By Elizabeth White
“Mountain dulcimers are the potato chips of the musical world. It's easy to start and hard to stop,” is how Old Growth Mountain Dulcimer Club’s website describes playing the all-American string instrument.
The club was formed about five years ago when the founder, Ellen Rice, bought a mountain dulcimer but didn’t know how to play. She put up a sign on a bulletin board in a local store looking for other players, and when a few community members came to the local fire station with their dulcimers to play some music, the Old Growth Mountain Dulcimer Club was born.
Stephen Middleton and Dean Robinson, instructors and members in Old Growth Mountain Dulcimer Club.
The mountain dulcimer can be traced back to the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, where Irish and Scottish immigrants first invented them. They were the first major instrument created in America.
Shelly Spalding, a member of the Old Growth Dulcimer Club, brought the Leading from the Roots grant and the club together. Leading from the Roots funded the Lessons & Loaner project, which provided two dulcimers made by Mason County-based woodworker Ron Kunkle and are available to loan. People interested in learning how to play but aren’t sure if they want to commit to buying one can borrow a loaner dulcimer. The funding also helped dulcimer instructor Dean Robinson record and produce 6 lessons, which live on the Old Growth Mountain Dulcimer club’s website.
“They are just amazingly beautiful instruments,” Spalding said. “And one of them is out on loan right now. And I know once we get out of the COVID thing, we start meeting in person again, we will likely end up with some newbies who we can loan dulcimers to.”
Spalding explained that the club sends out a playlist several weeks before the meeting so that the players can practice the music. Most of the meeting is dedicated to playing together, but it also includes a teaching component.
“I have a spot in the corner where I have my dulcimer and my music books. And I look right out the window at my bird feeder and I'm close to the warm stove. It's my very special dulcimer corner. It has meant so much to me.” Shelley Spalding, member of the Old Growth Mountain Dulcimer Club.
In pre-pandemic times, the club met in-person weekly to play some tunes together. Since COVID-19 started, they meet once a month on Zoom. “In this time of COVID, for me, it's all about connecting without being in the same space. That's important,” Spalding said.
Before the pandemic, the group had plans to play in a small music festival in Tenino and an assisted living home in Shelton. These events are on hold for now.
Spalding bought her first mountain dulcimer from a music shop in Seattle. She was intrigued by how much smaller it was than the other dulcimers she owned and how it only had 3 or 4 strings. “And so, I bought it and it hung on my wall for probably 10 years because I didn't know anyone who played the instruments and I had never even seen one played,” Spalding said.
Spalding explained that a year or so after dealing with some health issues, she saw that an adult education class was being offered in a town nearby on how to play the mountain dulcimer. The class was ending, but luckily Spalding connected with the instructor who told her about the Old Growth Mountain Dulcimer Club. She has been a member ever since.
“I always would go, and we would always jam some. For me, that was really valuable to be able to play with other people,” Spalding said. “Because when you play at home alone, you can get sloppy and not even know it, with the timing and different aspects of the music. So, when you play with other people, you have to be on the same page that they are so that you all work well together.”