Saturday, March 7, 2009

Take your pick

Picks are a funny thing. One day you find what you think is the perfect pick, and then a few months later it just doesn't seem to be so great after all, and you suddenly find a different perfect pick. This simply means that the way we play is changing and evolving over time. This is a good thing, even though it means we may have to repeat our hunt for the right pick over and over. Funny how we seem to grow out of this ongoing search for perfection when it comes to searching for a mate...but not for a pick...

As I mentioned previously, when I started out playing the mountain dulcimer years ago I didn't really have any teachers and I wound up getting instruction books that taught flat-picking chord style playing, mostly in DAD mixolydian tuning. I first bought large thin flexible triangular picks made by Fender and Jean Schilling. I was strumming across all my strings and picking out melodies on the various strings as well. I kept breaking corners off these picks in my strumming enthusiasm, so I ordered a whole slew of them! Then I joined a dulcimer club where most of the tunes were played in that style as well. I quickly picked up on the fact that a lot of these people preferred much harder and smaller triangular Herdim picks with pointy corners. This seemed to be the way to go, and they were unbreakable, so I began to use them instead of my large thin triangles.
I found the small hard guitar-like Herdim pick to be practical for what we were doing- flatpicking melodies and chords on the various strings, often picking one string at a time and alternating quickly between strings. I remember it occurred to me at the time that we were all using flat picking patterns much like folk guitar players do, and indeed we were using similar picks as well. Bluegrass mandolin players also use such picks for picking out melodies over the various alternating strings. It just works well for this kind of playing. I played for about two years this way, and I became pretty good if I do say so myself.

That's when I discovered the banjo and my life changed.

My dulcimer hung on the wall unloved while I fell under the spell of the banjo's ancient untamed drones. I was tired of all the elaborate picking and chording I had been doing on the dulcimer. It had become ever more difficult to play without reading a complex tab 'code map' on a stand in front of me. It all suddenly seemed to me to be a fruitless march towards ever more tediously elaborate ornamentation. I wanted out.

I wanted to sweep the table clean of all the prettiness and instead connect with some mysterious raw inner resonance inside me. I imagined what it would be like to retreat to some mountaintop and blow on a grass reed, contemplating its single pure note for a few months. I abandoned my beautiful maple dulcimer and happily immersed myself in drones on my banjo for about seven years. I learned to play banjo with fiddlers who cross-tuned and played the drones I craved, I learned to sing old unaccompanied ballads and it was all wonderful and intoxicating. I became drunk on drones and archaic intervals.

As you may already know, eventually it occurred to me (duh) that I could play the dulcimer in a different way than I used an older drone-based way that did not require flat picking melodies and fingering full chord changes across all the strings.
It was very hard for me to make this switch, but I was determined. I felt like a baby just learning to walk. I couldn't get the strumming rhythm right. I couldn't get the noter to work right or sound right. I was awful, and my misery lasted through weeks of trying. I truly hated sounding so awful and clumsy, but I kept at it. The key to my success was that I kept it simple. I played baby tunes like Go Tell Aunt Rhody and Hot Cross Buns. I didn't try to rush ahead of myself.
There came a day when I realized I was starting to enjoy sliding the noter up and down, my notes were beginning to ring clearer, and my rhythm had begun to improve. I asked my fiddler husband to play a simple fiddle tune (one that I could play well on banjo) and to play it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y so I could try to play along with him. It was really hard for him to play THAT slowly, but he did and was extremely patient with my musical fumblings. We played more, and I got better little by little. As the weeks went by, I became faster. Still not able to keep up with most old-time sessions, mind you, but faster than I was before. I discovered recordings of Galax style dulcimer playing, and this inspired me greatly! I too wanted to sound like 'a swarm of bees' incredibly exciting! They played so fast that their drones never stopped ringing! I too could fill the universe with my eternal/infernal drones!

The funny thing was that as I became faster, I found that my familiar little hard triangle guitar-ish pick was proving to be problematic for fast noter/drone strumming. It created a lot of resistance and held my speed back. Whenever it hit the strings it wanted to go flying across the room and resulted in my having to keep a tight grip on it. This would obviously cause hand cramping problems. But the problem with the hard little pick is that I didn't like the sound it was producing. It sounded too harsh, too loud, and too guitar-like... not delicately graceful like Jean Ritchie and her goose feather quill, and not bee-ish like the Galax players with their long flexible quill 'dominatrix eggwhippers'. Clearly I had to ditch the little guitar pick and go longer and more flexible.

