Saturday, August 11, 2012

Trader Boatman

Here is a neat fiddle/banjo old-time tune that I first learned to play on my banjo. It's a fairly simple tune but there's something satisfying about it that makes it real fun to play. It has an easy going feel that evokes drifting down a river on a boat, steered by the boatman, perhaps he is dancing on the deck to the fiddler's playing...
Here is where I first heard it, played beautifully on a deep fretless banjo... in THIS Youtube clip. The tune Trader Boatman comes from the playing of an old Virginia fiddler named Pug Allen, who learned it from his father long before. HERE Is another fine version played by Bill Boyer. And HERE is a very energetic version played by Mike Seeger and Paul Brown on their CD. HERE is some additional background information on the tune, should you care to learn more.
This tune is played in an A,A,B,B pattern- the first part played twice, followed by the second part played twice. DAA tuning for the dulcimer, ionian mode in the key of D. Trader Boatman has a few fun hammer-ons and pull-offs you can try with your noter tip. Look at my video on playing "Sugar Hill" to practice the hammer-on with a noter. A pull-off with a noter is simply lifting the noter off the melody string by pulling it towards you and down, creating a bit of a snap as the noter pulls off the string. It's not too hard really! If you can't get a snappy pull-off, then don't worry for now- just lift the noter up after striking the first note of the two-note pull-off. The second note will sound by itself without another right hand strum if you lift up the noter quickly after playing the first note of the pull-off. If there is a part that seems difficult just play that part over and over slowly until it becomes easier for you, and soon the whole thing will come together.
Don't rush it- take the cue from the banjo players and have fun with this easy rolling tune. Maybe you are lucky enough to know a banjo player who might like to play this together with you in a dulcimer and banjo duet! 

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Lazy Fingers ?

I'm going to talk a bit about using the fingers of the left hand for fretting. Not every traditional player uses a noter- some traditional drone style players use their fingers or 'fingerdance' while playing. Others play in both traditional and modern styles. I'd like to discuss a very common problem I see when fretting with the fingers, in hopes that it will help some readers here, both fingerdance and chord style players.

Many beginner mountain dulcimer players, especially those with no prior stringed instrument experience, play with their fretting hand held low and flat with the fingertips lying down on the strings while playing, pressing the notes with the fatty pads of their fingers. It looks like they are pressing the edge of a pie crust together, or typing on a keyboard. Almost every beginner banjo student I've ever had has done this as well. This way of fretting compensates for lack of hand and finger muscle strength and a lack of fingertip calluses. It helps prevent typical beginner fretting soreness and feels like a natural extension of our comfortable and familiar computer fingerboard typing position. But there is a big downside...

While understandably favored by beginners, this 'lazy fingers' fretting position can easily become a habit that produces unclear or muffled musical tones, and severely restricts your playing dexterity later on. The fleshy pad of the finger is wide and tends to accidentally mute or buzz adjacent strings. It also causes the double melody strings to separate, because you wind up sort of pushing the strings as you press down. Remember, you only need enough pressure to depress the strings down to the fret, not necessarily down to the wooden fretboard surface. The harder you press, the more you push and bend the string and distort the sound, leading to buzzes and poor intonation.
Using an adjacent finger as a strengthening 'crutch' by pressing it together with the fretting finger (another common beginner habit) further prevents the player from stretching the hand, building finger muscle strength, and moving the fingers freely from note to note.
Sliding is difficult on the fleshy finger pads, whereas hard callused fingertips slide beautifully. Imagine trying to run while you are lying down!  Playing calluses will not build up on the fatty pads like they would on the very end of the fingertip bone, and it's those hard calluses and strong finger muscles that help stringed musicians produce their nice clear notes and slide about quickly from note to note. Every time you feel some soreness from playing on the tips of your fingers, know that your wonderful hard musician calluses are beginning to form! The more you play, the less sore and less difficult it will feel.

