Dan Evans Logo

singing with the dulcimer


hints and tips for mountain dulcimer players who sing

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


Few performers sing with the mountain dulcimer today.  It’s great to hear music on the dulcimer and I delight in the virtuosity of the great players - but accompanying songs is good fun too.  The dulcimer’s sweet sound is an ideal accompaniment for many folk songs and it’s surprising what can be done in Ionian tuning with just three strings and no half-frets.


pitch and key
When I started playing dulcimer, I followed the traditional principle of tuning the dulcimer to suit my voice. Typically I’d be in (or near) the key of C.  I liked the organic nature of this approach but it had two main disadvantages:  You can’t play with other instruments and the strings were never optimised, sometimes being over-slack and limiting the tone of the instrument.  As my voice developed it became higher and I started using D and later E as typical keys to sing and play in.  As I played with other musicians more it became important to tune the instrument to a fixed key so we were in tune.


In over 15 years of teaching singing I find it common for singers to choose a lower key than is ideal for their voice.  This has much to do with confidence of hitting high notes - so comfortable keys are chosen, rather than ideal ones.  For me the key of E can sometimes feel a little high on the top notes.  Despite this, E is generally a better key for me than D.  Being in the right key requires less breath and helps to project the voice better - these help to sustain long notes and to communicate the emotion of the song.


Teaching singing has also shown me the great importance of warming up and being relaxed, which is often underrated or overlooked.  On my weekend singing course we spend a significant amount of time warming up and relaxing through Yoga, some simple voice exercises like humming and lots of laughter.  These significantly help with vocal tone and range. 


posture & breathing
We generally sing best standing up so that the diaphragm can move freely.  The diaphragm can be used in conjunction with the chest muscles to control the volume of air in the lungs.  Whilst some singers intuitively know how to use their diaphragm, all singers can be taught the technique.  Depending upon how we sit, the movement of the diaphragm can be inhibited and the lung capacity limited.  Assuming you play sitting down, holding your back straight helps, as does sitting upright - leaning forward with a curved back dramatically limits the lung capacity.  Singers with deep voices don’t just need the chest for breathing, the sound resonates there too – so a poor posture will inhibit resonance as well as limiting breathing potential.  A good posture looks attractive too.

Inevitably, even the most confident and adept players will at some point want to glance down at their fingers.  Unfortunately this tilting down of the head closes the airway and can limit or even stifle the voice.  Ideally, the singer’s head should not only be looking ahead, but up slightly too.  This opens the throat and maximises the vocal sound.


telling the story
We are all drawn to the beauty of our chosen music.  In sharing a song however, that beauty can easily be lost if we are tense and thinking about what we are playing on the dulcimer.  By the same token, it’s easy to sing a song parrot-fashion because we know it so well.  I coach singers to present their songs with warmth and passion using a drama technique called ‘method acting’.  Once the song is learned, the focus is on the words and their meaning to the singer.  When the singer relates the meaning of the words to their own experiences the quality of the vocal sound changes and the song comes to life.  In this way the singer connects emotionally with their material and communicates the feeling of the song, telling its story.  In performance, this technique not only puts feeling into the song but the effort required to do so takes the focus away from any nerves or negative feelings the performer may have.


rhythm and rubato
In much contemporary music, rhythm is king.  Traditional songs that might be played on the dulcimer however are often not like that.  Verses and stanzas can vary in length and need to be interpreted with greater rhythmic freedom.  Although there are many ways to describe these timing variations, the most common and meaningful term for this is probably rubato.  Technically, rubato (or tempo rubato) means rhythmic give-and-take when playing.  This gentle ebb and flow of the rhythm adds depth and interest to the music, making the song breath and so come to life.  I think of playing a song as a dance: During the verses the singer takes the lead and the dulcimer follows.  During the instrumental parts – intros, interludes and outros - the dulcimer leads the dance.


Intros, interludes and outros are important parts of a song.  The intro gives the singer the tempo and pitch and interludes let the singer catch their breath.  All three devices break up the song and allow the player to show off the beauty of the dulcimer.  They also allow for little complexities in the playing which would be lost and out of place during the singing verses.  A key principle of musical composition is the creation and resolution of tension.  Intros and outros are particularly good places to do this.  Hanging on a seventh chord for example, will create tension whist a major chord will resolve it.  In DAA tuning, compare the chords A7 (3-2-4) with D (2-0-3). The end of the intro, just before the singing - or at the very end of the outro are both useful places to deploy this device.


my DAA song accompaniment method
My dulcimers have three strings and a diatonic scale (there are no half-frets) and my favourite tuning is Ionian, commonly referred to as DAA.  In Ionian, the method I’ve developed to accompany folk songs is to play chord shapes with my left hand and fingerpick them with my right. 


This illustration shows a typical picking pattern that I would use for a song in 4/4 timing.

    fingerpicking pattern A










Equally simple but effective patterns are used for 2/4 and 3/4 time signatures and so on.  The next illustration shows how to introduce a simple rest in the pattern to create a sense of space in the accompaniment.


 fingerpicking pattern B


Likewise, other small changes to the picking add variety.  The beauty of this approach is that you can make the picking as simple or complex as you like, depending upon the song and your dexterity.  Fingerpicking allows for a certain amount of rubato but if I want to be more expressive with the timing, I’ll gently strum the chords for a specific part of the song, making the dulcimer follow the free rhythm of the voice.  


The picking gives rhythm and the notes in the chord add harmony to the song – but the real strength of this approach lies in using chord inversions.  Compare these three inversions of the D major chord: 2-0-3, 4-3-5 and 7-5-7.  By choosing appropriate inversions of each chord in the song, the accompaniment takes on a distinct shape can even convey a sense of the melody.  This simple but powerful method gives harmony, rhythm and a sense of the melody – it’s a complete accompaniment.


The example shown of the song Bogie’s Bonny Belle illustrates a number of these points:  Inversions are used to give a sense of melody to the accompaniment and the picking pattern is broken to add variety and accommodate quick chord changes (measure 3) and a time-signature change (measure 6).      



Bogies Bonnie Belle song


Fig 1


Fig 2


Fig 3

Although Ionian is a major scale, the DAA tuning allows minor chords also - eg Bm 2-1-3, F#m 2-0-2 and Em 3-1-4.  Without retuning to a minor mode, you can accompany a minor song.  Indeed, even without half-frets, the variety and complexity of chords available is considerable including sevenths, minor sevenths and suspended fourths.


to conclude
There’s a lot more to singing and playing the dulcimer than the specific tips in this article.  If you adopt them however, they will help you to tell the story of your song.  Happy dulsinging!

< back to news articles

Youtube Twitter Facebook LinkedIn RSS Logo
Latest News |
Play Samples |  
Press area Dan Evans | English fingerstyle dulcimer & guitar © 2018 RSS NEWS | Site Map | Privacy Policy