On Learning To Play Dulcimer

When I began playing dulcimer in the mid 1970’s few instruction books were available.

The available books were written in a similar format that included a history of the dulcimer, how to tune it, and how to read the author’s method of writing tablature. The bulk of the books were collections of tablature.

Playing through these books helped me learn some basic skills of playing the dulcimer but offered little help with continuing to learn.

I had taken a course in high school covering ear training and basic music theory. These skills enabled me to learn tunes and songs by ear, harmonize them, and understand how to apply music to the layout of the dulcimer fingerboard.

Learning to play by ear is an acquired skill. I takes time, patience and a willingness to become comfortable with making mistakes. Over time learning tunes by ear gets easier. 

Playing by ear involves learning to listen. Listening brings an understanding of how music works. Understanding how music works leads to being able to play whatever you like.

When I first attended dulcimer festivals many players were learning tunes by ear. I often taught  without using tablature. Students brought cassette recorders to workshops and lessons and went home with recordings to help them continue learning.

After a few years passed a trend began where for many people learning to play dulcimer became equated with how much tablature they could collect. At one festival in the early 1980’s almost half the class left the room after I handed out tablature. I asked why they were leaving and was told they were going from class to class to collect more tablature!

These days it is rare that someone brings a recording device to a dulcimer workshop. This continues to surprise me. 

Writing music in tablature is not a new phenomenon.

Tablature has been in use for a long time

Tablature illustrates where to put your fingers on a fretted instrument. Most dulcimer tablature conveys the timing of the melody but usually falls short in illustrating how long notes other than the melody are sustained.

Many years ago the lovely and talented Barbara Truex invented a form of dulcimer tablature that allowed the author to accurately write independent rhythm for each individual string. Her tablature worked very well for my fingerstyle arrangements but unfortunately her method didn’t catch on. Some people said it was too much like reading music. So it goes.

I think of tablature as a way of conveying the skeletal structure of an arrangement. The tablature will show where the fingers need to go to get through the tune but it won’t show you how to make the piece truly musical.

When I give tablature to students my intention is to offer a map of the piece while working on the skills and techniques that make the piece musical. Fingering, stylistic emphasis and spontaneous variations don’t translate well to tablature; they are best learned by watching and listening.

If one listens to music and learns the techniques of musical expression tablature can be brought to life. Adding technique and musicality fleshes out the skeleton of a piece presented in tablature. Over time one can learn to create their own arrangements.

My suggestion is to use tablature as a tool but not as an end-all to playing, Free yourself and let your playing sing!


16 thoughts on “On Learning To Play Dulcimer

  1. My involvement in developing the tab system with Barb was minimal. I functioned as her spiritual and intellectual cattle prod, simply asking what information needed to be conveyed and whether a given approach did so. The primary issue seemed to be showing clearly the rhythm and relative duration of individual notes as accurately in tab as they were in conventional notation. It led to her incorporating the lines and flags from conventional notation to express note duration while the fret number & string line rather than staff lines and placement showed pitch.

  2. Christopher White: Jerry Rockwell mentioned that you had developed the tab system along with Barb. I hadn’t remembered that, but then it was a long time ago. Amazing how long ago it was!

    After all these years I’m still working on dieting and the truth about alien abductions.

  3. working from notation keeps them straight – but the problem is that the notation may not reflect the tune completely accurately. With fiddle tunes there are options to play F, F# or something midway between – not possible on other instruments like mine. The worst problem with this workshop was having to relearn tunes that I know in D or G in a different key that suited melodeons

  4. For Clare Rose, I cannot imagine learning 12 tunes at one time! I find that if I am trying to learn 2 or more tunes at once I end up mixing them some how, one tune at a time for me now these days.

  5. Thanks for the shout out to Barbara Truex, my sweetie. Her notion about tablature was, explicitly, to have a notation system as capable as standard notation for expressing music in written form that recognized there was no such thing as a ‘standard’ dulcimer tuning … or number of strings … or frets …

    Ideally any significant teaching/learning interchange requires on-going, interactive encounters that use ear training, written music, playing exercises, and much more. Dulcimer festival workshops were, back in the day (and perhaps still are), odd networking opportunities somewhat akin to the early days of social media when people were using dial-up modems to join ‘chat groups’ dedicated to dieting, dulcimers, and the truth behind alien abductions. If you’re lucky someone has an epiphany about some aspect about the instrument or a certain playing technique or musical nuance that occurs as a result of something that happens at the workshop/festival.

