Roxie Smith loves the music produced by the dulcimer.
During visits to the Georgia mountains, she would listen to musicians in quaint shops and often asked them to play for her — until a shopkeeper said no. He told her she could play for him and showed Smith how. That was in 1992.
"He was really pretty smart," said Smith, who lives in Ozona. "I walked out with a dulcimer that day. Something about the sound draws you. It seems to move people."
As her fondness for the dulcimer grew, so did her ability to play. After practicing and building a repertoire, Smith said she felt the next step was to share her music.
"I started playing at the bedsides of people in nursing homes," said Smith, a Largo High School graduate. "I got amazing responses. When I played for people who were in a dementia state, they responded, too."
The soft-spoken musician takes yoga classes three times a week and oozes patience with students who enter class uncertain they will ever play a tune. She also teaches individual lessons.
For Smith, music is about more than making beautiful sounds. It connects people. She enjoys serving as a conduit for people, some who have longed to play for years, often decades.
"I ask people in class, 'What led you here?' and some of the stories are heartbreaking," said Smith, 63. "Some say, 'All my life I wanted to play music. When I was a child there was only money for one and my brother got lessons.' "
Many had no time for lessons between raising families and working. Now, in retirement, music lessons are an option. Yet playing may not be as easy as it would have been in the past.
"I have one lady who arrives in a wheelchair and one who wears oxygen," said Smith. "Last year I had a student who came with a port in her arm. She left class each week in time to make her chemotherapy appointment. It is wonderful to put something in their hands that brings them joy."
Retired three years ago as a grant writer for the Hospice Foundation, Smith also volunteered as a hospice caregiver and served as caregiver for her own family.
But for more than two years, Smith has used her master's degree in gerontology to teach dulcimer lessons at Dunedin's Hale Senior Activity Center.
The only class requirement is a sense of rhythm.
"Although the mountain dulcimer is a really easy instrument to learn, it can grow with you as your skills develop," said Smith. "Different tunings can be used to play complicated pieces that cross the traditional mountain genre into jazz, blues, and swing. I'm always amazed at the music that can be coaxed from a non-chromatic instrument on just three strings."
Class participants range in age from 50 to the 80s.
Sturdy cardboard-constructed dulcimers in pine green and a deep pomegranate color are provided for students. People bring their own, too. Some have been tucked away in closets for years. Others are brand-new. Artist Carol Sackman has painted one of hers.
"I'm an artist, but I'm not musical," said Sackman of Dunedin. "Roxie breaks down the music and makes it easy to learn the technique and feel satisfied."
Charann Gross is not new to music.
"I've played clarinet, keyboards and I sing," said Gross, 59, of Dunedin. "I thought it would be fun. I feel so relaxed in class, and Roxie motivates me."
Virginia Norris of Safety Harbor is a class graduate, but volunteered to help mentor Mimi Burley of Clearwater.
"I thought, I know a bit more than she does and because of that, thought I could help," said Norris, 81, who now belongs to a dulcimer club.
That club, the Dedicated Dulcimers of Dunedin, meets on Thursdays. The club is Smith's answer for students when classes end and they ask, "What now?" She offers a free introductory class on what to expect.
"The dulcimer club has about 15 active members," said Smith. "In the winter, this number will grow as the snowbirds return. Sometimes we play out in the community … nursing facilities and Hale Center events mostly."
And while much of Smith's time is devoted to dulcimers, she has other delights.
"I am passionate about the outdoors and we are so blessed to live in an area that provides public beaches and parks, and the Pinellas Trail, such a gem," said Smith, who moved to Dunedin as a teenager."
Smith's students get it. They glean that joy through the strings of a dulcimer. Thanks to the Hale Center and their teacher, who believes in everyone who enters her class.
"We are all born with a musical ability," said Smith. "We know this because all babies instinctively dance to music. They hold on to the crib rails and move their little bodies before they can even walk. So when someone says to me, I have no musical ability, or the only thing I can play is the radio, I say, let me prove you wrong."