Hello, my name is Grant Olson! I play the mountain dulcimer as my main instrument, along with the mandolin, and a smattering of other instruments. My first instrument was the piano, though not by choice:) My mom told me I needed to take 1 year of piano, then I could choose what ever I wanted. I didn't enjoy it then, but I am grateful now.
Discovering the Dulcimer
In February of 2013, we went to a workshop run by Karen Mueller. For 20 dollars we built a one-string cardboard dulcimer with staple frets. (Which I still have, and was my model for learning to build myself). In addition Karen showed us some of the other cool things the dulcimer can do. I left inspired, and played that one string almost non-stop, for a few weeks. The thing is, I literally had only 11 notes to work with! Then my mom remembered our relatives in Kentucky who teach dulcimer and lend out dulcimers that they built from kits. They lent us a dulcimer, along with some books, and I loved it. I began learning about chords and learned some more songs. I must have played hours a day all summer long.
More than a Phase
At some point in the summer my mom thought, 'wow, he hasn't stopped yet!' She asked me if I wanted to take lessons, and I said sure. While it turns our there aren't many dulcimer teachers around, she found out Laurel Benedict lived close by us. I started taking lessons from her and she inspired me even further by how much she enjoys the dulcimer. She was able to show me many things and I learned a lot. She also lent me a nicer dulcimer which had a 6+ fret.
In the midst of all this, my main other source of learning was books. I checked out every book our library had on dulcimers all summer. One day I walked into my lesson with Laurel happily carrying "Fingerpicking Dulcimer" by Janita Baker. She was excited for me, but as dulcimer is not her main instrument she soon referred me to Karen Mueller.
I've been taking lessons with Karen for over 6 years now. I'm really thankful for the opportunity; I have learned much about the dulcimer, the dulcimer world, and the music world at large. I have really benefited from her instruction.
In addition, two of the people who have really influence me through their books is Janita Baker and Lois Hornbostel. I use their books more than anything.
Throughout this time I learned to enjoy the dulcimer more, and got some practice playing at recitals and things. I also visited a couple dulcimer festivals. I really enjoyed this stage of my musical experience. Then it got even better.
When I played open mic at Buckeye Dulcimer Festival a few years ago, people there said they loved my playing and that I should compete at the National Mountain Dulcimer competition in Winfield, Kansas. At the time I was maybe 12 or 13 so I didn't think too much about it, but tucked it away for later review. Last year, I finally decided to go for it!
Travelling from Minnesota took about 10 hours. My grandparents also joined us. I got to spend a little time getting to know the Walnut Valley Festival, and met a few other dulcimer players. The morning of the competition I was excited, nervous, and also tired because I had a cold or flu and actually felt relatively awful. I think this also helped me relax though, as strange as that sounds.
I was confident going in, though seeing all the awesome stuff my competitors were doing while in the warm up tent made me nervous too. I played towards the beginning and it went smoothly. There was a break before it was announced that contestant number five would be in the second round! I played in the second round as well, and it went well. I also enjoyed seeing what everyone else played.
By the end, I thought maybe I would win but wasn't positive. I knew Jeff Hames was really good too. Then they announced that I was the 2019 National Mountain Dulcimer Champion! Afterwards there were awards and interviews and things, including a really nice 6 string baritone dulcimer from McSpadden dulcimers. After that I had some extra time to enjoy the festival and relax.
One thing people were so surprised about for some reason is that I played a cardboard/styrofoam dulcimer in the second round. People thought I was taking a "risk". I didn't see it this way because I knew the judges couldn't see me, and because dulcimers can have so many different sounds I figured I would blend in. I used a cardboard dulcimer for a few reasons: I needed a chromatic dulcimer, it's much cheaper, and cardboard dulcimers are easy to replace. (I once stepped on one of my cardboard/styrofoam dulcimers and crushed the body:( A few days later though it was good as new). While of course a nicer dulcimer would be ideal, the one I had served me well.
One thing that's cool is I am one of the youngest winners; I am one of now 4 people win the dulcimer competition at 17 years old.
So... What Next?
At the time I write this, I have just graduated high school, soon to go to college in the fall for a mathematics degree. I am confident that I will always have music in my life. However, I don't know exactly what that will look like; or how much of my life will involve music. However, if you enjoy what I am doing with the dulcimer and want to support me, I encourage you to check out my YouTube and Patreon pages.