Singing with Noter Drone Dulcimer - Old Styles

Robin Clark
11/17/15 08:16:11PM

I've been doing quite a bit more singing with dulcimer at gigs recently.  I was never very happy with singing over my playing of the tune in noter drone style so I decided to try the older styles of singing with dulcimer that I had seen/heard in various old films and sound recordings.  Basically, I have adopted two approaches:

Jean Ritchie's Style - Jean would not play the tune when singing put selected harmony notes on the dulcimer to support her singing.  She would sometimes play the tune with her noter as an intro or between sung verses but not when she sang.  Although it sounds easy, this technique requires some practice as it can be like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time!!!  You must be able to stick to the tune with your voice while playing harmony notes (often a 3rd from the tune or holding the chord root or 5th) on the dulcimer.  I'm pretty use to singing harmony with a bluegrass band but even so it can be quite challenging to sing one thing while playing another.  Have a listen to some of Jean's early recordings such as The Old Woman and the Pig to hear an expert in this technique at work.

Play-Sing-Play Style - I have found quite a number of examples within old noter drone dulcimer recordings where the musician will play the tune and then stop playing altogether while singing then play the tune again.  It sounds very radical but is hugely effective.  Again though you have to be able to hold the tune with your voice without backing.  I actually use this technique a lot when playing with my friend Nick on banjo.  The banjo and noter drone dulcimer sound wonderful together but when one (or both) of us is singing I stop playing.  Dynamically, this is very powerful as when the dulcimer comes back in it stakes it claim.  For example:  We played Buffalo Gals at a gig this last weekend nick on banjo and me on dulcimer.  We both played the tune through together, then I stopped playing and sang a verse, then Nick joined in and sang harmony on the chorus, then we played through part B together, then I stopped playing again and sand the second verse etc etc.

Importantly, both techniques allow me to look up from the instrument and engage with the audience.