Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!
MAY
08

Musical modes are the same as scales!

Sometimes we hear musicians say things like "That's a modal tune" or "That's in a minor key, but one note's different," etc.  Let's talk about what that means!

In the Middle Ages and earlier, music was essentially just melody and rhythm, with no harmony, and besides that the instruments could play in only one key.  (I find the no-harmony thing hard to imagine, but that's what music historians say.)  To get variety and color in the music, then, one thing musicians did was to set up a system of "modes" using that single-key scale.  And the mode system is used in most music today as well.  This is actually very easy to understand, and it's a helpful thing to know if you play music yourself!

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MAY
01

Can they hear you?

Can they hear you?

In the quarter-century I've been playing the hammered dulcimer, I've had countless experiences involving the nature of the sound coming off the instrument and out into the air.  May the following observations in some way bring new insight into your own playing and listening!

First, let's look at directionality.  A hammered dulcimer is a very directional instrument: a great deal of the sound comes straight off the top, the main sonic surface, and it flows in its fullest character right into your face, where your ears are!  What about other people who can't listen up there like you are?  Well, many times I have been playing a piece with great passion and energy and percussiveness and volume, and then someone comes up and compliments me on my music's softness and gentleness and relaxation and smoothness --- hey, I was banging with all my might!  What's going on?  Well, perhaps the sound was changing character significantly as it came around the sides of the dulcimer, and as it swirled off the wall behind me.

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APR
23

Lessons learned from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!

Lessons learned from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!

In 2011, when I was considering tunes for the Civil War album Tenting on the Old Camp Ground, I thought of the spiritual “Wade in the Water” (and ended up doing it in a lively duet form with Bill Gurley, in an arrangement Bill originated).  I remembered that I’d first heard the marvelous melody on a record by the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s --- so I went looking for the track and ended up re-collecting in digital form all of their albums!  I began to realize that these, and especially the two records I owned at that time, What Now My Love and The Brass Are Coming, had had a profound influence on my musical sense and styling ever since.  I play different instruments and genres than Herbie and his group of first-rate session men, but the approach I use to production, arranging, and playing is definitely similar!

To convince myself that I wasn’t  just imagining this influence, and to perhaps share the ideas with others, I started a brainstorming list --- and it quickly became a large set of both general concepts and specific applications.

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APR
19

The scale, the melody, the chords, and time!

The scale, the melody, the chords, and time!

Often people think of music design as a mysterious, arcane art that can only be done by gifted geniuses who just have a special knack --- or, alternatively, that new music (improvisation or composition) can be made only by highly trained technical experts.  Not really!  There are only a few basic concepts that make it all come together, and here's what I've seen as a lifelong improviser:

1) Everything in normal "tonal" music is built out of a diatonic (do-re-mi) scale: seven scale steps in an octave, and nothing more.  In elementary school music or elsewhere I hope you've gotten the chance to hear that that scale is a "whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step," easily seen in the key of C on the piano.

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APR
11

Two musical schools of thought in any genre

Music making (and listening) can take two vastly different directions. Which one do you tend to prefer?

One way that is taught and listened for is to play the notes very clearly and consistently and beautifully. (Beautifully, that is, if it's what the genre calls for --- there are exceptions, of course!) If your instrument has vibrato or tremolo, as the flute does, this view calls for a very steady vibrato coupled with an even tone. There is a strong emphasis on the integrity of the melody, and accompaniment may be considered a sort of "wallpaper" for the featured lead instrument. Any ornamentation is to be carefully planned and incorporated.

Notice that I said "play the notes" --- a clue that that isn't my approach --- because the second school of thought is not to "play notes" but to play music! This second view takes a melody and its accompaniment and attempts to reach into the heart of the music behind it, personalizing it and unifying it into a perhaps passionate outpouring that involves countless variations of detail in volume, tone, vibrato, speed, ornamentation --- with the intended result of making it somewhat spontaneous and larger than life and having it move the souls of players and listeners alike.  Each performance of the same piece may seem to be a whole new experience of the music.

Really, it's not even "playing an instrument," this other approach: it's using the instrument to play music!

I would hasten to add that I'm not just advocating self-indulgence, merely using the music to promote or satisfy yourself or the listener; there can (and should) be full respect for the source of the music, hence the careful wording I used above: "reaching into the heart of the music..." and "using the instrument to play music" --- in a sense making yourself a living extension of the original intent of the composer, as an alternative to merely reconstituting the music as exactly as possible (if that is even possible). Two of my favorite Classical musicians were perfect examples of this idea: George Szell and Rudolf Serkin. Serkin even went so far as to say at the height of his fame as a pianist that he didn't even care much for the piano, or himself as a musician, but that he was just trying to get the piano to bring the music as perfectly as possible out into the air! And, surprise, the personal power in his and Szell's playing are great --- not self-serving but tapping into the ultimate meanings more thoroughly.

There actually is a strong element of risk in this approach, since it calls for moment-by-moment personal judgments to be made --- somewhat scary at times, and sometimes causing imperfections from "dwelling at the edge" --- yet music can truly come alive because of this risk!

Two different tastes of Heaven! Consider which you find to be your own mode of expression and interpretation!

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