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String convergence keeps alive spirit of handmade music

The Baltimore Sun

Walt Michael put picks on three fingers and a thumb and strummed the tips across the taut strings of his autoharp.

Music resonated through the room, giving a quick glimpse of Michael's talent.

"When you play string instruments, you go through a period of pain," said the 60-year-old, referring to the calluses and blisters he gets on his fingertips. "But there's nothing I would rather do."

During the past 50 years, Michael has established himself in the folk and bluegrass arena in the United States and worldwide, performing traditional and original pieces. Currently he heads an educational music program at McDaniel College, and for more than a decade he has been the master of ceremonies for the Fiddlers' Convention scheduled for June 10 at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Although the all-day event is the perfect venue for Michael to perform, he'll take a break from strumming to serve as emcee.

The event is a contest where about 150 musicians from three states, who play the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, bagpipes, autoharp, dulcimer and flute, compete for prizes ranging from $25 to $300.

Michael won one of his first ribbons at the competition, he said.

"I won my high school talent show, and then I won some awards at the Fiddler's Convention," said Michael, executive director of Common Ground on the Hill, a music and arts organization that offers educational experiences at McDaniel with master musicians, artists, dancers and writers.

However, Michael's musical career began well before the competition started, he said.

At age 12, Michael took up the guitar. Since then, he has learned to play all bluegrass instruments. He has a collection of instruments including four guitars, two mandolins, a mandola, three banjos, a fiddle, a viola, a bass, two autoharps, two mountain dulcimers and three hammered dulcimers.

Each instrument has a story of its own, he said.

One of his autoharps, made of spruce and cherry wood, was constructed by George Orthey of Pennsylvania, who has made autoharps for people such as the late June Carter Cash.

Michael grew up during the folk revival and went to Appalachia, where he met banjo players and fiddlers.

Over the years, he has formed several bands, including Bottle Hill, his first band, formed in 1971.

Since then, he has built a repertoire that includes a hybrid of all music, he said.

"Over the years, I have evolved a style of music that is different. It's all my own," he said.

He plays folk, Celtic, bluegrass and original tunes that he has performed at the White House, the Kennedy Center, the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and festivals, and on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.

He has also performed throughout the United States and in Bermuda, Switzerland, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Canada and Italy.

Best known for his ability to play the dulcimers, he is a well-respected musician, said Barry Mitterhoff, who plays with the group Hot Tuna.

"Michael is a wonderful musician," said Mitterhoff, who met Michael in a coffee shop 37 years ago. "He has deep feelings for the roots of music."

He chose to play string instruments because of the acoustic richness of the sound, said Michael, who played about 180 times a year during the 1970s and 1980s.

"The music that comes out of good, well-crafted instruments is very pleasing," he said. "Today, music is created with technology. But what we try to do is combine the mind, heart and hands to make music."

After years of performing, Michael wanted to create a traditional arts program that included dialogue, he said. In an attempt to get artisans talking about the thing that matters most to them, he started Common Ground on the Hill.

"Today, art is driven by money," he said. "I try to give younger generations a chance to view art from different ethnic perspectives."

More than a decade ago, he was asked by Dottie Freeman, museum administrator, to take over as stage manager and master of ceremonies for the Fiddlers' Convention, he said.

Started in the 1960s on a farm in Deer Creek, the Fiddlers' Convention already had a following, Freeman said, when the farm museum took over the program in 1994.

"I can run a museum and coordinate activities, but Walt knows how to judge musicians and get grants," Freeman said. "He works with the college, the arts council and the Farm Museum. And he can play any type of music. His versatility is amazing."

For Michael, the best part of the event is watching people play after they compete, he said.

"Usually I just get to see people perform on stage," he said. "But the best part of the event is what happens offstage when people play under the trees."

It's an opportunity for children to see music played for fun, he said.

"Most kids take lessons, and unless they excel at it, they stop playing," he said. "They think that they are not really musical. They don't get to have the experience of standing in a circle and playing music just for fun."

The classical approach to music is that a leader passes out music and tells people what to play and how to play it, he said.

"A musician of that type is a vessel for someone else's artistic concepts," he said. "There are people who can sit down and play Mozart from sheet music from the get-go. But take the music away, and they can't play a note."

Before the Civil War, there were more than 200 community bands in Carroll County, he said.

Now there's only one, he said.

"Back then, the only way to get music was to make it," he said. "Events such as the Fiddlers' Convention and Common Ground give kids a chance to see music in a different way."

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