Saturday, April 28, 2012

Play Date

Today my mountain dulcimer Mary Ann and I are hopping in my PT Cruiser to go play with my big brother. He plays the guitar, so we are going to have a jam practice together. My sweet Mary Ann turned one year old on April 19th, and I forgot to note it here in the blog. Actually, I forgot to note it in my life, but that's another story. I've had a very busy couple of weeks at work, and so all the home stuff was put on the back burner.

Now I'm ready to put more energy into things like my upcoming music party, hence the play date. We tried coordinating remotely, but my diatonic little lady needs face to face time with other instruments apparently. That's cool, as I love playing with others. This is the third year for my Spring Music Party, and I'm pretty excited about it. The RSVP's have been coming in, and there will be some very fine musicians and singers in attendance. Having musicians in the family is really awesome, and I'm going to take advantage of this perk more often. The family that plays together, stays together. I might just have to put that on a T-Shirt.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Still Point

Every once in a while you come across a rare and wonderful piece of work. Since 2009, I have been taking lessons on the autoharp and then on the dulcimer from Karen Mueller. During that time, I have been slowly collecting her albums. Still Point was released in 2000, and like most folk/world albums it is timeless. I was looking to listen to her play the dulcimer, since that is the instrument I am concentrating on learning right now. As a zither enthusiast, I just love to hear someone with her skill level play. This has some dulcimer tunes, but it also features other instruments that she plays as well, including autoharp.
The album opens with "30-Year Jig" which sets the tone for the entire work. On that song, Karen plays both the mountain dulcimer and the autoharp. The title for the album is a quote:
"At the still point, there the dance is..." - T.S. Eliot
For me, it emphasizes the listener. While we are still, her fingers do their lively dance on the strings of multiple instruments. This is the magic of recording, where Karen can play multiple parts on a single song. I think everyone should have this album. It has a good amount of Celtic classics along with some contemporary tunes. There are fourteen wonderful tracks, with the final song being "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" which is a joyful way to end the album, finishing everything with a statement of her incredible talent. Years of music making went into this, and it shows. Sometimes the magic is in the dedication. Being willing to focus on being the best you can be at whatever instrument you pick up. It's a great inspiration to me, and I'm looking forward to buying her newest CD Landscape of the Heart next.

The oddest part of all this for me is, right now I'm not even taking lessons! For the next few months I'm pinching pennies to pay for my Dream Autoharp, so I'm really starting to miss my visits with Karen at Homestead Pickin' Parlor. But I'm keeping myself busy with practicing my mountain dulcimer, and listening to some good music while I'm at it!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dream to Reality: Autoharp Aquisition Part 1

OK, now I've gone and done it. I've committed all of my fun money from now through August, and some of my savings, to purchasing an Autoharp like this one pictured on the left. It is the Desert Rose by d'Aigle Autoharps, and I'm already fantasizing about playing it. Now, I know what you're thinking, I've already announced my intention in a previous post, but this time things have changed. I had a question about options, so I emailed Pete, and one thing led to another and a Layaway Plan has been formed. My first payment goes out at the end of the week.

On April Fools day I blogged about my Dream Autoharp, on Friday the 13th I blogged about getting jammed, and was re-thinking my dream. So on Monday the 16th I started asking questions of the luthier and here I am today, making my dream come true. My new instrument will be paid off by the end of August, just in time for cool fall weather, and time to practice for my annual Autumn Music Party with my instrument. Maybe it was sending the invites out to my annual Spring Music Party that lit the fire under me, I don't really know. But I felt so much pressure and longing building up inside of me that I had to take action.

I reviewed my play book and my autoharp books to determine the chord bar layout that I wanted. I knew I wanted to simplify things, 21 chords was too many for me, and removing a few chords would give me a little more room to play. Not quite as much room as in the picture, because that's a 15 chord diatonic layout, but I should be able to reach the high notes with the 18 bar chromatic layout that I chose:

This selection of chords will let me play all the songs I already know on the Autoharp, and learn a few more which I have been collecting from time to time. The other option I went with is the stained soundboard, it just fit me so darned well, I started daydreaming about playing it right away. In the two weeks when I had my eyes toward The Luthier's Classic, I never once day dreamed about playing it. Though I did worry about it's safety should any party guests want to touch it. Nope. Music is meant to be shared, and I can't have something that I wouldn't share with my friends. I'd love to have a few more autoharp musicians come to my parties, dulcimer players as well. Bring it on!

