local engineer handcrafts centuries old instrument
Earl Holzman is a local civil engineer who has some really unique hobbies that will take you back centuries. A woodworker for over 25 years, Earl has recently dedicated much of his time to crafting nyckelharpas, a traditional Swedish instrument that has been played in Sweden since the late 1600s. The nyckelharpa could be compared to a cross between a guitar and a violin. It hangs across the front of the body like a guitar and is played with a bow. There are about 37 keys that hang down along a side of the instrument that you press on while playing in order to change the sound of the strings. There are 16 strings that create a three-octave range, similar to a viola. Four of the strings are bowed and twelve of the strings are resonating strings tuned to different notes. Three of the main strings have keys on them.
The nyckelharpa appears to have evolved in the late 1600s in the Uppland province of Sweden. The instrument was played by commoners for recreational music and dancing. Swedish traditional couples dances such as the waltz, schottische, polka, and polska are the most common dances that the nyckelharpa gives life to. The music was also popular without dancing and has lasted through the centuries. This music and dancing are what introduced Earl Holzman to the nyckelharpa… and his wife DoAnn.
In college, Earl joined the Folklore Village, a folkdance troupe that performs Northern European dances with an emphasis on Scandinavian Couples dancing. Not only did Earl find love but a lifelong hobby. Earl and DoAnn have continued dancing throughout the past 30 years and now teach lessons here in Eau Claire. Though this is a small niche hobby, it is more popular here in Eau Claire where Nordic heritage is strong. Earl does not have Swedish roots; however, he claims to be Scandinavian by adoption.
After dancing to the nyckelharpa for many years, it was the Holzmans’ son who first inspired them to build nyckelharpas. Their son had been a violinist and a fiddler since childhood and had also been around Scandinavian traditional dance. About 10 years ago when their son was in high school, he decided he wanted a nyckelharpa to play. Earl, having a knack with woodworking, bought a kit and built his son a nyckelharpa. After a serious car accident left Earl with a fused back, he could no longer lift large pieces of wood so he took to building nyckelharpas as they were more lightweight. DoAnn has been learning woodworking from Earl and helps by making the bows for the nyckelharpa.
In 2011, Earl took his nyckelharpa-building hobby to the next level and went to Sweden to study with renowned nyckelharpa maker Esbjorn Hogmark. This experience paid off when Earl entered one of his nyckelharpas in a 2012 competition in Sweden and scored respectably high marks in the three categories nyckelharpas are judged on: sound, functionality, and finish.
Earl works about 30 hours a week as a civil engineer and DoAnn works full time as a librarian but they both love introducing others to traditional Swedish couples dancing and nyckelharpas. They teach traditional Scandinavian couples dance here in Eau Claire, sell nyckelharpas, and attend festivals and give lectures whenever they are able to share a bit of Swedish history and culture.
The nyckelharpa’s unique sound has caught the attention of musicians around the world, even though it is not common. Some European classical musicians will use nyckelharpas along with Irish fiddlers and medieval musicians. Earl said he could see them potentially being used in jazz music as well.
“I think the nyckelharpa is an amazing sounding instrument that has the potential to be played in a wide variety of music,” explained Earl.
If you are interested in the instrument or in taking dance classes with Earl and DoAnn, contact them through their website, EarlHarpas.com