I know I've only been playing the bowed psaltery for about a month now, but I've come up with - and implemented an idea for damping the sound. This may be of some use to people, so I thought I would share it.
The bowed psaltery is a beautiful instrument and the ringing is wonderful, but sometimes one needs it to stop ringing for an instant, to fit a change in the music, to prevent too much 'muddiness' from the ringing, for dramatic effect, etc.
To do this, I experimented with various materials, and with the help of Steve to make the actual device, I came up with a damper. It's really just a brush. The bristles very nicely do the job of stopping the strings from ringing. I couldn't find a brush that was wide enough for the psaltery I have so we made one from a piece of broom handle. We just drilled holes in it and then filled them with bristles I took from another brush. It's simple to use: all one has to do is bring it down on the strings, near the bridge, and they instantly stop ringing. Pick it up and the psaltery can be played again. It only has to be touched to the strings to work.
If you have a psaltery that is small enough, you don't even need to make a brush. You can use an art dusting brush or something like it. The bristles should be soft to protect the finish of the psaltery. The handle should be something comfortable to hold. The brush should be wide enough so that it's easy to put down on the strings without having to be precise. The bristles should be long enough so that if the strings don't form a flat surface, they can adapt to the height. Above all, though, the brush should have its bristles coming out of holes made on the diagonal. This keeps them from being too dense, and therefore putting pressure on the strings, and it also helps them to easily adapt to the height of the strings.
This only works, of course, if you aren't holding the psaltery, but, then, so does double bowing.
I am thinking of making a version attached to a foot pedal for ease of use. It shouldn't be too hard to do: it just requires a flat piece of wood with brush bristles, some springs, a pedal, and some electrics. Anyone have any thoughts about this?
I've attached (I hope) a couple of pictures.
Anyway, I hope this idea is of some use to you.
And underneath the psaltery in the number 2 picture, you can see part of the cradle we built to carry it. When I get round to it, I'll post some more details of it, including a proper picture.
You can also see something else we've discovered - for us, at least, the psaltery is easier to play from what would normally be the side than from the base. Playing the sharps isn't the easiest thing, but overall I find it much easier than reaching way out forwards to get the low C, all the way at the pointy end.
There are two main disadvantages of playing it this way:
* Because it was really meant to be played from the base by right-handed folks, when you play it from the side, the high notes are on the left and the low notes on the right, unlike a piano, xylophone, guitar, etc. where they are the other way around. (Yes, a guitar - you move your left hand further to the left to close lower-note frets.)
* The sharps are slightly inconveniently placed on the back edge.
Does anyone know of any source for psalteries made to be played this way? I'd prefer, obviously, to have one with the pinboard and bridge on the right so that the low notes play on the left-hand end, and I'd also prefer to have all the notes, sharps and naturals, on the front. The sharps aren't desperately hard to play, but it is annoying.
Left-handed BPs exist which, when twisted as you describe, give you what you seek, at the cost of a slope on the accidentals which is twice as steep. A bowed dulcimer takes a different approach, a curve over the soundbox much like a massively overgrown fiddle, taken to its extremes in a hurdy dulcimer, where the strings surround the wheel and a very complex hammer system pulls them onto the wheel - the cottoning is a nightmare, however.
One or two other experiments have been tried, but none are really successful as you still have to cross the soundbox somehow. One alternative would be to produce an single-sided fully chromatic instrument, but that's not beginner-friendly as a solid foundation in skipping accidentals would be needed. Another thought nobody's yet tackled is to fit very small semitone stops at the bridge end, much as a harp does, leaving the accidentals for those which truly are, rather than key changes. The problem is that you need two ranks for full chromaticism, the clearances are very small, and maintenance will be a problem. Additionally, they follow a compound harmonic curve, so either you leave them unsupported, or you eat up most of the space in the soundbox under the treble strings with a larger pegbox block, or you mirror it in the shape of the pegbox, which is likely to have weird effects on the sound the soundbox propagates.
"twice as steep"? Twice as steep as what? I generally play with the strings at right angles to me so that the naturals slope away from high to low, and the sharps slope away from low to high, so that the strings are not sloping away at an inconvenient angle. A left-handed instrument (sharps on the right, naturals on the left) would have a less inconvenient angle, but I'd probably still play it with the strings at right angles.
A single-sided instrument was more or less what I had in mind. The sharps should fit in between the relevant naturals (A# between A and B, etc.) and might even alleviate an uneven tension profile. As it stands, the intervals between hitching posts on the naturals follow a "uniform" progression, but the notes themselves do not. A to B is twice as far as B to C, in terms of audio frequency change, but the length differences don't follow this difference, so the tension must vary to make up for it. By interleaving the sharps into a single range of naturals and sharps, you make the steps the "same" in audio frequency and length, so the tension on the strings, if not perfectly uniform, would at least vary smoothly.
