TALKING WITH TULL GLAZENER
Joellen: When did you begin playing music and when did the dulcimer come into your life?
Tull: I took obligatory piano lessons but got to play different musical instruments in the high school band and orchestra. I started out as a flute player. My first choice was really French horn but I had braces, so I couldn’t play anything with a cup mouthpiece. By junior high the braces came off and the band needed a tuba player so I switched. Lugging around a 40 lb. sousaphone, I thought it would have been a nice idea to stay with the piccolo. I played trombone, baritone and tuba. I still play with a brass ensemble at my church.
I had never heard or seen a mountain dulcimer. After college, I moved from Buffalo, NY to Indianapolis, IN for a job. A friend gave me a mountain dulcimer as a present. I was convinced it was just a toy because half the strings and half the notes were missing. I said “thank you” and put it in the closet.
Unbeknownst to me, there was, and still is, a fairly active dulcimer club in Indianapolis. They put on a festival at a local park and I happened to ride my bike in the park that weekend. I went over to see what was going on. The guest artist they had that year happened to be David Schnaufer.
JL: Wow! What an introduction to the mountain dulcimer! David Schnaufer was one of the premier innovative mountain dulcimer players at the time. He was widely celebrated and acclaimed up until his untimely early death.
TG: So the first person I heard play mountain dulcimer was David Schnaufer. He did everything from classical music to rock’n roll to traditional music. My jaw just dropped and I said: “Okay it’s not a toy. You can make music on that thing.”
So I dug the instrument out of my closet, and took a beginner class. I haven’t put it down since. That was something like 1983-84. I picked up one of his recordings. It was on a cassette tape. I tried to figure out how he did the stuff he was doing. David was an instructor at a number of dulcimer festivals. If one was within a couple hundred miles driving distance, I’d get there. I didn’t have the courage to talk to him at the first couple of times. I was trying to figure out how he did a totally chromatic run at the end of a tune called Steel Guitar Rag. He was playing every note in the chromatic scale just perfectly. I thought he must be bending strings but it sounded too perfect.
I signed up for a couple of his classes at a festival in Lima, Ohio. His workshops were always full to overflowing. David was one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen. In a 90-minute class, for every person in that room, he would come up with one little thing that you needed at that point in your musical journey.
After class I screwed up my courage and said: “I’ve been trying to figure out how you do the ending of Steel Guitar Rag. He just looked at me and smiled, and in that slow Texas drawl: “I have a chromatic dulcimer.” I was about ready to wring his skinny little neck. But then he said: “You can come close if you get yourself a capo”. (I had never heard of a capo for a dulcimer.) “Get yourself a capo and put it at the 4th fret and with the 6 and the 6+ fret, you’ve got a couple of those chromatic notes that you’ll need. Look me up after the concert and I’ll show ya.” He didn’t know me from Adam. But after his concert he spent at least an hour showing me how to do that.
I was hooked. Now at that time, most folks in my local club were using the DAA tuning, strumming backup chords for lead instruments and singers. No one was doing what I think of as the “chord/melody” style. So I started doing some of that chord/melody style because I learned it from David. Suddenly folks wanted to learn what I was doing, so I started teaching. I discovered that one way to become a better player is to become a teacher. David recommended me to some festival directors and I started teaching at festivals in about 1988.
JL: Besides playing your distinctive “chord/melody” style, you have a huge repertoire of all kinds of different genres: fiddle tunes, waltzes, cowboy songs, gospel. How did you develop such a varied repertoire?
TG: I just play the music I know. I grew up playing band music and my parents’ stereo was constantly playing tunes from the 1940s, 1950s, Glen Miller and that kind of stuff. When I started playing dulcimer I wanted to play all of that music on the dulcimer, which I wasn’t hearing very much. David really encouraged me in that. He said “There’s always a way. You just have to figure out what that way is. Sometimes you might have to retune or compromise a little bit.” He was convinced there wasn’t anything you couldn’t do on the instrument.
I was also kind of mortified when I first met him. I developed a style playing with my thumb. David did not use his thumb. I thought I’m going to have to relearn how to play. It didn’t make any sense. With a piano background you’ve got the biggest reach between your thumb and middle finger. That made sense. I talked to David about it. He laughed and said: “Everyone’s different. The dulcimer is unique. It’s an instrument that’s never been tamed. In the musical animal kingdom it’s the wild animal. There aren’t any rules. Everybody invents their own approach to it.”
