How to Tell if Youre a Dulcimer Fanatic

intresting dulcimerAre You a Dulcimer Redneck?

You might be a dulcimer redneck if . . .

… have a tattoo that says, “Born to play DAA”.

… decorate your dulcimer at Christmas time.

…..your idea of the ideal honeymoon is going to a dulcimer festival.

…..your dulcimer rides in the front of the truck and your wife rides in the back of the truck.

…..your wife owns a camouflage dulcimer case.

…..your garbage man is confused about which dulcimers go and which dulcimers stay.

… have no idea how many dulcimers you have.

…..your idea of “girls night out” is going to a Schnaufer/Siefert workshop with your friends.

…..there is a dulcimer hanging in the outhouse.

… go selling all your harps and buy dulcimers instead.

……your dog can sing “Old Joe Clark” recognizably.

……you sleep with more than one dulcimer.

……you insist on playing your dulcimer during a eulogy.

……your dulcimer costs more than your truck.

……there are tobacco stains down the sides of your dulcimer.

……you change your strings more often than your t-shirt.

……your truck horn plays the A part of “Mississippi Sawyer.”

……you have Mason jars filled with dulcimer picks.

……your neighbor complains about the weeds in your yard growing up around stringless old dulcimers sitting on concrete blocks.

……your capo is made from a recycled Bud Lite can.

……you think safe sex is when the participants play a courting dulcimer.

……your front porch collapses under the weight of so many dulcimer players gathered for the weekly Friday night jam.

……your front porch is held up by old dulcimer cases.

……you skip your mother’s funeral because it’s the same time as Kentucky Music Week.

……you have a dulcimer rack in the back window of your truck.

……Mail Pouch is painted on the back side of your dulcimer.

……you spent your child support on a new McSpadden.

……you lost your favorite dulcimer in a poker game.

……Junior’s first word is “DAdd.”

……you don’t know the alphabet past G.

……your family portrait is of all the dulcimers you own.

……when Junior counts to ten, 6 1/2 comes before 7.

……you don’t make it to work because your dulcimer has a broken string.

……you carry your picks in an empty “Skoal” tin.

……Junior asks you to play with him and you reply, “What key?”

dulcimer and case

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Mountain Dulcimer History

artistic mountain dulcimerSome Historical Notes on the
Mountain Dulcimer

I can’t remember when I first heard an Appalachian dulcimer played. Probably during the 1960s on WUOT-FM, the public radio station at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I know as a UT student I heard a lot of dulcimers at craftsmen’s fairs in nearby Gatlinburg. People still played the old-fashioned way in the 60s, at least in East Tennessee. They’d strum with a pick in the right hand, and slide a wooden “noter” with the left up and down the fretboard to sound the notes. I remember a constant melodious buzz in the background as I wandered through the old Gatlinburg civic center. I loved the sound. In time, I started learning how to make it myself. I’m still learning.

The player I claim as my first teacher, the late Dorsey Williams of Jefferson City, Tenn., sharpened a rat-tail comb for his pick and used a Popsicle stick for a noter. Like most traditional players of the day, he noted only a doubled melody string but strummed across all the strings. A traditional dulcimer-maker and a born showman, he’d flail away at a whole world of fiddle tunes and old standards like “Grandfather’s Clock” while festival-goers gathered around. He had a world of fun playing the dulcimer, and he taught me making music isn’t always about theory and technique — it can be rowdy and joyous.

Jean Ritchie, a Kentuckian who introduced the dulcimer on the New York folk revival scene in the 1950s, taught a whole generation to play it. In her Dulcimer Book, first published in 1963 and still in print, she says: “In your left hand is the noter, usually a finger-length of bamboo. … Cradle the noter along the fingers and hold it so that the thumb may press from above, and the side of the finger may glide along the side of the fingerboard to keep the end of the noter from touching the middle string. That’s because melody changes are all made on one string’ the other two are always drones” (18). She’d slide the noter up and down the fretboard while strumming her thumb or a pick across all the strings, getting what she calls “a constant harmonizing chord which gives the delightful and characteristic drone, or ‘bagpipes’ sound.”

The drone, that resonant buzz I heard in East Tennessee, is the ancient sound of the dulcimer. Music historian Charles Hamm says from the 1800s on, the dulcimer was a solo instrument “used for playing simple melodies supported by a drone, or accompanying ballads or songs with a drone or fragments of a simple ostinato” or repeated musical phrase (82). One way to get an ostinato, recommended by Jean Ritchie, was by strumming the melody string and “rolling the thumb outward across the two drones, sounding them individually for two accompanying beats at the ends of lines, and such likely places” (24).

Times have changed, and playing the dulcimer for many people has become a matter of ensemble performance of copyrighted tablature. But the old-fashioned pick-and-noter style is not yet a lost art. Some early notes and observations on playing the dulcimer, and its German forerunner called the scheitholt, follow below:

