The word dulcimer means "sweet sound." There’s no better way to describe this American folk instrument.
David Cross first discovered the Appalachian dulcimer when he was a school teacher in search of a musical instrument that would be easy for his students to learn to play. The fretted stringed instrument lies in your lap, so beginners can see where to put their fingers.
There are only three strings, with two drone strings that always stay the same. Cross demonstrated and said, "I play the melody on just one string. I can take my one little finger and slide it up and down the string. The drones don’t have to be fingered at all."
Cross started to build simple dulcimers to use with his students. Then, he thought, why not let kids make their own? "Music teachers will tell you," he said, "[it] is a great source of interest for fifth grade boys who might otherwise be getting disenchanted with general music."
In 1980, Cross founded Backyard Music. The company is now the nation’s major provider of cardboard sound box dulcimer kits to the music education market. That’s right. In an effort to keep them as affordable as possible, the instrument’s sound box is made of cardboard.
Dulcimer kits come with most everything you need to make your own. Cross said, "You get a piece of wood, and you get three tuning gears. You get some strings. You get a pick. You get a noter, which is a stick you can use to slide along the strings if you want to play in the old back porch style." There are also directions on how to assemble the instruments and a booklet for beginners called "Meet the Friendly Dulcimer."
Cross has since moved on, and works now with a large consulting firm. Backyard Music remains his sideline business. He partners with wood carvers in Nicaragua, who provide the mahogany fret boards. A subcontractor in Willimantic ships the kits to schools, camps, and elder hostels across the U.S.
A basic dulcimer kit sells for $50.00, but there are special prices for schools and groups. The company sells about 2,000 kits a year, and has sold more than 30,000 since Backyard Music began.
At the Middle School of Plainville, teacher Laurel Schwartz used the dulcimers in a music class for 12- and 13-year-olds. "I want my students to be able to compose, arrange music, improvise -- all the really hard skills in music," she said. "The dulcimer’s so easy to play that they can start doing those activities, the hard, higher-order thinking skill activities, by class three."
The students were learning how to play along with a pop tune they all know by the group Imagine Dragons. Marlee, 12, said she likes to try out her own original musical ideas on the dulcimer. "She lets us kind of do our own thing," she said. "You don’t have to just do what's on the paper, but you get to improvise with it."
Schwartz said that’s only possible for beginners, because dulcimer technique is so easy to master. "If I was on a guitar or piano," she said, "it takes far longer for me to get the children to that same level of playing competency."
Sarah Heath, who teaches music at the Foote School in New Haven, said the dulcimer is a great way to introduce students to traditional American folk music, and to the joy of making music together. "You haven’t heard lots of people play it," she said. "You don’t start out with a mindset that you can’t do it. People playing music together, sitting on a porch -- I’m trying to bring that back into our lives."
The dulcimers really last. Cross said, "I’ve had teachers say, 'I’ve had this classroom set for 25 years. It's about time to replace the cardboard.' You just rip the fret board off, and you get a wet sponge, and you soften up the glue, and scrape it off with a kitchen knife, and glue it down on a new sound box."
Backyard Music dulcimer kits have been so successful that the company has expanded and now also offers make-your-own harps and make-your-own banjos.