Musicians coax haunting music from uncommon instrument
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., May. 17, 2011
The guitarist starts out first, strumming a few chords. A measure or two later, the air fills with the haunting, sweet sound of strings – something a little violin-like, but lighter somehow, with a delicacy that is hard to resist.
A dozen or so women are practicing for a concert performance they will give next month. The instrument they’re each playing is called the bowed psaltery – an arcane stringed instrument with a disputed history, but an undeniable appeal.
The bowed psaltery group, led by Melodye Whatley of Sprague and Ingrid Skinner of Baltic, are gearing up to play June 4 at the Dulcimer Folk Association’s benefit concert at West Hartford’s Universalist Church. The association’s acronym, DF#A, is an inside musician joke, said Whatley: “The dulcimer usually is tuned to play in the key of F#.”
Members of the group each tell variants of the same story about how they first encountered this unusual musical instrument. Virtually every story seems to involve a historical re-enactment.
Margaret Becotte’s story is typical. The Norwich resident said that she heard someone playing a bowed psaltery on the Norwichtown Green a few years back. “I followed him for hours,” she recalled. “It just intrigued me, just the sound of the music.” Despite her lack of previous musical background, she determined to learn to play the instrument.
Carol Hawes of Windham heard Whatley and Skinner at a re-enactment. “I saved their little card and decided that whenever I saved up enough money, I’d buy a psaltery,” she said.
So did Joan Scungio of Norwich, who heard the psaltery at re-enactments she attended with the Daughters of the American Revolution. “When I read in the paper that they were doing an adult ed. course [in the psaltery], that was it,” she said.
That led her, and most of the rest of the group, to an adult education class taught in the Norwich school system by Whatley and Skinner. Expecting that students would show up empty-handed, the pair borrowed spare instruments for the class.
Instead, said Skinner, “people walked in with them. They said, ‘I had this in the closet and I didn’t know what to do with it.’ I was stunned.”
The eight or so students started out with the old standby beginner tune, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and branched out from there. “What’s amazing to me is that children can just pick this up and play it,” said Becotte.
Unlike the psaltery mentioned in the Bible, which was probably played by plucking strings, the bowed psaltery makes its sound when a bow is drawn across the strings. Although there is some dispute about the bowed psaltery’s origins, most historians agree that its current form was probably designed in Germany in the last century, as a simple musical instrument for schoolchildren.
The bow used for the psaltery is much shorter than a violin bow, and is narrow enough to fit between the tuning pegs. The psaltery, shaped like a triangular box, has its natural notes in descending order along one long side and sharps and flats along the other. The orderly layout of strings makes playing a simple tune fairly easy and logical.
As an outgrowth of that adult ed. class, Whatley and Skinner produced “The Psimple Psaltery Instruction Book,” a compilation of lessons and songs arranged for the psaltery, with chapters on music theory, bowing techniques and instrument care. The book comes with a CD of the songs. “The outline from the class became the book,” explained Whatley.
Now, almost a decade later, the local psaltery group has grown and changed, but its core has stuck together. “It’s the kind of group people can come in and out of,” said Julie Rogers of Norwich, whose home provided the meeting place and whose guitar provided the group’s accompaniment. “We’ve all become good friends. We have a summer picnic and we bring over our psalteries, but mostly what we do is talk,” she said.
The Norwich bowed psaltery group will perform a set of music at the June concert, and Whatley and Skinner will do a set of their own. They will be surrounded by other traditional stringed instruments, including the mountain dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, mandolin and hammered dulcimer.