Sunday, June 21, 2020

Homage to Omelettes

People sometimes wonder why there seems to be so much more instructional material, TAB books, workshops, and festivals geared towards dulcimer chord style playing rather than traditional noter style.

Let's consider some similarities and differences between noter style playing and chord style playing for a moment. Starting out, both these playing techniques involve an initial learning curve that can be a challenge to anyone, especially to folks who've never played music before. Both playing techniques can be expressive and beautiful. Both can be as simple or as involved a style of playing as you choose to pursue. And both techniques can start out being taught with simple accessible instructional materials, using easy songs.
It's after the initial learning curve where the two playing styles more greatly diverge for the average player.
We know how the more modern chord style playing style evolved and why it continues to be popular, but... why do we continue to see such a pronounced higher volume of TAB, jam books, instructional material, classes and workshops dedicated to chord style playing than to noter playing?

The initial learning curve in noter playing consists of gaining a basic understanding of how using from two to four basic tunings enables us to play happy or sad tunes. One can learn a dozen or more simple beginner tunes and how to do hammer-ons and slides... and basically you are playing the single melody line of a tune on the melody string and letting the open drone strings provide additional tonic and 5th notes that fill out the sound to add beauty and depth. There is no fingering of various chords over several strings with multiple fingers, and that doesn't change no matter what tuning you use. You are playing a melody line, on one string, and adding expression and variety through dynamics, strumming patterns, and rhythm. I should add that in both chord and noter styles, players get better at adding expression with time.

On the other hand (no pun intended), in chord/melody playing style the beginner player learns where to place and move certain fingers over several strings for each sequence of chords and notes. If they change their tuning they need to learn other fingerings for their chords. Some fingering stretches can be difficult or awkward for the hand, thus fingerings are often adapted to make certain chords, melodic phrases, or sequences easier to accomplish. Dulcimer teachers can make TAB arrangements of fingerings that improve the flow and playability of a tune in chord style while also adding variety and interest. These Tabs and arrangements are roadmaps to being able to play more complex or modern tunes. They require skill to create, and are rightfully copyrighted when presented in workshops or in books.

Chord fingerings and arrangements are why the average chord style player tends to rely more on TAB than the average noter style player.

Once I completed the bulk of my noter Blog instructional posts, which included over 30 relatively easy TABS and plain language explanations of modes and tunings, I realized that if noter players worked through my blog and had a rudimentary grasp of why and how to retune to at least a couple of the four most commonly used noter tunings, and were at the stage where they could play many those 30 tabbed tunes in several modes, well then they really had all the tools they needed to continue on by themselves. I didn't need to go on forever writings the numbers for every note of endless traditional folk tunes. You too should learn how to explore how to play your own favorite tunes!

In noter playing, once you know how and why to retune, you get to the point where you can figure out how to first hum and then pick out the melody of a traditional tune you'd like to play.  You play with a noter on the melody string only while your tuning allows the drone strings to automatically provide the harmonies or pleasing filler tones. You can add personal expression and interest through timing and dynamic nuances. Expression, flow, and speed come naturally with time and practice.

Yes, one could create books of noter tab, indicating the tunings, timing, and melody line numbers for many, many traditional tunes. But once you learn how to make an omelette in 30 variations with different fillings, you should be able to explore other filling varieties for omelettes on your own, without really requiring hundreds more recipe instructions for making omelettes with other fillings. You've become a chef and can create your own new omelette recipes!  Once you know a song's melody in your head, creating noter TAB can be as simple as a single line of numbers scribbled out to serve as a quick reminder for yourself. This noter-drone dulcimer playing blog does not teach how to become a professional dulcimer player, it is merely a roadmap to help you get to where you can confidently create and enjoy playing music at home or with family and friends.

Noter style technique shines when playing traditional tunes and folks songs... especially early European or Appalachian music, and some other types of early music. Admittedly it can sound a bit odd to play Starry Starry Night, Summertime, or John Denver's Country Roads in noter style with drones.  Those kinds of tunes rely on the sound of changing chord and key settings for their beauty, and they really sound best when played in chord style.

My point is that after learning the noter playing basics such as tunings, modes, and sliding/rhythm/hammer-ons etc,... I feel there comes a jumping off point where a noter player becomes able to tune to an appropriate mode, pick out a tune on their melody string, make their own simple TABs if they like, and ultimately add musical expression by putting a little of their own feeling and personality into their playing.

That jumping off point might come a little later for chord players, since there is a broader beginner-intermediate range where one might continue to need help with chord fingerings, left hand techniques, understanding arrangements, or playing modern music genres. 
Lastly, let's not forget that some folks who play in either chord style or noter style simply enjoy playing from tab or attending tab-based dulcimer workshops or clubs so much that they choose to continue playing that way and exploring arrangements and jamming together from tab forever. Nothing wrong with that. Whatever brings you musical joy is GOOD!

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Black Jack Davey

Black Jack Davey is from a Scottish ballad first noted in the 1700s, under title variants such as "Wraggle Taggle Gypsies O" or "The Gypsy Laddie".  It usually concerns the tale of a lady abandoning her husband and baby to run off with her Gypsy lover (scandalous!). Or sometimes, the Gypsies are kidnapping her or putting her under a spell. It has been recorded by many artists over the years.
The version I used for making my dulcimer tab is from a 1958 recording of Lula Davis of Arkansas, thanks to the Max Hunter collection online.  Click this link to actually hear her sing it.
I include this ballad here because it has a lovely yet very simple melody to play on the dulcimer.  You can sing the wonderful lyrics with or not... or perhaps get a singing friend to sing them while you play.  Enjoy!

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Visit Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer site..!

