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singing with the dulcimer part II


singing with the dulcimer part II: the lifecycle of a song

The following article was written for the American magazine Dulcimer Players News.

This article develops from my previous item: 'singing with the dulcimer', published in the Spring 2010 issue of DPN.  I'd now like to take you through the lifecycle of a song: from learning a new song on the dulcimer, right through to performing it to an audience.  I play mountain dulcimer, mostly in DAA - but I hope this article will also be of interest to other dulcimer players as many of the principles will be transferable.


You will find it really helpful to be familiar with the melody of a song before starting to play it on the dulcimer.  The better you know the music, the more quickly the arrangement will take shape.  Unless you already know the melody well, I recommend you find a recording of it listen to it a number of times before making a start on a dulcimer arrangement.


You will need some words.  For traditional material especially, you might gather several versions of the words before settling on one set that suits you.  The internet is good place to start today as there are many websites that publish lyrics to songs.  For this article, I'm assuming that you don't already have any dulcimer TAB or notation for the song you want to learn. 


dulcimer arrangement
Then we need to find a suitable key.  If like me you play in Ionian mode, commonly referred to as DAA - then, without changing strings, your dulcimer may work in the key of C (CGG), D (DAA) and even E (EBB), depending how taught your strings are when tuned to DAA.  For other keys you will need to change string gauges.
Finding a key to suit your voice might need some trial and error and it will depend upon you own register (how high or low you sing), your range (the variance between the lowest and highest notes you can sing) and the range in the melody of the song itself.  


The good news is that the key of D is a good starting point.  Try singing the song in D and see how it feels.  Are the low notes of the melody too low for you or the high notes too high?  Having found a key that suits you, many other songs may also suit you in that same key - so you won't be constantly tuning your dulcimer.


As mentioned previously, there is a tendency for singers to pitch songs a little low so they feel comfortable hitting the high notes.  However low notes take more breath and are harder to project making it more difficult to put that all-important emotion into a song.  So don't worry too much if the high notes feel a little tight at this stage.  With practice singing, your vocal range will extend.  Warming up helps a lot too and I'll recommend some warm-up exercises shortly.  Lack of confidence in hitting high notes can also make singers pitch songs a little low.  If in doubt, err a little on the high side and you'll breath better, project better and, importantly, express the motion of the song better.

Now we need some chords for our new song.  Again the internet is good place to start as there are many websites that publish basic arrangements of songs in the form of words for a verse and a set of chords.  But these chords may not be in the key of D so you may need to transpose them.  Using the transposition chart you can quickly transpose chords from another key to D.  If you think of you dulcimer as always being in the key of D, even if it is actually tuned to EBB or CGG, then you will only need to remember one set of Ionian/ DAA chords.


For example, if the chords you have found are in the key of C and include the chord G Major:  On the transposition chart Look at row I, go to column C, find the row with G on it (row V) and locate the chord name in the D column on that row (A).  So G Major in the key of C is the same as A Major in the key of D and so on. 


chord transposition chart 


Please note that, unless your dulcimer is fully chromatic (fretted like a guitar), then there will be some chords that you cannot play.  There are however plenty you can play and the chord chart shows enough popular chords and their inversions to play many songs.  You will probably want to choose the simplest set of chords you can find so they are most likely to be playable on the dulcimer.  There is a more advanced way of working out your own chords to songs - but I'll leave that for a another day. 


Lets recap. You have chosen a song and become familiar with the structure of the melody.  You have found a version of words and some chords, which are now transposed to the key of D.  Now we need to think about the rhythm and what to do with the right hand.  My example song demonstrates a couple of options.           


example - The Ellan Vannin Tragedy
What attracted me to this song is that it tells the true and poignant story of the sinking of the Ellan Vannin paddle-steamer ferry, which carried passengers, goods and mail back and forth from the Isle of Man to Liverpool on mainland UK. 


Ellen Vannin DAA dulcimer notation 


You will notice that the song is in a minor scale, yet you can play the chords on a DDA dulcimer without any half frets.  Inversions of the chords add shape and interest to the accompaniment.  The octave Bm chords used for the intro and outro are played with vibrato and they both set the scene and add a little mystery to the proceedings.