  • William Aspinwall Bradley (Kentucky, 1915). “The [ballad] singer frequently accompanies himself on banjo, fiddle, or dulcimer. This last is the traditional instrument of mountain music. Like Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid, the Kentucky girl is also a ‘damsel with a dulcimer,’ or rather she was before this odd and yet elegant instrument, which descends directly from Elizabethan England, and which looks not unlike a very slender and short-necked violin, began to disappear. It is strung with three strings, which are sometimes of gut, though generally of wire. Two of them are always tuned in unison, while the third is an octave lower. / Occasionally the dulcimer — or ‘dulcimore,’ as it is called in the vernacular — is bowed, but more often it is plucked, the performer holding it lengthwise in his lap, producing the notes by pressing the string nearest him with a bit of reed held in his left hand, while his right hand sweeps all three with a quill or a piece of not too flexible leather. The two strings that are not pressed form a sort of bourdonnement, or drone-bass accompaniment, like a bagpipe. / The tonal quality is very light — a ghostly, disembodied sort of music such as we may imagine to have been made by the harp in the ballad of ‘The Twa Sisters,’ although this instrument is formed, not from the bones of a drowned girl’s body, but from thinly planed and delicately curved boards of native black-walnut. Those which, like mine, are made by an old man who lives in a cabin at the mouth of the Doubles of Little Carr are pierced with four little heart-shaped openings.” (912)
  • Emma Bell Miles (Tennessee, 1909). In a romantic short story titled “The Dulcimore” set on the Cumberland Plateau near Chattanooga, a handsome young mountain blacksmith gives his true love a three-string “dulcimore … whittled with innumerable patient touches out of dark brown oak, unvarnished, the head resembling a fiddle’s, but curiously carved in an attempt at ornamentation — a thing fitted only for the wild minors of native airs.” She plays “faint monotonous chords” on it with a “triangular plectrum of smoothed bone,” after tuning the instrument “to draw the strings into the weird and plantive harmony of which they were capable.” (950-52)
  • BEAUTIFUL DULCIMERJosiah Combs (Kentucky, ca. 1900). “This strange instrument … has a slight resemblance to the violin, with a narrow and elongated body and a very short neck. It is usually made of walnut or maple wood, and is strung with three stings plucked by a crow-quill held in the right hand. One of the three strings, the one nearest the body as the instument lies in the lap, is tuned an octave higher than the third one, and in unison with the second. The melody is produced on the first string by moving a bit of smooth reed back and forth over it, pressing it down between the fret and strumming all three stings with the quill; the second and third strings are used as tonic-drones. … The ‘dulcimore’ is adapted to simple, one-part tunes rather than fast ones. Because of its simplicity many folk-airs even cannot be played on it.” (qtd. Hamm 81)
  • Ralph Lee Smith (Pa.-Va., 1850-1900). Little is known about the Pennsylvania German tradition. But Smith believes the Germans played the scheitholt slowly, often with a bow, while the Scots-Irish ripped through fiddle tunes with a turkey quill. “It is interesting to note that the damage to the top of the instrument caused by the action of a swiftly moving plectrum or switch, is rarely seen on scheitholts from the areas of old German settleement … They were obviously played with a bow, with the fingers, or carefully with a plectrum. One does see some scheitholts with this kind of damage to their tops, in Appalachia.” (Story 20-21)
  • Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1618). “The first account of this instrument [scheitholt] comes from Praetorius (“Syntagma musicum,” 1618) who described it as a small monochord made of three or four boards, provided at one end with a peg box in which are inserted three or four pegs for tuning the brass strings of the instrument. Of these strings three are tuned to the same note, while the fourth (which was added ad libitum) was tuned an octave higher. One of the unison strings was pressed on to the finger-board by a little metal hook halfway (?) down, so that its pitch was raised a fifth. Near the nut the thmb of the right hand made the instrument sound by crossing all the strings, while the left hand made the melody by drawing a little smooth rod backwards and forwards over the foremost string. Brass frets indicated the places where the various notes were to be found.” (Panum 263)

A note on pronunciation:
Since the Appalachian dulcimer is played now by people from New England to California, the following note is offered as a public service. People who live in Appalachia don’t say the word like flatlanders do. There’s even a poem for flatlanders who aspire to better themselves. It goes like this:

“Snake,” said Eve, “If you try to deceive, I’ll throw this apple atcha.” (Jones and Wheeler 90)

Traditional player Dorsey Williams in Smithville, Tennessee, in 1974.


  1. Bradley, William Aspenwall. “Song-Ballets and Devil’s Ditties.” Harper’s 130 (May 1915): 901-14.
  2. Ellertsen, Peter. “Music, Politics Mix at Festival.” Knox County News [Knoxville] July 18, 1974: 2.
  3. Hamm, Charles. Music in the New World. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
  4. Irwin, John Rice. Musical Instruments of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Norris, Tenn.: Museum of Appalachia, 1979.
  5. Jones, Loyal, and Billy Edd Wheeler.Laughter in Appalachia. Little Rock: August House, 1987.
  6. Long, Lucy M. “A History of the Mountain Dulcimer.” Sweet Music Index.
  7. Miles, Emma Bell. “The Dulcimore.”Harper’s 119 (Nov. 1909): 949-56.
  8. Panum, Hortense. The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages: Their Evolution and Development. Ed. Jeffrey Pulver. 1939. New York: DaCapo, 1971.
  9. Rimmer, Joan. “Appalachian Dulcimer.” 20 vols. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Grove, 1980-86.
  10. Ritchie, Jean. The Dulcimer Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.
  11. Smith, Ralph Lee. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.
  12. Smith, Ralph Lee. The Story of the Dulcimer. Cosby, Tenn.: Crying Creek, 1986.
  13. Wilson, Joe. “Jean and Doc at Folk City: A Backward Glance 27 Years Later.” Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40005, 1990.


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Learning to play Dulcimers

sheet music for beginnersArticles of Interest
by other dulcimer players.

“Waly Waly”
mountain dulcimer arrangement by
Steve Eulberg…..BUY IT!

How I Learned to Play the Mountain Dulcimer
by Merv Rowley

When I first discovered the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer over twenty years ago, it seemed like no one else in my entire area had ever even heard of one. I was fortunate in having found a copy of “The Dulcimer Book” by Jean Ritchie, without which my dulcimer would probably still be hanging, unused, on a wall. I had a little musical background from earlier days, and Jean’s book taught me how to tune and to find notes on the dulcimer for particular songs (each note was represented by a fret position number). In no time, I was banging out music with drone accompaniment like so many beginners do.

In her book, Jean describes how she herself learned to play. She had listened to her Dad, Balis Ritchie, playing many times, and finally had the courage to “borrow” the family dulcimer and work things out from memory of what she had seen and heard. When she finally asked her Dad outright if she could try to play, he handed it to her with the remark, “Here, if you can play, you can play; if you can’t, you can’t”. That suggested to me the idea that no one can teach another how to play the dulcimer; you must figure it out for yourself! I proceeded to do just that, believing that I would never meet someone who could teach others to play a dulcimer! At that point in time, there were no books of tablature that I was aware of. So, I started out playing familiar, simple tunes by ear, and soon I had memorized quite a list.

