I got the first idea to play the cimbalom from my percussion teacher at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm, who meant that it is quite natural for a percussionist to master the instrument. I later realized the idea when I was employed as a percussionist at the Royal Opera Orchestra of Sweden. There I had an elderly Hungarian colleague that earlier had played the instrument. He knew a fellow country man that played cimbalom in various restaurants in the city and we therefore went to the Sturehof restaurant where the cimbalom player worked at the time. The musician had three different instruments so he could offer me one to buy. I then began to learn to play the cimbalom with help of some school books for the instrument. It was also necessary to learn to tune the instrument because the strings are situated in a quite illogical way so a piano tuner would have big problems in tuning the instrument. My "debut" was then finally in the Háry János-Suite with the Swedish Radio Orchestra in 1994!
Some decades ago it was very hard just to find a cimbalom and also someone who could play it. Therefore one occasionally tried to imitate the sound of the cimbalom with an upright piano putting papers on the strings! The cimbalom sound is clearly no piano sound although you play on piano strings with small hammers. It´s floating sound is produced of a set of four strings in the upper register for every note that also are divided of "bridges" making it possible to play three tones per set. This makes it also almost impossible to tune perfectly. Nowadays more and more percussionists learn to play the instrument and it´s no longer so seldom heard as it used to be.
The cimbalom (also zimbalom or cymbal) is both a string and a percussion instrument and its predecessor, the dulcimer, is developed from the psaltery as also the piano is. Since the 19th century stands the cimbalom for colorations of the Hungarian music and are the foundation for all gypsy bands. In 1874 the Hungarian instrument maker Joszef Schunda provided the instrument with legs and pedal - and so the Concert Cimbalom was invented (before one had simply put the smaller instruments on a table). For this instrument, composers like Kodály, Bártok, Liszt and Stravinsky wrote chamber music and orchestral music. Until today the instrument has grown even more and consists of up to 133 piano strings that together make 5 octaves. The interest for the instrument is growing rapidly because many composers are searching for "new-old" sounds. I, for instance, have played in several newly written operas and have also premiered relatively much chamber music and solo works for cimbalom.
To play serves two thin wooden mallets (shaped as a hammer) wrapped with either cotton, felt, yarn or leather. For louder and clearer sound (needed in symphony orchestras) one simply uses no wrapping at all. The mallets are held between the index-finger and the middle-finger.
For over hundred years there has been a cimbalom class at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and recently there also opened a class at the Conservatoire de Strasbourg.
Important works for the cimbalom:
J. Kodály: Háry János-Suite
F. Liszt: Die drei Zigeuner
B. Bartók: First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra
I. Stravinsky: Ragtime, Renard,
P. Boulez: éclat
and even H. Shore: The Lord of the Ring Symphony