Friday, February 20, 2009

Dulcimer Land / Aunt Rhody

My new student phoned me today to tell me that she could not stop playing. She said her children were upset because she didn't even make dinner for them last night. (!) She said they would come up to her while she was obsessively strumming Hot Cross Buns and say things like "Mom, I know you're in 'Dulcimer Land' right now, but...."

Dulcimer Land is a nice place to be.
She told me she must have her very own dulcimer, and it must be as soon as possible.

Here is the second song she has been working on. I made a simple tab sheet to help her at home...Go Tell Aunt Rhody:
If you are a beginner noter player, feel free to download the tabs I post on my blog for your own personal use at home to help you learn to play. In return I do ask that you not make additional copies to distribute to other people or groups of people without asking my permission, and that you do not post them on other websites or reproduce or use them in any commercial way. Thanks!

I find it amazingly timely that this new student came to me for lessons just a few days after I started this blog. And because she had absolutely no experience whatsoever with making music prior to this, I think she will help me discuss how beginners can get started playing that beautiful instrument we call the Appalachian dulcimer.

In my coming posts I want to talk about many other things as well, such as what tunings are useful for what purposes, and why I myself like to play in certain tunings. Stay tuned! (pun intended)

NOTE: Over a year after writing this post, I came back to re-examine the playing of Go Tell Aunt Rhody, and I made four new beginner videos that I hope you will find useful when learning to play and sing this favorite traditional song. To watch these four short beginner videos, go to this post HERE.

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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.)

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A little zephyr

Jean Ritchie wrote that when she and her 13 other siblings were young, her father Balis Ritchie used to play his dulcimer in a quiet way and then hang it up on the wall, and the children were forbidden to touch it. He tuned it in Ionian mode, in the key of C (CGG), and he never played in any other tuning.
Jean wrote that the lure of that dulcimer on the wall proved too much to resist, and when no one was about she would take it off the wall and sit on the floor behind the couch and try to play her favorite songs with it. She would get frustrated, because the tuning her father used wasn't suitable for all the tunes she tried. She experimented with changing the tuning until the song came out right on it.
Sometimes her father would come home and she'd have to put the dulcimer back in a hurry. Then when he'd take it down to play, he'd strum it a bit and get a puzzled look on his face and say "Looks like the wind has gotten into these strings again."

Jean wrote that her father liked to play the dulcimer at home, but he didn't much like to have an audience. If the children listened but went on about their activities he would continue playing. But if they gathered about to sit and watch him, well he didn't like that as much and would sometimes just get up and put the dulcimer back up on the wall. So the children learned to pretend they didn't notice his dulcimer playing, so they could get to hear it longer.

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The Corn Dog

Mmmm.....corn dogs!!

In my last post I spoke about the hand cramps I was experiencing when I gripped a noter when playing for periods of more than 30 minutes or so at a time. I had decided to make a soft padded cover for the handle of my noter...

If you look at this photo of me holding the noter with the padded cover, and compare it to the previous post's picture of my hand holding a bare noter, you can see how this padding prevents me from closing my hand too tightly around the little stick. My hand now stays more open and relaxed, and my hand cramps have pretty much disappeared, even when I play for 3 hours or so. I think this little gizmo would work well for anyone who either plays for hours or for people with problems like arthritis, which can certainly cause hand pain and cramping.
I called this simple padded sheath my corn dog...well because with a noter in it, it looks convincingly like a (somewhat unappetizing) corn dog! Here is the one I made in about 15 minutes, and it has lasted me about five years so far. It does look a bit worse for wear at this point. In this photo you can see the side seam, and how the end of the tube of felt was pulled closed with needle and thread in a gather. The dog gets a rounded look all by itself with age.

Here's how to make yourself your OWN corn dog:

Just kidding.

But hey, I wish I could make some dulcimer corn dogs this easily, six at a time, in a handy dandy corn dog machine!