I still welcome donations, as there are four more payments to go before I hold my Autoharp in my arms. Every little bit brings my instrument closer to me. So please click here and donate!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Let's Go Singing With Hobbits

The past few days I have not been able to stop thinking about the prospect of getting my new Autoharp. I'm so incredibly excited about it I can hardly tell you. I have some of my favorite Autoharp music playing on the stereo right now, including Memories of Middle Earth and Heart's Ease by Marc Gunn. A while back I wrote a review of the second of those two albums here on my little Strum Pluck and Drone blog. But with the vision of my new Autoharp in my mind, and the fact that The Hobbit movie will be released on December 14th 2012, it's the first album that is fueling even more excitement for me. I am a hard core Tolkien fan, and proud to admit it. My plan is to have a Hobbit themed music party in the first part of November. What would make it perfect would be to have my new autoharp a few months before that so I can learn some of the Middle Earth themed songs on it to share at the party. Until then, I will try and figure out the theme from the new movie on my trusy mountain dulcimer, because a fan girl has to do what a fan girl has to do.

Timing is everything, and with the saving for the new instrument in the beginning stages, I wanted some more information about that. So, to keep myself busy toward my goal, I sent off an email to the luthier to find out what the turnaround time is for an autoharp and when he would need a deposit. There are songs to learn before my Autumn Music Party, and Marc was kind enough to post the lyrics to a ton of his songs on his website. He is a true Bard, and I'm going to contact him for the chords on a few of them, as he noted he would provide on his lyrics page. If I can learn them on the dulcimer first, then they'll be that much easier to learn on the autoharp when I get it. Not many song writers are so open with their lyrics, and I'm just so glad that Marc is, it will make for a great night next November.

Until then, I have the songs to prepare for next month's Spring Music Party. There's so much to do! Diving into the Folk Music can be that way. Finding time to practice, people to jam with from time to time, research info on my latest music enthusiasm takes time. There are still Finnish tunes that I want to write dulcimer tab for, and now songs about Hobbits to get chord for and print out for my songbook. The printer broke, so now I have to research printers too, that needs to be replaced in the next few days. I still try to find time for my friends, and I was at a lovely tea party this afternoon, and a gathering last night with artists. So much fun to be had, so many songs to sing!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Getting Jammed

My annual spring music party has been scheduled, and I was talking with my brother about it the other day. We thought it would be cool to get to know a few of each other's songs ahead of time so we can get a better jam going. He plays the guitar, and I play the mountain dulcimer. So I sent him a couple of my songs, then he sent me some of his. I checked my book of chords for the dulcimer, checked alternate tunings, and I'm missing at least one chord for each of the three songs he sent me to learn. This is very frustrating to me, because I have been a big fan of music jams for years, and it's one of the main reasons I wanted to take up an instrument.

And then my printer died, so I couldn't print out the lead sheets even if I wanted to. This is not what I wanted a month before my party. So much for the internet making things easier! We will have to get together and see what songs in his songbook match up with my chord charts and go from there. It will be good to get together and play a bit anyway. But this brought to my mind the limitations of my instrument. Now I absolutely love the mountain dulcimer, but the local folk music jammers are mostly guitarists. Naturally I have to consider taking up the guitar, again, but maybe the third time will be the charm. But at the moment all my fun money is going into the Dream Autoharp Fund, so there is nothing left over for yet another instrument. I seriously started weighing the options...autoharp or guitar...guitar or I laid in bed last night not sleeping.

