Playing Hammered Dulcimer Seated Or Standing Revisited

Cloud Nine hammered dulcimer made by Michael C. Allen

I wrote a post about playing hammered dulcimer seated or standing nine years ago. A few things have changed since then.

I firmly believe life throws us many adventures beyond our control but we can usually take control of how we choose to deal with those adventures.

Though I preferred standing while playing hammered dulcimer, some musculoskeletal problems caused me to learn to play while seated. After a number of years I found some helpful treatments and was able to play standing again.

I prefer playing hammered dulcimer while standing because I am able to use more of my body while playing. I can move closer to the dulcimer when reaching for high notes and further away when going towards the low notes and I can shift my body towards the left or right side of the dulcimer as needed. Doing so enables my upper body to work less at getting the hammers where they need to go and makes it much easier to for my hands and arms to control the hammers.

This is what has worked best for me. Your mileage may vary. There is no “right or wrong” or “better or worse” when it comes to playing while seated or standing.

In 2012 my lower back developed some serious problems and standing and walking were difficult, let alone standing to play the hammered dulcimer. I had two options; learn to play while seated again or stop playing hammered dulcimer. Once again, I adjusted to playing while seated.

After seven years and three back surgeries I felt it was time to try playing standing again. I started working out on the hammered dulcimer while standing a few weeks ago and though I find it much easier to play it is taking time for my technique to adjust. I’m getting there.

Today I played my first hammered dulcimer gig in seven years as a vertically upright player. The Cloud Nine hammered dulcimer made by Michael C. Allen in the photo above is a magic bus of a dulcimer. It was a hoot to play it while standing again!

I’m still working out how to best use the damper pedal now that I’m standing again. I have no worries that it will all come together.

Ocean Of Wisdom

Ocean of Wisdom is my “greatest hit.” I first released it on a cassette in 1990. The cassette was originally going to be manufactured in the UK and picked up when I arrived there to do a six week tour. Three weeks before I was going to go to the UK I learned that the agent I had worked with did not have his act together and the tour would have been a disaster. The first gig would have been in the North of Scotland and the second gig would be a week later in the South of England. The rest of the tour had many holes in the schedule. The agent said he was still working on the tour and not to worry. Fine, except he had been working on booking me for a year and I had no confidence that in three weeks he would come up with the 15 or 20 gigs to make the tour viable.

I ended up releasing the cassette in the US in 1990. Since then several people have learned to play it and a few other folks have recorded it.

I wrote the tune while living in the San Fernando Valley. I moved there from Boulder, CO because a woman I loved got a job there.

I never quite understood Southern California culture. I grew up in New York City. Life in Southern California was like living in some strange parallel universe. In New York most people I met communicated with a direct and blatant honesty. I knew who was a friend and who was conning me.

In the LA area I found it difficult to differentiate politeness from being blown off by people. I did make some good friends but more often than not I would think I was connecting with people personally and/or professionally but it was just surface-level interaction. Calls wouldn’t get returned, agreements were not kept, etc. Again, I did meet and work with some great folks but that wasn’t the norm.

One day I was driving from The Valley so I could busk by the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, I used to play and put out the hat next to a tar pit. I have led an interesting life.

While driving through Laurel Canyon I heard beautiful rumba music from Zaire via the magic of radio. During a news break it was announced that the Dalai Lama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

When I got to the tar pits I set up my hammered dulcimer and this tune just sort of happened. It had been percolating during the car ride.

I rerecorded Ocean of Wisdom on the CD “The Sadness Of Common Objects” in 2007.

After a year in Southern California the relationship I was in came to an end and I moved back to Boulder. And six years later I moved to Michigan. I’m still here.

Playing Hammered Dulcimer With A Light Touch

When I began playing hammered dulcimer I was pretty much on my own. It was the middle of the 1970’s and in all of New York City I could not find a teacher.

I was able to find the three hammered dulcimer instruction books available at the time. By far the most useful book I found was “The Hammered Dulcimer – How To Make It And Play It” by Howie Mitchell. Howie said this was not a clear instruction manual but more a documentation of how he figured out how to build and play the hammered dulcimer. I later obtained the record that accompanied the book and could hear some of the possibilities the instrument offered when played by sensitive hands. If you can find a copy the book and record they are a fascinating piece of history from the early days of the hammered dulcimer revival in the Untied States.

"The Hammered Dulcimer - How To Make It And Play It" by Howie Mitchell

The other two books available were of limited help, offering little more than a tuning chart and a very basic overview of technique, the bulk of the books being collections of tunes from the author’s repertoire.

I was already busking as a mountain dulcimer player in a few old-time string bands in New City when I started playing hammered dulcimer so fiddle tunes were familiar territory for me and that is what I began to play on the hammered dulcimer.

Playing hammered dulcimer as a street musician gave me a lot of time to “learn as I earned.” It also caused me to develop the habit of playing very loud and very fast because the louder and faster I played the more money people threw in the hat.

When I started going to dulcimer festivals in the late 1970’s it seemed playing loud and fast were considered signs of being a good player. Taste and musical expression were optional but if you could wow the crowd you must be good. Hammered dulcimer contests were more akin to finding out who was “The fastest gun in the West” rather than who could play with feeling, creativity, and expression.

As I musically matured a bit in the early 1980’s I tired of unforgivably beating the hammered dulcimer. I played a lot of delicate music on the mountain dulcimer so why not try this on the hammered dulcimer as well?

Cultures with a long, unbroken tradition of the hammered dulcimer and related instruments have developed various techniques to play dynamically and expressively. I listened to recordings of players from China, Greece, Persia, India and Eastern Europe for inspiration. I imagine European hammered dulcimer players of the late Middle Ages and The Renaissance were influenced by the techniques of Eastern players since it is from these cultures Europe had  acquired the hammered dulcimer during the Crusades.

Damsel With A Dulcimer

The first thing I learned was that a light grip on the hammers and a light touch when striking the instrument allowed far greater dexterity, agility and dynamic range. I could produce more tonal colors and execute ornamentation not possible when playing more aggressively. Playing fast was also easier as the lighter touch allowed using the recoil of the hammers bouncing off the strings to my advantage.

The lighter touch allowed me to play with greater hand independence and this led to using more harmony and complimentary movement in my arrangements.

Playing hammered dulcimer with a light touch allows all the muscles of the fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders to be involved in controlling the hammers. This not only helps improve tones and control but also keeps the upper body more relaxed and comfortable while playing. If your shoulders and neck feel tense while playing this may be a sign you are working harder than necessary!

This has been my experience. Your mileage may vary.

Happy hammering!