Mid-Peninsula Recorder Orchestra Newsletter



Grace and Liz How sweet the sound of the mountain dulcimer....at least under the fingers of our Ron Beardslee. Herewith his treatise on this zither-like instrument....strum on, Ron!

Grace and Liz (Co-Presidents)


Our Presidents have suggested an article from the “Obscure Instruments” file for this month and I will, therefore, be describing the Mountain Dulcimer, an instrument invented in the southern Appalachians around 1800.

For the technically minded, the mountain dulcimer (AKA Appalachian dulcimer, lap dulcimer, fretted dulcimer and, unfortunately, the hog fiddle) is a zither with three (rarely four, five or six) courses of strings fretted in a diatonic pattern. An hourglass shape is most common, although other shapes are often seen. The earliest versions were oval in shape.

The mountain dulcimer was apparently invented in the early 1800’s in the area that later became West Virginia. It is likely that the instrument was a development of the more primitive German scheitholt which the settlers presumably saw as they migrated down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to settlements in the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky.

Due to the lack of records, there is little information on the early years of this instrument. It was apparently used with the fiddle and banjo for dances and as an accompaniment for singing. At the end of the Spanish American War, the returning soldiers brought the guitar back to the Appalachians and the dulcimer suffered a predictable Darwinian fate when faced with a more versatile and powerful instrument. In other words, it pretty much died out.

Dulcimers were for the most part made by untrained farmers and there was a great variation in materials, shape and construction details in the early instruments. The tradition of individual craftsmanship is still very much evident and modern dulcimers have retained this great diversity in design, appearance and sound.

The traditional method of playing was to place the instrument flat across the knees and strum across all the strings while playing a melody on the highest string. This leads to a droning sound which has been likened to a stringed bagpipe. In more recent times the melodies and chords have been played across all strings in a manner similar to that used for guitars. The droning sound of the early dulcimers has been replaced with a more refined harp or guitar-like sound in modern instruments.

While the dulcimer has been associated with American traditional music, it is now used to play a wide range of styles including classical (after a fashion), blues, Celtic, ragtime, and Hawaiian music. A local group has been happily playing Baroque recorder duets and trios on their dulcimers.

Like the recorder, the dulcimer is a very accessible instrument for those with little or no musical training and beginning players are able to produce simple melodies and chords with little training. An ability to read music is not required. While the type of music most commonly played by recorder ensembles requires a high level of discipline among the performers to achieve the desired sound, dulcimer players take a much more relaxed view and individual variation in music performance is admired and encouraged.

There are currently about 180 people on the Bay Area dulcimer email list and more information on our organization can be found at Redwooddulcimer.com.

A final note: the similarly named “hammer dulcimer” is not related to the mountain dulcimer in either historic or geographic terms. The common use of the name is just one of those strange coincidences.

Ron Beardslee


Dear members of the Mid-Peninsula Recorder Orchestra,

The orchestra's holiday concert will take place at Grace Lutheran Church, 3149 Waverley Street in Palo Alto on Saturday, December 8, at 2:00 P.M. All those planning on taking part in this performance are expected to attend the dress rehearsal at 7:30 P.M. on Tuesday, December 4, at Grace Lutheran Church. A sign-up sheet for those planning on taking part in the holiday concert will be available at upcoming meetings. Small ensembles are invited to appear in this concert, and those groups which intend to perform on December 8 are asked to give me the following information by November 16: the title(s) of the music to be performed, the name(s) of the composer(s), the name of the ensemble (if any) and the names of the ensemble's members.

Listed below is the music for the last two meetings of the year. Please note that great bass and contrabass recorders as well as krummhorns will be needed at both meetings, viola da gamba and dulcien will be needed on December 4, and that there will be assigned seating at the December 4 dress rehearsal. Also, the MPRO holiday party will be taking place on Wednesday, December 12, at the home of Stevie White in Cupertino at 6:00 P.M. This will be a potluck gathering, so please plan on bringing some food to share.

November 28 MPRO Rehearsal
Josquin: El Grillo
Mozart, Fugue in D minor
Dufay, La dolce vista
Dos Pintele Yid
Tuesday, December 4 Dress rehearsal for the holiday concert
Grace Lutheran Church, 7:30 P.M.

Angels We Have Heard on High; O Little Town of Bethlehem; We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Schmelzer: Sonata con arie
Albinoni: Adagio
Corelli, Concerto Op. 6, No. 3
Dufay, La dolce vista
Dos Pintele Yid
Josquin: El Grillo
Mozart, Fugue in D minor
December 12 MPRO holiday party, 6:00 P.M.
The home of Stevie White
Cupertino, CA

I look forward to seeing you at these upcoming meetings.

Fred Palmer


Save Saturday, January 12, for MPRO’s Winter Workshop, led by Patrick O'Malley. Details in the next issue of UpBeat.


Ron Beardslee Ron Beardslee was born a long time ago. In subsequent years, he acquired an education in chemistry, a wife, a job, a mortgage, a couple of good kids and, finally, a retirement package.

As a kid, Ron took the obligatory piano lessons and then switched to the clarinet for the high school band. Neither instrument was of any lasting interest to him and he did not play for the next 30 years.

About 15 years ago Ron decided to play the mountain dulcimer due to its sound as well as its cultural and craftsmanship traditions. He is largely self-taught but often spent a week or so in North Carolina taking lessons at dulcimer events. Ron says, “Four years ago it became obvious that I needed to improve my general musicianship and I began recorder lessons with Fred (who has shown an exceptional level of skill and patience with me) and joined MPRO.”

At this point, Ron coordinates quarterly dulcimer events in the Santa Cruz area, plays dulcimer and recorder with local musicians, performs with a group called Aleatory and provides occasional dulcimer lessons. He also tend a flock of orchids, bromeliads and cacti, as time permits.

Fall Workshop

Frances Blaker conducted our Fall Workshop on October 27th. Fifty one participants were enthralled by her clear directions in a program that demonstrated how music developed from the medieval to renaissance to baroque. She clearly explained how renaissance music was mostly polyphonic and that all parts did their own thing, occasionally ending in a cadence. Medieval was also somewhat polyphonic, but there were many more cadences in the music.

Baroque music slowly developed from the renaissance with some polyphonic themes hanging over, but the trend was to a solo instrument with basso continuo added as accompaniment. We started with an early Renaissance piece entitled Carmen in Fa by Isaac, and gradually moved through Mouton, Josquin, de Pres, Monteverdi, Gabrieli and Cima. Monteverdi in particular used both Renaissance and Baroque styles in his music. The music was not particularly challenging so that all levels of players thoroughly enjoyed themselves.