Karen Alley

Karen AlleyKaren Alley, the 2014 National Hammered Dulcimer champion,  is a hammered dulcimer teacher and performer currently based in Wooster, Ohio. Her repertoire ranges from Celtic to classical to hymns to show tunes, and her style combines percussive techniques with the rich harmonies and broad dynamics that make the dulcimer one of the most expressive instruments used in the folk community.

Karen was playing fiddle at a folk festival in Pennsylvania in 2004, when she realized she could make much nicer sounds on the dulcimer than she could on the fiddle. To her family’s relief, she put down the fiddle and began dragging dulcimers with her to festivals and concerts all over the country. Her main passion is teaching, but there’s little that compares to the exhilaration of playing with and learning from other musicians backstage and in concert. She has released two albums showcasing a variety of styles, as well as three books: “Beyond Melodies, Using Chords to Add Harmony,” which demystifies music theory and playing harmonies with melody lines, “Christmas with your Dulcimer,” a book of arrangements of favorite Christmas carols for beginner and intermediate players, and “Difficult Ditties and Hammer-Hampering Harmonies,” a book of exercises to increase efficiency while practicing.

When she’s not playing the dulcimer, Karen is a glaciologist specializing in the ice shelves of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. She also teaches in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, where she lives with her husband and two wonderful cats, Maximus and Lily.



Using Chords to Add Harmony Part 1  Novice
Moving from playing melodies to playing full arrangements can seem like a daunting hump to climb over, but we’ll get you over it in two steps in this two-part workshop. In Part 1 we’ll focus on the building blocks of arrangements: chords. We’ll start with the basics of what chords are, how to build them, and how you can find them on your instrument. Then we’ll move on to some exercises to help you learn your chords and get more familiar with where the notes are on your instrument. By the end of this workshop you’ll have some confidence finding all the basic chords we tend to play on the dulcimer, plus some more unusual ones, too.

Using Chords to Add Harmony Part 2  Novice
If you’ve taken the first workshop, or if you’re already pretty confident finding chords on your instrument, you’re ready for step 2: adding chords to melodies. In this workshop we’ll give you some strategies and patterns for playing harmony notes based on chords. We’ll also talk about how you decide which chords to put with a melody line if you don’t have chords written out for you or if you don’t like the chords you have. We’ll use “Amazing Grace” as an example tune, but by the end of the workshop you’ll be able to apply the strategies we’ve learned to your own tunes of choice.

Surviving a Jam Session  Beginner & up
Someday we’ll all be back together and jamming again, so we might as well be ready! If you’re new to the dulcimer world (and even if you’re not), there will be lots tunes played in any given jam session that you’re not familiar with. That doesn’t mean you’re required to sit there quietly and not play! There are many techniques you can use when you don’t know the melody to join in a jam session tune and add important, musical elements. We’ll focus on finding chords to play, figuring out chord changes, and using a few good rhythms so you can start jamming right away.

Honing your Hammer Technique.  Intermediate (or any level, really)
Somehow, as hammered dulcimer players, it can be easy to forget about our hammers. If you’ve been playing for a while, you might find that there are tunes or techniques that you just can’t quite master, and aren’t sure how to move forward. Often, the problem is hammer technique. We’ll step back to the basics to reevaluate how we hold our hammers and why. Then we’ll dive into exercises that you can take with you to keep improving your hammer technique after the workshop. Come with any questions that you have about hammer technique and/or ornaments or passages that you’re struggling with, and we’ll see how many walls we can knock down.

Holiday Hand Separation: Angels We Have Heard on High  Advanced
One of the wonderful things about most Christmas carols is that they’re pretty simple – we can hum them, sing them with friends, and play them without too much trouble. But those simple melodies also give us the opportunity to add interest and complexity, to challenge both yourself and your listeners. Consider this workshop a hand-separation exercise hidden in a Christmas carol. In fact, we’ll also do some hand-separation exercises during the workshop to help you tackle some of the tougher passages in the arrangement. If we do it right, by the end of the workshop you’ll feel both strongly challenged and ready for the Christmas season.

Multi-Part Madness  Intermediate/Advanced
If you’re like me, one of the hardest parts of 2020 has been missing playing with other people. While we can’t quite recreate the whole experience, I think we can get close in this workshop. We’ll work on a couple pieces arranged for three parts. We’ll talk about techniques for ensemble playing and break down the more challenging rhythms while practicing each part. Then we’ll spend some time enjoying playing together while apart. I’ll play one part, you’ll hear a second recorded part at the same time, and everyone will play the third part with all mics on mute. You might be surprised how great it feels to play together in this way, and you’ll come away with a couple new arrangements to play with friends when we’re all back together again!