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Carolina Rockman

How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player - Part 1

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How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player.pdf

How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player – Part 1

This is the first of three articles that I have written on how to become a better dulcimer player. Please

bear in mind that the opinions expressed are just that – my personal opinions based on 20 years of

playing the mountain dulcimer. If you find the thoughts helpful and applicable to your playing, then I

have achieved my goals. If you disagree, our dulcimer community would welcome your thoughts.

It has been said that you can learn to play a song on the dulcimer in five minutes and take the rest of

your life to master that instrument. What follows are my thoughts about effective playing. They have

worked for me and perhaps they will work for you. When given a new piece of dulcimer tablature,

most players jump right in and start playing. This is neither right or wrong; however, you may want to

consider one or more of the following to improve your playing.

Audio

It is easier to learn a new song if you are familiar with its melody. The Internet holds tens of thousands

of free songs for the listener. I find most of my melodies by using a MIDI search. Which ever Internet

search engine you use, type in: “MIDI (name of song)”. You can do the same thing by using: “MP3

(name of song)” Your search results will be voluminus; listing many MIDI/MP3 sites and YouTube

links. It does not matter if the song is in a key that cannot be played on the dulcimer. What you are

listening for is the melody and timing of a particular song. Download and play the song until you can

hear it in your head.

Hand Positioning

The most effective hand position will be in the form of your hand dropping a ball. The wrist is bent

downward in a relaxed position and all five fingers are pointing down. Many players flatten the wrist

and fingers while playing. This limits your range of motion and will often dampen your middle and

bass strings.

Very few players use their pinky. If you incorporate its use into your playing, you will be able to extend

your range of motion with your other fingers. There is no right or wrong way to finger a chord. It boils

down to whatever works. There are; however, effective finger positions. Those positions are

determined by the chord changes. Before jumping into a piece of music, review the chord changes and

determine how you will finger those chords. Practice those changes before you start playing. Your

ultimate goal is as little finger movement as possible. This is called economy of motion.

The dulcimer is not a loud instrument. Some have better sustain than other, but in the end, there is not a

whole lot of sustain. One way to improve your sustain is to keep, where possible, one or two fingers

down on a chord or melody note when moving to the next chord or melody note. What we have here is

both improvement of sustain and economy of finger motion.

Timing

We cannot play a song effectively if we do not know its timing and note value. Each piece of music

should contain its key, number of notes and type of notes,i.e. 4/4 = four quarter notes; 6/8 = six eighth

notes, etc. Before playing a song, look for the different type of notes, including dotted notes. Many

players blow through the dotted notes and play them all as either quarter notes or eighth notes. The

author of the song put those dotted notes in there for a reason.

Rests in the song are just that. If a measure contains a rest, you need to know its value. Just like notes,

the rests have the same values. One way to emphasize a rest is to dampen the string/s with either your

left or right hand. This will stop the sound during the rest. Other wise you will have a sustain from the

previous note and have sound instead of a rest.

Use of a Metronome

Have you noticed when in solo or group play, the music gets faster and faster? Fast playing has its

place when required. Playing fast usually covers up a multitude of mistakes. It is best to learn a song

playing it very slowly, playing each note and chord correctly and gradually building up your speed.

A metronome is suitable for both solo and group playing. Once you determine and set the beats per

minute, you can correctly keep the proper timing.

Chords

I am a firm believer that a piece of music should not contain a chord for every melody note. The sounds

seem to run together. How do you determine how many chords to play? Try playing the song as written

by the author. Does it have too many chords? Not enough chords? Your ear will tell you the correct

amount of chords and connecting melody notes.

Having a chord with each melody note complicates playing and requires a lot of fingering. Your goal is

to achieve the correct balance. When I am arranging a piece of music from a melody, the timing

usually tells me how to place my chords. In 4/4 time, I use a chord on the first note of a measure and

then, perhaps on the third note of that measure. In ¾ timing, I usually place my chord on the first note

of each measure and play single notes for the second and third notes. In 6/8 timing, I will place a chord

on the first and fourth notes of each measure. It boils down to whatever sounds good for that particular

song. Less is usually more.

Reading Music

When I first started playing the dulcimer, I was told by one of my mentors that I should learn as much

about music that I could. The result would be that I would be a better player. Over the years, I have

found that to be true.

Should you learn to read music? Perhaps. Learning to read music is not all that difficult. As children

we learned the 26 letters of our alphabet. The musical alphabet only contains 12 notes. Why learn

music? Is it necessary to learn to read music in order to play the dulcimer? Definitely not; however it

will improve your playing. Very few dulcimer players, play a song solely by reading the standardized

musical notation. We all play by fret numbers. If you learn which notes are on each fret of all three

strings of our instruments, you can more often than not find alternate positions to play the same

note/s.and chords. You will learn which notes harmonize with one another and which don't. If you plan

on writing songs/and or arrangements, reading music, I believe, is a necessity.

Hopefully, this article will help you in improving your playing. It is but a start.

Edited by Carolina Rockman
PDF file included will not open.
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So, I decided to see if my left hand is in the position of dropping a ball while playing.  I picked up my dulcimer and 10 or more songs later (obviously I'm easily distracted) I think my left hand might be holding the dropping the ball shape.  On many chords I often use the ring finger, but I can't find any where I use the pinky.  In playing the melody, I tend to be a two finger player on many intervals (index and middle fingers), but occasionally I have started using the ring finger on the long intervals.  I don't know of a song or an interval where I've used the pinky for the melody, but we'll see if anything develops.

Thanks for the article.  It's very informative.

Dave

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Although the pinky is not used that often, it is a handy finger to have when you need to play a single melody note below an already fingered chord. i.e. you are fingering a G chord at 3(bass) 3 middle and 5 melody and your next note is an F#(on melody) or an E (melody) it is handy to be able to use your pinky while still maintaining your G chord position. You would be lifting your thumb off of the 5th fret and using your pinky to play a melody note below the 5th fret. All the while you will be maintaining a sustain of sound with your middle and ring fingers still pressing down on those strings. I personally use my pinky only for single notes. The bottom line is that there is no absolute way to finger a chord. Some fingerings are better than others; however, it is whatever works for you.

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Carolina

I tried it coming off the G chord in your description.  I usually use the ring finger for those intervals but I'll try to remember to try the pinky going forward.  Anything to make transitions between strings more fluid.

Thanks

Dave

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Using a G chord was not the best example. I mainly use my pinky in what I call flat v-chords.  i.e. 5-4-5 (Bsus4) I play a lot of songs that have that type of configuration. I use my index finger on the bass string; my middle finger on the middle strings; and my ring finger on the melody string. If a lower note follows that chord, using your pinky on the melody string will give you that extra reach that is needed, all the while maintaining economy of motion.

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Yes, that's a lot easier and seems automatic going from a 545 to play a lower melody fret for a quick interval.

Dave

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I have read Part 1 and looking forward to the rest. Thank you for sending me the info on this site and the PDF. I just joined and looking following you.  

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Took a class this weekend and Steven Steven Seifert covered so much of what you said in this article. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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