Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest

This weekend I was at the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest in Harpers Ferry, WV.

I think this was the eighth one I’ve been to, nineteenth one they’ve had. My first was in the spring of 2001, and I went to another spring one this year, but I’ve attended and enjoyed the fall fest the most. In the spring, you have one teacher and class for the whole weekend, which is a great way to get in depth into one topic. But in the fall you have different classes with different teachers, so you get a little more variety. Plus it’s not like other festivals with tiny one-hour classes where maybe you get through learning one tune — these are mostly longer, with some as short as an hour and a half and others as long as three hours, and there are more technique-focused classes than repertoire classes.

I traveled with Keith and Marty, students of mine, and we arrived Thursday evening. I got to listen to part of the great jam session at O’Hurley’s General Store in Shepherdstown before sitting all day caught up with my back.

Friday morning Dan Landrum kindly tuned my dulcimer for me — once again I’d managed to hurt something in my hand just in time for the festival. Later on a few of us helped with registration, and then the first class began at 2.

My first class was Dan’s percussion techniques, which I also took last fall. It was a good refresher, plus I got some new ideas. One thing I’m still trying to figure out is how it’s possible to not hold onto the hammers (just rest them on your finger and keep them from falling off with your thumb) and still play with volume and energy. I’m so used to using my fingers to drive and control the hammers, and I guess I need to keep learning how to use all my arm muscles — relaxed and fluid, not tense and forced — and also the energy the hammers get from gravity and hitting the strings.

At the end of Friday’s dinner, there was an open mic opportunity. I hadn’t planned to play anything — I always have before, but I wasn’t sure my hand was up to it, and I hadn’t wanted to aggravate it by practicing anything before the festival. Because there weren’t many people signed up, though, I agreed to play. I did some originals: “The Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze” which is on our trio’s CD new this year, and “In Him Will I Trust,” a song with lyrics from the Psalms.

Photo: Playing in the open mic.

I got some nice comments afterwards, which is always so reassuring and affirming. Ken Kolodner even told me I don’t punch the chords anymore, which was one of his main criticisms of my playing from previous years. This is one of the things that is great about going to a festival: getting useful feedback from other participants and from the teachers. Plus it’s great to hear what kinds of things other people are doing, especially folks who are at or above my abilities. Isn’t there a saying about how it’s best to be in a position where you are teaching some folks and being taught by others?

After the open mic, it was late night jam time. I helped in the festival store for a while just outside the room where the slow jam was going on. It was well-attended and sounded like it was going well. On my way up to bed I stopped in the Tap Room where the “fast” jam was going on. There was a nice small group playing, which I joined for a bit, and it was quite friendly and accessible. In previous years sometimes the fast jam has been so large and so driven by the best folks in the center that I would get bored, especially when they’d get to where all the tunes were in a particular key and I couldn’t tell them apart anymore or even tell whether the chords were changing or not.

Saturday I had three classes. The first was slip jigs with Maggie Sansone. I hadn’t had a class with her before, so it was nice to get to see how she teaches. We learned two really nice tunes plus The Butterfly, which I already knew.

After lunch was Jody Marshall’s Renaissance class, which I’ve done twice before. It’s more fun when a) there are other instruments besides dulcimers, and b) when it’s not right after lunch! But we did a bunch of lovely and challenging tunes and arranged two to play at the Sunday brunch.

Then I taught a small class on Pachelbel’s Canon. I think it was mostly a success — we got through two lines of chord patterns, the two main phrases that everyone recognizes, and talked through a lot of the other lines. We also talked a bit about playing for a wedding processional, and a bit about playing the Canon as a duet or with a group.

I don’t like to see people frustrated, but sometimes there’s not much you can do about it. Some of the students were not getting the stuff quickly, and there didn’t seem to be much I could do to make it click. I think probably all they need is more time with the tune, and they’ll do fine with learning it at home. It’s a bit hard for me to decide how to proceed in a workshop setting with that sort of thing — technically, I could have just handed out the sheet music and sent them all away to learn it and they would have been fine. Or I could have drilled each bit until everyone had it, but then the faster learners might have been bored and we would have covered less. With more teaching experience, I expect I’ll get better at judging this sort of thing and responding in better ways.

