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Jonathan Dowell’s head bobs as he begins to play the Mountain Dulcimer. His fingers pluck and slide along the dulcimer that is a rich colored wood and decorated with pearlescent designs. From these hand movements a sweet sound dances out from the instruments’ three strings.
Dowell has been playing the Mountain Dulcimer for 15 years and has played many dulcimers but this particular one is different.
It was awarded to him for earning second place in the National Mountain Dulcimer Championship, which was held Sept. 18 during the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan.
Dowell said he competed against 18 players.
For the preliminary portion of the competition, he selected his own pieces, which included “Star of the County Down,” an Irish fiddle tune, and “Devil in the Straw Sack,” an American fiddle tune.
During the preliminary round, the top five were chosen to proceed to the final round. For this round, Dowell performed “Wild Mountain Thyme,” a love song, and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” a fiddle tune.
He explained he choose these pieces as the recommendation of his coaches: Judy Klinkhammer, Jeff Hames, Scott O’Dena and Jack and Mary Geiger.
“I was counseled by my coaches to pick pieces that exhibited a range of sounds and emotions,” Dowell said.
It was a smart move. It is the third time Dowell has competed in the national competition but it is the first time that he has placed.
“I’m delighted,” he said. “It’s interesting. It’s a validation. I feel like I play better now than before I placed.”
It partly because winning was a confidence boost.
It’s an assurance, he said, to be chosen by the judges, who are former national champions.
This is just one of many achievements Dowell has won. In 2007, he won the Southern Regional Championship in Arkansas, in 2008, he and his wife, Tessa, won the ensemble competition at the Southern Regional Championship.
Last year, he won the Colorado State Championship and the Texas State Championship.
One of the most meaningful wins, however, was placing in the ensemble competition at this year’s Southern Regional Championship.
The significance, he explained, was that he won it along with his wife, mother, father and cousin.
His mother started played the dulcimer first in the family and his father also played, although stage fright kept him away from performing publicly.
“So for all of us to play and win last year was a real blessing,” Dowell said.
Dowell’s talent not only brings him trophies and awards, it provides him an avenue to teach others.
He currently has four students in town. Additionally, Dowell teaches the dulcimer at Barranca Elementary School teacher Julia Fair’s music class.
In fact, the school recently purchased 18 dulcimer instruments.
Legend has it, Dowell said, if you can count to 10, then you can play the dulcimer.
“It’s important for us to preserve these American Folk Arts,” he explained, “by performing them because so much of our history will disappear so fast if we stop playing them.”
Being exposed to the music not only preserves history, it can bring an individual peace.
“Music can bring you peace,” Dowell said. “It’s a soothing sound. I can easily lose track of time playing. I think that’s a joy that every dulcimer (player experiences).”
Besides teaching, Dowell has shared his music at the Los Alamos Dulcimer Jamboree last year at the United Church. The jamboree is being planned again for January.
Recently, he was invited to perform during the Weems Art Festival Nov. 13 at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque.
He is also recording his third album.
The Mountain Dulcimer and Dowell share a strong bond. “The Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer is a very bluesy instrument that just resonates with me,” he said. “And a lot of Appalachian songs have that blues element.”
It also speaks to Dowell on a personal level.
“It makes me happy,” he said. “It gives me a real connection to my family history. This is the music of my Ozark, Appalachian and Celtic ancestors.”