Since I compose about 95% of the music that I play, it is common for me to hear comments like, “How do you just pull notes out of the air?” or “You have a rare and special gift.” The fact is we all have a special gift, a bit of genius, and the ability to give birth to music that is uniquely our own. It is not magic, but it is magical. I don’t read music or understand much theory, but I have learned what it takes to access the music that is inside me.
Composing your own music can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of your playing. It gives a sense of satisfaction that is deeper than simply learning something someone else composed. The mountain dulcimer, with its open tunings and straightforward layout, is very rich with the potential to put this sense of satisfaction within everyone’s reach. I’ll try to take some of the mystery out of the process with some ideas, tips, and activities that have helped me. On one hand there is so much to it and on the other, like meditation, there is so little to it. Prepare to enter this most rewarding realm of musicianship.
Frame of Mind
— Composing is not actually pulling notes out of the air. It is simply finding the music that is inside you and letting it out. It takes more of a frame of mind than some special talent. Acquiring that frame of mind is what many people seem to have an odd resistance to. Too bad, because it is the single most important aspect of freeing your creative potential. Now it may seem strange in the free thinking context of creativity to have rules, but I believe in these. Follow them and the music will come.
Rule 1 — Do not be judgmental of the results of your efforts. If you catch yourself saying “that’s silly, trite, sappy, clunky, disjointed, confused, unoriginal, uninteresting, or any other it’s-not-worthy adjective, stop it! If you ever feel that way, then you are being judgmental of the results of your efforts. You must accept what flows from within you as progress toward opening and widening the pathway the music travels on, making it ever more easy and free to happen. Worth repeating: Regardless of the quality, or quantity for that matter, you must consider the results of your efforts as progress. Progress is good.
Rule 2 — It does require effort. The notion that some divine hand must come down and touch composers and the music just “happens” is a false notion. There is no doubt that there are some unusually gifted people in this world, to the point of genius. But the majority of composers simply have the right frame of mind, and are devoted and motivated enough to put in the time. There is genius in us all and how much you practice your craft is directly related to how easily you can call upon that genius.
Rule 3 — You must free-up focused time. This is tough in our busy lives, with kids and husbands and wives and jobs all needing attention. “Focused” time is not just when you have a minute between tasks, although that’s better than nothing. It is time that is not occupied with anything but the adventure of composing. When that is all you are there for. When you can be alone with your instrument in a peaceful environment. How much do you want it? It may require you to trade time you would spend doing something else, or asking those around you to give you the time. I regularly get up very early on weekends, trading sleeping late for a couple of hours of creative time. I have read that the pre-dawn is one of the most creative times of day. I find that it is a significantly more creative time for me. Look at it this way, it’s no different than getting up early to go fishing, and the results are much more lasting.
Tools — With the dulcimer, composing music is within reach of almost all skill levels. You use whatever playing skills you have, remembering that an open and free frame of mind is the most important aspect. It is true, however, that the more specific skill tools you have the better. Having a variety of tools at your disposal gives you a variety of options at expressing the melody the way you hear it in your mind. They can also lead you in many more directions in trying to discover those melodies. Here are some tools worth learning:
Chords –learn them forward and backward. Names are not as important as physical familiarity.
Crosspicking — this goes hand in hand with chords. Crosspicking is, on a simple level, picking the individual notes of a chord. On a more complex level it is picking hand patterns that voice each individual note in a chord in a repetitive order. i.e.: Bass string, melody string, middle string, melody string–repeat. A great discovery tool. The patterns are almost infinite and can be very expressive in a melodic sense.
Scales — Not just on the melody string but all over the instrument. i.e.: Bass string- 0-1-2-3 then middle string 0-1-2-3. They are many other places as well and sometimes little scale runs are just what you need to make an idea fit.
Strum Variety — Practice a variety of rhythms. Bum ditty is great but so is Bum Bum Bum ditty ditty ditty. You can come up with almost infinite strum patterns.
Embellishments — Hammer ons, pull offs, chimes, vibrato, slides, double slides and any other little trick you can learn. The more intimate you are with your instrument the more likely you will not have to be preoccupied with execution. This allows what you hear in your mind to flow more freely.
First Success — You will find that it will be common to come up with short catchy little phrases that are very melodic but they are not complete enough to be a song. Keep a tape recorder handy and record them. Make notes about them to remind you how you played them. As the process continues these will accumulate and one day you will stumble on a new little phrase that will go with one of the others you have saved. Put the two together and you still might not have a complete song, but you may have the “A” part to one. That is an exciting moment. You will probably play it over and over. At this point it is likely you will become very driven to complete the song. This can be frustrating. Here are some ideas that might help you develop a song to completion.
If you are tuned to the Key of D, then the “A” part you have stumbled on probably ends on a D chord. Play your new “A” part and then make a change to one of the other common chords in the key of D, like G or Bm or A. Don’t restrict yourself to them, but they are a good place to start. Hum what you hear in your mind as you go to that chord. Then try to pick it out on your dulcimer. If you keep it up, you will discover the “B” part to the song…someday.
Don’t get stuck on the idea that the “A” part you have has to stay the “A” part. You may have really found a great “B” part and the “A” part is yet to be discovered.
Keep playing your new “A” part until it is etched in your brain. Put your instrument down and think it. Hum it while you’re doing other things, in the shower, while you’re driving. It’s funny how often the “A” part’s mate will just sort of naturally speak up.
Be patient and don’t forget Rule 1.
The Session — As you pursue the process of composition, you will find your own idiosyncrasies and ways to create a comfortable and productive creative session. Just to get you started, I will describe a typical composing session just as it happens for me. This process could be different for everyone, so adapt my story to your own frame of reference.
I set my alarm for 5:30 Sunday morning. Oh, I did NOT want to get up! But I wanted the time with my music more than I did my bed. Downstairs to fix a pot of coffee. I sat peacefully for a while in the silence with my dulcimer beside me. Everyone else was asleep. No demands. Nothing else I needed to do. I was purposefully alone with my instrument in a peaceful environment. I keep the lights low so they do not intrude on my peace. I lit a couple of candles. I sat in the silence until I had my wits, all the while listening to the quiet. I picked up my instrument, greeting a friend. I strummed across the open strings very lightly. I listened to how each string interacted with the other. In the silence and peace, I could hear the pulsing that is not the A string or the D, but the sum of the two when played together — the consonance. I made a Bm chord. I tried fingerings that weren’t in any chord book. I played slow and quiet at first. I put chords together in succession, maybe picking each note in the chord rather than a strum, or a strum and then pick each note. As I played the chords I listened for the melody that the chords implied — playing, listening — there! That melody behind the chords — that was coming from inside me! It had not quite revealed itself but I sensed it. I didn’t worry that it felt like something else I’ve heard, it is progress! I tried to find the melody by stumbling and noodling. Notes that don’t belong. Backtrack and repeat. No, not that. Maybe this. Or this. As I went the melody from inside evolved and changed, sometimes implying new chords to match it, and those new chords implying new melody and so on. I was into it, wandering freely, relaxed but intent, focused. I took everything as it came without denigrating the results or judging their worth. Just letting them pull me along from moment to moment.
Hmmm, no new song today. The house is still quiet. It’s 7:30 a.m. I feel great! Think I’ll take a nap.
Exercise — Set aside two hours to wander in peace on your instrument. Be sure to listen! The mountain dulcimer is a natural when it comes to letting your unique musical sense emerge. I encourage you to give it a try. Good luck in your creative wanderings!