Well, that’s my personal story. Maybe not everyone could have learned that way. On the other hand, maybe a lot of you COULD do it that way if you tried. I’ve never heard a good explanation of why some people can just hear a tune in their heads and then pick it out on a musical instrument It’s what we call playing by ear. It doesn’t mean someone can do that instantly, with no mistakes. It does mean they can locate the correct notes in the right order, remember where they were, and finally play them in the right sequence and tempo to make the music sound right.

How Do We Learn Music?

As a player and teacher for many years, I’ve had many students. No two have been quite alike. Some learn quickly, some struggle along before they begin to see things working out. Each one must discover how to choose and find the right notes, in the right sequence and timing at particular locations on the fretboard, so as to make recognizable music. This involves the brain, the ears, the hands and often the eyes, working together.

Much of this is mechanical (finger placement, strumming, picking or other finger techniques) that must be practiced until they can be done automatically when the brain sends the signal This part is like learning to drive a car. There is also a mental effort required of the student….which note is to be played, where is it located, how quickly or slowly should it be played? This is part of the challenge of information recall, either from visual directions (musical notation or tablature) or from one’s memory banks. The mental requirements for playing music are common to all instruments, while the mechanical requirements vary for each instrument.

So, someone told you that the mountain dulcimer is easy to play, perhaps the easiest of all the stringed instruments! You may also have been told that you never had to learn to read music. After all, anyone can learn something that’s a no-brainer. Well, the dulcimer CAN be quite simple to play (how about one finger on each hand?) Also you DON’T have to be able to read music, so long as someone will tell you how to find the right notes to play (tablature, perhaps). But what about that thing called tempo? How do you know how slowly or quickly the notes are played if you don’t have some symbols to indicate that to you? Or are you going to rely on remembering that kind of information?

The point of this discussion is that the ease of playing depends a lot on how simple the music must be. Also, learning quickly and easily how to play music you’ve never heard before means that life will be easier if you learn how to read simple music notation, like quarter notes, eighth notes, etc. No one has ever discovered a simpler way to present that information than with the musical symbols that are used worldwide.

learning musicHow Should You Learn to Play?

This is a decision everyone must make for him/herself. No two of us have identical abilities and skills. I believe that success depends first and foremost on three things. (1) Decide, if you can, the kinds of music YOU would like to be able to play (not what your teacher says you must learn); Kids get turned off forever by teachers who insist they play certain kinds of music.

(2) If you can, find a good teacher who will work with you, preferably on a private lesson basis. Only in this way can your individual needs be recognized. Don’t hesitate to change teachers as you see a need. If you cannot locate a teacher, try to select a good instruction book by talking to other players. There are several available, complete with companion audio tape or CD.

(3) Make up your mind that learning may not necessarily be easy, and that you are willing to dedicate yourself to practice and study in a timely manner, lesson by lesson. No teacher, however skilled, can force you to learn anything; they can only show you how it is done, and how you can do it.


One of the easiest ways to learn new music, after basic skills are developed, is with tablature. Use it for what it is, a simple way to read music and to play it according to someone else’s interpretation. Meanwhile, learn the basics of musical notation. If you use tablature (and many skilled players do), consider it only as a learning tool. The arrangement will never be really yours until you have memorized it, and can discard the tablature.

Always be aware that music is meant to be interpreted by the performer. Only classical music is cast in stone.

Don’t be too impatient to learn chording. Wait until you feel you can give your left hand more to do than find the melody. Always play with pleasure and joy in what you have learned to do!

Merv Rowley has published five books on Mountain dulcimer.

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How to Perform like a Pro – Dulcimer Tips

big performanceCoping with Stage Fright

“Stage fright” by any other name can equally threaten musicianship
by Robert Rawlins, Ph.D.

Robert Rawlins is assistant professor and coordinator of music theory at Rowan University in Glass-boro, New Jersey. He has published books and articles on various aspects of music theory and performance, including his regular contributions to the Bell.

Igor Stravinsky was one of the most celebrated musicians of modern times. So when he walked onstage in 1923, at the height of his career, to perform his own piano concerto, he sat down with complete confidence and launched into the work without a care, right’

Wrong. He was so nervous that at the conclusion of the first section he couldnt even remember what came next. The conductor had to sing the next phrase for him because Stravinskys mind was a blank. “It was only by habit and sustained effort that I managed, in time, to master my nerves,” he later recalled.

It seems incredible that a musician of Stravinskys stature could be overcome by performance anxiety, but his plight was not unique. Many of the greatest musicians in history have experienced stage fright, sometimes to an extent that hampered their performances or even compelled them to avoid public appearances altogether.

Those of us who teach and perform music think about performance anxiety often. It simply goes with the territory. Through the years, we devise strategies to cope with or even capitalize on this phenomenon.

Following are some of the procedures or approaches that I have found helpful.

Be concerned, and do something about it. There is a difference between worry and concern. Worry is a negative and debilitating habit. But concern is often the appropriate response to an upcoming obligation that needs to be taken seriously. Begin practicing for an important performance weeks or months ahead of time. Prepare. First, this is a way of channeling anxiety into positive action. Second, being prepared will give you confidence when the big day finally arrives.

The hard part is over before you play a note. Suppose you have an important recital coming up in three months. You want to do well. So you begin practicing regularly several hours a day. You attend all of your lessons, listen to recordings of the pieces youre doing, pick out your best reeds, and work on your stage presence. If youve done these things, when the day of the recital finally arrives, youve already won. You still want to concentrate and do your best, but you can ease your mind by telling yourself that you have already accomplished most of your mission.

It isnt easy. We might think were encouraging ourselves when we say things like “This passage isnt hard,” “This piece isnt that difficult” or “Theres no reason I should miss this.” The problem is, we do make mistakes, and if were convinced that the music is easy, then we feel inadequate. In truth, playing a musical instrument is very hard. The amazing thing is not that we make occasional mistakes but that, with practice, we make so few.

Even at lessons, students are likely to complain, “I dont know whats the matter with me. I could play this passage perfectly at home.” Its supposed to be that way. Accept the fact that you may not be able to perform at your absolute best under pressure. A realistic approach is to practice to the point that you have some “reserve” so that the pressures of performance will not cause you to falter and stumble.

