Making mountain music in Hastings
All his life, Loren Flom wanted to play music, but he didn't know how to read the notes. He loves listening to music, but it seemed that performing it would be out of his reach.
"I can't play anything except the radio," he said.
Every June, Flom and his wife Doris take a trip to Branson, Mo. Three years ago he found a shop that builds and sells mountain dulcimers. The mountain dulcimer is a folk string instrument developed in the Ozarks by people who wanted a stringed instrument that sounded like a bagpipe. The shop staff he talked to in Branson assured Flom that the instrument was easy to learn, and he could learn to play even without knowing how to read music. About two years ago, Flom asked the owner to send him a dulcimer kit so he could make his own at home here in Hastings, but the man had Parkinson's disease, and the request was forgotten.
Last summer, Flom finally got his kit, and in July he built his first dulcimer, and with it discovered a new passion. He traced all the parts from the kit to make his own pattern, then made a jig to bend wood into the classic dulcimer hourglass or teardrop shapes. He had a maple tree in his back yard that was cut down for wood, and he soaked boards from his own tree in the bathtub for two hours so he could fit the wood into the jig. He carved his own designs into the front and even tweaked the designs to streamline construction.
Since July, Flom has made 11 mountain dulcimers, and none of them are quite the same.
"I change the design every time I make one," he said.
For a while he thought about making the instruments in large quantities to sell, but decided against it.
"I like to be able to make it for somebody," he said.
Whenever he makes one, he sits down with the person it's intended for and talks with them to get an idea of who they are and what they like. Then he comes up with a design that captures that person's interests and personality.
"That's the fun part," he said.
Flom made a dulcimer for his brother-in-law, a Marine and devout Catholic. The dulcimer had cutouts of a cross, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor emblem. Another one he made three-quarter-sized for his 8-year-old grandson.
Because he makes each instrument by hand, they're guaranteed to be unique.
"When you hand build anything, it won't come out the same twice," Flom said.
The instruments are made of all sorts of different woods - maple from the tree in Flom's back yard, cherry, walnut, hickory, mahogany and combinations of each. It takes him about a week or two to complete one, although he's made one in as little as three days and one particularly stubborn dulcimer took about three weeks.
A family trade
In Flom's family, woodworking is practically genetic. His great-grandfather was a woodworker in Norway, and while attending school in what is now Oslo, Norway, he was considered one of the best. When it came to providing skis for an expedition to the South Pole, Flom's great-grandfather was called to craft them - or at least that's the story that's been passed down in the family. Flom and his wife still have a wooden fattigman cutter from his great-grandfather. Flom has copied the cutter three times to give to others in the family.
Flom's grandfather was a carpenter as well, and Flom uses some of his grandfather's tools. Flom's father was nicknamed "Mr. Wizard" because he could make "anything out of everything," Flom said. He has uncles and nephews who craft wood, and at least one of Flom's sons has taken up the skill as well.
"It runs in the family," Doris Flom said.
Flom's own woodworking skills can be found all over his home. There are cabinets, tables, benches and stools, bowls, children's toys, desks, bookshelves and clothing racks. He's built a cedar strip canoe, a wooden kayak and more.
"I make just about anything that comes to my mind," he said.
But the dulcimers are by far his favorite.
"I've never had so much fun designing, building and playing," he said.
Playing the music
Flom still doesn't know how to read music, but he can play the dulcimers. Much mountain dulcimer music comes with numberings as well as notes, much like guitar tabs. Each fret on the dulcimer is numbered, and the music tells which fret will produce each note. When he started playing, Flom used stickers to show which fret went with each number, but he doesn't need those now, and now he can finally say he can play music.
"It sure is fun, for the first time in my life, to play music instead of just listening to it," he said.
Besides being simply fun, Flom has noticed that playing music has a major relaxing effect on him. After a good long session of playing, he's taken his blood pressure and found it low enough that he was afraid to take his blood pressure medication.
He's making sure no dulcimer he makes will go unplayed, too. He never sells an instrument without making sure the new owner knows how to play it.
Instruction doesn't take long. It's a simple matter of sitting down for about five minutes while Flom explains how to read the music notation and has you play a few simple songs. The only time he'll give a dulcimer away is when he knows the recipient will play it.
"It's no fun if you don't play it," he said.
Flom can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Editor's note: Flom is a part-time employee of the Star Gazette.