Kathy Gunderson had a question for her fellow dulcimer players: "Got your seat belts on?"
With a few adjustments to their "seat belts" — their term for the instrument straps — they launched into a set of tunes that included "Oh, Susannah" and "Shortnin' Bread."
They call themselves the Ramblin' River Dum Diddies, and they gather weekly at the Farmington Rambling River Center to play.
Only three players were there on a recent Monday. Many of the members are snowbirds, wintering in places like Texas and Arizona, where they gather with friends to play dulcimers. The Farmington group only started last May, but during warmer months it often has as many as nine players at a practice.
The group started when Mary Goetsch, who spends winters in Texas, returned to Farmington wanting someone to play with. Goetsch had joined up with a dulcimer group that played in the clubhouse in her Texas retirement community, where jam sessions draw as many as 25 players.
A year after she started, she gave a banjammer — basically a dulcimer with a banjo head — to Gunderson, of Farmington.
"She handed me her banjammer and said, 'You're going to learn how to play this so I have someone to play with while I'm home,' " said Gunderson.
They practiced all summer, and the next year they "drummed up a few friends," said Goetsch.
Ruth Olson, of Farmington, started in October. She said her husband used to play on his own at home, and when he passed away 14 years ago, she put the instrument in the closet. After seeing an article in the Rambling River Center's newsletter about the group, she decided to get it out and learn to play.
One player, whom Goetsch met in Texas, lives in New Prague and now drives to Farmington to play. Another member brings a hammered dulcimer that he made himself.
"It's a huge piece of furniture he brings with him," said Gunderson.
Emily Svendsen, of Burnsville, has a collection of folk instruments, including a pennywhistle and a bowed psaltery. She built a dulcimer from a kit 35 years ago. She played it for awhile, but gave it up when she couldn't find a local group to play with. She joined the Farmington group last fall.
"You can play by yourself," she said, "but it's not as fun."
No experience required
According to Karen Mueller, a Minneapolis dulcimer performer who teaches classes all over the country, the Appalachian mountain dulcimer is a relative of the scheitholt that arrived with German immigrants in the 19th century. She said interest in the instrument renewed in the late 20th century.
People "pick it up later in life and find it's very accessible," she said.
Gunderson said previous musical experience isn't required.
"It helps, but it isn't absolutely necessary," she said. "Some of these people have never played another instrument in their life, so it's not that critical. Practice, the practice is important."
In the Farmington group, players will play a melody line together or sometimes strum a "drone" while one plays a solo. New players put stickers on the frets that correspond with fret numbers on the sheet music.
"By the time you are done with a two-hour session, you can play something," said Gunderson.
Alleen Wicktor, of Farmington, joined the group in September.
"The hardest part for me is learning the chords," she said.
Gunderson said it's fine that the players learn as they go. The point, she said, is to "just have fun."
"We don't care if we're not perfect," she said. "If we did, we'd be [at] Carnegie Hall."
Goetsch said people also like playing because the songs are familiar. Last summer, she routed her trip to Texas through Oklahoma so she could attend a dulcimer festival.
"I've never met a dulcimer player I didn't like," she said.
The Farmington group has played concerts at the Rambling River Center and at nearby senior centers, and they hope to play a farmers market this summer.
They also hope to keep growing in numbers.
"We've got room for more dulcimer players," said Gunderson. "We'd have to move tables back, but we could get more people in here." If enough people join, they might create a beginner group "so they won't be thrown in headfirst," said Goetsch.
Goetsch said that happened when she first played in McAllen, Texas. "They're pretty experienced," she said. "I just kind of sat with my mouth open because they were playing so fast."
She almost didn't return, she said, but "pretty soon, you're in there barreling along with the rest of them."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelancer writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.