by Dan Landrum
Practicing rudiments isn’t always practical. You also have repertoire to build and theory to learn. Fortunately, much of the benefit we gain by introducing rudiments into our training doesn’t even require a hammered dulcimer. It might even be better without one.
When we’re at our hammered dulcimers it is easy to slip back into the very problems we’re trying to correct. By hammering out a solution on a practice pad, you eliminate the distraction of wrong notes and can better focus on motion and timing.
I don’t discount the wonderful fun you can have by using rudiments on the hammered dulcimer as a creative springboard. I generally apply rudiments to scales, chords and modal patterns when practicing on my instrument, but there’s much to be learned away from the instrument. For the purpose of this article we’ll be focusing on a practical method that everyone can, and should, try at home.
Strengthening the Weakest Link
Please indulge a quick thought experiment with me. While keeping your hands at your side, close your eyes and imagine you are holding your strongest hand, which is the right hand for most of us, just in front of your chin. Now, move that hand left and right by pivoting it at the elbow first, and then only at the wrist. Can you see it? Is it easy? Now do the same thing, with eyes closed, but imagine it all with the weaker hand. Did you notice any difficulty? Did you feel a little uncomfortable?
We often find it hard to even imagine doing things that we haven’t worked into that part of our minds we call muscle memory. This particular motion is one that you do everyday–at least I hope you do–when brushing your teeth. You probably use the same hand every time and don’t even think about switching to the weaker hand unless some misfortune forces it. It isn’t that you’re not smart enough to brush with your weak hand. It’s not like it is a complex task. If you try it the next time you’re in front of a mirror, I’d be willing to guess you won’t stab yourself in the ear with your toothbrush. It won’t feel right though, and you’ll probably have to focus more on what you’re doing. This is what happens when we try to move in a direction with which we’re not completely comfortable on hammered dulcimer.
Try this on your hammered dulcimer. Play a simple three beat pattern using the lowest D on the right hand side of your treble bridge. Play it like there are 12 beats in a measure. Hammer it like this (L=left hammer, R=right hammer):
|: L R R L R R L R R L R R :|
Start at a tempo at which you can play the pattern evenly, then slowly speed up to the fastest tempo you can without tensing up and using your upper arms. If you find yourself getting exhausted before you hit your top speed, you’re probably using your upper arms to throw your forearms up and down. Instead, as you speed up, pivot slightly at the wrists with the hands perpendicular to the floor like you were going to shake someone’s hand and relax your hammer grip. Tried that? Good. That is the method we want to use for all of the exercises to follow.
Now do the same thing, except this time let the left hammer drone on the same D, while the right hand alternates between the G on the bass bridge which is just to the right of the D. You’ll be playing D, G, D, D, G, D, D, G, D, etc. Remember to use the same hammer pattern as the first exercise, ie. L, R, R, L, R, R, etc.
This pattern has you moving in an out to in motion with your right hand. As you play it, say “left, out, in, left, out, in,” etc.
Next, reverse the outs and ins by playing D, D, G, D, D, G, etc.
Remember to slowly speed this exercise up and focus on getting the motion into the hammer heads and out of the arms. Now, if you’ve actually done the exercises, you probably noticed that one of the two: either moving in to out, or out to in, was harder than the other. You’ve just identified a weakness in your playing that can be fixed!
If you reverse all the lefts and rights in the prior exercise you’ll likely expose even more. You might have also noticed another interesting phenomena: When you were moving in the direction which was the most difficult for you, you probably also started using more arm and less wrist motion. I’ve seen this many times in my own playing and in teaching others. It seems the less familiar we are with a particular piece of music or even with a simple rhythmic hammer pattern, the more likely we are to use our largest muscles to direct the hammer head to the note. I think we just feel more confident this way.
One of my goals as a teacher is to get players to use the least amount of energy necessary to accomplish their hammer strikes. Think of the hammer head as an extension of your arm. The hammer head is the part we want in motion, not the arm. This requires relaxed shoulders, a loose wrist and an even looser grip on the hammer handle.
This method of playing (and I recognize there are other methods) isn’t what most of us do naturally unless we were trained early as percussionists, or violinists (the technique is very similar to good bow action). But wait, it gets worse. A snare drummer in training has one big advantage: there aren’t any wrong notes, just a changing timbre as you move the sticks around the drum head. Much of the early training for drummers is getting them to loosen their grips and begin to feel the energy of the sticks in their hand as they rebound off the drum. We have that same dynamic happening when we hammer, but with a much smaller target, and more potential wrong notes than right ones just waiting to grade our playing. I contend that it is even more important for hammered dulcimists than drummers to work on their hammering technique before spending too much time trying to hit the right notes. This is where using a practice pad far exceeds practicing on your instrument.
So, just what do you need in a practice pad? Not much. You can buy them in many varieties, some even with a built-in metronome, but you don’t need to buy anything. Just flip over a mousepad if you have one and start hammering away. You can also use a hardcover book, a spiral notebook or even a tabletop. Your family will probably appreciate it if you use hammers with a heavy leather padding.
Take a look at the Practice Grid on page 29. Either draw this on the surface you choose, or just imagine it is there. After a while you won’t even notice the numbers, but they do help in the beginning. The exercises below use these numbers to indicate which hammers to use and how to move them around the grid. Once you get the method, you should be able to easily begin applying the Percussive Arts Society Rudiments yourself. You’re focus will be on moving the patterns as you play them. The exercises of moving in to out vs. out to in, and clockwise vs. counterclockwise are going to reveal much about your weak areas and give you a chance to strenghten them. Practice with a metronome, or at least with some music you enjoy.
Here are some exercises for you to try right now (right hand column of this page under the heading, "Files." The numbers refer to the Practice Grid. The colors let you know which hammer to use. In the following examples we’re really just focusing on moving one hammer at a time, but once you get the method down, challenge yourself. The possibilities are truly endless and it will make a difference in your playing.
This kind of practice is invaluable. It is often humbling but equally rewarding. Please give it a try. Incorporate it daily and I promise, it will make you a better player.