Thursday, October 23, 2014

Decorate! Ideas for Every Tune in Your Repertoire

In the past couple of weeks I've been practicing bounced triplets and 5-note tremolos. It's made me think about the many embellishments that are available to hammered dulcimer players. As you might expect, these ornamentations require practice to master. They do feel awkward and difficult at first but it does get better! Because they're challenging, these ideas often get left out of the mix of arrangement possibilities.

I have to admit that my practice goes in fits and starts when it comes to practicing hammer strokes and applying them to interesting techniques in my arrangements. I am currently in a "do it" mode and it's making a difference! I encourage everyone to incorporate … at your particular level … single strokes, double strokes, and combinations of the two ... into your regular practice. Hammer control is important to mastery of the instrument - duh! There's an amazing amount of variety that can be accomplished with two hammers.

What are all those bouncy things hammered dulcimer players play? Different names, different techniques. Here's a primer:

  • Tremolo - a rapid repetition of a single note, alternating hammers, done to sustain a note for a prolonged period of time. It may be executed using two notes (any interval, but usually not a 2nd - see "trill"). A tremolo may also be produced by using one hammer (a strike plus bounces). 
  • Trill - a rapid alternation of two tones a tone apart. A trill is executed like a tremolo. Played for the full time value of the note being trilled, ending on the melody note.
  • Turn - a rapid four-note passage in which the 2nd and 4th notes are the embellished (melody) note, the 1st and 3rd notes are the scale tones immediately above and below (or vice versa, below and above) the melody note. It can be used as a quick twist for ornamentation or to link one note to the next melody note.
  • Mordent - similar to a turn, a rapid 3-note passage which includes the melody note, the note above (or below) and back to the melody note.
  • Triplet - three notes that fit into the time value expected to be taken up by two of the notes. In written music the notes are grouped by a tie line that's marked with the number 3.
  • Grace note - This embellishment has no time value. In written music, it's a tiny note linked to the melody note. It's played quickly, right before the melody note. The melody note then gets its full time value.
  • Roll - In written music a roll is indicated by a slash or two or more through the stem of the note that is to be rolled. The value of the note is cut in half for each slash that is present. Single strokes or bounces may be used.

I don't know about you, but I feel better now, having figured out the difference between all these techniques! Did I get it right? Did I miss anything?

Remember, these are ornaments, not the focus of the tune. Learn the basic melody before embellishing. And here are a few more things to keep in mind:

Rhythm is all important. Be sure to give embellishments the proper amount of time, with appropriate accents. Start slowly. Use a metronome, gradually increasing the speed. Focus on technique first. Be assured that the speed will come.

Use a light touch. There should be no forearm motion and limited movement in the wrist. Aim for control in the fingertips. Listen for a crisp attack with clear separation between the tones. Watch for tension moving up the arms and into the shoulders. Think "burst". Remember to practice from both hands, starting with the left hand AND starting with the right hand.

It's never too early to think about dynamics! Think about phrasing. What shape does each embellishment take? Where do the accents fall? Include this in your practice from the beginning.

Bounced vs Hammered embellishments? Practice both, but keep in mind that bouncing must be under control at all times.

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