My other observation is that the clearances in the pinboard are pretty small anyway, and the total number of strings isn't going to change, so the pinboard density will be very similar to a two-sided psaltery.
On the question of beginner-friendliness, I'd have to say I disagree that this is important. Avoiding incorrect notes is a natural feature of every tuned instrument. Simple drums don't have any concept of playing *melody*, but every instrument that can play different notes has its own challenge of how you ensure that you play the right ones. A guitar is far more scary-looking than a psaltery once you begin to do more than strumming open strings, but every year many people buy themselves a first guitar, so many that Ubisoft decided it was worth developing Rocksmith. It really isn't worth tiptoeing around beginners - the psaltery is a very easy instrument to learn, and playing it crosswise allows me to put my music stand at a readable distance just behind the instrument, rather than off to the side or partly hidden behind the pointy end.
There is no "correct" way to play, some even play it point towards them, and one player was seen a while back playing it vertically, point downwards, much like some Latin American harp players do.
As you say, each instrument has its challenges, and the BP's is to cross the board. I've never had issues with it, though, which I think is half the game, believing you can - the Inner Game of Music is a good book on the subject. The problem with interleaving the semitones is that you exacerbate the trade-off between the string weight, the harmonic curve, and the spacing between strings, there was an extensive discussion on the subject last summer. But that's no reason not to try, if it works then more power to you. Basically, though, the difference in tension needed with the lightweight strings needed for soprano and alto BPs is insignificant, as long as the median lies in the middle of the instrument. It's more significant on larger ones, it would be interesting if anyone playing a floor tenor has the weight ranges of theirs.
I have also experimented with dampers. My design was a bit simpler. Just a length of wood as wide as the base of the psaltery with thick felt (the sort used for autoharp dampers) along the bottom. Held in the non-playing hand ,you simply touch it to the strings near the bridge to stop the sound.
I had also played around with the idea of an internal damper where the damper bar would rise up from the soundboard to touch the underside of the strings when activated by a level inside the instrument which is accessed through the rear soundhole. You would play the psaltery with one finger in the rear soundhole where you would find the lever. Depressing the lever would bring the damper up to meet the strings from below.
It's great to see that others are experimenting as well. There's quite a bit of scope for it.
I tried felt, but because the strings on my psaltery are different heights, some did not stop when I touched the damper to the strings near the bridge; I had to put pressure on them and that slowed down things and affected my timing with the bow. I then tried shaping the wood so that it better reflected the shape of the strings near the bridge, but that required a level of precision that, again, slowed down my timing.
The brush is fairly simple and works with strings no matter the difference in their heights. This is just a first attempt. I could make the brush flatter. If I were to automate it, it would simply be a piece of flat wood with the brush material on one side. I favour fixing it so that it goes above the strings so that it can be detached for ease of maintenance. A foot pedal and a bit of electronics would suit it nicely. It would also mean that it could be used with any psaltery, because it would be impossible to retrofit one that was meant to be Inside the instrument.
Have you tried any other experiments? If so, what were the results?
I have tried a couple of different materials as a damper including some cotton batting that worked fairly well. Just using my hand was my first attempt, of course, but I was concerned about oils from my skin tarnishing the strings. Re-stringing a BP isn't something I look forward to.
The strings of my instruments are all quite level on the same plane though, and I use the damper near the bridge where things are very level. Just out of curiosity, why are the strings on your instruments at differing hieghts?
The bridge is a uniform height, of course, and the hitch pins are also a uniform height, but those two heights aren't equal! The bridge is lower than the tops of the hitch pins, so the strings slope upwards as you go from the bridge to the hitch pins, and the shorter strings slope more steeply as a result. By the time you get to the level of the F6 (highest note) hitch pin, that string is at its full height, but the C4 (lowest note, longest string) has hardly risen at all. The practical result is that the strings form a gentle curve that gets flatter as you get closer to the bridge.
Changing BP strings isn't that hard. I had to replace one of mine before I even had it properly tuned! The most important part is that you change one string at a time to make sure the tension balance doesn't get messed up. The most important problem caused by touching the strings with your fingers isn't oils, but wetness. That causes rust rather than tarnish, and rust destroys the strength of the steel wire. (Musical instrument wire is one of the most demanding applications for steel...)
It occurs to me that the internal damper would require an additional hole in the top of the instrument, and that will affect the total area of what amount to sound holes. The sound box, technically termed a Helmholtz resonator, has an optimum size for the sound hole, depending solely on the volume of the box, and most instruments have the correct size. Reducing or, as in this case, increasing the size reduces the volume of the sound.