Music at Your Library with Guest Blogger Rachel Nicholas

Music at Your Library with Guest Blogger Rachel Nicholas of West Florida Public Libraries

When my director asked me to start a dulcimer class at my library, I was incredulous to say the least as to whether it was a good idea. “Who cares about dulcimers?” I thought. “It’s a simple enough instrument, and it is not hard to learn. They’ve got to be passé by now.” Boy, was I wrong. After a fair bit of convincing on my director’s part and watching Robin Shader’s PLAN Quick Class: How to Start a Ukulele Program in your Library I set about starting a dulcimer program at my library.

The first thing I did was go to my local guitar store and see if they still carried any. They were actually in the process of downsizing. But they were able to tell me a little about what they watch out for with instruments and a couple brands they avoided as their workmanship was suspect. Armed with that information, I set off to the trusty internet. After a bit of looking and reading reviews, I found a company based in California who made dulcimers and sold them to schools and other places. I gave them a call, talked about what my goal was, and asked if their advertised price was one they would be willing to beat given I would need multiple. Thankfully, they were amenable to not only offering a price just a bit above cost, they were even willing to send a dulcimer over for me to inspect for quality — they were so sure of their product. So, sure enough their product met my expectations, and the library placed an order for some to be used in the program.

From there the library advertised the same way that it advertises everything: on the website, with a press release, flyers, and Facebook event.

After a few fits and starts, we have a steady, weekly, dulcimer class. Many students use our dulcimers, but a good few of the regulars have decided they wanted their own. Our routine seems to work pretty well at this point. Prior to class, I pick one song to work on with everyone based on their performance in weeks prior. I always have simpler songs on hand as well in case new people come in. Some patrons are so excited about the class they arrive early just to help set up and make sure the instruments are in tune.

When we start, the flow of the class is dictated by the attendees and their proficiencies. If it is mostly returning students I let them pick songs to warm up/review. I prefer encouraging us to play songs that we worked on in weeks prior so that some of the more modest players can see that they are indeed improving and making progress. After review, we move on to the new song for the evening. I may play the new song once so that everyone has an idea of what we are aiming for. If it is a very familiar song then I may skip the example part, and go straight to working through the song one measure at a time with everyone. If it is a small enough class, we will work on pieces together for the first half of the class in this fashion, while in the second half I’ll pull students aside and work with them individually so that they don’t get lost in the group.

This pattern seems to have served me well thus far. I’ve had patrons from elementary school on up in attendance, regulars are getting to the point where they help others in class and, without fail, new attendees always seem surprised by their progress by the end of the evening.

A few takeaways:

  • Do you remember the joke about the two men being chased by a bear where the punchline is one, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, just you?” You don’t have to be the best at anything to teach, you just have to stay ahead of the group. There are times when I stumble but patrons are there to have a good time, not question your proficiency.
  • Is there a: dulcimer, ukulele, underwater basket weaving group in your area? Check in with them before you get started! Groups are as varied as the people in them. Some groups are very set in their rhythm. They may not want to leave their cozy meeting space to be part of your program, but they sure have tips and input. I’ve yet to see a group that would put guarding their “territory” over spreading their passion.
  • Publicity: A local newspaper picked up that our library was giving lessons. After that article ran attendance skyrocketed. Is there a newspaper, blogger, media personality you know of?
  • This is one thing on the dulcimers I wish I had known before. I learned from Sarah Burris in the Northwest Regional Library system that cardboard dulcimers are a legitimate thing. Now these wouldn’t be ones that you’d send home with people but it is definitely a gateway or opportunity to test the waters.
  • Above all, have fun! Pick something you enjoy. If you enjoy x hobby, chances are you aren’t the only one.

[If you’re interested in more training on starting a music class at your library, come to the Library Essentials Conference: Community Engagement on April 12th where Sarah Burris from the Northwest Regional Library System will be providing a breakout session on “Music Classes at Your Library.”]

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