When the dulcimer first found it’s way into my life there was not another style of music that my ears loved to hear, but fingers hated to play on this instrument, more than Irish music. My first attempts were discouraging and clearly I lacked the patience (that comes at the ripe old age of 25) required to become sufficient at anything. At some point one of the players who I admire greatly, Steve Seifert, told me that he’d been playing around with Irish music a good bit and some things about the style that were hard to grasp were starting to click. Coming from Mr. Seifert, who makes everything look easy, it really struck me that this was something he had to work on and, considering how much I enjoyed the music, I decided I should probably do the same.
Since that moment of inspiration, I’ve been fortunate enough to play Irish music with some great traditional Irish musicians, have spent a good amount of time enjoying the atmosphere that comes with a good Irish session, and have been the recipient of musicians more experienced than myself generously offering their knowledge. Here are a few pointers that have helped along the way, some problems I ran into, and solutions...
Just like learning a new language, it’s a good idea to go where people speak it. If there are any Irish sessions that happen in your area, just go and listen. The first thing you’ll notice is that, for the most part, everyone is playing the melody (with the exception of maybe a rhythm player or two) and they tend to play these tunes in medleys. These medleys might consist of anywhere from two to six tunes in a set and maybe even beyond that. Also notice that a tune is likely to be in a key different than the one before and after it.
Make it a point to pick one or two tunes out per session that you really like and want to go home and learn. After a set just go up to the friendliest looking member of the session and ask, “Would you mind telling me the name of the second tune you played in that set?” Don’t be surprised if they spend a second hunting for the name somewhere in their head or need to ask a few other people in the session before arriving at the answer. Generally, traditional musicians can recall the notes of tunes much quicker than they can recall the names of them, or at least that’s the stereotype.
When you get home and get around to looking up the pieces that you selected, you can always use a broad Google search. To make life easy, you can check out the tabs at everythingdulcimer.com to see if another dulcimer player has also had the itch to arrange that tune. If that doesn’t yield any results, try heading over to thesession.org. They have a very extensive list of traditional Irish tunes in standard or ABC notation, but don’t expect to find any dulcimer tabs there.
As you do this more frequently and start to develop a repertoire of Irish tunes, you’ll probably notice that everything seems to stay in these handful of, for the most part, dulcimer friendly keys: D, G, A, Bm, Em, D Mixolydian and A Mixolydian. I keep my mountain dulcimer in DAD for Irish sessions, as it is my comfort zone, and for me it is what I can play most easily in all these different keys across the strings without retuning. For the keys of G and D Mixolydian, the 1 1/2 fret makes playing in these keys a lot more accessible by adding the C natural on the middle string [Editor’s Note: Aaron’s article is written from the perspective of a mountain dulcimer player. For a more trapezoidal take on the subject, take a look at Andy Young’s article, beginning on page 49]. There are a good number of tunes that are in D Aeolian and make use of a Bb note. I’ve heard some dulcimer players develop interesting ways of avoiding the use of that note in their arrangements while others simply add the 0 1/2 fret on the middle string. Playing in the key of A major presents its own unique challenges at times when there is a G# in the melody.
While in DAD tuning we do have a G#, it’s not in the most accessible place–the 6 1/2 fret on the middle string. Again, you have the option of finding a crafty way to avoid that note, add a fret and play the melody as the rest of the musicians in the session do, or you can play the melody up the fretboard so that the 6 1/2 fret on the middle string and possibly 13 1/2 fret become more accessible. So you’ve got some tunes under your belt at this point and you’re starting to recognize some of the melodies at sessions that you’ve been learning on your own. You might start noticing that the tunes don’t sound the same every time they are repeated and that the musicians all do something slightly different with them. This might have to do with them all knowing slightly different versions of the tune, but also has to do with how they ornament the tunes. Ornamentation is subtle embellishments to how a note or notes are played.
The most common Irish ornament used by plectrum players (any picked instruments like Irish tenor banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, and of course mountain dulcimer) is called the treble or triplet. The treble is three notes played quickly that take up as much time as two eighth notes or a single quarter note. Although it is sometimes called a triplet, most Irish players execute this ornamentation differently than most other musicians. A triplet usually refers to three evenly spaced notes. In Irish music most players would play this ornament with two very fast notes followed by one slightly longer. It’s sometimes written as two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note or as a triplet with three evenly spaced notes, however, in practice it usually comes out sounding somewhere in between. Of course, every player has their own unique sound and is likely to play their ornaments differently than the next person. Some very respected Irish players sound more percussive with their ornaments while some equally renowned players sound very smooth.
In context here’s how we can apply it. I’ve taken one measure of the tune Earl’s Chair without adding any ornamentation:
Now adding the treble ornament to the quarter note we have:
Advanced players will sometimes change the first note or the first two notes in a treble starting a note lower than the melody note and ending the ornament on the melody note. That looks like this:
A common technique used by Irish players is to take notes out of melodies keeping the basis of what the melody is doing intact but leaving extra room to insert ornaments at different places. This combination of taking subtle melodic liberties and adding ornamentation at different places every time a tune gets repeated can make Irish music difficult to pick up by ear at first. The best thing a person learning Irish music can do is just keep listening and slowly the subtle nuances will start clicking and making sense. At any point you’re feeling good and want to get your feet wet with playing in the session, go ahead and bring your instrument along. It’s always a good idea to ask one of the regulars for confirmation that it is an open session and if they’d mind if you joined in for a set. Chances are they’ll say yes. I remember joining in on my first session, priding myself on the idea that I had one of those faces that they just couldn’t say no to. Turns out as my youthful features have diminished that I’ve learned people are just generally pretty nice!
If this session has a rhythm player, take note that they’re probably varying what chords they’re using and doing a good amount of improvisation with back up. For this reason I generally stay away from playing chord melody as it can be very easy to clash chords with a rhythm player who is doing a lot of improvising and sometimes it’s not predictable what chord is going to be used. However, at times when the chord choice might be predictable, a little chord melody thrown in here and there can have a nice effect. I’ve notated the tune Earl’s Chair. It’s a lovely Irish reel that gets played frequently in Irish sessions everywhere. I did not add any ornamentation to the tab but encourage you to find places where you can add it and try varying it up every time you repeat it.
I did a quick recording in my living room on the banjammer, which is my go-to instrument for playing Irish music for its tone and volume. I recorded it one time pretty straight and the second time added in some ornaments here and there, took some melodic liberties and added in some brief chords while sticking primarily to playing single notes. (Listen to it on the sampler CD.) Irish music is too subtle and nuanced to be able to communicate everything about it in one article. While I hope this is a good jumpstart, keep in mind that there is no substitute for jumping in headfirst and getting the experience of it. The more you do it, things like differentiating between the types of tunes (reels, jigs, hornpipes, airs, etc...), the subtle swing of Irish music, opportunities to add ornaments, and the understated way that players improvise will all start to make sense. Have fun with it and hopefully I’ll see you at a session down the road.