Thursday, February 19, 2009

A new player's first tune- Hot Cross Buns

A new dulcimer student came for her first lesson today.
She has virtually no musical experience, but felt very left out when all the other members of her family enjoy playing their various instruments at home. She wanted to play something too, very badly. The dulcimer in noter and drone style would be just right for her! This lovely lady had absolutely no idea where to start in terms of playing anything at all. The very idea of trying to coordinate strumming with one hand and fretting various notes with the other hand was completely alien and scary to her...

I have loaned her a spare dulcimer, which I tuned to DAA (the twin melody strings being tuned to 'A'). This puts her in the key of D, and in my favorite mode for noter playing, the Ionian mode. The Ionian mode means that the "Do" of the 'do re mi' scale starts at the third fret of the melody string(s). In the key of D that would be the D note played when pressing the third fret.

First we worked on playing some notes on the fretboard with the fingers, without strumming (by just plucking the string with the right hand any old way). I showed her that the open string was "0", and the first fret was "1", second fret was "2", etc. We practiced finding the frets from 1-7.

Later we worked on just strumming with the right hand without playing any notes with the left hand. She used a large thin flexible triangular pick. Her first strum rhythm was just down, down, down, down. Next we did down, down-up, down, down-up for a while, and some simple variations of this pattern.

Then we went back to playing a few notes with the noter, sliding it up and down between frets 1-7. Like most beginners, she at first tended to lift the noter up slightly when moving between notes. I showed her how doing that only made a funky rubber band sound, and that her notes would sound clearer if she just kept the noter down and made it slide like liquid, or like a trolley car along a track.
At last we began to put notes and strums together to play the very simplest of simple tunes I could think of: Hot Cross Buns. Hot Cross Buns is even simpler than Mary Had a Little Lamb or Go Tell Aunt Rhody. It doesn't get any simpler than this, folks.

I wrote out a TAB notation to help her begin. We will work on playing Hot Cross Buns without any paper next week, but she needed something to help her get started that she could work on at home without forgetting. I have found that beginner TAB found in some dulcimer tab books can be visually confusing to someone who has no prior knowledge of music at all. That is why I am creating my own version of simple noter played tune tabs in a format that I feel is visually a bit easier for an absolute beginner to understand.
Working with only one section at a time, and putting a simple 'down, down-up' strum together with only three notes, for a while we played just that first measure: "hot cross buns" on frets # 5, 4, 3, 3....over and over. At the end of the hour she was able to play Hot Cross Buns. It made me happy to see how thrilled she was. She kept saying "I just can't believe I'm actually doing this!". That's what it's all about.
Here is the very simple TAB I wrote for her very first dulcimer tune:

I tried to convey the strumming pattern in two places- at the top with down and up "V" arrows, and at the bottom with the vertical beat lines indicating a whole down strum or a down-up strum. Each measure has four beats.

Something special was in the air during her first lesson, because it began to snow so beautifully outside...huge fluffy flakes falling like a perfect antique picture postcard. I told her this was a good omen, that it meant her playing would bring merriment and joy to others. (I made it up but she loved the idea.)


  1. Thank you so much for the encouragement. Your teaching style is so warm and kind. I was getting discouraged with my playing and I've never even had a real lesson. I took a 3 hour workshop and got a basic dulcimer and a few pieces of sheet music. I loved your analogy about the beauty simple strumming might have for a person dying. Thank you for the gift of encouragement.

  2. Can't we just eliminate the lines that are all "0" and put a note in the listings? The additional lines make it impossible for my eyes to follow without getting a splitting headache-just like an attempt at reading regular musical notation or cards or math equations.

  3. Hi Gordon!
    You can lay a strip of paper over the zeros to avoid headaches. :)