Rocking the dulcimer

Library hosts youth music workshops

Jack Johnson, 7, of Harvey learns basic dulcimer skills during WednesdayÕs ÒRock the DulcimerÓ workshop at Peter White Public Library in Marquette. The workshop was taught by musicians Wanda Degen and Kay Rinker-OÕNeil. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Little hands can produce melodious sounds in one quick, easy workshop.

That swift learning was on display Wednesday afternoon at the Peter White Public Library during the “Rock the Dulcimer” workshops held for youths ages 6-7, and 8 and up. There also was a morning workshop scheduled for adults, as well as a concert, “The Catbird Seat,” which was to have taken place in the evening.

Leading the Wednesday workshops was Wanda Degen of Lansing, a musician who also is a preschool music specialist.

The dulcimer was a good instrument to introduce kids to a certain kind of music.

“Traditionally, it’s a three-string,” Degen said. “If you have a four-string, you double up the melody, and you treat it like one string.”

The young beginning musicians sat at tables, all with their own dulcimers.

Even through the instruments had only a few strings, they were a step up from other instruments often used in music lessons involving kids, such as wood blocks and metal triangles.

“It’s a really wonderful instrument because the nature of the fret board is not like a guitar, banjo, mandolin,” Degen said. “Other fretted instruments have a fret musically for a half-step.”

Still, most musicians, regardless of their skill level, want to play songs.

That’s usually not a problem with a dulcimer.

“What’s easier than the ukulele and other guitar instruments is that it’s very easy to find the melodies, so you don’t have to be a singer,” Degen said.

Helping Degen at the workshop and with the concert was Kay Rinker-O’Neil, who also sings and plays the penny whistle, flute and guitar.

The penny whistle, to some, might resemble the toy whistles found in dime stores of years past.

“Not one like this,” Rinker-O’Neil said.

Degen led off the Wednesday workshop for kids 8 years old and up with a few background facts.

“The word dulcimer means ‘sweet sound,’ and we think that it’s a very sweet-sounding instrument,” Degen said.

She noted the instrument sometimes goes by other names, such as mountain dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer or lap dulcimer.

The hammer dulcimer, Degen said, is a big trapezoid-shaped box with more than 60 strings that’s hit with little wooden mallets, or hammers.

“So, if you tell people that you learned to play the dulcimer today, they might think of the hammer dulcimer, or they might think of the mountain dulcimer,” Degen said.

The youngsters probably weren’t ready for the more complicated hammer dulcimer, so they played the simpler of the two.

The mountain dulcimer, she said, is associated with the southern Appalachian Mountains. Degan also pointed to the parts of this dulcimer, including tuning pegs, fret board and sound box.

“The way that you play a melody is you push the string closest to you down, up against a fret,” Degen said, “and when I strum across the strings, I get a different sound if I press a fret down than if I don’t.”

She demonstrated that after pressing down on a fret, when a string became shorter depending on where her finger was placed, the note became higher.

Degen and Rinker-O’Neil played a few songs for the kids, with O’Neil strumming the dulcimer in one song and playing the penny whistle and adding a little percussion with a foot tambourine in another.

Degen also demonstrated a rhythmic stopping of the strings called “the slap,” a motion popularized, she said, by musician Joni Mitchell in the 1960s.

“That makes it a little more rock ‘n’ roll,” she said.

Before the youngsters began strumming, they had to learn how to use a pick.

“You want to keep your strumming to the lower end, or this end of the dulcimer, and they’re triangle-shaped picks, so hold them so they’re just a point that’s going to brush across the strings,” Degen said. “And you want to make sure you touch all the strings, brush across them all.”

The participants were given sheets to help them play simple songs.

“If your finger gets tired, put down another finger,” Degen said. “You can have two fingers against the fret.”

The kids then played on their own — with a little assistance from the instructors — and built confidence along the way.

Eli Manning, 8, of Marquette, got into playing his dulcimer more and more as the workshop progressed, even singing and adding some percussion movements at the same time.

“Thumbs up!” Eli exclaimed when asked how he was enjoying his newfound skill.

In fact, later in the workshop, he said, “My brain is going crazy!”

In a good way, of course.

Degen and Rinker-O’Neil also were to have given a mountain dulcimer workshop and concert Thursday at the Portage Lake District Library in Houghton before heading to Isle Royale a day later, with concerts to be given on The Ranger III — the boat traveling from Houghton to Isle Royale — and in the Community Building on the island itself.

For more information, visit or look up The Catbird Seat Music on Facebook.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is