Dulcimer group relaxes the strings of life

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Marla Englert of Jasper, left, Connie Harmon of Jasper, Elaine Weinberg of Jasper, Lori Austin of Holland, Gayle Edelen of Jasper and Rose Fischer of St. Meinrad gather for the Patoka River Strummers practice at Weinberg's home in Jasper on Monday. The group meets twice a month to play the dulcimer and other musical instruments. Austin, the group's music leader, says her favorite part is the camaraderie.


JASPER — Their community is calm.

Monday evening, inside the walls of Elaine Weinberg’s Jasper home, the Patoka River Strummers tapped and slid their fingers along their Appalachian mountain dulcimers’ necks, gently generating acoustic rhythms that guided them into a new world.

It was zen-like. Peaceful. And though the world they created felt far away, it wasn’t.

It was right here in Dubois County.

“The goal is to bring this wonderful, fun, easy instrument to our people here,” said Lori Austin, the ensemble’s leader. “And just spread the joy.”

You might not be able to recognize one, but you’ve probably heard a dulcimer before.

Joni Mitchell strummed the stringed instrument on her landmark album, “Blue.” Dolly Parton and Cyndi Lauper have picked them in renditions of their songs, and countless other folk musicians have plucked them over the years.

But you don’t have to be an icon to bring the instrument to life.

Lori Austin of Holland plays the dulcimer during the Patoka River Strummers practice in Jasper on Monday.

“It’s an easy way to make music,” Austin said of the dulcimer. “It is a relatively easy instrument to learn. You don’t have to read music in order to play it. That’s a big thing — you don’t have to know how to read music in order to play this instrument.”

Performers instead lean on tablature, which uses numbers to direct players’ fingers to notches on the fretboard of their narrow, handmade zithers.

Shaped like hourglasses, dulcimers are made from wood, and they can be played in a variety of ways. Artists at Monday’s gathering strapped them around their bodies and positioned them horizontally on their laps like a keyboard.

Austin — who lives in Holland and has played the dulcimer for about 15 years — formed the Patoka River Strummers in August with a couple other local players. A series of events hosted at the Dubois Branch Library brought them together, and the group has now grown to approximately 10 members of various experience levels.

“It’s just not as much fun if it’s just you,” Austin explained. “Like, if you go to an exercise class, it’s so much better if you have somebody to go with you. Because you kind of keep each other going.”

Performing dulcimer groups do exist in other cities. But now, Dubois County residents have their own outfit to learn, play and reap the benefits of the sweet sounding strings.

“I call it relaxing,” Weinberg said. “When I go and practice the dulcimer, I forget about everything else.”

The local ensemble performed at the Jasper Public Library in December, and Austin said the strummers would like to one day bring their talents inside nursing homes and other venues.

She will teach dulcimer lessons at the Jasper Public Library on Jan. 16, 23 and 30. The sessions are free, but attendees need to bring their own dulcimers.

The Patoka River Strummers will begin gathering at Shiloh United Methodist Church in Jasper on the first and third Mondays of each month on Jan. 20.

Readers interested in joining are encouraged to stop by one of those 6 p.m. meetings, contact the group through its Facebook page or email Austin at laustintn@hotmail.com. Musicians who play other string instruments are also invited.

“It’s so much fun, and we really enjoy it,” Austin said of the strummers. “Wanting to share it with other people, that’s the whole point of why we’re doing this. Because it is relaxing. It is something that we look forward to.”

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