Monday, March 25, 2013

Prairieland Strings / Clayville - how do we keep beginners and more experienced (novice and intermediate) jammers on the same page?

The following blast email (lightly edited here for the web) went out last night to people on the Prairieland Strings dulcimer club and Clayville Pioneer Academy of Music tune learning jam session lists.

Hi everybody --

We had a fine session Thursday night at the Prairieland Strings meeting. Several new people joined us, and we learned two new songs, "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Si Bheag Si Mhor." I think that was quite an accomplishment, especially since "Si Bheag Si Mhor" is a fairly difficult piece of music with an intricate melody and subtle dynamics. We were starting to get both tunes down by the end of the session, and we finished up with "John Stinson's No. 2," which is always fun!

Even so, for a while there, things were about as lively as memorizing verb conjugations back in high school Spanish, and some of us left the session vowing to find some music that's just fun to play.

So we're taking requests!

We're especially looking for jam tunes that are beginner-friendly and fun to play. Fiddle tunes, gospel songs, whatever you'd like. If you're new, what would you like to learn? If you've been with the Prairieland Strings for a while, which of our oldies-but-goodies would you like to keep playing? Let me know, and I'll try to find dulcimer tab on line or arrange to have PDF copies made of our old Prairieland tunes that we can email around.


In the meantime, several of the folks at Thursday's session wanted to hear "Si Bheag Si Mhor" so they can get the melody better in mind. It's pronounced "sh'BEG sh'MORE," by the way; it's an Irish Gaelic song about a battle or a field hockey match - I've heard it both ways - between the fairies on a little hill ("si bheag") and a nearby big hill ("si mhor"). I'm not aware of any translations in English.

So here, by popular request, are a couple of YouTube performances of "Si Bheag Si Mhor":

1. Fingerpicked on mountain dulcimer tuned to DAD, by YouTube user 6FIDS

2. An Irish fingerpicking guitar arrangement in DADGAD tuning, by French musician Jean Banwarth

3. A freestyle guitar version in DADGAD as taught by folk and jazz maitre Pierre Bensusan, also of France

Be sure to listen for what Bensusan says beginning at 4:38 about giving the tune his own interpretation. He's talking about solos, of course, but he's an absolute master of feeling the music on a stringed instrument. Any stringed instrument.


As we help our beginners get up to speed, I think we can strike a balance between practicing techniques, chord positions, etc., and just playing the songs. There's a lot of good advice on the Small Circle Tune Learning Session website at ...

At SCTLS jams, they play tunes over six and seven times each at what they call a " quick beginner's pace, slow enough that you can pick them up fairly easily if you are familiar with the process of learning aurally" (by ear, in other words), but fast enough that you don't lose the rhythm and melody. That way the more experienced players can improvise harmonies, play on the bass string, try out new techniques and chord positions, etc., while the beginners learn the melody and everybody's happy.

Which is why we're asking for requests -- what jam songs would you like to play?

We're looking for a good jam book at the moment, but in the meantime there are a lot of good tunes we used to play in the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings. Two that I'd like to bring back at our next session are "Shall We Gather at the River" and "Coleman's March."

-- "Shall We Gather at the River" is available on line:

1. Dulcimer tab in DAD with backup (i.e. guitar) chords by Benjamin Esh at

2. Four-part harmony in D, for voice, on the website (click on "view PDF sheet music [.pdf]") at

-- "Coleman's March" is tabbed out by Terry Lewis of the North Georgia Foothills Dulcimer Association. His DAD tab is available at

It's one of several versions we play at Prairieland Strings sessions. They all work very well together.

So, if you've played with us before, please let me know which of our tunes you'd like to see us play this spring. "June Apple," for example. That wonderful tab we have with "Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm" and "Shortning Bread" on the same sheet. "I Feel Like Traveling On" and "Uncloudy Day." Songs like "Hard Times" and 'Wild Mountain Thyme." And whether you're an old-timer or a newbie, let me know what new tunes you'd like to learn, and I'll see what I can find on the Internet without violating copyright.

And, as always, if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please don't hesitate to get back to me.


For future reference ... links to lead sheets with dulcimer tablature, lyrics, chords and YouTube clips for songs we've played in the past and might again in the future as we go through the stacks and stacks of old dulcimer tab.

  • Very nice version of "Coleman's March" by the Kentucky Wonder String Band of New Liberty, Ky., at According to their Facebook page, "The band was formed inadvertently, and over time its members have waned and waxed, come and gone, and stumbled accidentally into venues where Old Time Traditional Music is appreciated, most frequently on porches or under shade trees."

    Of special interest to Appalachian dulcimer players, a very traditional version by _____ aka "birdrockdulcimers," a British dulcimer builder and vendor, pick and noter style on an Uncle Ed Thomas replica. It looks like he's tuned in DAA, and you'll notice he's not chording. He can't chord, in fact, because Uncle Ed's instruments were only fretted under the melody string. ...

    The Bird Rock Dulcimers website at is also well worth checking out in detail. The guy knows a lot about historic dulcimers and has some instructional videos on pick-and-noter style playing.

  • Sheet music, in four-part harmony at for "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" on Barbershop Harmony Society website. Use the sheet music search engine or go directly to (Heritage of Harmony).
  • Chord sheet for "Be Thou My Vision" at in D at the Worship Archive website. Prints out as a nice one-page HTML text document. Nina Zanetti has DAD tab at on her website. Both a simplified melody and a more intricate arrangement with lots of nice ornamentation.

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