It’s Saturday. We sit on the edge of the soft chaise lounge upstairs in a room lined with all kinds of stringed instruments in a store called “Elderly Instruments.” Grace balances a blond guitar on her lap.
“This is just my size, ” she says. “I wish I could take lessons.” I smile. “Remember the violin?” She was all excited about the dream of playing it but was overcome by lessons even though her teacher said she did have a gift. We were glad we only rented the instrument for her.
Other folks mill around in this small room. One guy is seated on the bench to our right. He knows how to make music. So does the man seated with his back to us playing a guitar for an audience of two hammered dulcimers that hang on the wall.
I’m feeling claustrophobic. “You know, Grace, I feel a lot more at home in a bookstore. I’ve got the desire to make music, but I just don’t have the gift.”
I’ve left a hammered dulcimer downstairs to be appraised. I bought it years ago from a woman who didn’t have time to play it any more. My great-grandfather played a dulcimer in logging camps, and then he played in Henry Ford’s Old Time Dance Orchestra. So I thought I might keep the tradition alive, maybe play a little in church. The instrument wandered around our house, sometimes set up and ready on a stand, sometimes wrapped in a blanket and hidden in a closet. I’d pull the hammers out every once in a while, but I never learned to play.
I’ve left my harp downstairs, too.
I don’t know when I first had a yen to play one. But about six years back, the urge grew stronger. I excavated the Internet digging for information. My husband drove me to a faraway store where I plucked several possibilities, and I came home with a double-strung Stoney End Lorraine. I couldn’t wait to learn all the fun things I could do with all those strings. I justified my splurge with dreams of playing for hospice patients as a way to use (and not “waste”) my nursing experience. I drove two hours one-way every other week to take lessons.
I loved my teacher. She encouraged me to attend The Harp Gathering 2009 at Sauder Heritage Inn in Archbold, Ohio, and helped me choose some workshops. Everyone was warm and welcoming, but I’d only taken less than a handful of lessons at that point and felt like a turtle in a tree without its shell. I didn’t know a soul and didn’t know how to talk to anyone. I snagged a back row chair in the workshops and pretended to know more than where the F and C strings were or what a gig bag was. Pam Bruner noticed my confusion during her Music Theory Made Simple—Really! Class, and asked if I needed help.
“Oh no. I’m good, ” I chirped. I busied myself writing notes. “The root is what gives a chord its name, ” I scribbled. Yes, I still have all those notes, and I’m amazed at what I learned in spite of myself.
It wasn’t long after that before I let family, finances, and scheduling conflicts trump my lesson days. I tried to work from teach-yourself materials with some success, but without the discipline that comes from having to practice and “perform” for an instructor, I didn’t make much progress. When it came time to practice, I seized the moment to do other things, and I hated having to tune 58 strings. So my lovely harp became another piece of furniture.
In fall of 2011, an aggressive form of brain cancer attacked my mother. When I moved into the hospice home with her, I bagged my harp up and brought it along. I plunked out “Amazing Grace, ” and together we just “noodled” around with it. Another musically-inclined patient down the hall was giddy over this instrument he’d always wanted to try. He liked to come stroke its strings and feel its vibrations.
When Mom died, I packed the harp up and never took it out of its bag again. I’m guessing it was, in part, a grief response. At any rate, that’s how I ended up here in this music shop. The dulcimer needs too much work and will eventually find its way to Goodwill. I leave the harp on consignment—along with a little piece of my heart. Maybe I even leave a little piece of my mother. I wonder if she’d be disappointed.
When we get home, Grace and I pull out the Yamaha keyboard and my old piano books—the ones I’ve kept since I took lessons 40 years ago. We review notes on a staff diagram, and I teach her the keys. She puts a sticky note on middle C.
The next morning in a Lenten small group study called A Journey Home, we’re asked, “Where do you feel least at home?” The answer’s easy for me. Elderly Instruments!
I feel a little like the prodigal son who squandered time and money chasing a dream that was never his—until he finally came to his senses. It’s time to give it up, I tell them. I’ll never be a musician. Just put me in the corner of a library or on a bookstore floor. I’d rather learn to make music with words.
But then, in February 2015, the dream began to harp at me again, first like a dripping tap and then like a warm spring morning serenade. I dared to speak it “out loud” on Facebook. “I’m thinking about getting another harp, ” I posted. This led to a long conversation with the “Queen of Harps, ” Denise Grupp-Verbon, about harps and harping. Just one week later on March 7, I was sitting in her house two hours away in another state having my first lesson. I went home with a rental harp.
I visit Denise (and her dog, Millie) once a month now. It’s become a Saturday morning date time with my husband—four hours together in the car and lunch. Denise and I also meet in between via FaceTime—so two lessons a month. I’m more motivated to practice, and I only have to tune 30 strings.
I hadn’t planned to attend The Harp Gathering 2015, which, by the way, is Denise and her husband Mike’s “baby.” But I registered late and then almost backed out at the last minute. My husband and I arrived so late Friday that I missed the first two workshops. We had just enough time to grab dinner under the Great Oak Tree before the first concert with TAPESTRY and Frank Voltz.
We sat near the front, and while I studied how their fingers massaged strings, the music massaged my spirit. I felt the week’s stress melt right through my chair.
The next afternoon I carried my harp downstairs to Martha Gallagher’s Story Harping workshop. She asked us what story surrounded our coming.
“I almost didn’t come, ” I said. I told how just four nights before, my grand-girl Grace had called in a panic. I told how I’d tried to run through a muddy field in the rain, like in a dream where we make no progress. I told how I’d seen the billowing smoke, heard the front window explode and saw flames roar through the opening. I told how I didn’t know if my daughter and her girls were trapped in there when nobody answered my screams. I told how my daughter and both girls had lost almost all their possessions and had moved in with us. I told how hard it was to leave for a few days of harp therapy. When I listened to other stories, I realized we were making music with our words and that our harps could accompany us.
I registered early for The Harp Gathering 2016, in part because I’ve learned no matter what fire I might be facing then, I’ll find some healing there. I’m also looking forward to sitting in the front row, to participating in Lynda Kuckenbrod’s beginner jam, to being inspired by Louise Trotter’s ageless fingers, to being able to talk a little harp, to maybe even winning a new harp. I can’t wait to hug old and new friends.
It will be like coming home.
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