Love dulcimers?- then be sure to visit Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer fun social network, located at:
All who love the Appalachian dulcimer are welcome there, no matter what your style, ability, or tastes. Beginner players are especially encouraged. Become a member of Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer (FOTMD) online community -it's easy and FREE! Join Groups that interest you, 'follow' your friends and favorite discussions, add your own photos, music clips, and videos, read or start Forum discussions, ask beginner questions and learn to play your favorite tunes!  
So don't be shy- you've come to the right place to receive or give friendly free help and encouragement in playing music. On we all learn from each other, as friends. Join our 'block party'! -Strumelia

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Trader Boatman

Here is a neat fiddle/banjo old-time tune that I first learned to play on my banjo. It's a fairly simple tune but there's something satisfying about it that makes it real fun to play. It has an easy going feel that evokes drifting down a river on a boat, steered by the boatman, perhaps he is dancing on the deck to the fiddler's playing...
Here is where I first heard it, played beautifully on a deep fretless banjo... in THIS Youtube clip. The tune Trader Boatman comes from the playing of an old Virginia fiddler named Pug Allen, who learned it from his father long before. HERE Is another fine version played by Bill Boyer. And HERE is a very energetic version played by Mike Seeger and Paul Brown on their CD. HERE is some additional background information on the tune, should you care to learn more.
This tune is played in an A,A,B,B pattern- the first part played twice, followed by the second part played twice. DAA tuning for the dulcimer, ionian mode in the key of D. Trader Boatman has a few fun hammer-ons and pull-offs you can try with your noter tip. Look at my video on playing "Sugar Hill" to practice the hammer-on with a noter. A pull-off with a noter is simply lifting the noter off the melody string by pulling it towards you and down, creating a bit of a snap as the noter pulls off the string. It's not too hard really! If you can't get a snappy pull-off, then don't worry for now- just lift the noter up after striking the first note of the two-note pull-off. The second note will sound by itself without another right hand strum if you lift up the noter quickly after playing the first note of the pull-off. If there is a part that seems difficult just play that part over and over slowly until it becomes easier for you, and soon the whole thing will come together.
Don't rush it- take the cue from the banjo players and have fun with this easy rolling tune. Maybe you are lucky enough to know a banjo player who might like to play this together with you in a dulcimer and banjo duet! 

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Lazy Fingers ?

I'm going to talk a bit about using the fingers of the left hand for fretting. Not every traditional player uses a noter- some traditional drone style players use their fingers or 'fingerdance' while playing. Others play in both traditional and modern styles. I'd like to discuss a very common problem I see when fretting with the fingers, in hopes that it will help some readers here, both fingerdance and chord style players.

Many beginner mountain dulcimer players, especially those with no prior stringed instrument experience, play with their fretting hand held low and flat with the fingertips lying down on the strings while playing, pressing the notes with the fatty pads of their fingers. It looks like they are pressing the edge of a pie crust together, or typing on a keyboard. Almost every beginner banjo student I've ever had has done this as well. This way of fretting compensates for lack of hand and finger muscle strength and a lack of fingertip calluses. It helps prevent typical beginner fretting soreness and feels like a natural extension of our comfortable and familiar computer fingerboard typing position. But there is a big downside...

While understandably favored by beginners, this 'lazy fingers' fretting position can easily become a habit that produces unclear or muffled musical tones, and severely restricts your playing dexterity later on. The fleshy pad of the finger is wide and tends to accidentally mute or buzz adjacent strings. It also causes the double melody strings to separate, because you wind up sort of pushing the strings as you press down. Remember, you only need enough pressure to depress the strings down to the fret, not necessarily down to the wooden fretboard surface. The harder you press, the more you push and bend the string and distort the sound, leading to buzzes and poor intonation.
Using an adjacent finger as a strengthening 'crutch' by pressing it together with the fretting finger (another common beginner habit) further prevents the player from stretching the hand, building finger muscle strength, and moving the fingers freely from note to note.
Sliding is difficult on the fleshy finger pads, whereas hard callused fingertips slide beautifully. Imagine trying to run while you are lying down!  Playing calluses will not build up on the fatty pads like they would on the very end of the fingertip bone, and it's those hard calluses and strong finger muscles that help stringed musicians produce their nice clear notes and slide about quickly from note to note. Every time you feel some soreness from playing on the tips of your fingers, know that your wonderful hard musician calluses are beginning to form! The more you play, the less sore and less difficult it will feel.

Raise your left hand UP and arched directly over the strings, as though it is an umbrella protecting the strings from the rain. Lower your fingers vertically straight down when fretting. On all fingers except the thumb, fret with the very tip of the finger, the end of the finger bone. This is where you will build your callouses. The thumb should fret on its edge, again near the tip of the thumb. You will develop a very hard callous there too, on the skin to the right side of your thumbnail bed. Fretting with these hard callused bone tips instead your soft fatty pads will produce clear tones and notes, and your freely mobile arched hand will allow for quick movement between positions on your fretboard. This will enable longer stretches in making chords!  As you play this way more and more, you will find that your fingers can actually make longer stretches when making chords- stretches that were physically impossible or uncomfortable at first. I learned this for myself, and was amazed.

So get your hand arched UP and play on the very tips of your fingers.  Think of your fingers as ballerina feet 'on point'.  You are not typing, kneading dough, or pinching pie crusts.  Play proudly and assertively, no matter how brand new you are to playing your dulcimer!

This is a big issue for beginners, who often suffer from sore fingers, don't have strong hands, and have a hard time getting a clear sound.But it's not so difficult to improve your tone by changing your hand positions slightly. The first step is in recognizing a problem. 

Do you recognize yourself in any of the following pictures?...

In DAd tuning, here is the 'lazy' 1-0-1 "A" chord fretting position. Fingers are lying flat, fretting with the fleshy pads and having to push down too hard to get a good note.

Here is it shown again using different fingers- notice the index finger being used as a 'crutch' to strengthen the fretting finger.  Not good!
This is a better way to get good tone while fretting on the bony tips of your fingers.

Here again, the 'lazy fingers' position for fretting a 3-1-0 "G" chord in DAd tuning.

Here is the same 3-1-0 chord, cleanly fretted with an arched and relaxed hand.

Here is the 'Lazy Fingers' way of fretting a 5-3-3 "G" chord in DAd tuning. Notice how the middle string can get pushed to one side, creating poor intonation.

