It all started with a bad concert recording.
I had been studying dulcimer with Timothy Seaman, who has recorded about a dozen albums so far. Naturally, some of our meetings included learning to use sound and recording equipment as well as talking about what goes into making albums and planning concerts or other gigs. I had made an informal demo tape in my living room just using my stereo — something to lend to brides or other prospective event planners — but I started thinking maybe a studio demo might be worth doing instead. I also started thinking about possible album ideas, for some vague time in the distant future when I’d be ready to make a CD. Meanwhile, the anniversary of getting my dulcimer was coming up, and so suddenly I decided to celebrate with a concert, just for my friends and folks from church.
The first half of the concert was a reflection on my musical past, because those tunes and people and events had a lot to do with the directions I was pursuing with the dulcimer. Then the second half of the concert was about the tunes, people, and events that I’d been involved with during this first year of dulcimer playing. Most of the music was on the dulcimer, with a few vocals, a little guitar, and a borrowed autoharp. Because of some schedule conflicts among my friends, I ended up doing two performances. The first was a house concert (what a great venue for live music, up close and personal in the intimate setting of a home!), with an invitation-only audience. The following week I repeated the performance at my church, and since they happen to have recording equipment, we recorded it. But you really don’t want to hear that recording — parts of tunes are cut off, sometimes the mix isn’t quite right, and all my mistakes are in there, including the one where I dropped my hammers in the middle of the big ending!
Since the concert recording didn’t turn out well, I decided I’d just go do the show again in the recording studio. And since the live performance took an hour and a half, I figured it wouldn’t take more than maybe five or six hour-long studio sessions. It’s a good thing that I didn’t know this CD would take twenty-six recording sessions (averaging about five hours each) and would cost — well, a lot more than I expected; if I had known, I would never have done it.
Let me tell you a bit about the studio. Henry Smith — folks familiar with Christian worship music will recognize him as the guy who wrote “Give Thanks” — built a small studio behind his garage (appropriately named “Outback Studio”), where he records numerous small projects and some bigger ones like Tim’s albums and Tom Abernethy’s. It’s a very comfortable place. The main room, big enough for a trio, has a couch and two rocking chairs, and it’s well-lit and cheery. The control room has all of Henry’s equipment — two linked eight-track digital recorders, two linked eight-channel mixers, various microphones, and other stuff like effects and a computer.
Learning about all this equipment and the tricks it can do was a lot of fun. For one thing, I’d always thought effects made things sound weird, but if you use them right they can actually make things sound more natural. Just a bit of reverb makes flutes and recorders soar — a little more and the chorus sounds like it’s in a stone church. Because we had sixteen tracks altogether, I could also do multi-tracking: singing harmony with myself, playing four simultaneous dulcimer parts, or adding other instruments and voices. Having sixteen tracks also meant we could record part of a tune on two tracks, then listen and come in for the next part on two other tracks, and so on for the rest of the tune. That way I didn’t have to play all the way through without making a mistake.
Henry himself is also very comfortable. He’s relaxed and calm, he’ll offer to play bass, guitar, or keyboards on this or that piece (I even got him to sing), he gives good feedback on all sorts of things from arrangement ideas to performance techniques, and he’s particularly inspired when it comes to mix-down time. I really enjoyed my recording experience there — not just the recording, mixing, and mastering, but the lunches from Wendy’s, chats with Henry’s wife and daughter, and that final late-night listening to the finished master disc. My guest musicians, ranging from kids to professionals like Tim, also had good experiences. (The middle school girls and the Montessori school kids especially liked the trampoline out in the yard.)
I couldn’t just call this recording, “My Anniversary Concert.” I had a really hard time thinking of more expressive titles that still conveyed what exactly I was celebrating. One day I was talking about this difficulty in the teachers’ lounge, and another teacher came up with “No Loose Threads.” And that says exactly what I want: First of all, there haven’t been any loose threads in my musical life. Every tune, person, and event has already influenced and will continue to influence who I am as a musician. Secondly, there aren’t any loose threads in the intertwining life of tunes and people and events in general. That’s the folk process — we learn tunes from each other, we pass them down through the generations and across geographical lines, and we add our own touch to each of them as we pass them along. Finally, there are no loose threads in the universe — God the great weaver knows the tapestry he is making, and while it may often look knotted and twisted from our perspective, it’ll be beautiful when we see it from his point of view.
