I’m not sure what determines the time when you finally do something you’ve planned to do for years. Sometimes I think it depends on just how hard you want to accomplish something, then other times, I believe the excuse, “I didn’t have the time to devote to it,” is a legitimate one. I’m in Florida now here at a special resort RV park. Just today, as I was leaving a building on the grounds, coming through the door was a man, who was bent on practicing piano. “I love it,” he said, “I only wish I had learned this when I was a child.” Even more than escaping the weather, living here for a few months allows residents to join many classes being conducted by volunteers. So what did I do? Well, for one, I enrolled in a mountain dulcimer class.
Learning to play the dulcimer has been a desire of mine ever since my husband hand- crafted one for me back in February 1994. What took me so long? Here’s that same old excuse, “I didn’t have the time.” Granted, being retired does leave a person time to pursue other interests and here at SunNFun campground, classes are just a walk away from my RV. My husband is thrilled and waits for the day we’ll play songs together.
It all began when on a trip to Tennessee we heard and saw Mountain Dulcimers being played. This presented yet
another challenge for my husband, Burl. He had to build one! Even though he has spent years of study and daily, hard work as a publisher/broadcast engineer, he’s always had a project or two, sometimes three, on the side. For a man who loves working with wood, building dulcimers held his interest, for awhile. In fact, before moving on to another project, he built ten of them and gave one to each of our five children. He instructed our son, Merwin, in the construction of one and video taped him as he worked. He then advertised the how-to-build video in the Dulcimer Player News, a magazine devoted to mountain dulcimer enthusiasts. Many videos were sold across the United States, with one purchaser as far away as Australia.
Because the dulcimer first appeared, in the early 19th century, among Scotch-Irish
immigrants in the southern Appalachian Mountains, it’s oftentimes called the Appalachian Dulcimer. It is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. Dulcimers appear in a wide variety of body types, teardrop, rectangular, violin-shaped, fish shaped, etc. The ones Burl made are hour-glass shaped. He experimented with a variety of woods, the one he built for me has a walnut bottom and spruce top with a maple/wenge fret board. His dulcimer has special meaning to him in that before his grandfather’s shop was demolished, he carefully preserved, stored, and planed several of its Chestnut boards for use in its construction. Many times the sound holes of dulcimers are heart-shaped, but on mine they are shaped like birds, reminders of the yard birds I love so much. Those on his, are unique in design, too.
In what seemed like no time to me, my husband became an accomplished
dulcimer player. With his excellent ear for music, it came easily to him, although he does remind me that he worked many hours learning to play. Besides the usual folk songs, there are others that seem written especially for the dulcimer. Have you heard “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” “Boil Them Cabbage,” and “Old Joe Clark?” They are truly mountain songs and are ideally played on the dulcimer.
Getting back to dulcimer construction, I think he chose the hour-glass shape because of the challenge it presents. I remember him soaking the wooden sides of the instrument in water for a few hours, then heating the wet
wood before carefully bending it to shape. Inside one of my dulcimer’s sound holes is a label that reads “Hand Crafted by Burl Updyke February 1994” plus a description of the woods used. It may seem to you that it took me a long time to appreciate what my husband did for me, and so it must seem to him. As I learn to play it, I’m truly beginning to appreciate it more then ever. The dulcimer is generally regarded as one of the easiest string instruments to learn and one reason for this is that although you have music before you, below the staff is a dulcimer tablature giving written instructions that enable a person to play without reading music.
I usually hesitate to tell others when attempting a new project like learning to play
an instrument because this, like any other new skill, requires dedication and stick-to-itiveness. Others will surely ask me how I’m doing? Well, it’s fun learning a simple American old-time music tradition, but it can’t be done without lots of PRACTICE. Check with me later.