The Designer

18 Oct

Some of my friends are followers on my blog. I just want to let them know that I did not discover that the earth was flat by walking to the edge and falling off. I’m still here!

There are many things in my life that I really enjoy. One of the most important is making music. I enjoy playing several stringed instruments, and one of my favorites is the hammered dulcimer. I own 5 hammered dulcimers. I own one that is my “performance” hammered dulcimer, one that is my teaching dulcimer, one that my friend made from a kit and later gave to me (I think I may have even helped her put it together), one that is called a “laptop” hammered dulcimer because it’s about the size of a laptop computer and is great to take camping and traveling and last, but not least, is my Craigslist dulcimer.

I purchased the Craigslist dulcimer a couple of years ago. This guy from a town about 90 miles away advertised it for $100 and said in his ad that it was a “Masterworks” hammered dulcimer, and came with a padded case. He also said in his ad that it had some broken strings and some damage to the treble bridge. In case you don’t even know what a hammered dulcimer looks like, here’s a photo of the Craigslist dulcimer when I first got it, damaged bridge, missing strings and all. The untrained eye might not be able to see that the treble bridge (which is between the two sound holes) has an area about halfway up that is missing some delrin note markers and strings and a section which is a little wider than it should be. That is the worst of the crushed areas of the bridge.

When I read in his ad that it just had a few missing strings and some damage to the treble bridge, I thought, “I can fix that.” (There were no pictures to deter me from thinking that!) I am a professional piano technician, and have experience with woodworking and restringing, so I thought this would be an easy and fun project. And, since he said it was a Masterworks dulcimer, which is a company that is very well respected in the hammered dulcimer community, I thought I couldn’t go wrong. In fact, I reasoned that I could just order a new bridge from the guy who builds these dulcimers out in the Midwest.

I met the guy at some coffee shop, with my $100 in my pocket. We introduced ourselves and he went back to his car and got out the hammered dulcimer, came over and placed it on a table outside the coffee shop. It was in a nice Masterworks dulcimer padded case, and he unzipped it and voila! There it was. A hammered dulcimer-shaped-object. It was missing 3 pairs of strings, the treble bridge was crushed in two places (a large drum had fallen on it off of a shelf) and not only that, the soundboard was cracked in two places. Additionally, it weighed close to 30 pounds. “Wow,” I was thinking to myself, “how am I going to get out of this?” I said to the guy, who was very nice and knew nothing about hammered dulcimers, “This is definitely NOT a Masterworks hammered dulcimer. Only the padded case is from Masterworks. I know this because I own two Masterworks dulcimers and he does not make dulcimers like this.” His construction style is completely different from this one, and his dulcimers would not weigh anywhere near 30 pounds (maybe 12 pounds…very portable.) I sort of shook my head and said to the guy, “This looks like a lot of work to me, with the cracked soundboard and crushed bridge and missing strings and I just don’t know if I’m up for the challenge.” I could see myself buying this thing and putting it in my shop and never getting around to fixing it. Every woodworking shop needs a dust collector…this would be mine. The guy said, “I know a seller should never do this, but will you please buy it for $60? It’s just taking up space in my apartment and I have no use for it and no woodworking skills and no one wants it.” Oh dear, did he just use the “stray dog” approach? I am such a sucker for rejects, which is how I have ended up with two dogs and a few cats in my life. Not to mention several clothing items that people shrunk in their dryer and couldn’t wear any more. Oh, and let’s not forget the 1979 Volvo station wagon that I used to have. When someone uses the “no one else wants it” tactic, I usually end up with it.

So, I shelled out $60. If nothing else, I would learn something in the process of trying to repair it. He put it in my car (I could hardly maneuver the thing). Within a few weeks of getting it in my shop, I had taken pictures to document everything, measured all the music wire diameters of the remaining strings and drew a diagram so I’d know how to restring it, and covered it up to protect it from dust and left it there to sit and wait for restoration. And, sure enough, it sat in my shop for almost two years, until late this summer. I don’t know what inspires me to all of a sudden decide it’s time to finish a project, but the inspiration hit me. I used to have a dog that would play with a squeaky toy for months and months, even years, until one day he would decide it was time to destroy it to remove the squeaker. I guess I have a little bit of whatever that is in me!

