How to Use Appalachian Dulcimers to Teach Music Literacy in Your Classroom
By NAfME Member Joann Benson
A few years ago I was introduced to the Appalachian Dulcimer through a class I took at Common Ground on the Hill at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. I was only looking for a few grad credits, but what I found there changed what I do with my students forever!
A little background: The Appalachian Dulcimer is an easily played lap instrument that has in its simplest form three or four strings. It’s very easy for students to maneuver and use, and it is inexpensive enough when bought with cardboard resonators boxes that most schools can, over time, buy a class set.
After becoming enthralled with the sound and the ease of playing that the Appalachian Dulcimer offered, I applied for a grant to purchase 15 of them. The ones I bought came from Backyard Music. (A little hint: the more you buy, the better the price!)
Successfully Introducing Appalachian Dulcimers
The best way to have beginners meet with success immediately is to number the frets starting with 1 when the instrument is tuned in a D-A-A pattern (the D being the lowest string). This is a typical tuning for a dulcimer.
After the frets are numbered, it’s a matter of writing the music to play using numbers. For example, “Hot Cross Buns” would be:
Notice that “Do” is not number 1, but rather number 3. That allows for songs that go below “Do,” for example, “Draw a Bucket of Water” (which is my kids’ favorite).
Since my third graders study the regions of the United States in Social Studies with a particular focus on Appalachian Scotch-Irish traditions, I’ve always focused on folk songs and ballads with them. It was my intention for my students not only to learn to play the dulcimer itself, but also to accompany ourselves in singing some of these old-time ballads.
We read about and listened to Jean Ritchey and some of the “song catchers” who preserved this important music. We found modern examples of dulcimer players performing everything from U2 to Michael Jackson. And we played . . . We played . . . We played! (In the words of Ringo Starr, “I have blistahs on my fingahs.”)
Teaching Music Literacy Through the Instrument
However, what surprised me the most was how music literacy could be so easily taught through using the instrument!
Starting with “Do” as number 3, playing a D major scale became as simple as playing
We added a strumming pattern called “bum diddy” (in some circles) but it’s basically ta, tati, ta, tati so it becomes
4, diddy, etc.
Hey! We’re using rhythms too!!
Rounds and Harmony:
Next, we found that if one group started on 3, and one on 5, we could play our scale in a round! Wow — harmony! Experimentation brought us to three groups, all starting at different times on 3 and playing through the scales. We were playing in a round!
We also found ways to add harmony to a song: for example, the previous “Hot Cross Buns” numerical notation lent itself to a duet with 7-6-5-, 7-6-5, 5555 6666 7-6-5, and a third part using 3-open 3- (open being an unstopped string) 3-0-3-3333 0000 3-0-3.
Having three groups staying and strumming on a single note allowed us to create chords. Moving up and down the scale in turn created modal patterns that could be used to accompany our songs.
Finally, to transition from dulcimer numbers to playing treble clef, we took what songs we knew and wrote them in traditional notation. Students having had such prior success easily played them both on their dulcimers, and on other C instruments. We transitioned into recorder playing that way, reading traditional notation.
A Musical Opportunity for Students
My students cherish these instruments in a way that is very endearing. I’ve used the same cardboard body instruments for more than eight years, and other than replacing some strings (which Backyard Music graciously included), I’ve had no problems with sturdiness or maintenance. The only auxiliary item I purchased was a Snark tuner (similar to this one).
All in all, Dulcimers present a fantastic opportunity for your students not only to experience the delight that the instrument brings, but also to learn and to become proficient at basic musicianship. In fact, it has also increased the number of students who choose to play strings in our fourth grade instrumental program. What more could a general vocal music teacher ask for?
Joann Long Benson has taught vocal music K-5 for more than 20 years in the Carroll County (MD) public school system. In addition to performing for the 476 students in her school, she accompanies the Children’s Chorus of Carroll County, and has in the past enjoyed climbing into the pit to be rehearsal pianist and music director for several local college shows. The past two summers Mrs. Benson has worked for her beloved Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, writing curriculum and teacher study packets to accompany the Youth Concert series. See Joann’s Classroom website.
All photos provided by Joann Benson
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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, June 22, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).