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Seniors' dulcimer group makes beautiful music

A few years ago, Mary Goetsch returned to Farmington from the six months she spends in Texas and handed something to her friend Kathy Gunderson. It was a long wooden box. Strings ran the length of its top, and there were holes cut into it like there would be for a guitar or a violin.

It was a dulcimer, and Goetsch, who had discovered the instrument in Texas, wasn’t interested in playing solo now that she’d come back north.

“She handed me an instrument and said, ‘You’re going to learn how to play this so I have someone to play with,’” Gunderson said.

So, Gunderson learned. She has a long musical history. She plays piano at her church and teaches lessons. The dulcimer isn’t a particularly complicated instrument, and she picked it up quickly.

And then, Gunderson and Goetsch started to think that if two players were good, maybe more would be even better.

Slowly, one recruit at a time, they built what has become the Rambling River Dum Diddies dulcimer club. There are currently 11 members, though some like Goetsch are gone during the winter. Gunderson keeps a spare dulcimer she can hand to anyone interested in trying it out. Everyone she’s loaned it to so far has wound up buying one and joining the group.

“We started talking it up to our friends and one by one, gradually people started coming in,” Gunderson said. “Within a few weeks they’re playing some songs. They can’t do that on a lot of instruments.”

The dulcimer is a good instrument for seniors to take up, Gunderson said, because they’re easy to learn, they’re relatively inexpensive — you can pick one up for as little as $50 — and they’re easy to carry. Most members of the group play Appalachian dulcimers, which players hold on their lap and strum. One member, George Gehrke, plays a hammer dulcimer he built himself. That instrument is much bigger, and Gehrke plays it by striking the strings with small wooden hammers.

Gehrke has built several of the hammer dulcimers and has sold them in Branson, Mo.

Now, the group meets every Monday afternoon at Rambling River Center. On one recent Monday, the group practiced Christmas songs. Gunderson and the rest of the Appalachian dulcimer players would strum through one, then Gehrke would play by himself on his hammer dulcimer.

For much of the club’s lifetime, playing has been limited mostly to that room in the Rambling River Center. But Gunderson decided this year that it didn’t make sense to do all that practicing and not do something with it. She has made an effort to get the group out in the community. They’ve played 20 places in the past year. They’ve visited senior centers and performed at the Dakota County Fair. They set up at Farmington’s farmer’s market once this summer.

They also get involved in local schools. Club members recently helped students at Farmington Elementary School build and play their own dulcimers.

Many of the group members were strangers or didn’t know each other well when they joined, but Gunderson said they’re now like family. They get together socially and send cards on birthdays or if someone is sick.

“It’s rewarding and it’s good for hand-eye coordination,” Gunderson said. “All these things for seniors, it’s better than sitting around knitting or watching reruns on TV.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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