Timothy's Blog

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

Playing without a plan can be great

Playing without a plan can be great

Are you a musician who is tied to the page?  Do you need to have notes printed in front of you in order to play?  Or do you have to depend on a carefully rehearsed repertoire?  Do you require a chord chart so you know the right harmonic structure?  Or are distinct melodies your only option when you play?

Here's an example of how totally 'out of the blue' playing can be beneficial:

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Three kinds of tempo flow

Three kinds of tempo flow

The Italian word “tempo” means “time” --- music moving through time at a certain speed, as we generally think of it.  But it also involves how we progress through time.  Offhand, I can immediately think of three different ways in which the tempo moves.  Let’s line them out:

1)    Steadily:  Like a metronome that ticks away every beat, or, with the human element, moving along pretty nearly like a metronome but with more life to it --- this is the most common tempo motion.  In fact, Pop music recordings often utilize a studio “click track” metronome that serves as a reference during the recording process so all the instruments and voices move along together and the song can be set up to be good for dancing. Then in the final mixdown the metronome track is removed.  We all need to be able to keep this kind of flow (click track or not) and to keep it consistent, no matter what genre of music we play!  Old-Time and Bluegrass music, for example, tend to keep this consistent rhythm.  It's the easiest "groove" for an ensemble's members to keep their timing precise.

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EXCELSIOR! Ideas concerning the concept of “Up” in music arranging

EXCELSIOR!  Ideas concerning the concept of “Up” in music arranging

“Excelsior” is a Latin word meaning “ever upward.” Aspiration is an important part of every aspect of our lives!  We need a sense of hope for better things, more noble things, more joy and adventure and ultimate fulfillment.  Certainly our music arranging can reflect this.  I have compiled ideas here that I employ to give a sense of “excelsior” in my arranging and playing music, and I often experience a new elation as I perform, no matter what the form of the music is.  Some of this concept is already built into the source melody or chords --- perhaps that’s why I choose to use them in the first place --- but I can consciously incorporate many other techniques as well to flesh out the progressive joy or drama.  I do hope that you too can find your own elation through using some of these!

(A couple of references in the text are for players of hammered dulcimer --- but all of these thoughts can be used by any musicians.)

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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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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!

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