Hoosier Christian Village residents learn to play dulcimers


With the instrument strapped around them and sitting on their lap, the women followed the instructor’s commands.

They could look at the instrument, place their finger on numbers as they were recited and sweep the pick across the strings or look at the numbers on a large television screen.

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Either way, beautiful music resounded in the gathering room at Hoosier Christian Village in Brownstown.

Sometimes, staff or family members joined the group of residents and their instructor, Julie Rohlfing, in playing dulcimers. It also piqued the interest of other residents.

“What we’re finding now is we start and other people are kind of like, ‘Oh, what are you doing? I think I might like to do that,’” said Rohlfing, the facility’s activity director.

After seeing an article about Kara Barnard’s Silver Strings program in Nashville that’s designed for senior citizens, Rohlfing reached out to her about a month ago, and Barnard agreed to pay a visit.

She was able to secure 10 dulcimers for Hoosier Christian Village to keep.

Once Rohlfing learned how to play the instrument, she was ready to share her newfound talent with the residents.

“I was trained to teach, so now, we’re carrying on, and then (Barnard) periodically checks in with us,” Rohlfing said. “We were blessed to be allowed to use the program here. It’s a fabulous program. We’re privileged to get to do it, and we’re having a good time.”

For the first six weeks, Rohlfing is working with a handful of residents for an hour on Wednesdays. After they do some warmup exercises and finger movements, they go right into playing songs.

The first one they learned was “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” The second week, it was “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

During each meeting, they play songs they have learned and then add a new one.

“We learn by repetition,” Rohlfing said. “We break it down into little pieces.”

The session ends with more exercises and movements. By that time, the residents are smiling and feeling good from the upbeat music.

Resident Pam Ault said she’s glad Rohlfing convinced her to try playing a dulcimer. She said she had always wanted to learn how to play a guitar but never got the chance.

“It’s just knowing numbers,” she said after a recent dulcimer lesson. “What’s nice, you can play by the numbers, so you don’t have to memorize anything.”

Plus, she said it is a lot of fun.

“I love it,” Ault said. “It’s awesome. It’s so easy. We’ve got a good teacher. Everybody’s together, one big family.”

Resident Dolly Ault said she has played other instruments in the past, but one of them wasn’t a dulcimer.

“Years ago, I played the ukulele, and I could play a chord on a guitar,” she said. “Then I played violin two or three days in the orchestra, and I couldn’t keep up, and I just folded it all up.”

Recently trying a dulcimer for the first time, Dolly realized it will take some time to learn.

“I like it, but I don’t think I’ll ever learn it,” she said, smiling. “I can’t keep up with it.”

Fellow resident Randa Skaggs said she has had a good time learning a new instrument.

“I like strumming it,” she said.

Rohlfing said there are several benefits of playing dulcimers.

“We work on a lot of finger movement and eye-hand coordination, so it really has a lot of therapeutic benefits,” she said. “We do a lot with music because it’s something that no matter what point in life you’re in, music has a wonderful therapeutic effect.”

The dulcimers also allow the residents to participate in a hands-on activity.

“The great thing for me is it is something that 90% of them can do completely and totally independently,” Rohlfing said. “I think a lot of times, once you’re at that point in life when you’re in a skilled nursing facility, complete independence is something that’s few and far between. This is something where they can have complete independence.”

Seeing the residents try something and succeed is satisfying for Rohlfing.

“To see them flourish with that ability to be independent and (develop) a love of music, I’m just blessed we got to do this program and that they are enjoying it as much as we are,” she said.

Once the first group is done, other residents will have an opportunity to learn. Rohlfing will keep half of the group so they can help teach the newcomers. She also takes the dulcimers to roombound residents who are musically inclined so they can learn.

Rohlfing said she has a computer program with about 60 songs.

“We really have enough material for about a year,” she said. “(Barnard) is working on additional (songs) all of the time, and we have some hymns.”

The goal is to debut the Hoosier Christian Village dulcimer band at a volunteer event in October.

“We have a really good time,” Rohlfing said. “We have a great activity program and we have a lot of fun, but this is a lot of fun.”