Songs Sweet and Simple

Songs Sweet and Simple: Making Music with the Mountain Dulcimer

By Mary Amato
Issue 102, September/October 2000

Girl playing dulcimerAs a child, I took a few violin and piano lessons but never got past awkward plucking and plunking. As a teenager, I strummed my sister’s guitar in the hopes of becoming another Joni Mitchell–but my fingers just would not cooperate. So with great joy, at 39, I’m finally connecting with a musical instrument. And, best of all, I’m sharing the learning process with my children.

Nine years ago my husband and I bought a mountain dulcimer for our wedding anniversary as a lark: it looked charming and was inexpensive (as far as instruments go). We figured if we couldn’t learn to play it, it would look fabulous hanging on the wall. And that was pretty much where it stayed, until we had kids. As soon as my first child came, I started singing–morning, noon, and night. Folk songs, chants, hymns, lullabies. Motivated to make more music, I got the dulcimer down, opened my “how to play the dulcimer” book, and taught myself to play everything from Mother Goose to the Beatles. Now I am teaching my sons–ages four and six–how to play, too.

Mountain dulcimers are lightweight wooden instruments with only three or four strings; they look like guitars on a diet. To play, you place the dulcimer on your lap (sometimes they’re called lap dulcimers). With your right hand, you strum a simple rhythm–much like a guitar–while you press one or more strings down on the fret board with the left hand.

The mountain dulcimer is a family-friendly instrument that, unfortunately, isn’t that commonly played. Lots of parents who spend money on instruments and lessons overlook it, despite the following virtues:

Cheap to Own. You can buy a good-quality beginner’s dulcimer for as low as $49.00 (see box) and a professional-quality dulcimer for about $250.

Easy to Learn. With a good book, you really can teach yourself and your kids to play. Unlike the guitar, you do not have to make chords with your left hand. You can play a simple song by pressing down only the melody string. I’ve taught kindergarteners how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in five minutes flat.

Limitless Musical Possibilities. Once you’ve mastered the basics, there is always more you can learn: chords, finger-picking, and arranging, for example. The dulcimer can be tuned to different modalities for various sounds. Learning to write tablature, the method dulcimer musicians use to write out their tunes, is easy.

Comfortable to Play. Whereas larger instruments, such as guitars, can feel too big or awkward, the dulcimer sits lightly on absolutely any size lap.

Perfect for Sing-Alongs. Just try bringing a piano on your next camping trip, or singing while playing the recorder, violin, or trumpet! The mountain dulcimer is a true folk instrument that allows the player to easily sing and interact with the group.

Before I learned to play the dulcimer, I dreamed of having sing-alongs at gatherings. Now I make the dream come true by pulling out my dulcimer and sitting down. All it takes is a few strums to get a circle of singers going. I play at my children’s schools, church, family reunions, neighborhood picnics, and holiday parties. I bring it whenever I babysit. Once it was the only thing that worked to soothe a toddler with separation anxiety.

Getting Started
To get started as a family, you need a dulcimer, a how-to book, and the desire to learn (see box). My kids’ favorite book is Easy as 1-2-3 by David Cross and Sarah Morse. Cross and Morse suggest labeling the first ten frets under the string with stick-on numbers–a sticker with “1″ on the first fret, “2″ on the second, and so on. Your kids then play by number. For example, to play the phrase “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” your child would press the melody string down on frets numbered 5, 4, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5–while strumming. Easy as 1-2-3 has 50 simple tunes by number for beginning dulcimer players.

For many kids under seven, playing an entire melody by number isn’t easy–even if it’s just a nursery rhyme. In fact, it can be as frustrating as that old pat the head while rubbing the tummy trick. I suggest an even simpler approach: ask younger kids to focus on only one hand at a time. Start with strumming.

Have your child play with you. Sit side by side with the dulcimer stretching across both your laps. First the child can learn to strum with his or her right hand while you play the melody string with your left. Once a child has learned how to sing and strum–keeping the beat–then you can try switching places. The child can learn to press down the melody string, while you do the strumming. Eventually, you can both go solo.

Mara Wasburn, the author of another how-to manual, Children’s Dulcimer Method, taught her own children how to play when her daughter was four and her son was seven. “In a little over a year and a half, they both became fine players,” Wasburn says. They became so good, in fact, that she and her kids formed a group called The Dulcimer Circle and performed together for eight years at festivals in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Kid-Tested Tips
Keep It Short and Sweet. Make sessions short and frequent rather than long and intermittent. “If you stop while they’re still wanting more,” suggests Wasburn, “they’ll want to play again soon.” Lessons with my kids usually last no longer than five or ten minutes and are most often impromptu. Let’s say we’re all ready to go to a party, but the party doesn’t start for another ten minutes. Time for a dulcimer lesson! We keep our dulcimers hanging on the living room wall for easy grabbing.

Sing Along. Start by playing familiar songs. Easy as 1-2-3 is great because it features songs every kid knows by heart. I sing the numbers instead of the words to help my kids play along.

Keep It Fun. Don’t push your kids to practice; just play with them. “The moment it becomes work it ceases to be a joy,” Wasburn says. “Playing music should be as fun as baking cookies. I always billed our music sessions as time to have fun together, not work time.”

Laugh at Your Flubs. “Your kids and you will make mistakes,” reminds Wasburn. “Laugh at mistakes, and nobody will get frustrated.”

Dulcimer Shopping
Consider buying an inexpensive dulcimer or dulcimer kit first. Backyard Music makes an excellent-quality dulcimer out of sturdy cardboard–believe it or not–with a wooden fret board and metal gear tuners that is perfect for beginners. My kids have their own Backyard Music dulcimer. Lightweight and slightly smaller than my wooden dulcimer, it sounds terrific. Older kids (and grown-ups) go crazy over the Backyard Music dulcimer kit, which comes with everything you need and takes about two hours to put together.

If you want to invest in a professional-quality instrument, you can find mountain dulcimers in folk music shops or at craft fairs. They come in different shapes and sizes and also vary in price depending on the wood used and the number of decorative touches. Before you buy, here’s what dulcimer player Madeline MacNeil suggests you should consider:

A smaller fret board can be helpful for smaller fingers.
Metal gear tuners rather than wooden tuners are best.
Give it a trial run. Does it fit on your lap? Is it easy to press down the strings? Does it sound good? “It’s like buying a dress,” says MacNeil, “try it on and see how it feels. Then you’ll know if it’s right for you.”

For More Information
Backyard Music, PO Box 9047, New Haven, CT 06532-0047; 203-281-4515; Backyard Music provides finished dulcimers, kits, books, and more. Kit prices range from $45.00 to $59.00 with good discounts for group orders. Dulcimers and kits come with strings, pick, noter, and two instruction books: Easy as 1-2-3: 50 Dulcimer Tunes for Beginners and Meet the Friendly Dulcimer.

Mel Bay Publications, Inc., #4 Industrial Drive, Pacific, MO 63069-0066; 800-8-MELBAY; This company sells dulcimer books, videos, and more, including: Children’s Dulcimer Method by Mara Wasburn and You Can Teach Yourself Dulcimer video and book by Madeline MacNeil.

Roots & Branches Music, PO Box 2164, Winchester, VA 22604; 540-678-1305; This company publishes Dulcimer Player News Magazine and sells books, CDs, and more.

Mary Amato is a freelance writer who sings and plays dulcimer with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is the author of The Word Eater, a children’s novel.

Photo by Mary Amato.