Dulcimer players convene in Watkins
WATKINS GLEN--Listen carefully this weekend and you just might hear the merry sound of hammered dulcimers skipping across the lake as a group of students convene for an annual workshop featuring instruction and sharing. If they've got the doors closed, and you'd like to hear the instructors, you'll want to come to the concert, Friday, May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church (6th and Decatur Streets in Watkins Glen) where Ken Kolodner and Mary Lynn Michal, the weekend's instructors, will present a program whose music is drawn partly from Kolodner and Michal's upcoming CD, "Out from the Shadows."
Kolodner is widely recognized as a world-class instrumentalist, known for his mastery of both hammered dulcimer and Appalachian style fiddle. Michal, a classically-trained orchestral performer, studied the dulcimer with Kolodner.
The workshop, organized by local dulcimer player Kate LaMoreaux, had a two-year pandemic hiatus, making this year's event particularly joyful. The approximately 25 participants come from across the United States, representing a variety of professions as well. "An interesting, diverse group of people," says LaMoreaux. Some come alone, some with spouses. Most have been here before, a few are coming to Watkins Glen for the first time. No beginners here--all are seasoned players and passionate about the instrument.
At first glance, a hammered dulcimer might look like a section of the innards of a piano with its intricate interlace of strings and tuning pegs. But there are two to three bridges dividing the strings, and the arrangement of octaves is unique to this instrument. To a piano player it might seem counter-intuitive, with lower notes on the right. A few notes are also found in more than one location. The strings may be plucked but they're more often tapped with small, light, felt-tipped wands made to rock in the player's hands.
A basic instrument can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars; but specialty luthiers create ones with inlays, exotic woods and extra features. These can cost as much as a late-model used car. Each instrument is responsive to subtle elements of weather, requiring more frequent tuning if a day is humid or windy.
Opinions differ on how long it takes to learn to play, but everyone agrees it takes a lot of practice. Ten years ago, when LaMoreaux first met Michal, Michal was an advanced beginner. Concentrated work brought her to a professional level. LaMoreaux herself performs locally with several different groups including Southwind and the Dundee-based 43 Main Street. And while there's very little music written specifically for hammered dulcimer, almost any genre can be played on the instrument including classical, Celtic and folk. "You learn a lot of old-time music," LaMoreaux says.
She says for her, the magic of the instrument is its relaxing, sweet sound. Playing requires concentration. "You can lose yourself in it," she says. "And it's more interesting than crossword puzzles."
In the six sessions of the workshop, held at a privately-owned vacation house, students will work intensively on music theory, arrangement and technique, working on multiple approaches to playing the same tune. Ear training, accompaniment skills and pattern recognition of chords and arpeggios are among the additional topics.
The group also has jam sessions on several evenings, where concertina, fiddle, guitar and other instruments join forces with the dulcimer players. In breaks, participants hike, take waterfall tours, shop, visit wineries, and generally enjoy the area. This year, friends who haven't seen each other in person for two years will have a lot of catching up to do. Some of that will happen over the legendary meals catered by Michele Baldwin.
"It always gives me a nudge," LaMoreaux says of the seminars. "It's a way of pushing your mental faculties. And I'm incredibly right-handed while Ken really focuses on the left-hand lead for the downbeat. Some musicians don't do that as vigilantly. My left hand has gotten stronger and better."
This year's seminar is filled. But the concert is a good way to learn a little more about the hammered dulcimer, as are Kolodner's websites, sandbridgedulcimer.com and kenkolodner.com, where it's possible to find out more about online classes and upcoming workshops in Sandbridge, VA.
Admission to the concert, at the door, is $15 for general admission and $10 for kids under 14. Children under 5 are free.