From the Dallas Morning News, December 2, 2004:
Hammer dulcimer phenom is youngest national champ ever
08:07 PM CST on Thursday, December 2, 2004
By KATHY A. GOOLSBY / The Dallas Morning News
David Mahler was 10 when he asked for drum lessons.
His parents suggested he try the hammer dulcimer instead.
Now 14, David beat out more than a dozen longtime players in September to win the Dulcimer Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., making him the youngest national champion ever.
"Playing came pretty natural. My first lesson, I learned 'Amazing Grace' and picked it up pretty easy," said David, who lives in far north Tarrant County near Roanoke.
It wasn't parental intuition that moved Michael and Jenifer Mahler to choose the stringed folk instrument for their third child. They just happened to have a dulcimer that wasn't getting much use.
"My dad bought one for Mom for their anniversary, and she played it a little bit," said David, who is home schooled. "I wanted to play drums, and they said if I learned the dulcimer, they would get me some drums."
Within a year of his first dulcimer lesson, David won the Oklahoma state championship. The following two years, 2002 and 2003, he placed second in the Texas state championship. This year he earned the state title.
"I think his biggest asset is he has not yet produced preconceived ideas of how the music is laid out," said Russell Cook, owner of Wood N' Strings in Arlington. "Musically, he has more of a clean slate."
Mr. Cook, who won the national title in 1981, said David is a humble and quiet person whose talent shines through when he plays.
"It's interesting to see that kind of personality, and then when they get behind the instrument, all this passion just comes out," Mr. Cook said. "The challenge is not just to be better, because everyone will be good, and not just to play the correct notes. It's emotion, and David sure played his heart out."
But David's musical gift almost went unnoticed.
His older siblings, college students Gabrielle and John, took music lessons when they were young. But the Mahlers waited to sign up David and his 8-year-old brother, James, for music lessons.
"When David was 10, my husband finally said, 'Give him some music lessons,' " said Mrs. Mahler, who plays piano and has a master's degree in voice from Texas Christian University.
Once their son's talent became apparent, the Mahlers encouraged him by buying better instruments, including a dulcimer built by Mr. Cook.
His parents also bought him the promised drum set, which David plays in Next Signal, a Christian rock band he formed with friends. David also plays percussion in the Fort Worth Junior Youth Orchestra, and he knows piano. David credits his teacher, former Roanoke resident Mark Wade, with helping him win the competitions. Mr. Wade told David that judges look for variety.
"So I played two folk pieces and added two classical pieces, and I plucked on one piece," he said, laying aside the small wooden hammer to show how he plucked at the strings with his fingers.
Mr. Wade, an Ohio resident who won the national title in 1998, gives dulcimer lessons to about 40 students. But David stands out.
"What makes him different for his age is his work ethic toward his music," Mr. Wade said. "All kids like to work on music that's fun, but to compete you have to work on stuff you don't like, too, and David does that. He likes the challenge it presents, and the more he works on it, the more he likes the different music styles."
David prefers classical music to folk songs but includes both on his CD, Under the Hammer, available at www.davidmahler.com.
He spends about 30 minutes a day practicing on one of his five dulcimers and also makes time for drums and piano.
David plays dulcimer at folk festivals and private parties but eventually will move more toward percussion work because universities don't offer music degrees in dulcimer.
As this year's first-place winner, he can't compete in the Walnut Valley Festival for five years. But he'll enter other competitions where he says he'll come out on top regardless of where he ends up in the standings.
"The first time I competed at Walnut Valley, I made the top five, and last year I was third. This year I just thought even second or third would still be good because you win at dulcimer every time," he said. "God has given me a really good talent."