Look, Mom! No Hands!

Over the years, I’ve received several emails from folks who needed to take a break from practicing their instrument. For some, their living situation limits them due to quiet hours. Maybe they've slammed their finger in a door and can’t press the strings or hold the hammers until it heals. Some of you have mentioned arthritis or ongoing back issues.  Other times, we can’t practice because our instrument is at the repair shop. Or maybe you’re on a trip and didn’t want to travel with your instrument on the plane. 

Whatever the reason, there will be times when we want to practice but it’s just not possible at that time. Instead of focusing on the limitations of not being able to play an actual instrument, why don’t you keep some alternate strategies in your toolbox, so you can use the time away from your dulcimer productively. Here are my suggestions for practicing with NO hands.

  1. Research. Spend time planning the direction you want to take your repertoire. I like to look up the background of composers, review the history of tunes I might want to learn, check out songs in the genre I’m exploring. For example, this summer when I was focused on relearning my guitar chords, I printed a list of the top 100 country tunes and started looking up their chords.

  2. Listen and watch. Find recordings of songs you already know, to see if you could put a new spin on your own arrangement. Watch YouTube videos of some of your dulcimer heroes, for inspiration about the next tune to practice.

  3. Mark it up. Study your tabs or sheet music and write notes. Highlight sections where you need to tread carefully.

  4. Tap. You can tap your fingers on the table to master the rhythm of a difficult piece. When you don’t have to worry about which string to press or strike, you can focus more fully on the beat.  I've also tapped my hammers on my mouse pad to work out a Calypso beat. 

  5. Exercise. You’re probably thinking, “Are you joking? Exercise has nothing to do with playing a dulcimer!” Well, I say that a well-conditioned body helps keep your mind in good condition as well as your body. When your body is moving, you are circulating blood more, which transports oxygen and nutrients all the way to your brain. And playing an instrument is really mind over matter – your brain telling your fingers what to do and expecting them to obey.

  6. Practice mentally. I do a lot of my practicing in bed at night, or the early morning, when I can’t sleep but it’s “quiet time” in the house. I mentally visualize every strike of my hammer, note by note, and review where it’s going to hit. If I can’t remember where to go, I know that’s a section I should review when I get up.

    Also, I do a lot of my arrangement composing the same way. I have usually performed the tune it in my head before I ever pick up my hammers to "polish" my mental scoring.

Whatever the reason for not being able to connect with your dulcimer, by applying these suggestions you can always say, "Look, Mom! I'm practicing with NO HANDS!"

Happy Dulcimering,



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