Heidi Muller will
appear with the Ice Mountain Writers on April 8, 2005.
Q-When did you start singing?
When I was a little girl. There's an old tape of me singing
"Jesus Loves Me" when I was about four years old. My
mother says she taught me a piano piece when I was three and I
picked it right up.
Q-Who encouraged you in music as a child, in the family, and
outside the family?
There was music around me on a day-to-day basis. My dad liked
to sing old songs with us like "Wabash Cannonball" and
"The Preacher and the Bear". My mother played piano
and my German uncle played guitar and concert zither. My mother's
brother who lived in New York had been a child prodigy on violin,
who later went on to play fiddle and upright bass in a square
dance band on Long Island. So there was music around but I didn't
want to take music lessons and I refused to perform in front of
family members. When I was 11, though, on a trip to Germany with
my aunt and uncle, I saw a girl play accordion and guitar. Something
clicked and I decided I wanted to learn guitar. We got my mother's
old guitar out of my grandparents' closet and my uncle fixed it
up for me to learn on. He showed me chords and an oom-pah kind
of 3-finger strum and then I taught myself. My brother showed
me how to Travis pick when I was around 13 and I learned "Don't
Q-Do you remember when you started to think of yourself as a
singer, as a performer?
One time when I was in 4th grade, I was home sick from school.
My mother and I were watching TV when some women singers came
on, and I said, "I want to do that." Somehow in my learning
of guitar, I decided to perform. I started an all-girl rock band
and we got together enough music to play for youth center dances.
Q-How did your family react to your desire to perform?
Everyone was very supportive. We had band practice at my house
and our mothers drove us to gigs. My mom and my uncle helped me
get an electric guitar, amp and microphone.
Q-Did you always have confidence in yourself as a singer? Where
did that confidence come from?
I'm not sure, I don’t remember thinking about it. At home
we played Bobby Vinton and Neil Sadaka 45's and I would sing harmony
with my sister as we sang along with them. I tried to make myself
sing like Joni Mitchell after I discovered her. The family never
discouraged me, so perhaps I didn't have reason to hold back.
Q-How do you feel when you perform?
I feel like I have something to give, something to share, in
the songs themselves. It's important to me to be centered before
I get onstage. The music is my focus, the songs are the important
part, the communication. I am sharing both myself and the message
of the songs or the feeling of the music.
Q-What kind of a relationship are you trying to establish with
I simply aim to be myself and remove any walls that are there.
I invite the audience in to be a part of the performance. As they
open themselves to the messages of the songs, the lyrics sometimes
hit them in a personal, emotional way. I understand that whatever
I show of myself is likely to connect with their own feelings,
and in my vulnerability they find a space to feel, consider issues,
and perhaps heal in some small way. A concert is a safe place
for the audience to feel. Sometimes it's a bit of a risk for the
performer who puts themselves out there. But when the rapport
is reached, it becomes safe then for the performer as well.
Q-Do you get nervous before a performance, and if so, how do
you handle it?
Most of the time I don't get nervous anymore. Certain things
might make me more likely to be nervous, such as bright lights
in a dark hall when I can't see people's faces; not having performed
for awhile; arriving after a long drive without time to recover;
or doing new, untested material. Most of the time if I can get
centered, there's no problem. Onstage I just push through it till
I reach a level of comfort. I've learned not to believe the fear.
Q-You have written songs and arranged songs. What is your writing
It's all over the map, really. In the last year I've found I
can write stories that are not my own to meet deadlines. That's
not my favorite kind of writing, I'd rather write from personal
inspiration, but it can be done. I usually have an issue rolling
around in my head and I get a feeling that now would be a good
time to sit down and write. There's a certain feeling where you
know if you act now, you stand a good chance of getting a song.
And if you pass up the chance, that moment may never come again.
I normally have to be completely alone and in my own physical
space in order to write. The songs usually come complete within
an hour, and then I can go back later and edit them. Some songs
are slower. Every once in awhile I hammer away at one for over
a year. The important part is to get all the creative first thoughts
down at the beginning. My melodies come with my lyrics, and the
toughest part is to try and create a melody after the initial
creative impulse is gone.
Q-Do you have a special place, or certain routine, for your writing?
I need a quiet, well-lit place, preferably with a view out over
things that are green and scenic. I seem to need to be alone in
order to write. I have no special routine. I'm moved more by inspiration
than writing appointments. It might be fun to try a Nashville-style
daily office routine, though. It could be useful to tame the muse
to come when you call.
Q-Do you work on the music or the words first, or both at the
Both come at the same time for me. Sometimes I get a standard
meter going and can just flow with the words on the paper, and
then work up a melody last before the feeling of the moment passes.
Q-Do you think about your audience when you start writing a song,
or does that come later?
I don't think so much about the audience. To me, the important
thing is to tell my own truth. I only perform in places where
I trust the audience is right for my music. I try to write a song
broadly enough that the audience can see themselves in it. I try
not to just tell my own confessional stories and I do try to create
a point or lesson to the story that makes it worth the listener's
Q-How do you know when to quit tinkering with a song?
I work out all my reservations till I'm satisfied with it. Most
of the time I'll have the basic song in good shape with just a
few nagging lyrics that don't seem right. Usually the right ones
come to me over the next few days. I had a songwriting group in
Seattle for about 12 years where we would bring our new material
for feedback. That helped immensely in knowing what was good or
what needed more work.
Q-When you become discouraged with your writing, how do you handle
I just put it aside. I keep all my starts in a file for later
Q-Are you ever afraid that you may not be able to write?
Every once in awhile. I'm not such a prolific writer that it
worries me much; I'm used to dry spells. But for me the issue
isn't so much whether I have something to say, it's creating the
setting that evokes the song from inside of me. I haven't had
my own creative space for quite some time, since I left Seattle.