Arching up to the tips of the fingers when fretting the 5-3-3 chord results in strong hand muscles, clear tone, good intonation,, helpful string musician calluses, and nimbleness of movement when playing.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ghost of Gray Goose...Go Tell Aunt Rhody in Dorian mode on epinette.

This is a little exercise in retuning to a different mode in order to have fun experimenting with the mood of a familiar tune. In the video I am playing a lovely epinette des Vosges, a zither instrument of French origin which is one of the several ancestors of the American mountain dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer. This charming epinette was made for me by John Henry Crocker of Bristol England. I love its sweet clear jingling voice- I think of it as a little nightingale bird. Here you can see John Henry playing his own creative version of Aunt Rhody on a 'sister' epinette he made:
Note that I have set the little epinette on top of a long wooden box for the video- the lower box is not part of the instrument. This epinette has a mere 21" VSL scale length, thus would be tuned higher than the typical 27-28" scale mountain dulcimer. Don't try tuning your mountain dulcimer this high at home!

Here I begin playing Go Tell Aunt Rhody in the key of B flat, tuned f-f-Bb-Bb-f-f (Bb meaning b-flat) and playing in ionian mode. But wait! Then I re-tune to the plaintive Dorian mode by tuning my pair of f-f melody strings DOWN a whole step from f to 'e flat'. That puts my tuning in f-f-Bb-Bb-Eb-Eb (Eb= e-flat). Changing the tuning of the melody strings changes the location of the melody tonic note- the melody 'home' becomes centered around the fourth fret (dorian mode) rather than around the third fret (ionian mode) as before. When the melody tonic moves to the 4th fret, the diatonic fret spacings create the more haunting lonesome sound so typical of Dorian mode.

On a regular sized mountain dulcimer, you can try this fun experiment too! Start by tuning DAA and playing Go Tell Aunt Rhody in the key of D ionian mode based around the 3rd fret for the 'home' tonic note. That may well feel very familiar to you. Then re-tune the melody strings only down one whole step to G for a tuning of DAG, and try playing your own lonesome dorian version of Rhody. Be inventive and don't worry about wrong notes. I like to call this spooky version "Ghost of Gray Goose". Sort of goes with the sad lyrics anyway, don't you think?

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Down with the Tyrant Carrot, or... Don't Punch Yourself in the Nose


Over the years there has been something within myself that has been detrimental and negative to my playing music-  the persistent feeling that I am not playing as well as others, and even worse that I’m not playing as well as I think I should be playing. These thoughts never fail to make me feel unhappy and inadequate. So why do I keep allowing myself to think this way if it only makes me unhappy?

The answer is that such thoughts become a habit. Habits, even negative habits, are within our comfort zone. It is comfortable to fall into habitual thinking because new thinking means going out on a limb and being uncertain and vulnerable.
It was pretty normal to feel inadequate about my playing when I was just starting out and couldn't play much of anything. I got into the habit of always telling everyone that I wasn’t a good player each time before I started playing. Almost everyone does this. But telling others in advance that you’re a lousy player is like punching yourself in the nose just to be sure that nobody else can do it first. It makes you feel safer in a sad kind of way...

But as the years passed and my playing slowly got better (better than I had hoped as a beginner)...well guess what?- I STILL kept feeling bad about not playing as well as others -except now there were many more 'others', and many of them were professional musicians! And I STILL kept feeling bad about not playing as well as I would like to. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have played music for years and who sound just lovely, yet they still apologize for their playing before they play a note, every time. I’ve done this myself, and despite knowing how silly and negative it was, apologies would just pop out of my mouth anyway!

This is such a pointless self defeating habit. It wouldn’t matter how accomplished my playing might ever become, I'd still be thinking I'm not good enough and may never be good enough. Like someone riding a donkey and dangling a carrot at the end of a stick in front of it as a goal- the donkey will keep moving forward to get the carrot, but the carrot always remains just out of reach- what maddening frustration!

I finally decided I didn’t need no stinking carrot. Turning away from the carrot has enabled me to really love what I get from my own music playing every single day- appreciating what I am doing NOW. Perhaps this approach is not for everyone (some folks do better by working with more competitive goals). But getting away from comparing myself unfavorably to others has given me a real sense of freedom and contentment. This positive mindset can even spill over into other parts of our lives.

This is not to say I don’t work towards personal goals to improve my music playing, I do- it's more that I have become my own friend instead of my own worst critic. We are so often our own very harshest critics- it’s so easy to take that negative path. After all, it even disguises itself as modesty, a virtue!- how convenient! ...But why not support and encourage ourselves in a loving positive way instead?

No one should ever have to apologize for their music playing.

I'm trying to keep a slightly different mindset. They say happiness is loving what you have, so I try to really appreciate my ability to make whatever pleasing music sounds I can- even when playing the very simplest tunes. I think about the endless number of little joys in playing and in making music friends and sharing the moment with them. Competing with myself is a race I cannot finish or win.

What if some poor soul was lying in a hospital dying...and they heard a dulcimer being gently strummed in another room- just open strings strummed by a total beginner....well wouldn't they think they were hearing something Heavenly? Of course they would- it would be indescribably beautiful to them. Would they feel the same way if they heard some complex fancy fast dulcimer virtuoso playing? I think not as likely. I think about this sometimes when I have a hard time playing something complicated.  Does the sound of a babbling brook or a songbird or the wind in the pines have to be complex to sound beautiful?  It helps get my priorities balanced in a good way for me again.
I try to laugh off mistakes, and when a tune is proving too difficult, I might just drop it for later on and go back for a while to a tune I can play better. To tell you the truth, I'd much rather play three or four simple tunes well than play twenty difficult tunes sloppily. On the other hand, if I’m in the mood to work on something challenging, well then I’ll do that- but I won’t beat myself up over it if I don’t master it. My goal is not so much to master anything now, but to enjoy the playing itself, or to simply enjoy the challenge of working on something. It becomes all too easy to feel unhappy with what we have, and unhappy about what we can't do. But if you practice something hard and wind up not being able to do it- why, your playing still improves from having practiced or attempted it, so that in itself is a positive thing!

