Saturday, February 14, 2009

Starting simple


The real beauty of noter & drone style playing is its simplicity. If you can hum Mary Had a Little Lamb, then you can play it on your melody string with no need for a tab arrangement to guide you.
Chords have made things complicated enough for people to feel they need tab to get all the fingerings. There ARE no 'fingerings' in noter, fingerdancing, or Galax style playing... You play the simple melody line on the melody string, and the open drone strings will provide additional interval notes that will sound full, and you won't need to refer to 'fingering positions'. Many folks grow to love the sound of the mode intervals changing against the open unchanging drones.

Start SIMPLY, with a very simple melody you know. You will get better steadily if you just play easy stuff and have fun with trying to pick out melodies. Save the tricky tunes til later. Every time you get frustrated just go back a step to something easier. Once you can play Go Tell Aunt Rhody or Mary Had a little lamb without having to concentrate too hard, then move on to Twinkle Little star or Three Blind Mice or Frere Jacques. To start, perhaps you could tune your dulcimer (from bass side to melody string side) D-A-AA. This is tuning in the Ionian mode. Your key note of D in your melody will start on your THIRD fret on your melody string that is tuned to A. Your third fret will be a D, and you'll be playing in the key of D. Start playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on your melody string(s) starting and ending on your third fret. You will be playing in Ionian mode.

Good rhythm comes with practice and time. Rhythm is just as important as notes. Don't even worry or think about speed- speed just comes automatically as the months go by. Speed should not be a goal.
Try a longer more flexible pick. Try cutting a pick out of a stiff plastic take-out container from a Deli- make it 1 1/2" long and about a 1/2" wide, tapering to a rounded end. As you get faster, you might not want stiff short Herdim picks for playing fast tunes. Don't do any flatpicking on various strings. Basically you are strumming across all strings every time. Personally, I never flatpick at all- and flatpicking is a technique that is already amply covered in the teachings of more modern dulcimer playing styles. Some people do, however, angle their pick sometimes so they they purposely avoid hitting the drones on certain parts of the tune. Or, they angle it to only hit a low drone on some particular beat. These are cool techniques you can experiment with later.

Your beginning rhythm strum will be something like DOWN, down-up, DOWN, down-up. Like a galloping horse sound. Go to my YouTube Channel, HERE, and watch my videos about beginning strumming and using a noter.
Work on the strums and then work in your notes like TWINK, kel-l, TWINK, kel-l, LIT, tel-l, STAR, down-up.... You may need to practice your strum rhythm by holding your left hand on the strings to mute them and just practice your strumming without driving everyone in the neighborhood insane. Nothing comes without practice, but just remember that the first few days are the very hardest, from then on it will slowly, slowly get EASIER. Don't be frustrated, just try to enjoy the simple zen quality of the resonant sounds you are making. Think of yourself as a loon calling out a single lonesome note that echoes over the lake. There is profound beauty in a single heartfelt note. Let it come from within you and enjoy its pure beauty.


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A little bit about myself

Here is a bit of background information about me (so hard to write about oneself!). It's likely way more detail than you need. I am not well known and have no music credentials other than just being a player with my own thoughts and opinions about music and dulcimers, all based simply on my own personal observations and experiences. I have no cd's or books to sell, I don't teach at music camps. I do patent illustrations and technical illustration for a living. I ride bicycles, create my own art in various ways, and play music for enjoyment with my husband and with friends. My mother played classical music constantly when I was a child- her friends would come over and play Bach and Vivaldi on recorders, violins, harpsichord, cello, flute. As a child I played cello in school, but never studied music seriously...

Later as an adult I decided I wanted to play a stringed instrument again, and took up mandolin and attempted to play renaissance music on it. I played alone in my kitchen, was not very good at it, but it was enough to keep me happy. After a while I had an urge to play music with other people, and began attending a local open folk music jam session with my mandolin. I had no particular direction in mind. At one session, a fellow pulled out a mountain dulcimer and began to play a folk song on it. I was floored. I had never seen or heard such a thing and fell instantly and completely in love with its sound. It was a life changing moment. When the jam was over he showed me how I could play a simple tune by just fretting the melody string and strumming with the other strings left open. WOW! I quickly got online and got myself a dulcimer and some books, and began to teach myself to play.

The books I got all taught DAdd tuning chord style playing, and so that's what I did, and it seemed to go well with the usual folk music being played at the folk jam. I began attending a local dulcimer club where everyone there also played in that style. I attended some dulcimer workshops, and I studiously worked on my chording techniques. Eventually I became good at it. I actually had never heard of such a thing as 'oldtime music' until I had been going to the folk jams and playing my dulcimer for a while.
When I did finally hear recordings of archaic fiddle and banjo tunes, I recognized something primal about them, something to do with their drones and use of old sounding intervals instead of full Western modern chord sounds. In a strange way, it somehow echoed the medieval and renaissance sounds I had stuck in my childhood memories, and I felt connected to it. I often wonder whether I would have ever found my passion in oldtime music if my mother hadn't played early classical and medieval music at home for us as children! Inspired by my newfound passion for drones, I took up clawhammer oldtime banjo because it resonated with those drone things inside me. The banjo was ‘open tuned’ to a key and utilized open drone strings a great deal. By that time I mentally associated the dulcimer completely with playing chords and flatpicking melodies over all the strings.

I met my husband Brian eleven years ago, a man who happens to be a wonderful oldtime fiddler, and I began to accompany his Kentucky and West Virginia repertoire of fiddle tunes on my banjo. I loved the cross tunings and use of open drones he used in his fiddling. I also started singing unaccompanied ballads and enjoying their lonesome sound as well. My poor dulcimer collected dust.

Well, after a few more years of this, one day out of the blue I remembered how I had first been shown to play a simple melody on the dulcimer on just the melody string. Then I remembered that I had an old copy of Jean Ritchie's The Dulcimer Book that I thought had some more information about playing in an older style. At that moment the thought occurred to me that perhaps I should explore playing my dulcimer in the older traditional drone style I had read about long ago when first starting out. Like...DUH!
So I picked up my dulcimer again, threw my chording skills out the window, and this time it seemed so very natural to me to play it. The traditional noter and drone style of playing was perfectly matched to my 'inner music heart'. The sound was perfect for the music I wanted to play.
At first it was a HUGE struggle to coordinate my noter hand and my strumming rhythm. For weeks it seemed incredibly awkward. It was good that I didn’t give up, because very slowly I improved and started feeling more natural using a noter.

Since then, I play both oldtime banjo and noter style dulcimer fairly equally and they have brought me much joy. My husband and I play music with each other and with our friends who play and love home made music as much as we do. We play for enjoyment and as a way to connect and celebrate life with people we love. We play occasionally in our community as well. Music is part of our lifestyle routine, just like going for walks or a bike ride or joining friends for breakfast in our town's little cafe.


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