A Memorable Hammered Dulcimer Workshop

One of the things I love about teaching is revealing the gems of musical playing to those who attend my classes.  Those dulcimer players (and autoharpists, for that matter) who have studied with me privately or attended any of my many workshops know that I tend to introduce “out-of-the-box” ideas, like singing the tune du jour before playing it, or mastering a physical motion to the playing that on the surface seems to have no relationship to the subject at hand, but later proves that it does in big ways.  These and other tactile concepts dwell within the science of music, which can be taught (I am very excited about this), vs. the art of music, which is more eluding because it is fueled by gift.

at the Original Dulcimer Players’ Club Funfest in Evart MI some years ago, a group of us touched briefly on the art of music in my workshop, “Love Your Dulcimer, Love Its Sustain.”  If you were there, lucky you.  (If you weren’t, well, I’d like to teach it again.)

The reason for this workshop grew out of my meeting many dulcimer players who love the dulcimer’s long sustain, but who also try endlessly to get it out of their way.  (If sustain is that much in the way, then why play the dulcimer?!)  Conversely, I arrange my pieces so that the sustain contributes to the ethereal, harmonic quality of whatever I’m playing.  But how to bring my fellow players to that point?

Shortly after Funfest 2002, I decided that the best way to understand a musical concept is to make it happen apart from the instrument and from within the player, instead of listening/spectating.  I reasoned that, if workshop participants could hear sustain within themselves, they would understand how the dulcimer’s ever-present sustain can work with, rather than against, a tune.  To achieve that enhanced hearing, I would turn the entire group into a large, vocal hammered dulcimer!  (Talk about out of the box.)

So, for the 2003 Funfest, I wrote out “Amazing Grace” in three “parts” for the 45 or so participants to sing.  I say “parts” because each group took turns singing the melody notes to overlap the way they do on the dulcimer.  No one group sang the entire tune.  Together, we let the held notes carry their own special harmony under and over the tune.  We really did sound like a hammered dulcimer!  (Passers-by observed us open-mouthed and fascinated; some of the powers-that-be wondered how this choral-music workshop wound up on the schedule.)
From there, the participants returned to their dulcimers to play “Amazing Grace”  and listen for sustain as a natural harmonic enhancement emerging from their own instruments.  The resonance began to happen!  Had time not run out, I would have nurtured that further and explored another tune where the group would determine where the sustaining tones are through singing and by ear.  (The continuing story was presented at the 2004 Funfest.)

Although the workshop ended after not quite an hour, the class really concluded that night when I performed my full arrangement of “Amazing Grace” onstage at the grandstand.  Almost a year later, that workshop remains present in my mind as a special and precious moment.  A small group of us did more than strike strings; we made music that afternoon.  And perhaps best of all, we created a powerful bond with each other as a result of singing together.  I look forward to re-creating that experience again and giving it to as many players as possible.

©2004 Lucille Reilly.  All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced for distribution in any format without obtaining prior permission. Links to this page, however, are always welcome.
To have this workshop or a host of others presented to your dulcimer club or summer class, contact Lucille.

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