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Friday, 10 July 2015 08:52

Dulcimer music strings people together

Written by  Lynn Greene
Nancy Garrett of Janesville demonstrates how to play the mountain dulcimer. Garrett learned to play the folk instrument after she retired from teaching but returns to the classroom to teach grade-schoolers how to play. She’s also a member of the growing Southern Wisconsin Dulcimer Club. Nancy Garrett of Janesville demonstrates how to play the mountain dulcimer. Garrett learned to play the folk instrument after she retired from teaching but returns to the classroom to teach grade-schoolers how to play. She’s also a member of the growing Southern Wisconsin Dulcimer Club. Terry Mayer

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- With only three or four strings and simple diatonic fret pattern facilitating the playing of the melody in an Ionian mode, the mountain dulcimer arguably is easier to play than this sentence is to understand.

“It’s a comfortable instrument to play,” said Bill Hatfield, owner of Hatfield Guitar

& Repair in Janesville. “You can sit it on your lap and really, anyone can learn to play it. It’s really popular with seniors. If you’re arthritic, you can still play it.” 

June Carter Cash played a dulcimer. Joni Mitchell played one on her album, “Blue,” and Cyndi Lauper plays one on “A Night to Remember” and “Sisters of Avalon.” The Rolling Stones recorded “Lady Jane” and “I Am Waiting,” featuring the dulcimer playing of Brian Jones. Country group Little Big Town used a dulcimer on its second album.

Jean Ritchie, who died earlier this year, was a folk-singing mountain dulcimer player. She made the instrument popular with the folk-singing crowd of the ’60s, inspiring fellow musicians such as Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan.

Closer to home, Nancy Hasse of Janesville started playing dulcimer after breaking her elbow.

“Couldn’t play the violin after that,” Hasse said. “Then I heard Richard Mullins playing the hammered dulcimer on Christian radio and just thought the music was so wonderful.”

Hasse took three lessons to get started on her new instrument of choice and that quick, she was off and running.

“One door closes, one door may open, you know,” she said.

For Nancy Garrett of Janesville, playing the dulcimer opened doors to a fulfilling retirement hobby.

Garrett has been spreading the joy of playing the instrument to dozens, maybe even hundreds, of youngsters.

Garrett retired from her teaching job in 2005, but she didn’t retire from teaching -- because of the dulcimer. 

“I always thought I’d like to play an instrument ... “ she said.

Garrett’s husband, Tom, plays mandolin and banjo and is active with the Southern Wisconsin Bluegrass Music Association. They were at a historical rendezvous when Garrett heard a mountain dulcimer being played.

She’d probably heard one before, but this time she really listened and thought, “That’s what I want to play, it’s so pretty.”

Once Garrett retired and her two children moved out and started their own households, she had time to follow up on her desire.

She bought a dulcimer and went to a workshop, quickly immersing herself in the instrument.

“I play the mountain dulcimer, not the hammered -- that has too many strings,” she said.

Like many who pick up the mountain dulcimer, she plays the instrument with three strings. Four strings, with a double melody string, also is common for some players. 

“It’s really added to our retirement,” Garrett said of playing the dulcimer.

Traveling throughout the year to bluegrass and other music events has allowed Garrett to participate in a half dozen or more dulcimer workshops a year.

She is a member of the Southern Wisconsin Dulcimer Club; the Rock Prairie Dulcimer Club is an offshoot of that club. Members of the latter group perform once a month or so at The Gathering Place in Milton, plus they play wherever they can for donations.

The donations are used to buy mountain dulcimers to be used in local schools. Garrett takes the instruments to third- and fourth-grade classrooms in five schools, where she teaches the students the basics of playing the instrument.

Garrett is not expecting to turn out the next big thing, the next June Carter Cash, Richard Mullins or Jean Ritchie, but she is hoping to inspire the youngsters to appreciate different kinds of music. The best way to do that is to get them involved with music, to put their hands on an instrument and an instrument in their hands.

The dulcimer is perfect for that. There are two main variations, though some argue they’re not related at all. The mountain dulcimer also is called the Appalachian dulcimer, because it first showed up in the early 1800s in the Scottish and Irish immigrant communities of the Appalachian mountains. That’s why the dulcimer often is equated with Celtic or Irish folk music.

“I like to introduce them to the Appalachian music,” Garrett said. “It’s a different kind of music, something they might not experience otherwise.”

The mountain dulcimer is made of wood with a long, narrow soundbox and a neck that runs the length of the instrument. The strings are fretted (pressed down upon to create different notes) with the left hand and plucked or strummed with the right hand.

Compared to other stringed instruments, such as the guitar, fiddle and banjo, the mountain dulcimer is easy to make and play. In the 1950s, when the mountain dulcimer became popular with folk singers, kits were sold so you could make your own instrument. The kits remain popular with folks who want to build it themselves.

The hammered dulcimer, on the other hand, has many strings and is played by striking the strings with wooden hammers or mallets. It has a trapezoidal sounding board. It can be played on a stand or held by the musician, who strikes the strings with a small mallet.

Similar instruments, with various names, are played around the world. The hammered dulcimer is identified by the number of strings that cross the treble and bass bridge -- a 15/14 would have 15 treble and 14 bass strings, for example.

Hasse admitted that the hammered dulcimer can be intimidating.

“Just look at it, it’s got 60 strings,” she said. “That’s a lot.” 

The Southern Wisconsin Dulcimer Club doesn’t discriminate; members play both the mountain and hammered dulcimer. The club meets the second Saturday of the month in Milton.

“Nancy (Hasse) leads the hammered dulcimer group in one room and I have the mountain dulcimer group in the other room,” Garrett said. “We don’t meet in the summer --it just gets too busy.”

“It’s a fun group of people,” Hasse said. “The club has really grown. It’s so wonderful. I’m really enjoying it. You put a couple dulcimers together and it sounds so lovely. It’s more sociable than the violin, that’s for sure.”

When school starts again, Hasse said she hopes to help Garrett more with teaching children to play the dulcimer.

“It’s amazing what she’s (Garrett) done, getting the instruments out there to the kids,” Hasse said.

“Anybody can learn to play it if they have a desire,” Garrett said.



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