My (First) Journey to Walnut Valley

January 2018: late night at a Steak n' Shake in Ft. Wayne hanging out with Doug, our dear friends and mentors Ted and Donna, and their family...Ted (the 2010 National Champion) says casually "Hey, you should go compete at Winfield" this point I had 6 months under my belt with the dulcimer and knew 5 songs, none of which were contest-worthy. The problem was my aunt (the one who let me borrow her dulcimer to start this crazy obsession) also encouraged me to go. After some time to think and pray I called the Yoders back and asked for some serious help preparing for this contest (since I go all-in with stuff like this). My best shot was to stop thinking in terms of mastering the instrument and just focus on the 4 required contest songs. Mastering an instrument takes years - I had about 7 months to practice.

I wanted jaw-droppers for the contest tunes and the HARDEST part without a doubt was the song selection. With Ted's blessing I started working on his lively original Whispers in the Trees. I was making decent progress when my dad suddenly fell ill with pneumonia and passed away two weeks later in March. So many emotions - none of which fit that song. I had to hang it up for awhile.

I messed around with several songs before recalling an old music box my mom had - a 7up can that you flip over to start the tune. I remembered the tune but didn't know the title...thank goodness for Google! I found one on eBay which said it was the theme from the movie Love Story. I know the basic plot but have never seen the movie (and I like it that way) - but this song had the right amount of nostalgia from my childhood and sweet but somber emotion for what I was going through. I used sheet music as a guide and learned it one painstaking note at a time, adapting the piano arrangement for dulcimer - it's a beast to play and became the crown jewel of my contest tunes. It also took me over 2 months just to get from start to finish!

After that I came back to Whispers in the Trees but still needed two more songs. With time running out we decided to use my cover of I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers as a third song. It's got a fun story behind it - I learned it for Doug on Valentine's Day - but that wouldn't be anything I could tell people during the contest. The neat part about this song is that I use two hammers in my right hand to imitate the guitar chords. It's not the hardest song in the world, but it's fun and it's a crowd-pleaser...but I was still one song short. May, June, and July passed and I was still searching for song #4. I tried several that seemed ideal but fell flat on day two or three of practice (kinda like a string of first dates that keep going south!).

Finally, at the tail end of July, I revisited my list of brainstormed song ideas and found one that made me stop and ponder. I tried the intro. I got goosebumps. I came back the next day and did a little more and realized I was onto something. About three weeks later I performed the Meatloaf cover I'd Do Anything For Love for the first time at a dulcimer festival organized by the local folk music society - not exactly your typical folk tune! It was a hit and a great fit for my personality. I had my songs!

Along the way through this process my mindset shifted dramatically (thanks to good advice and a great book called Burn Your Goals) from "go to win" to "give my very best every day and have fun"...or "enjoy the journey" as I was told many times! The actual journey to Winfield Kansas was 700 miles one way and we stayed at the most peaceful Airbnb farm house! It was an hour from the festival but brought peace and quiet to an otherwise nerve-wracking weekend! It wasn't entirely quiet though: my family came along and that included Doug, our son (5 years old), my mom, and my uncle and aunt who let me borrow her dulcimer! We had fun.


The festival itself was quite the experience. September 12-16 and it was hot. I don't like heat. My face turns brighter red than Rudolph's nose and with two sunny days over 100 degrees I was on the struggle bus! Despite that the music was amazing and there was plenty to do and see. I rubbed elbows with at least 6 former hammered dulcimer champions...7 if you count the winner from this year! The contest field was 12 strong and according to those who know it was the most talent-filled group of competitors in many years. I spent a lot of time tuning and being backstage it was difficult to hear the others' songs very clearly - but I never heard anything less than stellar. As for me, I did the best I could with hands shaking and about 3 degrees shy of heat exhaustion.

The contest is interesting: it's judged by a panel of experts and they are located in a different room. They don't see the competitors or know who's playing - it's completely blind so that there's no bias. They only hear what the microphone picks up from the instrument. I had 5 minutes in the first round to play two songs. I played 500 Miles and Love Story. As we gathered backstage, most of us had no clue if we'd move forward to the final round (top 5 only). The 5 of us that did were excited and a bit surprised. I drew 4th out of 5 for order and opened with Whispers and rounded out the experience with the Meatloaf cover. I was careful to take a moment before playing to just look out at the crowd and say to myself "You're here! You made it! Praise God, I get to play all 4 of my songs!"...It wasn't my best-ever performance, but it was the best I had on that day under those conditions. I'm proud of it. Before the contest started I met a sweet lady nicknamed Coco who was also competing AND celebrating her 80th birthday. She gave me this tip: "Just go out there and serve it to 'em on a platter!" I love it! That stuck with me and she was one of the highlights of the whole weekend!

I did not place in the top 3 and the score cards are not given out. However, I had a ton of people talk to me after the contest telling me how they enjoyed what I played (and some telling me that they disagreed with the results and that I should've won - I don't share that opinion but I don't mind them having it either!). I was stopped all night long as I walked around with people telling me these things and even sending me messages later the next week...the connection to these people and knowing that I played something that excited them - THAT is my true reward and more valuable than a title.

me, Ben Haguewood - 3rd, Matthew Dickerson, Colin Beasley - 1st, and Benjamin Barker - 2nd
photo courtesy of Matthew Dickerson

If I break it down, I really had 3 goals with this contest:
**to see what I could do if I threw away the limiters and gave it 100%
**to honor my mentors Ted and Donna, and honor the artistry of Russell Cook and others at Master Works who built my instrument - people who all have a passion for reaching down and pulling others up who want to learn to play at a high level
**to chase a bigger platform for sharing my story that God has incredibly written over the past few years: resurrecting music as a passion for me and guiding me to a marimba, a hammered dulcimer, and a ton of people I don't deserve to know

I've enjoyed the journey...but I still intend to win at some point so I'll be back!

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