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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Plucking at Heartstrings

The Mogollon Mountain Dulcimer players tune up
an American musical tradition.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder



The classic mountain dulcimer on Peggy Spofford-Wallace's lap is filled with rich tradition; indeed, hailing from the Appalachian Mountains, the dulcimer is thought to be the first American-made musical instrument. But the electronic tuner clipped onto the headstock hints that this creation of rich, brown wood and strings has entered the 21st century.

Mogollon Mountain Dulcimers
Mogollon Mountain Dulcimer members pose with their instruments.

"It certainly makes it easier to know if I'm in tune," she says with a laugh.

As Spofford-Wallace takes a moment to show off details on the three dulcimers she's brought with her this evening, nine other women file into the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall in Silver City. They take their seats in a circle in the center of the room, setting up music stands, tuning their instruments and chatting.

This is the regular weekly meeting of the Mogollon Mountain Dulcimers. This month the group celebrates three years of playing their instruments, trading tips, techniques and even technology to elevate their musicianship. Innovative, "cutting-edge" dulcimer masters like Gary Gallier and Robert Force, whom the group has brought to the area for concerts and workshops, have brought dulcimer enthusiasts out of the woodwork, Spofford-Wallace says, leading to a surge of new interest in an old art form, infusing a musical tradition with new life.

The dulcimer group began in 2005, when 13 people responded to an ad Spofford-Wallace placed in a local newspaper. They began by meeting twice a month, learning how to tune their instruments — many of which had been hanging in closets or packed away in attics for years, even decades — and to play a few simple traditional tunes.

"All who came were beginners," says Spofford-Wallace, who leads the group. "I taught them the basics and we have gone from there."

The group now meets weekly and has 16 players, who come not just from Silver City, but Tyrone, Deming, Reserve, Las Cruces and the Mimbres Valley as well. In January, Spofford-Wallace says, the group changed their name to the Mogollon Mountain Dulcimers, reflecting the broader area from which they draw members and also as a play on the word "mountain," referencing the instrument's Appalachian Mountain heritage. Players include schoolteachers, librarians, retirees, housewives and more, Spofford-Wallace says.

"And we do have one man!" she adds. "Well, he's with us on and off, but he's a member, semi-active, I guess you'd say. It's a funny thing that most dulcimer players are women, yet most of the performers are men."

Spofford-Wallace notes that last month's Gary Gallier concert in WNMU's Webb Theatre, and the workshops he taught, were well attended. She passes around photos taken at the concert, inviting members to note any they'd like to order copies of.



A couple of members flip through their collections of sheet music, perched on dulcimer-specific folding stands, and check their instruments' tuning. Pat Sterling, with silver hair and a lime-green Mogollon Mountain Dulcimer logo T-shirt, asks, "Well, shall we play some tunes?"

Spofford-Wallace responds, "Yes, let's start with 'Annie Laurie.' That's a duet."

Though the word "duet" might trigger the image of only two instruments or voices, all 10 of the dulcimers here today will play the tune together, some taking the melody line and others the harmony. To have a pleasing balance of sound, about two-thirds of the musicians will play the melody and the remaining third, the harmony line.

"This is in 4/4 time," Spofford-Wallace says. "First we'll do the melody, then we'll do the harmony, then we'll put them together."

The first time through, the music lags just a bit as the strummers find their way. A couple of players hit off-chords and wince just a bit. The second time, things go more smoothly and Spofford-Wallace looks up with a smile.

Sterling acknowledges the improvement, saying, "We're getting warmed up now."

The third time through, the sweetly chiming strings are in perfect tune and rhythm. The soothing strains could be floating from a spot high in the mountains, the gentle tune perhaps a favorite of some small group of players entertaining themselves on their back porch after dinner.

Spofford-Wallace points out the specificity of a quarter note. "It's this," she says, strumming a few chords to demonstrate. "Not this." She gives another example. "Hear the difference?" she asks, and plays the chords in proper quarter-note rhythm again.

Then the group goes through the harmony line several times. This is trickier, and takes four runs through before the group is satisfied with its performance. At last, they count off in threes to have a balance of two-thirds playing melody to one-third on the harmony line.

After the group plays "Annie Laurie" twice through, Parker looks up and declares, "I think we got it all that time!"

"Okay, let's move on to 'The Ash Grove' then," says Spofford-Wallace.

While the women flip pages of their sheet music, they chat about the Gallier concert and workshops. One member says Gallier's "dancing fingers" fascinated her teenage son. Another describes how tips she picked up in the workshop have already improved her playing.

The group moves through "The Ash Grove" with hardly a mis-strum, then goes on to another tune, "Aura Lee." All of the songs have that traditional, old-timey sound, bringing to mind movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou or maybe Songcatcher.

"Aura Lee" gives the group a little more challenge, and Parker sings along from time to time, following one line or the other to help the players find their notes.

Spofford-Wallace looks to sort out a particularly tricky couple of lines and has the group do just those lines by themselves a few times. Parker offers a tip of her own, demonstrating how she fingers the strings at a tricky juncture, then pivots on one finger and slides down the strings with another digit. The group goes through the tune again, with particular attention to the tricky bit.

"It really helps to bar freeze at the beginning of that second measure," Spofford-Wallace puts in.



Though Spofford-Wallace is the leader of the group, she is not the most experienced player in the bunch. She started taking lessons with member Mary Bourn four years ago. Bourn has been playing for 15 years, has taught elementary school students in Reserve and Silver City and now gives private lessons to children and adults. She also sells dulcimers. Two simple cardboard dulcimers sit on a chair in the corner.



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