You know, I think we sometimes need a rest from moving forward so that we can move around and breathe for a while at our level in this moment in time. Stopping and absorbing things at our current level is good for us.
I'm convinced that some of our learning process is imperceptible and happens when we aren't paying attention. Maybe when we are only seeing that our playing is not progressing, we are actually advancing in more subtle ways, gaining confidence or gaining more understanding about what is blocking us, absorbing what we have learned so far.
Sometimes moving from side to side is just as productive as moving forward.

I will never totally rid myself of discouraging inner thoughts. None of us can. But at least now I recognize them for what they are- a self-defeating habit- and know that they are working against my personal happiness. Merely recognizing this negative habit in ourselves is half the battle in defeating it. I make a determined effort to be pleased with what I can do, instead of being discouraged by what I can’t do. Since I've been doing that, I've been happier with my music and with other areas of my life. Death to Tyrannical Carrots!

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What notes do I tune my strings to?....

Are you totally lost as to how to tune your dulcimer strings to begin learning to play?

Most players these days start learning in the key of D, choosing either DAA tuning or DAd tuning. But you also must be in the right octave or you may break your strings by tightening them too high.
Click on THIS LINK to find a very handy online tuning aid. See the piano keyboard pictured? Click on the key marked "D3". That's a low sounding note of D that you can tune your heaviest bass string to.
Next... click on the key marked "A3" and tune your middle string to that note.
Lastly, you can tune your single or double melody string(s) to either A3 A3 as well (for a DAA tuning), or to D4 D4 if you want to tune to DAd (also known as DAdd if you have 2 melody strings).
Your melody string or pair of melody strings are closest to you when the dulcimer is in your lap. The bass string is furthest away from you with the dulcimer in your lap.
Notice the open heavy bass string has the lowest sounding note on your dulcimer, D3. Also notice on the piano keyboard how D4 sounds a whole octave higher than D3. And notice how A3 sounds somewhere in the middle between those two d's.
Click HERE to access Susan Trump's very helpful online tuning demos as well- they're great!
There is also a nice clear Youtube demonstration HERE showing  step by step how to tune your dulcimer to DAA.
Now you can start playing your dulcimer in either DAA or DAd!

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Limberjacks Part Two

I've gotten several more interesting limberjacks since my "Limber Jack Part One" post of last year (2009).
I recently got some animal limberjacks from MaryLee Sunseri...a horse, a dog, and a frog.  I'm working on singing some old fashioned children's folk songs while they dance.  This will take some practice!
The limberjacks from MaryLee came as unpainted wood. I'm painting them for fun.
So far I've finished painting the frog. Here is a before and after picture of 'Mr.Froggie'... and he's eager to go a' courtin' for Miss Mousie now!  ;)
Froggie before painting

Mr. Froggie painted

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What ever happened to singing?

When I look at older dulcimer instruction books, or watch older recordings of dulcimer players such as Jean Ritchie or Richard Farina for example, I notice something different from so many of the dulcimer method books and recordings offered today. There seems to be less singing going on these days with dulcimer players.
Instead, there is now more emphasis on playing embellished arrangements of tunes, and people seem to play in larger jamming groups and clubs where very little singing is going on.

Why has there been less and less singing with the dulcimer as time goes on?
I feel this is due to various factors combined...

One factor might be because so many players now remain in the key of D almost all the time. D happens to be a difficult key for many people to sing in, especially women. I have been in dulcimer jam sessions where people play beloved songs like Amazing Grace or Shady grove, etc, and I've wanted to sing out with them...but then I found it was simply impossible for me to sing the song in D, so I gave up after a line or two. I wonder if this happens a lot more than one might guess. I can usually sing more comfortably in the keys F, G, A, B, and C. The keys of D and E are the most difficult for my range. I just can't do it, either in its higher or lower octave.
Older dulcimer instructional materials from the 1960's and 70's frequently taught dulcimer playing based in the key of C, not D. People learned in and tuned to CGC or CGG more often then than today. Nowadays DAd and DAA have become the norm. Did this switch from C to D make it harder to sing along with our playing? All I know is that it sure makes it harder for me to sing.

And when we do sing, we are more self-conscious and embarrassed about singing in front of others these days. Have we succumbed to the commercial recording industry's agenda that only professional musicians should be singing and playing? Our natural self consciousness makes us feel that we should keep quiet and buy our music to listen to rather than make our own. Sadly, we're deathly afraid to sound like 'amateurs'.

Volume, usually hand and hand with faster speed, can be another factor in the falling from favor of singing with the dulcimer. In the old-time music scene, I've seen a tendency towards more volume and speed in jam sessions where people don't sing much. (see my posts on "A Race to the Finish", parts one and two) When I play in instrumental fiddle tune sessions and somebody suddenly starts singing, there are unfortunately times when few in the session know or remember that they need to immediately tone their volume down to let the voice be heard. In contrast, bluegrass musicians (who tend to sing a lot more) seem more aware of instrument volume competing with voice or with others playing their solo break. Bluegrass musicians are skilled at lowering their volume to accommodate a singer. It's not easy for dulcimer players to play in bluegrass sessions, however, because of the very frequent key changes in bluegrass songs.
I think jamming music in general has become a little faster as well over the past 20 years or so, and again there have been times I've tried to sing some of the verses in an old-time song being played in an oldtime fiddle session, but was unable to sing at the rate of speed being played.

The trend towards larger and larger jam sessions and circles has created additional problems with volume. It's almost impossible to have ten or fifteen mountain dulcimers all playing the same thing together without it sounding quite loud. Everyone is trying to be heard over everyone else, or even just trying to hear themselves, so it quickly spirals out of control. Singing can be a good volume 'regulator', just as it is in bluegrass jams. But when singing is absent we must find other volume 'regulators'...even if it's simply someone gently reminding everyone that we need to listen more and play as an ensemble rather than competing.