Inexperience can work to your advantage. How do you view your inexperience’ On the one hand, it might appear that more mature performers have little to worry about because they have so much stage and audition experience. But inexperience can be an advantage too. Audiences expect more of accomplished performers, which means theres more pressure. Audiences are forgiving of young and inexperienced performers, as they should be. So if no one else is putting pressure on you, why should you put pressure on yourself’

Remember what music is all about. A colleague of mine has a favorite saying: “Theres no such thing as a musical emergency.” Of course, a professional soloist who has just broken his reed ten minutes prior to performing a major concerto may not agree with that.

But look at it this way. Some unknown paramedic living in the middle of nowhere deals with real emergencies every day. So do police officers, firefighters and parents. But musicians’ A performer aspires to provide a significant and moving experience for the audience, but if he or she fails to do that, the only real harm done is to ones own ego.

Look and act the part. It doesnt take years of experience to develop a winning stage presence. All you have to do is appear to be confident and enjoying yourself. Chances are, if you start acting as if youre in control of the situation, youll start feeling as if you are.

Professional actors tell us that when they play a role, they actually feel the emotions that the character is supposed to be having. This can work for musicians. Pretend youre an actor and the role youre playing is that of a world-famous concert soloist. Youll feel better, look better and play better.

The audience doesnt know what youre thinking. The only way they will know that youre nervous is if you act nervous. Ive seen performances that included numerous mistakes yet made a very positive impression. If a musician plays with poise, confidence and expression, the audience wont ask for more.

Smile. I know this sounds like something your grandmother taught you, but we often forget the powerful effect a smile has on people. It exudes confidence, disarms enemies and wins friends. A performer who walks onstage, makes eye contact with the audience and offers a sincere smile wins them over immediately. After all, they came to enjoy themselves, not to watch you work.

Other techniques can be added to this list. We all have our favorites, and some will be more applicable than others, depending upon our individual personalities and the nature of the performing experience. But all of these suggestions center on one principle: music is supposed to be enjoyable for both the performer and the audience.

The next time performance anxiety nags you, remind yourself how diligently youve practiced, and say to yourself, “This is what I love to do. Ive worked hard to be where I am now, and Im determined to enjoy this experience.”

stage performEmotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

The following article was submitted by Cynthia McTyreEFT is a tool that people can learn to use, free of charge, at At that web site there are many stories of the successful use of EFT to overcome many difficulties – emotional and physical – by focusing on the bothersome issue (such as performance anxiety) while tapping on a few acupressure points. It has sometimes been referred to as “acupuncture without needles”. Gary Craig, who founded EFT, provides an 80-page manual you can download for free plus many other resources. As a practitioner, Cynthia has used EFT successfully to help people with performance anxiety problems.

On the web page, if you click on “EFT at Work – 100s of cases” under “Resources & Support”, you’ll find a link to “web site search engine”, and if you search for “performance anxiety” you’ll find examples of using EFT to overcome that.

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Using Sheet Music and Playing by Ear with a Dulcimer

dulcimer 3Introduction

Coming to music late in life has had one advantage. As a practicing philosopher and software designer, I’ve had a fair amount of practice in coming to grips with complex ideas and making sense out of things. That I did only a little music early in my life has left me unbiased, as it were, with respect to what works and what doesn’t. (For more about how and why I began to immerse myself in this culture, see How I Got Started.)

The limited time available has made it important to figure out what goals to aim for, and how best to go about achieving them. The question of “playing by ear” vs. “reading sheet music” has been a major topic of interest for quite some time.

A lot of the material in this section assumes a familiarity with Irish Music, although the principles would seem to be applicable to a variety of musical styles. For a quick introduction to the genre, see Introducing Irish Music & Dance.

th dulciThe Different Ways to Use Sheet Music

After thinking about for quite a bit, here in a nutshell is my take on sheet music:

  1. It’s great for learning a tune — at times.
  2. It’s super for fixing the broken bits.
  3. It’s fine for a fast refresher of how a tune goes.
  4. But using sheet music to “play the tune” is just plain wrong.

I’ll expand on those uses just a bit before diving into the heart of the matter — why you don’t want to depend on sheet music to play a tune, and how you *can* use sheet music most effectively in your practice sessions.

1. It’s great for learning a tune.
This is true when no one you know has ever played it before. A lot of great tunes have undoubtedly been lost because they were never written down, and the last person that knew them died off. Written versions can help preserve such pieces. On the other hand, if someone you know can play the tune, then you are better off listening to it and learning it by ear. (That process is covered in Playing By Ear.)

On the other hand, there is Darwinian selection process in effect in traditional music. The *really* great tunes keep getting played, so they survive. Still, there are bound to be some quality gems in the set of written-but-unplayed tunes.

2. It’s super for fixing the broken bits.
You can consult the sheet music to fill in a gap, correct an error, or remember how a tricky bit goes. As a reference material, it can’t be beat, because your eye can take you right to the part you want a lot faster than you can find it on a recording, or convince a friend to play it for you.
3. It’s fine for a fast refresher of how a tune goes, before playing it.
In fact, reviewing the sheet music (without playing it) is a super exercise — because it builds the most valuable sheet-reading skill there is — the ability to read a score and hear the music in your head. You’ll find out more about that later on, in the section that describes how an intermediate musician can best make use of sheet music.
4. But to sit there staring at the music to “play the tune” is just plain wrong.

Next, we’ll go into why that is so.

thWhy You Don’t Want to Play from Sheet Music

There are several reasons for not playing from sheet music. Here are two of the most important:

  • Music is a vocabulary
  • You need to develop the “hear/play” reflex

Music is a Vocabulary

Playing by Ear vs. Memorizing

It’s important to note that playing without the sheet music (playing by ear) does not mean “memorizing the tune”. Sheet readers think, “I just have to play this often enough to memorize it, and then I’ll put away the sheet music”. (I know they do, because I used to think that!) But it doesn’t work that way.

