A day with Dan Landrum

The highlight of this year’s Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest was having classes with Dan Landrum all day Saturday: “Odd-Time Tunes” in the morning, and “Percussion Rudiments” in the afternoon.

At the time I was looking over the festival brochure, I didn’t really know much about Dan, except that he was touring with Yanni and that he played a Dusty Strings D-600, like my former teacher, Tim Seaman; it was mainly the class titles that caught my interest.

I mentioned in February how I admire Malcolm Dalglish‘s playing and can’t figure out what all he’s doing a lot of the time. I’ve noticed similar rhythmic stuff in others, like Cliff Cole or Rick Davis, or this fellow Nate that I met at the Farmers Market. T. J. Osborne, who I met through EverythingDulcimer.com, helped me out a bit over the phone with some ideas, and Sam Edelston also had some interesting exercises at the Cranberry Gathering this July. Both were helpful, but I didn’t seem to be making much progress.

Part of it is a matter of learning styles. I don’t do very well learning on my own. This is partly about external motivation being easier than internal, which is a fault; it’s another symptom of how I don’t often enough locate myself within myself, but in what other folks do for me or say about me and so on. It’s partly about relationship, though; music is just more fun and more interesting with other people.

Part of it is a matter of time. As exciting as it was to meet Malcolm after his concert, it’s not the best time to learn about his techniques. Likewise, a phone call with T. J. or a ten minute workshop segment with Sam is not much time to understand and develop a technique.

So, a total of five and a half hours of percussion and rhythm workshops sounded very appealing. Even better, when Dan introduced himself Friday evening, I felt immediately comfortable with him.

The first two hours was “Odd-Time Tunes.” I was the only person who had signed up, perhaps because Joanie had included it in the page of workshop descriptions, but not in the page of workshop times and titles — oops. Fortunately, we were able to have the class anyway.

I played a few things for him — my “Variations on a Three-Year-Old Theme,” as part of answering his question about my musical background, and my arrangement of “What Child Is This? / Menuet,” because he asked me to play my most rhythmically challenging piece and I couldn’t think of anything, and a bit of a Bach prelude to demonstrate how convenient it is to have my extra bass notes on both sides so I can hit them with either hand.

He taught some patterns and exercises to develop a feel for 7/8 and 5/4 rhythms, and played bits and pieces of tunes to demonstrate how the patterns work. Much to my surprise, I found that I could do some of the exercises. The ones that I particularly stumbled over, he was able to break down into something easier to catch. This was very exciting and relieving — it was exactly the kind of thing I’d been wanting to learn, and here I was actually learning some of it. I might have even learned enough to try composing some stuff that would use some of these patterns.

He also showed me his Linear Chromatic, an interesting dulcimer developed by James Jones. Most dulcimers lay out the notes in diatonic scale boxes. A diatonic box has four notes on one side, like D, E, F#, and G, and four on the other side, like A, B, C#, and D. Some dulcimers, like mine, put the extra notes on additional bridges, which requires big reaches and unusual hammering patterns. The linear chromatic puts them into the box, so that the notes on one side would be D, D#, E, F, F#, G, and I guess G#, then on the other side you’d have A, A#, B, C, C#, D. What this means is that, with a bit of a stretch, you can still use the hammering patterns you learn on a regular dulcimer, but it’s much easier to use the chromatic notes. It was interesting to see some of the ways Dan’s found to take advantage of this layout.

In the afternoon, there were several of us in the “Percussion Rudiments” class, which involved learning single stroke rolls, paradiddles, double stroke rolls, and a host of little exercises that could help us master various aspects of each rudiment.

Dan’s teaching method in this class involved two particularly useful concepts.

One is the point of control. First of all, he had us play a single stroke roll faster and faster, until we felt we were starting to lose control, signalled by sloppy rhythm and by muscle tension. We could then determine an optimum practicing tempo by backing off slightly to the point of control. Secondly, he had us work on an exercise with a double hit by one hammer. You can either strike twice, at least at slower tempos, or let the hammer bounce twice with one stroke. We started slowly, striking twice, and gradually increased the tempo and started letting the hammer bounce instead of tightly controlling it with two strokes. In this case, we were sort of blurring the point of control.

The other concept is the burst. A single stroke roll, for example, is continuous: Right Left R L R L, etc. But you can generally play just three notes — RLR — much faster than you can play a continuous roll. So you can practice this or other small bits of an exercise in short repeated bursts. One I particularly liked involves single hits RLRLRLRL followed by double bounces RRLLRRLLRRLLRRLL; the idea is that the motion and timing (both phrases should be the same length) should stay the same, allowing one to get into and out of bounces cleanly.

It was great to have time to try things and get feedback. And I felt that I was learning techniques in a context — rhythmic patterns — that seemed likely to translate somewhat naturally into my playing. Before, for example, I might try to just practice isolated double bounces with my left hand, but even if I could do a few in a drill like that, they weren’t showing up when I played tunes.

I wonder if I’ll have the discipline to actually practice these things on my own…

I miss having a teacher, and I think Dan’s teaching style would be a good match for my learning style. Plus I just like him. Too bad he’s in Chattanooga.

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