Thoughts On The Creative Process

Thoughts On The Creative Process

Creative PassionWhen I was in the first grade of elementary school I was given an assignment to color a picture of a blacksmith taken from a coloring book. The outlne-drawing of a blacksmith in his apron standing by an anvil on a tree stump fascinated me. I knew what a blacksmith was and what a blacksmith did but I had never actually seen one in action; blacksmiths were not a common sight in Brooklyn, NY in the early 1960’s. Go figure.

I remember meticulously coloring in the picture with brown for the tree stump and apron, black for the anvil and hammer, etc. I remember being surprised at how well the picture turned out. I was not very good at drawing, even when filling the spaces of a coloring book, and this was the finest piece of  art I had ever made.  I was six or seven years old and had just had a peak experience.

And then the teacher yelled at me.

In that moment of shock I looked at the paper in front of me and to my surprise I had done nothing but scribble all over the page with one or two crayons.

The teacher asked me why I had scribbled all over the page and I honestly said that I had not done that. She said I was lying. I was confused and had no ability to articulate what had taken place, that as far as I knew I had done a masterful job of coloring the picture and was very moved by the experience. I was very surprised to see the scribbling I had produced.

I was a young child and the concept of what had happened was far beyond my understanding. She was a middle-aged teacher with grey hair, orthopedic shoes, and a voice reminiscent of the sound made when sanding wooden floors. We were at an impasse.

A note was sent home, my parents had to meet with the teacher and the end result was that nobody was happy.

A few years later I was at a day camp. In the cafeteria was a piano. I had never played a musical instrument but sat at the piano and was amazed that I could make music, very beautiful music. I played and listened as if I was an observer rather than the one playing the piano; the music just flowed out effortlessly.

And then someone yelled at me.

In that moment of shock I suddenly heard that all I was doing was banging on keys randomly and loudly. This was not beautiful music. Well, maybe to John Cage or Edgar Varèse it was beautiful music but to most people, including myself, it was obnoxious noise.

Memories of these two experiences stayed with me. As I grew older I realized there was a difference between internal and external experience. I realized that one can become immersed in an interior world, sometimes spontaneously. I learned that concentration and meditation were part of our make up as humans.

I think these childhood experiences are universal. I have heard of others having variations of this kind of experience, of being young and spontaneously entering a realm of creative fire. Like me, they also had no way to articulate the experience at the time.

I believe that everyone is creative and that everyone manifests their creativity one way or another as a normal occurrence in everyday life.

Perhaps those people who are viewed as being creative have a passion to bridge the inner and outer life and familiarity with that territory manifests more noticeably in what they do.

Perhaps when someone yelled at them it was an experience shocking enough to wake them up but not shocking enough to permanently dampen that spirit.

The Fascinating World Of Dulcimer Back Braces

Yes, the life of a dulcimer builder is filled with action and adventure.

This afternoon I made it most of the way through the process of bracing the back of a curly walnut dulcimer. I have no standard pattern for bracing; the number and dimensions of top and back braces depends on the particular dulcimer. This is more a matter of feel than science, but it works for me.

On this particular dulcimer I wanted a fairly massive center brace. On a guitar this would be where the center seam reinforcement strip would go but this is a dulcimer, not a guitar. This brace will strengthen the center seam in the back and will also significantly stiffen the entire dulcimer lengthwise. I sometimes use this kind of center brace when using a very light or thin soundboard.

First the center brace is planed flat on all surfaces.

Planing the dulcimer center brace.

After planing the brace gets glued to the back. I use a warped board as a clamping caul. By putting the convex side of the warped board face down I can clamp the entire length of the brace with one clamp at either end. Forcing the warped board flat assures plenty of clamping pressure along the entire length of the brace.

Ain't this a clever idea!

The next step is cutting through the center brace to make way for the cross braces. This dulcimer will have two cross braces. I was too busy sawing and chiseling to stop and take a photograph.

