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Handmade Musical Instruments

Phil Kemp meets local craftsman and musician Mervyn Mewis

We have many opportunities to enjoy live music at local venues. From blues, rock and pop through to jazz, folk and choral – and everything in between. And for the more adventurous have-a-go music fans there is also a vibrant community of enthusiasts who provide a chance to join like-minded people in organised jam sessions, choral groups, or to take up one-on-one tuition.

However, Godalming-based musician Mervyn Mewis goes one better – and in style – for not only does he perform at a range of venues with his traditional musical instruments, he also designs and handcrafts them. But he doesn’t stop there. As a highly experienced woodworker and respected woodsman he literally sources the materials he needs from local woodland, prepares the raw wood and builds his instruments from scratch. Impressive, and even more so as Mervyn also runs classes so that others can benefit first-hand from his skills as instrument maker and musician. Oh, and furniture maker too!

Mervyn invited me to join him for a personal introduction to his craft and a demonstration of how he performs with the range of instruments he builds. My time with him flew with unwelcome speed but will remain with me for what it proved to be – a fascinating, inspiring and enthusiastic tour of his craft.

“It was at the Ram Cider House in Catteshall Lane I discovered English Irish folk music. It’s also where I met Kathryn Young my partner and where, by chance, I ran into a professional instrument maker,” Mervyn reminisced. “He offered to make me a musical instrument and it was he that instilled the idea of me trying for myself. Once I had got a City & Guilds in carpentry Kathryn suggested that I study musical instrument making, which I did, and it was there I built my first instruments.”

Mervyn reached over to pick up a triangular-shaped string instrument, which I was to learn was a bowed psaltery. “This, and the hammer dulcimer, are two of my favourite instruments,” he explained. “Some 25 years ago in The Ram a lady played one of these and I had never heard anything quite like it before. It was really quite amazing.”
As he moved the bow across the psaltery’s two-dozen strings to demonstrate I was immediately taken by the incredible depth and volume of sound coming from such a small hand-held instrument. “It’s not particularly difficult to play, and is very resonant and very expressive. From my very first bowed psaltery I started to experiment and change the design. I made it bigger and wider, thicker, deeper and longer – and I put a curve in it. For such a small instrument it’s not what you’d expect, and I’ve seen people stop in their tracks to listen, totally captivated.”

Carefully placing the psaltery down, having scolded me for reaching out to touch the hair strings on the bow which apparently can be spoiled by human skin secretions, he sat on the stool by the large hammer dulcimer where it was resting on a wooden cradle, naturally also built by Mervyn.

“The trees I use in my woodwork are all locally sourced, and virtually all of it comes from within ten miles of the Godalming area. They are mostly indigenous species, or parkland species which are planted specifically for ornament. Those that come my way are either part of woodland management, or as thinning and dangerous tree work with people like the National Trust.”

Mervyn started to gently strike at the dulcimer’s strings with a spoon-shaped mallet hammer in each of his hands. “With all of my instruments one thing that they have in common is that every single one of them to me is beautiful for their own intrinsic qualities. I use a range of timbers. From wild cherry, London plane and sycamore, to yew, elm, ash and western red cedar. All of these particular instruments came off the North Downs.

My favourite is probably the ash tree – its timber is just so beautiful.” In response to my question as to how long it takes to make an instrument he stopped playing and ran his eyes over the dozen or so hand-made instruments on display. “It can vary considerably of course, but for this hammer dulcimer it took six to seven days of work, including the stand. That’s also taking into account the actual go-getting of the tree as well as preparation of the timber.”

I could have very easily filled this magazine with everything I learned whilst with Mervyn, space I sadly didn’t have. If you want to listen to Mervyn, and Kathryn who incidentally plays a handmade harp, they play at venues around the country. If you would like to learn more, and perhaps even join Mervyn in one of his classes, please visit his website.

Email mervwm@btinternet.com or visit www.surreyhillsgreenwoodworks.co.uk

Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer. www.weyriver.co.uk

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