Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!
AUG
29

Hammered dulcimers in many lands

Hammered dulcimers in many lands

People often ask me about the origin and history of the hammered dulcimer, and usually they have no idea that it has the popularity and heritage that I tell them about.  It's a widespread, very international, musical instrument!  Many Americans don’t know that it ever existed at all till they see my own instrument where I’m out playing, and they commonly assume that it’s some mountain instrument developed in the Blue Ridge or such (though I don't play it in a style that should lead to that assumption).  So I get to enlighten them the way I was enlightened thirty-some years ago when I first saw one myself!

It's even considered a national instrument in a number of countries such as Hungary, India, China, and Iran.

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AUG
20

The hammered dulcimer is the ancestor of the piano

The hammered dulcimer is the ancestor of the piano

Harpsichords and clavichords had been in development for a few centuries when an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori decided in the late 1600s to try to adapt the idea of the hammered dulcimer to the chromatic keyboard design. 

Harpsichords had only one loudness (known to us as “quiet”), and their tone was essentially always the same plucking-crow-quill sound as well.  Cristofori recognized that applying the hammer concept could open the way to a great range of volume and tone --- so he worked on making a sophisticated key assembly that could handle the varied actions of swinging a hammer at the strings.  Now, instead of the player’s moving two hammers around on a diatonic (do-re-mi) pattern of notes, he or she would be able to use all ten fingers to push buttons (keys) that swung hammers that were already oriented in front of their chromatic notes.  (And separating the right and left hands for different musical roles could create the effect of a "duet" that we're so familiar with in keyboard playing.)

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JUN
27

Choosing a hammered dulcimer of your own

Choosing a hammered dulcimer of your own

It can be quite a challenge to choose your own instrument, because there are so many factors to consider in order to get what you’ll be happiest with, especially if you have particular goals and dreams for your own playing.  Then again, if you really want to play an instrument, almost anything will do just to get started!

For the hammered dulcimer, my main instrument these days, I recommend that people try out lots of them.  Craigslist or eBay can actually be a problem if you don't really know the different builders, because the builders and the instruments are all so different in sound quality and general quality. 

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155444 Hits
MAY
15

Stage setup for the audience to see and hear

Stage setup for the audience to see and hear

Here's a photo of the stage setup Ouida Archinal, Ann Robinson, and I used in December of 2012 at our trio concert in the Hennage Auditorium in Colonial Williamsburg. I thought I'd share it since it's an example of one of the ways we cope with making a good presentation to the audience of our instruments and sounds.

1) The three hammered dulcimers are all carefully cantilevered for good visibility and sound projection but within pretty good hearing range of each other; our backs are turned somewhat to the audience, but we always turn toward the people when we talk or play other instruments.  This seems to make more sense than facing the audience so that they see our faces but can't see or hear the dulcimers!

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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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23408 Hits
MAR
20

The beautiful sound of a hammered dulcimer's triangular shapes

Do you walk past your hammered dulcimer sometimes, deciding not to play it because you feel that working on a tune would just be more work than you need right now?

Then don't work on a tune! Just mess around with beautiful sounds without a definite plan! The hammered dulcimer is perfect for that!

Three-note chords on the dulcimer come in triangular shapes. The only simple skill needed to get a gorgeous sound is to coordinate your right and left hammers into a simple shape, say, R on bass bridge, then L on right side of treble bridge, then R just above that, then back to L on the same course it had just done --- thus the only movement is the R hammer, and the L is playing the same note in between the R notes. Repeat over and over on those same notes for a while.

A specific example of a regular chord would be the notes D-F#-A-F# (R-L-R-L). If you repeat this for a while it gives you a beautiful D major chord. But don't think specifics! Think shapes! A major or minor chord shape is the triangle described here, but there are also lots of other shapes.

If you make the triangle more acute by playing courses right next to each other on the treble bridge part, it sounds "natury" and impressionistic (like G-D-E-D); if you spread that part of the triangle farther apart, it sounds more hollow and stark --- say, if you play all marked courses, like the notes G-D-G-D or any shapes of that kind.

Then try all sorts of other triangular shapes and listen for the interesting sounds.

You may want eventually to develop one of these explorations into a finished composition that you come back to and maybe you'll even perform it for others! BUT what I want to encourage you to do here is to to break away from a project-driven mentality and develop a sense of freedom and joy in the moment --- and you can do it at any time with no sense of pressure, thus you will be playing your dulcimer and enjoying it at any time!

Don't walk past the dulcimer!

9249 Hits
MAR
01

Hammered dulcimer improv: all blacks, all whites!

When I go to play my hammered dulcimer and don't know what I want to play, sometimes I just start playing notes pretty randomly in the following patterns, and it sounds amazingly good even if I'm not thinking about it at all!  You ought to try it too....

The "marked courses" on my model of dulcimer (Dusty Strings D600) are white, as they seem to be on most brands these days.  When you play them in a rectangle you get the first, fourth, fifth, and eighth (octave) scale steps of one key.  Try it!  It sounds intriguingly hollow and rustically sophisticated.

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