(Reprint) Mark Wade in the Dulcimer Player News

 

The following article first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of the Dulcimer Player News.
(Note: DPN Vol. 30, No. 4.)

 
"I can't remember," says Mark Alan Wade, "a time when there was no music in my home. Gospel, bluegrass, classical and Appalachian folk music surrounded me from an early age.

"My mom and dad sang in a gospel octet when I was very young, and I remember the sound of their music in our house. But for me, the most magical times were at family reunions when our extended families got together. We lived in Ohio, but many of my relatives came from the hollers and hills of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. They would bring mandolins, guitars and harmonicas, and I soaked up these sounds of true American folk music—especially the sounds of string music.

"In fact, I was in Kentucky when I heard my first hammered dulcimer," says Mark. "I was thirteen, but I still remember hearing "Brian Boru's March." The sound instantly transported me to another time. It was love at first stroke. From that day on, I saved my allowance until I finally was able to afford to buy one (with a little help) at Wildwood Music, in Coshocton, Ohio."

It's been fourteen years since Mark ran into his first hammered dulcimer—the instrument that would change his life. Mark's early successes as a young hammered dulcimer player in regional dulcimer contests gave him the impetus to pursue a music major at college. Mark was simultaneously developing as a young trumpet player, so he entered Ohio Wesleyan University and focused on trumpet and piano, studying the European masters and American jazz traditionalists.

"There are no conservatory courses for the hammered dulcimer," Mark will tell you. "And that's one reason why I am now so passionate about writing music for the hammered dulcimer that is authentic in its interpretation of great classical compositions. The real musical challenge is to create hammered dulcimer arrangements that are true to the original masterpiece.

"I rarely look for classical songs to do on the hammered dulcimer; they usually find me. Occasionally I hear a piece that strikes me and haunts me until I hammer it out. Sometimes it can't be done without compromising the piece and that's a disappointment. But when it works, it's very satisfying (and fun). It works best on pieces where the melody can be transposed to a key close to the original. The range is important too. My dulcimers are all 4+ octaves and make most pieces possible, but I don't want to lose the essence of a piece by forcing it into the dulcimer's range.

"In general, classical guitar music fits nicely in a hammered dulcimer's range. An example is Vivaldi's 'Concerto in D' written for lute. Recently I have found success with a piece by Robert Schumann called 'Traumerie' (Dreaming). It was written in F and spans four octaves. It works nicely up one step in G.

"The process is a labor of love, but it takes time to reduce all the chords to either two notes for two hammers or rolled chords. As I listen repeatedly to the original recordings, I find myself in a five-way tug-of-war between the dulcimer layout, my left-handed lead, the integrity of the original composition, aesthetics and fundamental music theory.

"Daquin's 'Le Coucou' is a good example of this. My arrangement was written for solo hammered dulcimer with orchestral or piano accompaniment. But I also tried to make it work for solo hammered dulcimer. In fact, I played it without accompaniment in my competition for national champion at Winfield." (The arrangement is available on Mark's web site at markalanwade.com.)

Mark is currently recording classical works for his fifth CD, but this classical streak is just one of the many musical styles that emerge when Mark puts hammer to string. Mark's music is what you get when you combine conservatory musical training with popular musical cultures—all of them—expressed on the hammered dulcimer. You are just as likely to hear "Mr. Sandman" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" as you are to hear Chopin nocturnes when Mark performs.

"Mixing musical styles is not my deliberate goal; it just happens," says Mark. "I want my music to evoke feelings, even if it's a simple toe-tap. Mixing musical styles adds new colors to the emotional paint on my artist's pallet. I plan my concerts so that each song contrasts, yet complements, the next song. I never stray away from traditional music for too long in a concert, but excursions into jazz, pop or classical music ignite feelings of a different sort, and that's what I like."

Mark's technique is clean and fast, as you would expect from a former National Champion (1998), but it's the combination of talent, technique, personal energy and edgy creativity that give Mark a special Wow factor. After releasing two very traditional recordings, Foggy Mountain Favorites and Just As I Am, Mark pushed the envelope of traditional music with his innovative CD, WAY Over the Waterfall. On this recording, Mark led an ensemble of musicians dedicated to breaking the bonds of traditional music—for the pure fun of it! "Danny Boy" became "Danny Boyz," "Blackberry Blossom" became "Billy Bob's Blackberry Blossom Boogie," and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" became "Flight of the Bumble Bee-Bop."

Perhaps it says something about our society that it is more difficult to turn a university music degree into a career in music than a comparable degree in almost any other field! But a career in music is a worthy goal, and for Mark, it's almost a calling. After graduation from college in 1999, Mark taught music in public schools in Ohio, Texas and South Carolina. Teaching comes naturally to Mark, and the students enjoy his off-the-wall humor. But with these jobs the performance aspect of his musical life began to recede.
 

 
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