After leaving corporate world, couple play a different tune

Published 6:56 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2006

At night, when an eerie melody reminiscent of a marriage between a violin and a banshee washed over campgrounds, listeners were lured toward Tish Westman.

By the light of the campfire, as she drew a bow across the strings of a triangular wooden box, people would often ask what it was.

The instrument was small enough to fit on her lap, and though it was played with a bow, the high-pitched sound it made was sometimes tinny, cruder than any violin.

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It’s a bowed psaltery, Westman would respond, sometimes handing out cards for a friend who made and sold them.

“So many people were interested that my friend called us one day and said, ’You guys have to start making them yourself. I can’t keep up,”’ Westman said.

Tish and her husband, Greg, decided to do exactly that.

The two had long since left their corporate day jobs in Colorado, Greg in architecture and Tish in printing. After traveling the eastern United States for 12 years, camping out and selling folk art-inspired beds and furniture, the Westmans decided to start making and selling bowed psalteries. They’ve been at it for seven years.

Unlike the years of crafting apprenticeship required to master other instruments, the bowed psaltery is fairly simple to make.

“This is like a Mack truck compared to a violin,” Jim said at the Westmans’ woodshop at Tamarack, a state arts center along the West Virginia Turnpike in Beckley where the two are resident artists.

“There are no arches to deal with like on a fiddle or a violin. No bass bar or a sound post. Just three pieces wood.”

For those who spent part of their childhood noodling on makeshift guitars by stringing rubber bands around empty Kleenex boxes, the construct of the bowed psaltery is somewhat familiar: take something hollow and affix strings.

Using cherry, maple, black walnut or mahogany, three planks are cut into a triangle shape and stacked. After the middle plank is hollowed out completely, the top and bottom planks are scooped out like a hoagie roll that’s ready to be stuffed. A hole is cut in the soundboard before the three pieces are glued together and put into a vise. Pegs are hammered along the edges of the box and strings are wound across the instrument. In all, they take about two weeks to build and prices start at $225.

The Westmans build more complicated instruments, like the lap dulcimer, but the bowed psaltery is an instrument that they say anyone can master, which makes it popular.

Tish said she learned to play after the pain of arthritis forced her to give up playing mandolin and guitar. The bowed psaltery “gave music back” to her.

“Maybe 50 percent of our business is for people with a handicap, like arthritis or a stroke,” Westman said. “And we make a smaller psaltery for children to use.”

“There just isn’t a lot that is known about this particular instrument, it’s not very old,” said Ken Moore, a musical instrument curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Invented by German Edgar Stahmer in the 1930s, its history is short though it comes from a family of instruments that date back to biblical times.

“The psaltery is a biblical instrument, it is triangular and it does have a soundboard, but in those days they would pluck it,” Moore said. “If you look at a lot of medieval paintings you’ll see them plucking them, not bowing them. The bowing must have started in the ’30s.”

Moore believes the usage of the bowed psaltery was promulgated in the United States by Celtic musicians. Morgantown archaeologist Robert Pyle has said Celtic settlers were in Fayette, Boone, Wyoming, Cabell and Marshall counties as early as the sixth century.

At least one other culture has a similar instrument.

“In Korea there is the ajaeng, (pronounced ah-JHOO-ang) which is a bowed zither,” Moore said. A zither is a box, which can be different shapes, that has strings covering its length. “The ajaeng can have its own melody but it’s usually used in a court music ensemble, bowed with a forsythia wood stick that has a soft wood that they’ll treat with resin.”

For the Westmans, who spend about 20 hours every week demonstrating the instrument for visitors to Tamarack, the instrument has more of a down-home feel.

“It’s definitely a folk instrument,” Tish said. “A lot of people have said it’s a more pure note. The note is not distorted by any sort of effect or echo. That gives it that really ethereal sound.”