Being a fan of things old-fashioned and traditional, I attempted to use a turkey feather. I had a bunch of them to experiment on. I tried preparing them in various ways I had read about, and I tried using each end in the prescribed way. What I found was that for me, they were not up to any sustained usage, and they tended to shred rapidly. This was frustrating. I had read about the resourcefulness of early dulcimer players, and about how they often experimented with various "plectrum" (pick) materials...bundled electrical wires, collar stays, leather, felt, wood, bone...they tried whatever they found at hand around them. I tried some of these materials as well (hmmm...not easy to find collar stays these days) and I came to the conclusion that maybe plastic would be most like feather quill material, yet perhaps more flexible and more durable than quills. I had read where others had used cut up credit cards as picks, for example. Not a very picturesque solution, but certainly practical! And thrifty, in more ways than one.

I began to experiment with cutting my own picks from plastic items. Credit cards were first. I found them way too hard. My old stash of thin flexible triangle picks was dug up and tried, but again they kept breaking. I tried heavy felt and leather, but the sound was too muffled for my liking. I tried bundling various wires together, but it sounded to fuzzy. I finally got hold of a collar stay, but it was too flexible and limp, as were some plastic tops from supermarket deli containers.

I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks.
I tried cutting up plastic milk jugs, that was getting closer, as were yogurt containers.
In the end, I found that using a small range of different plastic materials was just fine. I could use a slightly heavier one in a big jam situation and be heard a bit better, and I could use a thinner one when in a singing jam so that my strumming wouldn't drown out anyone's voice (including my own). Effects could also be varied according to how long/narrow/wide/pointy/rounded I cut them. Hey, this was fun!
Again I had to try to fight my tendency to become too fixated on the idea of finding the elusive Holy Grail perfect pick. The important thing for me was that I realized that longer more flexible picks were what I needed to get the sound I wanted for myself. You will seek the sound that pleases you.
Don't be afraid to have fun and experiment with making your own picks from interesting materials. You just might like the resulting sound better than the sound you have been getting from the pick you've been used to for a long time. Or not. But it's fun to cut up credit cards anyway.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Picky, picky, picky

Every time I have started playing any new kind of instrument, I seem to go through the same evolution. During my first learning stages, every detail concerning the 'trappings' of playing had to be just a certain way if I was to play...

I recall feeling I had to have exactly a certain height of foot rest in order to play the mandolin... Any tiny variation in height was disastrous! Exactly a certain hardness of pick. With the banjo, I had to have perfect finger picks precisely molded to my fingertips in hot water, or else carefully applied fake fingernails filed just a certain way.
In my early dulcimer days, again I had to have exactly a certain type pick, a certain kind of strap, my music stand set at a particular angle, only certain strings, the right kind of chair...or else I just couldn't play well at all!

With all these instruments, after I had been playing any of them for a couple of years or more, these excessive details simply began to not matter to me so much. I became less obsessed with detail and more adaptable. I made do, and tried to not pander to my obsessive compulsions. I like to think that my fussiness was getting on my own nerves. Laziness played its part as well- I might be sitting at my desk in my office at home and suddenly want to check on a note in some tune, so I'd grab my dulcimer from the wall here and pick out the tune without bothering to go get a pick or a noter and even without bothering to get out of my office chair with its aggressively anti-musician arms. {{{shudder}}}

In my previous post about noters, I told the story of losing my 'special' green noter and how I enlisted the help of others to desperately search for it in the grass for what seemed an eternity. (note to self: Don't use your green noter when playing outdoors in the grass)
It's a good example of how something as simple as a little stick can take on way too much importance if you let it.

Having become aware of this tendency in myself to obsess about the superficial trappings associated with playing an instrument, I now make a game of it. When I suspect that I am becoming too dependent upon some accessory or brand of something, I now purposely remove it or use something else for a while.

I have come to see this restrictively dependent behavior as a barrier between myself and my music. All it does is create a slew of imaginary reasons why I might think I don't sound good or play well. I am not a professional musician, nor is it my goal to become one. So in the end, it's not how well I play or how 'good' I sound that is most important to me- rather it's the joy and pleasure that playing music brings to me and to others who might enjoy playing with me or listening. The one most important truth I have come to feel about music is that joy overrules perfection.

And speaking of being picky...I want to discuss picks in my next post!

