Why do you want to play the mountain dulcimer? Did you fall in love with its voice? Were you drawn to its design or woods? Maybe it looked fun to play and jam in a dulcimer group with your friends? Maybe you always wanted to play a musical instrument and all your new dulcimer buddies tell you that it is easy to play and that you can jump in immediately and attend dulcimer festivals, workshops, and retreats?
So you buy a dulcimer, and a T-shirt, and sign up for workshops at a club festival or retreat, and you’re suddenly playing Bile Them Cabbage Down, and Amazing Grace and you’re having a grand time strumming along wildly at jams with your buddies.
Then, all of a sudden, you break a string and don’t know how to change it. Your dulcimer is out of tune, and you don’t know how to tune it. You discover that the cardboard or plywood dulcimer you bought to learn on somehow never sounds or looks the way you thought it might.
The workshop instructors are all explaining music theory, exercises to build technique, how to practice, practice, practice, and move to the next level of play. They discuss learning plateaus as if they were rocky ledges on the side of a mountain that were meant to be scaled as quickly as possible on your ascent to the next level of play. How will you ever be considered an advanced player if you get stuck on a learning plateau? How will you ever be a star, go on tour, and have a bestselling dulcimer CD if you are not willing to work hard to arrive at the pinnacle of dulcimer life?
Feel Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Do you feel like no matter how much you practice you’ll never sound “good enough?” Do you leave your dulcimer in the closet more and more?
Maybe there is another way?
Welcome to the dojo of Zen dulcimer. All levels of play are welcome. Of course, there is only one level of play here—the beginning level. Everyone’s a student and everyone is a white belt.
You ask, “Is there technique and practice here?” Of course there is—because technique, tone, small and large motor co-ordination, and muscle memory are important on a journey to play any instrument well. But, in the dojo of Zen Dulcimer, there is balance. Yes, there can be goals and destinations, but the journey of the dulcimer life may be equally, if not more, satisfying.
The vertical ascent of playing to the next level is tempered with more horizontal methods that leave space for you and your dulcimer to grow as a team. Here plateaus are not rocky ledges, but open fields of exploration.
Here is all you need to begin:
Keep a beginner’s mind.
All that’s required is that you wish to play the dulcimer and make a sound. There is only one level of play. Everyone here is a student, a seeker, and a white belt. Zen dulcimer is not a standard “how to” method of instruction. There is no music theory, technique, reading tab or music. You won’t learn how to flat pick or fingerpick or play a jig or waltz. All of that is information. Information is something you can access through a variety of sources: books, teachers, workshops, friends, jams, retreats, CDs, DVDs, YouTube. All dedicated students know how to get information. But information alone will not teach you to make the sound that is your song.
If you are a beginner, in music, then you may begin the journey with a balance between the practice of technique and the joy of making song. If you are already a skilled dulcimerist, but your playing lacks direction or soulfulness, Zen dulcimer may offer a sense of purpose to your playing.
Keeping a beginner’s mind means that no matter how advanced you may consider yourself, if you approach every part of playing and learning the dulcimer as a beginner, you will learn more. The empty cup can be filled, but the full cup runs over. Also, in beginner’s mind you can laugh, have fun, experiment, and even be silly. All teachers know that students learn more when they are having fun.
Keep it Real
There are two main parts to picking up your dulcimer. The first is that you pick a quality instrument that makes a beautiful sound to you.
You deserve a dulcimer you love to play.
Your choice of first dulcimer will set the tone for a lifetime journey. You and this dulcimer will be partners in song and (in my humble opinion) should be chosen with the same care you would select a lover. This dulcimer takes your breath away. If a dulcimer is in this category, when you first hear and see it, you suck in your breath and whisper to yourself, “This dulcimer is far too good for me.”
Please don’t let anyone advise you to begin with a used, vintage, beginner, student, cardboard, or plywood dulcimer. “See if you like it,” they’ll say. “Then you can invest in a really good dulcimer after you learn to play.”
I hate to be negative, but…
NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO NO,NO,NO,NO,NO,NO,NO!!!