In the first place, there are way too many tunes to memorize them all. In the second place, a “memorized tune” is the same as a tune that is read from sheet music — it’s the exact same thing, time after time, until it gets so boring that neither the audience or the musicians can stand it any more.

At a dance, I once heard a tune repeated 30 some times, without a single variation. Now, normally a tune is repeated only twice, before going to the next tune. But since the group was composed of intermediate American musicians, there weren’t any other tunes in the set! That would have been ok, even then, except that the tune was repeated note for note every time!

One important reason to break your dependence on sheet music is that musical notes constitute a *vocabulary*. Playing a tune is expressing yourself with that vocabulary. But reading from a page isn’t expressing yourself — it’s reading from a page.

Imagine going to a play and watching people read from the script. A session with sheet music is like that.

You Need to Develop the “Hear/Play” Reflex

Secondly, playing without the sheet music means a lot more than memorizing a series of finger positions. It means *hearing* what you’re playing an instant before you play it.

Now, if you are just learning to play, that process involves a lot of struggle. You hear the note in your head, but you put your finger in the wrong place. Or you don’t hear the note far enough in advance to get your finger to the right place in time.

But those mistakes are wonderful!! In each case, you are *learning* — learning important skills that will one day make it possible for you to *interpret* the music — to play it with subtle variations in timing, to add ornamentation, to write your own tunes, and to play variations on others.

That process also builds your *listening* skills. It makes it possible to hear what the fellow next to you is doing in the session. You might hear a variation you like better, and decide to copy it (as ethnomusicologist Chris Smith once pointed out). Or you’ll be able to hear the tune and mentally subtract the ornamentation, to get the basic skeleton. Or maybe you’ll hear whether you’re in tune! (Not a bad idea under any circumstances.)

The reason all of that becomes possible is that you spent time making those mistakes, learning how to hear a tune in your head slightly in advance of when you play it, and learning to finger the desired pitch in a built-in, reflexive action that connects the sound in your head with a position on the instrument. That “hear/play” reflex that translates an inner sound to an outer expression is the skill you really want!

When you play off the page so many times that you have the piece memorized, what you’ve done is built up a series of fingering actions until they have become a reflex. And you’ve acquired the ability to translate notes on the page (what you see) into fingering motions. We might call those “fingering pattern” reflex (where more complex patterns are built on top of smaller component patterns) and the “see/play” reflex (where you see patterns and translate them into digit manipulations).

Sheet Music: A Snapshot in Time

Sheet music does carry with it one danger, in fact. At a cultural level, it tends to “freeze” things that are, in their natural state, fairly liquid.

The sheet music version of a tune represents one person’s recording of that tune, at one point in time, in one place. Now, tunes evolve over time. In different regions, they evolve differently. So the same tune from one region may be played quite a bit differently in another region.

Over the several hundred years that a tune is in existence, a note could easily be added or subtracted here and there, creating the version we presently think of as “the” tune.

Then too, as a player evolves, they may play the tune with more embellishments, or possibly with fewere, and write down their favorite variation.

Finally, advanced players typically never play a tune the same way twice in a row. They add ornaments, vary the timing, and play subtle variations. In other words, as Chris Smith once mentioned in conversation, the concept of a “tune” is in fact a collection of tune fragments, and variations on those fragments. The way you select the individual fragments and string them together to make a rendition of the “tune” constitutes your interpretation of the music.

Clearly, sheet music can only record so much. It has no method for recording the huge number of possible variations for even a simple tune. Reading sheet music can therefore put you in the trap of thinking there is a single “right” version of the tune — and that you have it!

I once experienced that circumstance. In a neighboring town, there was a dance teacher who had generously devoted years of his life to teaching the art of Irish dancing to college students. He took the time and trouble to create a manual for his students, to help them learn the dances. Years later, a collection of them were at a ceili (social dance) hosted by Valerie Deam — a native of Ireland who taught the dances as they were danced in her native Waterford. She was astounded and amazed when she overheard those college students saying to each other, with arms crossed and heads shaking, “Nope. That’s wrong. That’s not the way it goes.” (True story!!)

Sheet music carries with it the same trap. If it makes you think you “know the tune” and you aren’t listening for the way its being played by the fellow next to you — who just happens to be steeped in the tradition!

Those are valuable skills, to be sure. But in that process, your head is not involved in the *sound*. And that lack of involvement produces a deadly, mechanical precision that takes the life out of a tune as surely as it puts skill into the fingers!

The only way to develop that “hear/play” reflex is to play tunes that are in your head, and pick them out on your instrument. That process is covered more fully in Playing By Ear. The main point in all this is to make sure you are not *depending* on the sheet music when practicing — and certainly not when playing in a session, be in a slow session or the more normal, hell-bent-for-leather session. However, even though you don’t want to be dependent on sheet music, there are still highly appropriate ways to make use of it. We’ll cover those next.

How to Use Sheet Music Effectively

With all of the foregoing in mind, the appropriate uses for sheet music spring readily to mind. We’ll cover that in three stages, giving the kinds of uses that are appropriate for:

  • The advanced musician
  • The intermediate musician
  • The beginning musician

(Even if you’re not intermediate or advanced, it’s good to know what you’ll be able to do in the future, and what you should be working towards. That knowledge helps to keep you moving in the right direction. So read on!)

First though, lets talk about how you can learn to hear sheet music.

Learning to Hear Sheet Music

The techniques for using sheet music effectively all revolve around your ability to hear the sheet music in your head. When you can do that, you are always playing by ear, whether you are using sheet music or not!

This point was brought to light by a physics professor at Stanford who also plays piano and conducts. In a conversation on the relative merits of sheet music, he explained that he sees the music, he hears it in his head. At the time, that pronouncement came as a revelation because I hadn’t know it to be possible.

The best way to learn to read sheet music in that manner is to read along while it’s being played!

The internet is a huge boon, in this process. There are collections of midi files, mp3 files, and abc files, all of which can be used to play the tune. At the same time, there are images of the sheet music created by transcribing those tunes (as well as sofware capable of doing the transcriptions.) With the sheet music in hand, you can then play the recording and follow along, note for note.