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Four Marys

Sometimes I am in the mood for writing about how I feel about music, sometimes I like to write about playing techniques, and sometimes I like to work out a song on my dulcimer and share it with others.
I felt like playing instead of writing this evening, so I hope you don't mind that I just post this version of Four Marys (also called Mary Hamilton) that I worked out on paper today... It's a wonderful very old ballad that has been around for generations. Jean Ritchie's family used to sing it as well, in fact here is a Youtube clip of Jean and her sister Edna singing it unaccompanied: Jean and Edna Ritchie singing Four Marys. As with most old ballads, there are many versions to be found.
Here is some interesting background on the ballad: Four Marys/Mary Hamilton
I transcribed it into the key of D, ionian tuning (DAA), for no particular reason. You could easily re-tune to C, G, or A (if that's better for your voice range) and play it in those keys as well, even using the same tab numbering if you make sure to remain in the ionian mode when you re-tune. I love the words to this tragic and sad! I hope you enjoy it.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Devolving doors

I seem to be slowly 'devolving' in how I derive joy from music as I get older. I don't know why.
When I was a schoolgirl, I played the 'cello in the school orchestra for about 6 years. I liked that I was playing music, but even back then I felt that much of the music we had to play sounded awfully fussy. All those movie theme medleys, Sousa marches stomping about, storm-at-sea symphonic excesses of every kind. It sounded to me like an endless series of fever pitch crescendos all strung together, and it made me tired. No one else seemed to feel that way. I thought maybe I was just odd...

I went through the usual teenage fervor of rock music, dutifully worshiping Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Stones, Joplin, etc. I think it was likely induced by raging hormone levels though.

Once in my twenties I settled back into gravitating towards vintage music. I explored many genres of music in my 20's and 30's, listening fiercely and absorbing subconscious things about music along the way that I would not be clearly aware of, even now. Medieval and Renaissance music, Indian ragas, Cajun, Chinese erhu, Japanese koto, Indonesian gamelan music, Puerto Rican folk music, Western Swing, Bluegrass, French and Tejano accordion, Carter Family, Gregorian chants, Buddhist chanting, bamboo flute, blues harmonica, Appalachian ballads.... they all whispered to me in tongues that I couldn't understand, but was strongly attracted to. On overload, my mind shifted into neutral and my ears took over, filtering the vast amounts of incoming listening data into some mysterious filing system of their own invention deep in my psyche somewhere. Most of this exploratory journey was unplanned and unorganized.
The one pattern I began to notice after about 20 years of this active listening, was that I seemed to be attracted strongly to the very oldest examples of each genre I became fond of. This told me something. As each genre advanced and evolved in it's own time line of existence, it became generally more elaborate as music- with more notes, more complex structure, more backup instrumentation, more chords, added instruments. My preference predictably drifted towards the simpler non-adorned earlier examples to be had. This trend continued on to my musical tastes today.

After playing several different instruments over the years (none very well), for the past 12 years or so I have settled upon the mountain dulcimer and the clawhammer/frailing style banjo as my two vehicles of musical expression. Interestingly, both these instruments make heavy use of open drone strings and open tunings. Though I didn't particularly plan it that way, it seems likely that this was no accident.

The drones are a profound attraction for me- they touch my very soul when I hear them, and if I play them myself, well all the better when they resonate through my bones! I then become the music in effect- my body literally becomes a resonating chamber, part of the whole instrument. There is something so primal and archaic about drones and old note intervals (my favorite pair being the 1-5 interval). I love that drones and intervals leave space for the soul to float in. They do not quite fill in the whole story of the tune for you like modern 1-3-5 chorded structure does so tidily. Instead, your spirit can float within the notes and drones and make it reflect your own mood- sad, happy, spooky, peaceful... each person can move and breathe within the music in their own expressive way, as though they were dancing freely in an empty room.

The very simplicity and openness of this traditional music structure is what sets me free. It sets me free from having to feel and hear and play a certain way, free from the stresses in my day, free from frustrations and limitations. I can move within the loosely woven melody and drones as I please, and take from them what I like or need, leave the rest a mystery. Simple traditional music both gives and forgives. It doesn't even ask to be played 'well' just asks to be played, nothing more. It is like a perfect love.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Get Out of Jail Free

You now know how to re-tune your dulcimer in order to play Liza Jane in either mixolydian mode or ionian mode in the key of D. Next we will re-tune to do the very same thing but in the key of G!... Here are two charts I made up so you can visualize how to re-tune into G ionian and G mixolydian. (remember just click on it to enlarge it)

