Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sea Shanties

One of the funnest kinds of folk music out there are sea shanties. Maybe it's the influence of Shanty Man over at folkthyme radio, or it's just growing up with boats in the land of 10,000 lakes, but they hold a special place in my heart. I wish I could just sing while I worked, of course I talk for a living so that wouldn't go over very well. But I found a lovely sea song, which strictly speaking is not a shanty, and I just wanted to share it with you all.

She says that this is a work in progress, but to me it seems pretty much complete. It's a lovely and inspirational tune. She also appears to play the dulcimer left handed, which is interesting to see. It's a lovely song and one that I want to visit again and again, that's why I posted it here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Musings about Music

It seems like a day doesn't go by when I don't find myself contemplating music. Yesterday I put a post up about FolkThyme internet radio. I love having it playing while I write my blog posts, it reminds me how diverse and how meaningful folk music can be. But in this post I want to talk about my love for my autoharp, and about my history with it. When I was in grade school we had both a piano and an autoharp in the music room. This was back in the 70's and I lived in a nice suburb of upper middle class families.

I remember I had the opportunity to take the autoharp home and play it. I laid it out on the living room floor next to the piano, and pushed buttons and strummed away on it. I strummed and strummed with the pick until it leapt out of my fingers and right down the hole in the autoharp. From what I can remember I was pretty upset about this, tried to shake the pick loose, but it just didn't work. So I strummed and strummed some more with my fingernail until my little 9 year old fingers hands were sore from holding the buttons. As I recollect I only had it for the weekend. The other thing I remember was June Carter Cash playing the autoharp on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, holding it upright. When I asked my music teacher about playing that way at school, she told me that the correct way to play the autoharp was with it lying flat.

Remember when I said that I put it on the floor next the piano? Well, my first instrument was the piano, I think I was six when I first started taking lessons. It was fun at first, but later I was made to continue because I had to learn to commit to something. Some kind of life lesson my parents wanted me to know. I finally quit when I was about nine or ten. Then it was time to sign up for band, and I wanted to play the flute, but all little girls wanted to play flute so I was steared toward the clarinet. So for four years I played in band, but it was a small band and the Senior High band members were all also the schools marching band. This I did not want to do. But music was a part of me now, so I joined the choir.

Singing became my main musical outlet, and in my teens my sister and I each got guitars. I struggled with it with my soft girly fingertips. I loved my guitar for at least one whole summer, but I never took lessons, though my sister did. But I kept singing and my guitar collected dust, I wanted pretty long nails, which seemed more important to me. Later in college I flirted with the piano again as an elective class. I really liked it. A lot. But pianos are kind of big and expensive and hard to get up the stairs to an apartment. Then at some point I took up the twelve string guitar because I always loved the sound. I spent a good year with it, but only barely learned 3 songs though I practiced a lot. Again I didn't take lessons.

The next musical transition was trading my twelve string for a flute. Because, you see, I wanted the flute not the clarinet all those years before. This time I did take lessons. It was really fun, and I wonder where my flute music went to. The flute is in a closet somewhere. You would think that I would learn something by now, get a smattering of music theory or something. Well, I can read music for the most part, but there are all kinds of complexities out there that are way above my head. I've got some pennywhistles lying around here somewhere which I have an audio tape and book.

Finally the Autoharp comes back into my life. I saw my friend Becca Leathers playing one with her band Riverfolk. Now, it had been some time since I'd seen live music. It's funny how time passes when you are dealing with trying to be an adult. It was so wonderful, and they are so good, that I fell immediately in love with their music and enchanted with the idea of taking up the Autoharp. That was June of 2009, and I'm still playing my Autoharp. Thanks in part to taking some lessons so I'd learn how to play it properly.

And here I have to say that I feel spoiled, priviledged, and honored to have the opportunity to take lessons from Karen Mueller: 1986 International Autoharp Champion & 2006 Autoharp Hall of Fame. While living in Lawrence, Kansas, Karen took first place in the Kansas State Dulcimer Championships in 1984 and 1985, and was a finalist at the 1985 National Dulcimer Contest in Winfield. She lives here in the twin cities and teaches at Homestead Pickin' Parlor. She travels all over doing workshops as well. And she gave me a mountain dulcimer lesson on her instruments so I could try before I buy. As I said in a previous post, I have signed up for The Dulcimer School due to financial considerations. But I'll take lessons from her again, when I get stuck and need some extra help with either the Autoharp or the Mountain Dulcimer. I'm on my own with the Kantele, but for the book and what I can find on the internet.

A long post, but I just needed to work through the steps in my journey through instruments as I stand on the verge of taking up yet another one. And I forgot to mention the doumbek that I took up for a while. Still have one, they're too fun not to have at a music party.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Finding Time for Folk

It took me ages and ages to check out the website, and I feel really guilty about that, Shanty Man, I really do. But I'll try and make up for it by writing a recommendation here online, in my blog, where it can exist to influence anyone with the great good fortune of stumbling upon it. And I really do mean great good fortune. Because is the place you want to go to get your fix for good folk, bluegrass, and blues. But mostly folk of a great variety. The DJ is a friend of mine known in folk and burlesque circles as The Shanty Man. It is now my favorite soundtrack while I blog.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Details about my new Mountain Dulcimer

I need to share my excitement about how beautiful my new mountain dulcimer will be. Because I didn't want to purchase a McSpadden, mainly due to the use of plywood and no hard shell case, and it was a little bit more money, I went with Folkcraft to build my first dulcimer. I made the best decision I could based on my online research and a few tips from Karen Mueller. Karen actually recommends the McSpadden by the way, and it is played by Stephen Seifert, who teaches Mountain Dulcimer at To be honest, I had already fallen in love with the beautiful things due to Bing Futch's playing on them, and his recommendation of them as well. He has a gallery of his dulcimers on his website, many of which were made by Folkcraft.

