Timothy's Blog

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

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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Free improv on the hammered dulcimer or whistle!

Yesterday I posted a blog about using the black keys of the piano to come up with your own music in the common pattern of a pentatonic scale.  But this can be done on any instrument, you know!

My two main instruments are the hammered dulcimer (ancestor of the piano but laid out very differently) and the flute family, which includes the whistle (tinwhistle, pennywhistle), so for players on those instruments let me adapt the idea and you won't have to go to a piano!

The piano's black keys, though they're all flats or sharps, have exactly the same relationship of scale steps as "Do-re-mi, sol-la," or "1-2-3, 5-6," or G-A-B, D-E.

On hammered dulcimer, then, just find the notes G-A-B, D-E and have fun exploring!  Just make sure you stay on those notes (any octave) and don't try any others till you've become sure of how the pentatonic pattern sounds and looks.  You'll find that all the ringing of the hammered dulcimer causes a very pleasant windchime effect with that set of notes!

On whistle (and also on concert flute or bamboo flute, for that matter), you just locate the same set of notes!  I find that the motions of the pentatonic scale are very natural for the fingers, and I can sound very virtuosic when doing something very simple!  D and E are at the bottom of the range of a whistle, but G tends to sound like the main scale step (the "tonic" or "root").   For the note D you put all six fingers down on the holes, then lift the rightmost one for E, lift two more fingers for G, then one more for A and one more for B (now only one finger is down), and start mixing and matching these fingerings and you'll find yourself coming up with real music!

Please try this!  It is one of the most freeing and quickly satisfying skills you will ever have!  Why, you can carry a whistle while hiking in the mountains and pull it out during a rest break and listen to the pentatonic scale reflect off the trees, or pass by the dulcimer in the living room and grab the hammers and fill the room with beauty for a few seconds...

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You can improvise --- yes, you! Free Improvisation on the Black Keys

Even if you don't know anything about music, you can be a musician immediately --- really!

There is a very common idea out there that says that only people with special gifts can make music, and that only extremely rare folks have that added mystical ability to compose and improvise music that has never been done before.

Well, there is a certain measure of truth in that, as there is about giftedness in all areas --- but I disagree with the word "only"!  Music has a structure that will do all sorts of things for you if you just let it.  And the simplest introduction to this is something I still enjoy after a lifetime of improvising:

Look at a piano keyboard.  You'll see that the black keys are arranged in a repeating pattern of twos and threes.  If you play all the twos you'll see that they're all the same two notes, just different by being in higher and lower octaves.  The same is true of the threes, too.  Well, combine a set of twos with a neighboring set of threes, and you'll get a nice-sounding combination of five notes that happens to be the most universally popular scale of all time --- a "pentatonic" (five-note) scale.  (Some very famous tunes use that very scale, such as "Amazing Grace.")

Now you have the structure of music at your disposal, and you can make nice music without knowing anything else!

Pick three or four notes (technically we call this a "motif"), say, the bottom of the group of three keys and then the two of the two-key group.  Play those three notes twice in a row, then repeat them in the opposite order, then back to the first, then add one of the other notes you hadn't played yet, or change one of the notes, and just start wandering around on the black keys and occasionally returning to the first set of notes you played.  You will probably start hearing a new free-form melody emerging!  It may even seem surprisingly organized, and very likely quite pretty.

Keep experimenting:  Try a new set of notes, or a new rhythm, a new speed, whatever you feel like.  Maybe two different notes at the same time.

I'm aware, too, that some people are expert musicians who have, say, played wonderful Chopin on the piano all their lives but have never tried a single note that's not from a master's written page.  This concept is just as freeing for them as for novices!

And now for one last idea: Can you, even at this stage of new improvising, make music that says something special, that creates a certain mood, that moves your very own soul?

I do think so!

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Introduction to my new blog

Are you a kindred spirit?

Do you sense an "inconsolable longing" (as C.S. Lewis put it) that speaks in your heart of a transcendent world that is intended to be our real home?

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