  6. Two of my best classes ever. Aaron O’Rourke. Passed out sheets with exercises. Going up and down the fretboard and playing in the box. Shelly Stevens. Took everyday songs and showed us how to use the box as well. Everyday songs that we play but using the dulcimer to its fullest. She had us find our own way to write down tab using all three strings. I learned more from these two classes about how to find my own way to play songs than just using the melody string. I think that is why I can join in a jam and start playing a song I’ve never heard before. I’ll struggle at first. But the patterns are there. I just have to find them.

  7. I recently went on a music weekend for which we were asked to learn 12 tunes almost all of which were new to me – sheets were sent out about a week before. While I learned to play the tunes from the sheets, as I didn’t have the tunes embedded in my brain (some I had never even heard) I couldn’t play them without sheets – I’m still working on that a month later. But if I go to a workshop where we’re taught by ear and I don’t know the tune I also have real problems remembering it next day – have to record it for reference. So some problems are down to types of memory I think.

  8. Tricky thing is that if I teach without paper. or if I hand out tab but try to explain what is going on in the tab so people can go beyond it I sometimes have had evaluations that say things like “He just talked and I didn’t learn anything.” On the other hand I have had evaluations from the same workshop that have said, “I finally understand how the dulcimer works and can now figure out how to do more on my own.” I guess one size does not fit all.

  9. Bill, I was trying to learn David Schnaufer’s “When Silence Was Golden” (I always asked him to play it and figured I should just as well learn it). I was stuck at one part, had the rest pretty much down for “my” version of it. I finally asked David to show me what he was doing there, and of course, he made it look so easy, but I did get it. Would have never gotten that from tab.
    I miss learning from David. He often taught with no paper. He wanted the student to hear what they were playing.

  10. Right on Marge. I can’t read and play at the same time. I use it to help me learn a tune, then put it away. Watch people’s faces when they use tab. Some of them look like it hurts. But watch someone just playing from the heart and you see a different look. Missy, I like you’re comment about technique. I really don’t want to learn the song as much as the technique the player uses. I’m always trying to learn something new, not necessarily a song.

  11. Thanks Doug, I am forever stressing ‘listening’ and ‘watching’ and watching skills! How much more enjoyment of the tune when it is coming from your heart to your instrument rather than filtering it through a piece of paper. Tabulature is a blue print to help you get to the tune!

  12. Right on, Doug. We stress that we’ll show the techniques necessary for a student to be able to play what they want to play from Rock of Ages to Rock n Roll. One of the more interesting sessions was a young person who wanted to be able to play a sound track from a video game. The chord structure was pretty simple but had a lot of rhythmic nuances. We had stressed that most seemingly complex songs break down into simple parts that are repeated with variations. That ended up being the case with the sound track. The sound track was a great case in point.

  13. Missy Hauck Strothers: I use the exact line about putting myself out of business. I want students to learn how to become independent and play whatever they like. I also can’t tab things out exactly as I play them.

    I feel that if someone just wants to run through a lot of tablature they can have a great time and just need a book and maybe some pointers. As an instructor I would feel negligent if I did not teach technique and musicianship.

  14. We also stress that our job as teachers is to put ourselves out of business. We teach technique. We teach how to play different styles and how to really listen to music. The rare piece of tab we hand out is because we want to showcase a particular technique.
    We’ve often been asked to tab out a song the way we play it. We honestly cannot. Our songs are constantly evolving and what we might play today, we may not play the same next week, and we certainly will play differently next year.
    That is why our first lesson is always free. If we get a student who wants lots of tab, we aren’t a good fit. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not how we teach and we’ll recommend someone else.

  15. Great comments. We have stressed to students that tablature (if you must) is a starting point, not and end point.

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