Pros for the autoharp:
  • I played it for two years and I was getting pretty handy with it - short ramp up to playing more songs!
  • A chromatic autoharp can play in multiple keys - just give me the chords and I will be good to long as they are the I IV and V chords and relative minor.
  • In keeping with my "all zithers all the time" music theme
Pros for the guitar:
  • It's fully chromatic and can play in any key
  • Lots of other guitarists to jam with and learn from, including both my brother and my sister
  • I love the sound, they are beautiful
  • A good guitar is less expensive than my Dream Autoharp by half...
OK, that last "pro" on the guitar is what really has me jammed. What to do?! I had almost decided to get the guitar instead of the Autoharp...almost. After more tossing and turning, I decided the best thing to do is to get a less expensive Autoharp this year, and then get a guitar next year. This is a Big Decision for me, but when I compared the D'Aigle TLC to the Desert Rose, I realized that it has all the features I was looking for. I really don't think I'll notice the difference in woods between the two, because it's still a big upgrade from my old Oscar Schmidt Appalachian model. So unless donations start pouring in over the next few months, I'll be putting down a deposit on the Desert Rose this Summer.

It will be wonderful to have an autoharp again, I can hardly wait! I'll still leave the TLC as my dream harp until I'm ready to place the order. Who knows, I might get lucky and come into an extra grand in the next few months! Hey a girl can dream can't she? Even if that means dreaming about having a dulcimer, kantele, autoharp and a guitar to play. We'll just blame it all on Becca, the multi-instrumentalist who inspired my original autoharp purchase in June of 2009. So I have figured out how to get un-jammed so I can continue to jam with all my guitarist friends. Life is good!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dulcimer Day in May

I first heard about Dulcimer Day in Duluth last Spring when I stopped in at Homestead Pickin' Parlor to pick up a few items for my new dulcimer, which I hadn't received yet. Marv mentioned it to me, and I told him that I wouldn't have my dulcimer until after the event. So it's been on my mind for a year now, and this year's guest is Sue Carpenter, finger picker extraordinaire. The picture on the left is the cover of her Following The Muse CD. I LOVE fingerpicking. There are a couple of songs in my playbook that I do finger pick accompaniment, and I really want to learn fingerpicking with melody. I just love the sound of it. So I went to the website and researched it, looked at my calendar and considered it, then I looked at my checkbook and rejected the idea of attending this year. All my fun money is being set aside for the new Autoharp, so I can't go the the Dulcimer Day in Duluth this year either.

But that doesn't mean that May 5th can't be my own Dulcimer Day! Here's the plan, I'll get a copy of Sue Carpenter's DVD on fingerpicking, which comes with TAB for all the songs. And I will also get some of those aLaska picks that are so highly recommended, because my nails are too weak to grow out and do the job. I will plan the day out and have a one woman festival, complete with an Open Accoustic performance for the cats, and good food for lunch. In the evening I have a wonderful event to go to which includes music, so my day will be complete! It will be my treat to myself and my dulcimer. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Dream Autoharp

This post is about my dream autoharp. Since the soundboard caved and bridge cracked on my learning instrument, (see photo on the left) I have been without an autoharp to play. She is sitting in a stand, looking pretty in my studio. I had her as my playmate for two years, from July 2009-2011. While I had her, I learned more about myself, and what I would need in a new autoharp. First, custom chordbars are a must. The factory ones that came with her needed adjustments just to work properly, and because I have a slight tremor, the floating buttons were a problem to me. When I became nervous, which is almost always while playing in front of people, my hands would shake. When my hands shook, the buttons would rattle against the chord bar cover. Hearing that noise would make me more nervous, even though others couldn't hear it, it was a huge problem for me. The cover is also plastic, and frankly, I don't like all that artificiality! So custom chordbars are a must.

The second thing I would  need would be a custom body. OK, that sounds obvious, but I did consider getting an Oscar Schmidt and have custom bars put on it, just to save a little cash. But my autoharp playing days came to an end when the soundboard cracked causing the bridge to give way and Viola! My autoharp became untuneable. There is 1500 lbs of pressure on an autoharp due to the pull of the strings. My teacher had another student that happened to with an Oscar Schmidt. She was lucky enough to still have the factory warranty on hers, so she got a replacement. I wasn't so lucky. So I began researching autoharps online, thinking what my budget would be. I'm still very much a student, so I was trying to keep the amount at a reasonable level, but when I look at my wants and needs, it just has to be a luthier made instrument.

