Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why a Consistent Hand Lead is Better than Simply Alternating Hands

Experienced students come to me for help. They've been playing for awhile and they're stuck. They report that they can't make their music sound the way they think it should. I ask them to play something. What I often notice is that hammer patterns are awkward, execution of the tune is uneven, and the pulse of the tune is missing. What is holding these students back? It could be ineffective use of duplicate notes or bad choice of chord patterns, but most often it's the failure to develop a consistent hand lead.
One of the most important things a hammered dulcimer player can do to improve overall performance is learn to play with a consistent hand lead. Playing with a consistent hand lead does several things for you:
  1. It gives you a rule to follow. Consistency translates into faster learning and memorizing. Less time spent trying to figure things out means more time actually playing.
  2. You'll always know where the count of "1" is. The pulse of the music will shine through. Without question you'll know how to play more complex rhythms.
  3. You'll be able to play faster, with greater accuracy, increased fluency, better musicality, and increased confidence.

How does it work? Here's the basic rule:
  • In a simple melody line one hand always plays the primary counts
  • The other hand always plays the counts of “and"
Consider this to be your default hammer pattern. Maintain the default pattern as much as possible as you add harmony notes and other embellishments to the melody line. Embellishments that involve an odd number of notes, such as 3-note rolled chords or triplets, may throw your hand pattern off. That's OK. Rules are meant to be broken! Once you have committed to regularly applying the rule feel free to break it as needed! Just be sure to get back to your default hammer pattern as soon as possible ... whether that be the very next note, the next measure, or the next phrase.

How might this play out in a tune? A reel, for example, is played in 4/4 time, i.e. there are 4 beats per measure and a quarter note is worth one full beat. It takes four quarter notes to fill up one measure and would be counted1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - /. The lead hand would play each of those notes. That's right ... four notes in a row played by either the right hand or the left hand ... whichever YOU have decided is your lead hand. /R-R-R-R-/ or /L-L-L-L-/ Notice that no notes are being played on the counts of "and".

What if the measure is filled with a string of eighth notes? In 4/4 time, one eighth note has a value of one-half beat. It takes eight eighth notes to fill up one measure and would be counted 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &The lead hand plays the counts of 1 2 3 4  while the other hand plays all the counts of “and. In other words, the hands are simply alternating, either /RLRLRLRL/  or /LRLRLRLR/.

With other combinations of quarter and eighth notes you simply work out the hammer pattern so that the lead hand plays notes on the primary counts while the other hand plays notes that occur on the counts of "and". I have to admit, folks who read music will have an easier time making this type of analysis. When using sheet music, don't be afraid to write out the count, then write "R" or "L" over each note to designate which hand you want to use. Work out the hammer pattern, then play it that way every time.

OK ... let's assume you're convinced that a consistent hand lead is important. Now you must decide which one of your hands will play the lead. Will you be a Righty or Lefty? There are arguments for both, and many fine players on both sides of the aisle. What's important is that you decide which hand works for you, then stick to it! By the way, it has nothing to do with being right-handed or left-handed in everything you do throughout the rest of your life!

Of course, you might have guessed that I do have an opinion! Some folks swear by the right-hand lead. Others prefer a left-hand lead. I fall into the left-hand lead camp. Here’s why:
  • Important melody notes are most often found on the primary counts. The left hand ends up playing more of the melody while the right hand is freed up to play harmonies and those nice bass notes that are located on the right side of the instrument.
  • Think about the set up of the instrument. Treble notes are on the left side of the dulcimer. Bass notes are on the right side. A left-hand lead makes chording and use of bass notes easy.
  • It's nice to have a rule, and I believe one must break the rule less often with a left-hand lead.
So there you have it! Right or Left ... whatever you decide, start where you are. Choose a new tune and give it a whirl. Be diligent. Work out the hammer pattern and apply it every time you play the tune. Then try another tune. You'll be surprised at how quickly it will begin to feel comfortable and "natural" to play with a consistent hand lead. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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