30/03/2021 - Experts in the Allgäu

Experts in the Allgäu

»A maestro falls from the sky«

Well, not a master straight away. But the course our reporter took is remarkable. With Martin Kern, you play an instrument without any previous musical knowledge.

An instrument that can be played completely without prior knowledge and on which a melody is created at the first attempt - even for musical novices. Is there such a thing? Martin Kern, music teacher, composer and musician, developed such an instrument a good 15 years ago. For more than 30 years, Martin Kern has been travelling around the Allgäu making music with children. On his visits, he always brought a dulcimer with him to play music. The girls and boys were quickly inspired and motivated by the music. But then they gave up just as quickly. They had difficulties hitting the fine strings with the felt mallet. This frustration gave rise to the idea in Kern's mind to develop a new, similar instrument. That was 15 years ago, the birth of the Kern soundboard. The main difference to the dulcimer is the way it is played: Instead of a felt mallet, the strings are plucked with the fingers.

It is a little chilly in the carpentry workshop where a finished instrument will be created over the next eight hours with the support of Martin Kern and his son David as well as carpenter Helmut Mayr. At the latest when it comes to sanding, we will get warm, Kern lets us know. The individual parts for the body of the instrument lie on the tool benches in front of us: boards in different lengths and thicknesses, with notches and without. A bucket of glue, a brush and a hammer are my first companions. First carefully, then a little more generously, I spread the glue on the four thick pieces of wood that form the frame. Once again I wield my glue brush and then place two thin wooden boards on the top and bottom of the frame. The first part is already done: the corpus lies in front of me. But I can't admire my unfinished masterpiece for long. It has to be clamped between many vices to dry. In the meantime, work continues in the carpenter's workshop. To get a foretaste of our instrument, Kern has brought along some finished specimens. A little timidly at first, I pluck the strings, but I quickly get to enjoy it and play a few songs in no time. From "Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad" (My grandma rides a motorbike in a chicken coop) to Alpine folk music, Kern has sheet music for every taste. Shyly, course colleague Petra also stands in front of the sound board. She has never played an instrument in her life, she confesses, let alone had a feeling for playing. But after a short time at the sound board, she too celebrates her first sense of achievement, beaming with joy.

Away from the ringing melodies of the strings, we move on to the less harmonious screeching of the saw. The protruding wood remnants of the corpus have to be removed. Mayr takes over this task for us. We don't want to end up with a bunch of fingertips as well as scraps of wood. Then we have to glue again. In the meantime, I spread the sticky liquid on the wood like a professional and lay individual parts on top. We spend the next dry period fortifying ourselves over lunch. Because the really strenuous tasks are still ahead of us. So we return to the workbench with a full stomach and are handed a saw: more protruding pieces of wood have to go. I put the saw to work, pulling and pushing it back and forth. But I can't get into a steady rhythm, and the saw blade keeps getting caught in the wood. My sense of rhythm is clearly in the music - not in the craft. With a plane, I do a little touching up here and there, then it's time for sanding. Armed with a block wrapped in sandpaper, I set about smoothing the rough surfaces. We also sand those edges where many small splinters stick out. In fact, I'm starting to get warm, just as Kern predicted at the beginning. The wood has to be well prepared before we spread a special oil on it. The oil not only brings out the wood pattern, but also protects our instrument, explains David Kern. I really start to sweat, but this time not because of the effort, but because of fear. A component still has to be sawn to size. Not on the big, screeching saw, but on a small jigsaw. But one or two carpenters have already lost their fingers on the tool, Mayr says and grins mischievously. Highly concentrated, I step up to the sharp saw blade, take a deep breath and, poof, the piece of wood is sawn in two.

Relieved and a little proud, I return to my almost finished soundboard. The final phase is to finally give our instrument its sound. 22 strings from the tones C1 to A2 are waiting to be clamped. Beforehand, I screwed small pins with a hole into the wood and hammered small nails into the opposite side. At the end of each string is a loop that I hook into the nail. With dexterity, the other end is threaded into the eye. Then it gets tricky. The pin has to be turned further into the wood to tension the string. If you turn it too far, it breaks, if you turn it too little, there is no tension. Ergo: no sound is produced. Finally comes the moment I have been working towards all day. Ready glued, sanded, oiled and tuned, it lies in front of me: my own, self-made Kern soundboard. Thanks to the expert guidance and help of the three experts, there are no injuries to report, so I start plucking the strings. And lo and behold - it plucks very easily. My listeners already recognise which songs they are playing after the first few attempts. Goal achieved!

Text: Maricci King

Photos: Maricci King, Allgäuer Zeitungsverlag GmbH

30.03.2021 - Experts in Allgäu Issue 20/21