In the process, you’ll like find that sheet music often doesn’t look the way it sounds, rhymically. For example, a dotted quarter and an eighth note are tied to each visually in sheet music, but they are tied to their adjacent notes rhymically. So what you see is dum-da, dum-da, dum-da, but what you hear is dum, da-dum, da-dum da. That’s one of the things that makes sheet music tricky. If you’re visually oriented in the first place, it can be really hard to hear it right!

Advanced Musician

If you’re an advanced musician, and you’ve never heard the tune before, you can use sheet music to see how a tune goes. If you’re *really* good, you’ll read the music and hear it in your head. Otherwise, you can play what’s written a phrase at a time, and put the pieces together to get the tune.

The idea here is to use the sheet music to get the tune into your head. Once you’ve got it in your head, and you can sing or hum it to yourself (even if no one else can hear), then set aside the sheet music and find the tune on your instrument.

This works for an advanced musician, because the written representation of a tune is subtly different from the way it is actually played. This is especially true in traditional music where, for example, music written in 4/4 time may actually be played as syncopated, dotted-quarter + eighth notes. It’s also true in classical music, where the interpretation an artist brings to the music can make a world of difference in how it sounds. So the “advanced muscian” we are talking about here is one who is familiar with the genre and familiar with the process of interpreting the music.

Of course, the advanced musician can also use sheet music the same that an intermediate or beginning musician would.

Intermediate Musician

If you’ve acquired a bit of skill, you can use the sheet music to refresh yourself on the melody — for example, when you remember the title and know you like the tune, but you can’t for the life of you remember how it starts off.

At first, you’ll probably need to play what you’re reading in order to hear how it goes. But the best way to refresh a tune with sheet music is to force yourself to read the melody without playing the tune.

In fact, reviewing the sheet music (without playing it) is a super exercise. It’s worth practicing on tunes you know well, because it builds the most valuable sheet-reading skill there is: the ability to read a score and hear the music in your head. Once you can do that, you’re at the point where you be totally effective with sheet music, because you’ll be putting the tune into your head first (the first and most important prerequisite for playing by ear). You’ll then be transferring what you hear in your inner ear to your instrument. And that is the fundamental skill for all improvisation, interpretation, ornamentation, and composition.

Of course, you can also use sheet music the same way a beginner would.

Beginning Musician

If you’re a beginner, you won’t have enough command of the instrument to make out the tune from the sheet, so you should use the sheet music to check yourself. When you sit down to play, work on whatever tune is going around in your head.

I frequently find that after working on one tune, later on I have another tune in my head that uses some of the same notes. Or I’ll wake up with a tune in my head that starts with many of the same notes I was playing the day before!

Then, after you’ve picked out the tune to the best of your ability, use the sheet music to check yourself. Did you get it right? Did you leave anything out? And the best to do that review is to read the musicwithout playing it. Once again, that builds the skill of hearing sheet music in your head.

With the tune fresh in your mind, you should be able to hear it from the page. And as you mentally compare your fingering with the written notes, you’ll be able to spot any omissions or errors. Use the sheet music to play those sections, and see how they sound, in the same way that you would get feedback from a teacher.

You have to watch out. Sometimes the sheet music is for a different version of the tune than the one you have in your head. That’s one reason is a good idea to start off with a group, or with a teacher, so you know that the tune you want to play (assuming you’ve got it right!) is the same as the one your page!

It’s slow going, at first. But it gets faster over time. (For more pointers on the process, see Playing By Ear.)

When you have to, you can always cheat to find out what that bloomin’ note is that doesn’t seem to be anywhere on your instrument. Cheating is especially useful when the tune jumps several steps. Notes that are close to each other are easiest to find. Notes that are farther away are harder to find.

But it’s called “cheating” for a reason. It’s because you’re only cheating yourself. The trial and error process of finding those jumps develops your ear so you hear them. That makes it easier to find them in the future.

Still, at the beginning when everything is hard, it makes sense to cheat a little. You’ve got to manage the complexity of the task, so it stays in the realm of the possible.


Work towards independence from the printed page as quickly as you can. You’ll find a whole new world waiting for you: A world where you have musical ideas going through your head as you move through your day, and where the ideas come pouring out through your instrument when you sit down to play; A world where you can improvise and express your emotions through your instrument, using the language of music — a language that is further from the head and closer to the heart than any other language we have.

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How to Care for Dulcimer

Wildwood-DulcimerMusical Instrument Care:

The tops and backs of most dulcimers are made with 1/8″ hardwood. The finish is also as thin as possible, laying on top of the wood without sinking in too much so as not to dampen the tone of the instrument.

Cold weather is a direct cause of finishs cracking. It is usually just a cosmetic thing and does not really effect the sound. Once we start heating our homes, cars and work areas the air gets very dry which causes the majority of damage.

Most dulcimer wood is dried to around a 8 percent moisture content. However, the wood will forever allow moisture to pass in and out. Each variety of wood has what is called its equilibrium moisture content (EMC) with most instrument wood being at about 12 percent. This is the moisture level at which the wood is at rest naturally at a given atmospheric temperature and humidity. It is not constant. When the air is wetter, the wood will absorb moisture to a new wetter level, which is not the same amount as the moisture level in the air.

The EMC is different for each type of wood and so you have a conflict going on within the instrument when severe moisture changes occur, particularly when you have an instrument which is made out of several different types of woods. You have different amounts of stress going in different directions at the same time. This is where the pressures come from that result in the glue joints pulling themselves apart or the actual wood members cracking.

Most homes have a humidity level of about 10 percent and usually most instrument builders try to keep their workshops at about 40 percent. This allows instruments to be shipped worldwide to slightly higher or lower humidity ranges with little or no effect.

Instruments are relatively undamaged by exposure to higher humidity levels. However, when humidity drops extremely low or extremely fast, the resulting loss of moisture and shrinkage of the unfinished wood surfaces (like the inside) while the fibers of that piece of wood are still moist and unshrunken causes severe pressure and distortion of the wood. The results can be glue joints coming apart, cracks, warping, loose braces and loose and uneven frets. Wooden instruments can shrink so much that the strings will buzz. Often these strange buzzes will disapear when the humidity is brought up again.

