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'For the Love of Music'

‘If I’m Not Helping to Create More People Like Me…Then I Risk My Art Form Dying With Me.’

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Jennifer Rose Escobar holds some of her cardboard dulcimers that she’s decorated with paint and duct tape.

I love to teach beginners because of that moment where maybe they’re going to realize there’s a musician in there somewhere.

Jennifer Rose Ramsay Escobar: I am a professional musician and dancer, definitely a product of my raising at Berea. Sometime in the last 20 years, Berea has been designated as the folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. We sat around the living room at night and read plays together, sang songs together and played music together. I thought that was normal and not until I got well into elementary school, that I realized that my family was pretty wacky different from the average American family.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to work with students for a long, long time. One of the most fun things that I get to do in the classroom is to teach students to play the dulcimer. I think our music programs in schools are usually seriously underfunded and very few music programs have any instruments that the kids can play on. It’s so incredible what happens to a kid when they get to play a musical instrument, especially in elementary school. I believe that everyone can sing, but not everyone wants to sing or has the kind of voice that other people want to hear.

Being able to make music on an instrument is something that ought to be available to kids from a much earlier age than we are able to do now. I have answered this issue for myself by having on hand, 25 cardboard dulcimers that I can take into a classroom and pass out to any student and teach them how to play some simple songs on the dulcimer. It’s such an easy instrument to play. If I hand out 25 dulcimers that are all in tune with each other, the kids don’t have to know anything — they can strum across them. You can see it in their faces they just light up like, “Wow, we sound good together.” Then we learn how to press down a string near a fret and make different pitches happen.

They’re learning science at the same time because they learn how sound is created and vibration and resonation, that pitch is changed to high or low based on tension and length of string. They make music and they feel good about themselves. It’s wonderful to see in a classroom. It’s an investment for a family to buy a wooden or real musical instrument for a kid. But $50 they can usually do. If the child is really enjoying playing it then that’s a reasonable experiment.

Every once in a while a fellow musician, especially one that doesn’t teach, will wonder why I keep working with beginners, “Don’t you want to have a studio and have students that are really excelling where you can see great progress in their becoming a virtuoso or something?” I think that’s fine for other people. I love to teach beginners because of that moment where maybe they’re going to realize there’s a musician in there somewhere. If I’m not helping to create more people like me, helping them find a love for an art form, then I risk my art form dying with me. And, I don’t want that to happen. So I will listen to “Hot Cross Buns” over and over and over in hopes that I’m helping to raise up an entire generation of people who love folk music and who love the dulcimer.

The reason that I teach kids dulcimer is probably the same reason that my dad got me a dulcimer. It’s so simple to start out with. You sound pretty good from the beginning, whereas with the guitar it takes longer to sound good. It takes longer to work up the dexterity and the strength to go from chord to chord. A lot of other instruments, like the violin for example, you sound bad for a really long time before you ever sound good. In a week, which is the normal length of time for an artist-in-residence program, I can accomplish enough with the dulcimer that it actually works and kids can have a performance experience at the end of the week that people are impressed with. With other instruments it takes a little longer to impress anybody else.

Just about every Appalachian state claims the origin of the dulcimer. But somewhere in Appalachia, 200 to 250 years ago, somebody created the very first dulcimer and it very likely didn’t look like the dulcimers that we play today. It’s a baby in the string instrument world. It’s still trying to grow up. We’re still seeing changes happen in how the dulcimer is put together. If you think about the guitar, it’s originally from Spain, and the harp has been around for thousands of years and the banjo from Africa, who knows how long?

So the dulcimer continues to evolve, but it is considered by most experts to be truly an Appalachian invention and that’s cool. What else in the music world is truly an Appalachian invention or even an American invention?

Jennifer Rose Ramsay Escobar had her first solo dulcimer performance at the age of 14, and she’s had a career in music and dance ever since. Now at 47, Escobar is an instructor for the Berea College Country Dancers, director of the Berea Festival Dancers and frequently teaches elementary school students to play the dulcimer. She lives with her husband and two children on Happiness Hills Farm in Madison County, Kentucky. To hear more of her music visit her site.

Recommendations from Escobar:

“The Dulcimer Book” by Jean Ritchie, “Great for Appalachian melodies, also a good resource list on the back”

“Fun with the Dulcimer” by Virgil Hughes, “Many good, familiar tunes in D-A-A tuning included in this book. A lot of newer books only address D-A-D tuning, which is fine for fiddle tunes, but not as good for singing, and singing while playing is of course my preference. Also, a good list of other resources on the back”
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In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu. Follow her on Instagram @NancyAndrews.