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Zithering from the Heart

With the support and encouragement of family, Maria Petersen has recently completed a series of zither recordings. From the alpine melodies of her native Bavaria, cherished folk songs and other well-known selections, her project represents a lifetime of music with the zither. In this article, AnnElise Makin presents Maria's story, her early musical recollections and the recordings for which she has won accolades.


It takes true pioneer spirit to be loyal to your music and to your homeland. Maria Petersen is such a pioneer - from Omaha, Nebraska. She is highly skilled on her Bavarian zither. For her 70th birthday Maria recorded three CDs, putting together her life's work. It spans a variety of genre from children's songs, folksongs to classical. It is a massive collection of 69 titles (and medleys) in three albums.


Zitherist Maria Petersen

I have known Maria for over 25 years and I remember her always playing the zither. Quite often her children were along and performed with her. Cindy played the Hackbrett (hammer dulcimer), Mark played the accordion and the guitar and all three sang old hits such as Lieder (German ballads) and folksongs. The melodies are passed on to the next generation. Her six grandchildren enjoy singing and playing music, too. Maria brought some of her musical instruments along from her native home in Bavaria, Ascholding, an idyllic village in the Isar valley. Her father Andreas Schillinger, was by trade a wagon and carpenter master. His lifelong hobby was building instruments. Over the years he built 15-20 zithers, several hammer dulcimers and one guitar. Her father taught both of his children, Maria and Anderl, the art of music at their small farm and carpenter shop in Ascholding. Maria remembers, "most every day I practiced the zither two to three hours with a ten minute break to ride my bike each hour. Sometimes, I even got out of some chores." Practice was important! After the war, times were hard. Any kind of income was welcome. The Schillingers built their own Hausmusik group. They played in guest houses and inns to earn money.

Maria's most memorable tour was in 1950, during the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. Her father, Andreas Schillinger, with his two children and their three instruments traveled with the Sachs-motorcycle to the world famous alpine village, Oberammergau. The little motorcycle was the only transportation he had. Uphill the children had to get off the motorcycle to lighten the load, and they ran up the hill.

Maria remembers, "Papa and I played and performed with the zither every day and Anderl accompanied with the guitar. Often we performed 'til late at night. Being the youngest, it was my job to walk around with the hat to ask for tips." Even though those times were hard, Maria felt happy with joyful memories. “Our parents raised us with kind and loving guidance and a strong faith in God. As children we never felt that our life lacked anything.”

Maria immigrated to the USA in 1958. During a lifetime of zither music, Maria met many people and made some life-long friends. Every year, country music organizer Bob Everhart, had Maria perform at the National Old Time Country Music and Bluegrass Festival. In 2008, Maria received the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame award. In 2010 she was awarded the Rural Roots Music Commission, "2010 Instrumental CD of the Year."

"Das Fenster" magazine published an article in 1994, about Maria's zither music. One of the magazine subscribers, Renate Thomas, ordered the cassette tape mentioned in the article, and enjoyed the zither music. She offered Maria a zither at no charge, she said, "I want to give it to you as a gift." It is a good Hefele zither from the town of Unterammergau, Germany. Ever since, Renate and Maria have been friends and keep in contact. The Hefele Zither is Maria's favorite, besides the beautiful zither that her dad built and gave to her.

Maria is ever so thankful to her husband and children, that the CDs became reality. She is especially thankful to her son, Mark, a scientist in Los Alamos, NM. Mark felt the CD collection was important for posterity. Maria had health problems, including breast cancer and was in treatment for that; she also was starting to experience arthritis. Maria plays many songs by ear. Some of them she had difficulties with the harmonies. Mark coached over the telephone and played his keyboard. Mark also made the CD covers and all the artwork and stories. Maria enjoyed working with Tom Sharman, recording engineer, at Tesco Productions. Tom can do wonders and is an expert with acoustic music. He can bring out the best in you, instrumental and vocal. For some of the recordings as many as eight tracks were used. This all takes time. His website is: www.tescoproductions.com

"This is an incredible accomplishment, Maria Petersen, perhaps our only zither player left in the upper Midwest, has taken an incredible amount of time, patience and expense to record her 'history' and life story in harmony with the zither," wrote Bob Everhart, singer and country music organizer, in his review of the three CDs. From all directions there is praise about the zitherist. No wonder, because the music comes from the heart.


Maria and her father Andreas perform a zither duet in Oberammergau, Germany, 1950.





For those readers interested in obtaining Maria's music, the following order form is provided.

Maria's Zither Music - Order Form

AnnElise Makin's article originally appeared as "Drei neue CDs mit Zitherklängen: Maria Petersens Musik kommt von Herzen" in the November 10, 2010, issue of Das Fenster. It has been kindly translated from the original German by Maria Petersen. Do you have a zither-related story that you would like to share? If so, contact us.