There are a few that I've been considering. The first is the Evoharp.
One reason I like it is the price, it's less expensive than other luthier built harps. Designed by a player and teacher, Evo Bluestein, it is made to be lighter and have a more traditional sound. I like tradition, and my old 'harp was definitely too heavy. I even got a bruise on my leg from playing it too long without a strap! So the Evoharp definitely would be a step up from the Oscar Schmidt. It is made by McSpadden, a company known for it's mountain dulcimers and producing quality instruments. I also like the unique soundhole, the crecent and heart. I'm not wild about the chord buttons on it, but it has the flat button option available at an additional charge. It's available in a number of chord bar configurations, which is cool, as I have some ideas of the chord set-up I want. It comes with a 1 year warranty. Fine tuners are available as an additional option. It comes with a soft shell case. Personally, if I'm going to drop a grand on an instrument, I want a hardshell case for it. Nice base price, but my extras will add a little bit, and since I'm spending that kind of money, I'd want an electronic pick-up. Hmmm...the price is adding up, but this will be the ultimate autoharp after all. My Autoharp teacher is also my dulcimer teacher, so I mentioned the Evoharp to her. She suggested a different luthier who makes a 'harp in that same price range as another option.

Enter option #2: The Arkansas Autoharp. Karen's opinion on Authoharps holds great weight for me. She has been my teacher from the beginning, and there is no greater authority or player in the state of Minnesota, and few comparable around the world. Really, she is truly a world class instructor and player. So I looked up the website, and it has the fine tuners and flat-top buttons already, not something extra. It has a plain sound hole. Very. Plain. I know I'm not supposed to make this decision on looks, but if I'm going to be dropping a big wad of cash on this thing, then, well. I want it to be Pretty. Really I do. That's why I got the Appalachian OS, it had a pretty look to it. I bought it off of Ebay because I was looking for the best price. 

Very little information on the website, so I emailed for pricing details, and Karen was right, it's in the same price range as the Evoharp. It also has pick guards. There is a good variety of pictures on the website, but no mention of a warranty, and he does do lots of set-ups for the OS models, so he's familiar with them. But Karen doesn't play either of these harps. She has some old Oscar Schmidts which she has changed chord bars on, and then she has one made just for her. A KM Special is what is on the lable inside, and it was made for her by master luthier Pete d'Aigle. He's the one who worked on my OS to get the chord bars to work properly, and switch out some of the chords too. Between shipping there and back again, the cost of the optimising, it was almost as much as the purchase price. But she played much better after that. Really good, but not quite great. But I know he can do great, Karen let me play her instrument, so sweet! The chord bards connected with the strings so easily and completely. It's based on the d'Aigle Cascade, and it is a really beautiful instrument.

So, after months of consideration, I have made my decision. My Dream Autoharp is the d'Aigle Traditional Luthier's Classic, TLC for short. I have that web page bookmarked on my favorite's bar. It has everything I need in an autoharp, and it does cost more than options One or Two, but it will be worth the extra time and effort in saving up for it. It has everything I want and need in an instrument, and I'm personally familiar with the luthier's workmanship. It is one of the most beautiful autoharps that I have ever seen, comes with all the options I want and need. It even comes with a Five Year warranty on the workmanship. That gives me a little more peace of mind. I was just at a music jam the other night, and I really wanted my autoharp to play. I have picked up my old broken one, just to hold it, a couple of times. The goal is to get enough saved up for it, that I can have it for Spring of 2013. I'm on a mission to play zithers to the best of my ability. To honor the heritage of my ancestors, and to share traditional folk music from both Finland and Norway. So I play the mountain dulcimer and the kantele, but it was the Autoharp that opened the door for me. It led me to both those instruments, and it is such an American instrument, it brings it all home to me.

The spreadsheet has been made, so I can check my progress on saving for my Dream Autoharp. Today is April 1st, so I think it might be fitting to post this. Because I intend to pursue my dream relentlessly, because I know that dreams really can come true. Today, 4/1/2012, I am at 14.9% of the total goal for purchasing my autoharp. If you read this whole page, then you must have an interest in Autoharps, or your a very good friend. In either case, consider contributing to my dream autoharp fund by clicking on the donate button at the top of the right hand side bar. Every dollar helps me get that much closer to my dream. Thanks for reading!

* Update 4/28/2012 *

My choice for Autoharp changed and I am now going to get the lovely Desert Rose by d'Aigle Autoharps instead. You can read all about it by clicking here now. Thank you for your support, and don't forget to donate! I'll add an update when my darling autoharp arrives in a few long months.  :)