by Steve Eulberg
WHAT IS IT?
This bit of dulcimer history always amazes people when I tell them about it.
When I built my first mountain dulcimer (from a FolkRoots kit in 1980), the instructions told me that once it was strung up I was to “whoo” into the soundhole to find out to which pitch I should tune the lowest string.
I was aware of this kind of “tuning” method with reference to native american flutes, which each have their own unique voice, but it was new to me, a guitar and mandolin player. I was used to tuning to an outside standard pitch. (To tell the truth, tuning to an outside standard IS useful for playing with other dulcimer players, or even other instruments!)
But I tried it. I made the “owl sound” directly into one of the large soundholes in the big bout and used my voice to move the pitch up and down the scale. Sure enough! At one of the pitches the dulcimer started to vibrate very excitedly. That was the pitch! I tuned the bass string to it. In my case, it was an E below middle C. And to this day, this instrument really sings best when it is tuned to E.
(This was when dulcimers were “free-range critters, before “D” became known as the standard pitch for dulcimers.) I have since tuned it to D and use it to teach many of the DAA lessons on the dulcimercrossing.com site, and it is a faithful workhorse, doing what it is asked. (But I’d bet it would rather be set free to run the fields singing “Don’t fence me in” in the key of E!)
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
How do you “whoo” into the hole? Hum or “whoo” into one of your soundholes, starting with a low pitch which is comfortable in your voice. Slowly begin raising the pitch (singing or humming a higher pitch) until you notice your instrument vibrating excitedly. Go a little higher and a little lower to center in on the pitch.
Keep humming that pitch and tune your bass string to match; OR, sing that same pitch into your electronic tuner and find out what it is.
THEN, tune your bass (thickest) string to that pitch, and adjust your other strings according to your favorite tuning (1-5-5, which is commonly played as D-A-A) or (1-5-8, which is commonly played as D-A-d).
Now trying playing your favorite songs and listen to how happy your dulcimer is!