Howard Schmies

Luthier Howard Schmies, 91, holds his handmade hurdy-gurdy on his lap surrounded by some of his other handmade string instruments outside his room in Maplewood at Chardon, a senior living community.

“That was a bad storm that came in 1990,” said Howard Schmies, a resident of the senior living community Maplewood at Chardon. “The trees would go over and take a big clump of roots with them.”

Mr. Schmies, 91, formerly of Russell Township, said the storm that hit not long after he retired from his 40-year job as a sales manager for General Electric is what triggered his woodworking. He recollected going out into the woods by his daughter’s home in Munson to harvest the wood of the storm’s fallen trees.

“That storm was a beauty,” he said. “The trees were close to 100 years old; you can tell by counting the rings. I lucked out in that most of them were what’s known as black cherry, and black cherry is a nice wood to work with.

“That’s this,” he added and gave his mountain dulcimer two hard knocks to show off the sturdiness of the cherry wood.

The instrument, which is a member of the zither family, has a soundboard that extends along the length of the fingerboard in place of a neck. Mr. Schmies explained that the instrument is held on the players lap and the strings are plucked by hand; however, he said some players have used guitar picks or even pencils to play the folk instrument.

Since the storm, Mr. Schmies has made more than 100 string instruments, of which he gives away to other residents and volunteers at the senior living community.

Krystal Martin, memory care director of Maplewood at Chardon, said Mr. Schmies gave a presentation on how he made the instruments and the history of the instruments to other residents in the community.

She explained that he lives in the Currents level of the community with his wife Patt, 88.

Maplewood at Chardon has three levels of assisted living, Ms. Martin explained, with the first level as a standard assisted living neighborhood and two levels for memory care for residents who may be dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or forms of dementia. “We have Tides, which is kind of an earlier or transition neighborhood for someone who is really needing more direction, more routine, more structure. And then we have Currents, which is our later to end stage [for] cognitive impairment, for people who really need the most support in the community,” she said.

Ms. Martin explained that Mr. Schmies lives in Currents because his wife needs that level of care and that most of his interaction is with staff.

“For him specifically, it might be a little bit different, a little more difficult for him to engage with the residents around him because he’s much higher functioning cognitively,” Ms. Martin said. “For him to have been able to put on a program where he gets to interact and in a purposeful manner for him, it really, you could see, brought light to his face, brought light to his eyes, brought light to his life. He was able to share his story.

“It brought a smile to my face to hear him kind of glow about where he got that wood from,” she added.

“It’s important for our residents to be able to do programs like this,” Ms. Martin said of the engagement and interaction Mr. Schmies has created with his presentation. “We have what we call our HEART philosophy, and that’s an emotional-based philosophy of care. So rather than focusing on maybe medical needs or physical needs, we’re [also] focusing more on making that emotional connection and allowing people to have successful interactions.”

HEART stands for humor, empathy, autonomy, respect/reaching out to others and trust and triumph.

“We always use musically inclined programs. What we know is that music has a huge impact on the lives of people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease or some type of dementia,” she said. “We can actually increase engagement or help people relax by choosing certain types of music to listen to.”

Ms. Martin said the community center participated in Music and Memory study with the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, headquartered in Cleveland, which “uses personalized music to tap into the relatively well-preserved pathways that link familiar music to memory for people with dementia,” according to the Institute.

“Music is a huge, huge, huge part of our program. Again, making that emotional connection,” Ms. Martin said. “You know, you have a song where if you hear it, it takes you back to a certain time in your life and that doesn’t go away, even when you have a cognitive impairment.”

Mr. Schmies said that while he does not have a favorite song that takes him back, he enjoys folk music.

Mr. Schmies retold the story he told the residents. He said he used a chainsaw, which he described as a “home, small deal” chainsaw, to rip apart the trees into boards. “In ripping boards, you rip them down the long way, and the chainsaw got so hot it boiled the gas,” he explained. “That’s no good. So I ended up buying a good size, heavy-duty, 7-horsepower chainsaw.

“I’d cut the trunk, basically, and then this big chunk of mud and roots would go back and fall over. So that was a lot of fun out in the woods doing that,” he said. “I would make boards 8 feet by about 2 inches thick, and I’d take that and just use normal woodworking tools and use that wood to make these instruments.”

With him, Mr. Schmies had four string instruments including a banjo, a parlor guitar, a traveling practice guitar and the very first instrument he made, the mountain dulcimer, which he described as a “simple and easy” design. He said the instrument’s design could be described as “forgiving” for beginning woodworkers because minor errors in crafting the instrument, will not affect the instrument’s playability too much.

When learning to make the instruments, Mr. Schmies said, “You just pick it up here and there.” He said he used design plans from music stores to make his instruments at first, but now he makes his own designs for the instruments. In addition to the instruments he showed, Mr. Schmies said he’s also made a full-size harp and a hurdy-gurdy, which is “typically what people start with when they get serious on folk instruments.”

Mr. Schmies made 18 ukuleles last year and “darn near 50” practice travel guitars in total.

Ms. Martin said Mr. Schmies has been trying to learn to play the instruments he makes and that he approached her to say he’d like to do another presentation for the residents on how to play the instruments.

Mr. Schmies strummed his mountain dulcimer to play a few (out of tune) chords. “I even took lessons and they didn’t stick,” he joked. “You know, I’m not a musician.”

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