My first memories of the bowed psaltery were formed during family vacations to our cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Many locals played and displayed these beautiful instruments (as well as the usual compliment of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, mountain dulcimers, zithers, and hammered dulcimers) and they were prominently featured in the collection at the Foxfire museum. Around 1994 after beginning my career as a full time music instructor, I acquired a delightful handmade psaltery from a local music shop in Clayton Georgia, and began learning to play it in earnest. Now some twenty years later I’m still fascinated by its simple chime-like tone, and ease of play, and I have several students who seem to have relished picking up the instrument as much as I did early on.
The psaltery of Ancient Greece (epigonion) was a harp-like instrument, played with a plucking motion of the fingers rather than with plectrum like a guitar, and In the King James Version of the Bible, “psaltery,” is used for several stringed instruments which are now unknown. The Hebrew keliy and nevel in the Old Testament and the Aramaic pesanterin in the New were translated as “psaltery”, and in medieval Europe the word could mean any of a variety of zither-like plucked instruments. The bowed psaltery that is now commonly available is probably a twentieth century invention, with the first patent being issued by the German Clemens Neuber Company in 1925 for a “violin zither” which in addition to the diatonic bowed strings also featured a set of plucked strings arranged in chords not unlike an autoharp for accompaniment. During the Hawaiian music craze of the 1920’s many American companies produced instruments very much like the bowed psaltery with names like the “Ukulin”, “Violin-Ukulele” or “Hawaiian Art Violin” specifically marketed to cash in on the trend, many of these began to resemble to triangular instrument we are familiar with today.
Nassau Bay Music Lessons is the only place for Psaltery lessons in Clear Lake Texas, so if you are interested in picking up this exotic looking and sounding musical time machine to the distant past just contact us for more information. There are several places online to purchase a bowed psaltery, from beautiful Pakistani made models, to inexpensive American beginner instruments, or even kits available for those of you with basic carpentry or luthier skills looking to indulge two hobbies simultaneously.