The evening concert was in Shepherdstown, where Rick and Felicia and I had planned to have Thai food for dinner. Before we could go, though, we helped Rick pack up the items in the store that would be sold at the concert. It looked a bit sparse, and the other store people weren’t there to help, so we weren’t sure if it had already been packed up or not. To be safe, we packed a bunch and took it over, but yes, they’d already done it during the last class. Oh well — we still managed to get our Thai food and arrive on time for the show.

The concert was enjoyable. Bamboo Breeze, featuring Chinese yang qin and percussion, played first, followed by four dulcimists from Maggie’s record label: Maggie herself, Jody Marshall, Karen Ashbrook, and Ken Kolodner. Paul Oorts and Dan Landrum also played on some things. I think my favorite pieces were Ken’s waltz Summer’s End and a Middle Eastern thing Maggie played. This year’s concert was about a half hour or more shorter than previous years, and that was actually nice. There was enough to really enjoy, and not so much that it dragged.

Of course, near the end I was certainly dragging; at 31 weeks pregnant, I was stiff and sore from all the sitting and standing and bustle of a day and a half of festival. Nevertheless, I stayed up with the fast jam, sometimes playing, sometimes just sitting at a table crunching ice cubes, for a couple hours. It was again a small and accessible group.

At one point Paul and Pete started playing a polka, so Joanie got up and got first Kitty and then Dave dancing.

Photo: Dancing the polka.


Sunday morning there was some Gospel music at the breakfast open mic. It was lovely to hear Cindy and her sisters — and Rick and Felicia — sing in harmony, sometimes a capella and sometimes accompanied. Dan also played a fun medley in the middle.



The sweetest moment of the whole weekend, for me, was afterwards when Cindy and her sisters sat around me to sing “Jesus loves me” to the baby. Wow.


My final class was harmonic minor with Karen Ashbrook. We learned about the harmonic minor scale and basic chord progression, and learned a few really nice tunes, despite all of us being short on energy.

I perked up again at lunch for whatever reason. My young student Emory played in the open mic, which was the first time I’ve really seen one of my students perform for an audience. It was really cool. He played two of his original pieces. He and Dan Landrum impressed each other, which was fun — I had a feeling they would appreciate each other. Our Renaissance class played our two pieces next, which went well, and then Paul Oorts’ group played some very nice things.

After a hasty round of goodbyes, we were about to leave when I remembered I needed to check my CDs out from the store. Good thing I remembered! Good timing, too, as Joanie was just coming upstairs from finishing the final inventories.

We got home around 9:00 last night. It is nice to be home again with Mark and the kitty and a mattress that doesn’t insistently tell you where every single spring is.

A final thought: some tune types seem to run into each other. I remember being particularly confused by hornpipes and jigs when I was first starting, and then in Karen’s class we learned a mazurka that felt a lot like a slip jig to me. I’m guessing the dances that go along with these types distinguish them more than the musical characteristics do. I tried to write a slip jig a while ago — actually my first attempt ended up in 6/8 instead of 9/8. This second one folks think is more like a waltz, and I think at least one person thought it was most like a mazurka. If anyone reading knows about these things, let me know what you think it is! It’s called Toboggan. The link is a MIDI file, not a recording, so don’t expect a real dulcimer sound.

5 thoughts on “Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest

  1. Thanks for the recap, Marcy! I really enjoyed reading it. I wasn’t able to make it to any festivals this year, so I have enjoyed living “through” those who have. Thanks again for sharing! Larry

  2. Hey, I used to go to over Harper’s Ferry a lot when we lived in MD. I haven’t been there in quite awhile. But from this, it seems that it’s still a great place for the musical community!

  3. Hi Marcy, I’m down in Spring TX, just above Houston, and I enjoyed reading your comments- I found your site looking for “the best way to mic a hammer dulcimer”?! I’m about to record some original HD music and would like to give the studio eng. a heads up. For mic-ing live performances I usually hang an instrument mic inside the tone hole because I find the mic stand over the top to be distracting. Appreciate any suggestions or feedback-

  4. Hi Pam,

    If you’re going to record in a studio, I would just have them take the first session to experiment with a variety of mics and positions, then let you hear and judge the results.

    Have fun!

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