Carol Crocker has a dedicated music room in her house. There are several dulcimers, a piano and an organ, along with a shelf crammed with books and sheet music.
But calling it a music room fails to capture what the room has meant to Crocker.
For this eight-year cancer survivor, the room is more akin to a sanctuary, a place where she can practice her craft and disappear into the rich, honeyed tones of the mountain dulcimer.
Crocker, 65, is a classically trained musician who sings with the Piedmont Chamber Singers. She was introduced to the mountain dulcimer as a student in Western Carolina University’s music education program. After a rigorous treatment for a rare gastrointestinal cancer, Crocker decided at the age of 57, that it was time to learn the instrument.
“It was part of my healing. It just speaks to me spiritually, musically. When I need to find a place of comfort, I come and play this,” Crocker said, nodding to the mountain dulcimer sitting on her lap. “The sound is so calming.”
Now 65, Crocker teaches mountain dulcimer and performs around the area, including in churches and the Williams Adult Day Center. Crocker will be teaching at the Winston-Salem Dulcimer Festival on May 4. For more information about the festival, visit www.winstonsalemdulcimerfestival.com.
Q: How would you describe your art?
Answer: My art is playing the Appalachian mountain dulcimer and singing. I enjoy trying different styles of music, but my favorites are traditional and some contemporary folk songs, African American spirituals, and I love singing and playing hymns.
Q: How have you evolved as an artist?
Answer: When I was first introduced to the dulcimer, I was bringing a background in classical training to my learning and playing. I am a retired music teacher with a master’s degree in Music Education and 30 years of experience in the classroom. In my classical training, typically you would not deviate from what is on the page. So, I would play exactly what is on the dulcimer tablature or music. I have had to learn that when playing folk music, the tablature is more of a guideline. There is freedom to play around with your own variations or rendition of a tune. It is OK to play it by ear. As I progressed as a player, I have and am still learning to bring my own personality to the tune.
In addition to just improving my skills and developing my own style, I have also become more confident in my ability as an artist to perform alone with the dulcimer. It has usually been easier for me to sing in front of an audience than playing (even with playing piano). But now I really enjoy singing and accompanying myself on the dulcimer. My confidence is now even stronger when I’m playing and not singing.
Q: Who has influenced your art?
Answer: I don’t know that there is any one person or thing that has influenced my artistry. My hometown is Huntington, W.Va., and I have always loved the mountains, its folk music and folk songs. When I was at Western Carolina University, Dr. Eva Adcock, the music ed instructor, exposed us to the music of the region. We heard the mountain dulcimer and learned how to clog. But it wasn’t until I heard the dulcimer again at a school Heritage Day that, I remembered how much I loved its sound. From there, I went to a dulcimer week at Appalachian State. Anna Barry, my dulcimer instructor, realized how much I loved the instrument. At the end of that week she gave me a nice Clifford Glen dulcimer because she somehow knew it would play an important part of my life and work. I would have to say her influence was what started me on my way. After I retired, I came back to spend more time with this instrument I love.
I have tried to learn as much as I can from several different artists. I love to hear Ann Lough and Sarah Morgan sing and play. I also love to watch how smooth effortless Larry Conger plays. However, two of my close dulcimer friends have both encouraged and reminded me to just be the best that I can at what I can do well.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
Answer: Right now, my biggest challenge is trying to get my name out there as a teacher and performer so that I can be invited to teach and perform at dulcimer festivals and other venues. As a retired music teacher, I’m a bit late to the game it seems.
The other big challenge is making sure I can spend enough time practicing my music and writing and arranging. I’m working on putting a book together of African-American spirituals. But it seems like life always gets in the way of getting it finished: having to run those little errands, washing clothes, etc.
Q: What does art do for you?
Answer: My art is my happy place, my place of peace and comfort. In 2010-2011, I experienced a serious illness. During the time of my healing and recovering, I came back to the dulcimer, and decided it was now or never for me to learn how to play this instrument that I loved to hear. Playing the dulcimer was part of my healing. It was then that my parents came to live with me because mom’s Alzheimer’s made it difficult for them to remain at their home without help. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. I watched the person I dearly love struggle with the challenges of this cruel disease. On difficult days, I would go to my music space, get my dulcimer and play “Jesus Loves Me.” Everything would be OK. My mom seemed to enjoy the sweet sound of the dulcimer also. She loved singing with me playing. Dulcimer music seemed to help us both find a calm and happy place.
Q: Any advice for other artists?
Answer: Don’t forget what drew you to your music. You can get lost in the process and forget why you chose to be a musician in the first place … for the love of making music and the joy it brings. Remember becoming an artist is a process. I have students who hear others playing and think they don’t sound as good. I still catch myself doing the same thing. We all start at the very beginning, but honor and appreciate the progress you do make … look how far you’ve come. Never stop learning. (And I am still learning every day.) Lastly, confidence in yourself goes a long way; appreciate and own what you do, and do it to the best of your ability. I also have to remind myself of this every day.