Interview with Hammered Dulcimer Champion Karen Alley
Meet Karen Alley - multi-instrumentalist, Ph.D. student and 2014 National Hammered Dulcimer Champion! She has very kindly taken a break from her glaciology studies in Boulder, CO to answer some questions about hammered dulcimer playing, the Winfield competition and her new solo album, Sunlit Strings, which was recorded on a Dusty Strings D650. We highly recommend listening to these sample tracks from Sunlit Strings while you read!
How long have you been playing the hammered dulcimer, and what attracted you to the instrument? Did you play an instrument growing up?
I was lucky that my parents started me on music very early in my life, and continued letting me try new instruments until I found one that was really mine. I started piano lessons when I was four and played through elementary school. I picked up the flute in third grade and still play classical flute today. I took some lessons in guitar, oboe, and voice. We even have a bowed psaltery, autoharp, and a couple of banjos around that my sister and I have played with, and several mountain dulcimers that my mother plays.
When I was in middle school I took some fiddle lessons, and attended the Clarion Folk Festival in Pennsylvania as a fiddler. It turns out I was a lousy fiddler. But at that festival I saw Mark Wade play “Flight of the Bumble Bee” on hammered dulcimer, and my immediate reaction was “that shouldn’t happen, and I want one!” This was in 2002, I think, and by that time my parents were skeptical that I would stick with a new instrument, given how many we had at home. It took two years – until we went back to the festival in 2004 – to convince them that I really was serious about playing the dulcimer, and they bought me my first instrument at the festival. It was very quickly clear that I was a much better dulcimer player than a fiddler!
What inspired you to enter the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship? Have you done competitions like this before?
I’ve competed quite a few times, starting with the Mid-East Regional Festival held at the Coshocton Dulcimer Days. I won that contest in 2009, and competed at Winfield for the first time that same year. The 2014 championships was my fourth time competing at nationals. I know that music competitions can be controversial – many people believe, very reasonably, that music shouldn’t be a competition. I struggle with that idea sometimes, but the benefits of competition have easily outweighed the drawbacks for me. It gives me something to work towards, and a reason to really push myself technically and musically. And in the process, you get to perform for fantastic audiences and meet other players who are just as dedicated to the instrument as you are. I’ve heard rumors that some of the other national instrumental contests at Winfield can be more on the hostile side, but I can tell you from experience that the hammered dulcimer contest, at least, is a supportive and friendly environment. I’ve made some great friends and done some great jamming backstage while we wait for each other to compete!
Tell us about your new recording! Is this your first solo project? Is there a theme to the pieces you picked? What is the composition process like for you?
Sunlit Strings is a compilation of some of my favorite tunes, including original pieces, Celtic tunes, and a few hymns. Though it’s not technically my first solo project, it’s the first one that I feel is a really professional product. When I’m composing or arranging, I always try to tell a story through my music. One of the wonderful things about the dulcimer is the huge dynamic range it can produce, which really allows you to express emotion through the music. A few, like the track “Through the Valley,” which was written in memory of a high school friend who died in a car crash, are meant to be very contemplative. Others, such as “Fireworks,” display the bright energy that the hammered dulcimer is equally capable of producing.
Photo by VJM Studios
What has your experience been with Dusty Strings dulcimers, and why did you choose the D650?
I first really met the D650 when I met Dan Landrum. Under his influence, I switched to playing with my instrument flat instead of tilted, which allowed me to more easily add many percussive elements to my style. The D650 is a perfect instrument for playing percussively, and with the huge range it possesses I knew I had to have one. I saved my money and was able to purchase mine about five years ago. It was exactly what I had hoped for when it comes to being percussive, but I was particularly pleased that it turned out to be suitable for slower, more lyrical pieces as well.
We’ve heard that you play a piano dulcimer as well. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s like? Is it challenging to switch back and forth? Do you play certain types of music on different instruments?