Raise your left hand UP and arched directly over the strings, as though it is an umbrella protecting the strings from the rain. Lower your fingers vertically straight down when fretting. On all fingers except the thumb, fret with the very tip of the finger, the end of the finger bone. This is where you will build your callouses. The thumb should fret on its edge, again near the tip of the thumb. You will develop a very hard callous there too, on the skin to the right side of your thumbnail bed. Fretting with these hard callused bone tips instead your soft fatty pads will produce clear tones and notes, and your freely mobile arched hand will allow for quick movement between positions on your fretboard. This will enable longer stretches in making chords!  As you play this way more and more, you will find that your fingers can actually make longer stretches when making chords- stretches that were physically impossible or uncomfortable at first. I learned this for myself, and was amazed.

So get your hand arched UP and play on the very tips of your fingers.  Think of your fingers as ballerina feet 'on point'.  You are not typing, kneading dough, or pinching pie crusts.  Play proudly and assertively, no matter how brand new you are to playing your dulcimer!

This is a big issue for beginners, who often suffer from sore fingers, don't have strong hands, and have a hard time getting a clear sound.But it's not so difficult to improve your tone by changing your hand positions slightly. The first step is in recognizing a problem. 

Do you recognize yourself in any of the following pictures?...

In DAd tuning, here is the 'lazy' 1-0-1 "A" chord fretting position. Fingers are lying flat, fretting with the fleshy pads and having to push down too hard to get a good note.

Here is it shown again using different fingers- notice the index finger being used as a 'crutch' to strengthen the fretting finger.  Not good!
This is a better way to get good tone while fretting on the bony tips of your fingers.

Here again, the 'lazy fingers' position for fretting a 3-1-0 "G" chord in DAd tuning.

Here is the same 3-1-0 chord, cleanly fretted with an arched and relaxed hand.

Here is the 'Lazy Fingers' way of fretting a 5-3-3 "G" chord in DAd tuning. Notice how the middle string can get pushed to one side, creating poor intonation.

Arching up to the tips of the fingers when fretting the 5-3-3 chord results in strong hand muscles, clear tone, good intonation,, helpful string musician calluses, and nimbleness of movement when playing.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ghost of Gray Goose...Go Tell Aunt Rhody in Dorian mode on epinette.

This is a little exercise in retuning to a different mode in order to have fun experimenting with the mood of a familiar tune. In the video I am playing a lovely epinette des Vosges, a zither instrument of French origin which is one of the several ancestors of the American mountain dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer. This charming epinette was made for me by John Henry Crocker of Bristol England. I love its sweet clear jingling voice- I think of it as a little nightingale bird. Here you can see John Henry playing his own creative version of Aunt Rhody on a 'sister' epinette he made:
Note that I have set the little epinette on top of a long wooden box for the video- the lower box is not part of the instrument. This epinette has a mere 21" VSL scale length, thus would be tuned higher than the typical 27-28" scale mountain dulcimer. Don't try tuning your mountain dulcimer this high at home!

Here I begin playing Go Tell Aunt Rhody in the key of B flat, tuned f-f-Bb-Bb-f-f (Bb meaning b-flat) and playing in ionian mode. But wait! Then I re-tune to the plaintive Dorian mode by tuning my pair of f-f melody strings DOWN a whole step from f to 'e flat'. That puts my tuning in f-f-Bb-Bb-Eb-Eb (Eb= e-flat). Changing the tuning of the melody strings changes the location of the melody tonic note- the melody 'home' becomes centered around the fourth fret (dorian mode) rather than around the third fret (ionian mode) as before. When the melody tonic moves to the 4th fret, the diatonic fret spacings create the more haunting lonesome sound so typical of Dorian mode.

On a regular sized mountain dulcimer, you can try this fun experiment too! Start by tuning DAA and playing Go Tell Aunt Rhody in the key of D ionian mode based around the 3rd fret for the 'home' tonic note. That may well feel very familiar to you. Then re-tune the melody strings only down one whole step to G for a tuning of DAG, and try playing your own lonesome dorian version of Rhody. Be inventive and don't worry about wrong notes. I like to call this spooky version "Ghost of Gray Goose". Sort of goes with the sad lyrics anyway, don't you think?

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