Another factor in the subtle decline of dulcimer singing might be the change of repertoire that is commonly played on the dulcimer. Quite naturally, people like to play the music that is familiar to them, music they either heard growing up or like to listen to today. In Jean Ritchie's childhood home, ballads and folksongs were sung, and fiddle tunes were played by fiddles. Nowadays, dulcimers are just as often likely to be playing fiddle and dance tunes, Celtic /Irish tunes, or modern pop and rock music. Such music is generally faster and more complex than the old ballads, hymns, and simple folk songs, so the player is naturally less able to sing at the same time while playing. Much of it (like the fiddle tunes) is instrumental to begin with, and has no lyrics at all.
The skilled professional style playing showcased at dulcimer festival concerts is of course very impressive- it is something that many new players aspire to. The typical dulcimer repertoire being taught today in workshops and festivals reflects this aspiration and arrangements have become more complex. Instrumental playing is now favored over singing. All this is perfectly fine, but let's not allow singing with the dulcimer to become a lost art!

The dulcimer has a gentle lovely sound- perfect for singing with! In previous generations, everyday folksongs were learned first by singing, and then an instrumental accompaniment might be added to compliment it. In contrast, now we generally learn to play song arrangements first from TAB, as instrumental pieces, and later we can struggle mightily to sing the words along with it. For most of us, singing has become the less essential aspect to playing, when singing used to be the main event and playing was used more to accompany singing. Playing the instrument has now taken center stage, with singing becoming secondary.

I feel a combination of factors such as a move towards staying in the key of D, an embarrassment about singing in public, an increase in both volume and speed, the larger size of group jams, and a trend towards a more complex modern dulcimer repertoire of instrumental  tune arrangements... all these things have contributed to a general decline in average dulcimer players who sing.

I tend to play in fiddle tune sessions with other instruments. Usually there is not a lot of singing going on. I confess that I have not spent enough time developing my own skills to sing and play dulcimer at the same time. I wish I had more hours in the day to work on all aspects of my music! But on my blog and in the tabs I offer, I do try to present songs with lyrics so that anyone who is inclined to do so can practice singing with their dulcimer playing. Most of my tabs are for songs, not instrumental tunes. The tab I write is rather spare, which allows for singing as well. You may notice that I often suggest a tuning for each tabbed song in a key that may be a little more 'singing friendly'. I do this after trying to sing it myself. I try to encourage people to lose both their fear of re-tuning and their fear of singing.
Keep in mind that you can re-tune or capo into a more singing-friendly key.
There are dulcimer books out there with wonderful songs and ballads for dulcimer players that include not only the simple tab but the words to sing as well. Look for them! Meanwhile, don't be afraid to fool around on your dulcimer and try to play and sing a very simple song on your own. Why not give it a try with the simplest of songs, Go Tell Aunt Rhody?

For tips on singing with the dulcimer, please watch my four videos on the beginner song Go Tell Aunt Rhody.
And if you feel your voice is 'not good enough' to sing, please read this post.

Let's all bring singing with the dulcimer back into favor!

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

4 Videos... Go Tell Aunt Rhodie Redux

I sat down yesterday and wanted to do a simple video about playing perhaps the most classic beginner mountain dulcimer tune known to man- Go Tell Aunt Rhody. What emerged instead was a four video min-series taking Rhody from the very start all the way to showing how to sing the melody while playing the harmony, with general beginner advice sprinkled into the mix.
If you are following this, then please do go read my first post featuring Aunt Rhody, from February 2009, HERE, and click on the tab I provided there for free. If you click on the picture of the TAB, it will enlarge to a nice size that you can then print out and use for your own practice purposes.
Then you can follow along with each of these four videos in sequence- videos #10-13, otherwise known as 'Rhody1-4'. I hope they are helpful to you!:

(Be sure to click below on "continue reading the rest of this post here..." to continue with the other 3 videos and the rest of this post)

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A few of my posts about modes...

In this blog I have tried to put together some workable plain language explanations of modes and modal tunings that are more easily understood by 'regular folk' and beginners, without getting heavily into music theory, which can be awfully intimidating.

The following is a handy list of links to some of the posts I have put up that specifically explain modes and modal tunings:

Most important is my series of posts (1-5) walking you through the four most common dulcimer modes and the how and whys of how it all works, written in a way that uses plain simple language and hands-on easy concepts that I think anyone can understand:
Modes aren't so scary #1
Modes aren't so scary #2
Modes aren't so scary #3
Modes aren't so scary #4
Modes aren't so scary #5

Here's the video where I demonstrate re-tuning between the four common modes, in the key of D:
Re-tuning video
(Best watched after reading the above series of 5 posts)

And two more related posts explaining more about using modal tunings:
Get out of jail free (this one has some useful visual charts that are VERY simple)
and lastly, taking it all back home: Why I like DAA tuning

I hope some of this may be helpful. None of them take very long to read. And if you actually tune your dulcimer along with each post as you go along, you will grasp the concept of modal tuning even more quickly and easily.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why is it taking so LONG for me to strum well?!

When I was just beginning to play the banjo, a girlfriend and I attended a three day banjo workshop taught by Dwight Diller of West Virginia- a master clawhammer banjo player. We were both rank beginners. After the first day, I said to my friend “I just HATE that I sound like such an amateur, I HATE sounding like a total beginner. I wish I could play like Dwight!”. My wise friend said “Well
but don’t we sound like we are supposed to sound for having played just a few weeks? -We probably sound just like Dwight did when he had been playing for three weeks.” A simple concept, but it hit home for me... I saw that I should appreciate each stage of playing I am in at the moment, no matter how humble my beginner skills.

Strumming confidently on your dulcimer typically will takes months of playing. Strumming really well takes years. Don't give it a second thought when you still feel awkward after a few weeks. That's totally normal. Beginners are supposed to sound like beginners. I've been a beginner many times on various instruments or whenever I try to learn a new style. Embrace your's like the beginning phase of a great romance! Don't bang your head in frustration and feel inadequate ...rather enjoy the sweet rosy flush of new discovery.

