Developing Noter Drone Playing – The Melodic Style

Robin Clark
12/29/16 10:38:28AM
@robin-clark

Over time, I have gradually developed a style of noter drone playing that has grown from the traditional techniques I have practised but is not in itself 'traditional'. I know that for the majority of my personal solo playing I am very 'melody conscious' in my approach to the instrument – far more so than the traditional players I have studied. I'm minded to think of the evolution of traditional banjo styles and the way in which a genera known as melodic banjo emerged. Similarly, my own noter drone playing has evolved to become a style I've called 'melodic' noter drone. Now you could argue that all noter drone playing is 'melodic' but here I'm referring to a style that gives primacy to the melody, whereas within the older traditional playing methods it is rhythm that most often is the dominant factor. 

 I played a gig a couple of days before Christmas where I was asked to provide the background music for an evening social event held at the local town's pottery. There were 30 to 40 guests who came to socialise and share a buffet. I sat in a corner and played Christmas carols and various other tunes for around 3 hours. It was a very informal affair and during the evening small groups of folk would come over to me, ask for specific carols, and then sing while I played. I used my Heritage model, a simple 3 string dulcimer with wooden tuning pegs, and stayed in the same tuning (around EBB, which is DAA tuned up one tone) for the whole event. To give my dulcimer a 'lift' in the noisy atmosphere of the party I used a simple clip-on pick-up, a reverb foot pedal (to give some breadth to the sound) and a 15 watt busking amp which I've modified to give a nice warm tone. For an event like this (such as playing at a coffee shop or restaurant or wedding breakfast) I believe your volume should be similar to the volume you'd set on a CD player for background music, certainly no louder. I used a dowel noter for my left hand and thum strum, vertical quill or finger style for my right hand work. It was a lovely evening and I have had many folks say how much they enjoyed the music. This was actually the third year they have asked me back to play, so I must be doing something right!!!

 I remember when I first started playing dulcimer the consensus was that you couldn't play a gig set of just solo noter drone dulcimer because folks won't put up with those 'awful' discordant drones for more than one or two tunes. Even quite recently I've read posts expressing the same sentiment. Solo noter drone is seen within the dulcimer community at large as either an 'acquired taste', or a simple 'beginners' way to play the instrument just for yourself, or the final bastion of traditionalist zealots; definitely not music worth paying to listening too! Well I can tell you that non dulcimer players make no such distinction!!! Audiences simply want good music; something that resonates with them; something that moves them; something they can get lost in. And noter drone style dulcimer playing is more than capable or producing that connected emotional journey for the listener. As a player, that is my goal when performing – to connect with my audience. This is often an easier task when playing for non dulcimer players as they simply hear the music, live, as it is played and take it at face value.

 So what do I focus on when playing? Well, in this most Spartan of dulcimer playing styles (solo noter drone) I treat the dulcimer like a flute or similar monophonic instrument and simply concentrate on making the melody believable. The mantra is as straightforward as that. It is all about the melody; the phrasing and timing of each measure, working on the tone and delivery of every note. For much of my solo playing in this melodic style the drones are secondary to getting the melody as sweet as possible – they play a lesser supporting role. The trick is to leave plenty of space in your phrasing, just as you would if singing. Quite simply, don't strum unnecessarily! Think about the feel of the melody, its context and the story it tells – and make it real. Be wary of over-playing the instrument – keep it sparse. For this more lyrical style the occasional stroke of the drones can give far greater depth and body to the sound than the effect of continuous strumming. I have to say that one of my dulcimer pet hates is the popular contemporary style of pounding out DAd chords in a syncopated rhythm (dulcimer muzak ugg!!!!). I prefer to keep it clean and lean.

 In the context of being precise, I'm a fan of using the softer spectrum of hard woods for my noters. I buy 9' lengths of 3/8” dowel from my hardware store and cut them into 3 1/2” noters. I find it a little easier to get clean, precise notes and therefore precise phrasing when using these pencil diameter slightly softer noters. Also, I'm a fan of the single melody string for this melodic style of play as I can get greater precision and voicing variety than I can achieve with a melody pair of strings. The stiff vertically held quill strummer gives a unique timbre and allows for precise string strikes and drone brushes. All in all, there's a lot more to melodic noter drone dulcimer than it's simplicity would suggest.

Over the course of 2017 I'll start to produce some lessons showing the techniques for playing melodic noter drone dulcimer – looking at the equipment, left and right hand skills and how to develop musicality within the style.

To close, I've attached a Yuletide example from my music archive which illustrates the melodic style of noter drone playing.

Merry Christmas!