The first chart shows how to re-tune from regular D ionian and D mixolydian (DAA and DAD) into regular G ionian and G mixolydian (GDD and GDG). Tune DOWN three steps from any D notes to G notes, and tune UP one step from any G notes to A notes.Keep in mind that on a typical dulcimer, you cannot tune your high strings higher than about a high E note without being in danger of them breaking with the tension. Thus, if your melody strings are already tuned to DD and you see in the chart that you need to change them to GG, then you have to tune them DOWN to GG, not up! That also means that when re-tuning the A middle string to a G, you should tune the A string DOWN one whole step to G. (remember: the musical scale goes up like abcdefgabcdefgabcd...etc, so G is the note below A)

The second chart shows another way to get into G which is a bit unconventional but which means you will be re-tuning your strings less and for shorter distances. This method is to use what is called a "reverse tuning". Most tunings have your bass string match the note of key you are in, and the middle string is a fifth higher than that- hence D ionian is DAA. (from D to A is five steps up in the alphabet- a fifth) In 'reverse' tuning, you switch the bass string to be the fifth, and the middle string becomes the key/tonic note. D 'reverse ionian' tuning would then be ADA instead of DAA. (the last letter of the three usually meaning the melody string(s). The reverse tuning does change the sound a bit if you are playing with a heavier bass string (as opposed to Galax style where all strings are the same gauge and same octave), but it might be a little easier to go from D to G and vice versa.
Here is the chart to go from regular D ionian and D mixolydian (DAA and DAD) into G reverse ionian and G reverse mixolydian (DGD and DGG):
If this whole business about reverse tunings is too confusing to you, then just use the first chart to change between regular D and G tunings. Come back to this later on and you might understand it better then. It's really very useful and worth understanding at some point (especially if you prefer your strings to be all the same gauge and tuned in the same octave).

The point of all this re-tuning is- when for instance you tune from D ionian to G ionian, you are in a different key, but still in the same MODE, which means your tune will still be home-based on the same place on the fretboard and your tonic/key note will still be on the third fret. What does this mean to you? It means you can then play Liza Jane in EXACTLY the same way in either D ionian or G ionian, on the same frets. You can even use the same tab as the one below in D ionian! The fret/tab numbers will remain the same, but you will actually be playing in the key of G rather than the key of D. This is very handy to be able to do. If you learn to play several songs in the key of D in mixolydian mode, why then, you can just re-tune a couple of strings quickly and play the song exactly the same way but in the key of G! Imagine how much this will open up playing situations for you if you get the chance to play with friends in folk jams and old-time groups.
No longer will everone roll their eyes when you mumble that you can only play in the key of D. Now, you can play your favorites tunes in either the keys of D or G, and in two different modes!

If you have come this far with me, then you have gotten through what I feel is the most 'brainy' part of playing music on your dulcimer- understanding the basic concept of modes on your dulcimer, and re-tuning to change modes and keys. Getting over this first hump of understanding why we might want to re-tune is a major victory- it frees us from the DAD 'prison' that so many new dulcimers players find themselves in today. In many ways, it gets easier from now on. So relax and congratulate yourself! Practice playing the tunes you already know and practice re-tuning to play them in the two different modes and two different keys we've been using so far. And if you break a string once every couple of months or so because you re-tune frequently, that is actually pretty normal what?- guitar and banjo players break strings all the time! Never breaking strings to me is a sign of a timid player who's stuck in a rut. Be proud, have fun!
We'll slowly learn more about playing in different keys, using capos, playing 'spooky' murder songs in the very beautiful aeolian mode.... but next post I want to discuss some of my own quirky little playing preferences that I have come to after playing for a while.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Liza Jane does ionian

So you know how to play Liza Jane in DAD mixolydian tuning.
Now here is the exact same song Liza Jane but in ionian tuning, DAA...Both the DAD version and the DAA version are playing the very same notes, just in two different places on the fretboard when the melody string is tuned differently. When the melody string is tuned down lower, you have to go a little higher up on the fretboard to play the same notes.

It's really good to know how to convert a song or tune into a different mode this way. Why, you might ask? Because one day you will hear a simple song you love and you'll want to try to play it on your dulcimer...but perhaps when you start playing it you may find that some of the frets you need for the song are missing. Horrors! It's that pesky diatonic fretboard again!
Well, if you know how to retune a bit to change the mode, then your song will move its 'home base' to a different place on your fretboard where you may well have all the frets needed to play the song. Once you find where the song 'lies well' on your fretboard, you can make a note of the tuning best for that song.

Both ionian and mixolydian modes are often used and it's very practical to know how to play in both modes.

But wait! If you are thinking both these modes are only for playing in the key of D, you're wrong! That's what makes them so very handy- you can play tunes inother keys as well, and still decide whether mixolydian or ionian mode works better for any particular tune. More on that coming up.

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