I used to play mountain dulcimer in chord/flatpicking style, and I was pretty good at it- sounded very nice and I felt comfortable picking that way. I also had a little experience playing both mandolin and banjo.
But when I decided I wanted to start playing in traditional noter and drone style, I had to start right back at Square One again. It was a totally new thing for my right hand, and suddenly I was a brand new beginner all over again. Ackk!! The strumming was a whole different thing from all my other experiences, and I sounded very awkward, rhythm-wise. I stumbled constantly, felt embarrassed, and could not keep up or keep steady. All this while I was able to play banjo rhythm confidently!

It took me about 3 months to even get 'comfortable' on a basic level with my dulcimer strumming rhythm. Another several months to actually get decent and to be able to play at a fairly normal speed. About 3 years from starting that endeavor, I was able to sound 'good' -with a solid bounce and crisp syncopation, and I could play fairly fast. There are still some fiddle sessions these days that are simply too fast for me to keep up with. That's ok with me though, I don't feel driven to do everything well.

Now I have been learning to play the bowed psaltery for the past 10 months...and I'm starting from Square One as an awkward beginner all over again! But now I figure that learning is where much of the fun really lies. It's the journey, not the destination. It's the present moment that is most precious.

I have taught myself to enjoy the journey and the struggle more, so that I don't have to worry about the destination as much. The funny thing is, no matter how 'good' we get, our destination or ultimate goals seem to always remain just out of reach anyway, like a carrot on a stick. Meanwhile the journey, the moment, is right here in our hand to bring us delight if we only allow it to. Enjoy the romance of being a beginner, always learning and discovering ...and yes struggling too. Everything else will follow naturally in its proper time.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." -John Lennon

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Warfare Is Raging

There is someone whose playing and singing I greatly admire, Ken Rice, aka "Flint Hill" of Pennsylvania. Ken is a member of Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer, and he very kindly consented to my posting his version of this old ballad.

Ken says:
Also known as The Girl Volunteer, Young Johnny, Johnny Oh Johnny, and The Warfare is Raging. There are a bunch of versions. I learned the tune from Joel Keys from Tryon, NC around 1967. It's also influenced by a banjo version that Louise Foreacre did on a 1950s Stoneman Family LP.
Played noter-drone style on a Ben Seymour Galax tuned dddd (D4, D4, D4, D4) which starts a G Ionian scale on the third fret of the paired melody strings. The tune is pentatonic, missing the 3rd and 7th scale degrees (Bronson mode π2). The tone set is DEGAB, lowest to highest, with G being the tonic.
I'm doing a fingerpicking roll that tracks the melody with the thumb and picks up 2-3 drone notes per melody note using the first two fingers.
You can listen to his wonderful picked version of The Warfare Is Raging... CLICK HERE.
Trying to accurately notate Flint Hill's very personal and rhythmic dulcimer picking style would be next to impossible, and likely confusing for beginners, so I have attempted to translate his very basic fret number suggestions into a tab that can be used as a simple jumping off point for learning to play this traditional ballad in your own way. Any ionian mode tuning will work with this tab.
Do listen to his mp3 clip over and over, it will help you get a feel for this compelling tale and its rhythmic bounce. Try to hear what Flint Hill is doing in his playing. Then make the song your own!

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

the Music Police

This is a difficult blog post for me to write. In fact, I have put it off ever since I began this blog over a year ago. It's a subject that people often feel strongly about, and unfortunately it tends to make people angry no matter what their views are.
All I can do is write about my own thoughts and feelings on it, and hope that whoever reads this will be able to read it with an open mind and heart, at least consider what they read for a moment or two before dismissing it.
This post is about the concept of the Music Police.

I first heard the term "Music Police" when I was just starting to play music in groups. I was an insecure beginner player, and I would bring my little 1910 Wurlitzer mandolin to a local folk jam. There were lots of very friendly welcoming people there, and many were singer-songwriter guitar players eager to sing well known folk songs or their own compositions enthusiastically. This was fine by me, since I could plink along in the background and make my numerous mistakes without attracting too much attention. It was a nurturing beginning for me, and everyone there was happy to help and encourage me. Sometimes one person or another would make a comment like "I don't think the Music Police would approve of this version, but I like to play it this way..." , or "The Music Police would have you arrested if they heard you play that chord.". Comments like this always made me wonder, but I figured the Answer would reveal itself to me one day when I was ready. I didn't want to appear stupid by asking about it.

I began to play clawhammer banjo and I did a lot of reading on Banjo-L where the old-time banjo players and the Bluegrass banjo players were regularly seeing things from two different vantage points. I noticed that the two terms 'Music police' AND 'the Banjo Police' got thrown about on occasion, when the two sides were not in agreement about...whatever. I also noticed that it was usually the folks who liked older styles of playing that got called 'the Music Police' when discussions got testy.

Later, I was drawn towards old-time music and old fiddle tunes, and I met my wonderful fiddler husband. My playing and my enthusiasm really took off and I just couldn't get enough of that old style music. I began going to old-time fiddle tune gatherings, where I heard more references to the elusive and ominous "Music Police", also sometimes called the "Tradition Police". I began to understand that the term referred to anyone who thought their way of playing a tune was the right way/traditional way, and anyone else's ways of playing it was the wrong way. The other seemingly essential part of the definition of Music Police was that usually this term was applied to someone who liked to play in a traditional style.

I heard stories about obnoxious 'music police' musicians who insisted that tunes should only be played a certain way (their way or the traditional way) and who went around telling others how WRONG they were, saying rude things like "THAT'S NOT HOW IT GOES!". Interestingly, the villains in these stories invariably had no name... they were always about 'some guy' (usually from parts unknown) who joined a session and was never seen again after that. It never seemed to be about someone who anyone actually knew by name. And it wasn't unique to dulcimer circles, it was the same among banjo circles, fiddlers, guitar players, you name it.
Mind you, it is usual in old-time fiddle gatherings for folks to discuss how the various versions of a tune differ or are the same, and where the tunes came from. It's not uncommon to hear some fiddler saying "Well Rayna got that tune from the old Salyer recording but Salyer didn't play that part like she does, he played the high part more like this..." followed by a demonstration. Now a statement such as this might be overheard by a novice musician and they might easily interpret and retell this incident as the fiddler having told someone they played something THE WRONG WAY. In reality, experienced musicians with a passion for their music usually enjoy discussing different versions and talking about the old sources of tunes and how they were played, how they changed as they got passed along from one person to the next. But that sort of material never makes for interesting stories.

