Maggie Sansone,
A Traveler's Dream: Celtic
Explorations for Hammered Dulcimer

(Mel Bay, 2001)

It's pretty intimidating to be given a Maggie Sansone book to review and find, at the top of the fourth page, a review by Dirty Linen that starts with "Maggie Sansone can do no wrong." And certainly, from what I've heard of Maggie's playing, both live and recorded, I would have agreed with that statement.

The Mel Bay book, A Traveler's Dream: Celtic Explorations for Hammered Dulcimer, is another story. Don't get me wrong -- if you like Maggie's work, and you like the recording, and you're an advanced or expert player, this book is your passport to Paradise. Even if you are a beginning or intermediate player, there are a few tunes that might be easy enough to play, and with Maggie's arrangements, they'll make you sound like an expert. But while there are a lot of positive things I can say, there are a few problems with the book.

It's difficult to find a book of music that so closely matches the music on a recording as this one does. I was able to listen to the CD with the book in front of me and play along with no problem, and that's not an easy thing to do -- especially with dulcimers. I've tried to do this with recordings packaged with other instruction books, and the dulcimer on the recording was either so flat or sharp to mine, that I couldn't use them at all. Maggie's CD is dead-on pitch with the notes in the book.

The other situation I have come across with some book/CD combinations is that the notes in the book barely match what is on the CD. It's obvious Maggie and Elise Kress worked very hard to make sure each written arrangement matches the arrangement as performed, and Maggie has provided the player with enough information so the pieces can easily be recreated. The only exception to this would by "Johnny Armstrong," where the violin lead doesn't match what's in the book, but the chart provides a wonderful arrangement that sounds beautiful alone or with the CD.

There are 22 tunes in this book (arrangements on the CD are typically medleys, comprising two or three tunes), and making each tremolo and grace note match between the book and CD is close to impossible. To be sure, there are embellishments on the CD that are not on the chart but, if you're good enough to figure out how to play these songs to begin with, you'll figure out where the embellishments belong. And really, who wants to play it exactly like Maggie anyway? When I choose a song to play, it's because it has touched me in a special way, and I want to provide my own interpretation of the music.

That said, there is one piece in particular that is somewhat problematic. "Go to Berwick Johnny" is an 11-part piece, but there is little consistency between the CD and chart in terms of repeating those parts. Whether this was a mistake or deliberate is unknown. But, I repeat, who wants to play it exactly like Maggie did anyway? Listen to the CD, look at the chart, and create your own masterpiece.

The other problem you're going to have is recreating "The Seeker" and "A Traveler's Dream" if you're playing solo. In both songs, the dulcimer takes the lead infrequently, so if you play the version of "The Seeker" that is the dulcimer solo, it's very boring. You're better off looking at the full score and picking out the melody from what the other instruments are playing. On the other hand, one of the nice features of this book is that you do get the complete score to these two original Sansone compositions. Should you happen to have friends who play flute, clarinet, harp, violin, and/or viola da gamba (and I do!) there's something for everyone.

Speaking of accompaniment, guitar chords are provided for some of the tunes. (The Maggie Sansone originals do not have guitar chords, as well as two of the four "Bear Dance" versions.) That in itself is not a problem. However, there are two tunes that have an incomplete listing of guitar chords -- "Go to Berwick Johnny" only has chords for the first four of 11 sections, and "The Flower Among Us All" is missing the chords on the fifth of five pages. "Drops of Brandy" only has chords listed for the first variation, but the chords are simple and the fact that they are missing here is mostly just inconvenience. The other two instances of missing chords are annoying. It isn't clear whether the chart is just trying to indicate that the guitar drops out at certain points in these tunes, or if this is a transcription error. In listening to the CD it does seem that sometimes it's one, and sometimes the other.

I set about reviewing this book by listening to the CD in front of my 15/14 dulcimer, with the book on my music stand, and tried to play along as best I could. One concern I had before I even started was the claim that "all of the music in this book can be played easily on the 12/11 dulcimer, ... (although) it may be necessary to retune the note(s) for ease of playing." While initially paging through the book, I noticed quite a number of tunes written in the key of D minor. I know this scale is available on these dulcimers, but depending on the arrangement, you might be somewhat limited in terms of the patterns you need to play. And it's true -- all of these tunes can be played on both sizes of dulcimer (assuming you are not going to recreate the effects of having pedal dampers) -- however, several require retuning at least one string ("Humours of Rockstown," "All Hallow's Eve," "A Traveler's Dream"), one requires serious retuning ("Farewell to Nigg"), and some cannot be played on the 12/11 as written because they require notes in the lower register ("A Traveler's Dream"). However, if you own a 12/11, you probably already know how to raise those sections of the tune up an octave, so it's no major inconvenience. (Be sure to write notes to yourself at the top of the page so you don't get three quarters of the way through the song and then realize -- oops! Low B flat required!) Being basically lazy, I would have appreciated instructions at the beginning of each piece detailing which strings need to be retuned, especially in the case of "Farewell to Nigg."

