Early Background. I grew up with lots of classical music and lots of folk music. My parents played both: classical music on piano and flute, folk music on guitar and banjo. They got together with friends to play chamber music and to play and sing what we called "the old songs". I joined in on the singng, but as everyone else in my family played musical instruments very well, I ended up preferring to listen.
I started playing music while I was in graduate school in the mid 1970’s. A fellow graduate student picked up an Appalachian dulcimer and started playing it, and I thought, “that doesn’t seem all that difficult” and tried it - it wasn’t! So I got one myself, made by Jean Ritchie, one of the most well-known Appalachian dulcimer players who was still making them at that time, and started playing it. I had a great time with it.
The Hammered Dulcimer. In 1980 I went to the New England Folk Festival in Natick, MA and saw a hammered dulcimer in the crafts room. I tried it and really enjoyed it; in fact I stayed there and played it for a couple hours with the rest of the festival temporarily on hold. By the time I finished I was playing a number of tunes reasonably well. People were actually asking me questions about the instrument, thinking I knew what I was talking about!
On the ride home from the festival I found out that a friend had made a couple hammered dulcimers, so I borrowed one of his. I played it for a while. But it had no bass notes and I decided I needed one that had them so I would learn to play the entire instrument. So I bought a dulcimer.
A few years later I bought one from R. P. Hale in Concord, one of the best dulcimer makers around. That became my main instrument for many years, and I got very good at it. It remained my primary (usually only) instrument with the Lamprey River Band until Spring 2019 when we moved the first Thursday dance to the Durham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which is a very nice, but small, place for a dance. At that time I started playing a much smaller instrument that fits much better into the hall.
On the Importance of Music Theory and Chords & Learning Piano Accompaniment. One day after I’d been playing for a few years I was watching another dulcimer player and noticed that one time when he played a G melody note he played a D bass note, and another time he played a C bass note. I asked about it and he said it had to do with the chords. At this point I realized I needed to learn something about music theory. I started reading some books on the topic. Every one discussed music theory in terms of a piano. So I drew myself a piano keyboard and started trying to learn music theory. I quickly reached a barrier: my picture was pretty good, but it didn’t make sound. So in about 1984 or so I had my mother’s upright piano moved up to New Hampshire. It was very helpful for music theory. But unexpectedly I discovered that I really enjoyed playing backup for fiddle tunes on the piano.
This began a new phase in my musical development. I started learning about accompanying tunes, and I learned to play backup piano. I ended up becoming very good at accompanying fiddle tunes on the piano, especially for New England and Canadian fiddle. I’ve never done very well with Irish tunes, so given their popularity I don’t generally play piano when they are likely to come up.
I also realized how much a knowledge of chords and accompaniment could help my ability to play melody; and at the same time my knowledge of the melody makes me a better accompanist. This has been central to my approach to music ever since.
I have never been very strong at reading music. I learned the basics as a kid, but never really used them. When the Lamprey River Band formed in 1983 I provided written music to help get us going. I quickly realized that people with limited backgrounds in New England dance music would play exactly what was written. If I took the music from a tune book or some other source like that it was rarely as I played the tune. So I started writing out tunes for the bands to be able to get my own version of the tune. I gradually got better at writing out fiddle tunes. By now I find myself able to write out transcriptions that are more accurate than most others I see. I can read music better than I used to, but I am still pretty weak.
How I Stopped Being Too Old to Learn to Play the Fiddle. As you can probably tell from this, I am almost entirely self-taught. I’ve attended workshops and paid close attention; in fact nearly all my learning has been by ear. In 1991 I went to Northern Week at Ashokan, and in 1994 I went to Maine Fiddle Camp. Being around so many people having so much fun with the fiddle was a force that was hard to resist. I’d always thought I started playing music too late in life to play the fiddle. But gradually I started to think about playing it, and finally in 1995 I decided I wasn’t too old any more and started playing fiddle. One of my great uncles’ father had owned a violin shop in New Yor City, and we had three violins left from his shop. I brought them to Bob Childs who declared the nicest one to be worth restoring. It was an unusually shaped fiddle but it sounded good. I enjoyed playing it but it was difficult to play. Eventually I got another fiddle, and more recently a truly wonderful fiddle from Don Roy which I am cheerfully playing to this date.
Currently I play fiddle and piano more than hammered dulcimer, and would probably consider myself to be strongest at accompanying fiddle tunes on the piano.