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Karen Ashbrook

Karen Ashbrook


Artist Work

Cancro Cru Set
World Music - Traditional
4 Minutes
Japanese Lullabies
World Music - Traditional
6 Minutes

Artist Information

Montgomery County
Artistic Category


MSAC Individual Artist Award (IAA)

Artist Bio

For 40 years Karen Ashbrook has been an international pioneer and advocate for the hammered dulcimer. With Silver Spring, Maryland as home base, she has brought magic of the 76 resonating dulcimer strings to a wide audience, from the young children who attend her summer hedge schools in Irish culture to the elderly and infirm with whom she engages as a certified music practitioner in the healing arts. She has entertained at the John F. Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution and the White House, as well as concert halls and festivals in the U.S. and around the world. Her recordings of Celtic, Belgian and French music are available on the Maggie's Music record label.

As a child, Ashbrook studied piano and French horn, attending the Eastman Preparatory School of Music. Her fascination with Irish music began at the age of 13 when she heard a recording of Ireland's beloved ensemble, the Chieftains. For a high school senior project, she built a hammered dulcimer from scratch. Soon she was on a one-way ticket to Europe and her adventures began.

Learning from Irish musicians in pubs in England and Ireland, she eventually busked her way overland to India, even playing for delighted crowds on the Istanbul ferry between Europe and Asia! Eventually she lived in Japan where she performed at the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, inspiring a wave of Japanese musicians to find and master the hammered dulcimer.

After five years abroad, Ashbrook settled into the vibrant Irish music scene of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. She wrote the first American advanced instructional book for dulcimer, Playing the Hammered Dulcimer in the lrish Tradition (Oak Publications), which remains a standard text in hammered dulcimer pedagogy.

Inspired by her son's Celtic harp playing in the 1990's, Ashbrook dedicated herself to engaging the next generation in Irish music. For 10 years she ran a monthly "kids' session" in local Irish pubs, and created a free book of tunes that is still used in many beginning pub sessions. She founded the Sligo Creek Hedge School, an Irish culture summer camp for youth.

Ashbrook tours with her Belgian husband, multi-instrumentalist Paul Oorts, who introduced her to the Flemish folk music scene. They perforn as KA/PO - Karen Ashbrook & Paul Oorts - in a program called Music from the Cultural Crossroads of Europe. She has been active in the revival of the hakkebord, Belgium's own version of the hammered dulcimer. Muziek Mozalek, the national Flemish folk music organization, commissioned her to make an instructional DVD in English, Dutch and French - a first on the European continent.

Driven by her belief in the power of music as a healing art, Ashbrook became certified as a Music Practitioner (CMP) through the Music for Healing and Transitions Program ( She works as a therapeutic musician at Walter Reed Military Hospital and Georgetown University's Arts & Humanities Program in the Lombardi Cancer Center.