The world on a (hammered) string
Paul Babcock considers himself lazy.
That might explain why the Long Beach resident still isn’t proficient in playing the dulcimer, despite being introduced to the instrument nearly six years ago.
Drawn to its gentle sounds, his wife, Teresa, purchased a fretted dulcimer and enrolled in classes. Paul is, by all definitions, a supportive husband who applauds at local performances and also accompanies her to Western Carolina University’s Mountain Dulcimer Week.
The novice player simply doesn’t practice.
“I wouldn’t call myself a player — I play at it,” Paul, 64, remarked. “I’m more interested in the history of the instrument and enjoy constructing it.”
Toward this end, he has built four dulcimers, two from kits and others from scratch. Having gifted one to his mother-in-law, Paul plays the remaining three and displays them at woodworking competitions — the latest at the OC Fair. While he didn’t place at the Costa Mesa event, the same hammered dulcimer earned an honorable mention at the San Diego County Fair earlier in the summer.
With pride evident in his voice, Paul said he plans to watch Teresa join her Southern California Dulcimer Heritage Group counterparts for a concert at Shipley Nature Center from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. The entertainment — an unrehearsed jam — will feature a few hourglass-shaped fretted and trapezoid-like hammered dulcimers, along with fiddles, Irish whistles, banjos, guitars, cellos and more. The musicians, although having performed together in the past, will come in cold, picking in the moment the Celtic and old-timey melodies and other, more participatory tunes to play.
The performance, part of the venue’s yearly Cool Summer Nights program — which includes discussions about raptors, bees and other elements of nature — will precede the arrival of the Orange County Astronomers club, whose members will set up large telescopes to view planets, constellations and more.
Established in 1974, the 18-acre fenced natural area within Huntington Beach Central Park is named after former Mayor Donald D. Shipley. The nonprofit’s goal is to offer an ecological sanctuary for native plants and wildlife while providing the community with an environmental education, said administrative coordinator Carol Williams. Sometimes, as with the dulcimer band, music can complement the natural setting.
“This group is local to Orange County and exposes our audience to a different style of music,” Williams said. “It is mellow and melodic and blends into nature. As opposed to loud rock music, theirs wouldn’t disturb the animals sleeping nearby.”
This gig not only (presumably) pleases animals, but also Barbara Gershman, the dulcimer group’s vice president.
The Huntington Beach resident feels lucky not only to have found a post-retirement activity but also to have encountered many like-minded friends. She has discovered that dulcimer players, and musicians in general, are disciplined, courteous and empathetic, making for deeper bonds.
For them, the upcoming event is the ideal combination of “a lovely spot and welcoming hosts,” Gershman noted, adding, “We like to be part of happy occasions.”
Thinking back to her first brush with dulcimer music, Gershman recalls the sound of “Shakin’ Down the Acorns,” by Tony Elman, in a Yosemite gift shop. Falling instantly in love with the harmonies, she bought both volumes of the cassette and listened to the songs while driving between home and her teaching job at the time at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.
Although she didn’t know what a dulcimer looked like, its music helped soothe her during a time when she was dealing with a troublesome student. When her husband, who still helps her carry her instruments, gave her an 86-string hammered dulcimer, she was hooked. It’s been 25 years, and Gershman has no plans to hang up her wooden hammers.
“Playing the dulcimer has been my therapy and my fun,” Gershman said.
If You Go
What: A concert by the Southern California Dulcimer Heritage Group
Where: Shipley Nature Center amphitheater, 17851 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday
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