I have been doing music as long as I can remember.
It started with a blue piano in the basement and children’s choirs at church; along the way there were also viola, organ, handbells, guitar, and even a lovely semester of harpsichord. And the people — choir directors, instrument teachers, bandmates, audiences, colleagues, and more — doing music together is great synergy, intimacy, and just plain fun.
These previous musical experiences continue to shape and infuse my current work with the hammered dulcimer. I perform and offer lessons in and around Marshall County, Indiana, plus I’ve recorded two solo albums and one with a trio: No Loose Threads gathers an eclectic assortment of classical, traditional, original, and sacred material on hammered dulcimer with other acoustic instruments and some vocals. What Child Is This? tells the story of Christmas through hymns and carols old and new, familiar and uncommon, with hammered dulcimer and other acoustic instruments. The trio album is named after the band, The Hanshaw Trio; we played lively and lovely mostly Celtic music on fiddle, guitar, and dulcimer, when I lived in Ithaca, NY.
Besides dulcimer, I play a little guitar, and am learning pipe organ and folk harp. I help to lead hymns at St. Thomas Episcopal Church at our 10:00 English and 12:30 Spanish services, and I also sing in the choir. There’s more to life than music. When I’m not doing something musical, you might find me knitting, sewing, practicing yoga, enjoying family and friends, or even, on rare occasions, doing housework.
One of my earliest musical memories is the song I wrote when I was three: “Horsey Marcy, Horsey Marcy, Horsey Marcy, Mole!” We had an old blue upright piano in the basement, and I composed the melody on the three black keys, F#, G#, and A#. It was a theme song for playing horseback-riding. I was the horse, hence, “Horsey Marcy.” As for “Mole,” well, I just needed a one-syllable word to end with, and “mole” came to mind. My “Variations on a Three-Year-Old Theme” is based on this piece.
Children’s choirs at my church were among my favorite early musical experiences. I liked wearing the majestic dark blue robes with white stoles. I liked our music minister Robin McEachern, who didn’t treat us like children — no childish talk or condescension. I liked the music theory lessons. And I liked to sing, everything from simple songs to big productions involving different voice parts and sometimes even the adult choirs. I still remember snatches of many of these songs, including “Let the People Praise” from the musical It’s Cool in the Furnace.
Viola was my first school instrument. Our orthodontist forbade anything other than flute or strings. My sister had chosen flute, and since I couldn’t make any noise on it whatsoever, I chose strings. To be different, I picked viola instead of the more popular violin. I did okay for a while, at least as long as the orchestra teacher played each piece for us. But I didn’t understand C clef, so I dropped out when we had to learn pieces from the sheet music. Besides, it was hard to get the notes accurately, without frets — and I didn’t have the patience to develop the necessary precision.
An organ eventually replaced that old piano, which became nice blue shelves in the garage. My sister and I both took lessons from a lady named Mrs. Piehler. We learned a mixed repertoire of folk, classical, and popular tunes — at least tunes that were popular during Mrs. Piehler’s younger years — like “Born Free” or “Fly Me to the Moon.” Mostly we would play the melody with the right hand on the upper keyboard, chords with the left on the lower keyboard, and bass with the feet on our single octave of pedals. We didn’t have recitals, but we did enter the Yamaha organ festival. One year I won first place in the local competition for my rendition of the “Argentina Tango,” not necessarily because my performance was especially noteworthy, but because there were only two other contestants, both much younger than me. It felt a little odd to get such carefully written evaluations from the six judges, but it was rather impressive, too, to be taken so seriously.
When our church got a set of handbells, I joined the handbell choir, which turned out to be a very interesting experience. In most instrumental ensembles, everyone plays a whole part on their own instrument. In a handbell choir, it’s more like one big instrument with each player controlling just a few of the notes. The movement required in ringing a handbell is also interesting — your hand makes a circle from your shoulder down towards the audience and back, ringing the bell with a snap of the wrist at the outermost point of the circle. These dance-like hand motions — like the motions of hammering a dulcimer — make a handbell choir fun to watch as well as to hear.
Singing continued to be my main musical interest. By my senior year in high school, I was in four choirs: the youth choir and an adult choir at church, the school chorus, and the Garden State Philharmonic Chorus. Besides leading hymns and singing anthems on Sundays, the church adult choir performed John Rutter’s Magnificat for Christmas. The Philharmonic, my favorite of the four, did a number of concerts over the year. The Philharmonic’s director was great; he worked with us not only on pitch and rhythm, but expression — something I hadn’t thought much about before. I started doing solos occasionally, not only in choir but at the new church I started going to late in high school. It was a new and wonderful experience to be the only person doing my part: to sing “Never Walk Alone” at the school spring concert, with the choir singing back-up “ah’s” like in the musical, or to sing a duet with Mark or Danielle Husni at church with the worship band, or to do a call and response segment with a guitarist in a jazz ensemble at Berklee’s summer program. Wow.
I’d continued “composing” occasionally since that first tune at the piano, mostly silly songs like my torch song parody, “You Should Stare at the Ceiling,” or my blues parody, “I Woke Up This Mornin’ and My Head Wasn’t On.” I also wrote prayer and worship songs, and I picked up the guitar mainly as a way to accompany singing — for solos and for leading worship or campfire singing. Most of what I have learned to do with a guitar came about through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college. We had weekly large group meetings, and the song leaders would practice the afternoon before the meeting. Then they would invite the beginning guitarists to join in and they would go over all the songs again, teaching us new strum patterns or chords. Having to keep up with a group of more experienced players made for fast learning, plus it’s fun to play in an ensemble. For me, music is best when it is an interpersonal event — when there’s a relationship with an audience or with ensemble partners, or both.
In college, I encountered two new instruments: the hammered dulcimer, which I heard in a local church, and the harpsichord, which I studied for a semester. Playing this keyboard instrument is rather different from the organ or even the piano. On the organ, it doesn’t matter how you press the keys — there’s no mechanical device inside that different amounts of pressure will affect. The piano, like the dulcimer, uses hammers, so pressing harder makes a different sound. But the harpsichord keys are attached to a little quill. As you press a key, the quill rises until it touches the bottom of the string, and as you press a little harder the quill plucks the string. This makes a slight delay between hitting the key and hearing the sound, and much of harpsichord technique is about using this plucking action effectively. I learned fairly simple pieces: some minuets, a musette, and two Bach preludes which are a lot more challenging on the diatonic dulcimer than the chromatic keyboard.
Two college summers I worked as a camp counselor. After my freshman year I worked at a Girl Scout camp in Pennsylvania, where, as the only guitarist, I got to play for the campfires. After my senior year, I worked at a Christian camp between Williamsburg and Richmond, where almost everyone played guitar. For one two-week unit, we offered a “dulcimer camp” where participants could build a simple one-string dulcimer called an “oonee can” as well as assemble and finish a mountain dulcimer kit. A mountain dulcimer bears no resemblance to a hammer dulcimer except that they are both wooden, stringed, folk instruments. But, I decided, since a hammer dulcimer was nowhere in sight, a mountain dulcimer might be the next best thing. It was certainly a fun unit — we all did a good job on our kits, and we even learned to play a few tunes. Now my mountain dulcimer helps decorate my music room. I know there are folks out there who can do marvelous things with a mountain dulcimer, but I’m not one of them. It seemed I would just have to wait until — if — a hammer dulcimer came along.
I got my first dulcimer in October, and when the following October came around, I celebrated the anniversary with a concert. This is the story of that first year, beginning with a look back at my introduction to the dulcimer and the process of buying one.
When I was a college freshman visiting local churches, there was a fellow at Grace Covenant playing something I’d never seen before. He was pounding away at it with little sticks, and it made a wonderful sound, both sweet and wild. I was captivated. It turned out to be a hammered dulcimer, played by Timothy Seaman. I added “hammer dulcimer” to my list of Things I Want and Can’t Have; college students — most of them anyway — just can’t afford such things.
Years later when it became feasible to save money for a dulcimer, I had to seriously reevaluate my interest in it. What if I buy one and can’t play it? What if it’s yet another instrument that I will be only mediocre at? What if I get bored with it after a while? Aren’t there more practical things to do with the money? Isn’t it selfish to buy stuff for yourself? Shouldn’t I work more at the guitar I already have instead of trying some new instrument?
The turning point was when, during a weekend visit, my friend Cathy took me to see Jeff Sebens’ shop, Meadows Music. The multitude of criss-crossing strings on a dulcimer looks chaotic; the layout of the notes isn’t obvious. But when Jeff let me try one of the dulcimers in his shop, he showed me how the notes are arranged in overlapping scale boxes. (There’s a diagram at my Instruments page.) Suddenly the instrument started making sense. Now that I felt I might actually be able to learn to play one, I started dealing with the more spiritual and psychological issues. Some friends particularly helped me understand that since God isn’t about making clones or robots, but people with personalities, He might actually be pleased to see me develop my interest in this unusual instrument. It might be an expression of his extravagant love.
