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Karen Ashford and Chao Tian 2_PC Human Being Productions (c) Maryland State Arts Council

Karen Ashbrook & Chao Tian

American and Chinese hammered dulcimer Silver Spring and Clinton, Maryland
Photo Credit: Human Being Productions. © Maryland State Arts Council
Karen Ashford and Chao Tian 2_PC Human Being Productions (c) Maryland State Arts Council

Karen Ashbrook and Chao Tian connect East and West through the sounds of the hammered dulcimer. Part of the stringed instrument family, it is named for the technique musicians use to play it—instead of plucking the strings, they strike them with small hammers. Similarly played instruments are common worldwide; it is prevalent in the United States largely as a key musical component of the contra dancing and English country dancing traditions in New England and across Appalachia, especially in old-time music.

Karen Ashbrook’s love for the hammered dulcimer began in 1976, when she built her first instrument. For the years that followed, Karen continued her pursuit of mastering this instrument, enamored by the beauty of its sounds and its role in bringing community together at jam and line-dance sessions. It was during her extended travels to Ireland, and seeing the dulcimer’s presence in different European cities, that Karen became an advocate—compelled to share, present, and teach as many people as possible about the instrument’s history and playing techniques. She has been teaching and promoting the hammered dulcimer for over 40 years, for which she has received several accolades, including the Maryland State Arts Council’s Individual Artist Award (2017).

Chinese-born Chao Tian has studied the Chinese hammered dulcimer, known as the yangqin, for more than three decades. An Artist in Residence at the Strathmore Music Center in 2018, she is most known for her creative virtuosity and highly improvisational style. Like Karen, Chao has been captivated by the hammered dulcimer’s global reach, and upon first hearing the American instrument while traveling in 2008, she knew she needed to learn more. Upon receiving her first American hammered dulcimer in 2020, Chao embarked on a learning journey with Karen—exploring the sonic parallels and differences from China to New England and Appalachia with each hammered note. Their mutual exploration continued through 2021-22, with a Folklife Apprenticeship Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. Together and on the stage, they string together these cultural connections, frequently accompanied by Karen’s husband, Paul Oorts, playing harp guitar.  

For more about Chao Tian, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube Channel.

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