fingers playing violin. I could play a few simple songs. It was memorization. My performances were stiff.

I didn’t feel confident it would be different all these years later.

That feeling is what traveled with me Friday afternoon as I drove out to Brasstown, tucked in a peaceful valley between Murphy and Hayesville, NC.

I found check in at the front room of the Keith House, where I was directed to my housing assignment. A short drive across the campus, stepped into Hubbell house and there was my name on the first door on the right.

A simple, comfortable room for me to occupy alone. I didn’t pay extra to have a solo room but apparently they also didn’t need to put me in the shared rooms either. I wasn’t unhappy to be alone and as I unpacked the thought even crossed my mind, “What if I just hid out here through Sunday, maybe sneaking over to the dining hall for meals?”

Nope. I was determined not to give into my fears and dread.

By this time last year I had already tandem skydived. Completed a sprint triathlon. Gotten a tattoo. Pole danced.

How hard could it be to play a little wooden dulcimer?

Instead of cowering in my room I decided to go for a stroll. I knew I needed to learn the lay of the land and grabbed my map to wander a bit before time for orientation. I found a big gravel labyrinth walk near by and took it for a turn while I prayed the weekend would go better than I feared.

Then I found my way back to the Keith house, this time to its roomy gathering room. I admired the stone fireplace and floor to high ceilings of aged, warm wood as it filled with people. We were greeted by the director and given an overview of the schedule.

Looking around at my fellow attendees, I recognized how excited and joyful they all appeared. Like kids just arrived at camp.

I couldn’t help but be bolstered by the hum of anticipation all around me.

After a delicious dinner, served family style at tables for 6-8 in a lovely dining room lined by windows looking out into the mountains, we all headed to our first class meeting.

I felt extra awkward because I didn’t have a case for my dulcimer.

On the path to the music studio I met up with a lady who also had no case for her dulcimer. I told her I was glad I wasn’t the only one and she said she had borrowed the instrument from her brother for the weekend. Instant friend.

The music studio is the upper floor of Davidson Hall and our instructor, Aubrey Atwater motioned us to grab our dulcimers and get seated. The chairs were already in a circle with music stands in front of each. I sat down with the dulcimer across my lap and surveyed my fellow students.

Men and women, mostly a bit older than me but all of them looking equally uncomfortable. Soon after seating Aubrey introduced herself and the class continued to look awkward and nervous.

Aubrey is an award winning folk artist who not only plays mountain dulcimer, but also banjo, mandolin, tin whistle, guitar, sings.

Oh, and also clogs. In other words a folk music goddess.

Or at least she certainly looked the part with her dark eyes twinkling as she gave a brief history of the mountain dulcimer. She strummed intermittingly with a light, magical touch over the beautiful wood instrument. As animated as a bird, shifting around on her chair with a swish of flowing skirt and then cocking her head to her shoulder where she lifted the dulcimer to hear it better as she tuned it.

We all sat enraptured by her story telling, her mastery of the music and vibrant beauty. Then she asked the question I had feared all day, “Introduce yourself briefly and share what is your experience with the mountain dulcimer?”

As each of us answered in turn, I was amazed to realize we were all true beginners. Some like me, had only tried strumming the instrument we held once or twice. But also like me we all were willing to see if we could learn anything.

The first song we learned

That very night I walked out of that studio into the darkness feeling a tiny bit of glow in my heart.

In just a short couple of hours learned a simple song well enough to recognize even as I strummed it clumsily. It wasn’t graceful but I had started to relax and didn’t even realize how quickly the time had flown by until it was time to dismiss.

The next morning I got up early, hustled into get a shower in the hallway bathroom and was done before anyone else in the house had made a noise. Then packed my backpack with dulcimer protruding, but easier to carry, put on my headlamp I had also appreciated bringing after the prior night’s walk back in the dark, and headed to Keith House in search of coffee.

And to watch the sun rise. I was surprised to see several others on the back deck also waiting for light to break.

I recognized two ladies from dinner the night before, Gale and Candace, both attorneys from Florida, good friends who came together to take a French country dance class over the weekend. After a brief re-introduction round, Candace went back to reading a book she had with her and Gale and I discussed that she wasn’t much of a dancer but she was having fun anyway.

It dawned on me as dawn gave its show over the horizon, that I was having fun already too. My sense of dread was gone.

After breakfast it was back to our classes to get busy learning. The rest of the morning and early afternoon is really a blur. I just remember sometime during that day I felt like I kinda sorta “got it”.

