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!


  1. I agree with Mary. If I get a chance to play at open mike at a festival I try to mention that the dulcimer in past times was an instrument used as accompiniment for singing and I try to play and sing a couple of songs. [although my singing leaves a lot to be desired :)] /at least, I've never had anything thrown at me or been boo'd.

  2. Good points. I also have noticed a tendency on the part of some people, not raised with old folk music, to label a lot of songs as weird, or silly.
    In the case of the murder ballads, I have heard the term grotesque used. In the Club I was a member of, there were some who refused to sing these songs. But they are a part of the heritage of others. I grew up in a house full of Mario Lanza, Enricho Caruso,Perry Como and Dean Martin. My siblings brought in a lot of rock music. (I was the odd member, looking for Cowboy songs, and finding very few on the radio.) I married into a back woods raised WVa. family, who enjoy singing these old songs even now. A lot of newer recordings of old folk songs are purely instrumental. I have several recordings of Soldiers Joy, but only one has vocals.

  3. Rudy Ryan said ...

    What a great blog on the dulcimer and singing. I have seen those tabs in CGG and CGC and thought it would be easier to sing in C. I was just in a workshop with Don Pedi who also was playing the traditional style in many different tunings. He sang quite a lot also. He expressed joy with his playing and singing that I don't always see with the more complex chorded melody style of playing. Anyway enjoyed your blog.

  4. Hi Seeker, thanks!
    I too think Don Pedi is pretty awesome.

  5. Hi, just now seeing this entry, haven't been on in awhile. I do enjoy singing with the dulcimer, banjo, and guitar. I particularly enjoy DGD singing in G. I also tune down to C and sing too.

    I agree that everybody's comparing folks to American Idol or professional artists, but I refuse to let that intimidate me. In fact, a lot of professional singers I love don't have polished Idol voices, Lucinda Williams, for example. Her music is raw and emotional, and I'd much rather listen to her than most Idol winners. I can't even remember many of their names.

    Thankfully my banjo-playing friend (who is learning guitar now) and I play around Civil War re-enactment campfires, for ourselves, or with friends/family, and you don't have to be technically perfect for that. In fact, the times when someone with a classically trained heavy-vibrato/operatic/church-soprano voice jumps in on occasion, it sounds a bit out of place in old-time and folk music. But we don't judge, even if you're technically perfect, you can sing with us!

  6. the way i have worked out for myself to sing and play the dulcimer, is to play a simple one or two note chord at the appropriate time when i am singing, and then play the melody during the 'break'. like, f'rinstance: if i were singing the line "well i come from alabama with a banjo on my" i'd simply strum my dulcimer (tuned d-a-d)open. then when i got to the word "knee", i would play a 1-0-1, or 'A' chord, or if using a noter, simply play with the noter on the melody string(s) at the first fret. it's pretty simple, but that is what traditional music is all about. i think that ultimately, singing with the dulcimer allows for a simper playing style. this is a ggod blog.....thanks. tony

  7. I love to sing! Of course when I DO sing I sound like a wreck on purpose! This is mostly because it gives my "performance" a more up-beat, happy feel. Also, it's just more fun that way :)

  8. I try to sing when I practice, even though my voice is always wildly off-key. Singing makes practicing even more fun. However, no one in the group I play with sings (and even if they did, they wouldn't want to hear my caterwhauling).

  9. In my opinion the modern music leaves something to be desired, I love to sing but I have found it very hard to sing and play an instrument . I find it very hard to sing and play an instrument at the same time tips would be appreciated and a welcome sound to my ears.

    1. Jeffrey, did you read my blog posts using the song Go Tell Aunt Rhodie as a way to demonstrate how to try and sing while playing, in a simple way? You might get some helpful tips from that. Here's the link: