Improving your dulcimer playing

There no escape from it... if you want to improve your playing, you need to practise. Maybe you bought a dulcimer because you liked the sound they make and it looked easy but what with so many other things going on in your life, there never seems to be enough time ...

The thing about practice is that it is cyclical, the more you do, the better your playing gets and then you want to play, so you practise more. But that sounds too easy, doesn't it? It's actually true, but it doesn't tell you the full story. You have first to decide a few things for yourself like, yes, I do want to play the dulcimer because I love it and I love music. Second, yes, I can do it. Give yourself the benefit of any doubts you may have at this point and read on. Maybe a bit of guidance is all you need.

In this article I'd like to alert you to some of the practical issues surrounding your practice time, and to the mental issues of concentration, learning, goal setting and enjoyment. Remember that it is you who makes your music, not your teacher or your family or the dog. So you need to become aware of what you are thinking, feeling, learning, seeing and hearing


1. Leave your dulcimer in a place in your house which will tempt you to play as you pass by. Near the TV, where other family members may be watching, is not a good idea. Somewhere quiet where you can concentrate and preferably be alone is better. Don't pack the instrument away!

2. Come to an agreement with your family about your practice time. It is your time, and they can survive without you for a while. You need to be able to give your mind to the music and not worry about the everyday trivialities. Now you don't want to exclude them from your music entirely, so set aside some time for playing with them, showing them what you've achieved etc. But such playing time is not practice time.

3 Select a regular time for practice. Again it's your decision and your set of priorities that will determine whether you succeed. People who say they don't have time are usually saying "I don't want to do that".

4. When first you sit down at the dulcimer, just tap a few notes to attune yourself to the feel of the hammers and to the sound of the dulcimer in the room. You'll hear any notes which need retuning before you start playing. Players often develop a little pattern of notes they always play, a musical doodle, to let them know that the instrument is ready to play.


1. If you are learning a new tune, listen to it a few times until it makes sense to you. Sing it in your head or aloud. Sing along with the tape or CD. Then identify the first note and the key that the tune is in. Nine times out of ten, the last note of a tune tells you what the key is. This note is sometimes called the note of repose or the tonic. (Already you can feel more relaxed and invigorated ...) This sets the context. You'll know where to expect the notes to be placed.

2. The next thing I do is to play along with the tape. I don't expect to get the notes exactly, but this helps me to understand the structure of the tune: how many parts are there, where do the repeats occur etc.

3. After that, I concentrate on the hard bits and work them through. Work in short segments, playing slowly without making mistakes. It is harder to unlearn mistakes. Then bring the speed up to check that the hammering pattern you've chosen works at higher speed.

4. Experiment with different hammering patterns. One of the beauties of playing the dulcimer is to discover an easy pattern after you've been struggling with something awkward.

5. Don't practise for too long on one piece. It will be easier when you come back to it tomorrow.


How do you memorise tunes? Besides the obvious answer of remembering how it sounds, you can use three other tools. These four methods are sometimes called the memory quartet. You'll also find later that they are useful for concentration and nerve steadying. But let's look first at remembering tunes.

The four elements of the memory quartet are the AURAL, VISUAL, TACTILE and INTELLECTUAL.


This seems an obvious way to help remember tunes. Sing the tune in your head. Do the notes rise or fall, is it a happy tune, how does the rhythm sound? Just memorising a sequence of notes is not enough though. In fact it is no tool at all. It is the other questions you ask and then answer which will help the memory.

As I said before, listening to a tune over and over until it is firmly fixed in your head is a very good way to start. You can hum or sing the tune either aloud or in your head . With careful listening, you can hear the direction in which the tune is going. Also important is hearing the mood of the tune. Imagine a story or an image which goes with the tune.

The aural memory tool means concentrating on the sound of the tune only. Exclude the other tools for a while, concentrate on the sound.


The dulcimer is very well suited to this tool. By using the different coloured bridges you can set yourself signposts and homebases. You'll recognise that a scale of 8 notes is contained on just 4 strings, that the top and bottom note of that set of four strings is the same note an octave apart. The primary chord, using the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th note, uses the same pattern no matter in which key you're playing. A remarkable number of tunes use a pattern of notes in a phrase which is then repeated at a different place on the dulcimer. It might be a short sequence of 4 or 5 notes, but if you can see the picture and shape that these notes form, it's an easy matter to transfer that pattern to another place.