Planning the text and graphic design also took a lot of time and thought. The cover photographer, Matt Wilks, is a friend from church; he and his wife make beautiful Creative Memories albums. We had two photo sessions at his home and shot four or five rolls of film. The traycard picture is on their deck. Balancing the dulcimer against the railing made me pretty nervous, but it also made a great picture. The cover idea came in a flash once I had the title. It shows my favorite pair of hammers neatly tied with twine, centered on a white background. I also took pictures in the studio, and some were good enough to print in the booklet so folks could see some of my guest musicians and friends. When it came time to put it all together, I asked my graphic artist sister, Tracy Coon, for advice, and she volunteered to do the design for me. Since she lives several states away, I sent my ideas as email attachments and rushed the actual photographs by overnight mail. Then came many exchanges back and forth as we reviewed and adjusted her prototypes. She says I made more corrections than any of her other design clients! Even so, I missed some errors, including the web address. (Fortunately I was able to post a pointer site at that incorrect URL.)
- Rowena’s Waltz (© 1995 T. Seaman) / Harpers Waltz (© 2001 M. Prochaska)
“From wild and lively to sweet and soothing: I’ve loved the sounds of the hammer dulcimer since I first heard Tim playing one.”
This opening selection celebrates two firsts: The first dulcimer player I ever heard was Tim Seaman, who wrote “Rowena’s Waltz” for his wife’s birthday, and my first composition on the dulcimer was “Harper’s Waltz,” written in honor of 18th Century Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan. I had been trying to write a piece for a Lent service, about Christ walking to the hill where he would be crucified. It was turning out to be a bit heavy, and I needed to take a break and play something more light-hearted. Weird things happen when writing music, and in this case the stuff I was doodling as a break became a much better piece than the tune I was composing on purpose.
The WoodSong Trio played “Harper’s Waltz” with flute on the melody, so I developed a harmony part for the dulcimer. On the CD, I used this harmony part the second time through the tune.
- Variations on a Three-Year-Old Theme (© 2001 M. Prochaska)
“Written on the black keys of an old blue upright piano, this tune’s first line was a theme song for a game with my sister.”
Dulcimer, guitar (Henry Smith)
I wrote this theme, my first song, when I was three and my sister four. Believe it or not, the lyrics were “Horsey Marcy, Horsey Marcy, Horsey Marcy, Mole.” The horsey part makes sense because we were playing a horseback-riding game. Mole? Well, I needed a one-syllable word for the end!
On the dulcimer, the simple melody develops into a set of ragtimey improvisations, embellished with Henry’s guitar in the middle.
- (© 1973 B. Red / G. Hawthorne)
“From Psalm 150. A song from children’s choir, where I first experienced the joys of ensemble music and music for worship.”
Dulcimer, vocals (Sara Cole, Elizabeth Kuhfuss, Mallory and Ryan Little, Timothy Seaman, Henry Smith, Marty Smith, and me)
Praise the Lord in the Holy Place, praise Him in the firmament
Praise the Lord for His mighty acts, praise Him for His excellence
Hail His might with the trumpet — tell of peace with the harp
Wake the world with the cymbal — sing His praise from your heart
Shout of joy with the timpani — tell of love with the strings
Sound His Word on the organ — hear the song as it rings
Being in children’s choirs was a wonderful experience, especially under the direction of someone like Robin McEachern. One year we did the musical It’s Cool in the Furnace, which includes this beautiful worship song.
I have a hard time singing this piece because of its wide range, so I decided to arrange it differently for the CD, using a small choir and soloists. I like it much better this way. It brings me chills to hear the deep, strong voices of Tim and Henry hailing God’s might, then Marty and Elizabeth’s delicate voices telling of peace. And there’s wonderful intensity when all of us join in for the last line.
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J. S. Bach)
“From my organ teacher, Mrs. Piehler, I learned this celebration of Christ’s coming to fulfill our deepest need and longing.”