To make a padded dulcimer corn dog noter cover:
Get a piece of soft plain foam rubber about 1" thick and cut a squarish piece that will just wrap around your noter and meet along the edge, and long enough to hang 1/4" over the handle end of your noter and then end right about so you have one inch of bare noter sticking out the end to do your playing with.
Cut a piece of craft felt so it is about 1/2" bigger on each side than the flat piece of foam. Felt works well because it sort of stretches and molds itself to the shape you are coaxing it into, and it does not fray or unravel. I chose dark brown felt so it wouldn't show dirt. =8-o Thicker felt is better than cheap thin felt. If the felt is thin you could use it double thickness I suppose.

Wrap the foam piece around your noter handle and keep it in place with a couple of pieces of scotch tape going all around it. This part does not have to be perfect, and you can just leave the tape there in the finished corn dog- it won't hurt anything.
Then take your felt piece and start wrapping it over the felt. Start it somewhere other than the seam of the foam. Wrap the felt around foam, and have the end overlap snugly over the beginning of the felt, and then just turn the very edge under neatly and hold it firmly while you begin to sew the felt closed over the foam along the long seam. Hold it slightly snug as you sew, you don't want a floppy loose covering. You are making a felt tube that will hold the foam firmly inside and keep it snug around the noter handle. Best to use strong button thread for this so it will hold up over time and use.
Next, take your needle and thread and tuck the handle end of the felt tube into itself and sew it neatly closed. Then, move to the stick/playing end and sew around the circular felt edge in a simple running stitch that you can pull closed, thus gathering the end of the felt tube together a little. Make sure you don't make it so tightly gathered that you can't take the noter in and out anymore. You might want to change noters! It's handy to be able to slide noters in and out of it.

Now your foam tube is totally covered and secured by the felt tube and is finished on both ends. There's your corn dog.

I must warn you that people will inquire as to what "that thing" is that you are holding and playing with. I always like to have a bit of fun and hold it up by the stick and say "It's a corn dog!". Then I savor the bewildered look on their face for just a moment before I break down and take my noter out and show them about the padded cover that makes it easy on my hands. At that point they always look vastly relieved that I might not be a total nut-case after all.

Enjoy years of playing in comfort with your new corn dog! :D

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

the Road to Corn Dogs

Be sure to also watch my YouTube basic beginner video about holding and using a noter, HERE.

We all have our favorite ways of playing, our favorite picks, noters, chairs, strings, etc.
Some people hold their noters with their thumbs on top. They then use their curled index finger knuckle to serve as a sort of guide against the edge of the fretboard while they play.

Others use their index finger on top, and thus use the tip of their thumb as a guide along the edge of the fretboard.

When I first began using the noter, I used the thumb on top position, it seemed quite natural to me. It worked fine for me for a long time, until I became faster and started playing a lot more. As I slid up and down the entire fretboard more quickly, I noticed my wrist was getting fatigued from bending back and forth at that angle...
During one 2 hour playing session, my wrist felt uncomfortable enough so that I tried switching my hand to use the index finger on top to try to give my wrist a break. My wrist then turned in a totally different position. It felt good! I began to play that way more often, and found that my wrist no longer had issues no matter how fast or how long I was playing. That's how I wound up being an index-on-top player. You may be more comfortable with thumb on top, we're all different.

I became faster and was able to keep up with faster fiddlers and faster music sessions. Some of these sessions at music camping gatherings went on for a couple of hours or more. Though my wrist angle problem had been alleviated, I now began to experience painful cramping in my hand when gripping the noter for long periods of time. (I likely wouldn't have had any of these problems if it weren't for the fact that I was now playing fast and for long periods of time.) If I loosened my grip the noter would shift around too much while playing.
Somehow I had to prevent my hand from being so tightly closed around the little stick. I figured if my hand position was more open then maybe I wouldn't get hand cramps. Two ways to accomplish this were to either get a really fat handled noter, or make a fat covering around the noter handle. I decided a soft padded noter cushion would be just the ticket.