I am not saying I have never heard anyone say anything actually rude or obnoxious to someone else about their version of playing something...I have! There are rude people in all types and genres and levels of music, young and old, both experienced and beginner alike. But the few instances of rudeness I have observed over the years had more to do with someone just being plain rude and ego-inflated overall than with any purist quest they might have been engaged in to 'preserve tradition'. The fact is that person would just as likely be rude when ordering coffee in a diner if they were having a bad hair day. They tend to think they are right about everything and that everyone else is misguided...but their superior notions apply to things far beyond just their music. I don't really think of them as the "Music anything", much less as the 'Music Police'. They are just impolite or thoughtless people. Well enough about rude people, this post is not about them.

There is another interesting factor at work here that I think reinforces the idea that the infamous Music Police mostly consist of traditional players.
Imagine two people who love to eat ice cream. They both eat ice cream with a passion. Margaret loves any and all flavors of ice cream. Jenny only likes chocolate ice cream. One week they go to the ice cream parlor and they both get the flavors they ask for and both go home happy. The next week the parlor is out of chocolate ice cream and Margaret thinks Jenny is a difficult snob because she doesn't want to eat some other flavor. When they leave, Margaret is happily full and Jenny is disappointed. The next week, the parlor only has chocolate ice cream. They both go home happy. The last week, the parlor is out of all ice cream, and they both go home unhappy.
Maybe this sounds silly, but I think that musicians who like to play a wide variety of music are often seen as being more reasonable, more good natured, more open minded, more accepting, and just generally 'nicer', while musicians who like to focus on and play one type of music are often automatically seen as being closed minded, snobby, anal, curmudgeonly, difficult, and egoistic. Jenny is perhaps labeled a difficult snob because she only likes chocolate ice cream, while Margaret is seen as more reasonable person because she likes any flavor of ice cream. Margaret proclaims that "It's all good!" and suspects that Jenny looks down her nose at her and feels superior. Meanwhile, Jenny agrees that 'it's all good'...but she doesn't actually want to have to eat it all. lol!

I think it's kind of natural human nature to see someone who likes many flavors as a positive person, and conversely it's human nature to see someone who only likes one or two flavors as a negative person. But I happen to believe that both people are perfectly justified in liking everything, nothing, or anything in between. Some people don't like ice cream at all! Human beings are all different, we all have different likes and preferences, and no one's preferences are better than someone else's. Neither Jenny nor Margaret are better. It takes Jennys and Magarets and Lucys and Emilys and everyone else to make this world a wonderful, diverse, and positive place.

Do people who behave like actual Music police even exist at all? I believe they do. But such people are so few and far between as to be insignificant. The problem is that the term is thrown about all too frequently to include just about anyone who talks about how they like a certain way of playing something. It's being applied to those who enjoy playing music in a traditional way, always accompanied by the implication that they think their way of playing is the only 'right' way and everyone else's ways of playing is the 'wrong' way. In reality, very few people ever declare themselves right and others wrong. Such people are as rare as hens' teeth. Yet the concept of Music Police lurking in every alleyway, bullying and pouncing self-righteously on other players persists.
Using the term 'music police' at someone is an easy and thoughtless way to dismiss and demean them in a musical discussion or disagreement. It's a cheap shot that almost never has any actual basis in fact. Yet it hurts people and does damage. For me at least, it's time to take a stand against characterizing people unfairly.

My own way of dealing with this unpleasant conversational cop-out is this: every time I or anyone else gets called the 'music police', 'tradition police', 'dulcimer police', or whatever... instead of feeling annoyed or frustrated and letting the term slip by without comment, I'm just going to ask the person who used it why they used it used in that instance? I'm going to ask for a clear explanation about why that person thinks this. I believe that being open and straightforward about this will go a long way to make everyone aware of their choices of words and it will foster better understanding in discussions between music-minded people. If we understand why we all feel as we do about such issues, it will serve to bring people together rather than pushing them further apart.

It's time to blow the whistle on the overused and hurtful term "music police".

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Over The River, Charlie

This past weekend I attended a small dulcimer festival near me, and there were several workshops I enjoyed. One song, taught by Carolynne Langley in her 'Songs of the Mountains' workshop, stuck in my head long after I got home. It was Over The River Charlie, as played and sung by Jean Ritchie.
Now, I've seen Jean's standard notation version in her Dulcimer Book, and I've heard her lovely recorded voice singing it over the years. But sometimes a song just grabs onto you at a certain moment in time and won't let go, and I am grateful to Carolynne for bringing this song to my attention again. I decided to make a TAB in true Dorian mode tuning for it, and to also include a simple harmony part that one might wish to play while singing the melody part. Jean Ritchie has written about this pretty way of singing the melody while playing a harmony on the dulcimer's melody string. I couldn't manage to sing it in D, so I tabbed it down to C instead, which helped. You can always play a dulcimer duet with someone using the two parts as well.
A quick clip of Jean Ritchie playing and singing this pretty song can be heard here. Of course no one can sing it like Jean.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"I have no musical talent at all."

Whenever I mention to some stranger that I play a musical instrument, half the time I get the same response- they say "You're so lucky, I have absolutely no musical talent at all." If I protest, they insist "No, you don't understand- believe me, I have NO talent at all!"
I believe that anyone who enjoys hearing music has some musical ability hidden dormant somewhere deep within them.