While most kids studied piano or violin, my sister and I took organ lessons. Mrs. Piehler taught us a variety of things from old folk tunes and polkas to movie ballads and blues, as well as sacred works like this one. As a Christian, I take great comfort knowing that there is Someone who loves perfectly, Someone worthy of worship, Someone who is shaped just right to fit the holes of my desirings.
Speaking of holes, I got interested in playing recorder when I saw and heard them at a dulcimer festival. I love the sound of the flute; when I was little I tried my sister’s but couldn’t get any sound from it. Recorder is a good alternative; it’s easier to play because it’s end-blown, although it is a bit more difficult to cover the holes with your fingertips instead of using keys.
- Be Glorified, Lord (© 1993 M. Prochaska)
“The Psalmist cries, ‘Sing a new song to the Lord!’ This was my response while walking across the college campus one day:”
Bass guitar (Henry Smith), guitar, vocals
Be glorified, Lord, be exalted, O my God
May your name be praised and magnified, O Jesus
For you are a great God, you are greatly to be praised
You’re the worthy Lamb that was slain for my sins
You died for me and then you rose up and ran until you found me
On my knees, needing you, wishing you were there
You wrapped your arms around me and told me that you’d loved me
From before the day that I was born, and you’d love me still forevermore
When I was in high school, I heard a youth group speaker say, “We have a running God, and He’s running after us.” There’s also a contemporary Christian song called “When God Ran,” about the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, found in Luke, the younger of two sons demands his inheritance early, then runs off and spends it on stupid things. When he’s broke, he gets work feeding pigs — an unclean animal in his culture. He decides to go home and ask to work for his father as a servant. Personally, I think he was calculating about this — I’m not sure he felt bad about what he had done, but I am sure he felt bad about being broke and feeding pigs. Anyway, when he gets home his dad comes running to meet him and hugs him, gives him a ring and sandals and a fine robe, and celebrates with a feast. This is a great picture of how God feels about us. Like the prodigal, we are rebellious at heart, and even when we could care less about God or anything else, even when we hate him, he comes running after us and says “My son!” In my song, the line “on my knees, needing you, wishing you were there,” is about longing for some ideal person, someone who would love me this extravagantly. I became a Christian when I realized who that Someone is.
We recorded the guitar tracks first, using a high resolution mode. The tape ended up having a noise on it near the beginning. Originally this introduction was just the guitar playing the opening chords of the chorus. To resolve the problem with the noise, I asked Henry to develop a bass guitar intro using the guitar track for timing. Then we cut out the guitar intro so the guitar just came in with the vocals. I think the new version is much more interesting than the original, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of it if we hadn’t needed to deal with that noise.
- Praeludium I (J. S. Bach) / On the Loose (© 1971 J. Keller)
“Harpsichord lessons and the campfire: two rather different experiences gave me these songs, but they sound sweet tied together.”
Dulcimer, vocals (Jamie, Heather, Makeda; Sara Cole, Elizabeth Kuhfuss, Mallory and Ryan Little, Timothy Seaman, Henry Smith, Marty Smith, and me)
On the loose to climb a mountain, on the loose where I am free
On the loose to live my life the way I think my life should be
For I’ve only got a moment and the whole world yet to see
I’ll be looking for tomorrow on the loose
Have you ever watched the sunset turn the sky completely red?
Have you slept beneath the moon and stars, a pine grove for your bed?
Do you sit and talk with friends, though a word is never said?
Then you’re just like me and you’ve been on the loose
There’s a trail that I’ll be hiking just to see where it might go
Many places yet to visit, many people yet to know
For in following my dreams, I will live and I will grow
In the world that’s waiting out there on the loose
So in search of love and laughter I’ll be traveling ‘cross this land
Never sure of where I’m going, for I haven’t any plans
And in time when you are ready, come and join me, take my hand
And together we’ll share life out on the loose
In college, I took a semester of harpsichord lessons, learning this incredible prelude and several other Bach pieces. What a fascinating instrument — unlike piano keys, which make little hammers inside hit the strings, harpsichord keys are attached to little quills. As you start pressing the key, the quill rises until it meets the string — then you press a little more and it plucks.
