Heart Strings

All photos by Terry McCafferty

I hold the new instrument on my lap, the oil finish on the dark wood so fresh that its sweet aroma accompanies my fingers on the fretboard. I reach for notes on the silver strings. Having just heard the news of the passing of Gordon Lightfoot, a flood of lyrics washes over me and I search to create the chords for his perfect song If You Could Read My Mind.

It is a long way from the mountain dulcimer’s historical origin of rough-hewn wood in Appalachia to the beautiful sculpture on my lap. This instrument brings to life the places I love—the top cut from an ancient redwood log discovered at the bottom of a river, the body shaped from claro walnut in the region where thousands of migratory birds call me to visit each winter, and abalone shell from the ocean inlaid on the fretboard in the shape of an owl.

Modern dulcimers commonly include extra frets not found on the instruments of the 1800s. More extra frets pioneered only recently, on a few instruments such as mine, open up countless new musical possibilities. I find a chord I’ve never played before, without which Gordon Lightfoot’s notes wouldn’t appear.

Music comes from a place I can’t describe, a part of myself that just knows it has to be expressed. The memory of the song comes first with the melody playing clearly. A search online reveals a live performance that brings tears to my eyes, and suddenly I am compelled to reach for my instrument, energized despite the fact that it’s past bedtime.

How grateful I am that I learned music by ear just as I learned to talk, a language that finds its way to my hands without my having to think about it. It will take time to find the correct placement of each finger in this new configuration of the fretboard, but that’s only to express the tones in my head which are already there.

This instrument and its musical language are my soul turning into the physical expression of notes in wire and wood, the vibrations resonating back into my heart and out again. I can’t yet go to sleep when I have discovered a beloved song, for the first time tangible in my body, even without adding my voice and the lyrics that will come later.

I don’t know how anyone manages to write words about specific pieces of music, two languages I speak fluently but that don’t intersect at all. Instead, I write about the memory of a beloved song, a feeling in my hands demanding that I create something, the need to hold the work of art that is my dulcimer. In this moment, it has become an extension of my body, and the vibrations of the wood and strings move through me in a wave of resonance with my mind, my hands, and my heart all creating the perfect chords.

With gratitude for my custom instrument to craftsman Terry McCafferty
McCafferty Dulcimers


  1. This is a beautiful and meaningful essay. Thank you for writing it. This made me feel as if you’re in my living room, holding the dulcimer on your lap and then playing it for Al and me.

    • Somewhere I’ve got photos from your living room, encouraging me when I learned the dulcimer decades ago. I still have that first instrument. I appreciate that you still want to hear me play.

  2. What do you mean you can’t write words about music??? You just did! And beautifully, poetically. I had the very same experience when I heard Gordon Lightfoot died. I found “If You Could Read My Mind” online, played it and burst into tears. His songs went deep. As I texted a friend that day, “I hate when the world loses lovely souls”. That said, I’m glad YOUR lovely soul is keeping GL’s lovely soul alive through that gorgeous instrument/work of art. So glad you and the dulcimer found each other! Wishing you many years together of happy music making.

    • What an impact he had. I recommend the documentary about him if you haven’t seen it, entitled Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind. So many of his songs are great, but this one in particular has clearly moved a lot of people. In this post, I wrote about making music, and I’m glad that came out well. Writing about the songs themselves still puzzles me. Thanks for your touching comment.

      • Yes! Thanks for the reminder about that documentary. I am definitely planning to check that out. Keep up the beautiful writing!

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