At our monthly jams at C&O Canal National Park, anywhere from 5 to 9 musicians gather at The Tavern to share traditional dulcimer music with visitors. We have a large–and growing–repertoire. It’s a delight to hear the melody sing out and to get audience members into the act with loaner dulcimers and percussion instruments.
Lately, I’m finding great enjoyment in creating backup. Coming off a great workshop on this topic offered by Stephen Seifert at Kentucky Music Week, I’m experimenting with reverse chords, chords up the fretboard, off-beat chops and bass runs. What a treat to hear the back-up notes dance with the melody. It’s true–you don’t have to be the star of the show to make a contribution. Back-up playing feeds my creativity and builds my knowledge of the dulcimer’s possibilities. (And–truth be told–it comes in handy when the group picks a tune I haven’t played in awhile!)
My dulcimer students typically are pleased with their initial progress. They strum, fret, read tab, and play a couple of tunes before the end of their first workshop. Many who continue are surprised when next steps–new tunes or new fingerings for example–don’t come as quickly. “I’ve had that song for weeks!” lamented one student. “I should be able to play it up to speed by now!” So we talked about practicing routines. Turns out she was playing the whole song through time after time–because that’s what she wanted to be able to play.
But in reality, practicing is the means to that end. The work involved to get there is something all together different. Here are the steps I talk about with students to arrive at smooth melodic playing with consistent tempo:
Preview the piece: Identify the tricky spots. These may be big jumps along the fretboard, unusual rhythm patterns, or chords you’ve not played often. Isolate these and tackle them first.
Always work slowly. When you’ve decided how slowly to start, play twice as slowly as that!
Experiment: Try different fingerings until you find something comfortable. Jot down your favorite directly on the tab. Use pencil. Today’s favorite may change the next time–or when you incorporate a tricky passage into the whole piece.
Contextualize: When feeling confident about a passage, play it by including it as part of a few measures before and after.
Find the repetitions: Most music repeats themes or phrases. Learn each one once and then incorporate them whenever they appear.
Try the tune!: You’re now ready to give it a whirl–slowly! You may find tricky spots you hadn’t noted at first. That’s okay. Repeat the steps above as many times as needed until you can put it all together in a way that sounds just right to you.
The dulcimer is meaningful in many ways. It allows me to explore and play all kinds of music. It’s a passport to gatherings of wonderful people I otherwise would never meet. It pushes me to understand more about music theory so I can arrange my favorite tunes.
So this month when I finished teaching an 8-week course for new players at American University’s Lifelong Learning Institute, I was interested to hear what the dulcimer meant to my students. One was thrilled to find the class; dulcimer playing had been on her “bucket list.” Another was exploring her Kentucky heritage and picked up the instrument as a way to reconnect with her Appalachian roots.
Perhaps the dulcimer’s significance was most profound for one gentleman who throughout his life–even with a love of music–never had much success playing an instrument. The dulcimer began to change all that as he persevered to master fingerings and strums. It was delightful to see him buoyed by the encouragement received from classmates; he remains excited about continuing to play on his own.
I marvel at the unique way in which the dulcimer touches each of us. It’s a special joy to see my enthusiasm for the instrument take hold in others.
Washington area dulcimer players are returning to the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center on March 12 from 1-4 to share more tunes. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day–and the many Irish immigrants who were instrumental in digging the canal–we’ll focus on tunes from across the pond.
Want to try your hand at playing the dulcimer? I’ll be there from 12 – 1 PM with a student dulcimer for you to try. Stop by and see how easy it is to play this instrument.
Use this link to learn about the Visitor Center; scroll down for directions. http://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/greatfallstavernvisitorcenter.htm
Washington area dulcimer players are getting together to share their music. Come join us!
WHEN: Saturday, February 13, 2016, 1-4 PM
WHERE: Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center, C&O Canal National Park, Falls Road, Potomac MD
Use this link to learn about the Visitors Center; scroll down for directions. http://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/greatfallstavernvisitorcenter.htm
Hope to see you there!
Imagine yourself back to the late 1800s with a stop at the Great Falls Tavern along the C&O Canal in Potomac, Maryland. That’s where I and fellow dulcimer players joined together to celebrate the 45th birthday of the C&O Canal National Park. The tavern is now a visitors’ center and we were delighted with the enthusiasm and support for dulcimer music. Here’s an overview with photos from this week’s Potomac Almanac.
I’ve been enjoying noodling around with my bowed psaltery lately, enjoying old tunes and picking out new ones. Holiday music–both Hanukah and Christmas–sound so lovely on the ringing psaltery.
I am a single bow player, but I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of double bowing. Psaltery player Celeste Ray, a member of Four Celtic Voices takes double bowed playing to a new level! (Check out her video on the group’s website: fourcelticvoices.com) Her dexterity is impressive and her sound beautiful! And while most music lovers might stop there, I was equally impressed with her ability to balance the psaltery on her knees. What gives?? Nearly every double bow player I’ve encountered recommends various contraptions to hold the instrument–and now I learn with a little shelf paper (the kind with a tacky surface–a whole roll for $1 at the dollar store!) I too could balance it on my lap! This will open up whole new worlds and increase my comfort even while playing with just one bow.
So as I experiment with Celeste’s approach, I’m reminded of the important question I answer for many of my students–whether psaltery, dulcimer or autoharp: What’s the best way to hold my instrument? And the answer is always the same: Whatever works best for YOU!
Homeschoolers have a variety of opportunities to see and hear the arts–on line, in museums, during concerts and on stage. But watching and listening are not the same as doing, and this is where dulcimers come in. Why?
1) They are easy to learn: Count to three and you’ve learned the notes for many basic tunes. Grab a pick and strum along.
2) They’re built with the basics in mind: Move up the fretboard and you’ve got a ready-made scale.
3) Student instruments are not very expensive: A well-made starter instrument can be had–or built by your student–for under $100.
Sweet Strings can get dulcimers into the hands your students and open up the world of making music. For homeschool families and groups in Montgomery County MD, we have up to 10 loaner dulcimers available. From a one day interactive dulcimer appreciation workshop to a week-long artist in residence program, Karen can introduce your children to the pleasures and rewards of playing dulcimer. We can even build them together so that students have their own beautifully designed instrument to play forever.
If you are interested, please email Karen@sweetstrings.biz.
I had made up my mind to add “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to my dulcimer repertoire. I tackled it slowly like any new piece, but some of the fingering just wasn’t coming; I became disappointed in my sound. After a week or so, I noticed I was finding excuses not to practice; the dulcimer was no longer the joyful time in my day had been for so long.
After a few days away, I longed to return to my music–but not to that piece. I brushed off some old favorites. I found comfort in a set of Irish jigs I always enjoyed but never really mastered. I took on that challenge instead and became reinvigorated.
While still working to get these jigs to where I want them to be, I thought about Jesu again. I gave it a try. Interestingly, my fingering came more naturally than I remembered; I found I could rearrange some passages to be more musically pleasing–and with that came the added benefit of greater playing ease.
I came to realize being stuck did not have to mean standing still. I allowed myself to choose another path–and returned to the first only when the time felt right. In the end, I let my heart lead and the “Joy” of making music returned on its own (pun intended!)