By Lexie Jordan
“If you’re going to do something in music, you have to have an obsession, a sort of love affair with it,” mountain dulcimer player Stephen Seifert, who will perform with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra on November 4 and 5, said in a recent interview.
Like many musicians, Seifert was first introduced to music via the piano when he was in fifth grade.
“It was on a little electronic keyboard that could only do one note at a time,” Seifert said. “One time the girl down the street played a television show theme on it and I said, ‘How do you know how to do that?’ and I remember how serious she got. She said, ‘You don’t need lessons to play music, you just need to think of a tune and hum it and then figure it out.’ I guess I just believed her.”
However, where Seifert’s musical story steers off from so many others was when he came across the mountain dulcimer. At the age of 16, Seifert traveled from his home in Erlanger, Ky., to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he found himself with the Cincinnati Dulcimer Society.
“A lot of the musicians I admire, in one sense, they’re self taught. In another, they’re guided,” Seifert said.
Even though Seifert is self-taught with the dulcimer, a mentor was ideal for him because he does not come from a family of musicians. Seifert later found himself touring and teaching alongside one of the greats in the dulcimer community: David Schnaufer.
The dulcimer is a rather niche instrument, but its community is tight-knit. There are festivals, a news magazine and clubs all over the world that celebrate the dulcimer.
The Mountain Dulcimer came to North America via Scottish and Irish immigrants in the early 1800s, originating in the Appalachian mountains near southwest Virginia. Its main roots are in Western Europe where there are other kinds of similar fretted lap zithers comparable to the dulcimer. There is even a lofty dulcimer community in Israel.
The dulcimer isn’t pigeon-holed to only bluegrass and folk music. There are dulcimers in jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll and even classical, as Alexandria residents will soon have the chance to see. At the November 4 and 5 ASO concerts, Seifert will perform alongside Grammy-nominated world music artist Dawn Avery in their rendition of “Black-berry Winter.”
Music Director of the Alexandria Symphony James Ross described “Blackberry Winter” in an email.
“I love the freshness and sparkle of the string writing and the bracing mix of styles which sounds simultaneously like baroque music and folk music,” Ross wrote.
Ross noted that playing concert music in an orchestra is a different experience than what folk musicians like Seifert are used to.
“The Mountain Dulcimer is a sound that we otherwise just never encounter in the concert hall with orchestras,” Ross said in the email.
Seifert welcomed the opportunity to expand his performing horizons with the upcoming ASO performance.
“It’s really taught me to think outside the box. Don’t just hang out with the people you think you understand. You might have more in common with other groups than you think,” Seifert said. “It’s been a fantastic experience to be a guest in their world. They are very good hosts.”
Seifert also noted the growing pains of adapting to an orchestra as an outsider.
“My least favorite part is that I don’t get to fit in and just be a normal musician with everyone. I just want to do the things musicians do and be one of the gang,” Seifert said. “I think it’s easy when I’m around these orchestra musicians sometimes to wish I had grown up like they did a little more, but I’m really thankful I have this unusual path through everything because I don’t know if I would be playing with orchestras if I was just playing a violin.”
Seifert said he is also thankful for the weirdness of his instrument because through that he has been able to sample a little bit of everything in regards to musical genres. The versatility of the dulcimer has made him a well rounded musician and a knowledgeable teacher.
“Music is not just for a special class of people. It’s almost a basic human right and I like helping people experience that. There’s a lot of joy in it and we need joy,” Seifert said.
Seifert’s adoration for music goes beyond just the dulcimer. He says his favorite thing to do as a musician is play around with the chords and improvise. Finding magic by moving his fingers across strings is what brings him the most satisfaction.
“I like to take a song everyone knows and take the bare bones of the tune that everyone recognizes. I like to almost consider that a blank canvas that I can then paint on musically. It may be a tune you recognize, but it’s just a skeleton. I have to add the flesh to it,” Seifert said. “I like to render things fresh in front of people, it’s scary and rewarding.”
Seifert looks forward to showing Alexandrians the beauty of the dulcimer. Following that, he plans to use December as a time to learn more about different styles of music.
“I like getting older. I’m really looking forward to doing less of the things I don’t want to do and more of the things I want to do. I want to get more minimalist and do more of the stuff I love. So, I guess I’m still going to play the dulcimer, I mean I can’t stop,” Seifert said with a laugh. “I think it’s wonderful to have something beautiful and good you can’t stop doing. It’s truly a pleasure.”