The summer before my sophomore year, I worked as a counselor at a Girl Scout camp. To end each unit, there was a campfire with singing (I got to play the guitar), and almost every campfire included Judy Keller’s folk song. Of all the songs we did, this one really resonated with me, with its visions of outdoor living (I really liked the platform tents), living to be who I really am and not what others expect me to be, and sharing this kind of life with those like-minded.
A few years later, I taught the song to children at the local Montessori school, and three of those kids sing the first chorus on the album. I think it’s cool how well the folk song goes with the rhythmic pattern established by the Baroque prelude.
- Rád Tě Mám (© 1993 J. Markovova)
“A young Czech woman taught me this as we sang together one evening; a glimpse of a time when all nations will join in worship.”
Dulcimer, autoharp, vocals
Rad te mam, O Pane, velmi rad te mam
Svou lasku Tobe vyznavam, jsi mi nejdrazsi
Pred Tebou stojim, srdce mam plne
Uzdraveni, ted’ chci Ti rict
Ze Te mam rad, po Tobe touzim
Jsi zivot muj, me spaseni: Jezisi
I love you Lord, I love you very much
My love for you I confess, you’re my dearest
Before you I stand with a full heart
Full of healing, so now I want to tell you
That I love you, I long for you
You are my life, my salvation: Jesus
I spent two summers in the Czech Republic, teaching English at evangelistic youth camps. One evening, one of the Czech staffworkers and I were singing together, and she taught me this worship song. There’s something incredible about singing to God in a foreign language. I love languages to begin with — my undergraduate degree was in linguistics — and worshiping in another language a wonderful reminder of the fact that God is the God of all nations.
This was the most difficult song for me to arrange. I knew I wanted a dulcimer part in the low bass range, but to do that I had to retune some of the notes. I also knew I wanted an autoharp part, but I had a really tough time deciding how to do it, and then it was difficult to record it because autoharps are very noisy. When you press one of the chord bars, pieces of felt block all the strings that don’t belong in that particular chord. As you strum, the pick still hits the blocked strings, making extra noise. The most difficult part, though, was the vocals. I wasn’t happy with the way I was singing the melody. In the car on the way to the studio one day, listening to the tape and trying to decide whether to just scrap the song altogether or try it again, I tried singing a harmony line, and that saved the song.
- Soldier’s Joy (Trad’l) / Cincinnati (Trad’l)
“These lively reels were the first tunes I learned after I brought home my first dulcimer, a James Jones custom 15/14.”
Parts of my version of “Soldier’s Joy” are inspired by Tim Seaman’s version, found on his album Celebration of Centuries. I learned the basic melodies from Lucille Reilly’s instructional book, Striking Out and Winning.
- Road to Lisdoonvarna (Trad’l) / South of the James (© 2002 M. Prochaska)
“For Richmond — particularly for our dulcimer club (always ready to play ‘Lisdoonvarna’), and for our home south of the river.”
Dulcimer, bodhran (Rick Davis), guitar (Bob Wadsworth), whistle (Susan Lawlor)
When I got my first dulcimer, I was very excited to find there was a local dulcimer club meeting monthly to play together. That’s where I learned “Road to Lisdoonvarna” and a lot of other great tunes. “South of the James” was my first attempt at writing a jig. Jenny, a girl in the church youth group I volunteered with, inspired the title; we used to commiserate about living in the Southside, which most folks in the church considered too far away to bother with.
The arrangement was inspired in part by Bob. When he brought his guitar to one of the Williamsburg dulcimer gatherings, I loved his style for jigs and asked him to play on this medley. I’m also very grateful to Rick for driving all the way from Raleigh to record the bodhran part (and what a great part he came up with, too). As for the whistle, I had asked a church friend to play; at the last minute he was unable to do it, and I had a bit of a scare trying to find someone else. Some colleagues referred me to Susan — a great relief and a great performance.
- Of the Father’s Love Begotten (Trad’l) / Infant Holy (Trad’l)
“At the church’s Christmas coffeehouse, I debuted my new instrument: a reminder to me of how personal God’s love is — He came for each of us as if for us alone.”
Bowed psaltery, vocals, dulcimer
Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega — He, the source, the ending, He
Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.
Infant holy, infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall
Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging, angels singing, Noels ringing, tidings bringing;
Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping, vigil till the morning new
Saw the glory, heard the story, tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing, greet the morrow
Christ the babe was born for you.
