Sunday, September 02, 2012

Stephen Siefert's "Join the Jam" workshop, the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings and a way to survive your first jam sessions at upcoming fall festivals

When Stephen Siefert and I were talking last month about his upcoming workshop in Springfield, I suggested we have a lot of beginners in the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings and we have a couple of really good festivals coming up in central Illinois. So Steve decided to focus on how to "Join the Jam" (which is also the title of his series of mountain dulcimer tune books) and pitch it to players of all skill levels.

So Steve spent the evening here Aug. ___ sharing tips on how to get into the rhythm of a song, get a feel for its melodic structure and start playing the music along with other players. Except he didn't use big words like "melodic structure." Instead, he showed us where the important notes are and how to improvise harmonies and make things more interesting when we join in with other musicians.

"What really counts, with music, is that your heart is in it," he said. "Better to play something simple from the heart than live a life of frustration attempting complication."

(Full disclosure: Steve did say this, but I'm not quoting from the workshop in Springfield. I'm quoting from an article on his website. In it he asks "What Role Does Talent Play?" His answer: Not much.)

"Learn to play something ridiculously simple ridiculously well and completely from the heart," he adds. "I believe, if you CAN'T do this, you'll spend the rest of your life trying to make music and wondering why you don't have the talent."

In the meantime, with the rest of our lives before us, there are some cool opportunities coming up for beginners to start jamming:

  • Saturday, Sept. 8, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the Traditional Music Festival at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site off Ill. 97 at Petersburg (20 miles northwest of Springfield). Due to state budget cuts, it's only one day this year and no dinner will be served. Our group has been playing at the "Bluegrass Festival" (as most of the musicians in our area call it) for more than 10 years. We usually gather on the hay bales next to Doctor Allen's.
  • Saturday, Sept. 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Old State Capitol in Springfield. I'll be demonstrating the mountain dulcimer at the Sangamon County History Through the Arts II sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society and the Old State Capitol Foundation. I'll have several dulcimers on display, and if you want to join me in a couple of tunes, please feel free to do so!
  • Saturday, Sept. 22, and Sunday, Sept. 23 the Clayville Fall Festival at Clayville Historic Site on Ill. 125 just east of Pleasant Plains (15 miles west of Springfield). We'll play at the Clayville Fall Festival from 1 to 4 p.m. both days. But the festival begins in the morning -- see Clayville's website at for details -- so you'll want to come early. We played at their spring festival in May and had a wonderful time!
Sound like fun, don't they? But why do I say they're a good opportunity for beginners?

For one thing, there's a difference between jamming and performing for an audience. Here's what Wikipedia says: "A jam session is a musical act where musicians play (i.e. "jam") by improvising without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements." What could be more welcoming for beginners? Without extensive preparation ... that's me! Continues the Wikipedia article: "Jam sessions are often used by musicians to develop new material, find suitable arrangements, or simply as a social gathering and communal practice session." Social gathering and communal practice ... that's us! That, in a nutshell, is what we do at Prairieland Dulcimer sessions.

Except I think we like to take it a step beyond that, since we've made it our policy to be welcoming and beginner-friendly.

There's a group out in Denver called the Small Circle Tune Learning Session (SCTLS), "one of Colorado's most friendly sessions," that prides itself on getting beginners up to speed in Irish traditional music. One of their goals is:

One of the things that makes the SCTLS unique is that we want you to be free to make mistakes, feel your way through some of the stranger bits of session etiquette, and get comfortable with playing your instrument in public, without feeling ostracized if you inadvertently commit a faux pas or some such. Feel free to ask questions or try something new.
That's how we want new members of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings to feel, and that's just as true at a festival as it is in our Thursday night sessions at Atonement Lutheran Church in Springfield. Here's why: At a festival, visitors will come up to us and listen for a minute or two. Then they may wander off to the next exhibit, or they may linger to talk with us between tunes. But we're not grimly marching through a predefined setlist. And we're not trying to entertain anybody. In short, we're at a social gathering (to use Wikipedia's words), and it couldn't be a better place for beginners.

Which brings us back to Steve's workshop back in August. If you're a beginner, how do you join the jam?

A lot of Steve's workshop was about that. I won't try to repeat it all, but here are a couple of things you can do from the very beginning:

Listen for the beat, and concentrate on the rhythm. In most of our tunes, it'll be on the downbeat. GO tell Aunt RHO - dy; GO tell Aunt RHO - o -dy; GO tell Aunt RHO - dy, the OLD gray goose is DEAD.

Steve said it helps us as we play the dulcimer to think of ourselves as a little one-person string band.

"Your right hand is the drummer for the band," he said.

North Carolina dulcimer player Don Pedi, who specializes in playing fiddle tunes, has another analogy. He takes it from the way southern Appalachian fiddle players set up a rhythm by rocking the bow back and forth across the strings as they play.

"[The music] is all in the bowing," he says.

And on a mountain dulcimer, the "bowing" is in the right hand strum. Don teaches a trick I like to use at jams. When we're learning a new tune, he says, we'll learn it faster and better if we dampen the strings and just play the rhythm the first few times around.

Here's how: Cup your left hand, palm and fingers down over the fretboard so you get a "whapping" sound when you strum across all three (or four) strings with your right hand. If you hear musical notes, you're pressing too hard. Ease off a little, and you'll hear the whapping sound.

Then with the strings dampened, you play the tune with your right hand. So "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" would sound like WHAP whap a WHAP whap; WHAP whap whap a WHAP whap whap; WHAP whap a WHAP whap, a WHAP a whap a WHAP.

Once you feel like you've got the rhythm, you can take your left hand off and strum the open strings. Your dulcimer is tuned in D, everybody else is playing in D -- at least 99 percent of the time in our Prairieland Strings jams -- and you'll fit right in.

If you're feeling adventurous enough to follow a chord progression, you can play a D on the open strings or the 7th fret, a G at the 3rd fret and an A at the 6th (forget about complicated stuff like A7 chords for the time being). Or you can ask a longtime Prairieland Dulcimers member about Mike Anderson's "cheap chords." (Mike has a trick that lets you play D, G and A7 chords by moving one or two fingers.) They're magical!

And when all else fails, there's something else, too.

Listening is always a good option in a jam. Sometimes it's my favorite option. "It is considered polite when first visiting a session to wait to be invited to play, if you are not an expert player," suggest the SCTLC musicians in Denver, who add, "If you are not a habitué of a [trad Irish] session, expect to spend at least half of your time listening at first." But they add of their own sessions, "This is an opportunity for you to develop and hone your skills and techniques. Usually in a session, if you don't know a tune, you should play quietly. At the SCTLS, however, we want you to play out so we know when you have the tune (and when you don't!)." So do we, but you always have the option of sitting back, listening and soaking up the music.

Jamming, even at a festival, isn't difficult. And sitting back and enjoying the music with a group of friends is always an option. Here's a good list of basic jamming etiquette do's and don'ts -- mostly do's -- from the Hills of Kentucky Dulcimers club in Covington, Ky.:

  • Keep the beat.
  • Listen carefully to the other players.
  • Do not start playing the tune until the leader has finished the lead-in phrase.

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