Four Great Instruments for the Musical Beginner (Part 2)

(Now I’ll continue where my last post left off  by providing some brief information about the mountain dulcimer and the ocarina, the last of four instruments recommended for musical beginners.  Part one of this post can be found here.)

The next instrument up for discussion is the mountain dulcimer, also known as the Appalachian dulcimer. It is an American instrument with Germanic roots. It has three to four strings and has frets like a guitar, except that the frets are diatonic rather than chromatic. If you run down a string playing the notes, you will be playing a scale. Once again, it is easy to learn how to play simple melodies. The lack of chromatic notes means that notes are more likely to harmonize with notes on other strings; in other words, it makes for pleasant noodling. Try fretting a note while strumming across the strings. Chances are it will sound nice. Then switch to another note. And so on. There are variations on the dulcimer called “walking dulcimers.” These have a long thin neck and with the aid of a guitar strap or the like can be played while standing upright. One well known brand is called a Strumstick.

Finally, we have the ocarina. The ocarina is a South American vessel flute which traveled to Europe hundreds of years ago and is now known worldwide, partly in thanks to the video game “Zelda, Ocarina of Time.” The ocarina has a beautiful pure sound due to the relative lack of overtones and normally does not overblow, so it won’t shriek as much as a recorder. There are two basic styles, the round or “pendant” style with six or so holes and the linear style (either inline or transverse) with nine to twelve holes. I could go really in depth here, but I’ll spare you for now. What’s really neat about the round style is that tablature music books exist which show how to play songs through pictures alone. With so few holes, it is very easy to follow the changes in the fingering diagrams, and once again, even an eight year old can do it. Once a person is ready to tackle written music, it is time to switch to the linear style of ocarina. The fingering is very similar to that of the flute or recorder, so what is learned is transferable. Be very careful when purchasing an ocarina. There are many decorative ocarinas for sale which are not capable of playing music. If all the holes are the same size, you know you have a decorative ocarina. Online you can find plenty of advice on purchasing an ocarina from TON, The Ocarina Network. Two good brands include Focalink and TNG. I buy most of my ocarinas from the May Tune store on Ebay. In the US you can also buy ocarinas from STL Ocarinas. If you are buying an ocarina for a child with small hands, order a soprano C or soprano G model.

This has been a brief introduction to the charms of some of my favorite folk instruments. If you have never learned to play an instrument, I hope you will be encouraged to try one of these!

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Four Great Instruments for the Musical Beginner (Part 1)

Learning to play an instrument can be an expensive, challenging and time-consuming proposition. However, it doesn’t need to be. There are four instruments which I recommend over and over to people who are musical beginners: the kalimba, the lap harp, the mountain dulcimer and the ocarina. These four instruments stand apart because of the ease in which one can produce a beautiful tone and pick out a simple melody. The first three are diatonic instruments, which means they produce the notes of a familiar scale without including all those confusing chromatic in between notes. While the ocarina is capable of playing chromatic notes, it is optimized for playing a major scale. Playing a song can be as simple as one, two, three or C, D, E if you label the notes.

Kids can have a lot of fun on these instruments without breaking their parents’ piggy banks. Usually all that is needed is an instructional songbook children are good to go. If a child isn’t ready to commit to the practice that goes with taking music lessons, playing these instruments can be a good way to develop music skills.

These instruments aren’t just for the musical beginner, however. On the contrary, you will find musicians around the world who have selected one of them as their primary instrument and have worked to master it. Because they are so easy to learn, experienced musicians will probably be able to express themselves on the instrument in a short amount of time, enjoying the inspiration that comes from discovering a new voice.

The kalimba is a board or box with metal tines which produce notes when plucked. Kalimbas have been played in Africa for well over a thousand years as an essential part of a rich musical tradition. The best kalimbas I have played are Hugh Tracey and Catania models. You can purchase them from Kalimba Magic’s online store, which also includes vast resources for kalimba musicians. Ebay is also full of vintage Hugh Tracey kalimbas, though be aware that older is not necessarily better when it comes to kalimbas. My Ebay kalimba needed repair, which I learned to do at Kalimba Magic. It is a simple matter to label the notes on a kalimba with a sharpie and then play with a numerical song book. Younger children might enjoy improvising on a six note kalimba in pentatonic tuning.

The lap harp has a very old history and is known by many other names. Call it a medieval plucked psaltery if you wish, just don’t call it a toy just because First Note used to make them. “Song sheets” are what make this an easy instrument to play. Simply slide a sheet under the strings and follow the dots to play a tune. It’s so easy a kindergartener could do it! Actually, a kindergartener might need a little help, but they’ll catch on quickly. A small inexpensive lap harp called a “Music Maker” or “Melody Harp” is available for purchase. Make sure you order plenty of song sheets to go with it. Of course you don’t absolutely need the song sheets to be able to play it. I put stickers on mine so that I could quickly identify the notes.

(As this post is turning out to be lengthier than I expected, I will continue the discussion of the next two instruments in another post.)



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