Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: March 2010

Playing Hammered Dulcimer Seated Or Standing

I was busking in New York City at the tender age of 17. I played Appalachian dulcimer by myself or as part of several string bands.

While out busking one day I heard a hammered dulcimer for the first time. It was played by another busker who was passing through the city.

A few months later I acquired my first hammered dulcimer. Since the only hammered dulcimer player I had seen played standing up I figured that was how it was done.

Doug Berch in his mid twenties

Over time I met other hammered dulcimer players and saw that some played standing and some played sitting.

I preferred to play standing for the following reasons:

  • Chairs come in a variety of heights but the ground is always in the same place
  • I liked being able to move around while playing
  • Most musicians I worked with played standing up and everyone could hear each other more easily
  • I thought it looked better when performing

After playing hammered dulcimer for 12 years I developed some musculoskeletal difficulties. Playing hammered dulcimer did not cause this problem but it did aggravate the condition. It was difficult for me to play hammered dulcimer for extended periods of time.

After a few more years the situation worsened and if I was going to continue playing hammered dulcimer some changes would have to be made. This was some time in the early 1990’s

Getting a new body was too expensive so I tried playing hammered dulcimer sitting down.

Doug Berch playing hammered dulcimer seated and looking good

The advantages of playing sitting down:

  • Sitting took a lot of pressure off my hips and lower back
  • Tilting the hammered dulcimer at a very steep angle helped my upper back  relax since the high strings were within closer reach

I was very used to playing standing up and it took about 2 years before playing seated felt natural to me.

A few days ago I was practicing before a concert and I simply could not play well. I kept missing notes and something just didn’t seem right.

Something told me to try playing standing up.

I felt a sense of ease playing hammered dulcimer that I had not felt in many years. Freedom of movement made playing seem much easier and my accuracy immediately improved.

I still have musculoskeletal problems but during the last few years I received a different diagnosis and have pursued some treatments that are more helpful.

It seems my body is once again showing a preference for playing standing up.

I wonder what’s next.

Popular Music Of The Olden Time

Popular Music Of The Olden Time (1859)

I’m always looking for new sources of old music for my repertoire. Old books and new technology offer a wealth of possibilities.

“Popular music of the olden time : a collection of ancient songs, ballads, and dance tunes, illustrative of the national music of England : with short introductions to the different reigns, and notices of the airs from writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries : also a short account of the minstrels” by William Chappell and George Alexander MacFarren was written in 1859.

A book on ancient music written 150 years ago seemed like it might be interesting and it proved to be so.

Popular Music Of The Olden Time

Another delight brought to you by The Internet Archive.

Random Photos Of Tools On The Dulcimer Making Bench

Here are some photographs of things going on in the shop that have been cluttering up my hard drive.

As a dulcimer maker I do a lot of fine, detailed work requiring extreme precision and accuracy.

Perhaps this is why I love using a mallet! Here is my often used mallet resting on top of the form I use for bending dulcimer sides.

Dulcimer Side Bending Jig And A Gentle, Persuasive Mallet

The dampened sides and a flexible heating strip are sandwiched between two long pieces of sheet metal. As heat and moisture soften the sides I gradually apply hand-pressure to the long caul and press the sides to the form. I finalize the pressure and hold everything in place with cam clamps and use the mallet to persuade everything into proper alignment.

I also use the mallet to clamp work to my bench with a holdfast. Here is a picture I took of a holdfast on my bench before photography was invented:

Figure V - a holdfast


Planes have a very high opinion of themselves and like to strut their stuff and show off whenever they can. After they worked up a sweat squaring up a big chunk of curly cherry I let them have their moment.

Planes on parade

In our next photo, from left to right, are Romulus the high angle smoothing plane and Remus the toothing plane. Though they come from the same mother they have vastly different approaches to smoothing and flattening wood. Romulus requires a lot of pushing and force but once in motion will smooth almost any wood to a glass-like finish, Remus prefers to score ruts in the wood and show it who is boss. Together they can handle the wildest grain I have yet to  come across.

Two planes that together can handle just about anything - a high angle smoother and a toothing plane

Last but not least I include a photograph of Ms. Agatha Tsatskeh. Ms. Tsatskeh, through the art of interpretive dance, has taught me many things about accuracy, proportion and grace.

Ms. Agatha Tsatskeh demonstrates the ancient principle of the right angle through interpretive dance


How Long Does It Take Me To Make A Dulcimer?

I am often asked how long it takes me to make a dulcimer. The answer is that I don’t really know. Someday I will figure it out. I do know that I am not making very much per hour!

Here are some of the things that require my time before making a dulcimer.

Digging through my wood stash in the attic

  • Design – It took a lot of time to come up with the specific shape and soundholes for my standard dulcimers. Many drawings were made and several prototype instruments were built to test my ideas. Though the bulk of the design work is complete it is by no means finished; I am constantly making subtle changes to continually improve my instruments.
  • Finding and buying wood – I spend a lot of time visiting sawmills and hardwood dealers searching for the wood that I use. I am very particular about the wood I use so I often come home empty-handed.
  • Resawing – The wood needs to be sawn to the rough dimensions required for dulcimer making. After inspection and sorting the wood gets to age for a while.
  • Selection – After the wood has aged and stabilized I look for the optimal sets of wood for each dulcimer. I usually cover the floor with many backs, tops and sides and look for the ones that will go together best. Tonal, structural and aesthetic consideration goes in to choosing the wood for each dulcimer. Sometimes this process takes considerable time.

At this point  I start doing things that actually look like I am making a dulcimer! Tops and backs are joined, sides are bent, etc. Most of the parts are made as they are needed during construction of each individual dulcimer.

The next three dulcimers

Once the body of the dulcimer is complete I spend lots of time scraping and sanding prior to finishing. Once the finish has cured I install the frets, tuners, nut and bridge and string the dulcimer up. This is always an exciting moment.

I play the dulcimer for several days and break it in. During these first few days the sound of the dulcimer opens up and some small adjustments may need to be made to assure it will have optimal playability and tone.

Added to the time of making the dulcimer is the “down time” as glue dries, finish cures, etc. Though I am not working on the dulcimer while these things take place it does add to the time it takes to make one from start to finish.

Someday I will figure out how much time it actually takes to make a dulcimer from going to the sawmill to having a finished instruments on the bench, though I am not sure I really want to know!

I am glad I enjoy the ride as much as I do!

Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers

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