The shelf liner keeps the dulcimer from slipping off my thighs

Where I put my fingers on the strings made sense. I could see the notes and understood them. Not every note of every song I had in front of me but the ones we had been practicing playing. And singing. Wasn’t so foreign anymore.

It didn’t feel like I was just smiling and nodding. Definitely understood more of the language and could reply.

The itinerary included a break in the afternoon. I took my time to explore more of the campus, and still made it to my scheduled chair massage a few minutes early. On the porch outside the house where the therapist was set up, I found attorney turned dancer, Gale, waiting her turn which was after mine. She and I talked about what a wonderful day it had been so far.

I asked if she felt good about the next day’s performance as the final ceremony included each class either displaying their crafts or like the dance or music groups, a short recital. I knew I was nervous about being on stage. Gale agreed it might be nerve wracking but again she seemed joyous just to be there with her friend.

She had the right attitude and after my relaxing chair massage to ease my neck and wrists from a busy day of playing dulcimer, I also felt all right.

I had intended to go and get my dulcimer to play a bit before dinner with some others from class. However on my walk back from the massage I ran into a lady from my class, who sat across the circle, and who mentioned in her intro the night before that her late husband had given her the dulcimer but she’d never tried to play it.

I asked if she was going to the “jam session” but she said she didn’t feel like it. Sensing more to the story we sat and talked until time for dinner. She told me was glad she came but worried she hadn’t learned much so far. I reassured her I knew she was doing fine, could hear her in class and saw she was improving.

It wasn’t a lie. I had noticed her a time or two and although sometimes she needed a few times through she really was doing fine.

I had encouraged her however because its what I would’ve wanted to hear if I were trying to learn to play in honor of the memory of someone I loved.

After dinner I considered going back to my room. I was mentally a bit worn out. However I realized I had the opportunity to add a THIRD item to my #50for50.

Since a number of my original list was now impossible to fulfill I was actively looking for new things to add.

There was a contra dance in the gathering room of the Keith House. I had never tried contra dancing and we’d all been assured earlier in the day during announcements that newbies were welcome to attend.

Ten minutes after arriving, a guy my daughter’s age had already coaxed me onto the dance floor. I quickly realized that it having a young guy spin me around wasn’t that awkward. In fact it was more surprising to me that you rarely dance with the same guy (or gal since there were more of us there and many women were dancing “guy” parts) for even a minute or two.

Contra dancing at Keith House

Luckily I don’t get dizzy easy from all the twirling I was doing. I was also glad it was already mid September and not blazing hot. Still, after about 45 minutes of dancing I had to stop.

I still felt good and was having fun however I had an uncomfortable realization between songs.

The one and only bra I had with me was getting wetter by the minute.

I did consider going braless the next day so I could keep dancing. Modesty however won out and I headed back to my room to dry out and get some sleep.

The next morning I repeated my early morning routine so I was able to sit on the back deck of the Keith House, drinking coffee, to watch the sunrise with my attorney friends. We talked about how awesome it would be if next year we all came back on the same weekend to take different classes.

Which meant we all had fallen in love with John C. Campbell Folk School. I knew I certainly had.

Early mornings at John C Campbell are the best

After breakfast it was time for a couple more hours of music practice before time for the final recital.

Although nervous I was elated that we were definitely playing and singing “Someone to Love Me”. It was my favorite song we had learned. Like all the folk songs that we had practiced and those I had heard Aubrey perform it had story and emotion. But to me it was personal.

Someone to Love Me – traditional

I wish I had someone to love me 
Someone to call me his own
Someone to sleep with me nightly
I'm weary of sleeping alone.

You can probably see how it struck me at the time. There’s 4 more stanzas that are lovely as well. But that chorus struck a chord.

As my class walked back to Keith house for our performance, the sweet sound of our chatter made me smile. The room full of nervous newbies from Friday night were now excited to share what we had learned.

I can’t even remember exactly where I sat other than I hoped that no one would notice my knees where I lay my dulcimer were shaking slightly. We sat there quietly while other classes of different art type were introduced to share about their work.

I had seen some of the baskets and wooden spoons and wrought iron wall hooks. It all looked like such fun. I knew I couldn’t wait to come back and try something else brand new.

Then it was time to shine. Aubrey introduced our class and what we’d be playing. I can’t recall how we sounded or if I couldn’t get my fingers exactly right. All I know is it didn’t feel like a foreign language. It felt like music to my heart.

The passionately talented Aubrey Atwater and me

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