Back on January 14, I said this:

“…I thought about a curious statement players sometimes make about my teaching: “She’s trying to make me play like her.” …I desire to teach basic skills in music-making to my students so that they will play successfully all the time and be satisfied musicians….”  (See the entire post here.)

This statement came to mind a couple days ago while Angie was here for her weekly hammered dulcimer lesson.  Lately, I’ve been backing her up on the guitar while she plays her current Top One hit, the lively, dizzying fiddle tune, “Old Grey Cat.”  At the same time, I’ve been pondering a laborious feel I’ve been hearing in her playing, which I finally put a finger on.

Last week, we raised her stand, because she wears shoes with thicker soles at her lesson than when she practices at home, and the dulcimer needed to be closer to her arms.  This helps, but there was more to unroof.  Playing the guitar frees me to watch the student play.  Angie’s hammers needed more swing: release those thumbs.  (HD players: Thumb release works with what I call the circular hammer hold, not when holding hammers on the ends of the index fingers.  The circular hold also rounds out the HD’s sound.)  This made her dulcimer laugh.  That’s the ticket!

And there was more.  The week before, Angie mentioned hearing “gaps” in her playing.  I heard them, too, and it was time to find out why the tempo also lagged because of them.

Playing the tune on my dulcimer with Angie didn’t fix anything; her inner sense of pulse is intact.  So I returned to he guitar and zeroed in on how she moves between strikes.  Ah, there it is: the concept I call lift stopped at a crucial place (note: every lift point is crucial!), placing that hammer too high above the strings to allow lift (lift a hammer that is already high, and that arm rises almost to the ceiling!).

I dissected the problem spot by playing with Angie the few notes leading up to lift to know how it feels, and to know where the lifting arm needs to be while its hammer waits to strike again.  After a few times through of just this much, Angie put the phrase back together and voila!  Instant ease of playing without “gaps.”

My thoughts returned to, “She’s trying to make me play like her.”  Not a chance!  This is common sense that every musician needs to make music on any instrument that flows smoothly, easily and with gusto, passion, whatever.  I’m just making the need apparent, because it is easy to assume without actually applying it.  I do wonder if this lack is why some dulcimer players say they “like” to play slow tunes only.  (Oh, the hundreds of reels and jigs they are missing!)  And should a thoroughgoing jammer slam on the brakes during a bluegrass jam, a breakdown (of the tempo, not the tune!) is certain.

Angie couldn’t believe how simple a fix engaging a little movement between strikes makes, and she left here happy, knowing we just had a banner lesson together.  As we closed, I offered this advice: when something about the act of playing feels off:

  1. Stop playing.  (Remember the definition of insanity: doing something over and over again and expecting the same result.)
  2. Think about how you move at the trouble spot.  You can also play that spot again and watch yourself in a mirror (ignore any mistakes made from looking away from the strings).
  3. Almost always, the problem has to do with movement, or the lack of it.  (I say this based on personal experience in my own practice sessions.)  So how are you moving?
    (Note: Angie has her stroke order very much synced to each tune’s rhythm, narrowing the field when troubleshooting what goes on between strikes.  For players lacking this kind of sync from playing “any way you want,” movement can be harder to come by.  It’s also a good idea to check the dulcimer’s height and tilt to make sure it’s working for, not against, you.)
  4. Once identified, practice the movement by playing through the trouble spot.  How does it sound?  How does it feel?
  5. Finally, play the whole phrase, and then the whole piece of music.  Still got those beneficial moves?  If not, or almost, back up a step or two in the process and try again.  When your playing feels and sounds good, you probably have a keeper solution.

Don’t think for one moment that I am somehow exempt from all of this!  I fall into similar traps sometimes with trickier, classical music and will go through the above steps to make sure between-notes movement is always my best friend.  Thankfully, it still is.

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