I tell visitors that my lutherie studio is my Third Heaven. Building the Appalachian dulcimer is a great love in my life.
But I build now very differently than when I first began. I began building dulcimers with the goal of building the very best musical instruments. I would strive to make them perfect. I would use the best woods, the best varnishes and shellacs, the best tools, and the best techniques.
But I have learned over a few years of building that we are no longer so impressed with the kind of perfection we see in the world. We are surrounded by perfection--the fit and finish on new cars by robotic manufacturing processes is really astounding. Other products also, they come bounding off the assembly lines one after another, anonymous in their unflagging perfection. And yet, though we may be in awe of them, we have little respect for them. These mechanically produced commodities may be worth a purchase, but they cannot engage our hearts. Rather, we are all hungry for the authentic touch of humans and human hands in our world.
So I have learned that the deeper beauty of a great musical instrument is to be sought in the perfection of the builder, not in the perfect instrument. To master the building of a dulcimer, one seeks for the perfection of the hand, how one moves the tool, the movements of attention, and of the heart. If one makes a mistake, we try to correct it of course. But we do not demand a mechanical perfection, trying to absolutely eradicate every erring stroke. Rather, we do our best at that moment, and move on. Learning our lesson, the next operation will not have that problem. And so mastery grows in tiny bits of very ordinary self knowledge, really being there, undistracted, closely attending to every stroke of the chisel, plane, the varnish brush.
In our dulcimer building classes I try to bring some of that attitude about work into the way I introduce students to building the dulcimer. We look closely at the wood, tap on it, turn it over and over in our hands, listen to it. We take turns building on the instructor's dulcimer to learn new techniques, then turn to apply them each to her or his own building. Though we use a power tool here and there, the real focus is on learning to use our hands, and the tools that fit our hands. The focus is on coming to realize how the hundred small acts of forming wood result in a dulcimer, and how that attention -- utterly unworried about the final outcome but instead learning the ways your hands work -- produces a musical instrument of real character, bearing the actual mark of the maker's hand; not a mimicry of mechanical perfection, but the character of men and women at work, at play, making music. The results are unfailingly and instantly beautiful.
I've had a lot of fun putting this website together. I still get a charge out of it from time to time, especially when some other builder writes to say she or he has been using all the stuff here as a reference or a learning tool. Or when someone is introduced to my work through this site and decides to commission a new dulcimer.
Here is a sort of scrapbook of news about Bear Meadow: