Playing the Dulcimer Backwards?

I wish I could say this article is about standing at the narrow end of the dulcimer and playing upside-down and left-handed (something I frequently do when teaching private lessons).  Instead, this article addresses a situation running rampant within the hammered dulcimer community: Playing in ways that work against both gravity and human anatomy.

In Febraruy 2005 I conducted my own study of muscles, how they’re constructed, how they work, etc.  It was a fascinating, far-reaching examination into related matters, like center of gravity and balance.  What I concluded upon completion (well, somewhat; there is always more to learn) is that most players have the act of playing all backwards.  (And at considerable expense in holding on to the belief that “you can play the dulcimer any way you want.”  That’s a true statement in the creative realm of making music–and in this context would apply to all instruments–but in the technical realm of playing any instrument, “any way you want” is at best dangerous.)
How does dulcimer playing wind up backwards in specific ways?  Consider these:

  • Dulcimer angle: There seems to be increasing interest in setting the dulcimer at a 60-degree angle.  Maybe the strings can be seen more easily (although I’ve just discovered increased visibility with my dulcimer at a 10-degree angle) but the overwork of two upright arms supporting flapping hands, and the resulting thinner tone, should provide pause to take a closer look at what the player really wants.  (I’d go for great tone any day.)
  • Dulcimer height: Many times the arms are too open or too closed.  Both oppose gravity.
  • Hammer handle design: Most designs these days force the player to assume a hold that throws off the hand’s center of gravity and can eventually lead to repetitive strain injury.
  • Hammer hold: Many players either choose to or are “instructed” to hold the hammers “whatever way it feels comfortable.”  But most hammer holds I’ve seen aren’t comfortable at all, but rather familiar, and there’s a difference.  Most “comfortable” holds actually set the thumbs in a situation of sustained extension, which can get mighty uncomfortable after playing for as little as ten minutes.  Now try sustained extension at a three-hour jam session.  Ouch!
  • Wrist playing: Every player who’s shared with me the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome from playing the dulcimer admitted to being specifically instructed to bend the wrists to play.  I have yet to find any evidence to point to wrist playing as beneficial, either to the anatomy or to sound.  Please avoid and ignore this advice.
  • “Economy of motion” 1: This refers to playing close to the strings.  That happens with wrist playing, but it also happens when the hands stop between strikes.  Players of this persuasion not only stand to hurt themselves by slamming on the brakes all the time, but they also produce a flat sound replete with overtones that might make them entertain buying another dulcimer with “better” sound.  (I say, Save your shekels and modify how you play; you’ll find the great sound you’ve been looking for.)
  • “Economy of motion” 2: This refers to visual patterns whose strike points are close together or run horizontally across the dulcimer.  This kind of economy isn’t always practical, because it usually compromises musical stroke order.  As nice as small or horizontal visual patterns are (I certainly go for them when they are accessible), the goal is to make music to excite the ears instead of focusing on the visual.  Which brings me to:
  • Alternating strokes all the time: Causes more brake slamming, and frankly, a whole lot more thought than is necessary about which hand hits what where.

As I peruse the above list, I wonder how anyone can make music this way?  How, then, is the dulcimer played forwards?  For a start in that direction, click here.


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