A few years ago I was able to get a music grant from my university that allowed me to purchase a piano dulcimer. It’s like playing a whole different instrument! In many ways I found it to be extremely powerful. Not only can you play easily in all twelve keys, you only have to learn two different scale shapes (or two different shapes for any chord) to play in all twelve keys. It’s ideal for playing classical or jazz music. On the other hand, it’s a bit more challenging to accompany yourself, as the chord shapes are not generally as convenient for hammering patterns. So for typical folk tunes in typical keys, I’m much more likely to play the traditional dulcimer. Fortunately, the instruments are laid out so differently that it’s really no problem switching back and forth. Though I’ve had fun exploring it, and intend to continue exploring in the future, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a good piano dulcimer player yet!
We understand you’re currently pursuing a Ph.D. in glaciology. How do your hammered dulcimer and scientist lives fit together?
Lately, as my hammered dulcimer performing and teaching have moved forward and my graduate studies have developed, I feel like I’m building two separate lives. But at the same time, I’m really dependent on both of them. The science I do requires creativity, but in a very mathematical, exacting, stare-at-your-computer-all-day kind of way. Playing the dulcimer is my release, a way to be creative that isn’t so rigid. My two lives balance each other out. It’s actually a very common balance among scientists. I learned from my father, who is a scientist and a musician, and many notable scientists such as Einstein were also great instrumentalists.
Do you have a favorite pair of hammers?
My favorite pair of hammers depends on my mood, the piece I’m playing, and the instrument I’m playing. On my D650, I usually prefer to play with double-sided Dusty Strings hammers with relatively light heads. They’re a bit longer than many other hammers, but the length is well-suited to the instrument and the percussive techniques I like to use. On the other hand, when I’m playing my Master Works Extended Range instrument I use shorter Master Works hammers. Since the string spacing is closer together on Master Works instruments, the shorter hammers are more comfortable. On any instrument, if I’m playing something that I want a particularly soft touch, I’ll switch to Sam Rizzetta’s carbon fiber hammers. Because they are extremely flexible, I can play more emotional pieces without getting the “thunk” sound of the wood hitting the string that is generally a part of the sound of traditional hammers.
Photo by VJM Studios
Can you talk a little bit about how you use dampers in your playing?
Dampers add a whole new dimension to the dulcimer, but it took me a while and a lot of experimenting to find a way I like to use them. I don’t generally like to damp the strings and keep them damped except in very short excerpts. Usually I’m pumping them up and down with the music, putting them down on notes I want to de-emphasize and up on stronger beats. They’re especially helpful when playing with a group, when the sustain of the dulcimer can overwhelm other instruments.
Any upcoming plans you’d like to share? Teaching, playing, recording…?
Right now one of my favorite aspects of playing the dulcimer is being able to teach. I have several fantastic private students, and I’ve been able to teach at the Colorado and New Mexico dulcimer festivals in the past few years. I’m very excited to be attending the ODPC Funfest in Evart for the first time this summer to teach and perform, and I’m headed back to perform in the winners’ concert at the Walnut Valley Festival in September. My next recording project, somewhere on the far horizon, is set to be a Christmas CD.
If you could share one piece of wisdom or advice with hammered dulcimer players, what would it be?
I would like hammered dulcimer players to know – and truly believe – that this instrument is limitless. Yes, it’s a folk instrument, often used primarily for melodies and meant to play only in a few keys, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow the rules. People like Mark Wade play classical music, including the highly chromatic “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Players like Andy Young have ventured far into the world of jazz. Others, such as Dan Landrum, use complex percussion techniques to create innovative hammering patterns. Our community is filled with outstanding players, and each of them is pushing the instrument in new and exciting ways. I would encourage players to find recordings, go to concerts, take workshops, and listen to the ways the hammered dulcimer can be played. Then go home and make the music your own, in whatever direction you personally want it to go.
Photo by VJM Studios