Since Karen said I shouldn't get a dulcimer with a lacquered fretboard, that ruled out the ready to ship FSH models. I was really concerned about that as well, so I contacted them and they said it would be no problem to build my dulcimer with a waxed fretboard, which is an option on their fully custom model.
She also mentioned that having a tuning head that is flat like a guitar would make it easier to change the strings than the more traditional scroll. Because I have a tremor, I did opt for that $50.00 upgrade, because stuff like that can be difficult for me at times. The Build Your Own option for the FSH model has lots of options to choose from, including sound holes. I couldn't resist the old folkie beauty of the hearts & vine option that is pictured at the top of this post. Hearts are traditional, and I love growing things. The fine woodburning around the pattern just adds another layer of texture.

Then there were the wood choices, just three to choose from, they did have a nice description on what the different tones would be like on the page:

The FSH Folkcraft teardrop dulcimer is a superb instrument for those that are budget minded. The black walnut creates a fat, mellow tone with great resonance. Or, you can select northern cherry which creates a bright full sound that has slight ringing overtones. Plus you can select the tone hole style that fits your personality. The FSH model is perfect for the beginner.

So I went with the Northern Cherry because one of the qualities I love about the dulcimer is the silvery tones of it over the mellowness of a guitar or the twang of a banjo. And that's the final picure I have is of the wood:

I think I compiled this entry for myself more than anyone, so I can come back and remember how I made my decisions, and so I can look at my options and imagine my new mountain dulcimer for the next few weeks. I am also collecting Dulcimer TAB that I will be adding to my music book. There will be many songs to learn.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Practicing the Autoharp

With all the excitement of the Advent of My New Mountain Dulcimer, I've neglected my Autoharp. Sad but true, it had been sitting in a chair cheerily waiting for me to pick it up for the past couple of weeks. Over the weekend I went into Dulcimer Input Overload, and I just can't bring myself to watch another dulcimer video for a few days. For a while I was practicing my Kantele, an essential part of toughening up my fingertips in preperation for the dulcimer. So my autoharp languished in it's chair expectantly waiting. Tonight I decided to at least tune it, then I had to make sure it was in tune by playing a song. I frustrated myself by playing one that I don't have the cord changes down completely, and then I played one I new a little better, and another, and another. Before I knew it an hour had gone by.

Yes, I still love my autoharp, and I need to get a couple songs down better over the next few weeks, because when my dulcimer arrives, it will have to take a holiday again. I am impatiently waiting, and feeling a little frustrated. I am taking a couple of long weekends in May, to get my gardens in order and then finally, finally, play with my new Mountain Dulcimer. I'll add details about that in my next post. A girl needs to gush about her new toy after all.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Learning More about the Mountain Dulcimer

I am approximately 23 days away from holding my new dulcimer in my hands. After spending time on Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer, and reading some recommendations of other beginning players, I decided to sign up for Dulcimer School. It's the closest thing to Hogwarts I can find for learning to play my new Mountain Dulcimer. After spending a few hours watching the foundational videos, I'm certain I made the right choice. The classes are taught by Stephen Seifert, who is one of the worlds foremost instructors on the mountain dulcimer, and I love watching him play.

So far I've learned how to hold the dulcimer, how to change strings, tune, and play a melody note. Of course it will be much better to have the instrument in hand, but for me, I really do like to watch it through one time before I try a technique any way. I did think long and hard about taking classes with Karen Mueller at Homestead Pickin' Parlour. She did give me a lesson on her instrument so I could try it out to see if I would really like it, and of course I LOVED it. My decision was made mostly due to budget and time considerations. Starting out I really wanted to have the information I needed right in front of me, and this is a way for me to do that, and one month is less than one half-hour private lesson.

Based on my history with learning the Autoharp, I would tend to focus on it in spurts, practicing constantly some weeks, and very little or not at all other weeks. With the online school I will be able to work with that kind of eratic learning curve and really take advantage of my energy curve when it comes to learning. If I ever get stuck on something, I can always take a drop in lesson with Karen as well. This is going to be a really fun spring and summer I can tell you!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Venues

When I was searching YouTube for Autoharp inspiration several months ago, I ran across the Dulcimerica podcast. Now mind you, when I was thinking of taking up the autoharp I was also considering the Mountain Dulcimer. Both looked easier to learn than the guitar, which I tried picking up a couple of times only to give up in frustration after practicing for months and only learning a song or two. I watched a couple of episodes and stored it in the back of my mind, until one day about a month ago, I decided to look at it again. Then I was hooked.

The instrument that I thought was mostly a kit for woodworking hobbyists to put together has become my new obsession. I've watched episode after episode on YouTube, joined in on Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer, subscribed to Dulcimer Player News, and ordered a dulcimer from And in case there are any doubts, this is a spectacular instrument which as easy or hard to learn as you want it to be.

Tonight I went to visit an open mic night at the 42nd Avenue Station, a coffee shop a quick 10 minute drive from my house. I didn't play myself, I'm not ready for that kind of behaviour yet. But I was really delighted when a mountaint dulcimer player got up and played Arlo Guthrie's "Garden". He was playing a McSpadden that he got from a friend of his who had it shut away in a closet. Primarily a guitarist, she wanted it to go to a home where it would get used. Now he has the mountain dulcimer bug and I showed him my copy of Dulcimer Player News which just came in the mail today.

With the new focus of my life, on music and the growing family of zither instruments that I'm playing, I'm glad to have found a new venue to see live music every week. Maybe someday I'll get the courage to stand on the other side of the mic. But for now, I'll just be a good audience and get to know some more musician folk.