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In the bleak midwinter comes a sweet song played on a hammered dulcimer

By on January 28, 2019 in Arts with 0 Comments
Julia Pinnix takes a break during a winter concert where she was performing on her hammered dulcimer, an instrument she has played since she was a teen.
Julia uses hammers shaped like spoons to draw music from the stringed instrument. Photos by Kevin Farrell

By Marlene Farrell

Watching Julia Pinnix play her hammered dulcimer, it seems like musical magic coming from the intricate motion of her two handheld hammers, curved like wooden spoons. 

To Julia, it’s second nature. 

She is a self-described, “visual learner.” The music begins in patterns. The trapezoidal soundboard has two bridges and 23 sets of double strings. Playing a pattern yields a melody. Small white marks on the bridges help her track the positions of her desired notes.

Throughout Julia’s adventurous life, which has oscillated from mainland U.S.A. to Alaska almost 20 times, music has been a mainstay. “We sang as a family as long as I can remember. I learned about harmony from my mom. She was an alto and would always harmonize to my dad’s tenor.”

She remembers clearly when her family brought home the hammered dulcimer, an early Dusty Springs built in the ’70s, its body made of Sitka spruce. “My dad bought it when I was 14 at an instrument auction in Olympia. I sort of took it over. I would play two to three hours every night.”

 The hammered dulcimer has a long history woven through many cultures. The name “dulcimer” derives from a combination of Latin and Greek, for “sweet song.” Various forms of the instrument can be found in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and in the last few centuries, the United States.

 The name also refers to the fact that the musician strikes the strings with hammers. Julia’s are made of lightweight maple, giving a clean loud sound. She also has double-headed hammers, which have a wood side and a felt side for a more muted tone.

 The first step to playing a hammered dulcimer is tuning it. “I use a tuning fork. You don’t have to have perfect pitch,” Julia said. However, over the years, she’s developed her ear, enabling her to tune a few pianos. The strings are similar, just hidden from view in a piano.

 Given the number of strings over two octaves, a hammered dulcimer can only be played in certain scales, excluding most flats. If Julia finds a song that’s written with flats, she simply transposes it into her preferred key.

 The notes resonate and sustain, adding layers of sound underneath the flowing melody. In addition to melodies and chords, Julia can produce other sounds, including a drum roll and a slur by sweeping the hammer across the strings.

Julia memorizes her patterns, so she plays without sheet music. She also improvises easily when jamming with other musicians.

 In fact, the music creates a bond between Julia and other musicians she’s met over the years. “My brother, on trumpet, and I would jam and fool around when we were young. It was a lot of fun.” 

More recently, there was an accordion player named Len Feldman in the small town of Haines, Alaska, with whom she played. “Len and I would play at community get-togethers and now and then at the Fireweed Restaurant.”

“It’s like having a conversation with a good friend. You never run out of things to say.”

Julia moved to Leavenworth in 2015 to be closer to her parents. Her work in environmental education, like her music, invokes a passion for new challenges. She is the Visitor Services Manager for the Leavenworth Fisheries Complex, where she shares information through visitor orientation, tours, working with school groups and planning events and camps. 

After so many years working primarily for federal agencies (Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service) she still says, “I love it. I’m learning every day, and applying what I learn.”

 Julia found her musical “home” in Leavenworth when she joined Village Voices, made up of 40 singers. Village Voices celebrates and shares choral music and traditional Bavarian songs through five concerts each year as well as caroling during Christmas Lighting weekends.

 Julia sings second soprano, and occasionally she gets to accompany the group with her hammered dulcimer. “This year, for the concert piece titled, In the Bleak Midwinter, I was singing and playing, which is more difficult.”

The song has a melancholy feel but also the warmth of a lullaby. “I like the emptiness and simplicity in that song,” Julia said. “It doesn’t have to be complex.”

 Julia has joyfully dedicated her life to seeking meaningful pursuits. Being outdoors and connecting with nature is important. When she’s out hiking or picking berries, she experiences the same kind of emotions she has when playing music. “There’s a feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself.”

 She shares that feeling with her audience every time she plays.

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