How Does This Comp Sci Prof Blow Off Steam? Playing the Dulcimer.

For Professor Devin Pohly, music and science complement each other.

Pohly playing his dulcimer at home. Photo from Devin Pohly.

One sunny day up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in East Tennessee, a 9-year-old Devin Pohly stumbled upon an older man playing the hammered dulcimer, a stringed instrument used to play percussion. Originating in the Middle East a thousand years ago and a fixture of Appalachian folk music, the dulcimer consists of a trapezoidal bar with wire strings of varying length stretched over a sound box. Two light-weight wooden sticks called paddled hammers create a strong, clear, high sound resembling that of a harpsichord. 

Fascinated by its striking notes, Pohly decided right then that someday he would learn to play this mysterious instrument. 

Pohly didn’t make good on his resolution until joining Wheaton’s computer science department as an assistant professor in 2017, but his mother, Kathy, recounts how he had always taken an interest in music.

“As soon as he could stand up, and as soon as he could talk, he became interested in music,” she said. “Before he was five he would sing the words of songs by Amy Grant. We would play music in the house, and he would be singing.”

While an undergrad at Messiah College in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2008, Pohly, who grew up in Hartville, Ohio, attempted to double major in both music and computer science. He ended up dropping the music major to a minor due to the workload.

“I discovered that sleep is not optional, it is actually mandatory,” Pohly said. 

Polhly completed a doctorate at Pennsylvania State University in 2016, and the following year, when he came to teach computer science at Wheaton, his thoughts returned to the dulcimer.

Since Pohly didn’t own one when he started learning to play, he had to improvise. 

“I practiced by hitting a table with straws for the first couple weeks until someone loaned me a dulcimer,” Pohly said. 

A year later, at a festival dedicated to the instrument in Morris, Ill., a small town fifty miles south of Wheaton, he bought $40 worth of raffle tickets and, with the luck of draw, won his first hammered dulcimer.

Pohly, who lives in nearby Glen Ellyn, plays the instrument whenever he can, even sometimes bringing it out to Amerding lawn, a green space on campus also known as the quad, when the weather permits. The instrument has a foldable stand and portable trapezoidal base, which is about 40 by 18 inches long. 

One sunny afternoon in September, he stands with his hands moving over the instrument, gently hitting each string with a paddle, while the dulcimer’s stand lies on the grass. While the folky music of the dulcimer rings out, his eyes remain trained on the instrument, with a fierce concentration, looking up every so often to offer the surrounding students a smile. His audience is largely composed of Conservatory students, who have just finished their classes for the day, along with some freshmen who had heard him play during Passage and a few others who happened to pass by. Sometimes, Pohly said, onlookers are surprised when they find out that this is just a hobby.

“It’s funny when I’m out playing and people ask me what I do and I say I’m a professor,” Pohly said. “Then the conversation continues and it comes up that I’m a professor of computer science. And they’re like, ‘Oh, I assumed you were a music professor.’ I’m like ‘No, I just do this for fun.’” 

Pohly sees science and music as closely intertwined. As he learned more about the dulcimer, he said, the mathematical logic of the instrument became more apparent.

Pohly identified several different mathematical themes in playing the dulcimer, one of them being translational symmetry. Pohly demonstrated this concept on the Dulcimer by playing a chord that, by connecting the dots, forms a right triangle. 

“Certain shapes anywhere on the instrument will have the same harmonic structure,” he said. “If I take so that it makes a right triangle when I play those three, I have a major chord in root position. If I play the same triangle, but I go up a string, I have a different root position triad. That one’s minor, but it’s still a triad and root position,”  

Many people have learned how to play the dulcimer without even reading the sheet music; they are able to simply learn the shapes of chords, according to Pohly.

While mathematical, the hammered dulcimer’s free folk sound also lends itself wonderfully to Contra dancing, a communal-style of folk dance that was popular in New England and Appalachia in the 18th century.

“It’s the only introvert-friendly social partner dance I’ve ever discovered,” Pohly laughed. 

One fall day while out on Armerding lawn he noticed a group of students dancing to the music he was playing. He invited them over and introduced the folk-like dance to them. The dance, as well as the dulcimer, gained traction so much that Pohly taught students a Contra dance during the Conservatory’s ball on February 4th of this year. 

A junior organ performance major, Philip Crush, who attended the ball, remembered his first encounter with Pohly and the dulcimer on a sunny day last semester on the quad.

“My friends and I were all done with classes, so we were studying on the quad and there was this quiet sound of the hammered dulcimer floating across the quad,” said Crush. “It really created a beautiful experience for us, with all this stress that we deal with, with classes and homework. It was a way to give you that nice relaxation.”

Often on his long drives home to Ohio to visit his parents, Pohly brings along his dulcimer to play for his nieces and nephews. But along the way, he occasionally stops at rest stops to play a little before driving on. The instrument is easy to travel with, according to Pohly. 

“It is different, and it brightens people’s days,” said Pohly. “And you know, if I have the opportunity to do that someplace random, it doesn’t matter that it’s people that I’m never gonna see again. That almost makes it more fun.”

Satina Cadwell, a first-year student majoring in music performance, said she loved Pohly’s performances. 

“I can’t wait till the weather gets warmer so I can catch a moment of him on the quad playing the hammered dulcimer again,” said Cadwell. “On behalf of the whole Conservatory, I say he truly has a home in Armerding, and we are always pleased to hear him play.” 

Jade Hernandez

Jade Hernandez

Jade Hernandez is a sophomore Communication Major. Originally from Englewood, NJ, in her free time she enjoys crafting stories, watching Hallmark movies, and playing board games with family and friends.

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