When you're struggling with a tricky passage, it can help to visualise where the phrase starts. Is it on a white bridge, or one above or one below? Where does it go after that? Look carefully and sort out a comfortable hammering pattern. Go over that phrase until it comes easily, and only then put it with the rest of the tune to put it in context.


One of the effects of practising a tricky phrase until it is comfortable is that your muscles will remember how your body moves. Next time you come back to the phrase, muscle memory will help. BUT, this tool is only effective when it is reinforced regularly by practice.


The other factor in the memory quartet is the intellectual one. When you come to start a tune, you may analyse it in theoretical terms. What key is it in? Does it stay in the same key or does it modulate? Are phrases or parts of the tune repeated? What time signature does the tune use? Does a theme reappear after a development of the tune?

Answering there questions can help trigger your memory when you come to play a tune days later.



Interference can come in two forms, external and internal. The external is obvious: it's the TV or radio playing, someone wants to tell you all about their exciting day, traffic passing by, the unexpected visitor. Some of these you can eliminate physically and they no longer bother you. Switch the radio off. Tell your friend you'll gladly chat later.

If you can't stop the interference, it can help to decide to allow its presence. Often if you accept the presence of a noise, you'll find it no longer is a nuisance.

Internal interference is the crucial one to eliminate. It's those nagging thoughts from "what shall I cook for dinner" to "is this really the way I should be playing this?" It's self doubt or even self congratulation. It's any thought which distracts you from the experience of making music. You can't afford to think about yourself ... give yourself to the music.

Some of those internal questions you can sort out before practice time, so that when you're playing you can concentrate. If you play in a band and you're practising for a performance, get the details of where, when, payment, etc., out of the way. Then you can concentrate on the music.

Recognise that you can talk back to those interfering thoughts, or you can choose to ignore them. As soon as you notice an interfering thought enter your head, dismiss it deliberately and focus on the music.

Another form of internal interference is doubt and fear about your own ability. One way to help eliminate those nagging doubts you have about your abilities is deliberately to take risks. Occasionally, play a tune as fast as you can. Give yourself permission to fail. Often you'll find you won't. Then play the tune in a different rhythm, playfully or dramatically. Now play it normally. Is it easier? Do you hear the tune differently?


So you're about to play a tune in public or at a lesson. The fear sets in. Will I remember the notes? Will it sound terrible? Don't let these thoughts have any credibility. Think... what key is the tune in, what does it look like, what do the hammers feel like? Thinking one or all of those thoughts is probably enough to focus you onto the tune.

It's important to relax and have faith in yourself. After all you've practised the tune until you can play it faultlessly .... haven't you?


When you're playing, it can help to focus on your experience of playing. Imagine your body, feel which muscles you are using. After you've played particularly well, try to remember how exactly it felt. You might not be able to remember exactly, because you've probably been concentrating properly on the music!

Be aware of what goals you've set yourself in a practice session and whether you've met them. Your goals can vary from learning a new piece to working on a difficult passage to experimenting with pace or rhythm, etc.

Don't be judgemental about your playing. What good does it do to curse yourself if a passage is not working? Think about how to tackle it in different ways. If after a long practice session your playing is getting worse, why not stop? Trying too hard usually results in tense muscles and more frustration. Relax. It'll come easier tomorrow.

You can use the elements of the memory quartet to increase your awareness, too. Visually you can take joy from the patterns of notes, and how you are holding the hammers. Listen to the way in which the hammers hit the strings. Is it a sweet sound or does it sound harsh? Experiment until you find the sound you like best. Then look at your hands and hammers and take note of how they feel. If, for example, you are working on ornamentation it will be crucial to balance the sound, feel and intellectual correctness of your ornaments.

So enjoy your playing... the better you get, and you can get better, the more you'll enjoy it.
Happy Hammering!

© Gillian Alcock 25 Woodgate Street Farrer ACT 2607 Australia
Phone +61 (0)2 6286 3872 April 1992

Any questions? [email protected]
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