- Associated Press - Saturday, September 30, 2017

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) - The list of qualifications for playing the mountain dulcimer is extremely short. In fact, there are none.

Absolutely anyone can play the instrument, which is also called the Appalachian dulcimer.

Because a precise grip isn’t necessary, even people with arthritis in their hands can play.

No experience - with any instrument - is necessary. You don’t even have to read music.

Within five or 10 minutes, you can be strumming your first song. That’s because people play by number, rather than reading musical notes. So if you’re afraid you can’t play, don’t fret.

The Prairie Dulcimer Players play their stringed instruments almost every Thursday at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the area. On Sept. 21, they played at Tiffany Square and Lebensraum Assisted Living.

Playing were seven members of the group, who clearly enjoyed themselves.

“It’s fun. We’re having a blast,” said Pam Aldana of Hastings.

The goal is to lead people to dulcimer bliss.

Kay Stoppkotte of Chapman told The Grand Island Independent that it’s fun to see the smiles of appreciation on the audience’s faces.

Nursing home residents love to hear “You Are My Sunshine,” ”Amazing Grace” and patriotic numbers. The show also includes “Polly Wolly Doodle,” ”Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “In the Good Old Summertime.”

Aldana, who is the emcee, invites audience participation on “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” She encourages listeners to say “Here she is,” ”Hi babe” and other expressions during the song. They pretend to chop an old red rooster, saying “chop chop,” and rub their stomachs as they say “yum yum,” thinking about eating chicken and dumplings.

The Prairie Dulcimer Players say the instrument produces a quiet and soothing sound.

Felix Aldana, who is Pam Aldana’s husband, said the dulcimer is relaxing to play.

Carole Grady, who lives in Sutton, likes to play at nursing homes. Dulcimer music, she noted, seems to soothe people with Alzheimer’s. Grady is also in another group, the Hamilton County Band.

Marilyn Hoffman, who lives in Juniata, practices on her dulcimer for an hour each day, seven days a week.

She likes many of the songs, including the religious ones and the traditional “backhills” songs. On the sad songs, she sometimes makes up her own lyrics as she practices.

Appalachian dulcimers typically have three or four strings. The fretted instrument is part of the zither family.

According to a sheet handed out by the group, dulcimers are played while seated and were considered a parlor instrument because of the modest sound they produce.

Fourteen people make up the Prairie Dulcimer Players. Eleven of those people are either woodcarvers or married to woodcarvers.

John Robbins, who lives in Sutton, got interested in dulcimers about three years ago when he and his wife, Mary, attended a craft show in Summerfield, Kansas. Robbins, who is both a woodworker and a woodcarver, was intrigued by the two dulcimer groups that played at the craft show. One of the groups was from Beatrice.

Robbins, who had already made many cigar-box guitars, started making dulcimers. He has now made more than 200, including most of the instruments used by the Prairie Dulcimer Players.

Each one Robbins makes is better than the last, said Felix Aldana, a woodcarver himself.

The group’s other woodcarvers include Stoppkotte and Loretta Broberg of Grand Island.

The Prairie Dulcimers group started playing in March 2015. About half of the members can read music.

John and Mary Robbins credit Forrest and Eileen Smith of Beatrice for spreading the popularity of the mountain dulcimer.

Over the last couple of years, Robbins, 75, has taught at a Mid-America Woodcarvers Association gathering at Doane University and the Gretna Wood Carvers Retreat. At both, he taught people how to build and play a dulcimer.

John and Mary Robbins have helped spread the gospel of the mountain dulcimer. Six Omaha residents have built their own instruments and are starting to perform.

The Prairie Dulcimer group has donated dulcimers to St. Michael’s Elementary School in Hastings.

Members of the group played eight of the 10 days of the Nebraska State Fair.

Audience member Felix Aldana said she didn’t want to learn to play. She just wanted to sit and listen to the gentle music.

Other members of the Prairie Dulcimer Players include Nancy Oluffsen of Lincoln, Ralph and Jonell Burnside of Hastings, Jeannette Schmidt of Wood River and Traci Bates of Sutherland.

The Prairie Dulcimer group has played at nursing homes in Grand Island, Hastings, Sutton, Henderson, Doniphan, Harvard and Red Cloud.

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Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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