Last week while preparing dinner, I texted briefly with an autoharp friend. (I’d just bought a smartphone and now understand how addicting texting is, now that I don’t have to press the ABC button three times to get C. Promise me you won’t text and drive. But, I digress.)
At one point during our text marathon, she said this:
“I wanted so badly to play ‘The Lovers’ Waltz’ [by Molly Mason and Jay Ungar, Jay being of “Ashokan Farewell” fame]. I can read music so I sang it, but I wanted to play it!… “>[My husband] got out his guitar. We played together some….”
>Her next text stopped me in my tracks:
“For me, it was a clunk-fest. But I was happy.”
My first thought when I read this was: I don’t get it. Why would anyone be happy clunking their way through a tune?
Musically speaking, I want everything I play and/or hear to sound good and nourish my soul. That’s my fault as an Applied Music Junkie. Oh, all right, I’ll admit that sometimes I leave The Musicality Zone to impersonate the musical saw: It’s the only time I get to sing out of tune legitimately, sliding my voice all over the place with wacky vibrato (the result would be more true to form if I could circular-breathe!). In real life, however, every sound I produce needs to head somewhere meaningfully or making music isn’t fun for me. (Considering the musical saw, however, I guess “fun” is a relative term.)
While I wasn’t thrilled about my autoharp friend being happy at Clunk Fest, I decided to do the only responsible thing I could think of: I slept on her statement. For a few nights, in fact. And here is what I decided:
I attend Clunk Fests regularly (yes, me!), because I have to start somewhere every time I learn something new, music or otherwise. (Don’t we all?)
The most blatant, musical Clunk Fest I can think of occurred in 1991 when I began to play chord-and-release (C&R) on a diatonic autoharp. My really sloppy, five-note scale, played ad nauseum, sounded excruciating, but I was developing a new skill that was gong to take some time. About four days later, clunk significantly reduced, and I was playing tunes that my friends could also recognize. Now, 25 years later, C&R is easy, although I will still stop to ponder a finicky chord or fingering, or something within a tune arrangement that doesn’t quite fit.
On the hammered dulcimer, every time I learn a new and difficult piece, clunk! Take the “Courante” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major: there is no time for immediate musicality when learning this challenging, all-over-the-dulcimer piece until I know where the hammers are heading. Then I can polish up the phrasing and a spectacular, musical result. (You all should hear me practice to appreciate my bloopers during early learning stages. No, don’t! You’ll be happier with a boring audio book.)
I attend Clunk Fest for non-musical endeavors, too. Here’s a good one: In September 2009, I knitted my first pullover sweater without a pattern and without sewing in the sleeves. Had I known more about gauge in particular, the yarn wouldn’t now be fraying at the edges, but I had to knit that sweater in order to ensure that the next one (actually, the next several) would be better yet. With the help of a couple good resource books, it’s happened. (I also found out that my biggest obstacle to knitting a sweater was, of all things, the published pattern.)
If we all need a Clunk Fest every now and then, what’s the problem? Staying there. I know some folks who do this, including those who know they clunk yet refuse to do something about it. (I understand how difficult change can be, but wouldn’t they rather use a coping mechanism that will serve them well?) Happily, a lot that goes into making music well comes under The Science of Music, which can be taught. (I do it all the time.) When we consider the ambassadorship that comes with spreading the joy of little-known stringed instruments with the world, we need to play as well as we can to encourage everyone to listen to us again.
In my music-teaching practice, I assume that students want to master their object of mass vibration (otherwise, why would they want lessons?), and that they believe I can help them achieve the stellar playing they yearn for and have been unable to cultivate on their own. Once they discover that I am taking them well beyond “right notes” (because that is usually all they aspire to), they realize that making their instruments sound good is available to them, wherever they are in their playing experience, not just to a talented, intuitive few. I am happy when my students are happy, because their playing sounds beautiful (even their mistakes!) with solid rhythm that enables them to play at home alone for their own amazement as well as hold their own in a jam session without blowing the group up.
(By the way, if I got a dollar for every time a hammered dulcimer player watched where my hammers struck when I asked them instead to watch how I move while playing for the best in musicality, I’d be a wealthy woman. No musical information is obtainable from watching the hammers strike.)
So for now I will honor my friend’s fulfilled dream to play a tune she loves that is well outside her skill level. Her autoharping may be a Clunk Fest at the moment, but she has to be there, and it’s right on track. Hopefully, the more she plays that tune, the more she will desire to also make those right notes sing. (That power lives within her–and all of us–not within the instrument.) When that time comes, I will be here to help her make that happen.
Got a Clunk Fest story to share? Feel free to do so by leaving a comment below!
Lucille. I cannot thank you enough for the journey you took me on. You showed me the way to achieving the beautiful autoharp music that I had always believed was possible.
My pleasure, Ken. Making beautiful music IS possible with targeted help, yet sometimes we still need to clunk along the way to get there.
I am now “clunking” my way through learning to create cartoon characters for my new children’s book, “Weeds”. I had fine art training, but nothing in the cartoon realm. Yikes! I need to go super SIMPLE. Does not compute with anything I’ve done with all other painting mediums. Ann Norris
Loved your blog about clunking – it was encouraging. Who hasn’t been there! I always have something new I am clunking through. Just spent the past three day doing so and today it is already performance ready.
I would like to suggest that you submit articles like this to Dulcimer Players News for the encouragement of new players.
Your blog touches some excellent points on how we learn to do new things. In my own case, when I play the autoharp, I am usually playing by ear, or by just following a musical idea to see what it develops into. As such, almost everything begins with a Clunk Fest. And that’s not bad. I often hear, in mis-played or mis-fingered attempts at a phrase or passage, something which sounds different from what I wanted, but is something which I pursue later in a different setting or in some improvisational session.
The thing I find most interesting is that after clunking around with a piece or a passage, the next time I come back to it, after a day or two, I have incorporated into muscle/subconscious memory much of what I wanted achieve the first time but didn’t get right. It’s better after letting it sleep for a day.
In my professional career, I have had to learn to apply the teaching of Shakespeare:
“Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”
or, Voltaire: “The best is the enemy of the good”
if one insists on perfection as an end result, the job can never end, or, more likely, will never be undertaken.
And so, some portion of my daily playing sessions will contain clunk, where I am exploring new territory and learning, and some portions will be playing for beauty and serenity to draw comfort and pleasure from the instrument. Both aspects are enjoyable to me.
If I never allowed myself to clunk, I would never grow as a musician and would never learn new pieces.