Next comes beveling the edges of the center brace with a small plane. You can see the space for one of the braces just ahead of the plane. This photograph was taken just as the work began and there were plenty more curly shaving by the time I was done.

Artsy lutherie photograph.

In this last photograph the two cross braces are fitted and ready for gluing.

Dulcimer back braces fitted and ready for gluing.

After the braces are glued they will be shaped to final dimensions and the back will be ready to go on the dulcimer. I won’t forget to put the label in first. I won’t forget to put the label in first. I won’t forget….



Random Musings

Work has been progressing slowly but surely. Dealing with boring back and shoulder issues  has slowed me down a bit but dulcimer builders are made of strong stuff.

Having to work more slowly is not all bad. I get to savor each step in making a dulcimer a little more. Last night I was working on the tail-end of a fretboard. I sawed the taper with a dozuki saw and finished shaping and cleaning it up with low-angle block planes.

Tail-end of a dulcimer fingerboardThough this ramp is a simple part of the dulcimer, making it involved cleanly planing a bubinga fingerboard, a poplar neck, and a zircote end-cap with the grain running crosswise to the fingerboard. Bubinga is very hard and often has grain that is a little resistant to being planed. Poplar is soft and planes effortlessly. The cross-grain piece of zircote at the end would like to stop the plane dead in it’s tracks!

There once was a time when making this little ramp by hand would have made me shiver with fear. Now it is something I look forward too. Maybe I need to get out more?

Layout lines were made and followed by saw cuts. It took about twenty seconds on a fine Japanese waterstone to get the plane blades up to task. Wispy tricolor shavings came off the planes. To get from layout lines to the finished surface took about 15 minutes.

I do have a funky old disc sander in the basement and this entire operation could have taken a loud and dusty minute or so but what would be the fun in that?

In other news, I have 3 dulcimers under way and wood sorted for the next three. I’m also designing a new dulcimer model and will share news of that journey as it develops.

A few days ago I sorted through wood in the attic and found these two boards of curly walnut. They will soon be resawn and eventually become dulcimers.

Future curly walnut dulcimersThe mosquitoes in the Greater Lansing, Michigan area are gathering with plans for world domination. Wild turkeys, rabbits, deer, and groundhogs visit our yard. Nights are quiet again now that we are a week or so past the 4th of July and happy Americans have grown bored with setting off fireworks.

I am married to a wonderful woman and grateful to share my life with her. We live indoors. We eat everyday.

Life is good!

Dulcimer Building And Playing Instruction – 1964

Dulcimer Building And Playing Instruction – 1964

While browsing in a used book store a few weeks ago I stumbled across a copy of “World Folk Songs” by Marais & Miranda. I remember listening to one of their records as a child and this song has stayed with me ever since:

Right on the cover the book stated it contained a “Complete Dulcimer Section.” Flipping through the book revealed there were instruction for both building and playing the dulcimer as well as a brief history of the instrument.

Marais & Miranda - World Folk SongsMany folk song collections from this era (1964) had basic instructions for playing guitar and this book does as well, but it is the earliest book I know of with this much information on playing the dulcimer, let alone how to build one. The authors knew it was not easy to find a dulcimer at the time so they included rudimentary information for cobbling together a dulcimer of your own.
Dulcimer body pattern

Dulcimer fret pattern and other partsThe section on playing the dulcimer cover finger picking, which as someone who primarily fingerpicks delighted me!

Notes on a dulcimer fingerboard

Dulcimer fingerpicking patternsAll in all this is an interesting relic from the days of The Great Folk Scare.

Ocarinists Are Not Freaks!

Ocarinists Are Not Freaks!

Well, maybe some ocarinists are freaks, but I am, among other things, an ocarinist, and I am not a freak, though opinions on this do vary.Ocarinists Are Not Freaks!According to the above listing taken from “The American Educator, circa 1919” ocarinas are “classed with musical toys and freaks.”

This statement can be taken a number of ways…

Ocarinists Stand Together! – We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Chains!

I’ll stop now.