Thus it was that the noter corn dog was born.... (more to come in the next post)

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Kimberly's dulcimer clips

Kimberly Burnette-Dean, dulcimer player who specializes in the style of playing first developed in Galax, Virginia, has kindly consented to letting me put her YouTube clips in my link list you see to the right on this blog. I like how one can compare the three distinct instruments Kimberly is playing (a Galax dulcimer, a scheitholt, and a 'normal' mountain dulcimer) and then observe how she uses three quite different playing styles that make the most of each instrument. Thanks Kimberly!

I have been busy adding new links to the link list here. Hopefully folks will find them interesting, helpful, ...and fun!
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Sunday, February 15, 2009

R.I.P. Farewell, my old noter

Noters. Where would we be without them? Noterless.
Noters are the little sticks we use to slide up and down the dulcimer fretboard to make different notes. In noter-drone style playing, it is this sliding up and down with the noter that yields that marvelous zzing-zzzzingggg! sound we love. It's a silvery liquid sound that, try as you might, you just cannot get by sliding 'finger meat' up and down the fretboard. The way I play, I likely wouldn't have any fingers left if I used them instead of my noter!
Noters come in various shapes and thicknesses and materials. Most common are wooden dowel-like noters. People like to experiment with other noter materials like metal, bamboo, fiberglass, ebony violin pegs, bone, even glass. I have tried steel rods and glass rods, but personally I prefer the sound of a good hard wood noter. A good noter is like fine wine...nutty, silky smooth, with a hint of arrogance. lol!

Here's a picture of a few noters I have. At top is a wood noter...I don't remember where I got it from. Next down is a fat noter I bought on Ebay but I haven't used yet...

The blackish green one is a noter I bought at a dulcimer festival years ago. George Haggerty made it himself, and I think it is fiberglass or some sort of extra hard resin. So far, this noter has been used more than any other I have had, and has held up the best.
Once I was at an old-time music camp-out gathering and was playing in a session with friends, in the grass under the trees. As I packed up my stuff after the session, I discovered my favorite blackish green noter was GONE! I looked everywhere in my pockets and in all my stuff and could not find it in the grass either. I became agitated and some friends began to help me search in the grass. Needless to say, finding a dark green noter in grass is like looking for an egg in a mountain of ping pong balls. More friends helped in the hunt, and it must have been an odd sight. After a long and fruitless search, I finally insisted that they stop and I emotionally had to 'let go' of my special green noter.
Can you guess the rest of the story? Yes, later that day I FOUND the green noter, right in my dulcimer case
in plain sight, where it had played its cruel trick on me. Needless to say it would have been way too embarrassing to announce its miraculous reappearance to all the people who had spent all that time hunching over the grass. They likely would have killed me. I said nothing.

The bottom noter in the picture is cool...I was at a craft fair and looked at a wood turner's booth. He was selling wooden bowls, cups, and children's tops he turned himself on his lathe. I paid him to make me some noters from the hardest wood he could get, and we agreed on maple and ironwood, ironwood having been traditionally used for making ax handles. So I wound up with several very hard wood noters that were gracefully turned. The not-yet-used whitish one pictured was made from ironwood.

Three years ago I began using the first of the little group of noters turned by this craftsman- it was hard maple wood. I used it a lot. And then I used it some more.
One day I noticed it was getting grooves worn in it from sliding over the steel strings. These grooves formed a fascinating spiral pattern, and actually made it easier to use since the strings would naturally fall into the grooves and keep my place nicely. There must have been some mathematical formula producing this amazing spiral pattern, but I've always been lousy at math. I kept using the noter.

Eventually I accepted the fact that my lovely maple noter was ready to be put out to pasture. Due to the severe wear all around the string groove area, the tip was beginning to hit the fretboard and frets too much as it slid up and down. It reminded me of the oddly distinctive wear pattern I used to observe on my mother's lipsticks back in the 1960's, during her 'Marilyn Monroe period'.

My old maple noter is now officially retired. One day when I have a second one all worn and ready for retirement as well, I will give them both to my two grown daughters- mementos of the hundreds of hours, hundreds of tunes, and thousands of notes the humble little sticks gave their lives to.

Do you have a favorite noter?

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