Thankfully I've been able to use someone else's cabin recently
to get away and write. When I'm in the right space, I feel music
Q-If you look at the work that you've done, are there themes
that run through your work that you keep coming back to?
I think my songs reflect a sense of place more often than not.
I have quite a few songs about self-discovery, travel, and lessons
learned from ordinary people. Family shows up now and then. There's
a sense of the spiritual, of the positive and good, that I find
myself writing about. But I do love songs about place, road songs,
lots of visual imagery.
Q-You have 5 CDs of your work. What is the process of putting
together a CD, and how hard is it to find a company to produce
Well, first of all, I have produced them myself. I make them
for my audience and I'm usually anxious to get them done and out
for the next concert or tour, as soon as I can. I'm no longer
invested in whether a record company is interested in my work.
It takes so long to make the rounds and wait for the yay or nay.
As an artist, my focus is on creating my work and making it available
to the public, not on pleasing some corporate entity. Being my
own record label allows me to have a great deal of one-on-one
contact with the people who buy the CDs, including the stores.
I don't have a distributor; it would be nice to have one, but
it seems they are more interested in a catalog of artists than
one independent artist. I do sell through CD Baby which is an
online store and a remarkably wonderful group of people to work
So, when I'm getting ready to make a CD and I have enough songs
together, I gather them up, see what I have and what I need to
fill out the collection, and go into a studio. I try to identify
a theme and then see if I have a balance of styles, of moods,
to make a full project. I can't go into all the nuts and bolts
of recording here, but mostly I lay my own basic tracks, bring
in whatever musicians I need to round things out, and line up
a graphic artist to work on the cover. I set up the manufacturing
by choosing whom I want to work with and try to make the pieces
fall into place on time. Now that I'm working with Bob Webb, it's
a real gift that he has his own recording studio. So we not only
play together and work up the arrangements, we can go right in
and record tracks.
Q-Do you have another CD in the works, or plans for one?
Bob and I have started working on a new CD that we hope to have
out by late spring. It's new material that reflects both our backgrounds,
a little bit of West Virginia and a little bit of New Jersey and
the Northwest. We have several dulcimer instrumentals planned
plus a couple of traditional tunes on the list. By the time we
get to Romney, I think we will have most of it recorded and will
play some of the new songs.
Q-You have taught dulcimer to hundreds of people over the years.
How did you get into that? How did you develop your teaching style
When I first performed with dulcimer in 1985, someone came up
to me at a concert and asked me to teach her. I started to take
on students and learned how to teach just by doing it. I ended
up becoming Seattle's only dulcimer teacher. In 1988 I taught
my first workshop at a folk festival in Illinois, and in 1991,
I was asked to teach at a dulcimer festival in Boston when I was
there to give some concerts. That launched me into the national
dulcimer scene, which was developing more and more through Internet
connections and through the quarterly journal Dulcimer Players
News. I offered dulcimer workshops when I gave concerts in more
remote areas of the West and started selling dulcimers out of
my car when I traveled.
The West Coast players are very innovative and use syncopated
rhythms more than their Eastern cousins. Traditional tunes would
be played in new ways. Of course, this was the territory influenced
by Richard Farina, and then Neal Hellman, Robert Force and Al
D'Ossche. I myself was influenced more by New England players
as I got started, because my old college friend Gail Rundlett
and her teacher Lorraine Hammond in Boston showed me their way
of using four equidistant strings. I loved the chords and fingerpicking
patterns available in that style and moved forward with that.
I didn't return to simpler 3-string playing till I discovered
fiddle tunes at contradances. I teach 3-string dulcimer to most
people because most dulcimers are set up that way, and it's an
easier way to learn the instrument. I have always sung with dulcimer
using chords and I greatly enjoy rhythmic strumming and noodling
around on fiddle tunes. I don't see any reason for a player to
limit themselves to traditional methods; there should be freedom
in playing folk instruments, doing it to please yourself.
Q-What age group do you most like to work with, or does it matter?
I like to work with anyone who is fired up to learn. I love
the energy of fourth and fifth graders; it's great fun to write
songs with them, and young children have lots of enthusiasm for
the dulcimer. I also have a number of adult students including
Q-What advice would you give to people who are interested in
music and writing?
Simply to start. Why wait? There are classes offered at so many
places these days; there are elderhostels, community college classes,
we have Augusta Heritage in Elkins and Patty Looman in Morgantown…
there are dulcimer festivals, Vandalia, FOOTMAD gatherings, Glenville.
In August there will be the NewSong Festival and songwriting academy
in Shepardstown. The Arts Centre in Martinsburg is another place
that has events. I think the important thing is to pursue the
interest and give yourself a chance at it. There's a great book
to check out if you want to write, published some years ago, called
"Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. If it's
playing you want to do, instruments need not be terribly expensive
to get started. There are even cardboard dulcimers such as the
kind Bob makes that work fine as entry level instruments. The
Internet also opens up a wide world of resources.
Q-Where do you go from here? What new things will you be getting
I'm looking forward to teaching more private lessons in the
Charleston area and performing more around the state. I'd like
to work more through the WV Artists in Education program. I expect
the songs I helped write with the kids at Big Ugly last year will
develop into a CD project, so I would be producing that effort
when the grant funds come through. Bob and I have just written
a grant to do music mentoring for disadvantaged children in Charleston,
so I may be teaching more one-on-one lessons in after-school programs.
I recently bought a bowed psaltery that I'm learning to play.
I'd like to do some more exploring around West Virginia just to
see things. Other than that, there are our upcoming tours to the
Pacific Northwest and festival commitments through the fall in
Ohio, Indiana and Vermont.