Wouldn't it be nice if intellectual understanding alone was enough to master a musical instrument? A little bit of study and we could be such experts! We players of the hammered dulcimer would hammer away with passion and freedom! After all, the patterns and set-up of the hammered dulcimer are fixed, and music theory is a finite body of information. Right?
Of course, it is not that simple.
First, the physical act of playing requires training of our muscles and our brains. Muscle memory is real, and it helps! Then, music theory must be applied. Simply understanding how a chord is constructed is not the same as being able to play the chord.
The word “rote” has a bad rap in modern-day learning. But in reality rote practice, i.e. routine practice that focuses on specific challenging skills... plays an important role. The path to success and creativity at the hammered dulcimer is to practice until the foundational patterns are deeply ingrained. Mastering the fundamentals is why we must practice scales and chord patterns when learning to play (as well as hammering skills, embellishments, complex rhythms, etc, etc, etc)
But I just want to have fun!
Learning isn’t always “fun.” Sometimes it involves hard work. Sometimes it's frustrating. Sometimes it feels downright impossible. But life is short! Our music practice should give us pleasure. And guess what? You can't spell "fundamental" without F-U-N!
Practicing fundamentals within the context of a tune is helpful. Practicing a back-up arrangement within the structure of a given chord progression, even if you think you'll never play with another musician, results in better understanding of the tune, better understanding of chord patterns and rhythms, and may lead to some good arrangement ideas. Making up your own exercises based on music you want to play makes the practice more enjoyable and more meaningful.
I encourage you to routinely set aside some practice time to focus on the fundamentals. I guarantee the payoff will be fun!