I am often asked after a performance or contra dance how I make playing the hammered dulcimer and autoharp look so easy. If this is something you aspire to (I hope you do), one of the keys to getting there is simply to:
Keep your arms moving from start to finish.
There are benefits to be gained from moving continuously between strikes. For one, you can play at any speed you choose, from real slow to jamming at lightning speed with bluegrassers. Better yet, continuous motion enhances the dulcimer’s resonance!
Continuous movement is automatic for tunes like “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” where just about all the notes are the same length (they appear as eighth notes in Striking Out and Winning!). You just look where youre going (a challenge all its own!) and “scissor” your arms like the pistons in a car engine to strike the strings.
But what do you do when there are spaces between some of the notes, as in measure 3 of Whiskey before Breakfast (also in Striking Out), shown below?
The temptation is great to stop both hands in the spaces following the quarter notes (at arrows), but that’s like tapping the brakes on a car every two seconds while driving: It’s uncomfortable, makes the trip take longer, and the brakes wear out sooner.
When I play measure 3 of “Whiskey,” I lift both hands move within each quarter note’s time space (in somewhat of an arc over the strings). This requires some looking ahead, because in that time-space motion your hammers also need to head toward the next courses to be struck. (My, there’s a lot to do at once, isn’t there?)
Also note the stroke order under the notes in m. 3 of “Whiskey.” I do not alternate strokes, and the reason for this is simple: it helps my body stay relaxed. When I alternate strokes, I feel my body stiffen up; my shoulders rock rigidly from side to side. With the strokes shown above, which are determined by the rhythm of the tune instead of the dulcimer or the pitches played, I can dance along with the hammers.
Striving for continuous playing motion will take some conscious thought and effort in the beginning, but if you focus on it every day, in a week or two you’ll find yourself on “automatic pilot” and won’t have to think about it very much at all. The result will be a smooth playing action that will enable you to keep up with those bluegrassers, too!
On the other hand, when playing waltzes or other slow tunes, expect your arms to travel more slowly between strikes. Slow tunes make the time spaces between notes last longer. The slower moves will feel more challenging (and are), but you should also hear some nice things happen to the phrasing of the music, which all translates into musicality. And oh, what all that does for “that sound.”
©1998, 2004 Lucille Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced for distribution in any format without prior permission.
For more information about the various forms of moving continuously, see Chapter 4 and all 50 fiddle tunes in Striking Out and Winning!, and the general playing tips in Thus Sings My Soul for rolled chords in arranged pieces.
- Want to reach all your strings easily? Play with your right arm off the autoharp.
- Lifting your elbow just a quarter inch above the autoharp is all it takes. This will free your entire arm to take your hand wherever your fingers need to pick or strum. A sideline to this: When strumming, push your thumb across the strings; there is no need to “flick it closed” at the end of the strum.
- When you play with a free elbow, listen to your autoharp resonate with even more fullness! (Note: Playing this way will take some getting used to, because your anchor point will shift from your elbow to your shoulder. Expect to overshoot some melody notes at first until your elbow learns how little it needs to move to take your fingers around. With time, you’ll settle in. And you’ll sound great! Oh boyoboyoboy!)
Copyright ©1998, 2004 Lucille Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced for distribution in any format without prior permission. Links to this page, however, are always welcome.