Wasn't he afraid of what might happen to his hands?
"No, because I do everything for my family," says Feraru, most of whom were able to leave Romania for Chicago in 1994. "Most of the musicians say, 'No, I not do this work because I destroy my hands.'
"I say, 'No, what God wants, this happens.'"
Fortunately, Feraru never was injured and never stopped playing his cimbalom, his reputation steadily spreading and inspiring invitations to play across the country.
In Chicago, he has beguiled audiences at jazz clubs such as the Green Mill and Katerina's, and nightspots such as Nelly's Saloon and Little Bucharest Bistro on North Elston Street.
"He has complete mastery," says Steve Gibons, a Chicago violinist-bandleader who has performed with Feraru in Gibons' Gypsy Rhythm Project since 2006.
"I've played with quite a few cimbalom players, and I was in Romania and played with some guys, and he's the best.
"His harmonic sense (has) this Romanian gypsy thing, but he'll do stuff that's kind of like jazz, too. He'll do some passing chords that you would never think to do – but it has a Romanian sound. …
"It's an honor playing with him."
Since Feraru lost his day job in 2008, when the dental-supplies factory shut down, he has sustained himself mostly on wedding, restaurant and club dates, with some periods being busier than others.
But September should be sweet, for two days after receiving his NEA honor at the Library of Congress he'll perform at George Washington University, the concert to be streamed live at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at arts.gov; an appearance at this year's Chicago World Music Festival also is on the books for 3 p.m. Sept. 15 at Millennium Park.
Even at this late date, however, he still struggles to plumb the mysteries of the cimbalom, an instrument that never ceases to delight and confound him.
"On this," he says, pointing to his cimbalom, "you know nothing. You must always learn and learn and learn. It's very hard."
But then he corrects himself.
"When you love something, nothing is difficult."
To read more from Howard Reich, visit chicagotribune.com/reich.