Respected hammered dulcimer performer Ken Kolodner will perform and teach at Fiddle Retreat Weekend
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — In a weekend dedicated to fiddles, Ken Kolodner and his hammered dulcimer at first glance might seem a little out of place.
But actually, Kolodner, who first started on the fiddle himself, finds that the two instruments complement each other quite well. That’s why Kolodner will be one of the instructors and performers at the Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat Friday, Jan. 4, through Sunday, Jan. 6.
The concert is at 8 p.m. Friday at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in downtown Shepherdstown. The retreat continues at various locations in Shepherdstown.
The weekend will also feature Joe DeZarn, Pascal Gemme, Sean Heely, Jaige Trudel, Adam Broome, as well as Rachel Eddy and Brad Kolodner, Ken’s son.
Fiddle first, dulcimer always
In relative terms, Kolodner was a late bloomer when it came to picking up his first instrument - the fiddle - when he was 23.
He was working on his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University studying to be an epidemiologist.
But it was the hammered dulcimer that led his heart away from medicine to music.
“I started playing the fiddle about two years before,” he said during a telephone interview from his Baltimore home. “When I saw the hammered dulcimer I was really attracted to the musicality of the instrument plus the sound. I thought it had a really interesting tonal quality that I had not heard before on any other instrument.”
Kolodner said he saw someone else play a hammered dulcimer and “thought I’d go for it.” But it took him a couple of years before he actually got a hammered dulcimer of his own and started to play.
The hammered dulcimer led Kolodner more places than he would ever realize — from performances at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; to being a featured performer on nationally broadcast radio specials including one for NPR; to critically acclaimed records and more. This year he’ll host the 15th annual Sandbridge Hammered Dulcimer Retreats through the year. And he and his son are launching a festival for old time music.
“It was totally unexpected,” he said of what the hammered dulcimer has given him.
He said when he picked up the fiddle first it was, “just going to be a fun thing to do,” not thinking it would be something that would change his life.
“My goal was someday to be able to play with other folks. I had no expectation that I would end up doing it for my livelihood,” he said.
He started first touring with a trio called Heliton around the United States, before performing with other musical partners. He started teaching and recording. He had finished his degree at Hopkins in the mid-1980s and continued to do some consulting work while being able to also work in music. Eventually, he was able to pursue music full time.
“Although I enjoyed the work, music eventually won out, and it’s more fun,” he said.
Since 2011, he’s been performing with his 28-year-old son, Brad, who performs on banjo as well as fiddle. They perform about 60 to 70 concerts a year together.
Kolodner said when he made the switch from fiddle to hammered dulcimer, there wasn’t really a lot of cross-over technique.
“However, I think having the experience of being a fiddle player first, it informed a lot of what I ended up doing on the hammered dulcimer,” he said. “My first thought was to try to capture the kind of the groove and rhythm that I would hear in traditional fiddle tunes, and try to get that sound on the hammered dulcimer.”
In his early days, Kolodner said he played a lot of traditional Irish music and American old-time music, which is the precursor to bluegrass.
“I eventually ended up getting into all kinds of traditional music,” he said, noting that traditional music is music that is passed on “historically through oral tradition.”
Which is what, Kolodner said, the Fiddle Retreat is about: “passing on the fiddle style by folks like me and other people at the festival.”
Kolodner said he has been involved with the Fiddle Retreat Weekend since the first one nearly 25 years ago. He said he taught and performed at the first one, and continues to return as often as his schedule allows.
This year, Kolodner said he will teach dulcimer as well as a class Sunday on old-time music on fiddle. He’ll also be leading a jam or two where he expects he’ll play mostly fiddle.
His son, Brad will also be at the weekend to teach classes on banjo as well as perform. And Rachel Eddy, who plays fiddle, often plays with him and Brad in a trio.
Whether it be at the Fiddle Retreat or his Sandbridge Hammered Dulcimer Retreats, Kolodner said his students usually want to expand their hammered dulcimer knowledge.
With his knowledge of the fiddle, Kolodner said he’s able to teach dulcimer players, particularly at the Fiddle Retreat, “how to play with fiddle players, to do that translation to feel that groove and that rhythm so that you play with fiddlers they’d maybe want to play with you. That’s been my goal, anyway.”
He’ll perform Friday, teach on Saturday and also take in the event.
Kolodner said what he likes the most about the Fiddle Retreat is that it’s a reunion.
“It’s spending a weekend with like-minded people who like the music and want to learn, and want to hang out to jam,” he said. “I especially love the evening jams and the jams that pop up during the day.”
One of his biggest projects is launching the inaugural Baltimore Old Time Music Festival on Friday, March 22, and Saturday, March 23, at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore.
The event grew out of the Baltimore Old Time Jams that Kolodner has been hosting for five years. Featured will be legend Bruce Molsky and his Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, the Corn Potato String Band, and The Local Honeys.
“We’re expecting about 300 to 400 people,” he said.
Top photo: From left, Rachel Eddy on fiddle, will perform with Brad Kolodner on banjo and his father, Ken Kolodner on hammered dulcimer. (Submitted photo)