In 1999, while on vacation, I purchased an Appalachian mountain dulcimer from a shop in Berea, Kentucky. I didn’t have any idea how to play it, but I was smitten by the beautiful appearance of this handcrafted instrument, and also by its unique sound, which the builder, Warren May, demonstrated for me.
About a month later, I made plans to attend a weekend dulcimer festival in New Canaan, CT, where I met some of the top players around the country and participated in their workshops. It was one of those proverbial life-changing moments for me, and 20 years later I am now traveling all around the country as a workshop leader and performer myself, and sharing my own expertise with eager players who want to learn to play this unique instrument.
I travel to these festivals in my Pleasure Way motorhome, with my cat Artie as my best road buddy.
As a music major in college, and with classical piano and harp as my background, I thought that playing the mountain dulcimer would be super easy, but in fact, my highfalutin classical training initially got in the way of my being able to play a very simple folk instrument in the traditional style. I was making it way more complicated than it needed to be, and when I just relaxed and let the instrument do what it was designed to do, it became the most natural thing in the world.
I had been playing piano since the age of 4, and always knew I wanted to be a music teacher. But along the way, various life events put that goal on the back burner until I finally enrolled at Montclair State in 1977, about 15 years after graduating from high school. I began my career as a full-time choral teacher at the ripe old age of 30-something and truly enjoyed a very gratifying experience, but in 2008 I decided to retire and pursue my new direction as a folk musician.
By this time I had already begun teaching workshops and performing on my mountain dulcimer at local music festivals here in the Northeast, and soon my reputation as a music teacher began to spread.
In addition, I discovered that I loved to arrange songs for the dulcimer, and again, my music theory background came in very handy as I wrote the materials for my various workshops.
But I was looking for something different to teach at these workshops. The standard dulcimer favorites had already been done many times, and I wanted something new and fresh. Another life-changing event occurred in 2009, the year after I retired when I happened to discover Manx folk music. I learned that the Isle of Man (a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea) was a tremendous source for Celtic-flavored traditional music that had not been heard in the United States. I made two trips to the Isle of Man where I met with the musical experts who were very eager to share their Manx melodies and their related histories with me. I had become a Manx folklorist!
Those early arrangements, which had been written for my workshop attendees, became the foundation for my first book of dulcimer tablature, titled Tailless Tunes — Manx Music for Mountain Dulcimer, which I self-published in 2010. (Incidentally, the cover features a
photograph of a dulcimer upon which is standing a Manx cat — the breed with no tail — hence the title.)
It became my goal to introduce Manx music to dulcimer players in every state, and I launched my first website to promote it, along with social media postings. Now I was getting more invitations to travel around the country and teach this music at workshops, and of course, more books were sold. At a festival in Oregon, one of the attendees was from Alaska — she bought a book to take home with her! In addition to all the states in the US, the books also traveled to the UK, France, Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand.
A second volume, Tailless Tunes 2, MORE Manx Music for Mountain Dulcimer, was released a few years later.
In the meantime, I have also published five additional books of dulcimer arrangements, including a 3-volume set of American folk tunes, a book of classical favorites, and a collection of hymns.
They say a music teacher never really retires, and I feel so fortunate to have found this new folk instrument that allows me to share my love of music, my love of teaching, and my love of traveling in such a unique way.
But I never could have imagined that I would one day be sharing this instrument on the concert stage, but that is exactly what will happen in May of 2020.
In 2007 I was invited to join the Masterwork Chorus, based in Morristown, NJ (www.masterwork.org), as their regular piano accompanist. During my 12 years with them, I have been privileged to perform a great variety of repertoire on various concert stages. Our current Music Director, Dr. Chris Shepard, has planned a program entitled “Appalachian Spring,” which will be presented on Saturday, May 16, 2020, at 8 pm, in the Dorothy Young Performing Arts Center at Drew University, Madison, NJ.
The program will include Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed by a professional chamber ensemble, a commissioned choral work by our Associate Conductor, Dr. Martin Sedek, plus various other Appalachian-themed choral works.
And, coming full circle with both my classical roots and more recently acquired folk roots, Dr. Shepard has asked me to prepare a set featuring members of the Camerata, Masterwork’s chamber singers, accompanied by Yours Truly on Appalachian dulcimer.
Included in that set will be three pieces: a Manx folk song, “Arrane Ben-vlieaun” (Milking Song), sung by the ladies of Camerata in both Manx-Gaelic and English; a solo dulcimer arrangement of “Simple Gifts;” and my arrangement of an old Scottish popular song, “I Love a Lassie,” accompanied by dulcimer and sung by the men of Camerata.
As a “vintage” musician halfway into her 70th decade, I’m living proof that musicians never really retire — they just keep strumming along.
Carol Walker — submitted January 10, 2020, Denville, NJ 07834