Dodson’s ‘Field Guide’ finds its way

By Dagney C. Ernest | Apr 04, 2018
Photo by: Matt Szostak Anne Dodson demonstrates the correct way to hold a mountain dulcimer.

Camden — The mountain dulcimer is a true American, originating in the Appalachian Mountains some 200 years ago. For the past 20 years, Anne Dodson of Camden has been working on a way to share her love and knowledge of the instrument. That dream has been realized in the publication of “Field Guide to the Mountain Dulcimer, Book 1” by Mel Bay Publications.

“Mel Bay is the publisher that I always wanted to go with. But every time I'd go online, they would say ‘We aren't taking unsolicited submissions,’” Dodson said, a freshly printed book in her hand. “I was very shocked when I got an email that said yes!”

Fellow folk musician Grey Larsen, who has a series of Irish flute, tin whistle and instrumental books with the publisher, smoothed the way. Mel Bay will be publishing two Dodson “Field Guides”; the second is in the works now.

“Originally Bill Bay, who's head of Mel Bay now, said that after this one came back, it would be three or four months. But the people we're dealing with now say, well, as soon as we can get it going,” said Dodson.

According to the publisher’s website, melbay.com, Book 1 is a “beautifully structured and organized guide,” taking the beginning student step-by-step through a well-planned sequence of lessons. It covers such basics as buying and caring for an instrument; right- and left-hand techniques; and chords and accompaniment. The book is also available online via Amazon.

The mountain dulcimer is a fretted and plucked acoustic instrument. There also is a hammered dulcimer, a percussive instrument that is perhaps more familiar, thanks to recent popularity in contemporary folk recordings. It’s quite a different animal.

“It's interesting to me, because there are festivals that are dulcimer festivals that have both, and I'm like, OK, they're not really related,” Dodson said.

The mountain dulcimer is also called a lap harp and early in Book 1, pictures of a smiling Dodson demonstrate the right, and wrong, way to hold one. The photos were taken by her husband, Matt Szostak, who played a big part in getting Dodson’s decades-long project into publishable shape.

“I did the recording and a lot of the editing as I went along, and the text and the notations were in three different programs. I just didn't have the computer skills to put it together,” Dodson said.

When the specs from the publisher arrived, that set of skills became paramount. Szostak was able to “sort that stuff out,” Dodson said, despite not having seen much of the book in progress over the years. That status changed.

“He got to know it better than I did in some ways! When he was putting it together, it was amazing,” Dodson said.

Also on board was Kat Logan, a fellow musician and artist based in Friendship. Logan took photos and created simple pen-and-ink drawings to serve as road maps through the book — a picture of a walnut tied with a bowed ribbon for “in a nutshell” synopses, for example, or a less-obviously-meaningful steaming teacup. Dodson explains in her intro that these indicate tunes or exercises worth taking some time with. The graphic is inspired by a self-conscious student who relaxed in her lesson playing when Dodson stepped away to make a cup of tea.

Also a part of the local “village” it took to produce the book is Dodson’s friend Asha Stager, who wrote or co-wrote a number of the tunes and was one of many proofreaders for the project. As Dodson discovered, there can never be too many.

“It's amazing how many times people have proofed this book over the years, and there are two official proofers other than us, and still little things get by,” she said, displaying a rainbow of Post-Its bordering the loose-leaf pages of Book 2.

“‘Accompaniment’ had three ‘c’s there,” she said, pointing to a tune title. “I looked at it like five times and said, really?”

Some of the tunes travel through the “Field Guide” that many times. They start off very simply, then add chords and skills as acquired. In the intro, Dodson writes that most of the tunes are named for actual events, making the book something of a non-chronological autobiography.

Book 1 is a Level 1 instructional book — Mel Bay was a pioneer of music method publications — and Book 2 will comprise Levels 2 and 3. Dodson said the publisher would have preferred three books, but was more than accommodating.

“The things that you learn in Level 2, you use in Level 3. Because Level 2 gets into theory, patterns, how chords relate to each other. And then Level 3 takes off from that,” she said. “Basically, you take the keys: you know about scales now and you can do your own arranging. Like jumping off a cliff!”

She and her late mother were driving (nowhere near a cliff) some years ago when the still-a-dream book’s title came to her.

“I said, 'Would you write something down? A Field Guide to the Mountain Dulcimer!' And she did,” Dodson recalled.

A Google search revealed nothing with that title, something she kept checking over the years.

“Nobody seemed to come up with it, and Mel Bay seemed to be fine with it. I like the title,” she said.

She also likes the cover, although it took a little while. “It wasn't what I would do,” she said, but people have embraced the stylized woodcut look and Dodson said she has, too. And she really was pleased with the back cover, which, on Mel Bay books, often contains advertising.

“We were very lucky, because we've got a blurb about what it is … and to get a quote from me at the end! I wasn't sure if I could get away with that, but they didn't make any comment about it at all,” she said.

The quote reveals that Dodson wished she had had a book like “Field Guide” when she was learning to play the dulcimer. No surprise, then, that she has been teaching from her book for years in a way, not giving students instructional text, but sending them home with tunes to work on. She has no students at the moment, but would like to. Parkinson’s symptoms mean “I'm not a very good player down there now,” but her years of playing and teaching have given her plenty to share.

“So it's a really exciting thing to have something that is going to go beyond me and hopefully will be helpful to people,” she said.

In addition to online booksellers, “Field Guide to the Mountain Dulcimer, Book 1,” which includes access to downloadable audio files, is due to be offered at K2 Music in Camden and Woodsound Studio in Rockport. For more information about Dodson and her music, visit annedodson.com.

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