Yes, there are folks who started out this way and managed to hang on until they sprung for their true first dulcimer, but there are so many more who abandoned these dulcimers before they learned how to change a string.
A real mountain dulcimer is crafted with love, by a builder who understands wood, sound, and beauty. A dulcimer made of carefully selected woods was once part of several hardwood trees. These trees breathed in your carbon dioxide and breathed out oxygen to give you, and other creatures, life. They stood, reaching for the sky in silence, and listened to the birds in their branches sing. A dulcimer crafted from fine hardwoods is already an experienced partner in sound and song. You are a beginner and need to bond with a true dulcimer, not an imitation.
The second part of “pick up your dulcimer” is to physically pick it up with a sense of purpose. Don’t pick it up aimlessly. Be mindful that you are going to play something, even if you don’t know what that is yet. If you leave your dulcimer on a stand or hang it on a wall where you will see it almost continuously, you will certainly be tempted to pick up your dulcimer more.
Tuning means bringing both you and your dulcimer into harmony. At the beginning you may choose to tune your dulcimer to the most standard tunings so that you will easily be able to play with others and take advantage of the wealth of information offered in lessons, workshops, and media. After you become more comfortable in standard tunings, you may wish to explore tunings that sound just right for a certain song or a certain voice or a particular dulcimer.
Tuning is all about hearing and listening. Tune every time you play—no matter which tuning you are in. Close your eyes and really listen to the sound of your strings in tune.
Tuning your dulcimer may take a long time to learn, so buy an electronic tuner! Use the tuner and then listen to the well-tuned instrument. When you get a string in tune, close your eyes, sound it, and really listen to it ring out. Know what it sounds like when it is in tune. You will then come to know the true voice of your dulcimer.
This is another reason to make sure you have a quality dulcimer from the very beginning. If your tuning gears or pegs are of poor quality, they may slip and not hold tune. If your fingerboard or frets are slightly off—you may not ever actually be able to play in tune. If you can hear the difference between the shrill mating call of the male cardinal and the growl of a basset hound protecting his soup bone, you can train yourself to tune your dulcimer.
Next, know what it’s like to be in tune with a particular dulcimer. Different dulcimers will lead you to different tunes and tunings. Listen to your dulcimer.
Zen dulcimer is about finding an internal tuning, one that brings your mind, body, and spirit into harmony and into harmony with the woods and craftsmanship of your dulcimer. In Zen dulcimer, tuning is more like a meditation, clear of internal conflict, frustration, anger, and impatience.
There is balance on the strings and peace in your being.
Tuning is essential to playing in a group. When people and dulcimers are not in tune with each other, they add chaos and disharmony to the world.
When you are in tune–play. Strike a single note and listen. If you are a beginner (and you are a beginner if you are still reading this, because we are all beginners in Zen dulcimer), put your heart and spirit into that one note like you mean it. Then try another note. Play what is in your heart. If you can’t play what you hear, then hear what you play. Close your eyes and listen as you sound the strings. Don’t worry about accuracy (you can practice that later, when you are learning technique.)
A wonderful listening exercise is to close your eyes and strike each dulcimer string on each fretted position up and down the neck and listen to each note. You don’t have to know its name, only its sound.
Then learn to play scales by ear…do re me fa so la te do. Then try it with your eyes shut. It is possible to build your playing from one note, then two, then three. On the dulcimer, if you can play three strings with heart and spirit, you have the building blocks to make real music and to release the song in your heart. Add a chord, then another, and a third. Three chords can rock the world.
Of course, I’m not a Zen dulcimer master. I’m a beginner, just like you. On the next page, in this dojo, my basset hound, Elvis, with his full throated baying that he sings in the morning, to welcome the sunrise, is further on the journey of singing with spirit from the heart than I am. And the ideas and guidelines that I’ve presented in this short article about a complex, lifelong endeavor, are not original. They are only paths I’ve found that have helped me in this quest to find harmony and spirit in dulcimer playing. I’ve received most of these ideas from these three books and applied them to mountain dulcimer.
Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra
The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire by Deepak Chopra
And from the Danish Folk School philosophy taught at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.