Cockleburs in Your Practice

You may remember, about 6 weeks ago, we got a new family member – Mikaela. What a cute little bundle of love she was ... 2-1/2 pounds of black fur, with beautiful brown streaks running through her hair. In the sunlight, she actually looked like she had been to the beauty shop to have her hair highlighted.

Because Parvo virus cases have been on the rise in the Rio Grande Valley recently, our vet would not allow us to take her outside to play in the grass. However, last Friday she said Mikaela had been given enough shots to go outside.  And so we took her out for the first time, so excited that she would finally begin to do her “business” in the grass. But all she would do was lay down and roll around in the grass. I’d drag her a few steps, and she’d lay back down again and play with the grass.

When I finally gave up and brought her back inside, to my dismay I discovered that her hair was FULL of cockleburs … stuck all over her now 5 pound body. AAAARRRRGH! That called for a head-to-paws haircut. But now, instead of a cute little black bundle of love, Mikaela had turned into a blondie with a touch of charcoal hair on her face.

The process of giving Mikaela her first haircut was a challenge. She just wanted to play and kept biting me and the scissors, but it had to be done. It took me all afternoon, but while we were playing (giving her the haircut) I thought about our music. Are there some cockleburs in our practice that need to be identified, cut out, and eliminated?

Cockleburs, i.e. bad habits, are the worst time-wasters for a player during dulcimer practice. You may have cockleburs that need to be cut out if …

  • You play at the wrong speed, zipping through a waltz with which you are familiar, or going too slow on a fiddle tune.

  • You stutter. This is stop-and-go practice, stopping to replay a section every time you make a mistake. This is a good habit BUT ... eventually you need to make yourself play through the piece without stopping. I recommend that you slow the tune down to a speed at which you can play through without mistakes, and then gradually bring the piece back up to speed.

  • You completely ignore mistakes.  It is just as bad to neglect correcting your mistakes.  Your fingers will never learn the right path if you don't take the time to teach them the accurate way to go.
  • You play by rote with no regard for expression or musicality. This can be prevented by cultivating the habit of always listening to yourself play.

  • You overlook the repeats for Parts A and B. The problem with practicing this way is that you will also forget the repeats when playing with others.

  • You practice with weak fingers. This is more common among beginners who are a bit timid about pressing hard enough on the strings, or striking the strings firmly enough with the hammers.

  • You practice with bad posture. Most play their mountain dulcimer sitting down. So, like working at a computer, you need to be mindful of how you are seated in the chair. And remember to take mini-breaks to stand up and stretch the kinks out of your back.

  • You only practice the fun parts and skip the hard parts. You don’t get to skip the hard parts at a jam session, so you’d better get after it at home!

The worst thing about cockleburs (bad habits) is that they take so long to eliminate. So cut those cockleburs out right away if you recognized any from this list, before it becomes embedded in your mind and fingers.

Keep hammering and picking!




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