Ellen Vannin intro


 Ellen Vannin outro


The rhythm is in 4/4 and I fingerpick the chords in the chorus to give it a regular rhythm.  This is a well-known folk song in England and you would expect a folk club audience to join in the chorus without prompting.  Having a regular rhythm helps them to do so.


Ellen Vannin strum pattern


Ellen Vannin picking pattern


Ellen Vannin fig3


However the chords in the verses are strummed, once each only.  This breaks up the rhythm as some measures have one strum, while others have two.  Furthermore, the verses are played with more freedom in the timing to accommodate the slightly inconsistent lyrics.  If you compare the first two lines of verse 2 with those in verse 3 you'll see what I mean.  This freedom with the rhythm is often referred to as rubato, meaning pushing and pulling of the timing.

practice & rehearsal
These are two different  things.  Practicing is to memorise the song (assuming you perform without reference to notation) and to learn to play it flowingly, without mistakes.  Rehearsal is to prepare you for a sparkling performance.  Try not to do either when you are tired.


Practice the song so well that if anything went awry you'd be able to improvise a way out.  At the same time rehearse the song so it sounds like you are hearing it for the first time and are moved by it. 

This can be achieved using the drama technique: method acting.  When you sing the song you will have practiced it so well you don't need to think about how you are singing and playing it.  So focus your attention now on the words and what they mean to you and allow those feelings to envelop you while you sing and play.  It is likely that the hair on the back of your neck will stand on end and you will sing the song with conviction in a way that will move your audience.  Do this in rehearsal so you know you can do it in performance.  In sports this is called 'the zone', where you are totally focussed and so perform at your best.     


On a practical level, make sure your posture is good.  Have a straight back, allowing the maximum freedom for your diaphragm to work.  This is especially important for mountain dulcimer players as we have to play sitting, which compromises our breathing.      


warm up
Before the performance itself, warm up.  Shoulder rolling really helps to loosen many of the upper-body muscle groups and is probably the single most useful body warm-up for singers.  Stand with your feet apart and let you arms fall by your side like dead weights.  Then slowly and gently roll both shoulders together a few turns in each direction.


It's so important to be relaxed so arrive early to minimise the risk of additional stresses.  Conventional wisdom says we should sit calmly to relax but in fact it helps to walk around - any movement will improve circulation and so help adrenalin, the fight and flight hormone, to be removed from your muscles.  Removing adrenalin helps to relax us physically and mentally.  Shake your hands to relax finger muscles and improve circulation there too before you play. 


To warm up the voice, gently hum with your mouth closed.  Written down this sound would be hmm.  Hum several different notes without forcing any volume.  Next sing several notes with an ohw sound, using an open round-shaped mouth.  Sing several low notes with the ohw sound as this will require plenty of breath and work the chest and diaphragm muscles.  Now, with a slightly wider mouth, sing several notes with an arh sound.  Experiment with this sound on some higher notes and you should find that these project more. 

Keep your introduction to the song simple and to the point.  Say why the song moves you and this will help you get into your zone.  Or break the rules: sometimes it can have more impact to just sing and play without an introduction.  Make these decisions consciously, considering the emotional impact they will have.    


Unless it's inappropriate to the material, smile when you perform you song.  The act of smiling releases endorphin hormones, which can put us in a more positive frame of mind.  Smiling also creates the correct mouth shape for 'calling' or throwing our voice.  It looks good too.


Listen carefully to any feedback from the audience afterwards.  If it's positive it's generally sincere, especially if it's specific.  You might be surprised how differently people react to a song, just as we may all see different things when looking at a piece of abstract art.     

recap of key points
•  know the melody of your song well before you start
•  find some suitable words
•  find a set of chords, which you may need to transpose to the key of D 
•  find what key suits you without pitching it low
•  relate the rhythm of the song with your right hand
•  practice the song until it becomes second nature
•  rehearse with a good posture
•  warm up your hands and voice with exercises and chanting
•  move around to dispel adrenalin 
•  introduce the song by saying what it means to you
•  smile while you sing, unless it's inappropriate to the material 
•  focus on the meaning of the words to get into your zone when you perform
•  afterwards, listen carefully to any positive feedback from the audience 


I hope you found this article interesting and useful.  Increasingly, I am giving voice classes at dulcimer festivals in the USA now.  I should be delighted to work with you at one sometime.  Meanwhile, happy dulsinging !

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