Simon Chrisman calls the hammer dulcimer he plays for the First Fridays audience Nov. 2 a “piano without the keys.”
The description is apt.
The dulcimer is like a piano without a lid – the strings running parallel to the sounding board, the felts controlled with a foot pedal – but the indirect action of the keys is short-circuited by putting the felt hammers in the musician’s hands.
The flat trapezoid of Chrisman’s dulcimer appears both fragile and awkward on the stand, but the cascade of music is robust.
“This is my instrument,” Chrisman said, hands moving deftly over the strings. “I saw it one year at Folklife Festival in Seattle when I was 10. That was it. My parents bought a dulcimer and I took lessons from Tania Opland and Rich Fogel.”
Chrisman’s dulcimer, an instrument with roots in the Middle Ages, seems at home in his parents’ 1901 farmhouse.
The maps and books of his geographer father, who teaches at the University of Washington, line bookshelves.
Chrisman himself is a voracious reader of books passed to him by family members – but he does not read music.
“I’m learning to read in order to play the drums,” Chrisman said, “but until now I have played by ear.”
The bookshelves also hold his brother’s collection of Renaissance recorders, with some odd variants of the standard tube, including one shaped like the letter J.
“He played recorder, but he hasn’t in years,” Chrisman said. “I wish he would. Then I’d have someone to play with.”
The dulcimer is a rather solitary instrument, Chrisman says.
“You don’t need two hammer dulcimers,” Chrisman said. “It would be awfully loud.”
The camaraderie of the folk music jam, with its circle of fiddlers, guitarists and banjo pluckers may see the occasional lap dulcimer, but rarely the full-fledged item on a stand.
The dulcimer may be a good match for an independent thinker who likes to find his own way.
Chrisman left high school, but got a GED at 16. He volunteered as a worker on a Bainbridge organic farm for a year.
While the instrument stands alone, Chrisman is happy to play the dulcimer – which means “sweet sound” in Latin – for weddings and other social occasions.
He likes to teach, passing along what he learned from Opland and Fogel to other aspiring musicians.
Chrisman, while shy at first, has come to enjoy getting up on stage.
He has performed several years at Folklife and in Alaska.
“I really like it, now,” Chrisman said. “It’s like, ‘Someone’s actually listening – wow!’”
Simon Chrisman is the opening performer on the hammer dulcimer for “First Fridays at Island Center Hall” 7:30 p.m. Nov 2. Chrisman shares the stage with Crooked Mile playing traditional and contemporary music from the British Isles. Tickets are $8/adults and $5 youth 6-18. Call 842-2306 ext. 16 for information.