When I first got a dulcimer, it was like an extravagant present from God, with a tag reading, “Go ahead — after all, aren’t I the one who formed you? I understand how you feel about this instrument.” God is the good shepherd, who knows each of his sheep by name. He cares about what makes us unique individuals — he’s the one who made us unique individuals to begin with. At the coffeehouse, playing my new dulcimer was a way for me to thank God; that I am not just one of the many in his eyes, and that he doesn’t just tolerate me, but loves me extravagantly.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a plainsong I discovered in the back of the hymnal. It was difficult to record because it doesn’t have a consistent meter. We decided to record the vocal first, and to help me stay in tune, Henry set his keyboard to play the key note in my headphones.
“Infant Holy” is a traditional Polish carol. For the first time through, I used multi-tracking to play all four vocal parts on the dulcimer.
- Front Porch Waltz (© R. Thum) / Galician Waltz (aka Cau’l Chouzano; © F. Largo)
“For the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest. Rick Thum taught a great spring workshop, and after Maggie Sansone’s fall concert I just had to learn “Galician Waltz.”
The Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest happens twice a year in West Virginia. It’s a wonderful, well-attended event with workshops, jam sessions, open mic opportunities, and a showcase concert. The “Galician Waltz,” from a Celtic region in northwestern Spain, uses the mixolydian mode, a scale common to Celtic and other folk music. The seventh note of the scale is flat, which gives it a wistful, somewhat wild flavor.
- Timberline Wander (© 1995 T. Seaman)
“I started learning this piece early in my studies with Tim. It sure is fun to play!”
Tim’s hiking tune uses a fun technique where the left hand plays the syncopated melody while the right hand keeps a steady back-and-forth rhythm. The dramatic middle section adds an exciting change in energy. If you’ve heard Tim’s version, you’ll know mine is a bit different both in this middle section and in the ending. That’s partly because I couldn’t figure out what exactly he was doing! But the result is that I’ve made the piece my own, and that’s the folk process at work.
- Carolan’s Draught (T. O’Carolan) / Sleepers Awake (J. S. Bach)
“The WoodSong trio performs one of our favorite medleys: Baroque tunes from J. S. Bach and Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan.”
Dulcimer (Tom Abernethy and me), guitar (Tom Abernethy), flute (Carolyn Huff)
Originally this was a solo piece, but when the WoodSong trio formed we thought it would be a good selection for our repertoire. The trio version begins with a dulcimer duet, moves to flute and dulcimer on the Bach piece, then the guitar joins in when we return to “Carolan’s Draught.”
- Winter East and Kensington (© 2001 M. Prochaska)
“Written in honor of two dulcimer friends, Tom Abernethy and Timothy Seaman.”
It was also written in their homes! The tune began as two separate doodles during rehearsal breaks, one composed at Tom’s place (on Kensington Avenue) and the other at Tim’s (on Winter East).
- Big Meadows Twilight (© 2000 T. Seaman) / Evening’s End (© 2001 M. Prochaska)
“The closing of the day should be a peaceful time, whether you’re in a field watching the darkness deepen, or in your bed listening to the slowing notes of your music box.”
Guitar, dulcimer, vocals (Timothy Seaman and me), flutes and whistles (Timothy Seaman)
Tim recorded his beautiful air in Big Meadows at twilight — the sillhouette photo on his Quiet in the Meadow disc is from that performance. “Evening’s End” is how I remember the tune my childhood music box played.
I wanted my version of “Big Meadows Twilight” to be different from Tim’s, so I reached beyond my usual guitar limits to learn the first part of the melody. Solo guitar seems an especially fitting way to open this peaceful air.
I’m delighted to have Tim’s flutes and whistles throughout the medley. That was a very difficult recording session, however! I had trouble communicating what I wanted (partly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted), and Tim had already had a long day — before I met him at the studio for our session, he’d been there several hours working on his own latest project (Sycamore Rapids, now available at his website). After many frustrating efforts, he was recording yet another take for the third A part of “Big Meadows,” and I was mesmerized. It was simply perfect, almost verbal in expressiveness, a great moment; that section is now my favorite part of the medley. To our relief, the rest of the session went well.