Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dulcimer Jones

Dulcimer Jones, I've got a dulcimer Jones, I've got a dulcimer Jones oh Baby Oo-oo-oo!

It's true. I just dropped off my dulcimer to have the 1 1/2 fret added two hours ago, and I'm already missing it terribly. When I decided it was time to add that little option, I figured I would just use the cardboard dulcimer my friend gave to me. It's a backup! Yay! I wouldn't be completely without my dulcimer. The strings were ancient and nearly black, so a couple of weeks ago I got a new set. Melody and middle string went in without any trouble. This was my first time changing strings, and it was going very well indeed. Then, when I was tightening the bass string I was overconfident. I tightened it too much too fast and *SNAP* no more bass string. No problem, I said to myself, I'll just pick up a new bass string when I drop off my dulcimer for the addition of the fret.

So I left my dulcimer behind, confident in the knowledge that I would be able to play my back-up cardboard dulcimer tonight once I added that pesky bass string. It didn't go so well, in fact, the tiny flat head nail the loop end of the string goes in got pushed in so I can't get the loop on. Oh yes, I did try and pry it up with my fingernail, then a utility knife blade, even trying to grip it with the wire cutters, all with no success.

A two string dulcimer is not going to meet the needs of my heart, longing after it's dulcimer. Now I understand how people can have more than one dulcimer, and why I really would like to have a back-up one at this point as well. Hopefully I'll get the nail pulled and a new one put in it's place within the next couple of days. Until then, I'll be missing my sweet Mary Ann...big time.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Practice, Practice, Practice

I have plenty of songs to play in my home-made book of Dulcimer tabs, and I've enjoyed exploring new ones on almost a weekly basis. But it's time to get better, to really learn to play some songs well and by heart. So I am practicing every day, and every day songs get a little smoother. I still have some transitions to work through on "Edelweiss" and "Finlandia", but I can play them roughly without having to look at the music. This Tuesday I have another lesson, and I plan to leave my dulcimer behind to get that 1 1/2 fret added to it, which will open up some more chords and therefore more songs that I will be able to play.

I've had a cold with a cough for the last 2 1/2 weeks, so my voice is pretty much shot for singing at the moment. Still, I try and work through my singing songs some as well, but it isn't as fun because I can't get into the lyrics. The practice is worthwhile though, as I'm getting smoother on my finger picking. Eight months with the Mountain Dulcimer, and four months since my Autoharp became un-tunable, and I'm finally getting the hang of some of these songs.

My dear friend Denise gave me a couple of instruments recently, a cardboard dulcimer and a one string strum stick. Those and my Kantele will keep me entertained while my new fret is being added. So I will still be able to practice the dulcimer, but I sure do appreciate my beautiful Folkcraft instrument when I compare it with the cardboard one. But at least I won't get rusty between lessons. It looks like I've managed to get weekly posts in here lately, and I'm glad. It lets me track my progress and keep a record of what I'm working on. Soon I hope to be able to start singing again, and then watch out! I'll be making use of that extra fret in no time and adding to my repertoire.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Instrumental Roots

I am 100% Minnesotan, with equal amounts of Norwegian and Finnish ancestry. My mother was 100% Finnish and was born in Minnesota from Finnish parents, and my father was 100% Norwegian. Naturally, when my musical inclination led me to find the Finnish national folk instrument, the Kantele (pronounced KAN-te-leh), I had to have one. It was so exciting when my Kantele arrived, my Autoharp was with a luthier at the time getting some work done, and I had been without an instrument for a couple of weeks. She looked just like the pictures on the Kantele shop, and is made out of pine and birch, two trees common both in Finland and Minnesota.

My lovely 5-string Kantele has been my quiet companion ever since. I play her outside and at home when ever the mood hits me. I had discovered this lovely little folk instrument when I was searching for Autoharp music online. I found some recordings of the concert Kantele, a 36 string instrument, and was intrigued by the similarity to the Autoharp. Why did I take up the Autoharp in the first place? Maybe the music was in my blood all along. Both intruments are part of the zither family, so I realized that I really liked zither instruments, and my ears would prick up and I would pay attention any time a zither was mentioned.

One instance was at a concert by Ruth Barrett, when she said the fretted dulcimer is also a zither. The difference  is that it has a fret board running the length of the instrument. Aha! And my interest in the mountain dulcimer began. It turned into a mild obsession when I discovered the Dulcimerica Podcast on Youtube. And the rest is history, as I am now the proud companion to a beautiful mountain dulcimer.

But wait, there's more. It seems the origins of the American mountain dulcimer trace back to European Zithers, specifically the scheitholt, which was brought over from the old country by the Pensylvania Dutch. The Scotch-Irish of the Appalachian mountains adopted and adapted these zithers, using the same fretboard and drone quality creating the wonderful folk instrumenet we know today as the mountain dulcimer. It turns out there is a Norwegian instrument in that family, here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

There exists a variety of box zithers in Europe. The German scheitholt and the Swedish Hummel have been suggested as the predecessor of the langeleik. However, in 1980 a langeleik dated as early as 1524 was uncovered on a farm in Vibergsroa, Gjøvik, Norway. This instrument predates any documented occurrences of the scheitholt, the hummel or any other similar instrument.

And so my instruments of choice have roots in my ancestory on both my mother's and father's sides. I was raised to be musical, starting with the piano when I was just five years old. Music is part of my heritage, and I'm very excited to be exploring the folk music of my ancestry. Minnesota is also a haven for folk musicians generally. Something about the long cold winter causes us to want to sing across the dark night skies with one another, I think. For me, my zithers give me great joy even just playing by myself. The cats seem to like it too.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Tomorrow night I have my next Mountain Dulcimer lesson, and there's lots to go over. It's been a month since my last lesson, and since then, I've learned to manage my tight neck which has the side effect of pinching a nerve causing all kinds of weird sensations down my left arm. Correct posture is important, as is regular stretching generally. I've taken my body for granted, and so on top of my super tight neck I have a horrid head cold.

But I will go to my lesson tomorrow and be sure to medicate myself beforehand. My nose is too stuffy/runny/sneezy to try and get one more practice session in tonight, but I wanted to pop online and stress the importance of getting some training when you are first learning an instrument. As adults, we sometimes set our expectations too high for ourselves. There have been many times during my lessons when Karen has made simple suggestions that have helped me learn better. While online resources like Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer are fantastic, nothing can substitute sitting down with an instructor. I'm one of the truly lucky ones to have a world class instructor available to me where I live, I know that.

Having regular instruction has kept me from getting stuck and that has made all the difference for me. My love for this little instrument continues to grow and I am amazed at how much joy it has brought into my life. Lessons continue to inspire me and increase my passion for folk music and my Mountain Dulcimer in particular. It is a continuing joy for me to sit with an experienced player and learn from her in the tiny music rooms at Homestead Pickin' Parlour. Watching her play as we go over a new song is a delight, her fingers effortlessly glide over the fretboard to find each chord waiting for her touch. My fingers fumble along and she corrects me as I make mistakes, and I always leave with an excitement to practice the new things I learned in class that day.

I remember when I first got my dulcimer, and how awkward it was the first time I played. I've come a long way, having learned a few songs by heart, and I have a great desire to learn many more. Hopefully I'll find others to play with as well, for I know there are secret dulcimer players out there among my folkie friends. Until then, I'll play with Karen for my bi-weekly half hour lesson, and continue trying to improve. Little by little I'm getting the hang of it.