With the unfinished fretboard wood expanding and contracting with the weather changes, it is not uncommon for the frets to lift away from the fretboard causing any number of buzzes, rattles, muted notes and more. A problem can occur when the fretboard shrinks and the fret ends are exposed. This can cause the edges of your fretboard to be so sharp it can draw blood!


All acoustic instruments must be kept in a good hard case. A quality hard case is the only way to guard against dings, scratches & bruises. This should be followed with a thermal case cover. Standard high quality wood cases offer little to no thermal protection.

When you are not playing your instrument, it should always be returned to the case. And the case should always be latched closed and be kept somewhere away from direct heat like heaters and stoves. The reason for latching is to keep the instrument in a stable temperature situation and many instruments have been damaged severely when the unlatched case was picked up and the instrument falls out.

If it is necessary to play outside where it is cold, and your instrument has been in either a warm car or house, take the instrument outside (in the case) about 30 minutes before you want to play. Leave it closed up in the case for about 30 minutes. Then 10 minutes before you want to play, open the case. This gives your instrment time to gradually acclimate itself with little shock. Do the same thing in the reverse also, if you are going from cold to warm conditions, say from the trunk of the car to the gig. Either of these senarios might mean planning on getting there a little earlier than the last minute if you want to minimize the possibility of hurting your instrument.

All musicians should understand that owning a high quality dulcimer requires that you know how to care for it. If you follow the advice outlined here, your favorite instrument will play better, last a long time, and be a valuable asset in years to come.

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Dulcimer Theory

dulcimer 1Mountain Dulcimer Lessons

Recommended Books and Recordings

Easy dulcimer books and resources for children or beginning players.
  • Monthly Dulcimer Lessons with CD/DVD from Stephen Seifert ***
  • The Best Dulcimer Method Yet by Albert Gamse (Contact Sweet Sounds Dulcimer House)
  • You Can Teach Yourself to Play Dulcimer by Madeline MacNeil
  • First Lessons on Dulcimer by Joyce E. Ochs (Contact Gary Sager)
  • A Mountain Dulcimer Primer by Joe Collins
  • Baker’s Dozen Book for Children by Shelley Stevens
  • Songs From Our Childhood from Heidi Cerrigione
Easy songs for children to learn by ear:
  • Boil Old Gray Cat
  • Harrison Town
  • Liza Jane
  • Old Joe Clark
  • The Cat Came Back (let them bar the chord breaks)

Duet Books:

Check out Larry Conger’s website for books on duets.
(Recommended by Bob Magowan:)

Try “Tunes for Two or More”, which contains fifteen duet arrangements (several of the pieces also have a third or fourth part). The book is self-published by and available through Beth Lassi and Nina Zanetti. The arrangements are musically engaging and tasteful, and some of the parts fit the “challenging” category. Highly recommended.
(Recommended by Bill Collins:)

Neal Hellman has a book called “Dulcimer Duets” that can be very challenging, since includes music from such duet players as Force & d’Ossche (available through MelBay).
(Recommended by Quintin Stephens)

Play Along CDs

Having a hard time at jam sessions? Check out Peggy Carter’s Play Along CDs for Mountain Dulcimer — With these CDs you’ll have your own back up band to play with…. any time….. like having a “jam session” in your living room all by yourself — NIGHT OR DAY! BUT you can rewind it! You can’t rewind a real jam session, but you can do it with Peggy’s Play Along CDs. The sample audio files on the website just represent one of the 4 or 5 tunes on each CD. You can purchase the full CD on Peggy’s website. All the tunes are listed so you can choose which CD you want. But I need to warn you that the webpage is very “heavy” because of all the music…. and so it takes a long time to load. I hope you’ll be patient… I think its worth the wait.

Also check out her Play Along CDs for Hammer Dulcimer!”

Western North Carolina Dulcimer Collective also has a series of “Learning CD’s” (professionally duplicated – not home-recorded) containing tunes from all of the newsletters they’ve published from 1990 through 2005. Each music CD has tunes played slowly on just the mountain dulcimer melody string, and then again up to speed with chords. (Some include a third track, finger-picked.) Also available is a Tablature PC CD containing tab and lyrics for all of the tunes, plus MP3 music files of the strummed version of each tune. It’s viewable alphabetically and by CD.

Music Theory & Chord Reference for the Mountain Dulcimer
by Jerry Rockwell

Jerry Rockwell’s book covers most facets of music theory and contains a great chord reference section. The music theory consists of rhythm, meters, time signatures, clefs, octaves, accidentals, enharmonics, and building scales. Along the way he covers the circle of fifths, key signatures, sharps and flats, minor keys, relative keys, parallel keys, enharmonic keys. He covers chromatic, diatonic, Major, minor, whole-tone, and pentatonic scales. He also discusses modes and has an extensive section dealing with chords and chord charts. The book also has exercises as you move through it as well as easy to understand diagrams and charts. It is well written and easy to understand.
(Recommended by John Sackenheim, Okeana, Ohio:)

Practical Theory Stuff
by Neal Walters

This book contains charts of the chromatic scale, the diatonic major scale, the natural minor scale, the key signatures, modes and scales, how to tune to modes and transposing into other keys and much more. It is a very well-done book and very entertaining. It also contains a list of the “10 Jam-mandments” that I find entertaining and educational.
(Recommended by John Sackenheim, Okeana, Ohio:)

Other Suggestions for Beginner Books

Larkin Bryant’s book/tape combo — I swear, that book alone could take a student through the first year or so and keep ’em busy. When I teach, I usually give ’em a few starter lessons and head them towards Larkin’s book.
In Search Of The Wild Dulcimer is another “teachin’ book” I like.
(Recommended by John Blosser a.k.a. Coyote)

I may have a connection for you…..a man named Joe Sanguinette, from Branson, built MDs for several years, with his label of Elk River Dulcimers. He recently retired from building for health reasons. Many years ago, he wrote a couple of simple MD books (one for Ionian, one for Mix) that were called the Baird Mountain Method Books I and II.
(Recommended by Dennis Moran)