My banjo student was 8 years old when he first came to me for lessons. He had a lot of enthusiasm, but he could not sing in tune AT ALL, and at first he couldn't even tell me which note was higher or lower if I played him for example a C note and a C# sharp note. He had a very hard time time tuning his banjo on his own without an electronic tuner, and if I sang a note to him, he could not sing the same note along with me. I figured he'd never be a 'natural' musician, but I loved his energy and eagerness to learn, and I figured he'd get some fun out of it anyway...

And my, how he LOVED to play banjo! He practiced at home more than any other student I ever had except maybe one. By regularly practicing at home and listening to music more, he has actually developed and trained his ear over the past two years, with only minimal suggestions from me.

Now he is 10, and not only can he tune his whole banjo completely, by ear alone, but he can hear even the tiniest differences in pitch when a string is ever so slightly off pitch. He can sing in tune. When I sing several notes randomly, he can sing them accurately after me. He hears right away when a note is not right and he corrects it. He can tune his banjo perfectly between six different tunings and not even need to use a tuner at all, all he needs is one starting note.

All this really surprised me, because I used to use a little test with any students' first lesson- I'd sing a note and they'd try to match it. And I'd sing two notes that were close to each other and they'd tell me which was higher. At first, my little banjo student couldn't pass those tests. Now I know that that will really not tell me whether someone will become a natural musician. Yes, I said become a natural musician ...because I now believe that we can train and develop modest abilities and skills that are lying asleep within us. We can become better at hearing tones and notes.

I no longer accept it when anyone tells me "I have absolutely no musical ability." Most people are not born musical geniuses, and most people will not become professional musicians, but I now believe that everyone has some amount of natural musical ability deep within them, waiting to be brought to life. And that this little ability, if nurtured, is enough to enable those who claim to have 'no musical talent at all' to experience great joy in making simple everyday music for themselves and their loved ones.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Video: Muted strumming rhythm practice

Many new players understandably concentrate so hard on not making wrong notes that they tend to overlook trying to improve their strumming rhythms.
I remember well when I was just starting out playing banjo- West Virginia clawhammer banjo player Dwight Diller first taught me in his workshop, and he said "The right hand is the meat and potatoes, the left hand is just the gravy."- I always loved that!

So here is a way to really IMPROVE your strumming rhythm without driving others crazy! Try muted rhythm strums, it's actually fun! Includes some varied strum rhythms to practice.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Video: Re-tuning between the four common modes

I decided to make a brief video showing how one tunes back and forth between the four most common modes. Using the key of D for my example, and starting in DAd tuning, I demonstrate how to tune from mixolydian DAd to aeolian DAC, then to ionian DAA, and finally to dorian DAG. Then I re-tune back through each made again until I'm back in DAd. It's easier than you might think. Watch and see!
My cat Pearl makes her appearance in the start of the video- she was going to demonstrate how to play Cluck Old Hen using an archaic claw-drone style...but she chickened out at the last minute and so I had to do the video instead.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Video: Tips for beginners: Home made straps

Someone recently asked if I could elaborate on the funny looking straps they saw hanging from my dulcimer. So here are some ideas for making simple home made straps from ribbon, yarn, and buttons, to keep your dulcimer from sliding off your lap.
Don't forget to 'button up for safety'! ;D

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Video: Tips for beginners- Where to add the extra strums?

Here is a little explanation to help you figure out where to add those extra 'ditty' strums in a tune. It's especially hard for beginners to know where to add those little extras. Where do you strum 'bump-ditty' instead of just 'bump'?

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Video: Tips for beginners- Sugar Hill -part two

You can find the TAB to this old-time song earlier in this blog, HERE.
Beginner video #5. Starting to play the song Sugar Hill and incorporating some strum patterns and a slide.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Video: Tips for beginners- Sugar Hill -part one

You can find the TAB to this old-time song earlier in this blog, HERE.
Beginner video #4. Starting to play the song Sugar Hill and incorporating some strum patterns and a hammer-on.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Video: Tips for Beginners- more on strumming motions

Here is a second video on basic strumming which goes over some of the motions you want for smooth strumming and some of the things to avoid:

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Video: Tips for beginners- STRUMMING

Here's a very quick video I recorded so beginners could practice a basic starting strum rhythm and strumming directions. I hope it's helpful to some folks.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fun With Feathers- Part 2 !

Oh Boy, more fun with feathers!

First, do read my FIRST post about using feathers as picks and noters-- CLICK HERE FOR Fun With Feathers part 1.

Recently on my online community website, Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer, Ken Rice of Bucks County, Pennsylvania posted some excellent photos and instructions for making traditional feather picks and noters from goose quills. I felt his information would be very useful to folks wanting to experiment on their own with making feather picks and noters, and Ken graciously gave his permission to post his photos and insructions here on my blog...
Ken gets his feathers from his three lovely geese- Maudie, Olive, and Fig:

Here are Ken's instructions and photos for making NOTERS out of goose quills. Ken writes:

I have been using a noter made from an adult goose flight feather. I like it, but I am new to dulcimer playing so don't have much of a basis for comparison.
It's about 15 cm (6 in) long, and it weighs about 1/2 gram. The feather shaft has a gentle bow, and you hold the convex face of the bow against your palm, using the large end of the shaft to fret the string.
I have better luck when I use a hot knife to cut these. The shafts tend to splinter and split otherwise. Alternatively, you could saw them very gently with a jeweler's saw and burn the end back on a hot surface.
When pulling the barbs off the shaft, try not to pick up a long curly "shaving" from the shaft itself. This weakens the shaft.
I touch it up gently with fine sandpaper, and it's done.
It's holding up well, though I've only been using it a month.

And here is how Ken makes his PICKS from goose quills...picks such as these are particularly suited to the traditional Galax, Virginia dulcimer playing style:
Picks made from flight feathers from our geese Maudie, Fig and Olive. These range from 8 1/2 to 10 inches.
Peel the barbs off gently and gradually or debarb them with a single-edge razor blade, singe them over a flame, cut to length with dog nail clippers and then sand off any remain barbs on the large end so they feel smooth when you hold them.

Thank you Ken Rice for these great quill crafting tips and photos!

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