After looking around the Internet a little bit, I decided to order from James Jones. I was surprised to find that these things come in different sizes, and it was difficult to decide which would be best for me. I didn’t want a limited beginner model, but I also didn’t want to buy more than I could really use. So I chose a sort of middle model. It had 15 sets of strings on the treble bridge and 14 on the bass bridge, a range of three octaves, and at least one of every possible note. You should have seen it on that first day. On October 27th, when I went to James’ shop in Bedford, VA, there it was, illuminated by the morning sun, with the rich glow of the redwood soundboard and the sparkly brightness of the new strings. I was thrilled to see my soundhole design carefully cut from a piece of curly maple, and impressed with the way the padauk trim and bridges contrasted with the birdseye maple frame and redwood top. During my visit, I got a tour of the workshop, some maintenance information, my choice of hammers, and time to try out my new instrument while James took a phone call. I also bought a stand, a case, and two instruction books.
To my surprise, I found a variety of dulcimer folks and activities nearby. I got in touch with Tim right away to let him know I’d finally gotten a dulcimer and to set up an introductory lesson. He told me there was a quarterly gathering of players there in Williamsburg. Then Kevin, our church’s assistant to the pastor and quite the guitarist, connected me with Terry, a dulcimer player in the church. She connected me with a monthly dulcimer club right there in Richmond. Then, when I played some pieces for the church’s Christmas coffeehouse, I got hired for a June wedding and was invited to join a worship team. Wow!
I learned so much from all these things. Playing with the worship team meant figuring out ways to play chords and harmonies with guitars, drums, flute, and voices, plus just learning generally about arranging pieces with an ensemble — who starts, who comes in when, how do we change the mood on verse three, and so on. Having the wedding gig several months away motivated me to learn lots of tunes and to arrange them for solo performance during the cocktail hour between the ceremony and dinner. Most of the tunes I got from the Richmond club and the Williamsburg gathering. These meetings were great times of sweet musical fellowship with wonderful people, wonderful musicians. One fellow in the Richmond club, Tom Abernethy, invited me to make a duo for a gig for which Tim had recommended both of us. Unfortunately, it was canceled, but soon after that a flute player from the worship team, Carolyn Huff, joined us to form the WoodSong Trio. This trio was a learning experience for all of us — particularly learning how to play for weddings and how to arrange music for our various instrument combinations.
Besides these learning experiences, I also had some more formal instruction. In March and again in September, I attended the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest. In the spring, I took Rick Thum’s Advanced Beginner class, where we learned about chords and basic embellishments. His “Front Porch Waltz” was a favorite of the Richmond club, so it was neat to actually meet him. In that class I also met Rick Davis, who has become a great friend. He even made the trip from Raleigh to Richmond to record a bodhran part on “Road to Lisdoonvarna / South of the James” for No Loose Threads. In the fall, I took a variety of classes including Ken Kolodner’s “Musicality” and “Advanced Back-up,” Jody Marshall’s “His Majesty’s Muses” (a mixed-instrument class; someone brought a crumhorn and some of us got to sing), and Paul Oorts’ “European Repertoire.” Perhaps the most moving part of the weekend for me was hearing “Galician Waltz” for the first time, performed by Maggie Sansone’s ensemble during the showcase concert.
Instruction continued through lessons with Tim Seaman. Because he lived ninety minutes away in Williamsburg, I would go once a month for a two-hour lesson. There was a lot of energy in these lessons! I would show him tunes I was working on, and for each of these pieces, Tim would have a variety of things to tell me, show me, or play for me on a CD or one of his instruments. In turn, most of these ideas would make me think of more things to show him, and so on. Tim gave me lots of practical help, from dulcimer techniques to performance suggestions to business advice. Most of all, though, I valued his consistent enthusiasm and affirmation — from the beginning he treated me like a real musician. I doubt I would have had the nerve to produce a concert or make a CD or buy my new dulcimer without his encouragement and confidence.
To celebrate the first anniversary of becoming a dulcimist, I put together a concert. First I had a house concert at Terry’s home, with invitations sent to a small group of friends. It was wonderful to have my friends celebrate with me as I shared all the cool things I remembered about music in my life before the dulcimer and all the cool things I’d learned to do since then. Tim even made it, and my college friend Sara, both driving some distance to be there. The following weekend — mainly because some folks I’d invited couldn’t make it to the house concert — I had a “public” concert at my church. Fortunately, the concert recording was pretty bad.