In my humble opinion, the best book and tape to start with is LARKIN BRYANT’S. It is perfect for beginners and most easily understood!
(Recommended by Helene)

I really like “Strum Along With Joy” By Joyce Ochs. It’s a beginner book in DAd tuning. Very easy to read and follow. Is divided into lessons. Teaches chords and how to use them very early on. Working through the book is gentle and touched with humor.
You can contact Joyce for more information.
(Recommended by Barry & Linda Evans — Sweet Sounds Dulcimer House – Texas)

My first two books were the “Best Dulcimer Book”, by Gamse. I liked it because its information on tuning and explanation made sense! One I ran across just said to tune your dulcimer to a “good note” eeek! I know lots of good notes! The other was a Mel Bay book “Fun With Your Dulcimer”, good simple tunes to start with. Then of course I added some others some of which I am not yet ready for ……but will be. Have found being a beginner just a little over a year ago, that those two books got me well started. I collected several from second-hand booksellers on the ‘net. Progress has not been steady, it seems to go in fits and starts. At times it seems I plateau then try something that was soooo hard and hey, it works now. So would advise a beginning player if a song won’t come “right”, LEAVE IT for awhile and try again in a month or 2.
(Recommended by Alice Murphy)

I started with Larkin’s Book. I kind of skipped around and worked with the songs I knew first. Everything she teaches in there is easy to understand for the beginner. I am glad however, that I did not listen to the tape right away. I didn’t get to that ’til I was ready to learn some of the tunes I had never heard before. I say this because, even though she goes slow and simple, it would have been overwhelming to hear how I was supposed to be getting it. LOL
(Recommended by April)

I like Larkin’s Book, and Bonnie Carol’s “Dust Off that Dulcimer and Dance” (has tunes in 4 different tunings). I also use my “Mountain Dulcimer Workbook” which has fingering exercises to get limbered up. It really is a workbook–the students have to fill in the gaps.
(Recommended by Steve Eulberg)

John Stockard says:
“I would second Barry and Linda Evans’ recommendation of Joy Oches, “Strum along with Joy”. It is inexpensive, and comprehensive without giving the beginner more information than they can handle at one time. It is all in DAd and so that the beginner doesn’t have to learn anything particularly new to play along with most other dulcimer groups. I would also recommend as a companion book to Joy’s book… Maureen Seller’s beginner’s dulcimer book. While Maureen’s book is also a self teaching book, with Maureen’s book, the beginner will almost immediately have a good solid repertoire of well known tunes for their own personal enjoyment – all in DAd – all good, strong, clear, and relatively easy arrangements. Most all of these tunes will be heard at most jam sessions. Both books are excellent and can be used in self teaching.

Larkin’s book, while excellent … and was the book that I used to teach myself …. it is a very comprehensive book and gives a wonderful overview of the dulcimer and acquaints the student with many of the basic tunings…. but it is almost too good. I think that there is a lot of information there that the beginner isn’t quite ready for yet. Actually I would recommend all three, but if price is a problem, then go with Joy and Maureen’s two books to start with. I can’t imagine trying to teach without using these books. Joy’s book gets the beginner started… and Maureen’s book gives the beginner a good start on a repertoire.

Larkin’s book gives more of an overview of the dulcimer, musically and historically. BTW, in the back of Larkin’s book she has included the best chord charts that I have ever seen anywhere!!! These win hands down!!! For those of you with this book, I recommend Xeroxing yourself a copy of these charts … putting a layer of that clear self-sticking plastic over them and carrying them charts around in your dulcimer case.”

“I have had wonderful success teaching new players using Joy Ochs book, “Strum Along With Joy”. It is divided into lessons and by lesson 2 she is introducing chords. First learning the shapes, reinforced with chord changing exercises. Then Chord accompaniment to simple tunes. And then incorporating the chords in playing the tunes. I use sheet music hands out to supplement each lesson. In no time the students are adding in the chords whether they are tabbed out or just indicated by a chord letter.”
(Recommended by Barry & Linda Evans)

Here is my two cents for what it is worth. I like Sue Carpenters”Patches” for beginner fingerpickers, and of course all of Larry Congers’ books for fingerpickers and flatpickers. Of course I would like these, right? LOL My first book was Lois Hornbostles’ first fiddle tune book, can you believe that and I learned every one of them, WITH A PICK! LOL
(Recommended by Linda Brockinton)

My favorite, by far, is Larkin’s book AND tape. I sell it as a set, and almost insist that new players buy it. It’s the best I’ve seen.
(Recommended by Dennis Moran, Dulcimer House, Oklahoma)

Maureen’s book, “My Teaching Book for Appalachian Dulcimer”, begins with the assumption that the buyer doesn’t know basic music theory or what the parts of a dulcimer are. I know many people who began that way. She uses clear diagramed explanations and shows lots of verses to the tunes. Singing the words to familiar songs helps you learn the tunes so much quicker. Basically she tells the true beginner everything they need to get started. It does have a companion tape.
(Recommended by Rudy Ryan)

A good one if you want to be DAd oriented is “First Lessons Dulcimer DAd Tuning” by Joyce Ochs. Well organized with a logical progression.

“You Can Teach Yourself Dulcimer” by Madeline MacNeil is a well organized book that gets you very DAA oriented and give some other tunings at the end.

“Hal Leonard Dulcimer Method” by Neal Hellman is a good one if you want to start out with a not-fear-of-retuning attitude. It also addresses accompaniment.
All have CDs of the music.
(Recommended by Dave Murray, Arizona)

Dulci-BanjoOther Ideas for good instruction books:

For ideas on other good instruction books, go to my Dulcimer CD’s and Books page. You will find authors such as Bonnie Carol, Larkin Bryant Cohen, Steve Eulberg, Lorinda Jones, Dennis Lee, Jerry Rockwell, Joe Sanquinette, Neal Walters and David Schnaufer among many others to choose from. There are hot links to their web pages and also their e-mail addresses if you have any questions.
(Recommended by Gila Mountain Dulcimers)

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