It has been two months since I had back surgery.
Recovery has not been as advertised and I have learned more about vertebrae, nerves, scar tissue and various bodily fluids than I ever wanted to know.
At the moment walking and standing are difficult but I have seen some improvement and a full recovery is expected.
I recently worked at the bench for the first time since surgery and it did my heart a world of good.
My personal dulcimer has long been in need of fretwork and this seemed like the ideal project to take on.
I soon realized my lower body has been more involved when doing fretwork than I had imagined. I never noticed I kneel in front of the bench when checking the frets and fingerboard with a straight edge. I also prefer standing when leveling, crowning and polishing frets.
I spent some of the time working while seated on a tall stool. For some tasks I felt more in control of tools while standing and this required taking several breaks before completing the job.
After finishing the fretwork I needed to lower the height of the bridge. I set my action to tight tolerances and on a job like this I often drop the action to compensate for the few hundredths of an inch of height the frets lose after being leveled.
This dulcimer has an ebony bridge and the height was quickly lowered with a pass or two of a finely set block plane.
After enjoying time working at the bench I got to enjoy playing a dulcimer that feels as good to play as when it was new.
Slowly but surely I am recovering from back surgery and lutherie has commenced in the form of cleaning and organizing the shop in short installments.
While cleaning out the shop I ventured into the quagmire of the closet; the dark, scary place where useful things mingle with forgotten somewhat-useful and mostly useless things from the past. Within this portal of doom lurk dead cans of finish, expired bottles of yellow glue, useless tools of questionable manufacture, parts of tools I do not own, mysterious objects that somehow made their way across time and space and into my workspace, etc.
And among these many things I found a small treasure; a box with 3 pounds of dry hide glue. This stuff is probably 3 years old and as good as the day I bought it.
And why, you might ask, do I consider this newsworthy?
Well, I also found a leaky box of very old epoxy that made an 8 inch round toxic puddle on one of the shelves. I have not used epoxy in years and I have no idea how long this oozing abomination has tainted the fine particle board shelf upon which it resides.
It is neither solid nor liquid but something in-between, something not of this world, something evil.
Hide glue does not do this! I’m adding this fact to the list of reasons I prefer hide glue.
Luckily most of the stuff I pried loose from this resinous swamp was going to get tossed anyway.
The real reason for this post?
I am avoiding going back upstairs to cleanup this awful mess!
Long story short; I’m recovering well from back surgery.
Short story slightly longer; a year ago at a festival I stepped out of the car, suddenly and unexpectedly doubled over in pain, and instantly knew life would be slightly more complicated for a while.
When I got home I visited an excellent physician who ran some tests and assured me that a relatively simple surgery would solve the problem.
I was also assured my insurance company would not cover the cost of the surgery until I spent a year trying other treatments which in my doctor’s opinion would not solve the problem.
For a year I was able to work about one-third of the time I usually work in the shop. People waiting for instruments on order were understanding and kind. Most advance orders did get completed and shipped and a few still waiting for completion are slated for the hands of equally considerate and understanding people.
In a few weeks I will be easing my way back into the dulcimer shop. I’ll be finishing up some orders, making instruments to have on hand as inventory, and finally completing a long-overdue modern rendering of an Ethiopian Begena.
During the past year my wonderful wife Cynthia drove me to quite a few festivals, workshops and other gigs during the times I could not make the drive myself.
During these trips Cynthia met friends around the Midwest she had only heard of and vice-versa.
Friends at festivals throughout the area keep asking if she will be coming to festivals in the future.
I think more people might show up at my gigs if she comes with me because they want to see her!
I understand completely.
As a dulcimer player and instructor with decades of experience I often find myself repeating the following advice to students, “If you slow it down enough you will be able to play the part of the tune that is giving you trouble.”
This phrase is often followed by my saying, “Try practicing the tune at a speed no faster than you can play the part that gives you the most trouble.”
