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Inside the Bowed Psaltery Maker’s Workshop

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Rick Long tells me his mother was a musician and his father was a woodworker.  Although he spent years in road and utility construction, when he and his wife decided he should work from home, Long already had the skills to start his second career.  He’s been using master woodworking skills to construct bowed psalteries and teach others how to play the unique instruments for more than thirty years.

When Long gave me a tour of his brightly lit workshop in Clinton, Tennessee, he was prepared with both music and history lessons. He dispelled my idea that he’s making psalteries once played in biblical times.  This instrument, played with a bow, dates back only about a hundred years to the mountains of Europe and was introduced in the United States in the 1960s.  For those not already accustomed to reading music, Long offers a play-by-number set of books and easy system for beginning musicians. He sells a diatonic version of the bowed psaltery in the key of D, which makes it a popular companion instrument to the Appalachian hammer dulcimer.

Long makes psalteries small and large, soprano to baritone, for playing in one key like D or chromatic for  multiple keys. His largest can be played with two bows while fastened via customized fitting to a tripod.  While the sound is described as ancient, psaltery makers are constantly innovating to fit the needs of today’s professional and aspiring musicians.

“When one person works on the whole thing, of course you’re going to take particular attention to the quality and be more careful,” Long explains why he prides himself on each instrument.  He signs and numbers each bowed psaltery, playing the first scale and a short tune on each one while recording the clip for his website.

Character shows up in the unique North American wood remnants Long chooses for each instrument-building project. He’s fond of weathered woods that reflect a sense of history, like wormy chestnut repurposed from barns and fences that must date back before the 1940s because of the particular blight that wiped out the chestnut trees.  Long recently blogged about the custom psaltery he crafted from a 2,000-year-old piece of black bog oak that a customer had salvaged from the river in Mississippi.  He says the light, lacquered finish dries without soaking into the wood, allowing the wood to vibrate as it should.  After he’s used precise machines to hollow out the bodies, he judiciously uses glue to assemble the fronts.  The type of string needed various depending on the instrument size.

Long enjoys teaching psaltery music almost as much as he enjoys making the instruments.  When he hosts demonstrations at various places for the Southern Highland Craft Guild, he inevitably spends a lot of time showing onlookers how to play.  Long says he’s glad to educate about this somewhat mysterious instrument, “that makes someone feel good to be a part of that.”

My preschooler was mesmerized when Long started bowing a tune, that we’ll share with you here.  Find many more examples of psaltery music at Ringing Strings Bowed Psalteries.

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