MUSIC: [OLD JOE CLARK]
NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it might be awhile before we can hear a live music performance again. So why not make your own music?
Today, WORLD Radio Intern Vivian Jones introduces us to an instrument that’s easy to learn.
VIVIAN JONES, CORRESPONDENT: You’ve probably heard this sound before, but you might not have recognized what it is. It’s an instrument called the mountain dulcimer.
SIEFERT: Now there’s three strings on here. I am going to strum two of them, but I’m going to leave them alone other than that. They’re going to provide an almost bagpipe quality to the music and this is, this is the traditional way of, of playing the instrument.
AUDIO: [TUNING UP]
That’s Steven Siefert—he’s a world-renowned mountain dulcimer player.
SIEFERT: I’ve been a professional mountain dulcimer player since about 1996.
So what is a mountain dulcimer? It’s a stringed instrument—kind of like a small, narrow guitar.
MUSIC: [BOIL THEM CABBAGE DOWN]
SIEFERT: My dulcimer has an hourglass-shaped body, on top of that, running from one end to the other, is a fingerboard. The strings run over that fingerboard. You see instruments like this all over Europe. This is the American version of the fretted zither.
You don’t hold a dulcimer like a guitar–it sits flat on your lap while you play. Strumming with one hand, you hold down the strings with the other to change the pitch of the notes.
SIEFERT: I want to tell you about what’s neat about these instruments. The wrong notes have been removed. So when you run your finger along one string and strum, you don’t have to avoid wrong notes. So here’s an example.
Siefert says no one really knows the exact origin of the mountain dulcimer.
MUSIC: [SCARBOROUGH FAIR]
SIEFERT: I always liken it to something like a spoon. Who invented the spoon. You know, who invented the ball? Well, they could have popped up everywhere.
There’s no specific record of pioneers with dulcimers, but the instrument most likely came to eastern Tennessee with European immigrants who settled in the Appalachian mountains.
SIEFERT: If you follow the wagon road that comes down out of Virginia, and then goes into Eastern Kentucky and then floats West. That’s where we find the old instruments, is along those trails.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a revival of mountain dulcimer music. Reader’s Digest published a book called Back to Basics that had instructions on how to build a dulcimer.
SIEFERT: All of that revival did create written music, did create recordings, instructional methods. That’s when the instruments started to get refined.
Siefert learned the dulcimer after he first heard the sound on a Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album. Back before the internet, he did some research at the library, and found a magazine for dulcimer players.
SIEFERT: I saw photographs, some of them from a decade earlier where people were at festivals, lots of mentions of festivals. You know, I’ve never heard I’ve never even heard of a dulcimer. So I started slowly and I, I got busier as the years went on. I started finding the people in those pictures and asking them who should I talk to?
He moved to Nashville to study at the Middle Tennessee State University, and later traveled and taught with Appalachian folk musician David Schnaufer, who’s widely credited with restoring the popularity of the dulcimer.
SIEFERT: I started off as a piano major. But at some point I was having a lot of fun with the dulcimer. I did feel like I was discovering some hidden gem really.
MUSIC: [THE OLD RUGGED CROSS]
Siefert has worked more than 1,000 dulcimer festivals, and performed all over the world.
SIEFERT: There’s a lot of people I would say age 50 to 80 doing this. And then there’s all the dulcimer players we don’t know about. One of the best things about this instrument is, every once in a while you run into somebody who’s been playing for years and has never met anyone.
Siefert is not only a renowned performer: he’s also passing the dulcimer craft on to the next generation. He’s taught at Vanderbilt and also to private students. Since the coronavirus pandemic, he’s taught dulcimer classes virtually, using Zoom.
One of his students had grown up singing with a shape note hymnal, but had never played an instrument before. Siefert put pieces of paper with the seven shapes—do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti—on the dulcimer, and put the shape note hymnal in front of them.
SIEFERT: They were able to play what was on that book, because they knew how to read shapes. I remember thinking this is powerful. Somebody who’s never played an instrument, just played a hymn with almost no mistakes, and then to look up and see the joy in their face that was priceless. Amazing, really.
Siefert says the ease of playing the mountain dulcimer makes music accessible to anyone who wants to play.
SIEFERT: Nowadays we’d like to give everybody this idea that you have to be an expert. But really, music is supposed to be a part of your life just like going for a walk, having a cup of tea, you know, going swimming.
MUSIC: [WILDWOOD FLOWER]
The mountain dulcimer is an instrument that puts music—and all of its joys—into the hands of anyone who gives it a try.
SIEFERT: Music, you know, we don’t know how. But it heals. It seems to heal. And you can say that it does that in small ways or big ways. But I like to think it’s simply putting something beautiful into somebody’s hands. And then they can go do the same for other people. I don’t feel like I’ve dedicated my life to dulcimer, although you might think that looking at my track record. Really, I love just showing people you can make music too.
MUSIC: [WILDWOOD FLOWER]
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Vivian Jones in Nashville, Tennessee.