Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Damper Use ... Continued

As more and more players act on their "damper lust" - purchasing new instruments with dampers or retrofitting old instruments - there are more and more questions about how to use them. I certainly am not the expert. No dampers at my house (yet)! I must rely on the experience of others. As I hear tips and advice from players in the wider dulcimer world I will pass them on here.

In a blogpost dated 11/13/13, I shared a couple of tips that MaryLynn learned from Maggie Sansone in a workshop last fall. Continuing this line of thought, I'd like to pass on this Q & A that appeared on the HD listserv on 3/7/14. (Want to know more about the HD listserv? See below.) Thanks to Kathy and Ken Kolodner who have graciously given me permission to reprint an edited version of their original discussion. I invite you to share any wisdom that YOU may have on this topic by leaving a comment below!

Kathy's question:

After playing many many years without dampers, I just got them added to my dulcimer. I'm looking forward to incorporating their use in some fun ways, but finding it is not quite as intuitive as expected.

First the physical mechanics. I always stand when playing...with weight over both feet and my right foot free to tap. I am finding that when I extend my right foot out to use the damper I am teetering standing on one foot, and that I need to move over to the left more than I would like and closer to the dulcimer in order to get my right foot out and forward on the pedal which is centered under the dulcimer. Normally when standing I move around as needed if I am playing on different areas of the dulcimer to keep the playing fluid. To press the pedal I seem to have to move to an awkward place close to my dulcimer...and I need my whole foot to press it down.  I can't leave my heel on the ground for balance or I don't have enough weight to push the pedal down. Just seems like an awkward angle to press the pedal.

I am realizing how much I rely on tapping my foot... even just a little… which obviously I can't do with a foot pushing down on a pedal. The music flow feels a little disrupted when I have to stop and start tapping my foot.  

Perhaps there are other ideas to think about that would help? Karen Ashbrook has talked about some different pedal designs that might make a difference and I will go there and try hers out soon I hope. Any thoughts on the particular pedals you all use?

Any thoughts and ideas of when and how you use your dampers musically? The obvious uses I think of are in playing a rhythmic vamp as backup, or playing once through a tune section with dampers for variety...(particularly a faster and low note tune?). Then also for a dramatic stop...or just to stop ringing notes that are muddy or key change or something. But I see some folks using them throughout their playing (Dan Landrum for one). Any thoughts in general on the how and when of their use?

Perhaps it is all just a matter of getting used to new positions and movements and playing with them over time, but still always interesting to hear thoughts from those that have experience!

Ken's response:

I started using dampers in the mid-1980's. I still have the instrument, one of Sam Rizzetta's first instruments with dampers (originally built for John McCutcheon as a compact). I'll address a couple of your issues.

Where to stand and damper placement: I pull the damper out a bit from under the instrument so I don't have to search for it with my foot. Also make sure that you don't put the damper up too high so that it might flip over. I pull it slightly to the left (I stand on my right and dampened with the left but it doesn't matter which foot you use). And I definitely still stand back from the instrument so that I am not hovering over the instrument – that way I can easily grab the lower notes. I rest my heel so I am not standing on one leg. The weight of your leg should do the job. You really hardly have to press down to engage the dampers.

Tapping: I am a foot tapper as well. I don't have to tap to play but I do like to move a bit. However, I still tap with the damper foot even when I am on the damper - maybe not too vigorously but a gentle tap still works fine without affecting the dampers. And I also do pulse the dampers slightly sometimes.

Pedal design: I am using the Dusty Strings model but have used a bunch of different ones. Once I showed up at a concert and had left the damper at home - I made a damper with a board. It worked fine. What are you using? If it is small, really light weight or flips easily that is not good.     

Uses: As you say, there are players that use it extensively (Dan). When playing in an ensemble, I use it way more than when I play solo because I play very differently with the damper. My main uses are for "stops," to accentuate something percussive that I am doing, and when doing vamps. Some examples:

Playing solo Columbito Tecumano, a South American tune: - the placement of the damper is all wrong here as I actually had to kick the damper closer to me because it was too far under the instrument (I learned not to do this after that performance!!) - note that my heal is off the ground - not good!  

By the way, I found a version of this tune on youtube  performing with Chris Norman, Robin Bullock and the Camerata Bariloche, one of the finest orchestras in South America. It is just the audio but it is pretty cool!! The orchestra comes in after about a minute.  

Playing Reuben's Train with my son, always on the dampers You can't see the damper placement here but I can tell that it is placed out from underneath the HD, based on where I am standing - and I am indeed tapping my left foot.

Poke around on youtube and you will see all sorts of ways to use the dampers!


Interested in the HD listserv? Here's the contact info:

To subscribe or unsubscribe via the World Wide Web, visit
or, via email, send a message with subject or body 'help' to

You can reach the person managing the list at

Send Hdlist mailing list submissions to

Hdlist mailing list

1 comment:

  1. Here's a postscript that I received from Kathy:

    "I plan to order the Dusty Strings pedal that sits closer to the floor (and pivots on the floor) so that I don't really have to lift my whole leg and foot to get it on the pedal. I think that will help considerably. The current pedal sits up off the ground more than an inch and half at the heel and pivots on a rounded block under the middle of the pedal...this would be fine for anyone sitting, but hard for me standing and balancing on one foot.

    Also I made a knot to adjust the strings hanging down that you clip the pedal on, as it was hanging way to the left originally...(again great if you are using your left foot, but I need to use my right). This is not perfect yet, but better, allowing me to have the pedal in the center but closer to my right foot."

    Keep us posted, Kathy!