I bought the cherry wood for the bridge and, using the original as my guide, constructed a new one just like it. (Not easy.) My second attempt worked. I consulted with a piano rebuilder about repairing the cracks in the soundboard and, using his advice, repaired the cracks. One of my “unknowns” was what size wire to replace the missing strings with? I could see a pattern in the builder’s original design, but since the missing strings were right in the middle, I really had to guess between two different sized wires to use. The previous owner had not saved the broken strings, so, I basically had a 50/50 chance of getting the wire sizes correct. An incorrect guess would either mean that the sound is too weak (used a size too small) or the strings break while trying to tune it up to pitch (used wire that was too large, and breaking strings are loud, nerve-wracking, and possibly dangerous.)

So, a couple of weeks ago, I put it all back together and tuned it to one full step below pitch. (I was still a little nervous about one pair of strings…I went with the larger size and just wasn’t sure it would go all the way up to pitch.) The sound was a little mellow, a little sweet, with lots of sustain. I was pleased that my new treble bridge was working great! But, sadly, there was a rather loud buzzing or rattling sound on one particular note and one section of the dulcimer sounded a little too banjo-like and “thuddy” to my ears. (Yes, that’s an official musical term.) I knew I was going to have to do two things, which I did today. #1: Release the tension on all the strings and find the source of the rattle (I had the idea that there was a flaw in the design that was causing it, but I won’t bore you with details that only I would find fascinating) and #2: retune the dulcimer all the way up to pitch and find out if it was designed to handle the tension.

That’s when this thought occurred to me…I have no idea who the designer or builder of this dulcimer was, and whether or not the design was flawed or not. I actually thought, as I was pulling it up to pitch “Wow, I have put a lot of trust in the person(s) who designed and built this dulcimer, because I have no idea if I can even bring it to pitch without it imploding and whether or not it will sound good, since I have only experienced it in its broken and out of tune state.”  I had looked on the internet for some plans for a dulcimer like this one, or someone trying to sell a similar one, and had not found any like it. When I had taken it apart, there was no signature inside. A lot of dried glue drips and a few screws suggested to me that the person who built it worked in construction because it was built like a fortress, but really, no clues as to whether or not this thing actually ever sounded good or could even hold a tune at standard pitch. Really the only thing I could be sure about was that whoever made it INTENDED for it to produce music. (Why else would you make a musical instrument?) That is probably everything the designer/builder hoped for…to make an instrument that would make beautiful music. And really, that’s all I wanted as the repair person. I wanted to hear some sweet music coming out of this sturdy wooden box.

That’s when I decided to nickname it the XLH dulcimer. Genetically and structurally speaking, my soul inhabits an “instrument” with a flawed design, with X-linked Hypophosphatemia being the genetic “mistake” that I carry within me. I am definitely not the “perfect” example of what every parent hopes their child will be. In fact, probably most humans are walking around with some kind of “flawed” design in their genetic code, some fixable, some not. (You can think of your own flaw…high cholesterol, too fat, too skinny, allergic to dust, prone to anxiety, etc.) We all really want that perfect body, look, brain, everything. But really, was that the Designer’s intent and somehow it got screwed up? Or was the Designer really hoping that the “perfect” human would not be someone who looks good, has a perfect body, perfect health, perfect actions, perfect thoughts, but rather, someone who fulfills the Designer’s desire for that instrument to make beautiful music while on this earth, to leave the world a better place? Doctors, like hammered dulcimer restorers, spend a lot of time trying to fix  imperfections. And I am glad that they are out there doing that. I want to be the best “human-shaped-object” that I can be…all the cracks repaired if they can be and the bridges replaced when necessary (this is starting to remind me of all the dental work I’ve had done!) And sometimes, those doctors and therapists and counselors and pastors and mentors and teachers and medical people have to make educated guesses about how to fix a person back to where they can make music again. (Bless them!) But really, we’ll never be perfect, as my XLH dulcimer reminds me. The perfection that I will achieve with my XLH dulcimer is in making sure beautiful music comes out of it, with all it’s structural imperfections and a couple of design flaws. And the only way we can ever live up to the Designer’s perfect intentions for us is to make beautiful music in our lives (metaphorically, of course, because I know all y’all can’t sing) and to leave the world a better place, a more “perfect” place, though we may make our music with broken and flawed “human-shaped” instruments.

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Copyright (except for the prayer, of course)  S.G. Hunter and Banjogrrldiaries, 2012-2017


2 Responses to “The Designer”

  1. oceandepths42 October 18, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    This is great, a really good illustration of our purpose in life in the mind of the Designer. Have you put on the xlh members face book page that you have your blog? You should, I think others would enjoy reading your thoughts.

    • banjogrrldiaries October 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

      Thank you for your feedback! I don’t think I have mentioned my blog on the FB page, but I have mentioned it in a listserve email awhile back with the xlhnetwork.

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