JANESVILLE—“One day, when there’s time.”
Like others who struggle to balance life, work and family, a younger Nancy Garrett vowed she would one day gift herself the time to dig deeper into her love for music.
“I had no time with teaching, raising a family and going off to college to get my master’s degree to do anything with music,” she said. “So when I became 50 years old, I decided it was time to become a kid again and learn music.”
The product of a musical family, Garrett admits that, in her youth, she “knew nothing” about playing an instrument. That changed when she came across the dulcimer.
Members of the zither family, dulcimers come in two main types: mountain (also called “lap” or “Appalachian”) and hammer. The former is an hourglass-shaped, fretted instrument played by plucking its three or four strings, and the latter features a trapezoidal body working as a resonate board under multiple strings struck by small mallets, or “hammers.”
Garrett was captivated by the instrument’s sound—a tonal reminder of America’s early days. As a former teacher, she also found the dulcimer’s history intriguing.
“Finding out it is a true American instrument developed in the Appalachian mountains made it even more intriguing because of the reenacting and rendezvousing we do,” Garrett said, referring to the time-period gatherings she and her husband, Tom, attend. “I just really enjoyed it and hit, as my husband calls it, the underground world of dulcimer. I just started learning, learning, learning.”
She hasn’t stopped. After retiring, Garrett not only taught herself how to play dulcimer, she estimates she has helped “infect” about 2,000 others. That includes several third- and fourth-grade classes within the Milton School District, an ever-growing crop of senior strummers that meets Wednesday mornings at The Gathering Place in Milton, and another group that gathers monthly at Small Wonders Learning Center in Milton.
Later this month, Garrett’s group—the Southern Wisconsin Dulcimer Club—will try to lure even more members when it hosts its 11th annual dulcimer festival in Janesville. Along with a free jam session May 31 at Voigt Music Center, the festival features a full day of workshops and a concert June 1 at Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church.
For this year’s festival, the local group has lined up some of the nation’s top dulcimer players to provide instruction. Teachers include Wendy Songe, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based mountain dulcimer player who won last year’s championship during competition in Winfield, Kansas; Erin Mae, a Wichita, Kansas-based mountain dulcimer player who won the national title when she was only 17; and Rick Thum, a Eureka, Missouri-based hammer dulcimer player whose resume includes a Southwest Regional championship.
Garrett’s husband, Tom, also will offer classes in drop-thumb banjo, mouth harp and mandolin.
Despite booking recognized instructors and drawing workshop participants from around the country, Garrett said the popularity of dulcimers on the local level is limited. She hopes the festival can help remedy that.
“Last year we had about 53 people learning, but they come in from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois ... some from Missouri,” she said. “The people in Janesville? Very few seem to know about it.”
Garrett hopes that, along with those who are simply curious, others who have previously attempted to play the dulcimer but gave up will come in and give the instrument another go.
“There are a lot of people who bought them and put them under their beds because they’ve been down to Branson, Missouri, found these sweet-sounding instruments and, yeah, been told that if they can count to 10, they can play,” Garrett said. “Then they get home, and they don’t know what to do. I’ve found many of those people.”
Garrett knows learning to play the dulcimer isn’t easy, but with some practice and passion, she says the instrument can provide a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment.
“I can just go into another world when I sit there and play,” she said. “I still do an awful lot through having to look at tablature, and I can sometimes find a piece and do some playing with it, but I’m not a professional-quality musician that has this come automatically to me. I’ve had to learn and dig and work hard at doing it.”
Garrett is happy to help anyone who would like to learn more about her beloved instrument.
“If they have a desire to learn and want to do something different in their lives, I am open to helping them.”