JL: When did you start writing books, building your website, offering free tab and all that?
TG: The mid to late 90’s, I did a book of waltzes. What I was hearing mostly in jam sessions were fast fiddle tunes. I liked slower, more lyrical expressive things like waltzes, because if I slow them down a bit, I have time to explore the chord structure. I like to put in chords of different shades and colors, like related minor chords and augmented chords.
JL: Your output of books and CDs is now prolific.
TG: I was doing a lot of workshops. In workshops you always have a wide range of skill levels from beginner all the way to really experienced. In order to keep everybody interested, I needed to have different parts. So I started writing ensemble arrangements. The idea was to always have something for beginning players and something to keep the advanced players interested: all at the same time. And when you do that it makes everything sound fuller. Those arrangements were well received. So I started putting those together. I have about 5 or 6 books now.
I grew up listening to big band and popular music but you don’t hear a lot of that on mountain dulcimer. So I waited for somebody to arrange that. I finally got tired of waiting and figured out how to do it myself. I arranged things like Vincent, When You Wish Upon a Star, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I got a lot of requests for tab for that, so I thought I’ll just go ahead and do a couple of books with those kinds of tunes. But the copyright thing was daunting. So I put together individual lessons, just one tune at a time. I’ve got these CD packets that teach one song with a 1-hour lesson. Each track teaches a couple of measures at a time, telling which fingers to put on which frets and giving playing suggestions pretty much the way I present music at a workshop.
JL: I noticed you also have several books of hymns.
TG: I grew up listening to hymns. My father was born and raised in North Carolina and Virginia, which is Southern Baptist country. He had 6 siblings and most of them were sisters. All my aunts were in the Black Branch Baptist choir. I would spend summers down there and every night in the evening all relatives would come over to one of my aunt’s houses. We’d sit out on the front porch and everyone got to pick a hymn they wanted to sing and they would do it all in 4-5-6 part harmony.
JL: Tell me a little bit about performing.
TG: I perform with a group called the Family Reunion String Band. We do a lot of old-time and country music. I also play in a trio with Molly McCormack and Jon Hall called Halfway Home. There’s another long time friend of mine who lives here in Indianapolis, a wonderful guitar player and vocalist named Jim Sperry. I love playing with Jim.
JL: Is he on your CD Plays Well With Others?
TG: He’s on the CDs: Plays Well With Others, Dulcified and How Can I Keep From Singing?
And I still play in a brass ensemble at our church.
JL: What are you working on these days?
TG: I have quite a few things on my to-do list and I hope to get to them when I retire from my day job. I’d like to do some more ensemble arrangements and put some of the contemporary tunes into a book. Maybe I’ll give that another shot.
JL: What kind of dulcimers do you play?
TG: My first dulcimer (the gift in the closet) was a Korean dulcimer that didn’t even have the frets in the right place. Then I met Jerry Rockwell and fell in love with his instruments because I liked having a deeper sound. The soundbox is unusually deep, almost 3 inches. I have two of his: a standard and a baritone. They are my primary ones.
The dulcimer I use for workshops is an old FolkRoots instrument, an old Rugg and Jackel. That too has a pretty deep soundbox.
JL: Who do you listen to these days?
TG: I don’t listen to a lot of dulcimer music. However the folks that I’m in awe of are Steve Seifert, Aaron O’Rourke, Janita Baker, and I love the stuff that Bing Futch is doing with Blues. I like hearing people do different things on the dulcimer. Sara Morgan is just incredible. Sam Edelston is another one. I really like hearing people pushing the envelope with the instrument. But as far as CDs I listen to in my car, it’s all different artists. I like to get inspired by different genres of music. Then I see if I can take what they do and adapt it to the dulcimer.
JL: Great talking to you Tull. I’ve enjoyed learning more about you and I’ll see you at KMW the week of June 24th.
Learn more about Tull Glazener at his website.
A true creative maverick in the mountain dulcimer world, Joellen Lapidus both embraces the deep rich traditions of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, and creates new traditions. One of the pioneers of an equally rich California Mountain Dulcimer tradition, her rhythmic playing style and elegant shapes and inlaid dulcimers have influenced generations of players and builders. Joellen teaches at McCabes Guitar Shop and dulcimer festivals from coast to coast. www.lapidusmusic.com