I'm sure there are purists who will take issue with the "Bear Dance Improvisation," which is performed at the end of "Bear Dance" on the CD. By definition, a musical improvisation is a spur of the moment flight into musical fantasy. Once you write it down, it's not improvisation any more. However, this particular chart provides a beginner or advanced player with a number of insights into how to add improvisation to any rendition of a tune, so there is something worthwhile in documenting it.

On the other hand, "Drops of Brandy" seems like it's nothing but improvisation, and is labeled as "varitations [sic] based on the popular Northumbrian slip jig." None if it matches the versions I've learned, although it is close, which is not to say there's only one way to play this tune -- slight variations are part of the Irish folk music tradition, which is akin to answering the question, how many recipes for chili can you find? Assuming the first variation is the original, there are an additional six variations, and it's really a lot of fun. Just don't learn it and expect to play it at the next Irish session you attend. Rhythms as well as notes won't fit in well during a session.

So, is there anything for the beginner in this book? I would say a definite -- maybe. It would depend on whether you read music well. There is no tablature provided, such as would commonly be found in a beginner's book, so players must read the music and devise their own patterns. For a beginning or intermediate player, tunes that are good to start with include "The Flower Among Us All/Johnny Armstrong," a set providing plenty of opportunity to practice flams and grace notes. "Helen O'Grady" would be a nice slip jig to add to a beginner's repertoire, although you might have to work on the melody first before adding all the embellishments. "Banks of the Barrow" is a great piece to exercise your knowledge of your dulcimer's layout because of all the modulations, but it's a gorgeous piece and worth the effort. Finally, the "Lughnassa Set" is a fairly simple set of jigs that should be easy enough for an intermediate player to master, as are the "Gaelic Reels," provided you don't have unrealistically high expectations of playing any of them as fast as Maggie does.

Which brings me to another point -- I have so many students who look at a page and complain, "there's too many notes -- I'll never learn this." This has often been solved by taking the chart to a copier that has an enlargement feature, and enlarging the chart (along with warnings about not giving it out and thus infringing copyrights). The opposite applies to this book -- as complicated as these songs are, you typically will not see too many notes on the page so they appear to be relatively easy tunes. Unfortunately, this means that tunes often run more than two pages, sometimes as many as five and six. If you're sight-reading, it's annoying to turn the page. But most dulcimer players don't do that -- they memorize parts of the tune till they've mastered the whole thing and then never look at the chart again. While I prefer to have the whole tune on no more than two pages that will fit nicely on my music stand without page turning, I'm guessing most people will not find this a problem. If you have a guitar player looking at it with you, however, you will likely hear complaints.

The book itself is one of the nicer Mel Bay books I've seen. The cover is a beautiful, glossy enlargement of the CD cover, and the pages are thick, creamy stock. The illustrations are at the same time primitive yet intricate, wood block, Celtic knotwork prints, strategically placed throughout (although an artist isn't credited that I could find). Unfortunately, the book didn't survive my review -- before I was halfway through, the pages were falling out, which is highly unusual for a Mel Bay book. I use Mel Bay's You Can Teach Yourself Hammered Dulcimer by Maddie MacNeil to teach my students and it's lasted for years. I have other Mel Bay books that even survived a fire -- with pages all blackened with soot -- that have stood up better than this one. Hopefully, my copy was the exception, not the rule. If you get a chance to look at the book before you purchase it, double check the staples in the middle to make sure they're not on the verge of releasing the pages.

Another nice feature is that the book includes almost all of the liner notes from the CD, including the descriptions of the tunes. Not only do you get a brief history of the tunes, but also Maggie's vision behind her arrangements of the traditional pieces, as well as the tunes she composed.

Under the category of nit-picky editorial stuff -- there are charts for the dulcimer solo for "The Seeker" and "A Traveler's Dream," for which the full scores appear at the end of the book. However, the notes directing you to those pages give you the wrong page numbers.

Another issue of concern is Maggie's definitions of dulcimer embellishments. She thoughtfully includes descriptions of tremolos, valley rolls or flams, grace notes and rolls. She defines a roll as "a technique used to play a chord of three or more notes" identified by a squiggly line. This is not even close to the definition I've learned. Maddie MacNeil says you should "think of a drum roll" (You Can Teach Yourself Hammered Dulcimer) and Karen Ashbrook defines a roll as a principal note, followed by a note above, the principal note again, a note below and then the principal note again played very quickly (Playing the Hammered Dulcimer in the Irish Tradition). On the other hand, MacNeil defines an arpeggio as a squiggly line to the left of a stack of notes, which matches Maggie's definition of a roll. The important thing, though, is that the definitions of these techniques are provided, so even if she calls it a roll and MacNeil calls it an arpeggio, you'll get the idea.

And quite possibly, the most heinous crime of all -- in the acknowledgments, Maggie torments us with the fact that she and Kress followed their hard work with the best mocha chip ice cream in town ... and she doesn't reveal the name of the restaurant.

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 10 November 2001

Buy it from