It is not uncommon for a student to come to a lesson and tell me they couldn’t play a particular phrase of a tune. I’ll have them play it while I recite the following mantra, “Slower, slower, slower…” Eventually they find a tempo where it is possible to play what moments earlier seemed impossible.
Some students have trouble keeping the timing of a piece even from beginning to end; they speed up and slow down throughout the tune. There are typically two habits that lead to this problem. The first is playing the tune as fast as one can play the easier passages and slowing down when reaching a more challenging part of the melody. The second cause of irregular tempo is often caused by learning the tune a phrase at a time and developing the habit of pausing at each new phrase.
My recommendation is to learn the first phrase, learn the following phrase, and then go back to the beginning and string them together. Each time you learn new phrase start again from the first phrase and play through to the last phrase you learned. Your playing will become more musical even if it takes a little longer to learn the entire melody. You will be playing a melody rather than a collection of phrases.
A metronome is helpful when disciplining yourself to practice at an even tempo. You can set the metronome to the tempo at which you can play the most difficult part of the tune, The metronome will help you avoid speeding up on the easier parts. As you become more comfortable with the tune you can speed up the metronome a notch or two. If all goes well crank up the metronome another notch or two. If you start making more mistakes back off the tempo a little. Lather, rinse, repeat. It really works!
I have had trouble with a tune I am currently learning and needed to remind myself of the advice I have been giving others for many years. I am now practicing the tune only as fast as I can play the passage giving me trouble. It is frustrating because I can play 90% of the tune at full throttle but I know that mastering the remaining 10% will make all the difference.
As an aside, I have found that the mantra, “Slower, slower, slower,” has made other areas of my life easier as well.
There are commonly two types of pickups used on acoustic mountain dulcimers; a soundboard pickup and a bridge pickup.
A soundboard pickup is a piezoelectric sensor that adheres to the soundboard of the dulcimer. This type of pickup translates the vibrations of the wood into a signal that can be run through an amplifier. These pickups are either temporarily mounted to the outside of the dulcimer or permanently installed inside the dulcimer. These pickups will transmit any sound that resonates through the dulcimer including finger-noise, pick noise, or a shirt button brushing against the instrument. For some styles of playing they work well, for others they can pick up a lot of extraneous noise.
The simplest and least expensive option is a removable, external soundboard pickup. These are applied with a putty or double-stick tape that comes with the pickup and requires no modification to your dulcimer. One does need to be careful when removing the pickup to avoid damaging the finish.
If you like the sound of a soundboard pickup you can also have one permanently installed in your dulcimer and wired to an end pin jack. An end pin jack is a strap button that also receives the cord going from the pickup to the amplifier.
A bridge pickup is piezoelectric sensor that replaces the bridge of the dulcimer; the bridge itself becomes the pickup. A bridge pickup transmits the vibrations of the strings and avoids the extraneous noises that may occur when using soundboard pickups. In my opinion bridge pickups are a better choice if you plan on running your dulcimer through effects pedals.
A bridge pickup must be installed on the dulcimer. Depending on the construction of your dulcimer this procedure may require having a slot cut in your fretboard to receive the bridge pickup. If your dulcimer already has a bridge mounted in a slot the slot may or may not be of the right dimensions so again some modification may be necessary. The bridge pickup will also be wired to an end pin jack.
With either type of piezoelectric pickup the sound can be enhanced by using a preamp. The preamp allows for control of tone and volume and can help give the pickup a more natural sound.
Pickups make it easy to get a lot of volume but I prefer the natural sound achieved by using a microphone. A microphone “listens” to the air set in vibration by the dulcimer in a similar manner to an ear.
When performing solo I simply use a microphone on a stand. When performing in small ensembles I have used a small microphone mounted on the dulcimer near a sound hole and have been happy with the results.
There are many opinions about which pickups, microphones, preamps and combinations of pickups, microphones and preamps work best. What is important is to find what works best for you.